Visionary & Metaphysical

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March 21st

After thirteen days of having intensely studied Sully (or Cully) and his newsstand, both through close at hand observation and by means of a pair of army surplus 8 X 40 binoculars, I am now (or was then?) able to surface with this series of descriptions, notes, and reflections - not to mention the premises, assumptions and conclusions needed as a necessary prelude to any meaningful action:

Notes On The Behaviour of Cully (Or Sully),The News Vendor, As Diligently CompiledBetween March Eighth and Twentieth

1. His name is Arthur Sully (or Cully), I can't be sure which. That's because the hand-painted wooden sign over his newsstand reads either: 'ARTHUR SULLY'S NEWS-A-RAMA' or 'ARTHUR CULLY'S NEWS-A-RAMA', with the 'S' and the 'C' superimposed one on the other. It may have been a slip of the sign-designer's brush and a half-hearted attempt at correcting it. Or his predecessor might have been Cully and he Sully. Or the opposite. Or he might have simply changed his last name. Or he may have left the previous owner's name on the sign. Whatever. I probably could find out for sure on closer inspection. But it doesn't really make much of a difference to me - at least not at this point. I'll just refer to him as the News Vendor. Is he the last News Vendor left? In this city, most likely. I can't speak for other places. Perhaps there are still some for nostalgia's sake in cities like London and Paris. But in this particular city, I have not run across any others. And I've roamed up and down its streets - from mountain (both cis- and trans-) to sea, from forest to skyscraper. Assumption: having opted for pixels on screens of all sizes, and devices that are friendly and respond nonjudgmentally to the most awkward of personal questions including bowel movements, the public for the most part has stopped purchasing paper news. It's so retro, as my daughter likes to say. Or in the words of my partner: Why bother with all that searching when the search comes to you with a couple of clicks? Or voice request?

2. The Newsstand: It may be dilapidated. It may be falling apart. It may have holes through which the wind can whistle. It may be in need of several coats of paint, right now a faded army green. But it is nevertheless a thing of beauty. Something that deserves to be preserved. A hexagonal over-hanging roof provides both shade and some protection from the weather. Across the front, a window swings out horizontally and is pinned back to reveal all the treasures within. To one side, a door that can be opened both fully or only the top half with shelving exposed when open; on the other, a series of slats that slide away and allow potential customers to enter. It's a model of efficiency with every nook and cranny packed with objects of pleasure if not pure knowledge. How could you not but admire ...? I'm getting ahead of myself. Stick to observations, please.

3. The News Vendor: He's old. Extremely old. So old that ... Hmmm, that might prove the first difficulty. No, no. Think improvisation. A touch of suffering - and there'll be plenty of that, I'm sure - and a matter of time, that's all. A matter of time. The wrinkles, the lines, all the troubling marks and symbols of age will come. Simply a matter of time.

4. He's bald. No comment. Well, maybe just one comment. He's not exactly or completely bald. A curly silver fringe, like steel wool, sticking out around the ears and back of neck. Anyway, not to worry. The crown of his head is usually covered by a greasy blue-grey sailor's cap and can be seen only when he removes that cap to wipe his brow.

5. He possesses only one leg. He ... - Only one leg! Christ on a stick! Only one leg! I mean only one real leg, one leg of flesh and bone - and that itself being mostly bone. The other's wooden, a peg-leg of the antique pirate type, slightly warped and cracked with age, which he straps on with leather thongs. Many marks and holes in it. As if he has been jabbing old-style compasses or pen-knives into it to whittle away the time. On the other hand, it might only be the work of termites after all. Busy little insects missed by the housing inspector. Able to create mounds that can be seen from outer space. And having found a perfect place to both hide and feed amid all that pulp and paper.

