Imagine a city as a child might draw it. It has houses with triangle roofs and trees as high as the sky is wide and blue gauzy mountains cutting the city off from the world. Nothing moves, not the bubble shaped car in the middle of a street, not even the leaves in the trees. There are no people in this drawing, not a stick figure, not a balloon shaped face with blank eyes in the window of a house. The stillness makes this city seem as if it were suspended in time, and it is. Such a city must feel very empty indeed, and also very full, like the farthest corner of one's imagination. I come from such a city.
My mother once said that I pushed out of her womb, and clawed my way from her
cervix in a tidal wave of after-birth, and that as soon as the doctor cleared
my throat I began speaking in complete sentences and never stopped.
I had something to say about everything. For example, I might have said to
that doctor, "Thank you for delivering me and clearing out the phlegm and
blood from my throat. I'm glad you didn't have to use forceps. Babies do feel
pain, you know. And besides, forceps can cause brain damage, and a brain
damaged child would be a blot on your record, wouldn't it?" Then Mr.
Doctor-Man might have gaped at me, astonished.
I would go on, "You did a good deed today by delivering a healthy child into
the world, but I can see by your expression that you are not a happy man.
Perhaps your home life is difficult. Am I right? Your teenagers are unruly
and your wife won't tell you what's wrong because you should know, and so she
rolls over at night and turns out the light before you've finished washing---"
"Oh, for goodness sake. Mind your manners!" My mother might have yelped. "Doctor, I apologize - I don't know where..." I might have said such things to the doctor, but I don't remember. I've said so many things.
Among things said to me most often are these gems: the colloquial, but to the
point "Shut up!" the less direct "Did anyone ever tell you you talk
too much?" the dismissive "Ask your mother" the snappy "If you have nothing
to say, keep your trap shut and your lips zipped!" the abrupt, yet faux
maternal "Hush, Child!" And the mystifying, but endearing, "Merry Christmas
and Happy New Year" in July.
I am not an idiot. I have feelings, too. So when people told me I would wind
up a drooling, diaper-wearing old woman pushing a shopping cart around town
looking for aluminum cans and talking nonsense to myself, as you can imagine,
I was deeply hurt. But try as I might, I could not contain what people
referred to as the constant stream of drivel from my mouth. It would have
been wonderful to stop, but I was compelled by a force larger than myself to
talk, on and on. There was so much to say and it was too glorious to keep to
That diamond on your finger, for example. Have you ever thought of where it
came from? You don't think of the man mining for jewels in a remote part of
northern Brazil. His lungs are black, but what does he care? Today he has no
cares. The moment he came upon that exquisite gem after a life-time hunched
over in dark caverns, all his previous worries fell away.
A devout man, he probably knelt on the soil that day, holding that piece of
perfection, that diamond you wear now, as if in offering to the sky,
believing that finally God had looked upon him and decided it was his turn to
catch a break. And then this man, this man with his black lungs and jaundiced
eyes, would have gone home to tell his wife about it and how their problems
were finally at an end. They made love to celebrate, and the sex was so
strong she became pregnant even though she already was. When they were done
they made some cachasa and threw a party to celebrate, and during that party
a drunk man was kicked in the head by a donkey and another was shot in a
dispute over property rights by his neighbor.
There is a story in everything and everyone and I am here to tell them all. When I was five, my father, a beeper and cellular phone salesman, gathered a crew of local boys and together they built a little house at the very top of the tallest tree in town. It was an oak tree, and my father assured me it was solid as an oak is, by definition. He also told me that it was many hundreds of years old and had stayed upright through droughts, and thunderstorms, and blizzards, through the Civil War and the Great Depression. It had outlived inclement weather and would outlive us all, so I had nothing to be afraid of in my house on the top of the tree. Except, possibly, lightning, and falling down.
My father and the boys built a little balcony for me, and that is where I sat
every day, all day. Cleansed by the rain, dried by the sun, I stank from
mildew and as I got older, mold began to grow on me, as if I were a piece of
dated Wonder bread. But I loved my balcony. From there I could see the whole
city and everything that happened in it, even behind walls and closed doors.
