“That’s the thing about this city. It’s better to have things done early, ” Brian’s landlord warned. “You have to pay rent if you want a place to stay. Tomorrow! On time!” The landlord’s guttural emphasis drifted as Brian floated through an agitated night’s sleep. Toxic yellow sunlight infiltrated his weary dreams.
He threw his blankets aside, hurried to a window, parted the curtains. Ash was falling from the sky again. Sunlight meagre as it was, hushed shadows into nocturnal hiding places. He peered outside. He had no idea what the time was. No one did any more. It was impossible to discern hours from this weary sunlight.
Brian burrowed through the laundry basket, chose the fetid shirt over the one with the tomato juice stain on the front. He picked up his ID card from the table at the front door, slipped it into his back pocket and tip-toed out the apartment. His landlord was a psychic at intercepting residents and Brian owed him rent money. His landlord’s apartment being the one adjacent to his hindered his clandestine ambitions. He had not yet arrived at the stairway entrance before he heard a heavy accented accusation, “Hey you!”
Brian turned to see his landlord standing before his own apartment door. “You owe me money!”
The landlord was a craftsman of unequalled skill. He repaired and re-built triumphantly. But, he was not a bright man. Brian noticed the newspaper he had tucked under his armpit; the exact newspaper he had there every day. Ink stained his arm and the side of his brown vest. Brian, a qualified improviser, said convincingly, “I pay rent on the 9th Mr. Melnik. That was our agreement because I get my pay on the 8th. Remember?”
“Ya, 9th today!”
“Today’s the 6th, Mr. Melnik. Check your newspaper there.” Mr. Melnik removed the folded newspaper from his damp armpit and flipped it open; soggy pieces flew away. Mr. Melnik turned the paper upside down. His face suffered a brief spasm, and he said, “Yes. On the 9th! Don’t be late!”
“I won’t.” Brian turned to the stairway, ready to sprint, but Mr. Melnik froze him to the spot with this perennial statement, “I do good work.” He pointed to the elevator with the juicy newspaper. “The elevator. I fix.” Not wanting to appear unsympathetic, Brian waited for a more inconspicuous moment to depart. “Yes, you do good work Mr. Melnik. Everyone here is very grateful.” Brian turned, ready to bolt.
“Why things in City so hard?” Mr. Melnik said sadly, solidifying Brian to the same spot.
“I don’t know Mr. Melnik.”
“Come and see,” the landlord said, waving Brian toward him. A bitter mustard stench grew gradually wrathful as Brian approached. With every step an irrational certainty grew that the landlord was going to try give him a hug; Brian’s pace slowed. “Come and see,” he encouraged, waving faster.
“Look,” said the landlord pointing into his apartment. “My wife.” Through the gloomy atmosphere Brian saw a woman, designed of spectacularly voluptuous architecture, scribbling frantic notes onto a bookkeeping ledger. A fiery cigarette dangled from her mustachioed upper lip, appendages of smoke drifted up the sides of her face. As she muttered to herself ash fell from the tip of the cigarette and floated onto the pages below.
“This no way for people to live. Me and my wife come to The City after The Flip because this place promise us jobs,” Lamented the landlord. “The Flip” to which he alluded was the geomagnetic reversal of the earth’s poles. An event that, until recently was thought to span tens of thousands of years, had occurred in merely a century and, according to scientists, was but half way there. Circumstances were declining.
“I’m better off in the Flood Lands. No pollution,” said Mr. Melnik. This helpless immigrant came from a region gravely impacted by The Flip.
With nothing more substantial to say than he was sorry Brian said, “I’m sorry Mr. Melnik.”
“No! Not Melnik,” the Landlord grumbled. “Says it Melnyk.” He waited for Brian to hazard the pronunciation again. Brian obliged him with a hopeful, “Melnik.”
“No,” The landlord hesitated, studying Brian for any signs of mockery. The children in the apartments made fun of his English.
