P. G. Hurh
It's 11 o'clock. Do you know where your souls are?
I look down at my new shoes while I absently finger the transistor radio in the breast pocket of my army jacket. The shoes are new, but they're cheap--red canvas with white rubber soles. I push off my toes and bob up and down a couple of times. I can hear the shoes squeak slightly on the wet pavement. They're bad sneakers, but they're the best I've had in a long time.
The rain's coming down in a light drizzle, pulling smog out of the sky and sprinkling it on my back in little patters. It feels good.
I look up Canal Street and see a few others like me shambling toward the station. I sigh and start on my way again, still fiddling with the radio. It won't do any good, I know. I sold the battery--that's how I could afford these shoes. Twenty dollars for a nine-volt battery. Seems like a lot to me.
The New Lifers gave me the radio this morning. I was sitting in front of the Hancock, legs spread out in front of me with the heating sun just beginning to make it uncomfortable. The rich couple walked toward me, arms around each other. I would have said they were strolling, but they also had a purpose in their stride, like they had someplace to go but were in no hurry to get there. The woman was gazing around as they walked, looking at the tops of buildings, window awnings, deserted storefronts, even out toward the lake. She was taking it all in.
Her partner was smiling too, but instead of looking around at the city, he was watching her face. It was like they were out for a walk in the park, instead of slogging along through deserted city streets on a hot Sunday. Both of them were dressed all in white, the man sweating in a crisp suit with turned up collar and the woman floating in a gauze-like dress.
I remember the way the man flipped the antique plastic radio over in his hand. He looked at it with fondness and tossed it back into the air. It turned over slowly and smacked back into his hand. They were close enough for me to hear what the man said then. He said, "I don't think they'll ever reproduce that feeling in the AbovePlane."
"What feeling is that?" his companion asked.
"That feeling I get when I flip Uncle John's radio in the air, watch it turn over and then snap back into my hand." He flipped the radio again, emphasizing the snap. "You just can't reproduce that."
"Have faith, dear. The Lord works in mysterious ways."
I thought that they hadn't even noticed me laying there even though they had to step out of their way to avoid me. That's the way it is with New Lifers. I've seen them before, headed towards the new pier out on Lake Michigan, the AbovePlane Odeon. Especially about a week ago--they came in droves. All wearing their white outfits and strolling along looking out above everything and everyone. They were determined, it seemed, to only see the pleasant things in life. They looked right over us street folk.
I was wrong about this couple, though. As they passed me, the man turned around and looked down. "Here," he said, offering the small brown radio. "I won't be needing this where we're going." He waved it around a little in front of my face and finally dropped it onto my lap. It bounced off my leg and clattered to the sidewalk. I stared up at the white-suited figure, and he spoke again. "Guess you've already given up all your material possessions."
He turned and quickly trotted to catch up with the woman.
I snorted, trying to find humor in his condescension. "Hey!" I yelled after them. But they disappeared around the corner, and I laughed to myself.
It started to rain then.
I'm walking along the side of the old North Western train station now, my bad sneakers squeaking me forward. I picture the image of the front doors even before I turn the corner. In my mind they're as they used to be: panes of flat glass and flashy windows, two sets of revolving doors on either side.
My feet stutter to a halt when I see the piles of junk jammed in the doors. Cardboard and cold plastic sheets have turned them into a pair of grimy hutches, homes for the homeless. But the homes are empty, builders and occupants perhaps the promise of a better place, as I am.
I pass on by the mess and push through one of the flat glass doors. Cool air hits my wet clothes and a chill runs through me. I shiver like a wet dog and let go of the door handle. Ahead of me are two escalators. It is impossible to tell which is going up and which is headed down, since neither is moving. Several people, wet and tattered like me, climb the steep corrugated stairs. Some are clutching possessions close to their bodies, others empty-handed.
As I watch, an older woman with a green scarf pulled about her head stumbles. The man behind her hesitates for a moment and sets his wrinkled brown paper bag on the escalator handrail. He steadies the woman with his arms. They both begin to move up together.
