III

IMG_0290The Middle

Who’s Louise this time?

The closed book, the tunnel

back to the grandmother,

the waterflood

raising ghosts liked dried sheaves,

the peeling paint that shows

the canvas bare, the name

a mother pulled from her blood

and thought was hers, but turned

a blank face to the window

every time. The slate

where everyone’s written

except for me.

Laurinda Lind lives so far north in New York State that only her birth certificate keeps her from being Canadian. Some poetry publications/ acceptances were in Ascent, Cold Mountain Review, Comstock Review, Liminality, Main Street Rag, Mudfish, Off the Coast, Origins, Paterson Literary Review, Plainsongs, Ship of Fools, and Welter.

Anomalous Cities

Exped

Once a sleepy village in the middle of nowhere, a way station on a country road that might see a farm wagon pass now and then, or a lone lost driver in a battered old Ford, Exped leaped into the headlights in the 1950s, when highway engineers with blunt felt markers chose it as the crossing of two major routes. Overnight, the need for gas, food and lodging—the holy triad of modern transportation—inspired a cluster of service stations, truck stops, greasy spoons, cheap motels, convenience stores, and a souvenir stand for baskets.

A few decades on, after the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, executives of a major domestic airline stared at a roadmap of North America. Clean-shaven men in white shirts and dark wool suits who had never laid eyes on the dirt-poor place or checked the prevailing weather patterns, they decided Exped was the ideal hub for the flights they planned to inaugurate. There was no earthly reason to fly to Exped, nothing much to do there and no one to visit, but it happened to lie equidistant from the cities they already served or wished to dominate. They were in league with shipping companies and the Postal Service, who saw the little crossroad in the same big picture.

This corporate cabal of movers and shakers bought up land, talked quietly to authorities, and amid the cornfields created an airport. It took off, as they say. Success was mad and immediate. The need for maintenance specialists, service technicians, traffic controllers, housekeeping staff, warehouse personnel, clerks, guards, and a host of workers, permanent and temporary, quickly outstripped the supply on the ground. A city sprang up with no spine or skeleton, no civic soul or municipal heart. The disorganized builders gave no thought to how thousands of people would live in Exped. They had no intention of living there themselves.

The result is a hodge-podge, a muddle and a mess, a kind of encampment or instant slum that oozes around the airport and the highways. A maze of back roads and rutted gravel lanes, Exped defies any notion of urbanity. All buildings are jerry-built, and the few attempts at public works like a park or a school are hasty afterthoughts. Commerce takes place in dingy malls, roadside shacks, and nationally recognized fast-food chains with inadequate parking and barren median strips. Drainage and utilities are utterly absent. To say that Exped is a no-frills town would be an understatement. That it functions at all comes as a shock.

What it lacks in charm, however, Exped makes up for in hustle and bustle, the feverish thrill of movement for its own sake, of passengers and packages, of human lives and freight. It is not a place to linger so much as a point in transit. Walt Whitman gave it his stamp of approval before it existed in his Song of the Open Road:

Allons! We must not stop here,

However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot

remain here . . .

Demand for overnight delivery means the airport and support facilities are active night and day. Exped is awake twenty-four hours, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. If the city never sleeps, its inhabitants doze in fits and starts, as jumbo jets roar over their heads, and traffic rushes and crawls around them.

The lounge-like style of this city of trailers, motels, bars, and furnished rooms for rent gave birth to a flair for entertainment. Live music is ubiquitous—a singer on every street corner with guitar and harmonica, and bands in every dive that offers drinks at little tables. Stand-up comics take the microphone on weeknights, and troupes of young actors improvise revues with props they pick from audience pockets or pluck from thin air. Like a discount retailer, Exped has a soundtrack, the tunes and songs of people on the move.

Jumbledore

Jumbledore may not be big, but it vexes as much as a city of millions. A cancerous urban agglomeration, it exasperates residents, visitors, and those with environmental passion. It is a city of cross-purposes, of pavements torn up and cornices fallen down, a cacophony of traffic, and a wilderness of one-way streets. The hapless traveler is lost in a minute. The accident rate is a crying shame. There is no direct route between the two train stations, and no way at all from the airport to the center. Bus service is unreliable. Cab drivers routinely run red lights and fail to signal their left turns. Private cars and trucks are a menace. Pedestrians fear for their lives.

