Worlds of Steel by Andrew Culver

Down past the towering worlds of steel, across the lighted squares and into the vast network of desks, cubes and inner sanctums populated by the suits and the skirts and the busy bodies.

Out into the dark air, the warm and throbbing wind that rushes through the city. Down towards the trafficked intersections where amoebas of man rapidly fly in lighted globules through the humming city.

Across the airborne walkways, dozens of feet above the city; a city above the city, with layers of habitable space layered with people upon other people. Above the fleeing cars and buses, towards the mountain dwarfing the immense city, and up the tree-less, street-embedded mountainside past houses glowing and alive.

Into the caves, where the mountain’s innards have been thoroughly inhabited by swarming masses seeking shelter. The apartments line the caves; the shops and the darkened sunless bowels are teeming with those who could find nowhere else, or desire nowhere else.

Out of the mountain, down the cliff and the streets and houses carved in mountain stone and dirt, past the cable car bringing denizens up to the top, past the homeless encampments in the trees and bushes, and down into what once was the great and terrible untamed canyon, where now stand the latest and most majestic of man’s creations: row upon row of houses larger than they should be or need to be.

Over terrafirmed ground and grass-lined streets. Past the manmade shelves on girders supporting these habitations: whole neighborhoods, cities, on floors like an office. A leviathan of human homes and self-made worlds exclusive of each other. Through the canyon and up to the hillside burdened with the trains, walkways, streets, monorail routes, and institutional buildings.

Into the city center, a circular trench in what was once a sea-bottom. The sea-floor wreckage from some previous civilization lies haphazard, unstudied and unexamined, broken up around the habitations: wooden hulks of ships, sea-exploring equipment. The streets of the city center, sloping down in concentric circles, begrimed and whirling with papers, leaves, candy wrappers and old plastic containers in the wind. The streets teeming with the hurrying multitudes going home on small motorized transportation devices of all sizes and orientations.

Down an alley-way of old three-story houses with attics and vast, labyrinthine basements, to the end where the pavement runs against the earth. In front of an old brick mansion of three or four stories and a steep staircase leading up to a portico and a tall, narrow door. Four gables at the top, yearning towards the firmament, windows cloaked by thick purple curtains. At the second floor, a spindled and laced porch by a miniature tower jutting out above the street with a circular window view across the great dry sea trench.

Up the stairs and into the portico, through the door and into the foyer, lit in greenish light on oaken interior. A staircase winds up far into the heights of the house and bizarre portraits hang large on the walls: a scowling woman with glowing red eyes and straight, long black hair; a young boy with huge head and drooped, weeping eyes and a receding hairline; a nude woman sitting stoically on a couch; a dwarf riding a goat in a meadow.

Out of the foyer and into a large atrium; light streams in from windows on all floors. Out of this atrium and through a hallway that winds through dark passages. Through the dank hallway, down interminable corridors that wind and curve and creep through the house and culminate in a small drawing room. He sits in his easy chair, the young man, smoking his pipe and staring at a large globe in the center of the room.

“Michael!” shouts the young man. His straight, black, intense eyebrows quiver just a little when he shouts. A mustache sits uneasily above his mouth and his dark hair is combed straight back with pomade. His eyes are distant, paranoid. Michael appears at the door.

“Sir?”

“Bring me the duck foie gras.”

“Of course. With crackers?”

“And marmalade.”

“Just as your dear mother used to eat.”

“Yes. Bring them with wine.”

“Of course. Um, sir, may I suggest that some air would do you good? The garden is splendid tonight.”

“I just want my snacks.”

“Of course. But I do believe you haven’t left the house in quite some time.”

“I’m still in mourning, Michael. Let me mourn.”

“Mourn? For whom?”

“My parents, Michael. My beloved, departed progenitors.”

Michael sighs and leaves. He returns with the platter of snacks and the wine. The young man eats them with relish, drinking the wine slowly and staring at the globe, spinning it at times and whispering to himself. Michael, walking by silently on the thick carpet, hears the odd incantation “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” On another occasion Michael hears the repeated chant of “He thrusts his fists against the posts but still insists he sees the ghosts.”

