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(Novel: The Endless City)

The Endless City
Paul M. Rodriguez
Argiope, $9.99 (Print), $2.99 (Kindle), $2.99 (Nook)

The City is endless to the edges of the world. West and east, north and south, unbroken, the City goes on, long arterial highways spreading into streets and boulevards, nourishing the buildings that are born and age and die. It has always been this way; it must always be this way, the City of and for itself, the silent lives of empty rooms.

Men live here too. While the walls stand and the seals hold, their shelters are their homes. But seasons pass, and walls rot, and the old buildings make way for new. Men live here too. But they are few, and frightened, and afraid...

Finis

The ending is the most important part. Not in all arts: pictures are endless. Not even in music, where skipping ahead is bad faith. But in writing the ending is definitive. You do not know how a sentence is meant, whether you are being told or being asked, until you reach the end.

The problem with endings is that they are all a kind of punctuation, artificial because the criteria of a good ending are abstract. A speech sums up; a sonnet turns; a story rounds off when something recurs. The key determines the cadence.

I have good reasons to prolong the Ruricolist; I feel how much I owe to it. But I must admit that the Ruricolist is over. The essay series has its natural term. These have been long years and I am different from the man I was when I began. His clothes no longer fit.

My intentions are that the Ruricolist will remain online; comments will remain open; and I will continue, from time to time, to revise my work here. When I have news of other projects, I will post it.

In conversation we are improvisers. For our improvisation to succeed, we must be willing to take whatever comes, trusting the outcome as we trust one another. We never say all we meant to say, or everything we think of, but that is the point: as much as we spend, we leave enriched. Now, at the end, I can affirm what I wrote at the beginning: I wrote for myself—not for friends, not for followers, not for an audience, not for posterity. This was my end of a conversation. And since this was a conversation, it must end as all conversations do, with a kind of aposiopesis, when the bill arrives, the sun comes up, the car stops, and suddenly we part.

Victory Garden

“No, I’m happy for both of you. It’s a great find and once the work is done, it’ll be home sweet home.

“The thing is, it’s not just water damage, or termites, or things like that you have to watch out for. You find things in those old houses. Think about people in the old days. No Internet, no TV: it was either get drunk or go nuts. Did I ever tell you about the cans we found when we started working on our place?

“The whole cellar was full of these old cans. Canning jars, I mean, you know, the glass ones with the metal tops. Shelves and shelves full of them, absolutely covered in dust. Some of them had labels on them. Let me see, there were beets, tomatoes, avocados, beans, pears, peas, everything. I want to say groats. Are those even a real thing, groats? But it didn’t matter; you couldn’t tell one from the other.

“The old lady we bought the house from told us it was all stuff her mother grew in her victory garden. You know about victory gardens, right? Back in WWII it was a big deal for people to grow their own food so there’d be more for the troops fighting overseas. People plowed up their backyards and turned them into these little farms and they called them victory gardens. The original urban agriculture, actually.

“Her mom put all these jars up right after dad went off to war. Keeping herself busy, you know? But dad never came home, so she just shut the pantry and never looked back. Out of sight, out of mind, all these years, and now it was our problem.

“You two are the same way about recycling. She wouldn’t let me throw all that perfectly good glass away any more than you would. So down I go to this pantry in the cellar, and I start taking these jars up to the kitchen sink, one file box full at a time.

“You can image how creepy it was, looking down at the jars with the bleached shapes swimming around in them. It reminded me of the specimens in the lab, and you know how I felt about that.

“I had some WD40 so I could get the lids off. Then, with these big gloves on, I twist them open, one after another, and I dump them down the drain. I had a mask out but I never put it on. There was no smell at all. This stuff was practically embalmed.

“Now, understand, I don’t have any proof. Everything that came out of those jars sort of melted. But I’m telling you, once I got through the cans in front there was something else in those jars.

“I had this jar of beets. I dump it, and there’s a couple of them stuck at the bottom. I take a knife and stick it in there, scrape them loose and then, it’s just a reflex, I dump them into my hand. I’m looking at my hand, and just for a second, before they melted away, I could have sworn what I was holding were a pair of human eyes.

