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Authors: Michael Helm

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary

Cities of Refuge

BOOK: Cities of Refuge
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The Projectionist

In the Place of Last Things

to my friends, the seers through

e watch the foreign girl. She’s rendered here silent in greys. An automated teller near her west-end apartment at 8:07 p.m. She wears a sort of party dress though no one in her small circle can think where she may have been going. She carries a little purse on a strap over her shoulder, she is petite, diminutives collect around her. We pick her up on an east-bound subway platform at 8:23. For a moment we glimpse a hair clip in a glint as she turns. She doesn’t seem to be waiting for anyone. Apparently returning overground she arrives back in her neighbourhood just before 2:00 and buys a lottery ticket for an elderly neighbour as she does once a week in the all-nite variety store only blocks from her building. The clip is gone, her hair fallen. She has trouble with the clasp on her purse and seems embarrassed and smiles when the clerk says something, though she doesn’t make eye contact with him even when she has success and pays and exits the frame with an easy grace we lend her simply because she will never be seen alive again by friends or cameras, by co-workers or anyone in her small circle. She has no family in this country. Then a colour still photo, phone numbers on the screen, a name we can’t help but register. The disquiet of this witnessing is there in the pixelated grain

And we’ve seen her somewhere and it haunts us. Somewhere in the days we build of marks and remarks, of clocks, hands and faces, or maybe the face we remember is not hers but her double’s, a move the
big city makes sometimes, echoing forms, gaming with the likenesses of things. In such ways the place remakes itself for us so that at night before sleep we drift through lanes and parks and peer into doorways, spaces we’ve passed a thousand times without noticing. We look up at a math of windows and there are millions enclosed all around. But we think we’ve seen her, or know her, or someone we know knows her and we pace back through the week, looking, and what do we find? Women in pairs walking fast in bright downtown streets. A clutch of Arab men speaking at once in a cigar shop on the verges of Chinatown. Some lost son never spoken of propped on a downspout to piss in the streetlight shadows of a house near the Spit. Store clerks. Expectorating neighbours barking on porches. Cabbies’ faces staring out above the laminated hack number on the headrest and the face in the rear-view that never looked back, never glanced at us once. A lone rat, quick with a foreknowledge brought miles along the overpass tracks

And she’s nowhere. She was born in the country of a country far off, and she’s come all this way to go missing

In an alley where we walk sometimes the businesses have given over their backsides to graffiti artists and the short passage has a kind of end of rainbow charm. Atop the parabolic spank of colours are five brownhue figures of evolving man, the stoop and brow-ridge receding with the body hair until, at last, like a punchline, the figure of H-Sap as a black kid in jeans, the artist himself, maybe, painting primitive animal shapes on this same wall, the whole thing signed with the mark of a cross inside a circle. The earliest ideogram for the city. It means crossroads within a wall. Something read in a medical waiting room once with dread a faint tang on the tongue

We wake in the night and the foreign girl’s name is with us. A musical name that calls to be spoken. Here beneath a whisper, we consign her to the dark


efore the shift that night she left dinner with her parents and biked south in darkness past her apartment building, along into her usual path. The afternoon storms had broken the heat and departed without trace. The air was drying, late-summer cool. On the side streets near campus were weakly haloed car headlights and shadowed figures waiting to be briefly illuminated. She passed in and out of semi-residential zones, moving now with half-naked teens on in-line skates past the thronging bars and restaurants and the clubs where made-up young women waited outside and men measured them whole in one glance. Down a side street she entered a dark little dead space that emptied back into the traffic and the noisebright streets, on past a long row of trailers and honeywagons, a bored officer on overtime, she stuttered across a dimpled steel ramp over bundled cables, past grips and gaffers with walkie-talkies, and a yellow-lit window full of pretend New York cops. She passed the Vietnamese convenience store always with the same child in diapers in the doorway chewing on a faded cardboard candy ad, past the crowded patio of the ice cream café, across the main arteries of downtown, riding faster, really breathing now, on her way to work.

Three or four minutes ahead of schedule, she slowed for the last few blocks. In a pocket of quiet she rode imagining her morning self in a kind of perpetual approach, cycling home at daybreak beneath traffic helicopters hanging in a pastel smog, then drifted to a stop and locked her bike to the stand outside the all-nite coffee shop, where she always left it with strangers in the window to watch over it, and bought the usual treats for the security crew. Later she would barely recall the others in the café. There were at least two young people working on laptops and a couple of others, maybe, together or not she couldn’t say. The freckled girl who served her was named Callie, they had each other’s life outlines, and as always she smiled to see Kim and had her order ready.

The rest of the route took her on foot down a cross street, past her father’s high-rise condo – he was staying at the house tonight – and she was thinking again of morning. As a girl she’d once spied him through sliding glass doors, weeping at a sunrise over Mexico City. He was standing on a balcony, waiting, and when it finally came he had nodded ever so slightly. Over the years it had developed in her mind that he’d simply been overwhelmed by this oldest of affirmations. Against the tribulations of the moment, there was always that, time ongoing as a sure thing each dawn no matter where you were. Except there was likely more to it, she now realized. Whatever had made Harold cry had been balled up in the new day.