The bag slides down the handrail for a couple of feet and then falls off the edge. When it hits the floor, the helping man doesn't even look behind him.
Around the base of the escalators are gathered various junk vehicles. Shopping carts, small wagons, and even a gardening wheelbarrow clutter the floor. I pick a route around these and start up the unmoving stairs. As I climb, I look over the handrail to see how far the paper bag had dropped. Pretty far.
My hand goes for the radio in my pocket. I look at it and give it a flip. Without the battery, it doesn't quite have the same snap. I place it on the handrail, expecting it to slide but it doesn't. I almost leave it behind, but then, on second thought, I slip it back into my pocket. Maybe it will be of some use in the suburbs. I give the silent dial a turn and wonder if I really should have sold the battery at Jack's.
The owner of the pawn shop was an acquaintance of mine--he had given me a good price for my wedding ring. But when I entered the shop this morning, radio in hand, he just glared at me and walked quickly behind his fenced in counter.
"Hey, Jack!" I grinned.
"What is it, Charlie?" he growled as he stretched to jam some package he was carrying to a higher shelf.
"Got an antique radio for you, if you want it."
Jack turned and peered out through the chain-link. "What? That?" he exclaimed roughly. "That ain't worth nothin'. Ain't nothin' worth nothin' anymore."
"Jack, man. This thing must be 40 years old, and listen." I switched on the unit. "It still works!" The radio put out a weak fizzle of static and then latched onto a transmitting frequency. The excited words of an evangelist jockey backed by the vibrating notes of a pipe organ sprang forth, loud in the dusty shop.
"...believe it. The one true Word of our Lord. Give up your earthly possessions, let go of your devilish greed and jealousy! Come join the AbovePlane, the New Lifers! All are equal in the eyes of God..."
I flicked the radio off. Jack had turned his back on me and returned to his inventory. "Not even a couple of bucks, Jack?"
"Nope, not for that--" Jack hesitated, and then he turned around slowly. "Hey," he said. "That thing got a battery?"
I turned the radio over in my hand. "Course it does. I told you it was ancient, didn't I?" I snapped open the battery compartment and pulled out the small nine-volt rechargeable. I let the battery dangle by its leads so Jack could take a look.
"How much you want for it?"
"You got it." He slid a 20-dollar bill under the security fence.
"You don't even want the radio?"
"Nope, just this." Jack waved the battery at me and then turned to store it away in a drawer behind him.
"Don't know. Just a hunch I got, Charlie."
Maybe I should have held out for more. But then, I didn't have the slightest clue that he'd even want that lousy battery. It's always been like that all my life. I'm not a stupid guy. I just can't make people out. I can't figure out what makes them do what they do. Generally, I just follow along and do what everyone else is doing. I figure they must have a pretty good reason.
Not Jack, though. He always did his own thing. Maybe that's why he still runs his shop here, in the middle of an empty city.
I turned to leave, but a thought struck me and I walked back to the counter. "Hey, Jack? You ever think about this AbovePlane stuff?"
"What, Charlie?" Jack let out a sigh and stuck his pen behind his ear. "What now?"
"You know. All this New Lifer stuff... do you buy it?"
"Fuck, Charlie. That's just a bunch of bullshit to get us to migrate out of the city." Jack leaned back and slid a skinny leg over the seat of a high stool. "Way I see it, Charlie, all that talk about leaving your possessions behind? It don't make any sense. In that AbovePlane place, they're supposed to reproduce the world in its entirety, only 'lectronically. You don't really even have a body, I guess. Seems to me, Charlie, any world, 'lectronic or not, is going to have possessions of some kind. There'll still be the rich and the poor, the know-alls and know-nots, the pretty and the ugly. Thing is, son, human is human."
I thought about what he said for a moment, but before I could reply he lifted his leg off the stool and made like he was going to walk into the darkness of his back office. He hesitated though and half turned to me.