“I know, it sounds crazy. It seemed crazy when it was happening. I decided it was my mind playing tricks on me and got back to work. I dumped all the jars, washed them out, and rinsed everything down the drain. But then when I went to wash the sink there were these little scales clinging to the bottom. They were these brittle little yellowish scales about the size of dimes. I wiped them out and threw them away.

“Then I put it out of my mind until the next morning. She went to use the InSinkErator and it jammed. So she calls the plumber and here I am, with this sinking feeling in my gut.

“I stood right there and watched with my guts getting tighter and tighter. And you know, I was right. The plumber’s under the sink, and I can’t see his face, but there’s this moment when he just freezes. Perfectly still. Then he backs out and he’s got something in his hand.

“I ask him what the problem was and he starts mumbling. I ask him again and he just holds out his hand and there it is. He’s got a hand full of human teeth. That was the moment I realized what those scales were. They were fingernails.

“What could I do? I just picked the teeth out of his hand, like loose change. I actually thanked him for finding them. Then he left. He left in a hurry; we never even got a bill. I guess he figured us for a couple of serial killers.

“I’ve never told her about any of it. You know how much she loves that house. Why ruin it for her? And maybe they weren’t teeth at all, you know? I’m not a farmer. Maybe there’s some nut that looks just like a human tooth when you leave it in a jar for sixty years. How should I know?

“I’ll you what I think, though. I think the daughter had it right. I think mom had her own personal victory garden.”

Darkness

Darkness is shadow. The golden shadow of the incandescent bulb; the stainless shadow of the fluorescent; the quivering shadow of the gaslight (seek it where it lives yet; deep down in the oven, the pilot flame is the last gaslight). The footlight, the searchlight, live to dazzle, are stingy with shadows; but most generous of all is firelight, flicker and blaze, casting long shadows that strut and stride, the shadow players whose performance has never been commanded.

You will read that, for our ancestors, the succession of the long, dark nights of winter, solaced only by the wavering fire, relieved only by brief treks through a twilight world stifled with snow, gave on to a kind of trance, and that it is to the visions of the long winter that all superstitions may be traced. Now, the tropics have their own superstitions, but certainly the mind abhors a vacuum, and where there is nothing to be perceived, something will be imagined. So, night by night, they overlaid the everburning stars with bold constellations.

Darkness is night. Morning and evening circle, glooming and gloaming, matutinal rise intersecting crepuscular fall at the liminal coordinate where the spectrum unfolds. Twilight that never ends while the night lights burn: mercurial moonlight over the fields, mercury vapor skyglow over the cities, and the noctilucent auroboros rattling the northern sky, over forests quiet and umbrageous as the shadow lands. The stones under your feet strike triboluminescent sparks. Fireflies constellate with the stars. Far ahead a porchlight shines, generous intent as harborless as a lighthouse.

Darkness is night, darkness is shadow; the one thing darkness is not is the absence of light. The retina is stretched like a drumhead, strung with tense nerves that toll every photon, an inchoate kaleidoscope so sensitive that it need only be pressed behind closed eyes to coruscate with phosphenes like the scintillas of cold light that kindle the eddies of the troubled sea. What light conceals from us, what we see in caves and face-down on the pillow is not darkness but eigengrau, the eyes’ gray, lightened by the twitches of our dreaming nerves. Seeing eyes have never seen full dark. Darkness is not even the opposite of light; it is only a mood of light.

Hiroshima

Every year we made a day trip to visit my great-uncle Denny. He lived with his wife in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, in a house older than the United States with wine-dark rafters and a cellar like a cave. The water cycle ran from pitcher pump to outhouse. The old house stood on a rambling property, all deep green, crossed by an abandoned and overgrown railroad.

Denny was an old man, a veteran of Iwo Jima with a steel plate in his head. If I understood his stories correctly he was one of those who raised the first flag there, the little one. Of the second flag, he said “If we’d known, we all would have gone up.”

