This short story was originally published in Danse Macabre.
How penetrating are the ends of days in autumn! Oh! Penetrating to the point of grief! For there are certain delicious sensations whose vagueness does not exclude intensity; and no point is sharper than that of the Infinite.
-Charles Baudelaire, “The Confiteor of the Artist”
Eliza and I stepped out of the oblong metal box and into an expansive gray wasteland. Construction material littered the ground between pillars where walls should have been. The upper floors were supposed to be living spaces for humans, but when the recession hit the owner stopped paying for the building’s manufacture. We were standing on top of a tiny skyscraper looking over Rittenhouse Square. She was more than just my roommate and co-worker, but I didn’t know what I was to her.
While I was on break at work we had snuck into the maintenance area from the basement and took the freight elevator straight up. I was biting my nails inside the rickety machine. She giggled quietly at my nervousness and looked up at me with her bright ice blue eyes and freckles that matched her curly deep burgundy hair. My responses were bashful at best. At that time Eliza was twenty four and I was twenty one and wholly intimidated by her, even though she was almost half my size. We listened to the pulleys scream. Each floor took half a minute to reach, and because it was mostly out of service the machine would stall at every other number. By the time we found the roof access door I was craving fresh air, which while opening I realized was an insatiable desire in Philadelphia’s polluted atmosphere. At least the outdoors weren’t so closely filled with carcinogens and dust.
The late September sky was also gray of course and it didn’t smell like autumn yet at all. Actually, it never smells like fall on Walnut Street, although some of the trees were starting to change. So was Eliza. Her oven had become third-trimester-huge. As I turned to look at her admiring the skyline I felt guilt for worrying about my breathing when Eliza’s lungs had to work for two. You need to stop feeling so responsible for her, I thought.
“What the hell are you doing?” I yelled, after coming to from gazing off at the park below. She was leaning over the ledge, looking down a twelve story drop. Her belly was tucked under the short wall, but her torso was precariously bent over the almost abyss. Eliza laughed while I gently yet firmly grabbed her.
“Relax John. I’m okay, really.”
I pulled her back anyway and lingered for an instant while holding her hips. The baby inside her wasn’t mine, although I put my hand on her stomach as if it, she, was, and smiled back at her belatedly. My girlfriend Selena had introduced us when I used to sell weed. Selena was fiercely jealous of my friendship with Eliza.
“Why are you looking at me like that you creep,” she said, teasing.
I told her I was sorry in a sarcastic tone. We stared at the specks of people. It was then that she told me about all the horses buried under Rittenhouse Square.
“Do their ghosts trot through the park?” I laughed as I asked, but she was serious for once.
“It’s just horrible that there’s no memorial for them,” she said.
“Their corpses must be why the trees are so big,” I replied.
She seemed so sad, and I wondered if her baby felt emotions in tandem with her, then I smelled her hair while she wouldn’t notice. It was beautiful. There were memories in the ether. The various branches swayed in the distance below. We didn’t matter, although all meaning was within us. Gusts of wind kept picking up, so I ended up lying on the hard roof, mostly out of fear, but also because I wanted to experience the world in a different way. Each building was a different color even though they were all generally made of the same kind of glass, steel, and stone. I checked my cellphone for the time.
“We gotta’ get going,” I said.
Our way back down was easier than the way up. Eliza got done work early. After taking orders from greedy childish adults for several more hours, a slight exhaustion set in, but I still didn’t want to go straight home so I walked across the street to the park. Eliza and her boyfriend, Ricardo, were sitting on a bench at the northeast corner. Ricardo looked agitated, and didn’t say hello.
“Hey, we’ve been waiting around for you after shopping. Look what I got for the baby.” She showed me the clothes and whatever else that was in her bags. I feigned interest. She asked if I was heading home, and if I wanted to walk with them.
“I appreciate the offer, but I’ve got some things to do,” I said.
She looked at me strangely, then they were gone. I could tell that Ricardo didn’t want me around. He was tired from working so much, saving up money for the coming child. Eliza knew that I had no cash nor subway tokens left, and felt bad that I had a long walk alone ahead of me. There was something about that evening though, a foreboding feeling and I needed to be by myself. Selena had texted me multiple times, so I turned my phone off then went to sit on the public lawn. Not just the sky but the air itself was orange. It looked like everything was combustible.
With legs crossed sitting in the wet grass I pulled out my small crimson sketchbook from my back pocket and tried drawing what was in the present, without any contextual interference. Leaves were changing with the atmosphere. Bark falling onto the broken, dirty soil. Most of the environment had been overtaken by the artificial. I imagined all of the invisible energy pulsing through my body, all of the radiation soaking everything. Humans began to look monster-like in appearance. I saw flesh falling off the many homeless people in the park. Walking skeletons crept behind bushes, smoking and coughing incessantly. Rotting teeth fell out of casually passing pedestrians’ mouths. Before then I felt alone, but the lack of nature made me realize how clustered we all were. I was one with the crowd. Eliza was bringing another human into this claustrophobic world.