"My wife joined the New Lifers," Jack said without emotion. "She went in on the first Wave. Haven't heard from her since. Maybe she's in some kind of automatic heaven, maybe not. All I know is that all that talk about whole suburbs joining up and leaving their homes has got to be hogwash. Some political media shit just to push all of us out to some government project or something..." Jack turned to face me completely. "You heading out to the 'burbs too, Charlie?"
He must have read the hesitation on my face because, without me even saying anything, he screwed up his face and said, "Can't you see the hole they're digging just for you?"
When I didn't reply, he just turned back around and disappeared into his dingy office. I wanted to ask him who they were, but I didn't want to upset him further. I quickly shoved the twenty in one of my pockets and headed for the front door. That Jack, I thought. He sure does his own thing.
There's only two trains in the entire station. From far away, they look like toys. But as I near, they fill my vision and I can't see more than one car without turning my head. The train doors are wide open and warm yellow light spills out of each one. In several doorways I can see dark human figures.
I hurry to the nearest train door and step up. Inside, I press past two people and climb up the stairs. I find an empty seat and then look down at the people on the lower level.
For the most part, they're like me. Clothes layered on, stain over stain. Skin patchy with dust. Faces somber, yet proud. But as I look closer, I also see the differences. The woman with a nervous tic at the corner of her eye. A young man in sandals reading a thick and torn book. Two children in a shoving match for the window seat. Me in an orange stocking knit cap and a green army jacket fiddling with a defunct transistor radio.
As I scan the passengers, I catch the eye of another rider. His eyes seem to light up as he recognizes me. It's Eddie from over by the stadium. He nods his head towards me and a clump of greasy black hair shifts, revealing a widening bald spot. He smooths it over and grins up at me. Then he turns to the window as the train shudders and starts to move.
I spent a whole night under the northeast ramp of the Loop with Eddie once. It had been raining and neither of us wanted to get wet, plus we had a bottle of Tickle Pink. We spent the night getting drunk and as we got drunk, we talked about what it was like. It was Eddie's idea that as you got drunk, you went into your own little world just a little bit different than everyone else's. That way you saw the same things except differently than you did when you were sober. He called this creating your own reality. He also said that when you got drunk with another person you both could talk yourselves into the same little reality. Eddie seemed really sure of this and it seemed to make sense to me, so I told him to go ahead and create our own little reality just for us, just for that night... and he said he already had.
The train is going straight through to the end, I think to myself after about 15 minutes. Train stations rush right by and the train never slows. Shouldn't take much longer to get to the end of the line. Probably only another 15 minutes or so.
I feel like I should be nervous, not knowing what's waiting for me once we get there. But I'm not. I look around at the other passengers and they seem to give me strength. We're all in this rushing metal cylinder together, their faces seem to say. Even Tourettes Tommy over in the balcony seat across from me has silenced his ravings for this ride, his lips just barely moving.
The train slows after a time and I get up from my seat and move toward the exit with the others. Someone shoves me from behind just as the train groans to a stop and my nose pushes up into the sweaty neck of a large woman in front of me. I turn to yell at the person who shoved me, but when I see it's just a kid I smile and move forward with the others.
By the time I'm off the train most of the passengers have scattered from the Geneva station and are wandering toward the dusky outlines of frame houses and trees. The air blows clear and cool on me and I find that my jacket has dried during the trip. I step out off the concrete platform and walk briskly to the glow of a corner street light. Others pass me, looking at the large houses that line the wide avenue. Trees hang their branches low over us and rustle in the wind.
I see Eddie on the porch of an old, majestic house. He knocks tentatively and, when no one answers, opens the door and disappears inside. The glow of an electric lamp flickers on from inside and shines out onto the porch. I look away and head further up the avenue. Others are approaching the silent homes, some in groups of four or five. The light rattle of knuckles on wood joins the surrounding chorus of crickets as they knock and enter. No one is here to protest this mass immigration.