He had no interest in children. Perhaps I was oblivious; perhaps I was annoyed at being ignored; but when the subject of WWII came up, somehow, I parroted what I had been taught in school, where we had social studies instead of history: that the bombing of Hiroshima was a needless atrocity, only compounded by the spiteful destruction of Nagasaki—all typically American brutality.

That got his attention. He informed me that the only reason he was alive was because of the bomb. Had the war continued he would have been among the first on the beaches of Japan. He would surely have died. He thanked God for Truman and his bomb.

Of course I shut up, but I was more confused than enlightened. We can number the dead and number the saved, but these numbers are not like other numbers. We can count them, but we cannot calculate with them.

Ask: who, exactly, died to save whom? If this were a question of math there would be proportions to work out. “You, lover, your man died to save ten lives. You, father, your daughter died to save three and a half lives. You, mother, your baby died to save half a life. You, child, your dog died to save one twentieth of a life.”

And there would be responsibility to assign, givers to match with receivers. “You, survivor, see the face, read the name, of the man who lost his life to save your life and five other lives. Now you must remember him.”

But there are no such calculations. These numbers only look like numbers. They are lives. They are incommensurable.

It is true but trivial that I cannot put myself in Truman’s place; if I were Truman himself, I would have done as Truman did, and if Truman were someone else, he would have faced someone else’s choice, not Truman’s. But looking at the numbers we must remember that this is not an equation; there are no factors. These numbers only look like numbers. Nothing cancels out. There is no algebra of forgiveness, no solution for innocence.

Losers

What makes a loser? There is nothing special about him. Being dull, awkward, foolish, and feckless only makes him unlucky, and being unlucky is not enough to make a loser. What makes him a loser is not that he loses, but that he does not know why he loses.

Losers have always been with us, since Thersites at least, but of course they are rare in hierarchical societies, where everyone is born with a part to play, where every kind of failure is keyed by coordinates of folly and vice. Being a loser is idiopathic, because losers are inconsequential; they do not even have anyone to let down.

He may have abilities, even remarkable ones, but he spoils them. He stops too soon, or he goes too far, and all his good intentions, all his hard work, come to nothing. Worse, just by being the one who has them, he makes his own abilities ridiculous. For his skills, we call him a geek; for his wealth, we call him vulgar; for his commitments, we call him pretentious. He is not a loser because he never wins; he is a loser because even when he wins, he loses.

What makes him a loser are not his mistakes but how he doubles them. Defying logic, he spans the extremes without ever touching the center, impaling himself on both horns of every dilemma, robbing Scylla to pay Charybdis.

He is the one who has nothing to say, but never gets to the point; the one who can’t take a hint, and can’t take a joke; the one who never learns, and the one who never gets over it; the one who can’t talk around girls, and babbles around women; the one who can’t express himself, and the one who gives everything away; the one who never takes a chance until he throws everything away.

In short the loser is a bad actor playing himself. Nothing feels real to him unless he is playing to the balcony. In the beginning, he tries too hard; and every time someone leaves, he tries a little harder. In the end the seats are empty and there he is, alone on the stage, the singularity where tragedy and comedy meet: the clown who does not know he is a clown.

The Traveler

“You haven’t gone yet? You should go. It’s the right time of year, too. It’s wonderful with all that space, and those views, and not a tourist in sight. I wish everybody could go.

“What? What did I…? Oh. That’s an oxymoron, isn’t it? Like ‘nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.’ But that really is how it goes. Whenever we find something that’s really a jewel, people just descend on it until they suffocate it. I can’t even go to Venice anymore. I swear it’s sinking out of embarrassment.

“If we were smart, really smart, we wouldn’t blab about things like that. We’d organize a guild or a secret society. We’d have apprenticeships and an initiation. Seven years of studying languages, and etiquette, and survival skills to become an Honorable Traveler with the right to visit. Plus another ten years of study before you get to take a camera.

“Instead, we love it so much we have to tell somebody about it. And they have to tell somebody and we all love it to death.

