Paper Dreams

I hadn’t seen Haddis in a very long time. He’d disappeared some five years ago. It had started with excuses. He was sick. He had to work late. His cat needed surgery. And then, the excuses became more complicated: the weather man said there was a thunder storm and his umbrella was broken (and he didn’t have $5 to buy one) or his neighbor needed help fixing a broken faucet in the unit next door and it would take awhile because he also had to run to the hardware store to buy a wrench.

Then I stopped asking, and he didn’t reach out. I could take a hint.

That night I saw him, he was sitting on the street, his back to the dirty brick facade, his clothes rumpled, a paper bag in one hand and the Daily News in the other. I wouldn’t have recognized him, but he called out my name.

“Hey hey, well if it isn’t Chuck Lauder. How ya doin’ buddy?”

I squinted and shoved my gloved hands in the pockets of my trench coat. “Haddis? Is that you?”

“‘Tis me alright.” He took a swig out of the paper bag and grinned. His bottom teeth were black, and even in the dim lamplight, I could see that his skin had a waxy, yellow pallor. He rubbed his graying beard.

“What happened to you? Where’s Turtle?”

“Awe, man, Turtle died a couple years ago. That cat was old. Lived a long sixteen years, that one did.”

I don’t know why my first concern was the cat.

He offered me the bag with a grunt.

“No, thanks.” I frowned, and noticed suddenly that I was cold. I wondered if Haddis could feel how chilly it was tonight. “What are you doing out here? Do you need help?”

“Nah. I’m good. Got rid of all my stuff. You know, those possessions that weigh us down, keep us trapped in society’s expectations of what we should be like. Got rid of all that, man. I’m free as a bird.”

He made a flapping gesture with his hands, the newspaper forgotten and fluttering onto the ground near his boots which were splattered with white paint.

I didn’t like the cloudy look in Haddis’ jaundice eyes. They used to be electric, especially when we talked about the future. We’d had such dreams those first few years as traders. We were going to make a ton of cash, just like in Wall Street. Haddis was going to buy a place in the Hamptons after he’d married a trophy wife with big tits. I’d drive up to see them in a silver, 1969 Corvette wearing a custom, Italian suit.

None of those things happened, but that wasn’t the point.

And what was Haddis doing now? Sitting on the street, drinking. Jesus, I thought. That could have been me.

“Haddis, my man, let’s get some dinner.” I offered him my hand.

Haddis hesitated, then took it.

The Visitor

As I trace the gentle curve of the path, my mind is flooded with memories of the garden as it once was — manicured with hedges trimmed into swirling pillars and spear heads. I see the roses bushes with pink and red blooms, the violets creeping in the shade and ivy climbing the stone walls. The sky seemed infinitely blue, the air always crisp, the shade always adequately cool. I used to sit on that stone bench in the corner, facing the mansion and read books — whatever suited my fancy, though I especially liked Keats. I recall feeling content. For how could life be improved? It could not.

The garden is now overgrown, dying and dead. The rose bushes have grown wild, some buds with drooping petals and others brown and dried. The violets have shriveled, and the ivy has perished, leaving only shriveled vines in its stead. My stone bench fell over one night in a storm many years ago and remains cracked and broken. The loveliness I once beheld has become worn, impossible to maintain.

The costs are ballooning and have been growing since after World War I. Today, the gardeners ask for $2,500 a week. Coupled with the housecleaning and the butler, accountant and lawyer, the taxes, daily expenses, I was nearly broke. So I stopped spending the way one ought to when keeping watch over a grand estate, and am now tasked with bearing witness to the death of the old way of life.

I do the gardening, wash the dishes and put away the pantry items. I sweep and take out the garbage. I repair what I can around the house, and if I can’t fix it myself, I shut the door and seal off the wing. I have locked away my silver away and china place settings, all twelve. No one comes anymore to dine off of gold-plated china hand painted in London. I no longer have a butler or a lawyer, though I did keep on a small-time accountant in town to help with my books. I thought it prudent. My only luxury is a housekeeper who comes once a week. She doesn’t speak English very well, but her work is fair.

