James held off from his descent to stare, again, at the city’s towers looming beyond the glass wall of the stairwell. The phalanx of silver spires rose so high that they scraped the stars, festooned with umbilicals and trestles as if strung together by a spider of glass and metal. Antennae bristled, solar arrays glinted. This was the world, the true world, of which his own was a destitute reflection.
The walls of windows shined back at him, blank and obtuse and dark. There was a boardroom somewhere inside of them and an empty chair. Empty or filled up again with another petitioner for meaning, presenting the pages of their lives to the priests of syntax and monetary returns. His heart lived and died in that moment, while his eyes were dreaming for him. Then the hand that did not clutch his manuscript found the cold steel rail again. He looked down, started down, back into the purgatory he had risen from.
He followed the steps spiraling around the lift shaft, watching through its translucent polymer the inner workings of the electromagnets that operated the interchange below. If he craned his neck, he could see the battery of elevators waiting there, dormant, for the end of the day. The architects of the future would be ferried with magnetic force down into the substrata of the city or up into the echelons that built it, that he descended from. Trams would glide above the oceans of cloud the city sat upon. Everything was quiet there in the morning, glittering clean in the uninterrupted sun. He could almost see it, but would not.
Another turn around the stair and it terminated in a walkway that wrapped around the shaft, onto which gave a series of doors that lay shut against him. James took the first that opened, empty and quiet but for the voice asking him where he wanted to go. He could not say where that was. He had already been there and was told to turn back. His work was not equitable to the thirsts of the cities above the clouds, to those who peopled the highways that strung them together. Instead he contemplated letting his roughly-bound litany fall from the side of the platform outside the elevator – not throw, but let go. Just like his grandfather told him to do with bad writing. The lift’s intelligence asked again. James asked to be taken to the tram station.
The doors slid open with a wheeze and without any physical indication that the lift had moved at all. James took the long walkway that waited outside, one that he knew more than he wanted. He had grown and changed since first taking it when he was a boy, holding his father’s hand, but it remained the same. The translucent polymer of the interior wall looked down onto the station of the big people.
A tram waited at the edge of the platform, figures hustling in and out of its doors. Most of them were bound for other platform-cities or the little splinter colonies along the highways in between, quaint reminders of worlds without walls. A pretty girl looked up at him, done up in white as some kind of neo-Cossack, standing with her family dozens of feet below. She laughed him away. The glass was for them, the barrier for him, and he hated that.
The car for the others, those not of the highways or the cities, rattled down its track dim and broken. It screeched on its way. No one spoke inside and stood before they sat beside one another. In his father’s suit, he wished he had more to clutch than the pages of his life. The faces he saw were too tired, anyway, to take what might be got from him.
James breathed in the hot, coarse air of the world beneath the clouds, beneath the highways, and felt its breath on his face. The taste of something familiar kept him from hating the smell. Lost in the corridors through the door behind him, the station droned on. Trams rumbled in and out upon the track. Ghostly forms piled around his shoulders and faded off down the street, this way or that. A distant voice mumbled a schedule he knew by heart and would recite if someone would pay him to recite, but no one would. The cleaning of toilets was left to harder, sleeker hands.
His father’s building was much the same as he had left it that morning. He pretended that he could see more cracks in the foundation since the last time he looked close enough, a few more windows broken or siding panels cracked. His enthusiasm did not last long. The whole place could collapse, dilapidate into a useless shambles, and it would not matter. To James, maybe. His father. But the rest of the habitation block would go on rolling, build over their bones and rent out the new ramshackles until those fell in too. There was a perverse amount of comfort in that.
“Those goddamned rats are back,” the old man said and beat the rubber end of his cane against the old floorboards. “Hear that, you bastards!”
“They’re everywhere,” James told his father, reaching in the refrigerator. “Ought to call somebody.”
“Time was you could call somebody. Now you’d be lucky to find a couple punks to root ‘em out the old-fashioned way. Huh-uh. No way, no how.” His father shook his head as if he could dismiss the tragedy of seventy years. “Now tell me. How’d you make out up there in the big world?”
“Just fine,” he lied and pulled a couple beers out of the lightless fridge, held them in one hand by the neck and popped the caps with his other. “They want to see some more of my work next week before they make a final decision.”
“Onwards and upwards, Jimmy. I tell you, you’ll be running that place inside of ten years. They won’t know what hit ‘em.” James moved past the back of his father’s chair, setting one of the beers down on the endtable beside his ratty recliner. His father took his hand as it left the bottle. “I’m proud of you, you know that? You’re my boy, Jimmy. You’ll always be my boy.”
“Don’t let your beer get cold,” he said and sat down beside him in the other chair, must wafting up around him from the patched cushion.
“I was saving these,” his father said, studying the label on the bottle through his bifocals.
“Don’t remember, tell you the truth.”
“Then I guess we ain’t saving them.”