The young man eats and eats and eats, then walks to a wet bar and opens up the cabinet to look at his selection. He pulls out an ancient bottle of absinthe that his father had brought back from the orient. It is dusty and the liquid is dark. He pours half a glass of the substance and begins to drink.

Michael goes to bed after checking on his young charge and is woken in the middle of the night. After several moments he discerns that it is the sound of hysterical laughter, mad screeching laughter echoing through the floors. The young man is shouting, “Holy Loooooord! Holy Jeee-ZUSS!!” in an awful reverie.

Max, the inebriate, gets off the platform at the stop he remembers so well from his school days. It has taken him three hours to get across the city after losing his latest job. He walks down the sloping street as winds blow trash around him and buses careen past him on the ledge. He remembers…oh yes, the smells from boyhood days, the mad days of pubescent wonder and violence…girls with blonde hair and long thin arms, girls with dark hair and red lipstick and kindness…the streets that marked the measure of their world, and the trains they took and back alleys they walked, past food vendors with smells of frying vegetables and grilling beef…the conversations that circled obsessively round the inevitable teenage subject, the elusive female…days at George’s house, haunting his parents’ countless rooms with their strange ornaments from overseas. And he remembers the tragedy that stood out like a sudden thunderstorm on calm seas, the swift stroke of strange fate that took George’s parents and left him in that house with his butler. Max didn’t see much of his friend after that, didn’t see much of anyone from the days of hormones and classrooms.

Max looks across the ancient, dry sea trench and sees the swirling cloud of sweet-smelling pollen blowing lazily across the open space. He looks over the ledge into the never-ending canyon, seeing the shops and the cafes, the hidden hookah bars where he passed the long days of youth. Hashish smoke drifts up from these countless places, along with the thick odor of coffee and cotton-candy…

Knock…knock…knock!!

The door creaks open and it’s just like no time has passed. Michael – the face, the staid demeanor.

“Master Max. It has been some time since we’ve had the pleasure.”

He enters the house and sees Michael’s pained look – and the dust in slats of light coming in from the ceiling. The decay. A slight odor of mold.

“I was wondering if George is here…”

“He…is not well. Though, I’m sure seeing an old friend will be good for him.”

“Yeah, I was just in the neighborhood, and I figured I’d stop by.”

Michael leads him through the halls, with the same paintings and the same wallpaper, gaudy red flowers on a teal background, with the same little cupids holding the bow and arrow with pink cheeks and diapers, winging gaily across the walls. The same muted red lights in the long hallway. He reaches the drawing room and sees: the books on shelves, the desk and table and globe, and in the corner, George himself, oh…

Curled in the fetal position, on his feet, lightly resting on his tippy-toes; muttering about ducks and fetuses…grinning when he sees his old friend.

“George? Hey man…I was wondering if you could help me out for a few days. Yeah, my lady threw me out again. So, you know, if I could crash…”

“Fetus-motherrrrr!!!!”

“Whoa, man, what…”

“Rape! It’s a duck-fuck fucker, oh gabagabagaba…”

“Hey!” He sits down and grabs his old friend by the head, shaking him. “Maybe we should go out and get some fresh air.”

“Like old days?”

“Yeah! We’ll go down to the Cave Spot, get a hookah and tea or something.”

“What’ll I wear?”

“Just put on some pants. You got any money?” Max has been preparing this speech, hopes it will be short. “I’m kinda running low on funds, I’ve been having some trouble at work. I can get you back…”

“Money, money, yeah, sure, we’ll get some money, we’ll do the thing, like we used to do the thing, the thing we used to do, yeah. I’ll get the money.”

And he reaches into a stash-box nearby, pulling out hundreds of bills in wads, dropping some on the floor. Max picks them up, incredulous, pocketing some and taking some his friend hands to him. He makes a note not to spend any of it tonight, since he is used to the feast-or-famine nature of his financial life. Like a show on elephants in the Serengetti he saw once, clamoring for water in the desert wastes, knowing they might not drink again for a long time.