Needless to say, Jumbledore lacks a coherent city plan. It started as a fort and trading post, a slapdash camp on the wild frontier that now lies smack in the middle. Planners and critics say the city clings to a dated image that was always a myth. On principle, the city fathers refuse to enact a zoning ordinance. They say it would inhibit growth, the unfettered expression of free will, and the natural tendency of each and all to seek their own kind.

Brothels and churches stand cheek by jowl. A quiet residential street is prone to disruption by a nightclub, a high-rise, or a quick-change automobile tire and repair shop. The city skyline is a hideous joke. Eclectic styles are a laughing-stock. The Opera House won a mock award from a prestigious architectural panel for bad taste.

Bridges crumble. Potholes gape. Concrete barriers block traffic lanes for no reason. The river is inaccessible, lined by vacant warehouses. Factories turn out obsolete widgets, products banned from domestic sale, and consumer goods that break in a week. In Jumbledore, as profits sputter, business as usual is the rule. Unemployment rises to levels that spark unrest in the underclass. The strongest economic sector is the demolition of perfectly good and structurally sound offices and apartments to make way for parking plazas.

The city fathers are chronically split. They cannot agree what the problem is, much less the solution. Municipal staff wrote a multi-page draft of a vision statement, but the document stalled in endless debate. The council reflects their constituency of hucksters, impresarios, real estate moguls, discount barons, gambling sharks, promoters of sports, and those engaged in what they call the hospitality industry, a euphemism the press derides.

To fill the void left by government, rival gangs control swathes of the city, whole districts, neighborhoods, and suburban malls. The gangs are controlled by ordinary housewives, sweet-faced grandmothers, middle-aged women in lacquered hair and designer outfits, and tough old ladies who have seen it all. They assert their authority through massive guilt trips, manipulation, and emotional blackmail. They quiver with indignation. They scold and berate the men who bicker. They incite demonstrations of frank disgust. They say they cannot believe the incredible lack of good faith on the part of those entrusted with power.

The next generation will have to save the city. Young people are its only hope. The wrath of the mothers of Jumbledore is impressive, all right, but they can only do so much. The city fathers have been placed on notice. The gangs that deliver basic services in a town that fails to mind its manners have started to infiltrate the system.

Avant-garde artists move downtown and colonize the gritty streets. Girls in suits with slim briefcases argue in court and flex their smarts. Sensitive guys in jeans with clipboards canvas community needs. They fill out questionnaires. They brainstorm. Ever so slowly, the city that threatens to grind to a halt shudders and lurches forward.

Quaret-Terauq

To the casual visitor, Quaret-Terauq is a city that lies on both banks of a river, two equal and barely distinguishable halves that make up a whole. To citizens, however, Quaret-Terauq is the Twin Cities, sisters locked in a fearsome embrace, a union of complete opposites, yoked forever like yin and yang. Which is it, then: two sides of a coin, or a dialectical synthesis?

Smack in the middle of the continent, in rolling plains and wide open spaces, where shaggy bison once roamed in herds that stretched to the distant horizon, Quaret-Terauq lies exposed to all manner of weather, placid and violent. Summer is hot, with pitiless sky and broiling sun, and often a thunderstorm late in the day, with screaming wind and hail. Autumn brings a halcyon spell of clear, dry days and the threat of wildfire. A sudden blizzard brings a long cold winter, as the ground freezes hard and the wind howls. Spring is capricious, a brief flirtation of daffodils and daisies, between the sharp thaw and the enervating heat. And always the wind blows brisk from the west, or straight down from the North Pole. People enjoy the change of seasons, and the average temperature is okay. When pressed, they admit the extremes get tiresome.

