Discover more from Stephen's People
There is more to life than aging
(No. 106) Introducing my new writing and illustration project, by Stephen P. Williams
I define resiliency as the ability to adapt to change. Not necessarily to recover your original position — which you might discover you don’t actually want — but, rather, to move on into something new, if needed. I am a resilient person. I hope that you are too, as resiliency is one of most important qualities of aging well.
Today I’m not excited about aging. So I’m not going to think or write about it. Change is good.
The Lost City of Desire
Chapter 1. Utopia Day
I opened my eyes to doves cooing on the fire escape.
Should I get up?
No, no rush. I’ll just stay in bed for a while.
I looked around my room, which was fancy like the wedding cakes I’d seen in ancient copies of Martha Stewart Living magazine. The white walls were frosting. The plaster molding was crunchy spun sugar. The floors inlaid with marzipan. I lived in a palace. The house was over 200 years old and all the little details from that distant past were intact. Still beautiful, despite all that had happened.
What had happened?
Since I was born – nothing. Nothing at all had happened. The sun came up. The sun went down. The world just was. I’d never known anything but a simple life.
I noticed a praying mantis on my windowsill. About eight inches long, it had green alien eyes, its front legs bent in prayer. Shiny, it belonged on a spaceship. These bugs always looked odd, but this one was especially unreal. It could have been made of plastic.
Then it occurred to me: was it a drone from the other side? Could the Westerners be watching me right now from across the river, beyond the wall? I’d never for sure seen a real drone, but everybody talked about them, how they took away our privacy, took away our power, what little we had.
Many times, my uncle Jessie said the Westerners were afraid of us, but for no good reason.
“What on earth could we do to them?” he said. “They’ve got their electricity, their little dronies, all their bio stuff. What do we have? Canned beans and a little peace and quiet, and floods. If we’re lucky, maybe a very nice tomato in July.”
They could secretly watch us, I knew, their cameras disguised as insects, birds, even leaves. It was fantastic to think about.
“Microbes is next,” my uncle railed. “Pretty soon they’ll send the cameras to live inside your body and control your genes.”
I felt a tickle up my spine.
“Have you ever met anyone from over there?” I asked.
My uncle scoffed. “Who would want anything to do with them?” he said. “They’re
paranoid. God knows why.”
As usual, I nodded in agreement while thinking my own contrary thoughts. This followed my aunt’s lead in how to deal with men, especially older men: “Just easier that way,” she’d told me perhaps 1,532,356 times (more or less). “Sometimes, when men get old, they get weird.”
“As if we’d want what they have over there,” my uncle said.
Well, actually, I thought, maybe we would want what they have -- movies and cars that actually drove, for instance. From what I’d read, that stuff wasn't that bad.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Auntie’s face tightened. I smiled involuntarily, out of discomfort.
“You’re laughing?” she said.
I shook my head no. But was I?
“Even if we did want what they have, there’s no way we could get it,” Uncle said. “They don’t want us over there. That’s why they built that wall. Who’s gonna go there? They throw you right in prison.”
The problem with buying into all this was that I’d never even seen a Westerner. Not one. Ever. Ipso facto, you know. So how could everyone be so certain?
The Westerners followed what they called the Hard Fork, some kind of religion that I didn’t really understand, other than that they had forked off from us decades before, and closed us down by building the wall. They’d been frightened by the disease, and they still saw us as carriers, even though I’d never been sick a day in my life. They also hated our religion -- well, actually, they hated our lack of it.
They were tough, so the story went. You didn’t want to mess with them. Everyone had plenty to say about them. Like, they were smart and devious. They had spider-drones that could actually weave webs that amplified their range – the bigger the web, the better the transmission signal. They’d climb your walls, make a web, film you and send the images back. That really got people mad -- the idea that The Westerners could watch us even in our bedrooms. Wherever there was light.
I didn't tell my uncle, but I thought drones were pretty cool, really -- exciting, if they actually existed. Something different for a change. I had nothing to hide.
I pulled my sheet up to cover my body from the mantis’ prying eyes. It remained passive on the windowsill.
If it was a camera drone disguised as an insect, it was doing a pretty good job of it.
It looked very praying mantissy, very real, staring into space, breathing in and out. Would a drone breathe? I took a breath myself.
I folded my hands over my heart and found my center. My mother had taught me this when I was just five or six years old. She said God lived in your center. And not that mean-spirited God the Westerners talk about, either. I’m talking about the good God. The loving God, the spirit God. The one that guides you well and protects you. You just have to find her.
I took another deep breath, felt better. I looked into the mantis’ odd, liquid eyes for a camera but saw only an alien. Nothing but eyes looking into another dimension.
I didn’t really understand cameras, cause I’d never used one, and I’d never seen a robot in action either, but I got the idea. This little guy looked like life to me, not like a machine. It was probably just waiting quietly for a meal to come within striking distance. It couldn’t be spying on me. What would the Westerners want to know about me anyway? They had no reason to send a drone for me -- I hardly even had a life. No life, that’s life, all life just strife. That’s what the guy who shoveled mud off the footbridge over the 14th Street River sang.
I had no school, no appointments, no friends my age. Everything I did for fun I had to invent. I even had to invent what “fun” meant. My aunt and uncle couldn’t explain it to me, so I read a book about it. Hopscotch, parties, balloon animals -- I didn’t recognize any of it. The amusement parks. The EDM concerts. Comedians. The prom. And one I really wanted to try: shooting cans. God I would love to have a gun. I never came across any guns in New York. Just to be able to hold one for once. So cool. All I knew about any of that stuff had come from books and my imagination. It was all in my head. I learned to let my imagination roll and see what comes out.