6. Dress: A red -

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An Ocean of Minutes

People wishing to time travel go to Houston Interconti­nental Airport. At the orientation, the staff tell them that time travel is just like air travel, you even go to the same facility. People used to be apprehensive about airline travel too. But when you arrive at the airport, it is not the same at all. Before you can get within a mile of the terminals, you reach a bus stop moored at the edge of a vast concrete flat, where you must leave your vehicle and ascend a snaking trolley, like the ones they have at the zoo.
A quarantine taxi makes its way to that lone bus stop, the airport appearing through a million chain-link diamonds. The driver is encased in an oval of hermetically sealed Plexiglas. In the back seat, Frank is wearing a yellow hazmat suit. The colour marks him as infected.
Now is the time for last words, but Polly’s got nothing. Frank keeps nodding off and then snapping awake, stiff-spined with terror, until he can locate her beside him. “We can still go back!” He has been saying this for days. Even in his sleep he carries on this argument, and when he opens his eyes, he moves seamlessly from a dream fight to a waking one. Already his voice is far off, sealed away inside his suit.
She pulls his forehead to her cheek, but his mask stops her short. They can only get within three inches of each other. The suit rubs against the vinyl car seat and makes a funny, crude noise, but they don’t laugh. Polly would like to breathe in the smell of Frank’s skin one last time, a smell like salt cut with something sweet, like when it rains in the city. But all she gets is the dry smell of plastic.
The news outlets went down weeks ago, but that didn’t stop the blitz of ads for the Rebuild America Time Travel Initiative: billboards painted on buildings, posters wheat-pasted over empty storefronts, unused mailboxes stuffed with mailers. there is no flu in 2002 and travel to the future and rebuild america and no skills necessary! training provided!
At first the ads were like a joke, gallows humour for people who were stranded once the credit companies went down and the state borders were closed to stop the flu’s spread, people like Polly and Frank, who got trapped in Texas by accident. Later, the ads made Frank angry. He would tear the pamphlets from the mailboxes and throw them on the ground, muttering about opportunism. “You know they don’t market this to the rich,” he’d say, and then an hour later, he’d say it again.
They stayed indoors except for the one day a week when they travelled to the grocery store, which had been commandeered by five army reservists who doled out freeze-dried goods to ragged shoppers. The reservists had taken it upon themselves to impose equal access to the food supply, partly out of good­ness and partly out of the universal desperation for something to do. One day, the glass doors were locked. A handwritten sign said to go around the back. The soldiers were having a party. With their rifles still strapped on, they were handing out canned cocktail wieners, one per person, on candy-striped paper dessert plates that looked forlorn in their huge hands. Ted, the youngest, a boy from Kansas who had already lost his hair, was leaving for a job in the future. He was going to be an independent energy contractor. There was another sign, bigger and in the same writing, on the back wall: 2000 here we come! It was a rare, happy thing, the soldiers and the shoppers in misfit clothes, standing around and smiling at each other and nibbling on withered cocktail sausages. But just that morning, the phone had worked for five minutes and they got a call through to Frank’s brothers, only to be told it had been weeks since the landlord changed the locks to Frank’s apartment, back in Buffalo. The landlord was sympathetic to Frank’s pre­dicament, but he could no longer endure the absence of rent. “But what about my stereo?” Frank had said. “What about my records? What about Grandpa’s butcher knife?” His voice was small, then smaller, as he listed off everything that was now gone.
