The Man With a City in His Head
by Maxwell Jameson
A Utopian civilization begins to awaken to its past when a strange old man begins describing a city in his head.
But nobody was there. The room was painted a dull orange, nearly the same shade as the hardwood floor. The quiet buzz of the fluorescent light reflected off the scratched varnish.
There were two more open doors opposite the entry. Through them I saw a large room, once the Takers’ Assembly Hall, though the Assembly Members’ desks had been torn out and burned by the Old City’s Security Force, along with the podiums on the stage.
The stage had been allowed to remain, though, but now only had a battered chalkboard sitting just off center stage. All the lights in this room were off except those above the stage.
I walked into this room. I stood near the center. I looked at the large clock on the wall. There were still a few minutes.
“Are you seven o’clock?” A squeaky, high-pitched voice with dull, rounded edges.
I jumped and turned.
He was a small, squat man wearing a jumpsuit split into four multi-colored sections. The large paunch at his midsection gave him the appearance of a walking beach ball. A shock of wispy brown hair stuck up at the center of his head as well as the sides, but the skin at the top reflected the fluorescent lights in the entry room. A pair of thick-rimmed glasses covered his eyes.
“Because if you are,” he continued, “I’m afraid it’s going to be up to you to set up, because all our collective members have left for the day. There was just so little notice—”
“I’m just here to watch,” I said.
“Oh, so you’re not putting it together?”
“Well, you’ll just have to wait then,” he said in a dismissive tone. “Most things get up and running at the last minute around here. There are your seats over there.”
He pointed to the rack of metal chairs at the far wall.
“Thank you,” I said.
He scuttled out. He carried himself with more confidence than he had any right to. He was a member of one small organization like many others in this District. Any Citizen would take it as rude and insolent.
I felt indignation twist through me slowly, but I breathed in and out. It was clear that it simply didn’t occur to him that I was any different from him, despite what my dress and bearing would state clearly to any Citizen.
In his egalitarian universe, nobody was treated as more special than anybody else. He’d found a niche where, despite any failures that had left him unable to function in Our City, he had value, prestige and position.
I looked over at the chairs, but the balcony caught my eye. I walked to the stairs. The balcony had been built to allow citizens of the Takers’ City to watch the Assembly. No such thing existed in the Floating Center.
When I got to the top, I saw a padded bench running along the railing. I spread out on it. I loosened my grip on the fatigue in my midsection and it shot out to the tips of my fingers and toes. It had been a long day, and there was more to do. There were repairmen to call, there were bills to mail, there were orders to make.
Being a Citizen meant more than just showing up at work. It always bled over. Your occupation became a lifestyle. A conscious decision to direct all of your energy towards something greater than yourself.
But another strand of thought began to unravel from the rest that reminded me of how little I desired to wake up the next day, to run before the light to open my establishment, to rush around all day for people with more important work than my own. This strand reminded me of how little I’d read the Complete History since opening my establishment, how unaware I still was of so much that happened in Our City.
Were it not for coincidence, I would know almost nothing about the current situation, having only the distorted statements of the newspaper and the radio to rely on. That strand wanted to grant that for which my weak, imperfect body pleaded: to fall gently into that gentle, lazy cloud, to lie down until I felt like getting up and then to move around until I felt like lying down.
I realized this desire flowed below everything else in my life and that this flow of desire was what had led me to the Takers and was what I’d sought to run away from as a Citizen, seeing that being a Citizen demanded a burying of that desire in the name of a greater good, a greater good that dictated the vast majority of your time, while at the same time constantly assuring you the city was partly yours.
How could it be, when it demanded forsaking your deepest-held desires? All the Takers wished to take was their own existence. Yet they were portrayed as if wishing to have the final say in their lives was somehow an act of selfishness.
But then I remembered the night I was buried: I remembered the son of Marcus the Statesman. He was determined to grab hold of me, to hold me down until I was grafted to him, as if that would give him more clout, more solidity. He was desperate to establish a new reality with himself at the center, to subordinate those weaker than he as a way of countering his father’s dominance of him. And in turn, perhaps, was Marcus, in some dark, twisted manner, merely attempting to follow the same flow of desire buried even deeper inside himself?
The firelight skipped around like a mob of frightened animals, revealing bits and pieces of oblivious revelers and the world they thought they were in. I said I would not give in. I ran straight towards the darkness, which I’d always avoided before. But instead of managing to flee into it, I bounced off it and fell in pain to the ground.
He stood over me. He seemed larger. I jumped and ran. I tried to weave in between all the groups. But he only got bigger, until he stretched high up into the darkness. His face was only black shadows, but his eyes glowed. He began to pick up some Takers and eat them, shoving them into his unseen mouth greedily and to stomp others into the ground with his now enormous feet.
I dashed through the clearing, trying to run into the darkness but bouncing off, but still getting up convinced it would work the next time. I didn’t know what else to do. I charged it. I bounced off. He came closer. He ate Takers.
I got up and ran towards the darkness. I bounced off. I looked up briefly. I saw his face and his glowing eyes. I ran to the darkness. I bounced off. I tried to get up, only to discover that his massive foot covered one of my own. I pulled as hard as I could, looking out to the darkness and wondering what held me from its sweet, unformed oblivion.
But he grabbed hold of me. He pulled me up to himself. The firelight gushed.
