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Speaking in the City

“…cock was…” and then they were gone. He paused a moment, careful to keep his head forward, and extracted a small black notebook from his coat pocket. Scribbling quickly, he recorded: time, place, speech, clothing before tucking the small wire-bound book back into the recesses of his coat.

It had been this was for some time, now. If you asked him, he couldn’t say for certain. Sometimes he spent entire days walking the streets, recording conversations, gestures, even the sound of a baby crying. There was only one thing he was concerned with: tenderness, love. Something he couldn’t quite remember, as if it crept into his chest long ago and lost itself down the bloodstream, traveling across landscapes of bacteria and narrow passageways. He knew what he was looking for, and he couldn’t find it. If you asked him he would say I know what I need, I just can’t speak it.

His wife was dead. That much was certain─ though to say how long would be more difficult for him. Raising his head he saw leaves beginning to turn: at least six months; perhaps eighteen or thirty. The time didn’t matter; it rolled along day to day. He was unconcerned for the rising and setting of stars, though he enjoyed nighttime the best. Once the sun went down the air cooled; heat replaced by the glow of bodies. Sometimes it felt like he could feel them as he approached: around that corner will be a man and a women kissing goodnight over a motorcycle. He’ll smile and shake his left hand as he tightened the straps on his jacket. She will lower herself from her toes and the smile will vanish into disbelief, her lipstick smudged at the corner of her mouth: a gash in her skin left by momentary partings. He quickly took out his book, carefully recording the moment, the feel of her skin the cold air tossing her hair about in the pulse of the broken streetlight.

His boots were worn and his head was heavy. His head was always heavy: the weight of his walking and the frantic movement of his hands pounded against the concrete sidewalk.
This, of course, continued as it continued every night: clubs, bars, parks. If he was lucky he would come across a pair hidden in the bushes or behind the alleyway. Their nakedness his nakedness; their moans and muffled screams were his as soon as their sound expressed itself in his book. Soon he was back in a small room where he kept an unkempt bed and piles of papers. There were no photographs, though he would regale himself with tales of her beauty, now lost. Quickly he emptied his pockets: three pens and a pencil, ten dollars in small bills, a pair of matching pebbles taken from the spot where he watched a young couple fuck behind the 7-11, his phone (which never rang), and a small, broken pawn from a stone chess set he had found along his way.

The settlement after her death was a shock. No longer was he required to lift his hands on a keyboard programming strange languages to assign and complete tasks. He had once felt pride in his work, as if his children were successful. His programs worked, and he was good at what he did. None of it mattered anymore; he had a new goal in the cool nights and hidden places where he remained hidden from those he recorded so painstakingly.
Carefully, this night, he placed his little book on the shelf above his head next to countless identical bound notebooks. This one, tonight, was labeled “#123” in painstakingly careful black ink. He began his litany at dawn, beginning with “#1” onward. Small scraps of paper marked especially special entries. Carefully, he thumbed through his books, carefully replacing them on the shelf one by one. As the sun rose he quietly drifted to sleep, waiting for the next day.

Even if there were a sound, he would have ignored it. The sun was on its way down, passing the glory of “highest” hours ago, when he awoke as he awoke every day. Rising, he began the day’s work: coffee from the small kitchen, two eggs, a slice of burnt toast. His movements fluid and well-rehearsed, he drank his coffee and ate his eggs at his desk, opening an old computer to read email that was never there.

Carefully, once finished with his breakfast, he filled his pockets with things: his notebook (#123), pens, a pencil, his phone, a small bag of cranberries for later.

Something was wrong. He could feel the air full of electricity, as if he were not alone in his room. This was unsettling, and he shifted back and forth on the balls of his feet while rooting around his dwelling for a reason. Violently he threw open his one window and the tension became thick from outside.

His phone: he remembered. Slowly drawing the old but pristine mess of circuits from his pocket it was right in front of him:

SMS (865)-264-5683:  Have a good day. Remember, I love you!

Hesitantly he placed the phone back in his pocket and began the day.

Walking, as he always walked, was different. He even took the train back and forth, searching for a place that felt clean. The same feeling of tension was everywhere, and today he saw no couples kissing, no smiles, and certainly no fucking around the next corner. Something was wrong, he could tell. As he rode the train lines he vomited twice under his seat in the back of the train. It wasn’t until late in the day when he traveled to the end of the line when he found he could stomach the air around him. Stepping out on the platform, he saw the city disappearing, replaced by low-buildings and swaths of grass.

He wandered, holding his nose closed in the assault of what had now become a stench. He stared in saw at the people, busy, going about their evening hurrying home from work and school and the million reasons why people leave the house. He was familiar with them all: the mothers carrying children (the smell of sex never leaving their hard-fought small bodies), the business men in suits racing to some meeting with clients or girls of the night, teenagers skipping in decreasing light’s freedoms. He walked, yet there was no tenderness to be found, no love no sex nothing that would add to his collection of human yearnings.