Children were born, people were married, cars crashed, bald old ladies were
mugged, teenagers threw up their caps to celebrate graduation, buildings went
up in flames, and others were erected in their place, drunk people drove,
street fairs were held, block parties and picnics canceled because of rain.
Whole families moved, and sometimes just fathers. Too many girls sat by the
phone waiting for it to ring. Doctors botched routine operations, candidates
made promises they had no intention of keeping. Children were buried, the
wreaths on their graves withered, dried, and blew away.
My vision and hearing became so finely honed nothing was lost on me. Except for my parents, who, embarrassed by my idiosyncracy, forsook me and the town, slipping away like criminals. My parents were very concerned with social status, and so having a daughter who was a scourge on the city was too awful a thing to stay and face.
From my perch overlooking the city my running commentary continued as before.
But now it and I were useful. I told husbands who their wives were cheating
on them with and then warned the unfaithful to run for their lives because an
angry husband was coming after them with a shotgun.
"The ball was outside the line," I told a crowd watching a tennis match,
"Like the fat man said." The quarrelling between players ended and they wavedin thanks. The fat man scowled at me.
"Who are you calling fat?" He yelled.
"You, you lard-ass," his friend answered- chummy, the way men do.
"You better lift your hem," I told a teenager riding up an escalator at the
mall. "The finespun muslin might get caught," I said.
"Thank you," she answered, raising her skirt. "Now I won't be crushed by the
row of people behind me, which would be catastrophic. Thank you," she gushed
again. Such a beautiful skirt. Such a beautiful girl.
"Bear right or you land in the river," I told a pilot whose plane I guided
safely down the runway when the power went out in the control tower.
"It's time," I said on another day to a boy.
"Time for what?" he asked.
"An ambulance is taking your girlfriend to the hospital."
"She's in labor?" he asked. "Yes, she's in labor!" I answered obligingly. "Woo-Hoo!" he yelled tossing his baseball cap in the air. "I'm going to be a daddy."
"Good luck," I said, and then I saw the little boy with the lunch bag.
"Watch out!" I boomed as the ambulance carrying the pregnant girl rounded the
corner he was stepping off of.
"Me?" he asked. And looked at me, up in my tree, pointing at his chest. By
the time I nodded and he turned back to the road, the ambulance was gone.
Some people minded my talk, among them, the ones who worked at the Gazette.
They found themselves suddenly out of work. Newspapers had become obsolete.
There was no news; no crimes to report, no accidents to clean up. And if
there had been anything noteworthy to learn about, the city-folk knew they
could rely on me to report it.
When the Gazette folded, five-hundred people were suddenly out of a job. No
one knew what to do with the paper surplus, so entrepreneurs learned to make
ballgowns from paper, and new more economical forms of fuel, and delicious
three tiered paper non-fat, non-caloric confections. The most unlikely people
became rich, while the less resourceful lost their wealth, and became bitter.
Many fists were shaken up at the sky, not to God, but to me, in my perch,
where I was damned again and again.
"You fool, you blight on mankind!" they boomed at me.
A boy named Jack delivered my mail. He was the only person who came up to my
nest at the top of my tree on a regular basis. I looked forward to his
visits, however brief they might be. He was easy and plain spoken, his face
so polished it looked rubbed raw. He was always well-groomed, his blue-black
hair slicked back with pomade, and he had the habit of licking his palm and
pressing his cowlick down, over and over again. It must have frustrated him
terribly. Pushing down that cowlick of his had become like a tick he couldn't
I didn't know if I was pretty; I'd never seen my reflection in a mirror, but
Jack was a dish. All the girls wanted him to take them out, but he, for some
reason, took a shine to me and my tree-top, and visited whenever possible. In
the early days of our friendship, he delivered letters from city-people who
were curious about how I lived.
The question I was asked most often was, "Where do you pee?"
Of all the questions you could ask me, why would the location of my urine be
the most frequent one posed?
