Another City, Quite My Own
Written by Sennebec
I dont think it was just my imagination. Everything had gotten progressively weirder as summer dawdled on. Red tide was worse than ever, blight was wiping out potatoes, tomatoes and blueberries, perpetual rain which usually segued into dry hot weather in July had lingered until the first of August and the tourists were so discouraged, the state had set up a crisis hotline to keep them from killing locals when they jumped from their hotel room windows.
The heat and humidity had certainly done a number on me. I had barely enough energy to drive home after closing the library, open my mail and maybe cook something. More often than not, Id slap together cold leftovers and eat on the deck while making a futile effort to fend off mosquitoes who were now approaching hummingbirds in size. Everyone expressed the same opinion around Simonton; it was too hot to stay outside, too humid to do more than sweat gracefully and by Godfrey, if its like this next summer, Im moving out west, wildfires be damned.
It was after midnight on August 16th, my late fathers birthday. The double thunder shower which had made watching tv or answering email impossible as night fell, hadnt done anything to relieve the oppressive dampness which seemed so heavy I could wave my hand and imagine miniature waves rolling through the living room air and crashing halfway up the wall. Even reading Kate Floras new mystery hadnt been able to hold my attention for very long. I saved my place and turned off the light.
Sweat-soaked sheets and persistent heat lightning made falling asleep a chore, but sometime around midnight I drifted into an uneasy slumber.
Something was very wrong. I untangled the damp sheet which had a stranglehold on my left leg and got out of bed. As I headed toward the bathroom, I glanced out the living room window at the skyline, such as there, was of downtown Simonton. The sky was briefly illuminated by another burst of heat lightning and I forgot all about my reason for getting out of bed. Several buildings were missing. I waited until another flash verified my initial impression. Sure enough, the Damarisk Bank wasnt there, nor was the Baptist Church. I fought an urge to run outside and scream and headed for the bathroom. An empty bladder and several handfuls of cold water helped put things in perspective. It had to be a dream or a trick of the brief flashes of light. Still, I could be on South Main in ten minutes if I walked quickly.
As I waited for my eyes to adjust, I realized there was something odd about the streetlight next to my mailbox. Instead of one of those mercury vapor lights at the top, the pole seemed to morph from dull steel to a transparency starting about ten feet off the ground. I let my eyes follow this oddity and had to look twice. The pole evaporated about a foot below where I expected the light to be. No wonder it was darker than usual.
I made my way down Dwinal St., cursing as I tripped over half a garbage can. It looked like someone had sawed it neatly down the middle, but the missing piece was nowhere to be seen. I slowed my pace as I realized there were a lot more odd things than I hadnt noticed. More than half the street lights were in some state of unfinished and several trees were in similar straights, including one where ten feet of its trunk seemed to have gone elsewhere.
My mind was having enough trouble dealing with the tree when a dog ran by, barking happily. I turned to watch as it disappeared into the darkness, realizing that its hind quarters were gone. That just about did it for my poor overworked brain. How half a dog could function, let alone run by me that fast was way more than it wanted to process.
I took off in the other direction, hearing a low pained keening sound as I banged and bounced off myriad objects in the darkness.
By the time I stumbled around the corner on South Main, I was too hoarse to make any more sounds and I was a mess from continual banging into objects, many of which were unfinished caricatures of things I took for granted during daylight hours. Some of the street lights were functional, but that was a mixed blessing as the light made it more apparent that I wasnt in Kansas or any other place that I could remember. Hoping it was a dream, I bit my left hand as hard as I dared, thinking the pain might bring be back to reality.
Most everyone tries that, but it doesnt work.
I nearly severed a tendon as I whipped around to see who had spoken. The sad looking fellow was sitting on an unfinished bench under a small tree. I gave him a quick once over, but he seemed to be all there, at least in the physical sense. He waved a hand, inviting me to join him on the bench.
Bet youre feeling a might perplexed.
More than a bit, am I dreaming?
Maybe, it depends on how you define the word. If you mean in the traditional sense, where you drift off, imagine pretty colored scenes and wake up not remembering a whole lot, then the answer is no. If you can relate to the concept of getting a message delivered in a subtle, but vivid way, then the answer is probably yes.
His cryptic response should have unnerved me, but after some of the things Id seen since leaving my house, I didnt seem to have much surprise left. I nodded, waiting for him to continue.
I envy you. Youll be out of here shortly, while Im stuck here for who knows how long. You see, unlike my brother Herm, I didnt get the message when it was given to me. I just attributed it to something which accompanied bad oysters in a cheap tavern and went on my merry way, an exceedingly unwise choice in hindsight. He waved a hand as if including everything around us, Ive been the caretaker for over 150 years and Im still waiting for someone whose arrogance exceeds their common sense so I can retire.
I looked around, seeing everything in a slightly different light. I had a strong suspicion I understood exactly what was behind his words. I stood awkwardly and looked down at him, an aging nondescript man wearing a shabby frock coat and spectacles.
Thanks, I think I get it. What did you say your name was?
I didnt, but its Tom, Tom Melville. He smiled sadly as I turned and started home.
When I awoke late the following morning, everything outside my window looked reassuringly normal. No unfinished trees, no half dogs, no severed trash receptacles, no missing buildings. I started a pot of coffee and hurried to my book case. I had to blow dust off my copy of The Encyclopedia of Imaginary Places. Heaven knows when I consulted it last, I thought as I searched for the entry I faintly remembered.
Halfway down page 77 I found what I was looking for; The City of Unfinished Stories-a place originally created by Hieronymus Bosch and represented in one of his early paintings. It is said to be where all stories abandoned by authors end up. Boschs painting features incomplete buildings, people and natural features.
That was all the motivation I needed. As soon as the coffee was ready, I grabbed a cup and opened the nearly forgotten file I had once loftily called great works. Four unfinished stories, long ago promised to different editors stared accusingly at me. With luck, Id remember where each was headed when my confidence and motivation went south more than a year ago.
I opened the oldest one, and I swear I saw Tom Melville smiling approvingly as I started writing.
all rights reserved
Photo courtesy of met.utah.edu