The city arose as a crossing point, an active hub, a place where means of travel collide and goods transship. Late in the nineteenth century, railroads converged on the nascent town. Their effect was tremendous. As a knot in the network of rail transportation, Quaret-Terauq received a flood of raw materials, young men and women fresh off the farm, and immigrants from all over the world. Like a fast-growing organism rooted in place, the city absorbed and reordered this flood as its larger self. It seems all of a piece, a medal minted in the year 1900, a coherent urban statement. Yet citizens tell a different story.

Quaret began as mill town, they say, for agricultural products of the plains, especially grains. It added meat-packing, lumber yards, sawmills, and related businesses like canning and pulp. The railroads inspired a natural progression to manufacturing: wood products, furniture, paper, and containers like boxes and cans. Quaret was a genuine blue-collar town, a warren of factories, mills, and warehouses, a roll-up-your-sleeves place to get things done. Workers and brawlers set the social tone, with their uncouth manners and earthy speech. Taverns for the men and churches for the women, each provided its brand of entertainment. Plain red brick and rough-hewn stone were the building materials of choice, with no pretension to style.

Terauq, on the other hand, was created by fiat as the capital. From the start, it catered to the needs of lawyers and real estate brokers, those engaged in banking and finance, tycoons and moguls, and a host of minor department heads, inspectors, clerks, and executive secretaries. Inexorably, the political city got into publishing. Just as surely, it acquired a university. Terauq was the quintessential white-collar town, a hive of offices and polished corridors, of red plush lobbies and conference rooms. Polite banter and genteel manners became the norm. People liked nothing better than to sit down and talk, to spread an issue on the table and trace its parameters. In architecture, the Beaux-Arts School was the standard of taste, with classical columns and smooth-faced limestone.

So much for the origin myth. Two settlements were founded in the selfsame year, and they legally merged a few years later. They joined their names like a married couple. They grew together, and they shared all things in common. Today, the loveliest parks and residential streets are in working-class Quaret, and the worst slums are in upper-crust Terauq. Businesses are distributed throughout. The figures for population, wealth, and crime are equal on both sides of the river. The downtown core, with its shopping, theaters, and office towers, straddles the Main Street Bridge at the center like a modern-day Rialto.

It is wise, however, to flatter the inhabitants. Loyalty runs deep, and local pride is fierce. Let Quaret be Quaret and Terauq be Terauq. If you find it impossible to tell them apart, explain that you were born yesterday.

Xibamboo

Xibamboo is a ghost city—not a ghost town which once thrived and now lies abandoned, but a complete urban construct that has yet to be inhabited. It covers a vast area with brand new construction, all of it vacant. Like a body that lacks a pulse, Xibamboo is an organism with a steel skeleton, a mass of masonry, a skin of glass, and a brand new outfit of pantiles, parapets, and seamed metal roofing. The city is wired for telephone and data, connected to the electrical grid, plumbed for water and liquid waste, linked to utilities, and tethered to tomorrow. Silent and still with expectation, it lacks only the human touch. It longs for a muscular arm to crank open the main cutoff valve and throw the master switch.

Only yesterday, this was a place of fields and pastures, dotted with villages of rude mud huts. A lone farmer plowed his field with an ox, while his wife hoed vegetables in a garden plot. Naked infants played in the dirt, where chickens scratched for bugs, while older brothers and sisters recited grammar lessons in a one-room school. The scene was peaceful, if dreadfully poor, with only a tree or a flock of birds to mark the horizon.

Now rows of identical skyscrapers sprout from acres of land, each tower as blank and bland as a cornstalk. Apartment buildings face each other with uncluttered balconies. Yards are clear of toys and games. Asphalt lots intended for parking are innocent of cars. Pristine playgrounds pine for toddlers, while shallow pools sparkle in vain. Ornamental shrubs with the tags still attached grow rangy for lack of attention.

Empty streets extend to the open edge. They run for no reason from zero to infinity. Wide boulevards wait with eerie calm for a bicycle, a van with a loudspeaker mounted on top, a stray dog, an official motorcade. A fully equipped and deserted airport, train and bus stations of austere quiet, and a light rail line of untouched purity, all languish for absent throngs, for even a single traveler. Bridges lead nowhere, to streets that were paved but never built up, to weed-choked blocks of lots for sale, to crazy fences that enclose nothing, to sheets of standing water that reflect the sky.