“Melnyk,” Brian attempted concertedly.
“Ya!” Celebrated the landlord. “Ya!” Brian permitted the hug for two reasons:
1.) He felt sorry for the him.
2.) The old man was deceptively light-footed.
Brian endured his odiferous brown vest by holding his breath. Mercifully, he managed to squirm away from juicy asphyxiation by worming his way out of the man’s hairy chest. He ran to the stairway door.
“Hey! Use elevator! I fix!”
“No thanks. I need the exercise.” Brian sprinted through the doorway before Mr. Melnyk could open his mouth to speak again.
When Brian arrived at the front door of the apartment building he realized he was still holding his breath. He waited for the rapid rise and fall of his chest to slow. Grease and ash coated the glass outside. Barely visible was the name of the apartments frosted onto the glass.
Once a luxuriant hotel, now converted to General Population Settlements (GPS). After The Flip masses of people evacuated The City, resulting in an inundation of destitute, lower-income populations.
Brian opened the door slenderly; peered outside. It was difficult to gauge the time. Ash fell from the sky like dirty snow. Cataract sunlight seeped through the pollution. These days, unceasingly. With the earth no longer spinning on its intended axis, night no longer occurred. The sun at its zenith scarcely broke the horizon. A disorienting waxing and waning of stingy sunlight constituted daily cycles. Brian waited, watched. He did not have to wait long. A curfew sentinel rattled past; a rudimentary machine that administered harsh City Justice to any citizen outside after estimated 11pm (11EPM.) They were of iron construction the height of Brian’s chest. Essentially a simple furnace on wheels, hollow inside, but for the top half where gears and the incomprehensible workings of cogs and sprockets provided the mechanisms to turn the wheels. Below this an anthracite coal fire roared and supplied the steam-power to work the gears above. Brian waited for it to pass. The road, long ago left to ruin, crunched and splintered under the weight of its steel wagon wheels. A hiss of steam burst from an exhaust at its round ceiling. Close enough to see the bronze tag bolted to the back of its hideous head Brian read the words there:
Property of City Iron Company .
Vandalism will be met with the fullest extent of City Law.
Curfew had hopefully passed, regardless, these beasts were known to malfunction, and they administered mindless justice with the use of a rudimentary proprietary, intelligence and scalding hot steam fired from valves at their base.
Brian waited until he could no longer hear it. He covered his nose and mouth with a bandanna, pulled the knot behind his head tight, slipped through the space in the doorway, disappeared into The City's radiation. As the train station grew nearer, the sound of an angry crowd grew steadily louder. With each turn of a corner an increased cacophony of incensed voices assaulted him. All at once he arrived at an impervious gathering of angry citizens obstructing the road.
“What’s going on?” Brian asked another passenger trying to make his way through.
“Railway workers’ strike,” he shouted through his mask. Another noise emerged. At first indistinct above the crowd’s lamentations. The pounding of combat boots, synchronized, marching, disciplined. The cruel drum of remorseless dictatorship echoed through the shadowed architecture surrounding the train station. Somebody shouted, “Police!”
Begrudgingly subdued by fear, the crowd abandoned revolution’s ideology and rapidly dispersed. Brian dodged the few remaining insurrectionists and entered the station and found his usual seat and waited for the train. He sat on the same bench every day. It had an unobstructed view of the station’s giant clock. Like all timepieces after The Flip it no longer worked. All the innards of every clock machine had collapsed under an unimaginable geo-magnetic intensity; one of the many enigmatic novelties The Flip had so cruelly dealt. Satellites not flung into outer space came crashing down to earth. Untold numbers littered the ocean floors. Many, like missiles of war, had speared buildings and crushed cars and pounded dam walls.