I walk away from the others and eventually turn down a few side streets until I'm walking in a more middle-class neighborhood. Small, older houses line both sides of the street and just beyond the houses on my right is a wide river with trees along its bank. I can hear it gurgle up against its banks softly.
A few of the houses are occupied, or at least I think they are. Some of the windows are lit up and I can even hear a few voices floating from off the front porches. The voices sound content.
I stop walking and look around me. The house on my right seems empty, lawn grass long with river weeds sticking up even higher. Its windows are dark and small. I can barely see them in the evening's dim light. It seems like a nice place. Perhaps a little damp so near the river.
I walk up to the front door and knock. It seems I can tell from the hollow echo that no one is home. I enter, my hand searching for a light switch on the immediate right. I find one and flip it up. The room lights up with a yellow glow from the hanging light in the small foyer.
I step through the foyer and find a small living room with brown furniture. Covering half of the near wall is a telescreen. Over it are two interlocked silver crosses and a small engraved sign reading We can only become one on the AbovePlane. And underneath the screen, Ascension to the New Life is only assured by the Departure of the Old Life.
I quickly check through the other rooms, finding some signs of stale life in each one--a smear of bluish toothpaste on a white towel, a black, shiny slipper peaking out from under the bed. In each room hangs the interlocked crosses and a small blank telescreen.
The refrigerator has a few items in it, including three bottles of expensive-looking beer. I pick one out, grab the magnetized bottle opener from the front of the fridge, and walk back out to the living room.
The remote control is a complex arrangement of colored buttons. Someone has painted silver interlocking crosses on its back. I pick a large red button on the front and the wide telescreen across from me blares to life. I sit down on the couch and open the beer.
The screen displays a pair of gargantuan locked crosses. They rotate slowly in three dimensions. Under the symbol is a rapidly increasing nine digit number followed by the words Souls Saved By The New Life. I take a sip of my beer and watch the number click over to the one billion soul mark. When it does, the screen glows white for an instant and an ominously deep and mechanical voice speaks from the screen.
"Maximum capacity of the AbovePlane World Odeon reached."
The screen then blinks a series of words at me. They illuminate the room with a strobing glow:
Admittance Now Restricted
To Authorized Souls Only
Suddenly the telescreen flicks to a field of static snow. The screen's pixels flutter through a random pattern of grays and whites. I think I see a face imaged there. Maybe my wife's... maybe my own.
Then, abruptly, the power fails. The screen darkens and the lights go out. I hear the refrigerator in the kitchen wind down to a clicking halt.
I take another sip of beer and put my feet up on the end of the couch. I look at my pair of bad sneakers in the afterimage glow of the telescreen and pull the transistor radio out from my pocket. I remember the man dressed in white that gave it to me and wonder if this is his house... if this is his old life. I smile and thumb the volume dial back and forth. I wonder if they finally got rid of us or if we got rid of them.
I flip the radio up into the air and feel it smack back into my hand. I close my fingers over it in the darkness and swallow a mouthful of warming beer. Through an open window I can hear the raised voices of my new neighborhood as people gather outside in the street. Some sound scared, others are just angry at the power loss. Someone suggests building a bonfire. I smile again and get up to join them. As I walk out onto the porch, I hear a woman's voice ask if anyone's got a radio. I raise my little brown transistor up in one hand and come off the porch, bad sneakers squeaking loudly. No one seems to notice me, so I cough noisily. Bodies turn to look at me, faces bright in the moonlight. Somebody shines a flashlight on my face. I smile at them and ask if anyone's got a battery.
P. G. Hurh (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a mechanical design engineer at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. In his spare time, he likes to sample good beer, play his bass guitar, ride his bike, and design instrumentation and beam-feedback devices for high-energy particle accelerators.
InterText stories written by P. G. Hurh: "Cube" (v3n6), "Little Sun" (v4n3), "Bad Sneakers" (v4n6).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 P. G. Hurh.