I remember when it was not like this; when I could afford to live well. Back then I wore kitten heels and kid gloves, a velvet jacket in autumn, an ermine coat in winter and lace imported from Denmark in summer. And as I walked past the blooms in my garden, the rose bushes brushed my skirts and the eyelets of my laces pulled on the hems. But I knew the the stitches would hold, for my dress was made by a shrewd tailor in Hamilton. I’d asked him to secure my garments with extra care. Looking at me from behind his bottle cap glasses, he’d confessed that he used hatters glue in addition to the extra stitches. I gave him a tip for that, and for his secrecy. No one needed to know that I found clothes of that time too delicate for my physique, for I have never been a swallow.

The garments today are looser fitting and all prêt–à–porter, or in other words — poorly made. I wear a gray sweater with a hole in the collar and pulled yarn at the cuffs. My T-shirt has shrunk and is misshaped, my pants fit awkwardly. It doesn’t matter. No one is watching me. As I walk, my sturdy boots crunch the dead foliage beneath my feet I think about that. I wonder — am I truly alone? Am I like my dead garden? A corpse keeping time until my internment? Suddenly, I want to go back inside and pick up the razor blade that I know sits on the bathroom sink. I want to cut myself to see my own blood. I touch the underside of my forearm where I know the scars hide.

“Hetta!” my housekeeping woman calls from the house, as if in answer to my question. “Hetta! You have a visitor.”

I place my hands on my hips, my feet a good distance apart and yell back. “Who? Who is it?”

“He says his name is Paul. He says he’s your son!”

My son? I furrow my brows. My son died in Hungary in 1350. And his name was not Paul. It was Ferenc. His name was Ferenc. Such a good boy. Of course I remember.

Playing the Rabbit

Standing in front of the gate at the crowded bus terminal, Stuart opened his wallet and fished for a paper bus pass. He frowned. The buss pass was gone. Where was it? It had been there a moment ago. He’d checked his wallet before he left his apartment.

Through the smudged terminal windows tinted brown, Stuart could see the bus was pulling into the station. He felt his armpits grow damp beneath his tuxedo jacket. If he didn’t make this bus, he was going to miss the opening; the maestro would start without him.

He should have just left Sadie’s puke on his bed. He could have cleaned it up when he got back, though by that time, it would have soaked through his sheets, into the mattress and the stench of cat puke would have permeated his 600 square foot one-bedroom. His mouth tightened. He gripped the handle of his instrument case, then turned to a mole-eyed woman behind him.

“Do you mind if I step out for a moment? I seem to have lost my bus pass and need to buy another.”

The woman’s lower lip jutted out in contemplation as her shoulders tugged upwards to her ears. “Better hurry. We won’t wait.”

Stuart gave her a weak smile and hurried towards the bank of machines across the terminal. There was only one man ahead of him and two ticket dispensers. The odds were in his favor. He would make it.

“For godsake!” said the man at the machine. He kicked it, his pot-belly waggling, then rubbed his balding head. He moved to the second machine without glancing at Stuart.

“Excuse me,” Stuart said. “I’m going to miss my bus if I don’t get a ticket now. Could I budget? I’m in the symphony; I play the piccolo.”

“You play the rabbit? What’s that?”

“No, not the rabbit. The piccolo.”

The man inhaled and frowned. “Well, I’ve never heard of the rabbit, but you’re probably going to miss your bus. Both of these stupid machines keep breaking.”

“It’s the piccolo, not the rabbit. And what do you mean, they keep breaking?”

The man shrugged. “Dunno. One looks like it’s working, then it doesn’t give me tickets. Then the other one takes my card, but times out. Then the first one re-boots. Like musical chairs or something.”