For some time he stood at the edge of an everlasting intersection. Traffic flowed before him, cutting the air with the small of gasoline and exhaust. He breathed a sigh when a large industrial vehicle passed, releasing at that very moment a large cloud of smoke. He inhaled, the smell of the air’s refuse filling his head and masking the uncertainly prevailing the day.

It wasn’t until later (he couldn’t say when, exactly), when he passed a store displaying the evening news, that he understood the uneasiness in the air. On the screen a tight-faced woman seemingly too old to be tender spoke quietly, “…residents of the city received the same strange text message, authorities are currently investigating the situation. The Mayor released this public statement earlier today assuring us that there is no threat of terrorism:” The words rolled quickly down the screen, the Mayor’s confident voice forcing the words deeper into the screen, “It has come to the city’s attention that this morning at 5:43am every resident of the city received an electronic communication from an at-this-time unknown source reading: ‘Have a good day. Remember, I love you!’ While initial attempts to track this phone number are still underway, I assure all residents of the city that this is not linked to any known terrorist cell. Experts have also determined that no known code is represented by either the originating number or the message sent. We are working diligently to resolve this issue with all major service providers, who have volunteered additional resources to assist the city.”

He got on a train, soon after, and went back to his little room. No one was kissing, no one was fucking. When he was firmly home, he unwrapped a pair of old binoculars, hoping to catch a glimpse of some couple in the throws of passions. For some time he watched the people around him sitting, standing, eating, sleeping, talking, watching the television and defecating. There was nothing for him in them, anymore.

Days passed, perhaps a week. Every morning he woke to a new message on his phone from the name number, declaring the same love and joy and hope. Sometimes it was congratulatory, other times tender. Each morning was the same.

While his walks through the city remained unfruitful, he found himself at the end of the train line more often than not, where the smell of lost passions wasn’t as strong. Many times he considered relocating, getting as far from the city as he could. Yet every morning he remained in his little room. Now, he woke and made coffee and two eggs and checked his phone for the day’s missive.

More time passed. His walks became shorter. He found small things, a peck on the cheek, a woman’s hand glancing tentatively off some man’s shoulder. He recorded these with less fervor than before, often finding himself, after, sitting by the roadside listening to the cars pass with his phone in his hand, as if the entirety of passion were contained within the small display.

Soon he ceased walking, instead sitting by his window staring into the magnified windows outside. Blinds were drawn more often than not, though he once witnessed a cold and calculated couple fucking. He decided that they must be trying to have a child, as there was no smell of sex, only the scent of duty and death.

It was around this time that he began writing code. He would sit at his small computer for hours at a time, pissing in an old milk jug and eating crumbs from his toast off the sullen wood table. He never moved, just wrote line after line between half-hearted binocular-pursuits. In time, even the binoculars sat neglected on the floor beside him. Every morning found a new message, and every day came closer to completing the code.

The media had forgotten about the messages. He read the newspaper from his computer and soon the strange morning messages simply became a fact of life in the city. The reports became increasingly buried under budget deficits and homicides. It seemed the city had forgotten, the people went on with their lives amongst the emptiness of the air. There was no more passion.

It had gotten colder outside. Leaves fell from the trees outside his window, but he barely took notice. He knew what he was doing, now, finding whoever had sucked the passion from the city. He had little idea of what he would do after finding them, only that he needed to. At times he brought a large kitchen knife to his desk, as if wanting to thrust it through the heart of whoever’s fingers typed the messages each morning. Other times he would masturbate furiously, making a mess of his shirt which went unnoticed.

His books were stalled at #123. There was no more progress there, he knew. He knew that every day he got closer to the sender. Some days he lost entire afternoons to a misplaced or missing line, or some days he simply placed his head on the table and wept. He could not decide if he wept for himself or someone else, perhaps it was for the city he wept.

Soon the air smelled cold, vacant. Once he cracked open his rusty window and found himself recoiling from the empty air. He spent hours retching and vomiting bile in the corner after that. He never opened the window again.

Snow fell, and he labored. It blanketed the world in a sheet of glass and he winced at the violence of snowplows.

It was early evening when he finished. The last characters in the last lines danced as he smiled quietly. His beard had grown long, and it tugged his lips downward. In the cool glow of his computer’s screen he pressed a key, and the inputting a string of commands.

Slowly the screen filled with falling numbers, the sound of the hard drive overwhelmed him. Slowly a bar appeared at the bottom of his screen. Now all he would have to do is waiting and waiting. He was unconcerned, collapsing into his bed with the force of falling tree-limbs. He would shatter, he knew, if he let himself.

The program was complex, and slowly the bar on the bottom of the screen grew larger. He spent his time passing the time. He read his notebooks and half-heartedly peered through his binoculars. After the first day the bar read “11%”. He knew the process would be long, though he was uncertain just what “long” meant anymore. Meanwhile the snow continued to fall as it had every day and he could barely remember the taste of autumn, let alone warmth or passion.

Once, he attempted to walk but found himself unable to unlock his door. He inserted the key and it simply spun around and around in the lock, unmoving of anything but its own cycles. Giving up he lay down in his bed and made a mess of his shirt and slept.