So I wrote back, "I don't pee. Since I've been living in this tree my
physiology has changed to adapt to my surroundings."
Beyond the fringes of our town, however, I and my physiology were well kept
secrets. So when the letters stopped coming, and I had finished answering all
the questions the population of our city could think to ask, and there were
no more politicians writing the Occupant in the Tree because it was clear she
had never and never would have any intention of voting, Jack no longer had a
legitimate reason to swing up the branches to my modest shelter (he was not
unlike a baboon as he clambered to me, except Jack's ass was not red). To
rectify the situation, he began mailing letters and packages to me from
himself and so the deliveries and wonderful visits continued as before.
There was so much to like about Jack.
On our first visit together he told me about his home-life and his secret dreams. His face was so pure, so hopeful and glad, I could not resist brushing my hand across his eyes, his lips, his nose, his cheeks and forehead, his downy ear-lobes, tracing the maze in his ear, while he told me about his parents, and how there'd been a baby before Jack. His name was Jack too, but he died suddenly and without warning when he was just four months old.
Jack's parents never recovered. Jack was born to replace a brother he would
never know and could never be. His parents moved in grief, worked in grief,
lived in grief, and their grief was so oppressive and palpable it took up
almost all the space and all the air in their house. And that is why, as soon
as he could walk, Jack left that house whenever possible, first, to save
himself from suffocating, and second, so that he could earn enough money so
that some day he could go somewhere else, to a far-away place, a place
without sorrow. Until then, my tree house would do.
One day he sent a poem he'd written for me, and delivered it at the end of
his route. It was twilight when he read it aloud to me - standing over me,
one arm hanging languid, cool-like, over a branch. In his other hand he held
the letter; his nervousness would have been imperceptible but the paper shook
ever-so slightly, as if it were being hit by the minute droplets of rain
which come before a storm.
"How many loved your moments of glad grace" he read (which was not altogether true, but I gave him his poetic license and let it slide), "And loved your beauty with love false or true, but one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face." Cupid himself could not have constructed an arrow sharp enough to pierce me to my very core as Jack's words did.
"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" he asked. "Thou art more lovely and
"Oh, go on, you," I said, lowering my face in feigned humility.
And from that day forth he called me his coy mistress. The coy mistress who
walked in beauty like the night, the last duchess, who he loved in countless
ways to the breadth and depth and height his soul could reach. He admitted he
did not know what it was about me that closed and opened; only something in
him understood the voice of my eyes was deeper than all the roses; nobody,
not even the rain had such small hands, he told me.
I looked at my hands. They were small, but they were nubby. These words so
delicious, so sweet, so succulent made me salivate and I ate them to sate
myself, and my appetite for Jack's words, the truths he spoke, sustained me
as much as my acorns from my tree and the mushrooms which had grown from my
body did. Jack was, without knowing it, revealing who I was to myself. He
became my mirror.
"Tell me another poem," I said.
I had no answer. He was the poet. He stood thoughtfully. Moments passed.
Somewhere a church-bell tolled. I waited. Finally he inhaled deeply and with
great import took my chin firmly in his hand, looked unflinching into my
eyes, and said, "Lay, Lady, Lay."
I must have looked confused, because he repeated himself, "Lay, Lady, Lay,"
he said. "And row your boat ashore."
Some days he did not send poems (I imagine calling up great poetry is hard,
that it is not something one can do on demand, even when blessed with the
presence of a muse in one's life). Instead, he would send a nut, a bolt, a
shovel, a spade, a trowel, a hinge, a screwdriver, a slide-rule, or a plank
of wood, and, as usual, deliver it himself. Jack didn't say what these things
were for; I assumed they were just misguided gifts to romance me with.
"Thank you for the wrench," I said, placing it with the other objets d'art.
"It is beautiful."
"Really?" he asked (I didn't detect the skepticism in his voice because I
didn't know he had a larger purpose for mailing and delivering these tools to
me-- he must have taken me for a jack ass!).
"It's just what I wanted," I said, polishing the metal trinket with the hem
of my dress.