Stuart felt his stomach sink at the thought of his chair — the first chair – sitting empty as the rest of the orchestra tuned their instruments. The maestro wouldn’t tolerate him being late. He’d probably lose his place.

“Can I try?” Stuart offered.

“Sure. Maybe you’ll have better luck.” The man punched the machine again for good measure.

Stuart tucked his piccolo case under his arm, then moved his fingers deftly across the screen. He swiped his credit card and looked back. The passengers were already boarding the bus.

“Wait! Can you hold the bus?!” he shouted.

No one seemed to hear. The passengers continued to shuffle forward. The machine chittered as it decided whether or not to dispense a ticket.

“Come on. Come on.” Stuart drummed his fingers against the side of the machine.

Finally, a ticket fluttered into the tray, just as the bus began to pull away.

*

He wasn’t going to give up that easily. He knew he could catch the bus if he could beat it to the next stop. And it was possible, provided that the traffic was just slow enough, which it should be at rush hour.

Stuart slipped the newly purchased ticket into his jacket pocket, then dashed towards the escalator.

“Hey buddy!” the pot-bellied man called after him.

Stuart ignored him. He hurried down the escalator, dashed the revolving doors and onto the busy street, already dark with the fledgling night. The evening had turned cold, and the wind had picked up, gathering steam through the straight streets flanked by skyscrapers, banks and bodegas.

The bus was just up ahead, idling at a red light. Failure wasn’t an option. He ran, dress shoes clapping against the sidewalk.

“Excuse me.” he said as he hurried through the thick crowds. “Excuse me.” He was swimming upstream. He flattened himself to slip between slow walkers, and someone’s soft, fat body thumped against him. “Sorry,” he muttered, even though it wasn’t his fault. A gust of wind blew a page from the Times against his leg. He shook it off deftly and pushed passed a gaggle of tourists.

“Hey, watch it!” said a woman wearing a blue windbreaker. “These New Yorkers are in such a hurry. Always, ‘I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!'”

The bus was just up ahead, idling at a red light on the next block. Stuart came to the corner. The walk sign changed. He looked to his left, hoping that he could skirt across the street. He stepped off the curb just as a trail of taxis burst by, honking.

Breathing heavily, he withdrew his foot and waited. Two trucks barreled through the intersection. Then, a brief break in the traffic. Stuart made a beeline.

The red light changed to green, and the bus began to accelerate. “Wait!” he cried, waving his hands. “Wait!”

The bus began to slow. Was the driver actually stopping? Stuart couldn’t believe it. What luck!

He reached the door. It swung open. The driver, sweaty and bored-looking, glared at him impatiently.

“Thank you so much,” he said. Grinning, Stuart reached into his pocket for his ticket. It was where it should have been, warm from his mad dash. He was going to make it before the curtain after all.

The driver closed the doors, and the bus accelerated. Stuart gripped the railing to steady himself. He fell into and empty seat right next to the mole-eyed woman at the bus terminal. She ignored him and flipped through an entertainment magazine with a cover touting a new TV show. The headline read, “Where’s Your Rabbit?”

Stuart felt his stomach drop. He looked down at his hands. They were empty. He’d left his piccolo at the machines in the bus station.

“No.”

The wind gusted again as the bus slowed alongside the curb of the next stop. Stuart lept up.

What Amory Showed Me

The orb glowed as Amory touched it with his index finger. His body was inverted, upside down, as if he was in a one-armed handstand, the sides of his patent leather dress shoes touching, his top hat still clinging to his head.

I stood back, leaning against the railing of the footbridge, clutching my purse and forgetting for a moment that behind us was a well manicured park with couples strolling arm in arm, kids playing ball and dogs strutting vigorously beside their masters. I was focused on Amory and the impossibility of his predicament.

“Do you see?” he said. “The Earth’s energy draws us upwards, always upwards, but gravity keeps us rooted to the ground. By eliminating gravity, our natural state is to float, like the air, molecules, atoms that surround us.”