The street has grown dim and the circular vastness of the trench is lit up with lights, candles, incense and torches with moonlight casting its blue on the winding street. Cars still make their descent into the depths, going home or to a house of flesh and drink. The walkways leading the five or six hundred feet across the gulf are filled with commuters and clothes lines hang in the sleepy wind. George is quite normal and Max has his eye nervously on him.

“Cab?” Max asks.

“We’ll walk, let’s walk.” George has a quick walk, easily distracted by traffic and the shops they pass by. Tobacco shops, laundromats, markets with fruit overflowing out of boxes and delis with sausages hanging grotesquely from hooks, cheese in wheels sitting on shelves. As they descend and the road gets steeper the buildings get stranger, slanted and odd. These buildings are forced to adapt to the sheer angle of the ground and the lack of horizontal space, so they are increasingly vertical; narrow three-story apartments and restaurants with second-floor patios, piano music drifting out of them, and an increasing density of crowded bars as they approach the bottom.

The Cave Spot is low and deep, one level of dimly-lit rooms and private parlors with incense and heavy with atmosphere so jejune to them now, after years of familiarity. George quietly sits on a sofa and smoke drifts past him, and old thoughts come back: sitting here with his first girlfriend, a girl named Sandy with brown hair who loved him and spent the whole night leaning against his arm in a lover’s swoon as he tried to load the hookah and make it look cool…being here with Max one night when Max was depressed after failing a test, making him drink shot after shot of some strange plum whiskey until he had to be carried back up to George’s vast and then-full house…coming with his own father to have a drink as a grown man. The days of pleasures that went unexamined and unappreciated.

The two sit next to each other and a waiter comes to set up the hookah, loading the hashish with the burning coal in metal tongs.

“So, you had any luck with the ladies?” Max wants to take the focus off of himself and his own financial situation. Doesn’t want to seem desperate, doesn’t want to seem like a freeloader. George just stares ahead for awhile.

“There was a girl…she came after my parents died. She was like a fairy. She was good to me.”

“Oh…I don’t remember her. Was that after I moved across town?”

“She was good to me…”

“Yeah.”

“And then she left.”

“You haven’t seen her since?”

And a great sadness comes over George, or so it seems to Max: the sadness of a person who has been inside for too long and maybe missed out on a lot of things.

“I haven’t seen her since then. It was a long time…”

“Yeah, so I’ve been having female problems, let me tell you. My woman, she just got tired of my whole thing – the poker nights, the beer, comin’ home late, gettin’ fired from all my jobs.”

“Are you here for good?”

“Yeah, I mean, if it’s okay...”

“You should stay in my house.”

“Yeah, okay, that’s great. I’ll get a job, so I can help out with groceries or bills.”

“That’s okay. You don’t need to. I haven’t been feeling well.”

“Well, I think you just need some fresh air. Listen, man, we’ll go out and have a good time like we used to. A lot has changed since I lived here. Have you been outside the trench?”

“Not for awhile.”

“The city’s exploded. It’s huge now. You know Boar Mountain? It’s full of houses now. They built roads up there. I worked on one of the crews, back when I was working for the city. Yeah, that job paid pretty good. But the fuckin’ boss was always on my ass. You know what I’m saying? He wouldn’t leave me alone, always cracking down on me for some bullshit. So I split that job, I just left at lunch one day. Fuck it. I’m not gonna be treated like a bitch. Yeah, Geena was pissed about that. She was like ‘What the fuck? Why can’t you keep a job?’ I don’t know, maybe I’m fucked up. I can’t stand it when someone’s telling you what to do, but you know they’re just some dickwad who you could take in a fight.”

After awhile the conversation slows down as the hookah takes its effects on them. George begins to like being outside again and Max, through talking and reflection, realizes that he has a serious problem with employment and needs to figure it out before he can move on in his life. But for now he is in-between, as is George.

They walk up the steep incline, past women washing clothes and singing songs on doorsteps, and end up at the very large house at the end of a one-way street where Max will find his bed made for him by Michael, and towels and a robe laid out for him to use in the guest shower. He contemplates staying here forever, which he knows would be possible, but then wonders if he will end up like George if he does. Nevertheless, he sleeps well in the large quiet house.


Andrew Culver lives in Los Angeles. His novels are downloadable at barnesandnoble.com/s/andrew-culver.