Then, one Sunday, when my house was so crammed with these wares that there
was no room left for me, I vacated my abode altogether and made a small
cocoon for myself on the porch (which would have been fine had it not been
the rainy season). That day, and every day afterwards, Jack swung up the
tree and hammered and sweated and assembled. But I could not make out what it
was he was constructing.
A new routine developed. On weekdays and Saturdays, he would deliver poems to
me that he had mailed himself, and on Sundays, his only day off besides
federal holidays, he built and screwed and hammered and created from the
chaos things of unimaginable beauty.
First he made my rocking chair, the one, though I did not know it yet, from
which I would live out my days and watch the city and its' people evolve.
Done with the chair (every knob in the wood was meticulously sand-blasted and
buffed and burnished and polished and shined), Jack built an addition to my
little house, a small glass-enclosed patio which wrapped around three sides
of my house, and from which I could lie and look up at the night-sky and out
at the night city, and never miss a thing, no matter how rainy or cold it
was. He built gilt-edged cabinets into my walls and filled them with jugs,
saucepans, mixing bowls, a tureen, glass jars he'd blown by hand, and even a
barrel for pickling.
Finally, the piece de resistance: a bust chiseled from marble, each detail
captured so precisely, every nuance lovingly carved and chipped away at and
captured so precisely, every nuance lovingly carved and chipped away at and
rounded perfectly smooth- the gentle slope of the nose, the soft curve of the
nostrils into the drawn cheeks and wide-set eyes, the heavy, inviting
eyelids, the slightly upturned lips which, if infused with rose-water, might
have opened up and spoken.
"Who is that?" I asked. It seemed odd to have a bust of a stranger in the doorway, one who never missed a word we said, one who, were she not trapped in that block of marble, might have quite a bit to say about my friendship with Jack-- on the subject of youth, chastity, religion, commandments, virtue and all those other things which were so important, it seemed, to so many people.
"You don't know who that is?" he asked.
"No. I don't know who that is."
"It's you," he said.
"Get out of town," I said.
"That's how I look?"
"Do you like it?" he asked.
"I'm alright," I answered with false disinterest.
But later, when I was alone, I closed my eyes and touched my face with the
tips of my left hand fingers, and her face with the tips of my right hand
fingers and traced slowly along each sublime crevice, each ridge, probing
each luxuriant dip and hollow. The topography of my face.
"I'll be damned," I said.
The big storm came when we were just seventeen. Jack swung up the tree to
warn me because he'd heard about the tornado on the news; but I had already
seen it coming, and heard it announce itself with an other-worldly bellow. He
wrapped his arms around my lithe limbs, enfolded me in his body, as I wrapped
myself around the tree- and then- the twister- a spinning cone, a voracious
vortex -"Hang on!" he said and I turned and watched his words fly away and I
saw in the center of that cone an eerie calm, suffused with static, a dead
zone. We were on the precipice, but of what?
In that space, we were the only two people left in the whole world; we had
circumvented time and space, and stepped outside of both. He kissed me warm,
pressed hard against my lips, and after he kissed me he told me to hang on no
matter what, even if my feet flew up from the floor-boards, and my nails
ripped from my fingers, grasping, bloody to the rough-hewn bark.
And when the storm hit us again, it was just like Jack said it would be, and
he held me to the tree as time flooded back like afterbirth, and he shouted
unintelligible words in my ear; his breath was gilded warm and earnest like
his tureen and vases; it smelt of oak-apples, and clay and acorns, and wood
polish and me. And I turned to read his lips, but the spinning cone grabbed
him away from me, pulling him backwards into its center.
His arms were still outstretched toward me as he slipped away, like those of
a pleading lover, oblivious to the debris smacking him, the wind pulverizing
him from every side. And I watched as the twister extended its claw and
yanked him away, and flung him high across the city, depositing him, finally,
somewhere over the gauzy blue hills, beyond my view.
