Alphanumerica

The streets were numbered forward and the avenues backward, so that you began at H and walked until you reached the first letter. Then the next avenue, like the first street, began a forward count from one to two and so on. Or else you traced the streets back to their first digit, but instead of First or Zero or even A, you found the name of some remote city, followed by a series of familiar yet unrelated names. It was all a superimposed grid, an overlay of order that had nothing to do with the contours of the place itself.

Whenever you wearied of counting at last, and reciting your ABCDs, you lifted your gaze, and beyond the avenues rose a jumble of buildings half-constructed or neglected, disparate things of concrete and weathered brickface, no two of like size or color or tilting at exactly the same angle. And precisely where one building obscured another, you could make out the edges of a faded or vandalized clock face, never the entire circumference of the clock and never both of its hands. Every edifice was bedizened with its own abraded Big Ben, inset or screwed, or etched or painted, on one of its façades. Walking home on a searing day, you couldn’t be sure what time you might arrive or where in the day you actually were, because none of the timepieces in that 14-by-4-street radius were both functioning and legible. Eight o’clock could have meant a sunny evening, for all you knew, or a tenebrous day, or a completely different hour.

Between appointments that occurred every other morning (and which you always missed), you found yourself staring at a continuum of imperfections: At cracks between bricks like the delicate inked branches in Cesare Da Sesto’s Study of a Tree. In the end, you became so lost that you loitered for days among construction sites you eventually recognized had been abandoned. You couldn’t extricate yourself from the allure of alleys or, when you gazed into storefronts, from shadows that stared back at you like paradoxical doorways. Corroded iron zigzagged across brownstones as if to constrain them, like cage masks welded to the torsos of suffering gods.

abandoned police station
Photograph: Thomas Crenshaw

Others around you spoke of a “context of bewilderment,” by which they meant that every point of orientation had been concealed or disarranged systematically, which created an abiding sense of incomprehension among residents. According to certain people who met on the steps of an abandoned police station, the logic of what appeared to be nonsensical city planning had been this: to willfully obscure the identity of the place with a grid of letters and numbers. The effect was familiar enough to be accepted but sufficiently arbitrary to mislead. You were all being prepared for the slaughterhouse of perpetual bewilderment.

Confusion had spread even among people who should have been able to remember the earliest configuration. Just before dawn, crones and dotards could be seen drifting through the grayfields, as if everything familiar had been expunged by permanent fog, searching for deeper points of reference which they knew lay beyond the street signs that rose into clarity like logical mirages. They could feel the presence of other confused figures as well—ghosts or kidnapped loved ones behind taped-up windows—just as they perceived it would do no good to force the sashes open. They remained lost no matter what they broke or where they landed, pacing back and forth through the fog as if confined by metal bars.

You could have called the effect coordinates of amnesia, if that had included letting one of the many pendulums that swung overhead hit you in the eyes until you no longer knew the difference between blindness and thinking. Not knowing was just a subtler form of injury. You couldn’t process the indecisive weather or the façadism of brickwork like nicotine-stained teeth, or the timeworn clocks you happened to observe were observing you.

Eventually, you grew to loathe this circuit of roundabouts. You’d have preferred to scale steel-curtain walls and leap into a coherence of shafts instead, like one of the insect-derived superheroes in movie house serials you’d seen in that theater past the range of numbers, with its slashed-open seats and two men in shabby suits who always beckoned you in. You’d have clambered and then grabbed for the sliding fire escape ladder, if you hadn’t been born with hundreds of tiny fingers in place of hands.

Your fingers were a different color from the rest of your body and appeared to others to have been grafted to your wrists even though no surgeon had ever touched them. Their involuntary gestures were cyclical and always described the same crescents, suggesting that a malfunction in the basement of some grim factory had sliced off your hands and you’d lacked the funds for legitimate surgery, so that all the amateurs at the public institution had had for you were hacksaws, faulty nerve grafts and wilting filaments. The other citizens hated looking at them, with the exception of the town pariah, who gaped and wept because he sentimentalized his own projected sense of inferiority as channeled through you, or certain myopic children who wanted to pet them because, from a distance, the phalanges appeared as silken as ruffled fur. Pacifists and bullies liked your extremities because they were useless in a fight apart from your being able to tickle your opponent if you rotated your shoulder blades rapidly.

But of course, you couldn’t tickle yourself, which was why it seemed inevitable you’d meet Zelia, a professional traveler who liked to wear long scarves. One windy day when you were reexamining a particular intersection, still looking for details that might tell you where you really were, she walked past you and her scarf wrapped itself around your waist. She apologized, calling the length of her neckwear a form of overcompensation. You didn’t know what she meant until you looked down and saw, in place of her right leg, a spindle terminating in a large spoked wheel attached to an ineffective brake.

One perk to her disability, she told you, was its heightening of her sense of direction, which she claimed was now infallible. Not being able to stop herself meant she had to plan her movements using a mental image of the space that surrounded her. According to her, the image underwent constant adjustment to reflect sudden aberrations in the disposition of space.

You decided to have coffee with her at a place that had been called Bruno’s Duct originally and then Club 2-A-9 but was now known as the Giovina Café. Its existence, like that of all truly intimate locales, could only be discerned by someone who had wandered past a hundred times. It awaited customers, or pretended to await them, behind a lichgate that led downward beneath a brownstone tenement to a storefront below street level.

