Under the dome enclosing their perch high above the city, the storytellers sat in silence. Multi-colored facets caught the lowering sun’s light and refracted it within: geometric rainbows ebbed over the gathering.
Everyone had grown solemn at the previous tale’s conclusion. Now, after minutes lost in private reflections, they turned their attentions one by one to the man who next would speak.
Kaleb. Many among the company smiled, for most of the stories Kaleb had told on previous days had been humorous in nature, based as they were on a congenial self-deprecation. It seemed there would be a respite from the grimness of the day’s tales.
This impression was heightened by the light in which Kaleb sat: an elongated hexagon of glowing amber, limned on three sides by brilliant orange, on three others by cool green.
But the look on Kaleb’s face was strangely troubled. As the silence grew longer and still he did not speak, but gazed intently out at the charred and shattered rows of skyscrapers that fell away to the waterfront below, the company’s hope for relief turned to uneasiness.
Black, roiling smoke rose from a burning building to blot out the sun. Only when the smoke’s shadows curled and spun across his face did Kaleb begin.
A few weeks ago I met a guy on the street outside the building that’s burning down there now. He was sitting on the front stoop, with his arms wrapped around his knees and his eyes closed, singing. He was rocking back and forth, and there were tears pouring down his cheeks. The song he sang was an old round, an English drinking song. Some of you probably know it—
is anybody home?
Meat and drink and money
have I none—
Still, I will
be very very merry
—sung over and over again. And even though his voice was cracked and pretty raw, there was a strange joy in the way he sang it. I don’t know why, but something about this guy and his endless song captured me, and I sat down on the steps a few yards away from him.
Maybe it was just—I was exhausted. I’d been wandering through the city for I don’t know how long. Yeah, I know, it was a crazy thing to do. But at that point I just didn’t care. For days I’d sat in my little room on the Hill, with all the blinds pulled, staring into the dark. Listening to the sirens. People screaming. Feeling nothing. But you do that long enough, your mind won’t stay turned off, you know? The memories come back, and the pain.
I didn’t want that.
So I left. Wandered around downtown most of the day. I figured if I filled myself up with the pain of strangers, and people killing each other, and still felt nothing, then I’d be okay. Numb for life, right? Ha! And my memories couldn’t get to me.
Yeah, well, it worked. For a while. I saw a man getting gang-raped. I just walked on by. And a kid, so cut up I couldn’t even tell what sex it was, getting worked over by skinheads. Jesus! It hurts more now, just thinking of it, than it did then. I felt barely a twinge, you know? And I didn’t even bother skirting the green corpses in the street. I just stepped over them.
So later that day, I hear this guy singing. And I sat there, on the steps, not looking at him, but listening. I became so mesmerized that when he finally stopped singing, I barely even noticed. The lyrics had cut a groove in my brain so deep, it erased my ringing head. It was only when the guy spoke to me that I realized that, for the first time in weeks, the sirens going throughout the city had indeed stopped.
My head snapped up. The guy was staring at me with yellowing, blood-shot eyes. There were small green sores at his temples. Even a week before, some voice in me would have screamed to get away; that voice was dead.
He repeated, much louder, “I said, ‘How the fuck are you, bro’?’” And then his gaze hardened, and the blue-veined paleness of his face flushed a brilliant red. The intensity of the change reminded me of someone who’s just been pushed too far.
But I didn’t answer, and he didn’t move. My gaze was locked in his. I wondered, dimly, at the violence in his life that I would never know.
Then he did look away, and just as suddenly all the intensity was gone. And when nothing else could, that’s what finally freaked me: his symptoms were all wrong.
He acted like someone who’d just contracted the plague. Shattered. Kinetic. Moods flying apart like jagged pieces whose edges just don’t fit together anymore.
But physically, it was obvious the disease was far advanced. There was a necklace of open sores around his neck. He stank. The crooks of his arms dripped. And, a few moods later, after he leapt—I swear to God he leapt—like a tree-branch cracking—to his feet, and staggered the street in front of me, shouting me down, he walked like someone whose kneecaps are slowly splitting open from inside. Anyone that far gone doesn’t talk. All the screaming’s done. They’re numb. They shit themselves. They drool. Pretty soon they die.
Shit. I don’t have to tell you. But you can see why my stomach was clenching up, you know?
He burst out laughing. He waved at me and grinned like a clown, as if I were the one with the plague and he was trying to cheer me up. I stared at him stupidly.
And he leapt up. Jounced—sticks and stones—down the steps. Swung around, whooping for joy. No. It was more like a croak! He stopped and pointed a finger at me, swaying. Fuck if I know how he remained standing.
