For a brief moment, no longer than ten years, which wasn’t much, all things considered, the city seemed on the verge of greatness. Nestled at the mouth of Lake Michigan, it had served as a portal for steel manufacturers to transport their goods to and from Gary and Chicago, both voracious consumers of raw and processed steel. Houses bloomed in fields until no fields remained. Streets and sidewalks, buildings and stores and factories filled the city. The leaders of industry diversified, and soon a Pullman boxcar manufacturer popped up. By the lake, a cough lozenge manufacturer erected a simple, box-shaped building. The city boomed, as people would say. Incomes increased, and along with it the accoutrements concomitant to disposable income: pools and swings and cars, some excessively luxurious, and general stores packed with disposable goods, all of which people devoured, people looking to fill their lives with evidence of their squandered time. Then voodoo economics and global trade deals crushed the steel industry, and the port withered and died. Chasing jobs, people fled. Poverty replaced prosperity. Drugs and alcoholism, crime and violence, anxiety and depression and suicide scarred the faces and fattened the bodies of everyone left to rot in the city. Paint on buildings and signs and fences chipped and faded, and concrete cracked and broke. Gray replaced color. The world seemed to dim. Every once in a while, sometimes twice a month, the sky over the city cracked: blood and sulfuric effluvia drenched the city. The poor bastards buried in the bottom-most levels of the social strata, left to rot when the wealth of the middle class fled, watched as the faces of their friends and loved ones drooped. No one understood the affliction. Doctors hypothesized neurological disorders possibly caused by an ecosystem poisoned by decades of industry, but they nixed the neurological argument when faces melted and slid off and merged with the flesh on chests or necks or stomachs or arms. Something else was clearly at work. That no one seemed to notice or care, that doctors only treated it with anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication didn’t evoke questions from anyone passing through the city. Most people, those with money who passed through town, dismissed the affliction as a problem relegated to the impoverished. In some way, people argued, it was probably their fault–maybe not directly; perhaps it was the product of poor upbringing, or genetics. At any rate, people said, there wasn’t much use in worrying. ‘My life’s good,’ one traveler said, ‘my face’s intact; why should I worry?’ The old woman, who lived in the abandoned post office, known to everyone in town as a ‘crazy witch,’ laughed when she overheard the traveler’s apathy. ‘The way things are going,’ she said, ‘the sky over every city will crack, and every face will soon droop and melt.’ The traveler ignored her. Everyone ignored her. And when the sky over cities around the country–around the world, even–cracked and bled, and faces drooped and melted, entire populations ignored the problem, pretended it didn’t exist, by focusing on alcohol, drugs, sports, and pop culture. ‘I mean, really, there’s nothing to worry about,’ a local community organizer said. He was a prominent billionaire, face intact, who lived in a neighborhood enclosed in a dome and often acted as the voice of the people. ‘This is something that happens,’ he said. ‘It’s important now, it’s absolutely critical, that we carry on with our lives. We as citizens must continue shopping, go on vacation, go to college, accumulate as much debt as is needed to help our struggling economy. Faces change. Yes, some even melt. But it must not prevent us from living our lives, from raising our children, from playing our part in maintaining the economy.’ Footage of his speech played on repeat on news broadcasts around the country. Few people expressed alarm when his cheek twitched and his eyelid sagged mid-way through the speech. Sometime later, he retired from public view.
In the corner of his eyes, the man detected movement. He was standing beside a door length mirror and he glanced to his left, at the mirror, and saw his reflection. Had it moved? Probably not. He thought it strange how we perceive mirrors as somehow gray yet when he gazed at it he only saw light reflected from him and the room he inhabited. Yet that perception—that grayness—persisted.
He slipped his feet into his shoes and stepped outside. Outside, darkness settled over the earth. The earth hummed, glowing. Glowing, streetlights hung over sidewalks. Sidewalks merged into streets. Streets stretched for miles.
Somewhere in the darkness, between houses, a dog howled. An awful noise. Terrifying: a dog howled, between houses, somewhere in the darkness.
Gray. Everything seemed gray. The sky, the streets, the houses and the cars—everything. He couldn’t perceive the grayness, but he sensed it. And it bothered him. It irritated him the way a hair in your mouth might irritate you: you can sense it, you know it’s there, but you can’t locate it; you can’t work it to the tip of your tongue and pluck it off and throw it away. That’s how the grayness felt, but in an abstract sense: a conceptual hair he couldn’t locate.
He crossed the street and stood on the corner, near a bent signpost. Someone had stolen the sign, with an illustration of a bus that resembled a water bong lying on its side, three weeks in a row. The man had written a letter to the editor of the local paper imploring the city to redesign the sign, to make the bus more buslike and less bonglike, but the editors, for whatever reason, didn’t run the letter. The pricks. They must be liberals, he thought. Then he froze, almost recoiled. Why had he thought that? He was liberal. Although not a pot smoker, he didn’t condescend to them.
He was standing in a cone of light cast by a streetlight overhead. He glanced up and saw streams of light pouring down on him. He yawned, and the water forming in his eyes, water forced by the yawn, haloed the light.
The light pole stood beside the signpost. He wrapped his fingers against it. His ring, a titanium number he wore on his index finger, tinged the aluminum, and the light fixture overhead swayed. He glanced at the light, curious. It wasn’t moving, so he grabbed the pole with both hands and pushed and tugged it. The light didn’t move. As he tapped the pole with his fingers again, certain to hit it with his ring, he craned his head back and focused on the light. Ting. It moved. Again.