I waited for him to come home. I was sure he would come back for me if he
could, but when he didn't come back, I took solace knowing that he had
finally been able to escape the grief, to reach his destination, that Land of
No Sorrow, a place replete with other things to discover, other girls in
trees to build porches for with different stories to impart along his
journey. Pretty girls to tell poems to.
One good thing came of the storm-- Jack would never change, not in my mind.
Every day, I sat in my chair on my porch and watched the postman arrive at
his appointed time, ambling down our street, and if I squinted hard, he
sometimes became, just for an instant, a cloudy Jack, a strapping seventeen
year old pushing at his cowlick, a poet who would always remain young. And I
would remember this with gratitude each time I looked to the road and watched
the people crossing it and the postman coming, and looked back down at my
hands and saw that in no time, no time at all, they'd become spotty, the
skin, slack and ashen, my knuckles twisted from years of disuse. I never
forgot him, the boy who used to bring me my mail and his beautiful poetry. He
had recited his poems for me, hanging from this branch, chewing on a
twig,--poems to be read aloud, to be sung, to be shouted out, and sometimes,
whispered, and it was not so long ago.
Keeping everyone in town apprised of such things as their husbands
whereabouts, and their children's escapades, and where their pets had gone
to, and who had died alone in his sleep, was gratifying enough to keep me, if
not happy, contented now. But to add to my contentedness, I was honored by
the mayor, who placed a ladder at the base of the tree, and climbed up to
personally hand me a Medal of Merit and a key to the city, the day I turned
seventy-five. That day was declared the city's golden anniversary in its
marriage to me.
I got old in my tree, and was thankful the lightning had spared me all those
years, and that the storm had not taken me away from my sanctuary, as much as
I was curious about what my life would have been like with Jack beside me.
And then, as happens to everyone, I died.
No one knew I was dead until my vocal cords disintegrated because, until
then, I continued my commentary as a decomposing corpse from my rocking chair
on my balcony. When they reached me, I was nearly all bone, and for the first
time, silent, grieving my own death.
At the coroner's office, they boiled off what little flesh and tendon
remained and strung me up from a steel rod in the high school biology
classroom. And then, my mourning done, my need to speak returned, and so I
spoke. But what I said was unintelligible to others, a ceaseless click-clack
from my crumbling jaw. The noise I made, my new "speaking" voice,
reverberated down the halls and out the schoolhouse door, through the streets
and across the main square (and seemed to elicit in the city folk that primal
urge to flee, as if I'd become the embodiment of death, or death itself, and
was now their predator). My click-clack, click-clack sent once reasonable
students and teachers screaming in terror as they flew from classrooms,
swarming and congesting streets to flee the city by way of the roads crossing
the mountains. Babies were crushed, tots dragged along gravel for miles on
their knees, old people trampled like they'd shown up at a Kiss Concert
instead of the philharmonic. Nothing could deter them, and so they fled from
their homes, from their lives, from me.
I stayed. It is from this classroom that I tell you about the city I come
from, because it is important and because I still can.
Strung up from my rod, the number and variety of human voices outside has
dwindled until all I hear is the incessant click-clack of my jaw. The school
is empty now and silent, preserved as a monument to better times, each pencil
in its place, journals open to blank pages it will take more than an eternity
to fill. And except for the click-clack of my own disintegrating jaw, quieter
every day as chunks of bone fall to the floor, bit by bit, turning to dust--
besides that and the occasional flapping of loose papers tumbling from
bulletin boards and out the doors with the occasional gust of wind, away from
this place-- except for those things, all is quiet. Eventually even the wind
and the rain will flee.
You can imagine how an empty place, an abandoned city, my city, sounds and looks when even the wind and rain have fled. Like a city bursting to tell stories which will never be told. A city of shadows and echoes. The paper fantasies of a child.
Michelle Rick has a B.A. in literature and creative writing from Northwestern University and is currently a candidate for an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The New School University. Her fiction has been published in the Mississippi Review Web, an anthology, "Summer's Love, Winter's Discontent", and a Pocket Books/MTV anthology due out in August. She is working on a collection of short stories and a novel and lives in Greenwich Village. Contact the author at: MRick212@aol.com.