Frank was usually the life of the party, but that afternoon behind the grocery store, he picked on a pinch-faced woman, muttering at her, “Why don’t they stop the pandemic, then? If they can time travel, why don’t they travel back in time to Patient Zero and stop him from coughing on Patient One?”
“They tried.” The woman spoke with her mouth full. “The earliest attainable destination date is June of ’81. Seven months too late.”
“What? Why? How can that be?” This clumsy show of anger was new. Frank was normally charming. He was the one who did the talking. Later, his sudden social frailty would seem like a warning of the sickness that arrived next. It unsettled Polly, and she was slow to react.
But the woman didn’t need someone to intervene. “That’s the limit of the technology. It took until the end of ’93 to per­fect the machine, and twelve years is the farthest it can jump. Or to be precise, four thousand one hundred and ninety-eight days is the farthest it can jump. Do you live under a rock?”
The tips of Frank’s ears pinked and Polly should have made a joke, offered comfort. But she was distracted. In that second, it stopped being a fiction. Time travel existed, and the plates of her reality were shifting. She felt a greasy dread in the centre of her chest. She wanted to drop her food and take Frank’s hand and anchor him in the crook of her arm, as if he were in danger of being blown away.
Now they are pulling up to the lone bus stop, and they can see the new time-travel facility across the lot bisected by trol­leys. The facility is a monolith, the widest, tallest building either of them has ever seen, and something primal in Polly quails. The only thing remaining of familiar airport protocol is the logistical thoughtlessness of the curb: once you reach it, the line of unfeeling motorists waiting behind you means only seconds to say goodbye.
“You don’t have to go,” Frank says.
“Say something else. Say something different.” Polly is smiling and shaking her head, an echo of some long-ago courting coy­ness that once existed between them. It has landed here, in the wrong place entirely, but she can’t get control of her face.
“You don’t have to go,” he says again in his faraway voice, unable to stop.
Polly can only muster short words. “It’s okay. We’ll be together soon. Don’t worry.”
The sole way Polly was able to convince Frank to let her go was through Ted, the reservist from Kansas. He and his buddies had a plan to meet in 2000. They had chosen a place and every­thing. “We can do the same,” she said to Frank. “I’ll ask for the shortest visa, I’ll ask for a five-year visa.” It was a setback when she got to the TimeRaiser office and they offered minimum twelve-year visas. But still he would meet her, on September 4th, 1993, at Houston Intercontinental Airport. “What if you’re rerouted?” he asked. He had heard about this from another patient, who heard about it from a cousin, who knew someone who worked at the facility, who said they could change your year of destination, while you were in mid-flight. Polly said reroutements were a rumour, a myth. Why would they send you to a time totally other than the one you signed for? That would be like buying a ticket to Hawaii and winding up in Alaska. But to calm him, she came up with a back-up plan. If something went wrong and either of them couldn’t make it, then the first Saturday in September, they’d go to the Flagship Hotel in Galveston, until they find one another. “Not just the first,” he said. “Every Saturday, every September.” This was over­kill, a lack of good faith, but he was distraught, so she gave in. And if the Flagship Hotel is gone, they’ll meet on the beach by its footprint. Even if between now and ’93, aliens invade and the cities are crumbled and remade, the land will still end where the sea begins at the bottom of Twenty-Fifth Street.
Still he is not satisfied. He puts his head back. His skin is so grey and drawn that it looks about to flake off, and it’s as if the brown is fading from his hair. When Polly speaks again, it sounds like when she is drunk and trying to conceal it, enunci­ating each of her words, a single phrase requiring maximal con­centration: “If I don’t go, you will die.”