Like the game I’d play sometimes, where I’d wake up and name the day, make it special. Give it some meaning, a reason for being. Otherwise, you could get lost in the stillness, the sameness of each passing day. These special days gave me a purpose.
There’d been Happiness Day, where, duh! everything had to be happy. I’d picked flowers and put them in a vase for that day. Sprinkled glitter in my hair. Skipped instead of walked. Smiled at everyone I saw (which was about 3 people the whole day – not unusual). And felt happy all day. You couldn't do that every day, but once in a while, cool.
Today, I decided, will be Utopia Day in New York City. Classes are cancelled (I’d never been to a class, but I’d read about how great it was to cancel them). I decree that traffic is suspended the length of Broadway (there are no working cars anyway, so that was easy). All boutiques will give away free clothes (what hadn’t already been ransacked was there to pick, like mountain fruit).
This will be an amazing day, I thought. Utopia Day. What would you find in Utopia? I asked myself.
These were the foods in magazine photos.
Ok, I thought. If I narrow it down to stuff I can actually have, what would that be?
Food. Good food. Basically, that’s it. That’s really all it takes to make utopia in this world.
So, to make this day wonderful I’ll prepare something fresh and sweet and wonderful for lunch, I decided, like tomatoes and basil, or even fish if I can catch some at the river. Dying seemed normal -- the human bones were still all about. Yet killing fish or oysters troubled me. Still, I had to eat.
My father had taught me how to fish in the Hudson when I was almost too young to hold a pole, while my mom sat on the grass, reading a book. They were kind, as I recall, and full of love, and I missed them terribly. True utopia would mean being able to hang out on the couch with my parents reading books and drinking tea.
I pictured them suddenly opening the door to my room and coming to sit on my bed.
“Sorry we’ve been gone so long, Sarah,” my mother says.
“We shouldn't have just left you,” my father says.
I look around my room, all the emptiness there amid the beauty, and I’m hit with the quick sharp pain of knowing this will never happen. I’ll probably never see my parents. It’s just another day.
The praying mantis was gone. On the fire escape another dove fluttered its wings like shuffling cards. Out the window silence, save for the wind blowing down the city canyons.
I rolled out of bed, went down the shadowy hall to the bathroom and washed my face in the dim light. I felt someone lurking, a man. But there was no man, just the feeling. I was never sure what to do with this feeling. It was an often feeling. I felt like I had to do things a certain way, like this nonexistent guy was going to judge me. When I splashed my face, the water had to hit both eyelids at the same time.
The water felt cool and clean on my skin, a miracle gift from the smart smart water dudes who ran New York way back in the 1800s. Since the city reservoir was upstate at about 70 feet above sea level, and water always found its own level, nobody in any buildings lower than six stories ever needed to pump water into their tank. Whoever built that was a different breed. Pretty much nobody built anything these days. At least that’s how Terence put it. He had a reading room he called The Libray, where I spent a lot of time. For a basically illiterate guy he sure knew a lot.
I got dressed and walked down the dim stairway to the street, stepping quietly so as to avoid the attention of my aunt and uncle -- I didn’t want to talk, had no fears to share that might satisfy their need for fear and more fear, the world a crab bearing its orange claw down on your finger.
Everything was so quiet. I wanted action, though I didn’t even really know what that would be. The lack of change in my life was driving me a bit mad -- relentlessly closed.
I needed a smoke. I loved the floating silver stars in my vision and the melting brain feeling when I inhaled so deeply that life became the smoke. Marlboro. Salem. American Spirit. So many varieties tucked in all the empty drawers in all the empty apartments.
Don't tell nobody.
“Those things will kill you dead,” my aunt said. “Cancer sticks.”
Well, first, I had no idea what cancer was, and second, who cares, when they give you that feeling that you’re in a new world, for a moment at least?
Out the front door and onto the street full of dead robot cars. Most were locked, dust-covered, streaked with pigeon stuff. Some had been broken into over the years and people used them for whatever they wanted. One up the street had crashed through the pavement, so it sat in quicksand about 8 feet down. Sooner or later the whole neighborhood would sink like this. The Hudson was seeping in this far now, and at super high tide could creep all the way to Ninth Avenue. I walked around the sinkhole and stopped at my favorite car, an old Volvo people mover I’d broken into earlier in the year. I opened the cabinet under the screen and pulled out the pack of cigarettes I kept there.
It wasn’t like I had to hide them from anyone. I just liked hiding them. I had amassed enough cigarettes to last a year, at least, scavenged from the basement of a deli over on 22nd street. A few dozen cartons of Marlboros. Stale for sure. Older than I was. But still, cigarettes!
I was 16. I could smoke if I wanted to. I’d been smoking since I was 12.
I lit one of the cigarettes using a match from my stash and coughed. Damn, I liked that feeling of coughing and smoking. What was it about that? Made me feel alive. I inhaled the poison smoke and pulled it further and further to the bottom of my lungs, into the tiniest air holes and the dizziness hit me, and the light exploded in my eyes and I felt momentarily sick and leaned my head back into the vehicle seat. Nice.
I kept the door open cause the windows didn’t work. I stuck the smoke in my mouth and imagined the car driving me here and there, me calling out, “Hudson River Parkway to Inwood, please,” and the car just taking off through the empty streets, battery charged, computer navigating the nonexistent traffic. I’d never seen a vehicle actually moving, not in real life. Only in my mind. So, as I drove nothing moved but my imagination. That was fun while it lasted – a good start to Utopia Day in New York City. And then, well, it wasn’t.