He tapped the pole with his fingertips, but the light didn’t move. He tapped it with his elbow, then kicked it. Nothing. Taking off his ring, holding it like a coin, he slid it along at the pole and the light swayed. The lights down and across the street swung and swayed. Clouds overhead dissolved and moonlight drenched the city. Lights in buildings and storefronts and houses shone, illuminating the streets and sidewalks. Headlights and tail lights in cars and buses clicked on. Pointing in every conceivable direction, they helped the buildings et al. illuminate the streets, the city, the town.
The man strolled down the sidewalk, spinning his ring as he passed stores and houses. An empty sensation swirled inside him; it started in his stomach and spread to his limbs and skull, and it deepened as he studied the ring. Sadness consumed him. He stood still and stared at the ring, examining it, thinking, wondering what it reminded him of, what sensations it triggered. They felt three-dimensional, those sensations, but hard to pinpoint. What were they trying to convey? He analyzed his experience in that moment, but he couldn’t unpack it. He couldn’t make sense of it. And that sadness and that emptiness worsened, and he felt a sensation like phantom hands wrapping around his neck and squeezing. Tears bubbled in his eyes. He felt on the verge of vomiting.
Clouds merged until they amputated the moonlight. One by one, every light in the city—every streetlight, every light in stores and buildings, every head- and taillight—dimmed and died, and the man was left in darkness.
What were those sensations?
He slipped the ring on his finger and ambled up the sidewalk, toward his apartment. The windows glowed, but he sensed silence inside. He sensed emptiness. No movements.
There was no one inside to fill it with noise, to move.
As he opened the front door, he tapped his ring with his thumb. Then he stood in front of the door length mirror and stared at his reflection, hoping to detect movement somewhere in the room, somewhere in his world.
There was once a time when a woman decided to step out of her house. After years of staying indoors, she woke up one morning feeling a tickling sensation at the back of her skull. She dwelled on it for hours, wondering if it was an infection, a tumor, or something more or less harmless, such as lice. But then, after considering dozens of scenarios, she settled on a simple notion: it’s time to leave. And that was it. Those fours words, when she articulated them, triggered something in her brain, and she felt motivated, and she felt trapped. Having spent years in her house—familiar with it, comfortable in it, safe in it—she now felt as if she were imprisoned. And she had to get out. She had to step outside and breathe and feel the sunlight hit her flesh and hear the birds and insects and cats and people. So she dressed in her finest clothes and approached the front door. And she froze. Hand on the doorknob, fingers curled around it, she squeezed and tried to turn it, but something stopped her. Something somewhere implored her to reconsider. So she considered her possibilities. She could sit on her recliner and turn on the television, an inviting thought. She watched television from the time she woke up until she fell asleep; the colors of the world on the screen moved and inspired her, and she loved the actors portraying every character she loved and despised in every show she loved and despised; and she loved commercials: they were almost always funny or engaging; she especially loved commercials with animals or CGI characters; sometimes they made her laugh and sometimes they made her think; and they even inspired her to buy a few things; at least once or twice a week, she’d see something on a commercial that she had to have, so she’d turn on her phone and jump on a website or two and order item after item, item after item, until she felt content, then she’d refocus her attention on the television, and, in almost all cases, she’d marvel at the colors. They were beautiful. Then she’d glance out the windows and wonder if the colors of the world were as beautiful as they were on screen. Almost certainly, she’d think. From what she remembered, they looked even better in the real world, the world outside, in front of her eyes, without the glass in the window to mediate, to mute them. But now, as she considered her possibilities, as her hand rested on the doorknob, she found herself obsessed with the colors outside. Certainly they were as beautiful and awe inspiring as the colors on television. Probably more so. She tried to remember what it was like outside, how the world felt and smelled and tasted, how the colors looked when they assaulted you from all sides, but she couldn’t retrieve a single color-coded memory. She hadn’t paid attention to the colors of the world before television had instructed her to appreciate them, so no memories existed to inform her questions, re: the color of the world. Then a thought hit her: perhaps the world had no color. Perhaps objects didn’t have color. Perhaps the concept of color itself was intellectual, and people superimposed color on the world via memories, a sort of ex post facto paint by numbers. But then no; that was nonsense. Glancing around the room, she experienced the sensation of colors hitting her from every object. If the objects in the house had color, and everything in the house was manufactured in the real world, then it stood to reason that everything in the real world had color. Thinking this, she glanced around the room again. The colors seemed muted, almost lifeless. She crossed the room and gazed out the window. Through the glass everything seemed lifeless and muted. The world seemed dim. It didn’t seem alive. It seemed fake and fraudulent and somehow disappointing. And confusing and frightening and, most importantly, unpredictable. She sat on her recliner and closed her eyes and reconsidered the tickling sensation that had haunted her. Perhaps it was her subconscious trying to reaffirm her decision to stay indoors. Maybe she was trying to instruct herself to appreciate what she already had, or maybe she was trying to reminded herself to call the cable company and order a package with more channels. She opened her eyes and turned on the television and smiled. It comforted her. Her muscles contracted and relaxed and she laughed. She had left her house in spirit and she hadn’t liked it. Who knows how much she’d despise the actual experience? Besides, she thought, the colors of the world aren’t as moving or as inspiring as the colors on the television. And the real world isn’t interrupted by commercials. And who wants to live in a world, she thought, in which animals don’t talk or CGI characters don’t roam the streets making you laugh?