He tallied the days on the wall above his head, ticking off a single hash-mark for each message of joy and love he received. He knew that those messages were all he had left. Each morning he would wake, make coffee and two eggs and toast and read his message and put a mark on the wall before staring at the small bar on the bottom of his screen.

Finally, when the marks counted to eight, the bar reached “100%”. He watched the screen flicker, only to be replaced with yet another string of falling numbers and letters drifting quickly toward some certainty. Beeps and grinding disk drives kept him company until finally a map appeared. Shaking, he grasped the handle of his kitchen knife, scanning the screen until a small, red dot appeared. Quickly orienting himself, he memorized the address, slipped the knife in his pocket and covered his nose with a handkerchief soaked in sour vinegar.

He got up and walked to the door, turning the latch with ease. For the first time in months he stepped into his hallway and descended old stairs. The sound of his feet and the creaking of the old wood found his ears as encouragement. The city was speaking to him, and he had something that must be done.
In a trance, he stepped onto the sidewalk, the sickly smell of hollow air masked by the handkerchief. As he walked he was forced to stop and retch in a gutter only once, the bile overwhelming his tongue forcing him onward.

His destination wasn’t far, yet he had ceased thinking of things as having distance. Whoever this was invaded him each morning. It was as much in his room as anywhere else. In a way he knew that the entire city was his destination. He walked, his face straight ahead, his feet crunching snow under his boots. The snow broke, shards of glass slicing open his feet as he walked. Leaving a trail of red behind him he knew he could find his way back home.

The streets were empty. Once or twice he came across a car passing quickly with tinted windows, or he caught a glimpse of a shape pass behind a heavy window-curtain.

His destination wasn’t special. The same gray-brick walls as the rest of the block met his eyes when he finally stopped. His trail seemed to fade into the distance as his eyes opened and shut searching. A small door with the correct address was nestled between two shops, words etched into the glass read:

Erossi Medical
Please ring bell for entry

Under the etching a small paper was taped to the inside with scrawled handwriting reading, “The future of you is we!” as if an afterthought or warning.

Carefully, he pressed the doorbell and after only a moment a loud buzzing sound emitted from the door. He reached out and opened it, the force of his pulling knocking the handwritten paper-sign from its perch. As it fluttered to the ground, already the snow beginning to swallow Erossi Medical’s assertion for the future, he stepped inside and waited for the click of locks to close behind him. Inside was a well lit, florescent hallway. Slowly he walked until he came to an old wooden door. Turning the door-handle he stepped inside and found himself in a small, disorganized waiting room. It was clear that this room saw few visitors, scattered about were old magazines and a half-rotten couch. As if in the distance he heard the indiscriminate noise of machines. Looking around he began to make his way toward the sounds, passing windows and through doors.

“We were wondering when you’d show up,” a young man’s voice began behind him, “it has been some time, now.”

Turning, he tightened his grip on the knife hidden under his jacket.

“It began, as you know, six months ago. The machine just began to communicate on its own. At first it would simply print out nonsense: a popular line from a pop song, messages asking if the kids were fed. When we took it offline for diagnostics, we found it impossible to sever the connection to the city’s grids.”

The young man wore a lab coat, he could see now, and perched a pair of old glasses on his nose. There was nothing special, and the man made no move to approach him. Carefully he loosened his grip on the knife as he again began to hear the man continue speaking,

“…needed someone who cared. Now you’re here, and you can fix it. To the best of our knowledge it was able to analyze every bit of communication on the grid. We believe it is attempting to make people happy. Five months ago, right before the messages began, it printed a time and a scattering of words like ‘love’ and ‘hope’ and ‘wish’, every text it has sent out in the little hours of the morning contained at least two of these words. Every single message.”

The man paused; his face would have seemed relieved if it were capable of changing expression from the blank, clinical expression that seemed frozen in place.

“Go ahead, have a look. It’s through that door.”

The man pointed to a door at the end of the hallway, he could hear the small sounds of machinery from beyond.  Slowly he walked the length of the hallway without any concept of what to expect. He gripped his knife tightly as he entered the small room, found a light switch and peered around. The young man in the lap coat hadn’t followed him, he knew he wouldn’t follow.

Inside a small computer sat on a table, wires attaching it to unseen connections beyond the small holes in the floor where the cables disappeared. A small printer lay next to the machine, a paper sitting in the tray. He knew what words were written there without looking.

Slowly he stared at the machine which had destroyed his routine, though now he hardly cared about anything that he used to be. He was frozen, his knife half drawn though he knew it had no purpose against the steel body of the machine.

A whirling startled him; quickly a piece of paper began to appear in the tray next to the machine. Slowly and painfully it spit ink onto the paper, crept its way closer to his hand. When it finally dropped he picked it up gingerly. It read: “I’m glad you’re here, please fix me.” Soon after the machine came to life, the screen lit up and lights flashed.

After a moment which seemed to pass through years, he sat down then and began reading the lines of code which appeared on the screen. He read all the words he found and after some time he began to smell the stench of sex.