The Indians were playing the Cubs again, fifty years in the running. They went to the series that year, all the way to the end. James knew every pitch, the milliseconds before the sharp crack of the bat against the ball. Who caught which pop fly, threw what grounder to what base. The beer helped him to remember what it was like watching the game as a child, unaware and unknowing. He would watch the Indians lose and lose and lose, but every time he rooted for them to win, to clinch that lead. Then the game got tired, as he got tired, but the beer helped him to remember. He was glad it did. It tasted like shit, but made him stomach the smile he gave his father every time the tape wrapped up and the smile given back to him, in that way old folks have with just seeing a smile again. James got up.
“You just got in,” his father said. “Where you off to now?”
“Back to the metro,” he told him, rooting in the only closet of the studio apartment and pulling out the hard case that was heavy with his grandfather’s typewriter.
“You aiming to surprise them with something early,” he asked, hugging his son back when he did so briefly before heading back toward the door.
“Got to make the bread in the meantime, don’t I,” James said over his shoulder, opening the door, listening to the creak of the hinges as if the house could wish him off well. “The jenny’s going to need gas soon.”
He found his nook in the gloom of the tram station, cross-legged, his back against a tiled support pillar that was old when he was young. He watched the families go by with nothing to lose, receiving or seeing off fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, who worked in some other slum, doing what jobs they could find. Seeing them, his hands found the latches of the typewriter case.
The finish was peeling, and you could see the wood underneath, but that didn’t matter. Its age transmuted the battered thing into something more than gears and springs. The weight was an anchor, the hard driving press of the letters onto the recycled paper a stamp into the stone itself. He took off the lid and set it aside.
He took the first of the empty pages stuffed inside, feeling the coarse fiber remnants beneath thumb and forefinger as he fed one down into the carriage of the typewriter. A tram screeched to a stop down the track, the last for a few hours. The screen lingering above the platform flickered with the schedule through dead pixels and smears. The passengers unloaded, devolving into wool coats and surplus canvas jackets. When they had finished passing, when there was just the murmurs of those lingering or waiting with him in the station, he set his finger down heavily onto the first key of the day.
The return would ping, he would clunk the page up the feed. When the words finished coming, James hit the release and took the page out and laid it carefully down beside him. The pages had stacked up to the width his father enjoyed his whiskey when the next tram was due to arrive and the next gallery of rags and dirt and hope appeared on the platform. Most of them kept their eyes on their boots, what passed for boots. A few looked up at him, only one held his eyes.
“Where you guys headed,” James asked him.
“Try our luck at the gates,” he said and coughed. There were pox scars on his cheeks where his beard was not, but the shadow of his hood covered the rest of his face. “A guy’s brother got in that I know. They have to let you in, if you walk. Like how hospitals used to be.”
“And how would this guy know his brother got in?”
“Cause this guy’s got a computer, uplinked to their net, is how he knows.”
“Did you pay this guy at all?”
“Yeah,” he said and stepped a little closer. “Listen, what’s your problem?”
A silence crept between them that was ended by the arrival of the tram, whining and slamming down the track into the station. The doors opened, splitting a gulf of light across the concrete floor.
“You know, I don’t know. Got shafted on a job today, I guess I’m a little on edge.”
“Well, that’s not my problem.”
The man started off toward the tram and James looked down at the empty page in his typewriter.
“Hey,” the man said from a few dozen paces away. “Hey I’m sorry you didn’t get it.”
“It’s alright,” James called to him. “Good luck.”
“Same to you.”
He and the others that were with him melded into the dithering crowd disembarking from the tram. They became lost amid the threads of other hardluck travelers, filtering off on their own ways, but all of them broke against the same shadow that was forcing its way onto the platform. It was a butler, cradling a family in its long inarguable arms and shuffling along with them until they had cleared the loading zone. Two boys and a girl detached from its tall legs, taking their parents’ hands instead. The butler swiveled its head with perfect fluidity to scan the surrounds. The orbits of its eyes shined in the blank alloy of its face. It said something to the family that James could not hear. The tune of its words grew and diminished along the series of bulbs inside the thin slit of its mouth.
The girl caught sight of him, sitting against the far wall. She tugged on her mother’s arm and pleaded with her. The parents conferred and spoke to the butler, which took the girl’s hand. Its stiff doublet, a spot of clear blue in the thunderous dusk of the tram station, rippled across its unyielding structure. James thought of dogs in sweaters, of statues covered with sheets like funereal shrouds. The machine would not ever be, and could never not be, human. It guided the girl over to him with long, languorous steps.
“The madam would like to know what it is you are doing,” the machine said, a slight bow. It’s stiff suit hardly crimpled. The golden buttons down the front glinted, shadows slithering through their filigree.