It was impossible to anticipate when the next train would arrive. No working time pieces survived. Upon its resurrection, The City decided it would not build any more clocks. Trains hurried non-stop along dedicated complexities covering the sprawled landscape. Despite this timeless existence Brian was late for work, he was certain of it. His employer, a violent ape-man known to his staff as “Chef” was going to be furious. The clock’s giant numbers smiled at him kindly. A single hand remained on the clock’s face: the slender second hand which like a victorious sword held aloft at the pinnacle of the next unbegun minute recounted the respect it had earned during its Halcyon days. Once proudly aligning passengers to their daily perseverances the clock now, eternally grand, eternally imposing, had no heartbeat. A warm breeze pushed through the railway tunnel in front of Brian. Litter and ash rolled out of the darkness; The train would arrive before long. He stood and plodded to the faded yellow line. The agony of screaming steel brought the grey locomotive before him. Passengers disembarked hurriedly, eager to achieve pointless purposes. Brian waited for them all to exit. Before stepping into the train, he glanced up at the wise face of the giant timepiece again. He aligned his perseverance with its victorious second hand and stepped into the quagmired humidity of the train car. It was an uncommon time to be on the train, 6EAM judging by the few numbers of passengers, he may arrive at work on time. Enough time to help Chef with Next Meal, as every meal had come to be called.
No sooner had the train initiated its arduous forward inertia, than it came to a shuddering halt with steel wheels grinding beneath the cars. Somewhere in the car behind Brian a petrified scream cut the air; man or woman Brian could not tell. A shrill police whistle announced the arrival of a law man who hurried past Brian’s window, square jaw set with the administration of his own concealed philosophy, he leapt the platform onto the train. Met there by two other law men, doppelgängers of himself, they hustled into a car. They re-appeared, all three, dragging a screaming woman by the hair, unsympathetic to her condition of heavy pregnancy.
Mercifully, the sight dwindled away as the train rolled forward, uninterrupted this time. Brian returned his ID card to his back pocket. Directly over the isle a man sat on a bench, reading a newspaper. He flipped the paper up to his face and between his fingers Brian read:
Reading skills necessary.
When he arrived at work, despite having no way to confirm it, Chef informed Brian he was late for work, again.
“What do you mean again? I’ve never been late before.” And this was true.
“Yes you have. One day you’re going to be late for your own funeral Brian.” Chef, standing at a stove, flipped a pan over a flame and disappeared behind a flash of fire. When the smoke parted Chef smirked, “Do you know what the number one stressful job in The City is, Brian?”
Before Brian could gamble an answer Chef roared, “The hospitality Industry! A chef!”
Chef owned the most popular restaurant in The City. He had come up with the ingenious idea to create a novelty restaurant: a culinary experience within the doldrums of The City. Affluent citizens from Outer Suburbs came to experience the location. Apparently, eating expensive cuisine within the belly of the beast was quite the fashion statement; no one came into The City any more.
“Yesterday the president of City Iron Company ate at table seven. Did you know that?” Brian knew that; he was one of the staff on duty, despite having asked for the day off for his birthday. “Do you know it’s a privilage to work here Brian?” Chef had contacts within City Lawmakers Guild, which allowed him to import food assumed impossible to procure, even at restaurants outside The City. His staff were afforded one-of-a-kind privileges: public transport exemptions, food rations, tax reductions. Brian needed this job. He needed the advantages that came with it.
“You’re fired,” Chef said.
“What! I wasn’t even late. Please, Chef I need this job,”
“No, you’re out.” Chef jerked his thumb at the back door. Brian hesitated. “Would you like me to have Karl show you the way?” Nearby, Karl’s tree trunk forearms suspended their dishwashing. Karl owned a neck that gave The Hangman nightmares.
“No, I know the way.” Disappointed, Carl dedicated himself to the bubbles before him once again.
Brian recalled the newspaper job. Reading was a scarce skill in The City.
The South City Herald offices were further down the same train line. Travelling that direction would put him far away from his apartment, and he risked being caught outside after curfew. He remembered Mr. Melnyk and the rent money he owed. Brian loitered back to the railway line and bordered the next train. He speculated it would not be much longer before Chef removed his name from the transport exemption list.