Shopping malls loiter with nothing to buy and no crowds ever. A soccer stadium is filled to the brim with row after row of comfortable seats, excellent sight lines, and a clear field of play, but no sport teams, no rowdy spectators, and not a media celebrity in sight. It looks as though some plague had wiped out the entire population, or a deadly radioactive haze killed all the people and spared the infrastructure.

Did the government’s central planners run amok? Did far-sighted businessmen who can afford to sit on colossal investments miscalculate? Millions of square meters of leasable space that nobody wants to rent stand idle. Residential districts designed to shelter thousands to modern standards of convenience and safety house only echoes of passing storms and a stray shaft of sunlight.

A solitary guard patrols the premises with a flashlight like a cudgel. An employee of a private security firm, he despairs of finding a burglar or vandal, someone to arrest or describe to the authorities, whose office is elsewhere. Does he wander like Diogenes with a lantern in broad daylight in search of an honest man? At this point, he yearns not for truth, but to corner another living soul.

Did Xibamboo die before it was born? Is the empty city a painful mistake from the recent past, or rife with promise for a whiz-bang future? In the rapidly urbanizing, commercializing nation, will people pour in from the countryside? Or will the government snatch them from their farms, bulldoze their villages, load them on buses, and abandon them in the wilderness of skyscrapers?

Perhaps Xibamboo is the ideal city, the real utopia of untarnished hope. Perhaps the tide of humanity will turn and flood the empty city with life. Someday, it simply has to.

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction (UK).

Scintillating

We have become like thunder

an echo of the lightning we once sparked,

moving in the smouldering split

of a burnt tree.

We jump from cloud to cloud,

and once we were swift enough

to do so, our feet barely covered

by a condensed sheet.

We breathed in the air, crisp

with fresh discharge, lovers

of Tesla jerks and alternative currents,

shuddering the skin.

But we failed to lay lines beforehand,

didn’t speak the ordinary words

that would earth the emissions

of light and heat.

We holster a pain that the other

could heal if only they could turn

and speak words like love and not

have them catch fire.

Glen Wilson was highly commended in The 2015 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Competition. He has won the Poetry Space competition and wasshortlisted for The Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2014 and the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing 2016.

Morpheus Rising

I burrow into place

nestle beneath

your breath and billows

of a down comforter

nest in the crisp

scent of sunlight

from the clothesline

Cozying up

I close my eyes

snug to your ribs

that arch mountain strong

beneath my ear

your heart

drum calls

spirits of the ancestors

to watch over us

two sleeping children

claim peace

amidst the din

of world calamity

Your breath rises

descends adagio

a slow brush

in steady time

my heartbeat

calms to your

lead as we swing

into slumber

I am content

as a cat

curled atop

fresh linen

in a

laundry basket

P.A. Moffatt is currently editing a chapbook of poetry, It’s All in the Ginseng, and a memoir, Almighty Minus: A Spiritual Journey in Vertical Time.

Retracing Dandakaranya
For Titti

I search for your footmarks
In the arid, rocky terrain. The
Agility of your feet eludes mine.

The jungle notes you left behind
Shriek with trauma. Of green groves
Uprooted from rivers, thrown amid
Stones and cacti. Yet I sleep restfully. The
Shrapnel that ripped apart your
Nights doesn’t touch me.

Half a century later, the cracking
Earth has smothered the laughter
Of the Adivasi girls you met. The
Mountain still burns the same. With their
Heaves. And the lava of their rage as mining
Corporations show them their two-penny index.

The desert retains some of
Your tears– corroded, insoluble.
Those refugee girls you taught? They
Must be doing well by now. So I tell myself.

But look, how like them, like you,
I’m still looking for home. The

Albatross refuses to take flight.

Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction and poetry. Bhaswati has a background in journalism and has contributed to several literary journals, including Open Road Review, Warscapes, Pithead Chapel, Coldnoon Travel Poetics, and Humanities Underground. She lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband. Her website is http://www.bhaswatighosh.com.

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