I could find no words, but I watched as he continued to focus on the orb and drew one arm to his waist, as if this movement would help him balance better on the single finger that propped him up. His feet swayed and the fabric on his pants pulled upwards, towards the sky.

“This orb,” Amory said, his face reddening as he strained to balance. “This orb blocks gravity.”

“It’s unbelievable,” I said. “How — how did you come upon it?”

He let out a small gasp as his arm began to shake. He brought the palm of his hand onto the orb, then bent his arm and slowly lowered his legs to the ground. As he removed his hand from the strange and fascinating object, it stopped glowing, as if he had flipped a switch.

He smiled at me. “What do you think Myra? Do you think we have a scientific discovery?”

“I would say so.” My voice shook as I realized this would make us famous. “But you must tell me exactly how it works.”

Word on the Street: Sophie-Style

This is Part I of a series of interviews from my column “Word on the Street”, which appears every Sunday in the culture newsfeed of the Old Chicago Herald at oldchicagoh.rd25. My stories are with real people from our very own district — those with diverse backgrounds, who bring color to our otherwise drab city.

I interviewed Sophie Schuller at the Wells Alley Cafe after her night shift at a botanical engineering nursery in nearby suburb of GlenGlenPark. I see her at the Wells from time-to-time, often accompanied by a young man in dark eye makeup and silver dyed hair. Sophie herself always wears a black, loose-fitting dress with hot pink leg warmers.

One this particular night, she sat alone at the counter. After I explained who I was, she invited me to sit.

M: What’s up with the leg warmers?

S: They’re my disguise for my cyber detective business.

M: I looked up your stats already. You aren’t a detective.

S: Well, this is boring already.

M: Sorry. I didn’t mean to be a kill bird.

S: I hate that expression.

M: Can we start over?

S: Sure. I guess. I don’t know. I’m sort of tired and want to go home. But sure. You’re kind of cute.

M: Thanks. We could do this another night.

S: I have double shifts the rest of the week. Can anyone say Fish Food?

M: Very funny. Okay. Let’s start.

S: I wasn’t joking. You need Fish Food to stay awake that long without going nuts. But go ahead.

M: On what occasions do you lie?

S: That’s tough. When I’m around Angel – my boyfriend. It’s hard to open up with him because he’s lost in his own world and everything revolves around him.

M: You sound unhappy about that.

S: I wouldn’t say it makes me unhappy, but it makes me feel like wallpaper maybe.

M: He’s the one with the eye makeup, right?

S: Yeah, that’s him.

M: How did you two meet?

S: I work at a nursery. I sold him two perfectly engineered ornamental shrubs. You know — the kind with orange berries. I forgot what they’re called.

M: So you like plants?

S: Yeah, I like being around plants. As you can see, there aren’t many of them left. I mean there are private gardens and some public rooftop ones of course, but I get depressed when I can’t be in nature.

M: Don’t we all. Do you have any plans for the future?

S: No, I’m a realist. I won’t become the next great whatever. All that I hope is that I can get by, live modestly with someone who respects me.

M: Is that Angel?

S: I’m not sure.

M: Tell me about your background.

S: I was born in sector 3 in Old Chicago. I never knew my dad. My mom worked at a memory card factory. Sixteen hour shifts, 7 days a week. I hardly saw her. I feel like my life has basically become the same deal.

M: What’s your motto?

S: I don’t know. I guess I don’t have one. Maybe avoid conflict.

M: What’s your most prized possession?

S: Probably my art history book. I got it in high school and keep it on my shelf. Sometimes I take it down and flip through it.

M: What’s your favorite art?

S: This sounds weird, but I really like ancient Persian art and murals. It’s like time traveling.

M: Great. Thanks for your time Sophie Schuller.

S: Is that it? You wanna stay for some kava tea?

M: I’d like that.