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It was not gradual. For at least several seconds Lota lingered, drifting among images from dreams she no longer recalled. But then the images vanished, the dream dissolved. She sat up in bed, already fully awake.
   Her clothes had been laid out carefully the night before and now she dressed quickly in a pair of army-green cargo pants and a cobalt football jersey with the Brazilian national team’s logo on the front nearly rubbed out.
   The room was rented. Up three crooked flights of stairs in an old cable company building that used to house the foreign workers. These days, foreigners hardly ever came to the island and, whenever they did, they were flown in and out at the north end. They did their work at the new cable station that had been constructed there, and never actually set foot in town.
   Lota had been in the room six months, but it was still nearly as bare as when she’d first arrived. She’d hardly unpacked, was still living out of a single suitcase. There really was nowhere to unpack, even if she’d wanted to. The room had no closet, or drawers of any kind — only a single bed in the corner and a small table beside it, which supported a cheap porcelain lamp. Also on the table were Lota’s mobile phone and a glass of water, half drunk. Her suitcase, in the middle of the floor, gaped.
Opposite the bed and next to the door were a small sink and mirror. A bar of soap, a comb, and a toothbrush balanced on the rounded edge of the sink. Lota stood in front of the mir­ror now, gazing at her reflection in the spotted glass. The room was so narrow that if the door beside her opened she would need to step aside.
   But the door never opened, except when Lota herself en­tered and left the room. No one came to visit, or even knew where she lived. Her family in the village believed she lived with her auntie Toni, in the shopping district. No one had in fact spoken with Aunt Toni in many years and she didn’t have a tele­phone. It was safe, therefore, to say, “I am living with Auntie.” Nobody questioned her, but neither would they have known where to look for her if they’d needed to. Lota went back to the village frequently enough that the idea never crossed their minds. She saved just enough of her salary, and she brought it home every two weeks, along with tinned meat, potato chips, toilet paper, and other odds and ends from town.
   She worked at the fish plant, fifty hours a week, and when she wasn’t working she was either at the gym or at headquar­ters. By the time she got back to her room, she just fell into bed —sometimes without taking off her shoes.
   Lota splashed cold water onto her face and examined her reflection. The mirror was chipped in the corner and the glass rusted. In places it was difficult to tell what spots were the spots on the glass and what spots were her own. She was naturally freckled, like her redheaded grandmother.
   It was not white blood that ran in their family, her mother used to say: it was fire. The family could count back one thou­sand generations, knew how they were related to the sea, the sky, and to the hot lava that boiled beneath them. But like prac­tically everyone else on the island, her mother never spoke of the family’s white ancestors: the Irish and German settlers who’d come for the sugar trade, their colonial masters, or those — from all over Europe and America — who’d arrived on the island along with the first telegraph wire.
   In the old days, “white ghosts” had flooded the island and practically every islander was employed by one. The grandparents recalled this time fondly now, but whenever they spoke of it it was always as if the “white ghosts” had just been passing through. As if they belonged — and could only belong — nowhere, to no one.
   Yes, in those days, the old people said, there’d been a sta­tion, long since demolished, nicknamed “the old chateau.” It had had something like fifty rooms, including a billiard room, a dance hall, and a library. There’d been little electric bells in every bathroom that when rung would almost instantly sum­mon a Chinese servant.
   After the war, a new station was constructed with none of these finer points. It was located underground in an old fallout shelter with twenty-four-inch-thick walls; the only luxury in the place was a wall of showers where employees could wash off radioactive material in case of a nuclear attack. But at least there were still jobs. Lota’s father had been em­ployed there, briefly — and her grandfather and great-grandfather before him. But in less than a generation, everything had changed. Ø Com, the Danish outfit that acquired the station in the late seventies, laid off nearly all local workers, then simply stopped hiring.
   They built an even newer station on the island’s north end, so that what had once been the “new station” became the “old” or the “main” station and the even newer one was referred to as the “outer station” — if it was ever referred to at all.
   Mostly, because no one who lived on the island had ever set foot there, they didn’t call it anything, and half the time they even seemed to forget it existed. The work at both stations was done remotely these days, using computers, or else was too specialized for the undertrained local employees. Technicians and engineers were flown in for monthly service trips, and though a handful of islanders had been hired at the main sta­tion as janitors, desk clerks, or guards, no one but foreigners ever visited the outer station. It was as if, even before it was constructed, it had already disappeared: every official depiction of the island after 1982 left the entire northern end —occupied by the Empire, and by Ø — entirely blank.
   The island’s history was another blank spot. Except on very rare occasions, no one spoke of the day that, nearly fifty-five years ago, they’d looked up and — miracle of miracles! — seen snow raining down slowly from the sky. Or about the sixteen years they’d spent after that living as refugees on the Surigao coast. 
   They didn’t talk about the war, either — in which more than half of the island’s young men had fought and died on behalf of the Empire. Or, except in passing, of the telegraph days, or of sugarcane, or of sandalwood, or of coconut oil. It was really no wonder, then, when you thought about it, that, aside from sto­ries of boiling hot lava and fire, no one seemed to recall exactly how light skin and red hair had got into the blood.

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