The girl peaked out from behind its legs, towering with thin power, her parents standing a ways beyond her. She did not stand even as tall as its knee, brown locks curling out from under a knit cap. The machine placed a comforting hand on the small of her back and ushered her forth so that James could see her. Its bright eyes smiled down at her and then at him.
“I’m writing poems,” he told them, her, and looked beyond them at the parents. Their eyes wandered over the tram station, seeing what were for them wonderful things, and blithely unaware of the clean, richly woven fabrics of their clothes. “For anybody that wants one. Would the madam like one?”
“The madam would,” she said, biting her nail, coming out of hiding but only a little. “What will it be about?”
“Who can say,” James told her, starting to type, his hands working at the feed and the keys. “Poetry is like life in that way. Sometimes it’s painful, but the beauty is in not knowing whether it will be.” He hit the release and plucked the page out and handed the girl her poem. “If you know where you will be before you get to the end, what would be the point? It’d be a bad poem, definitely.” James winked, and she smiled. The mother called and the butler ushered the girl away, page crinkled and flapping in her tiny hand.
He wheeled another page into the feed and started to clack words onto the rough fabric again, but stopped at the sound of heels tapping across the platform toward him.
“Sir,” a woman said. He looked up. It was the girl’s mother. “Sir,” she said again, a shiny bit of metal held at her fingertips and as far out as she could hold it without throwing it away. “For the poem.” She glanced back nervously at her husband, who nodded and smiled and waved. His beard and hair were long, unkempt, in perfect contrast to his wealthy clothes. An eclectic, James thought, for up there anyway. He held out his hand and the woman dropped the object into it. A ring, old and unfashionable. “They said to bring something,” she said, as if apologizing, and he knew for what. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” he told her. “Have a safe trip.”
She tried to smile at him through her pity and then turned away, hurrying to rejoin the butler and her daughter and the rest of her family. He hoped that it was pity, but James made a point not to brook those who gave him their baubles their conceits. There was already a difficulty in going to that tram station, resuming his post against the post that upheld the ceiling of it all. He did not need another. When the family had gone, he fitted the lid of the case down over the typewriter again and with a sigh redid the latches to seal it away.
The light was still on at his father’s place, the TV still blaring. His dad was asleep in the chair. Another bottle of that piss-water was sitting on the floor, overturned. The little bit that was left in the bottom was busy staining the carpet. Jimmy walked over as silent as he could and flipped the tube off, then reached for the light. Someone mumbled his name and for a second, though he did not know why, James didn’t think it was his father that had done it. But there he was, struggling upright in the worn, patched-to-hell leather of the recliner, rubbing his eyes.
“Hey, pop,” James said and left the light alone.
“It’s late,” he said and looked at the clock sitting on the endtable beside his chair. “Boy, it’s late.”
“Another beer?” Jimmy was reaching for the last one. “I’ll fill you back up tomorrow, when I go for the jenny.”
“I’ve had just about enough, I think. Might turn a corner and say to hell with the whole thing, who knows? Never too late, right, Jimmy?”
Half the bottle was gone when he stopped for a breath.
“Never,” James said and circled round his chair to sit in the other, the one that had been there when it was his father and his grandfather sitting at the TV set. Now it was theirs, but no other little Jimmy was playing on the floor behind the two thrones to carry on the mad tradition.
Say, Jimmy,” his father said and tapped his hand where it lay on the arm of the chair with the tips of his fingers. “Say, you remember that old man? When you were a boy, Baron something?”
“Baron,” James said. The chair creaked and groaned under him as he started to rock it. “Barney. Barney Baron? The jazz guy?”
“Yeah, yeah. Oh, I can remember when you were just a boy.” His father stopped to laugh his old man laugh, interrupted by a spell of coughs and then a wheeze. “You would wake up just to hear him play. Early in the morning he would play. Everything else would be quiet. Then you’d hear him play, and it was just the damndest thing out there in the morning.
“The damndest thing.” His eyes seeped out into the distance, trying to pick up the strings of notes straddling the course of time and hear them again. “What did you used to call it, when he played?”
“Butterfly blues,” Jimmy said.
“Butterfly blues,” his father repeated. He took his hand. It trembled. Jimmy gripped back. “You never told me how you come up with that.”
“When I was real little, I think me and some of the other kids got up early to go and watch him. He always played in that courtyard, over on Sheldon, where that old man lived until they tore his house down.”
“The one with the cats. Always smelled like the damn things’ piss.”
“That’s him. Well, we followed the music to that courtyard and there he was, just sitting on a stool. The sun was just starting to come up and he was going at that trumpet, nice and soft. Like he was convincing the day to keep on coming. Next thing we know, a butterfly just comes along and lands right on the end. And he just stops and smiles down at it and it sits there, smiling back with its wings. I can still remember his teeth, they were white as snow.”
“I tell ya, Jimmy,” his father said. “I tell ya, I’d give anything to hear some of those butterfly blues again. Just one more time. One more time is all it would take.”