“Look at you!” Hysterical edges. “Just look at you. If it weren’t for this disease, I’d fucking slap you silly. Hell, it wouldn’t make any difference if I did. You’re prob’ly one of the few wh’re immune, arencha?” He clapped his hands. “Yeah!” He tried to snap his fingers, but they missed. He laughed. “Shit, man, I’m gonna be dead inside a month. And look at you, poor boy. Lost some loved ones, huh? A girlfriend, maybe? Some close friends? Well, ain’t we all, asshole! Oh, the grief, the grief!” He slapped the back of one hand across his forehead, fluttered his eyelids. The imitation was too ludicrous for words. Yeah, I think it was at that point that something in me cracked. “Oh, I just can’t stand it!” he cried. “I think I’ll go numb! Well, I’ll tell you, man, you’re the one who’s dead, not me. As long as you give in to the numbness, you might as well be dead.”
I can’t tell you exactly what happened next. I broke up. Turned into a jellyfish, there on the steps. I think he kept screaming at me. I think he kicked me once or twice. If he did—whatever it was—it knocked loose even more of the pain. It flooded out of me, shit, what can I say? I was alive again, and it hurt so much I couldn’t see straight.
I’m not even going to try to describe the memories that possessed me. They were like knives. If you can imagine being cut open down the middle, and all your guts have turned to jelly, and a mile of nerves oozes out over the pavements, and the pavements cook as on the hottest day of summer, then you know what it felt like, emotionally.
And you know, it was another week before I found out for sure that I was immune to the plague. Jesus! A month ago. And now I’m here, pretending I’m civilized. Whatever happened to time?
So, yeah, I’ll never know what it’s like to feel the plague coming on, but if it’s anything like what I went through then, then sure, I’ve seen hell too. I’ve seen hell too. Ha! Why does it seem like all words are meaningless? I guess they can hold only so much pain, and that’s never enough.
When I came to myself, I was curled up on the steps like I was still in my mother’s womb. Rocking back and forth. Someone was moaning, sandpaper on exposed nerves. It was minutes before I realized it was me. Which is when I stopped.
The city was quiet.
The quiet screamed—louder than mayhem.
The pavements were empty. I rocked myself up. No. If the city’s silence had a center, it was standing four feet in front of me. He stood without moving, unblinking eyes staring at nothing. Strings of drool dangled from his lips. (His sores pulsed scarlet-green. I thought I was going to be sick.)
I think I screamed. I don’t know. I think I screamed. I launched myself at his feet. I dragged him to the ground. Started pounding on him.
“Wake up, goddammit! Wake—the fuck—up!” Screaming. Screaming now. His goo was like fire on my hands.
I was too weak. I kept hitting him, but there was nothing behind it. Suddenly he grabbed my wrist, so hard he almost broke it.
His eyes were on me. I couldn’t look away.
“How does it feel to be alive again?” he whispered. Less than a whisper. An emptiness between the lips.
I couldn’t speak.
His fingers sagged from my wrist.
After a time, I managed to get to my feet. A longer time, and I managed to get him to his feet. No, it wasn’t that he didn’t have the strength. His strength scared the hell out of me. It was just that his joints didn’t work right. When he gained his balance, he shook me off.
I found my voice. “Just what kind of an asshole saint are you, anyway?”
Somewhere in the city, the sirens started up again.
“I don’t know about you,” he said, voice almost clear, “but until the day I die—and I know it’ll be soon—I’m not givin’ in to this plague. I’m not gonna die until I’m dead.”
Silence. Sirens and silence.
“My apartment?” He nodded towards the building before us.
“I’m the only tenant still alive. And I’ll tell you, in a few weeks, when the final numbness sets in, the real numbness just before you die? You know what I’m gonna do?”
I shook my head.
“I’ve already got a stockpile of old newspapers. When my body starts goin’ numb, I’m gonna set the whole fucking building on fire. I’m gonna burn alive. ’Cause when I die, I want to feel it.”
Under the dome, the storytellers turned to stare out at a certain tenement building, and watch it burn. On every face, through many colors, shadow-smoke spun.
“A glorious death, my friend,” Kaleb whispered. He raised a hand, held up a wine glass made of empty air. And then, very softly, began to sing.
- And Watch It Burn - June 23, 2020
Ron, your work amazes me.
Very well done — the rapid replacement of one dying man with the other in sequence is sort of…balletic, in a hirrible way. But my favorite bit came at the end — the “wine glass made of empty air”.
Watching – not reading – the story and the moment of revelation “when I die, I’m gonna feel it” …chilling. And wakes me up.
Proud to know you.
Jud, from Ithaca
Nice work, Ron!