She stopped before a bookstore window display, a gathering of titles without theme. A true-crime celebrity murder, something on Western conservatism, a handbook on Vermeer, an Australian novel, a speed-dating guide. She passed by a short block of closed shops and one bright one, a hair salon with a gospel choir, a church
meeting, and going by the open doors she saw twenty or thirty swaying black people, Pentecostals, she supposed, and a tall, angular man leading the singing in front dressed in a dark suit with his hands raised slightly before him as if he were holding a calf up for sacrifice. And no sooner did she pass the door and leave them behind than she knew something had changed, some presence was trailing her in the wake of the music, its last strains and then the memory of it, and the image of the man in the suit, and as she walked on she isolated the feeling. It was the certainty that she was being stared at, with intent.

Or not certainty but a strong intuition. She focused on her walking. She kept a level step, tried to feel the rhythm she missed when cycling, and despite the tray of coffees she moved at a pace she could never sustain on her security rounds. Even for a young woman, she reminded herself, it was still possible to feel safe on foot almost anyplace in this city. And there was some magical deterrence of threat in simply walking like you meant it. She’d been followed once, in London. It was late at night, and she’d spent the day, like all the other days there, making wrong turns, mixing up east and west, and getting lost, so she moved a little uncertainly along the last blocks from the tube station to the hostel off Kensington High Street. He’d come from nowhere. As she crossed the park, thinking of a peacock that had led her out that morning, he had stepped in behind her, at a distance of ten or fifteen feet, and kept pace. To anyone but her he could have been mistaken for just another stroller in the park, but he was fixed on her, she knew it. When she turned and looked, he met her eye with a round, dull face, and held it. There were people nearby, and just as she spotted a group of young women to trail behind, wherever they were going, she was released of
the feeling. As suddenly as he’d appeared, he was gone. Though she looked for him, expected him, in her last days there, she never saw him again.

The numbers on female victims indicated that the lone late-night attackers seldom just wanted your money or your life.

She stopped and turned. There was no one she could see. Down the street a young man emerged from a doorway and got into a parked car and when he started it the lights came up and there was no one. The car pulled out and passed by and the man glanced at her, and his car in the dark was maybe grey-silver, and then another car came by the opposite way and its lights revealed nothing, and she suddenly became aware of herself standing with her cardboard tray and paper bag, looking silly, and she walked on.

It was another block before the feeling was back in place. She couldn’t hear footsteps exactly, but had the sense rather that under her every footfall, each breath, were other sounds, not hers, the kind of perception you wouldn’t normally take note of in a city noisescape, except that this was a side street, admitting silences and distinctions. And then there was the feeling of being gazed upon. Like many women she was semi-used to the gaze, and thought little of it except when it came darkly, as it did now.

The question was whether to trust her intuition and take a longer, busier way to work, heading north and then west, then digressing south, or to stay the course. Or had the question to do with neurosis or sleep deprivation? Was she paranoid? She trusted her reason. And her wits – she should head for the traffic, join the conflux, risk nothing more than a jostle at the pedestrian lights. And yet when she came to the next intersection, she followed habit and turned down the darkest block on the route, most of it unlit next to a vast construction site.

When she entered the covered walkway that had been built over the sidewalk, with its ceiling and the long plywood wall papered in club dates and lost dogs, a shard of a dream returned to her. It was years old and she likely hadn’t thought of it since the morning she’d escaped it. She was on the downtown edge of a city that was open on one side to a lake that ran to the horizon, Toronto or Chicago, both and neither. She had her back to a wall, looking at the faces of people looking past her, at something out on the water, and thinking to herself that no matter how unlike one another the faces were, the horror in them looked the same. An old man with sunken cheeks. A fat woman in large tortoiseshell glasses. A tall young couple with dark, narrow, Spanish features. And now she wasn’t sure if these were the people of her dream, or the faces of others she’d seen elsewhere.

A few steps from a small break midway in the wall she saw the wire fence and the gate and noticed that it was slightly ajar so that when she heard the last two or three strides with which he closed the ground between them, she knew at once that she’d been stalked, and the gate seemed a trap, a metal device that opened and closed, and then he drove his shoulder into her and together they fell through the opening into the dark site.

She tried to scream but the breath had been knocked from her and now he was behind her, on the ground. She was face down. His legs were wrapped around her knees, his hands in her hair, pulling her back, exposing her neck. He locked her head up in the crook of his elbow and then she heard the tape and felt it pressed under one ear as it was pulled tight, over her mouth and around again and she felt him bend in close to her other ear and bite the roll free with a practised efficiency. A scent she couldn’t place. She couldn’t see him, his hands were up at his face, she
thought, and it wasn’t clear what was happening except that she needed more breath through her nose than she was managing and something hot was on her forearm. When he turned her over she saw that he’d been affixing a nylon mask. He sat on top of her with his weight on her hips so that her legs were kicking in space, unable to dislodge him, and the heat was now wetness and it was the coffee, she’d spilled the coffee, a conclusion that mattered somehow so that her failure to smell it came upon a kind of despair at the half-sense of things. His hands were at her shoulders and he lifted her once slightly and slammed her back down, as if trying to hold her still so he could make a point there were no words for.

BOOK: Cities of Refuge
12.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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