The descending metal stairs were difficult for Zelia until you hooked onto the post just above her wheel with your elbow crook and the lifted spindle positioned her three stairs ahead. She stood a few feet taller than you, which meant the displacement put her at eye level, and you were able to notice that her neck muscles tightened whenever you brushed against her.

You reached the bottom and heard a jingling sound. “Welcome to Bruno’s,” said the forgetful proprietor as he held the door.

The generic storefront contained no customers at all. It might as well have been peopled with bland conundrums, featureless Matroyoshka dolls by George Segal. Glued to the arm of every chair in the room was a miniature model of the exact same chair. If the padding of the seat was threadbare, or the back slightly cracked, then so was that of the miniature. Toward the back of the sitting area, a picture window beside an olivine door overlooked shadows and dust-gray drape cloths over piles of monochromatic squares affixed with smaller squares: letterpress plates, old machinery and dismantled balustrades.

You sat yourselves at the opposite sides of an end table and everything felt close and inescapable. You looked away and finger-stirred tonic water in a demitasse cup while muttering about systematic disarrangement, until she reached over to massage your left temple and the words in your head vanished suddenly like underwear in dreams. You hadn’t realized your eye was twitching until that moment.

She poked your forehead a few times and said you needed to get out, but you told her there wasn’t anywhere else. After a few silences and swallows, the man returned with his approximation of a check, a muddle of letters and numbers with a drawing at the bottom that suggested either a cipher or some kind of unlocking mechanism: two hemicycles, one above, the other inverted below, with two vertical bars at the center. Zelia studied the drawing until her eyes took on a more distant focus.

She told you it was time and pointed to the olivine door at the back of the café. It opened to a storage room that looked packed to you, but she was the one with the map in her head. Getting in was easy enough, but you had difficulty squeezing through to the other side. You guarded her wheel with your leg and slammed into a quadricycle in the process but after a series of gyrations and yogic postures arrived at a French door with the windows painted over and locked with an espagnolette that resembled the proprietor’s drawing. Zelia pulled the top hemicycle upward, the lower one downward, and the two bars between them left and right. The doors opened on a wiring closet with a metal ladder at the center leading into the daylight. She began climbing out first, but caught her wheel between two steps, and when you nudged her bracket piece free, she let her legs go limp and pulled herself upward with what proved to be her disturbingly powerful forearms. Then it was your turn and, as you elbowed your way up, your puzzlement at the familiarity of the storefront slid away like a limb after a sudden amputation.

You emerged into a lot just behind one of those familiar buildings with barred entrances that had troubled the elderly. It was an area no one else had been able to reach before. She drew you through it and into a series of spaces behind the other buildings. At the base of a metal fence and to the left of a little clock so damaged the face was only a crescent, she found another espagnolette like the proprietor’s and performed the same complicated trick. Behind it, a strip of yellow grass led to a dead end you’d reached so often the sight of it bored you, only this time, Zelia kept walking in her own idiosyncratic direction and you were able to go somewhere new.

Nictitating membranes[1] of vagueness peeled back layer by layer as you crossed each boundary, and the directionless feeling of the old neighborhood slithered out of your head. The shape of the obstruction had been vague before and yet you’d always searched for it, tracing the outline over your temples with innumerable circling fingers, only now you could glimpse its edges as it hurried upward and out: Something soggy and exsanguine, with a circular disc for a face. A few supernumerary hairs—or were they fingers, too?—twitched at the center of the translucent disc, which wobbled as it fled. The edges were scarred and rose in hard white bumps.

You touched the side of your cheek and felt a pattern of indentations. You couldn’t tell Zelia, but you knew they matched the bumps on the lip of the disc. Next to the indentations, you felt a tiny hole to the right of your ear—was that where the hairs liked to burrow? You lowered your wrists and touched your arms cautiously as you walked, aware you’d find the same pattern beneath your clothes.

In the course of an hour, you and Zelia passed beyond the matrices and names that had contained you for all this time and you entered into another zone entirely, which looked the same but for the rows of translucent ochre parking meters on both sides of the street. At the end of the block, Zelia’s little black car awaited. Through the rear window, you saw triangular silhouettes. Then you were next to the vehicle and discerned that the corners of picture frames too large to lie flat rose against the back seat like geometric voyeurs. Zelia opened the passenger door for you and the two of you sat inside and said nothing. She unfastened her wheel and fitted the spindle that was her leg into the slot of a special pedal. Through the windshield, the convergence of streets looked warped but coherent.

From there she drove you to a town where the streets were named things like Wellwater Boulevard and Royal Terrier Place. She brought you into her colonial-style home, pointed to a room above the stairs, and each of you soon fell asleep on a different level of the house.

You awoke feeling rested enough to explore the new town in a series of peregrinations. The mechanical statues at every cul-de-sac pointed to their wrists, indicating a recurrence of meetings you knew you’d be able to attend.

Whenever you thought of the place you’d lived before, you resolved never to go back—even for the briefest visit—lest you come home to find the layout of Zelia’s district newly numbered and lettered.

That was happening all over the country by then, and even the people on the news no longer remembered the original design.

1. [Adipose eyelids]

–Robert C. Hardin


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