 

Hunger and Death

“Well, should we go inside?” Gillian asked Pol.

“Yes, I think we should.”

Yet they both remained still. The reggae song ended, the remains of the final notes carried by the wind until there was no longer any sound at all, except for the quivering red plants.

Only then did Gillian and Pol began to walk towards the station, slowly and with caution. The grass and dead leaves crunched under foot. The sun moved behind a cloud, and the station became easy to see. Weeds sprouted up around the perimeter, and Gillian could make out a tear in the silver siding of one of the compartments, which appeared to be caused by a great, crimson tree that had fallen on it. The section to sagged under its weight. Gillian drew her tablet out of her pack and took a picture, then flipped to the next page and scrawled a note on the location and condition with her finger.

It was not a basic station; that was clear.  The astronauts who built it had brought a much larger kit, one that appeared to be twelve sections total instead of the usual four. Each compartment was connected to the other, octagonal in shape with a domed ceiling made out of the tough, silver siding that could hold both heat and cool air.

“They must have meant to stay a very long time,” Gillian said as they began to circle the station, slowly, inspecting it for further damage.

“They all died, so I guess they did stay.”

“We don’t know that they died. They just stopped sending log entries.”

“Why would they stop communicating if they weren’t dead?” Pol touched another tear in the siding, examining it to see if it could be patched together with sealant.

“I don’t know. Maybe they … decided to strike out on their own.” Gillian noted the tear in her tablet before moving on.

“I doubt it. There were thirty crew. That’s a huge mission, and a NISS invested a lot of money. I don’t think they’d all agree to leave. No way. This is Jamestown. I can smell it.”

“I think it was called Jonestown. The one where everyone drank poison?”

“No. The one where everyone just disappeared from the colony in Virginia.” Pol frowned. “Or what that called Roanoke?”

Gillian couldn’t recall. Regardless, it had been nearly forty years since the last contact with the crew of Star Taker. Reports seemed to suggest that the ship and its crew had vanished two years after landing on Latmos. The station’s computer had gone into auto mode and had been maintaining — or trying to maintain — its basic systems since then.

Suddenly, she heard a pressure seal release from one of the station’s air locks. Pol tensed. Gillian froze. Her ears searched for a subsequent sound, but the forest was silent. From their position, she couldn’t make out where the noise came; the honeycomb shape of the station with its octagonal walls made it difficult to tell. And yet the noise had definitely been an airlock. She had no doubt. The only question was, which one? There was one airlock per compartment.

Gillian gestured to Pol that she was going around the side of the structure. He nodded and indicated he’d take the opposite direction. She turned and treaded silently, tracing the wall of the station with her back and hands, craning her neck to see around the next turn.

As she crept to the front near the main airlock, she saw a man with a pack walking away, his pace hurried. She blinked. Her breath caught in her chest. She could hardly believe it.

“Wait!” she cried. “Stop! Who are you? NISS Search here! Captain Gillian Penn.”

The man turned at her words and looked at her as she hurried to catch him. As she approached, she slowed. His eyes shimmered like stars on a shifting sea, but his face of one who was starving; shrunken lips, jutting cheekbones, sunken sockets and hungry white teeth that seemed to chatter involuntarily.

“Don’t come too close,” the man said, taking a step back as he rubbed his shaved head with his hand. He wore faded gray pants issued by NISS with tapered ankles and snaps along the side. But the blue and red NISS patch and had been torn off, and a piece of day glow tarp had been stitched in its place.

“Who are you?” Gillian repeated, stopping some paces away. She could hear Pol approach.

“I should ask the same of you,” the man said.

“Captain Gillian Penn and Flight Lieutenant Pol Wladkowski of NISS – the National Institute of Space Science. We came on the ship Search.

“A fitting name — Search. Welcome to Latmos. There’s nothing here except hunger and death.”