My fingers gripped the pencil, but I couldn’t draw anything substantial. Just lines, twigs and leaves overlapping one another until they looked like wires tangled, like something so unnatural. The animal corpses underneath me did nothing but nurture the roots of those trees; their bones were barely left. Life had sucked death dry. Inanimate languages fell upon deaf ears. I looked around for their spirits and found none. Having lost my duel with creative expression, I put away the pencil and paper, and just sat there, breathing in nothingness.
Getting home was long and boring. We lived in North Philly, a far walk, but usually not too bad while drunk. I was looking forward to drinking whatever booze left in the fridge at the house, if Ricardo and his friends hadn’t drank it all already. I’d hoped not. The neon lights of Chinatown pierced through my skull. Chewing nicotine gum didn’t help either. My teeth were yellow and practically rotting. Sewage ran along the sides of the streets because of flooding from weeks of almost non-stop rain. Selena is going to be pissed, I thought.
On the southern corner of Seventh and Spring Garden I waited for the light to turn green then realized that there wasn’t any traffic anyway, so I just walked right through until coming upon a black metal fence on the other side. A nineteenth century red brick building loomed in front of me. I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t really paid attention to it until then, when I lived only a few blocks away. It’s a national historic landmark. What struck me was the woman in white tending the garden. Her dress was more like a gown, and I could have sworn there was no dirt on it, though nighttime had settled in, and the streetlights were dimly flickering. She would lean over with a spade and strike the earth, then crouch down to plant seeds.
“Why the hell is she doing that in autumn?” I whispered to my still self.
I took the cellphone out of my pocket and turned it on. When I looked back up she had appeared several feet closer and was facing me, but bent forward. My heart fluttered. The screen said “LOW BATTERY” so I put it back. A gurgling sound came from the sodden soil. Vegetables and plants crawled about in the dirt before me. She altered as my face was pressed against cold iron. Her skeleton reverberated as she wheezed and hacked up phlegm all over the stems and flowers. That only made them grow faster. My hands searched around for pencil and paper to no avail.
“Swallow me,” I said, without reason.
I just wanted to be inside of her, but I couldn’t get past the fence, so I pulled the sketchbook out of my pants then opened to a clean page and began to draw verdure the likes I’d never done before, although as I looked up she was gone, and all of the vegetation along with her. Cars sped down Spring Garden with radios blasting unfamiliar music. A foreign heart beat heavy in my chest.
Getting in the house took a minute with my dull and rusted key. Once I got through the threshold Selena was ready with fists clenched. All I saw was a blur, then my temple throbbed. I put my hands over my face. Her jet black wavy hair was everywhere. She looked sexy, all done up, but for a reason, because she was furious to the point of breaking.
“Where were you?”
I just looked at her, and felt sad.
“You know what, it’s not working out.”
Just like that she was gone, so I stumbled to the fridge but there was no beer. My head was killing me. I walked back to the living room and landed on the couch, not wanting to move a muscle. I turned the television on with the remote, but all I could see and hear was white noise. I sighed. The antenna was broken. That dressed-up woman in the garden wouldn’t leave my mind.
The couch consumed me. There was even more commotion upstairs. Ricardo and Eliza were fighting now. He sounded awful. The static continued in the foreground. Ricardo was getting violent and throwing things. Eliza’s screams gave me goose bumps. It must be really bad, better go up there, I thought, although I didn’t. I was immobilized, but not out of anything physical. She came down the stairs while crying silently.
“Is everything all right?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. The television set hummed in abeyance. Eliza slammed the front door shut. I finally got up and looked out the window, but I couldn’t see where she went. Instead there were sanguine lit windows across the street, and shadows of figures embracing, which gave me newfound strength. Suddenly I was filled with anger, so I went upstairs to confront Ricardo, but once I made it to their room I found that he was passed out completely drunk and or high. Down the street I could hear a car honking.
Outside was dark, but I ran along Seventh Street nonstop while panting and sweating until catching up with Eliza. She was sitting on brick steps with her tummy sticking out and her head in her hands. I sat next to her.
“You know who lived here, right?”
I knew the answer, though I couldn’t speak just yet. It was such a simple, calm question; it took me off guard. I looked around.
“You see that statue over there, of the raven?”
I answered that time, “I see it.” She looked up at me with her drying cheeks.
Our bodies melded, and I felt warmth all over. In the distance the woman rose. Her pale face was all I could see, that faceless face I never saw.
“You don’t have to deal with that anymore,” I said.
“I know,” she said, “nevermore.”
We laughed together.