So the morning routine had begun, and never had anyone been so positive about absolutely nothing. As he embarked on his daily, one-block trek from the parking meter to the office, his cell phone became a prosthetic ear. Today’s conversation with Nobody was particularly emphatic, and it filled the empty space between his three ears with the sounds of superlatives that were sure to turn heads…but they rarely did; it’s hard to steal attention from blaring horns and fender benders and traffic-induced expletives and crazy beggars and mammoth buildings and other people also involved in imaginary cell phone conversations.
Ah, the glory of the city! And he reveled in it — loved to say he lived in it, loved the clear view of it through the tinted windows of his Luxury Edition Monstrous Machine with Wheels (MMW to those in the know). As he cachinnated and complimented Nobody’s wit, he looked around at this beautiful place. What a gem of humanity! The genetically-engineered fruit of our advanced intellects at their ripest. And so full of people! Who could ever feel alone? he thought while nodding at the comments of Nobody under the watchful eyes of concrete, glass and steel.
As if the obese beads of sweat now dripping into his eyes from the taxing walk were not disruptive enough (fast food is another “fruit” of the modern intellect), he suddenly happened upon an edifice of the offensively rudimentary kind: an anthill. What a repugnant roadblock, the antithesis of this glorious modernity!
“My god, Somebody really should get rid of that!” he huffed aloud. That turned heads. He quickly resumed the intriguing conversation with Nobody as he sloshed his way into the office building.
So the morning routine re-began, and this morning he was even more positive about nothing than he was the previous day.
“Beyond a shadow of a doubt!” he exclaimed, evidently in the midst of a law-related delusion. Perhaps he was a lawyer…or maybe even a judge? Certainly his new suit could defend this fantasy — he caught his reflection in the mirrored window of a building and my, he looked smart! Lost in the day’s victorious start, he hardly noticed that, once again, he was failing to attract attention. He also did not notice his change for the meter tracing a trail behind him as it discreetly exited his new jacket through a designer hole. And he almost did not notice that damned anthill, but it was such a jarring break in the uniformity of the environment that the self-appointed judge was compelled to drop his gavel in the form of a patent plastic shoe.
Disgusting, primitive creatures! he thought, crushing the anthill with clumsy contempt. Building with DIRT. His thoughts flashed to the beautiful concrete, glass and steel that surrounded him. Surely in this modern era we have some kind of poison that can rid our streets of such eyesores! As if in response, his signature bead of pungent sweat punctuated this angry musing, dripping off his downturned face to soak one of the ants.
“If Somebody else won’t get rid of this, I will!” he blurted. This unusual display of initiative was a surprise even to him — but not quite enough to shake him from his rant. In fact, he would hardly have noticed the heads that had turned to watch this spectacle had his phone not rang…and it did, directly in his ear, where it was still propped up for fake conversation.
With a new day came a different tone: he was consumed by a thought other than his morning pageant. He was fixated on the previous day’s destruction of the anthill.
Ugly, nasty, flimsy little thing. I showed them! He congratulated himself and almost forgot his cell phone on the seat of his MMW. Today he held it not to his ear, but rather in his hand, wielding it like some strange weapon…today he was a soldier, ready for combat (less G.I. and more G.Q., of course). He approached the spot on the sidewalk, expecting the wreckage from the previous day. And he did not notice the people staring at him as he walked, nose to the ground, “weapon” in tow.
Closer…closer…surely the anthill was gone! But as he grew nearer he caught it in his sights — the new hill was twice as big as yesterday’s, a legion of blood-red ants working in robotic synchronization as they excavated yet more dirt from the crack in the concrete. He quietly fumed, surveying the scene with contempt. They had managed to rebuild…they worked together like a machine…look at them all in line…
“Commies,” he grumbled under his breath. “Communists in EXOSKELETONS!”
His tone exploded to a yell, the shrapnel of his rant assaulting the ears of passersby. He stomped the hill and its little, armored architects. “Take that! And that! That’ll teach you to invade my space!”
Invaded space, indeed. That afternoon brought a most unexpected occupation: dirt and leaves lounging in fancy cars, branches sitting alongside their more refined cousin, the pencil, on desks in executive suites. As if in retaliation to his morning attack, the separation between man’s world and the natural world was redrawn by a moody fault line. Concrete was mere talcum. Beautiful glass was shattered across the street like crumbs. Sturdy steel was mangled and tangled. And his world had collapsed around him.