Marcus the Statesman stared at me, his faced twisted in glee.
And he ate me.
But the crashing of the double doors and the flicker of the remaining lights activating awoke me. I shot up on the bench. I heard the sloshing voice of the little man in the overalls.
“And I’m afraid it’s going to be up to you to set up, because all our collective members have left for the day. There was just so little notice, you see, and—”
“That is fine,” I heard James say. “Thank you.”
My heart thumped. I breathed in and out as the dream thankfully dissolved, and a new tingle replaced it.
I saw James walk in, leading the old man by one arm, and Aaron leading him by the other. I saw the old man walk just as gingerly as he had before he met Frederick. But James and Aaron patiently let him move at his own speed. Several other Takers followed them. I recognized several of them from my establishment, but there were some new faces as well. They quickly spread across the room.
“Oh, of course,” the little man said. “If anything is needed, I’ll be in the office.”
“Okay,” James said.
“Okay, folks,” Aaron warbled in his shaky, quiet voice, “let’s get some chairs set up, okay? I’m thinking like five rows, maybe ten seats per row. I don’t know how many people there will be.”
The other Takers immediately set upon the racks of chairs and the room ignited with clanks, squeaks, skids and snippets of conversation.
I just sat and watched as the event took shape. Mostly I watched James. He led the old man up onto the stage and called for a chair. He unfolded it and helped the old man sit in it. I watched the delicacy and the care in his actions. I heard the reverent tone in which he spoke to him. I saw the smooth yet masculine curves of his body beneath his tattered Taker clothing.
Adam walked in. He’d made good on his word. He had shaved and was wearing a clean suit. He walked confidently to one of the chairs near the back and sat down without a word.
Soon, the chairs were set up and filled with a smattering of people. Quite a few Citizens came in and sat down.
James brought the meeting to order.
I watched him stand tall and call out in a voice far louder and more authoritative than I thought possible. He attracted attention to himself only because it was necessary. He did not introduce himself. He welcomed everyone and introduced the old man as John the Leader. He said he knew what everyone was here to see and would allow us to get right to it.
James stepped aside. The light went down.
The old man was only a silhouette.
But soon there was light.
I realized it came from his eyes. It shown not like a lamp or light fixture, but like sunshine-warm and inviting. Yet it did not light the room; it was like sunlight as seen on a television screen but without the hazy artificial corona. The soft, muted glow covered the room.
And in that glow I watched as the old man’s head expanded, the lights getting larger as his eye sockets grew. The light began to come from his mouth as well. It was soon as tall and large as a door, through which I could see the source of the light:
A clear blue sky.
I squinted. I sat up in the darkness and looked again. Yes. A clear blue sky. A pristine blue with no plumes of smoke, no Watchers, no haze of exhausted resources, just thin and wispy clouds. And beneath them, I saw what I at first though were cliffs because they were so riddled with vegetation, so straight and tall yet textured with bumps and protrusions.
But I looked closer and realized they were buildings. But buildings unlike any I’d seen before, buildings that shot up to the sky with the humble, hard-earned authority of nature as the sun dusted them with golden glow.
I saw the intricate protrusions were balconies, walkways, windows, elevators and escalators all built into the structure so naturally as to be almost indiscernible. They were the opposite of the brightly-lit, smoke-belching monoliths of the Inner Districts and the Floating Center that cried out to be noticed. Their very sight changed forever my very notion of what a building could be.
As the old man’s mouth widened, I saw that they sprang from trees, their green branches completely covering the spaces between the buildings. I could make out walkways beneath the trees, though I could see streets and markets in their shade. This city burst from the world around it, was that world, no more separate than those trees.
The old man’s head stopped growing when it met the ceiling. A crisp, clean breeze poured out onto the crowd.
James stepped out from the darkness and stood in front of the door. “Who’s coming?” he asked.
Then he walked through, immediately vanishing down an incline.
There was a rumbling from the sparse audience. But gradually people — Citizens and Takers alike — began making their way to the stage and following James through.
I watched as the last people vanished into the old man’s head.
Only Adam was left. He walked up as the heads of the last few Citizens and Takers vanished down an incline. He took a few awkward steps, then squared his wide shoulders and walked through himself.
I made my way down from the balcony. I watched those magnificent buildings. Some of them were so tall that they stretched past the roof of the old man’s mouth, their spires visible only through his eerily emptied eye sockets.
The now-enormous face looked like it was screaming in distress. The deep grooves in his forehead sprouted enormous drops of sweat. As magnificent as that city was, I couldn’t reconcile it with the pain it was causing the old man.
I stood in front of the mouth and felt the wafting breeze that smelled sweeter and fuller, more damp and alive than any I’d encountered in Our City.
I breathed it in once or twice, then turned and walked down the center aisle in the chairs and through the double doors. The fluorescent lights in the entryway assaulted my eyes. There was a loud warbling that turned out to be the little round man’s voice on the telephone.
“And the space is rented tomorrow, but we’ve yet to receive payment—”
I looked over and saw him seated at a desk, his round belly wedged between the chair and desk.
I walked past him and through the outer doors. I noticed the air first. I could smell the excrement and fuel that powered the transit vehicles, the holoports and the Watchers. I wondered how I’d never noticed how putrid and unnatural Our City’s air truly was.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Maxwell Jameson