On the Balcony
by Mike Lee
Despite occasional carelessness, Dwyer always somehow managed to survive. The latest example of this was missing the bus from the New City, his connection station to reach his destination in Antanzia City.
He called ahead, apologizing, assuring his client by rescheduling their meeting the following morning. In the meantime, Dwyer had to content himself with five hours of midsummer heat before taking the evening bus, arriving at his hotel shortly before the midnight hour, heaven and the tides willing.
Perhaps one should consider he was blessed with multitudes of single lucky strokes. So many that the page of his life was filled with entries of asemic writing. While there was indecipherable nonsense to readers, the markings did cover it most creatively, enough so that the client sounded sincere in saying he understood Dwyer’s predicament and that no harm would come to the transaction in the morning. Problem solved.
Though not gaunt, Dwyer was a thin man, nearly six feet in height. His dark suits fit him loosely. For a seller representing a fine art gallery, he deserved a sharper outline. Yet wearing an ill-fitting suit was all the rage in the country’s fashion, thus he lucked out with what elsewhere in the world would be seen as a milder form of poverty.
After the call, he returned to the ticket kiosk and punched in an updated ticket for 06:00. After he paid the surcharge, a fresh emerald-green plastic bus card slid out. Dwyer went to the information window to inquire for the nearest decent restaurant.
Antanzia Transport took pride in still using people for most of the inquiry work and, at most stations, they had full-time ticket clerks. The human touch was a priority, though quaint to anyone younger than the very aged, even in the Southern Hemisphere, where time in most lands stands still.
Holding back the arms of civilization’s clock helped Dwyer with his mishaps. A faster world might have destroyed him. While attentive to his work and dress, he made constant mistakes due to a seeming desire to sleepwalk through his daily existence. Luck does not translate to promotions, and it took him longer than usual to become the top salesperson. Even so, he was doing just well enough.
He was hungry, and needed assistance in finding a restaurant.
* * *
At the information booth sat a young woman with raven hair, cut in bangs. She was watching a program on her pad, an earphone cord rising to an earphone under her thick nightfall hair.
Politely, he inquired, “Do you know the route to Casa de Andre?”
Only her eyes lifted, a cat-eyed green. Contacts engineered with animal pupils were popular with younger Antanzians. Dwyer found them troubling. He did not want to talk to a cat.
Trying not to seem bored, but failing, the information clerk responded, “I know where it is. It’s rather far on the avenue, so you will still need to take a walk through the main tower blocks to get there. Are you waiting for the sunset bus?”
“I can call you a taxi.”
“How long is the walk?”
“Too long. And you will have to go through the tower blocks beyond the turnabout.” Her voice was more attentive, and now Dwyer could see the clerk had raised her full face to him. She had an asymmetrical face, with her upper lip slightly folded over the lower on the left side.
“I have been through the New City before.”
She spoke firmly. “I would advise a taxi.”
Dwyer shrugged. “Sure. Yes. It is too hot outside.”
The clerk pressed keys on the panel in front of her. Dwyer looked at her fingers, taking notice of the tattoos on her knuckles. They spelled H-O-M-E, in English. He thought she was probably an Antanzian who had ancestors from the old country, like his family.
After programming a request for a car, she asked if there was anything else he needed.
“Yes, do you speak English?”
“I speak it some,” she said, in typically Antanzian Portuguese. She then changed to English. “My parents are from there.”
Dwyer responded in English. “So are mine. I was born here. You?”
“This was a long time ago.”
The clerk raised her knuckles to show them more clearly to Dwyer. “Yes, it was. Very long time ago.”
She went back to Portuguese. “The taxis are backed up. Unfortunately, yours will arrive in an hour.” Her voice was terse. Dwyer sensed there was something along the lines of wanting to say something else, but she was hesitant to open up to speak.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You are welcome.” She returned to viewing the program on her screen.
Without looking up, she added, “My parents were in the camps.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “So were mine. Not very long, though.”
“I can’t say the same.” Dwyer noted her spoken English was learned from the home, not the school. Like him, though her way of speaking it had a certain furtiveness, as if often it was verbalized in whispers.
“What is your name?” He should have asked earlier.
She raised her left index finger to the kiosk LED. “Mariah.”
“Sorry, I hadn’t looked,” he said sheepishly. Dogpaddling, Dwyer added, “Mariah is a beautiful name.”
“Biblical. It comes from the hill where Jacob offered to sacrifice his son.”
“I didn’t know. We are not religious.”