“You must identify yourself,” Pol said. Gillian saw out of the corner of her eye that Pol’s hand was on his holster.

“I don’t have to do anything anymore. You’re the ones who are intruding. This is my home.” The man looked at Pol’s gun, his expression unreadable.

“You live in the station?” Gillian said.

“I used to.”

“Are you one of the crew of Star Taker?” Pol asked, his hand gripping the gun.

The stranger glanced between them. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Pol stepped closer, his face tight, the gun at his side. “Yes, you do. You’re the flight lieutenant, aren’t you? Sharp. Desmond Sharp.”

Gillian frowned. That wasn’t possible.

“I have no such recollection,” the man said.

“You’re lying.” Pol’s fingers worked the safety on the gun.

“This man can’t be from the Star Taker,” Gillian said. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s been forty years. He’d be an old man.”

“Listen to your Captain,” the man said.

“Oh, I know who he is. Gillian, don’t you remember? From the photo aboard the Search before we crashed. It’s him. He’s the Star Taker’s flight lieutenant.”

The man’s face remained still, unblinking. His eyes brilliant, listening, studying them. Despite having the look of a man who was starving, his face was unlined, ageless, without worry. “I have no memory of being a flight lieutenant,” he said slowly, with care. “You are the flight lieutenant. I’m just Sharp. I don’t have a title or a rank.”

“See? I told you,” Pol said. “I don’t know how or why, but it’s him.”

“There’s no way.” Gillian’s mind was working. It couldn’t be the same flight lieutenant. It didn’t make sense. She hoped she was in a dream, a strange and bizarre nightmare in which she would wake up and find herself knocked out cold from the crash. The alternative — trying to explain in her NISS report that a Lieutenant Desmond Sharp was alive and hadn’t aged a day seemed more terrible than anything. They’d no doubt think she was crazy and strip her of her post, unless she could force him to explain this to NISS on his own accord. And then the implications were mind boggling.

The man — Sharp — nodded towards the station. “Sometimes I go there just to listen to music. I miss music. But there’s hardly anything left worth taking. We used all of the supplies ages ago.”

“We were going to set up camp inside,” Pol said.

Sharp looked thoughtful. “It’s a good place to sleep for a night or two. Just to get out of the cold. The temperature drops at night when the wind starts blowing. But I wouldn’t stay there if I were you.”

“Why wouldn’t you stay?” Gillian asked.

“The crew became … deranged.” Sharp’s eyes drifted to the station. “Five of them slit their own throats in the barracks. The others got hungry and started to eat each other. One by one. Until I was the only one left.”

Gillian and Pol exchanged glances.

“So, did you … eat them too?” For the first time, Pol sounded frightened. His arm was still holding the gun, but he hadn’t pointed it at Sharp. Not yet.

“I did what I could to stay alive. You would have done the same.” Sharp paused. “You can put the gun away. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Pol didn’t move, but Gillian knew him well enough to know that unless Sharp became a threat, he wouldn’t shoot. Pol was wondering how it was that Desmond Sharp was standing before them, and what had happened exactly.

“Are there more of you?” Sharp asked. “Usually with a ship is a crew.”

“The crew is dead. We crashed,” Gillian said.

“Are you sure? Are they really all dead? Did you see their bodies?”

Pol cleared his throat. “Well, mostly yes. Two were thrown from the ship upon impact. There’s no way they could have survived.”

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that Latmos is an extremely unusual place. I wouldn’t consider them dead until you’ve seen it with your own eyes.”

Silence passed between them. Sharp adjusted his pack and looked back towards the red forest where he’d been headed. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back. It’ll be dark soon, and I don’t want to be caught in the cold.”

He turned and walked away.

“When will we see you again?” Pol called after him.

“Don’t worry,” Sharp said. “I know where to find you.”

They stood side-by-side and watched him go, too dumbstruck to think of anything else to say. If Gillian was to draw any conclusion, it was that Sharp had gone crazy.