“Maybe that’s too harsh. I don’t want to seem elitist. The fact is I pity the tourists even more than I pity the places they ruin. They have no way out. They cross oceans and continents but they pack their boredom, and ignorance, and petulance.

“I don’t know why they bother, unless it’s because they still have that instinct that tells them growing up means leaving home. But no matter how far they go, they drag home along behind. It’s not even travel; it’s just a change of venue.”

Pythagoras

Notes repeat themselves, higher or lower, at the interval we now call an octave. Double or halve the speed at which a string vibrates and the sound, in some sense which is as convincing as it is gratuitous, remains the same. And between notes in simple ratios, most of all the interval we call the fifth, there is a sweetness sweeter and more dizzying than wine.

Between the octave and the interval, the world almost seems made for us. This appearance is deceiving. The world is not just unfair, but rigged. Chances are you know what it is to pick up part A, and part B, never having doubted they went together, only to find that they don't quite fit. The world is like that. Between the octave and the fifth there is a small but shattering discrepancy we call the Pythagorean comma.

The comma of Pythagoras is as bad as the flaming sword. It means that music, even music, must always be compromised, whether by a diet of a few safe notes, or an intricate microtonal dissection of the octave, or a distortion of the fifth.

This distortion (the Western approach) goes by the name of temperament. Since the Middle Ages the West has known and used several exquisite systems of temperament for particular purposes, but in the last century they gave way to a single system brutal in its simplicity. Equal temperament deals with the Pythagorean comma the way the senators dealt with Romulus, when they caught him in a sudden fog, hacked him to pieces and, walking away with the pieces hidden under their togas, called it apotheosis.

(Are the jitters of the West, its frantic days and restless nights, the symptoms of our addiction to this uneasy music, the Pythagorean comma working its way deeper and deeper under our skins?)

Of all things with value, music is the purest, the most abstract. If even music must compromise, what hope is there for anything else? None at all; but do not take it too hard. Consider poor Pythagoras, twice betrayed, once by music, once by math. Traumatic as Gödel, Turing, Russell, and Tarski were for us, how much worse was it for him, the philosopher who thought number was truth and music was beauty, only to find that numbers could be irrational and music sheltered wolves.

The last century was not, as it boasted, the moment when thought ran up against the limits of certainty and perfectibility. From the very beginning, the whole arc from faith to doubt, from certainty to anxiety, has always been with us in Pythagoras and his comma.

The Entrepreneur

“Did I ever tell you about my grandfather? Of course I didn’t. He was nobody. He spent his whole life at the factory, retired, boom, dropped dead. That’s the one thing I’ve been afraid of my whole life, turning out like him, a nobody with nothing to show for himself, nothing to show he ever existed except for a chip of stone at the veterans’ cemetery. Which one? I don’t know. I have his medals around here somewhere.

“After I’m gone, people need to know I was here. They need to know my name, and remember me. I want to be up there with the greats. I want to leave a legacy. For all he did with his life my grandfather might as well never have been born. My life has to mean something. The world has to be different because I lived in it. So thanks for your concern, but I’m fine. And I kind of have to get back to work, so if that’s all . . .”

Cell intelligence

Before we live by ideas, we seem to live among them. Nothing goes unprophesied. The shadows of ideas fall ahead of them and mark out the shape of things to come for those who care to trace it. The prophecies of science fiction writers are an obvious example: I nominate Looking Backward. In 1887 Bellamy felt the shadow of the radio and colored with fancy the pattern of affordances he traced from prophecy.

There are a number of music rooms in the city, perfectly adapted acoustically to the different sorts of music. These halls are connected by telephone with all the houses of the city whose people care to pay the small fee, and there are none, you may be sure, who do not. The corps of musicians attached to each hall is so large that, although no individual performer, or group of performers, has more than a brief part, each day’s programme lasts through the twenty-four hours. There are on that card for to-day, as you will see if you observe closely, distinct programmes of four of these concerts, each of a different order of music from the others, being now simultaneously performed, and any one of the four pieces now going on that you prefer, you can hear by merely pressing the button which will connect your house-wire with the hall where it is being rendered. The programmes are so coordinated that the pieces at any one time simultaneously proceeding in the different halls usually offer a choice, not only between instrumental and vocal, and between different sorts of instruments; but also between different motives from grave to gay, so that all tastes and moods can be suited.