The drudgery of daylight fatigued, barely enough to lengthen the shadows. Again, the sun gathered feeble prosperity, and ever again laboured to a hardly changed state of twilight. Each shallow breath of daylight boded the inevitable danger of EPM10 curfew time. In its past life The South City Herald building had been a small-scale computer factory but not a single hard drive had survived The Flip. The front door to the South City Herald opened directly into a room filled with the pleasant smell of wood and not so pleasant smell of intoxicating ink. He entered into the chaos of the printing room.
“Goddammit Cindy!” roared a bald headed giant. “This paint is going to dry. Hurry girl!” In each hand this giant held what appeared to be leather balls, swollen, round as his own bald head. He rolled them together. Sticky black ink covered the voluminous surfaces between them.
A girl, presumably Cindy, hurried over holding what appeared to be a wooden picture frame filled with compact blocks made of letters; all lined up in tight rows. Cindy stumbled and, like dice, the letter blocks dislodged from the wooden frame and scattered to the floor. Intuitively Brian hurried to her, knelt onto one knee and helped her recover all the pieces, each the size of his thumbnail, square and unexpectedly heavy.
“Thank you,” she said sweetly and smiled at Brian with eyes filled with such Christmas candle nostalgia Brian knew what love was. In her haste to rearrange the letters in their correct sequence it did not occur to her that Brian should not be there. Cindy scuttled to where the giant impatiently waited and placed the tray of letters into the bottom jaw of a massive square frame, constructed entirely of wood. The bald giant squashed the ink between the leather balls one last time and pressed the ink from the round leather surfaces onto the letter blocks. He messaged ink over all the letters and Brian noticed for the first time the many hundreds of other letter blocks arranged in rows. “OK now the press,” said the giant. Cindy reached up and pulled the top half of the wooden frame onto the freshly inked letters. “Press,” encouraged the giant. “Harder girl!” Brian noticed for the first time the man had his leg heavily bandaged. “You!” he shouted at Brian. “Come here and help her!”
Without hesitation, “Yes!” Brian hurried over and assisted her by pulling the large wooden frame onto the blocks below. Satisfied, the giant said, “OK, now slowly let her go.” Together Brian and Cindy surrendered pressure. With greater affection the giant whispered, “Now slowly, ever so slowly, lift her up.” The delicate adhesion released with a soft sticky breath. Higher, with greater care they elevated the portrait. On a white sheet of paper pinned to the wooden frame floated the most graceful object Brian had ever seen. Words! Words that he had helped create. He marveled at the ingenuity.
“Who the hell are you,” the giant said, and as if he had magically appeared beside her, Cindy jumped aside with fright.
“I’m here for the job. The reporter position you advertised in the newspaper.” Cindy giggled.
“Let’s go into my office,” and Brian followed him as he limped to a humble room behind the letter machine.
“Is this a joke?” The giant accused.
“No,” said Brian feebly.
“The interviews are in three days. Says so right there!” He pushed his massive forefinger onto the newspaper on his desk. “Printed it myself.” The bald heavyweight rummaged inside a desk drawer and retrieved at wet cigar, sat down with a concerning shriek from his chair and lit his tobacco.
“Yes Sir.” Brian said.
“Don’t call me sir,” and he heaved his bandaged leg onto the table.
The giant’s face appeared out of a cloud of purple smoke. “You're too early kid,” said the giant chewing the cigar.
“Oh,” said Brian feebly. “Can I have the job anyway? I came a long way. On the train.”
The smoking hulk removed the cigar from his mouth. A skinny string of pearled saliva drooped between its end and his mouth, “Now why would I hire a reporter who doesn’t even know what day of the week it is?”
Brian, a qualified improviser, said cheerfully, “Well sir, that’s the thing about this city it’s better to have things done early.”
“When can you start?”