Prose Header

On the Balcony

by Mike Lee

Part 1 appears in this issue.


The taxi pulled up just as the bus from Sania turned into the inner driveway leading to the station.

Dwyer sighed, relieved. He wanted nothing to do with these people. He had his reasons. They all had their secret societies and involved themselves in homeland politics to the point of obsession, which pissed off the native Antanzians no end. The countries still had diplomatic relations, and Antanzia did not need the headache of dealing with a shambling dictatorship that still held nuclear weapons. The Antanzians saw the exiles’ behavior as ingratitude.

For Dwyer, it was infuriating, because the nation, forged in invasions by the British of the Rio de la Plata and the Banda Oriental during the Napoleonic Wars, ended in a negotiated withdrawal, leaving a free state that stretched from the South Atlantic coast to the escarpment known as the O’Doul’s. Since independence, Antanzia had taken in waves of immigrants including political refugees in the last century, making the country one the most diverse in South America.

The children of the refugees seemed to talk only about going home. Dwyer wanted to tell them that “home” was long gone, like Rome, the Soviets, the Spanish empire, the Assyrians. While not a paradise, Antanzia was here and now, and it was doubtful that any of them would be able to return to their homeland in their lifetimes. At best, all they would find there would be remnants transformed into tourist attractions.

While Dwyer thought all this insulted the dead left behind and the aging survivors, who mostly had no interest in ever going back, he avoided most of his fellows, made other friends and latched onto the future.

The driverless car was programmed to arrive at the Mexican restaurant. So confident were the automobile engineers of the safety of the computer software that the latest model was the first not to have optional passenger steering. The world had put humans on Mars and the moon and had achieved subspace travel a decade ago, but it had taken seemingly forever to develop a fully functioning programmed automobile.

Assembled in Brazil by a European Union manufacturer, the black Veer was a strong utility machine, and the auto navigated the traffic on the avenue through the tower blocks of the New City.

It was hard for Dwyer to relax. Amid the hum of the air conditioner and the boredom of the concrete spires passing above, his hunger was an annoying immediacy. He had stomach issues and going too long without food caused cramping.

As the sun battered down from its perch above the azure sky, the taxi raced down the empty avenue. The air conditioner blew high, chilling Dwyer despite his suit.

“Drop air two clicks, driver.”

The air blasts immediately lessened in response.

He thought of Mariah, the teacher. Would they meet again?

He leaned back and began to ease into serenity until arriving at the restaurant.

* * *

Dwyer sat down and ordered. The restaurant was a Tex-Mex Oaxaca fusion, and he missed his mother’s Mole enough to order it. He also ordered the local lager. The beer wasn’t bad, but not too good either. He felt at home in a childhood of long ago.

It was one of those moments when Dwyer felt woefully alone. His parents had memories they shared of the old country and had spent years spinning yarns of their respective lives there before they were forced to leave during the burning times, as they referred to it.

Failed coups had gone awry amid worldwide chaos, disease and the attendant breakdown of the social order. It was said that an empire does not know it has reached its end until five minutes before it suddenly happens. The land perished, falling under unrelenting chaos.

Still, his parents observed the national holidays, the rituals of barbecues in winter, and reciting history not taught in schools. As Dwyer grew older and had moved on to university, these too faded with his aging parents. He was a born Antanzian, no longer a child of a fading memory of a failed civilization, losing to time, as fallen empires of human history past always do. He moved ahead, deeply embedded in the land of his birth. He was not his parents, but he was of them. Now he was a salesman on a trip to see a client and convince him to buy something that he perhaps did not really need.

The Poblano was served with arroz and a heavily spiced salad that reeked of too much vinegar. The lager now helped assuage the bitter taste. While finishing his meal, Dwyer noticed the raven-haired woman from the bus station enter the restaurant.

When she saw him, he tilted his head up at her and smiled.

She looked at him with a pained expression.

He motioned for her to come to his table.

* * *

“I take there is a reason for everything,” Dwyer said. He was standing on the balcony, looking out at the concrete canyons of the massive complex. Mariah, the young woman, lived alone at the top floor at the edge of the southwest quadrant.