Contrast this prophecy, made in the heat of fiction, with another, made in earnest. I own a book—a curiosity—entitled Cell Intelligence, self-published 1916 by one Nels Quevli: registered pharmacist, bachelor of law, and flaming eccentric. The argument of the book is encapsulated in its full title:

Cell Intelligence the Cause of Growth, Heredity, and Instinctive Actions, Illustrating that the Cell is a Conscious, Intelligent Being, and, by Reason Thereof, Plans and Builds all Plants and Animals in the Same Manner that Man Constructs Houses, Railroads, and Other Structures

This sounds stranger than it is; try The Selfish Cell. Quevli in 1916 maps to Dawkins in 1976. Both Quevli and Dawkins conclude that life does not fall out of any equation, and that since it is not a force or a property of matter, its existence at all is contingent, and its forms must be historical.

There are two main theories by which the growth and development of plants and animals in life are explained: First, chemical and mechanical forces; second, Intelligence or a Divine Being. However, so far no one has yet ventured the proposition or statement that the intelligence that has caused the production of all these structures we see, such as plants and animals, was the property of the cell.

And since it is not determined, it must be intelligent (or selfish) because its survival and ramification imply something equivalent to memory.

I do not pretend to know what intelligence is, nor what memory is, but I want to show that the cell is a being possessed of that something, whatever it is. If man is intelligent the cell must be.

Both are asserting that cell intelligence and human intelligence are the same. The difference is whether we follow Quevli in applying the vocabulary of human intelligence to the cell, or Dawkins in applying the vocabulary of the gene to human intelligence.

Bellamy’s prophecy is interesting, but after Bellamy radio still had to be invented. But Quevli in 1916 knew what Dawkins knew in 1976. Ideas are autologous: the description of an idea, is an idea. To predict it is to bring it about; to imagine it is to create it.

This property of ideas leads to certain perversities. Everywhere we find that the longest training, the deepest commitment, the finest specialization yield ideas that could just as easily have been dreamed up on a long walk or talked out in a bull session. The difference is the imprimatur.

But if specialization does not yield better ideas—if it only makes them more persuasive—then someone who is more interested in understanding than persuasion might ask whether it would be better not to specialize, and cultivate the faculty for ideas directly?

The case could be made that the person who has one idea, then devotes their life to advancing it, is wasting their life: settling for an idea that, being their first attempt, probably isn’t even very good. The case could also be made that intellectual monogamy ought to be the goal of anyone who takes ideas seriously, and that though essayistic dalliance with a series of ideas is perhaps charming in the exuberance of youth, it becomes absurd and pitiable if protracted into maturity.

This tangle recalls others. Being one person—having one personality—is enough for most of us; yet we see writers and actors contain multitudes where each member, whether absorbed from life or condensed from fancy, is as much a person as the person who contains them, having virtues and vices of their own they do not pass on to their host. If myself is something virtualizable, am I wasting myself in being only myself?

But writers and actors are not the best people; what they contain they do not combine. The conversation of Shakespeare was surely intense, but less than Hamlet times Falstaff times Rosalind. And actors especially may owe their multiplicity to nothing but the quality that Borges imputes to Shakespeare (who was also, remember, an actor): they can become anybody only because they are nobody.

The homuncular fallacy is not a real fallacy. It could turn out to be part of the definition of consciousness that it is built from what is also conscious, a potential infinity like two facing mirrors. We contain cells, cells abridge us; we are people with personalities and yet we contain people with personalities. Sometimes it seems that everything is recursive, that even reality only represents itself: considering Robertson’s Titan, for example, I cannot help suspecting that the world, too, only serves to perform what has already been anticipated in imagination.