“My parents were,” Mariah said, somewhat distantly. “Until the camps. Many lost their faith in everything in those places. They were no exception.”
Dwyer wanted to disagree, but other than a single story told once, and being shown their transit papers, his parents hadn’t mentioned that period of their past.
Instead, the past they talked about was about lying in the backyard, staring at the stars, the constellations, and linking them all up in their shared imagination. They told the stories beautifully, accentuating the positive aspects of their youth before the darkness fell.
“So, I am named for a place of sacrifice,” said Mariah. “Also, the name means ‘teacher’. I am poor at that but good at clerking.”
“I’m curious as to the meaning of the hill of sacrifice.”
“My parents,” she sighed. “They gave up too much in the camps. Sacrifice, you see, takes on many meanings. For my parents, they were eventually released, came here, and had a new world to face.”
“Like mine,” Dwyer said. “A new start. A fresh beginning.”
“You can begin,” Mariah said, her voice terse again, “but you never leave the past behind.”
“So they talked.”
“About everything but that,” Mariah said, her artificial cat’s eyes narrowing.
Dwyer nodded. “I see your hands.”
She raised her fists. “I had them done after they died. I did it not to remember them but to never forget, and why.”
“Those are a very beautiful remembrance,” he said.
“I don’t think of their aesthetic,” Mariah said. “But when the right people come, those like us, they see, and they know.”
“So, you are a teacher.”
Mariah smiled. “I’m just a weird little information clerk offering directions. Actually, I am the supervisor. It’s vacation season.”
She checked the screen. “You’re lucky. The taxi will arrive in only a few minutes. A cancellation, it seems.”
“It was a pleasure listening to you,” Dwyer said.
“I didn’t say much.”
Mariah lifted her fists again. “Remember.”
* * *
Dwyer picked up his overnight bag and briefcase and scanned the lobby.
The bus station had been recently renovated; its walls and ceiling were decorated with slash pine grown from one of the organic farms in the interior. The benches were made from recovered eucalyptus, heavily lacquered, the floor also made from recycled tiles.
The next bus from the southern suburbs was scheduled to arrive in a few minutes, soon filling the now-empty station with workers arriving home from the corporate headquarters.
Dwyer left the waiting area to the curb outside, hoping the taxi would arrive before the bus from Sania, the suburb where many of the locals worked. Sania was where the research laboratories and space engineering facilities were located.
Antanzia had become a big player in the international space program, beginning with the tracking station that played a vital role in the first manned Mars mission. Since then, some of the major components designed and developed for the successor Mars colony were manufactured in Sania.
The arriving bus carried line workers. Many were second-generation immigrants whose parents had arrived during what his parents called the Five Years. That crowd coming to the south included his parents. They did not talk about it, even when he asked, coming home from school when the history teacher played them the videos and he read selections during the lesson.
He knew what he was told in school, and it saddened him. When he asked his parents, however, they maintained silence. He understood why but did not like it one bit. When a room was closed to him, he felt a desire to open its door.
The Five Years began shortly after his parents were married. Everything seemed at the time to be normal. Sure, there were problems in the country, but they did not comprehend the depth of the contradictions that created a revolutionary collapse. Later, as Dwyer was taught in school and in further reading, he understood that what was passing for normal outside the home was far worse than perceived by the average citizen.
In his final year at secondary school, Dwyer took an advanced course with a history teacher, Mr. Gullian, who was much older. He was a Uruguayan who had fled to Antanzia decades before, during their times of troubles. He had his own basket of sorrows to share with his students, and he had an understanding of what had happened to Dwyer’s parents, and discussed it often with his class.
The Five Years had been a long time in coming, percolating. His mother and father were unaware that the time had been decades in the making.
Mr. Gullian quoted the Surrealist poet René Char, who wrote while in the French Resistance during the Second World War that “Clarity of vision is the closest wound to the sun.”
Dwyer’s parents saw it all too late and were burned badly as social upheavals cascaded into civil war. They had been on the wrong side. For them the sun was more than Char’s metaphor.
Mr. Gullian asked him where they were sent.
“I don’t know. They never told me.”
“I do. I read all my students’ folders. Copies of your parents’ transit and citizenship papers are included in yours.”
“Will you show me?”
“No, that is illegal,” Mr. Gullian said quietly. He adjusted his glasses and pulled out a single sheet. Handing it over, he said, “This is your next assignment.”
After finishing the assignment, he did not ask his parents again. He knew what was important; he focused on inquiring about their childhood and their mutual fondness for stargazing.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Mike Lee