“Why?” he whimpered, staggering across the street. His shirt was torn and he was missing a shoe — his stomping shoe. Disoriented, he looked up and around…and around…and around, spinning clumsily like a warped LP. His daze was abruptly broken by acute pain in his big toe, numbness supplanted by a sudden panic — was the toe broken? He’d been stumbling around on it, probably did irreparable damage by now! Or had he stepped in glass? Surely it was deeply imbedded! He half expected to see blood when he looked down at his foot.
He saw a red mass. It was not liquid, though it flowed with the same urgency. It was a throng of ants, surging from their hill like lava from a volcano. The anthill was bigger than ever, an empire at the height of its prosperity, and his foot was planted at its perimeter — too close, obviously, for comfort, as a single ant was perched on his toe, steadfast mandibles chomping at the flesh exposed by a rip in his sock. Surprisingly, the rest of the army was headed not for the fetid meat treat, but was instead busy expelling the last of the dirt that had disturbed their dwelling during the morning attack. The “primitive” creatures seemed to somehow sense that now was no time for petty action; there was real business to tend to, and his foot, though a repugnant roadblock, was but a peripheral concern.
He did not make an effort to rid his toe of the ant or to destroy the hill — it was his only compass, and its familiarity was strangely comforting in this newly-remodeled world. The sensation of pain subsided and he became lost in what seemed to be reflection — in the absence of mirrored buildings, it can only be theorized that the empty space between his ears was, for the first time, filled.
Something else familiar survived the quake: his phone, which was ringing in his pocket. Force of habit overtook him as he fumbled to remove the irrelevantly hip, modern device. He began to check the number…hesitated…
He let it keep ringing. It was Nobody important.
*Image by Tasica Singleton
About four in the afternoon or so is when the fog started rolling over the hills of the peninsula, at first just sending out whispy fingers that crept down the east side of the slopes. It was as ifit were hesitant to commit, feeling its way along slowly and nervously before gaining momentum and finally sprawling over the lower lands like rumpled flannel sheets. Up along the few mile stretch of beach there were no hills to stand in its way and it began to crawl freely between the perfect square blocks of drab one and two story houses. The fog came more often than not, yet was not always expected. One might look up at the dwindling sunlight to see the thick cords of vapor tightening across the city’s skyline and feel surprise, if only for a second, before turning away and thinking “I guess it’s gonna be foggy today.”
That day the fog came in especially heavy so that instead of resting at a distance above the city, it was within, oozing down from the rooftops and through the alleyways. It was so thick it seemed to be holding all of the buildings up and in place. It was so thick each person was like an island unto himself, occasionally brushing past one another, but able to walk freely in anonymity.
A young couple, fingers loosely clinging together, walked down past the Haight Street housing project. They were both dressed simply yet stylishly in thick wool coats, black leather shoes, and scarves that burst from the collar. They talked loudly and comfortably but there was a snap to their step that brought their heels down sharply against the sidewalk. As they were crossing Webster they heard sirens suddenly, as if popping through the fog once close enough to hear. As quickly as it had come it vanished, the ambulance becoming nothing more than faint red strobes in the milky cloud.
They kept going down Haight and didn’t see the figure standing there, halfway down the block, teetering a bit from foot to foot. He had on a black knit beenie rolled up part of the way and dark ratty braids dangled down from under it. His skin was as black as the beanie and where it was once smooth and tight along his strong cheekbones it now hung worn and wrinkled. He wore an overcoat a few sizes too big, open all the way down, and a red Christmas sweater with a photo of an Asian child dressed in a Santa Claus outfit printed across the front. He stood there in the fog, an island reaking of crack, and the couple didn’t notice until they almost ran into him.
“…I just don’t understand, this is the time when the third world is hit the hardest,” the young man was explaining, “with all the developed countries’ governments pulling back on aid and energy prices going up how can we expect them to build lasting stability…”
“HEY! Wanna know three times a hundred and twenty seven?” the tattered man interrupted.
“Three eighty one! How about a dollar?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t have any,” the young woman said as they both slapped their pockets and shuffled slowly past him.
“How about twenty three squared? Five twenty nine! I’m like a calculator. How about a dollar a figure?”
“Uhh.” They looked at each other quickly and then down at the sidewalk as they continued up the street.
“Okay, fine, two for one! How ’bout it?”
But they were already past him, his words struggling after them through the fog until they were too far and they were alone again. After a few blocks they stopped to look at the menu outside a small Indian restaurant. Content to keep searching, they walked on down the block until they were lost in the milky haze.