The view faced Antanzia City, its skyline lit under the purple sky, reminding Dwyer of his parents’ stories about the violet crown at sunset in the city where they had grown up. This was different though; beyond the buildings was the fabled city beach, and then the Southern Ocean that stretched without landfall until the shores of Africa.

“You can see the archipelago of constellations from here,” she said. “There is no North Star. It’s funny: at the planetarium, when they showed us the night sky whenever there were a bunch of us nortes in class, they’d make a big thing of showing it. It still bothers me.”

“Polaris,” Dwyer said. “My parents told me that when they were kids, they stared at the stars in the backyard. That was how they met, or so they told me. That was most evocative story about the past they shared. Call me guilty of sentimentality.”

“We have Sirius,” Mariah said.

Dwyer nodded. “The dog star.”

She smiled. “We can reach out to carry it with us.”

“Yes,” Dwyer said, “our guiding light. The Polynesians saw it as the harbinger of winter and used it to guide their boats across the Pacific, traveling far across endless seas.” He paused, and looked at Mariah’s cat eyes, which had grown wider in the dim light.

“So, you knew where I came from, didn’t you?”


“And searched me out?”

She nodded. “I don’t know anything about where I came from. My family never talked about life before the camps. All I know are what I read, learned in school and looked online. I do know others, but I feel apart. Distant.”

She took a breath. “I didn’t feel right about them. My parents were obsessed, you see. Angry at the loss of their homeland, of being forced to flee to a strange land.”

She lowered her eyes. “And the camps, I learned what they were like. What had happened. But when I asked my parents, there was silence. Nothing. I never asked again.”

“I see. I never felt that way about my parents. I know all about the camps, too. My graduation assignment happened to be about where my parents were sent to: the one in the desert.”

Mariah and Dwyer stared silently for a few moments.

“So, they told me jolly tales of rolling hills and magical nights in a hammock under the stars,” he said. “That’s the past to remember.”

“Not our stars,” said Mariah. “You seem to latch on to them like the idiots who think the revolution is always around the corner, and we are all going to get ‘our’ country back. My mother was blunt about that. She said all she saw around the corner was men with guns.”

“Not at all. It’s a story that tells me who they are. They are not our stars. The ones we see from this balcony are ours.”

“You live alone, don’t you?”

Dwyer shrugged. “I admit I am the loner kind. I have friends, good buddies, but most times I prefer to read a book.”

“You never fit in,” said Mariah. “I can see it. Figuring out how to get through life without having to fly by the seat of his pants was a lesson unlearned. But you sell yourself well.”

Dwyer paused, then said. “I guess by being invisible. I’m the hombre that can pass unnoticed even on a desolate city block.”

“I’m different. I want to be seen,” Mariah said. “Be taken for who I am.”

She moved closer to him and raised her fists. “I am home.”

* * *

Dwyer canceled the hotel reservation and stayed the night. He dreamed of being suspended from a branch in a tree high above the earth. It was the tallest tree in the forest. He felt helpless and afraid. He looked up and saw nothing but gray sky and impenetrable clouds.

Dwyer began to lose hope, as he began to lose his grip on the branch. Suddenly, he felt Mariah’s cheek move gently against his arm. Awake, he brushed her hair, closed his eyes and immediately returned to sleep.

He dreamed of being a bird flying over a suburban tract home in a valley surrounded by rolling hills. As he circled over one particular yard out of many in the housing subdivision, Dwyer saw two teenagers lying on freshly cut grass. He heard the sound of television broadcasting an archaic variety show inside the house and buzzing of moths around an outdoor lamp on the concrete porch.

Dwyer stared at the two pairs of eyes staring at Polaris in the night sky. As he flew close, he listened as the girl talked about drawing down the moon, while the boy listened intently, perhaps thinking that she was his spiritual counterpart and that they would last together forever.

Copyright © 2020 by Mike Lee

Proceed to Challenge 875...

Home Page