At night, the city could squeeze him, smother him in a dumb-box, make him believe that marionettes could come to life in mirrors. The city was 39 stories of dead moths with neon wings. The city was masked people trapped inside stucco. Or a basement apartment with a ceiling painted with stars. The city was self-reflective. The city could curve or erase its corners. The city could ignore its own traffic lights.
The spaces in the city were erratic, bred pimply kids who smashed windows and licked their fingers. The spaces in the city sounded like a thousand comas.
The detective thought: If someone built a skyscraper all the way to the moon, could it fit every inhabitant of the city? And what would happen to all the spaces? Would the city become one space? Would the city be able to contain itself?
He was searching for the girl. It was strictly off the clock. He was a detective who solved his hardest cases while sitting in an all-night diner and thinking, “Is this my darkest hour?” The diner was shaped like a caboose and shone like aluminum. The caboose was built from the rags of an immigrant who lived in Klein Deutschland, three New World neighborhoods over. The running joke was that the coffee was made from stolen train whistles.
At the counter, the detective heard a frizzy-haired man say to his spider-thin leggy date, “Do you ever miss me?”
She left and he ordered another coffee.
The girl he was looking for was twenty-two years young or twenty-two years too late. He flipped through mental notes. She once volunteered as a candy striper in an uptown hospital and worked as a tour guide in the Nowhere Gallery. She may have felt out of breath often. He imagined her in mint cotton dresses at parties, or in steampunk gear, a puff-sleeve shrug. Her smile would be too plastic to be believable. But everyone loved to follow her drag. Boys smoked electronic cigarettes, then coiled themselves around porous ceramic animals on the hard floor, little throw rugs made from hemp. The party would end in a religion of emptiness. The girl would explain her quietude as “My mother loves to iron me, fold me into thirds. She thinks I’m her dress, but she can no longer fit. My father left us after catching a virus called Mad to be Alone. My mother always said they were incompatible. He was a sloppy dresser.”
At the party, the girl would deny her flirtatious looks in corners.
The detective imagined the girl imagining. She imagined that under the city there were glass snakes, multi-colored, with slow ecstatic venom. She could live for the moment and die without a second thought. The city could expand inside her brain.
She might go home with a boy who was too stuck up, even for brownstones, but able to outfox his own shadow on the dance floor. In his room, he’d shed his pseudo-artistic selves, expose his soul, if there were any left. She’d dub-step on his bed, become his best phantom. After shutting the door on the way out, he would climax. She could breathe again.
The detective scanned over more mental notes. He also memorized his own drawings of girls sinking under the city. These were not done by hand.
She carried a knife made from the metal parts of junked cars. Her mother said, Never go unarmed. Her mother was a racist. She hated blind victims. She was once mugged near a cluster of buildings that curved outward, that minutes before seemed to breathe in her ear. Or whisper, “Give me everything you have.”
The city allowed her to live.
The detective remembered the mother as a solemn woman with a long neck and a body slim as a wine bottle. Was she uncorked? Did she leak out? Did she reflect in city puddles?
Did she stay dry for years?
Did she love to exaggerate that an old lover once caught a bullet between his teeth?
Yes to everything, he thought.
The detective lit a cigarette and listened to the pulse of the city match his own. A car whizzed by, the radio screaming a song by Moby. His thoughts turned incongruous but rich with possibility. He thought of butterflies and sewer water. He remembered being in the opera house near a slum when a woman fainted from too much aural soaring beauty. He remembered catching a criminal on the fifth floor of a parking garage. He handcuffed him to a stolen car. The city giggled and hawed.
The detective walked alone in a park. He passed a row of flats and garage-apartments. He passed a leaning Tower of Toys. He wanted a child. No, he didn’t. He passed the only Automat left in the city.
He had read the girl’s letters. The mother had retrieved them from loose-leaf notebooks. They contained words like “dingbat,” “Mannitoba’s Bar,” and “a head as big as the Polish Ballroom on what and what avenue.”
The detective said, “What do they mean?”
The mother said, “What do they mean?”
The detective knew that from then on, all clues were internal. The thoughts of the city wheezed by.
He walked down long cobblestone streets with garbage cans overflowing, pre-war apartment buildings with hidden eyes, stealthy squatters. A homeless man was too dead to hold out a paper cup. The city said to keep the shades drawn.
The detective heard a girl’s voice coming from the thin void between buildings. She was either talking to herself or to everyone no longer there. The voice was not clear, could have originated from somewhere within. He recognized the timbre and the slurring. The voice seemed to surround him the way the city always did. He could never stand above the city.
He approached slowly. A bird fluttered somewhere above, and the detective was tempted to draw his gun. He crouched and lumbered on. His feet were soundless. Less than taps.
She was sitting with knees drawn up, hands clasped around. She was shivering. Her eyes were big enough, soulful enough to take him in. Perhaps she was too empty to be scared. Perhaps she was drunk on her own emptiness. Her emptiness enveloped him.
He gathered her in his arms, carried her along the sidewalk, cradling her the way the city once held him. He waved down a cab. The streets, after hours, snored and heaved.
They drove to her mother’s apartment in Noho.
She asked, “Why haven’t you been visiting on weekends? Because Mother doesn’t miss you?”
“What have you been drinking?” he asked.
She stared into his face and gulped.
“Fuzzy something. Fuzzy Sunrises. Fuzzy Wuzzy Peach Sunrises. Sunrises are naturally peach-colored, aren’t they? Or does it depend where you live?”
“Three. No. Forty-three. No. I can’t remember. Swear to God.”
He gave her a slow-train of a smile.
She returned half of it.
“So where have you been? When I think of you, of you not being home anymore, I could kill you. I could kill myself. I could kill Mother. But she would never die completely. She’s a self-regenerating flower. A real peach.”
“I’ve been working on so many cases like yours. So many missing girls. I’ve been looking for you for 39 hours straight.”
She leaned her head back against the cab’s cushioned seat. She whistled and repeated, “39 hours straight.”
“It must feel like a lifetime in tight shoes.”
Her profile was soft in the dim light through the side window. Almost an apparition. She turned to face him. Her lips were pinkish and moist.
“I’m not a case, Daddy.”
“No. You’re not,” he said. “I hardly know you anymore. Or myself.”
“Get to know me, again. I could sneak out, take your clothes to the tailor’s, iron your thrift shop shirts. I could fold you in half and share some closet space. Mother says I’m a hoarder. I’m so cluttered… You look like shit.”
“I always said this. During the day, you look more like your mother when she was your age. At night, you remind me more of me. At night, your face can be so hard to see.”
She stunned him with a grin.
“We’re both dense. We’re both loners, aren’t we? You want to hear a fairy tale? There was once an only child who always ran away and became frightened by her reflections in other people’s mirrors. And so she always ran back. Wasn’t that neat? Please don’t lecture me about drinking. I have the rest of my life to be sober.”
“The city can swallow you when you’re not looking, when you’re careless, when you can’t face yourself in tall buildings…Your birthday is next week, isn’t it?”
The cab pulled over. The engine kept humming.
She said she loved him and they embraced.
She left, stumbled up a flight of red brick steps, fumbled with a set of keys. She entered the warmth of the apartment building and she was no longer his alone.
The city stretched its streets and woke up.
The city remembered its name.
Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey. He has been published in Elimae, Smokelong Quarterly, This Zine Will Change Your Life, Blaze Vox, Matchbook, and elsewhere. He loves 50s Sci-Fi movies, manga comics, and pre-punk garage bands of the 60s. He blogs at upatberggasse19.blogspot.com.