NEW FICTION: The Conspiracy
May 17, 2002
It felt like Monday.
It was Friday, but it felt like Monday. Between 8:30 a.m. and noon, he’d responded to over twenty e-mails and had answered seven phone calls from various authors. The day dragged on slowly like a typical Monday; each minute that ticked off the clock did so with the utmost reluctance. But it was Friday and, if nothing else, the workweek was officially drawing to a close. The masses of the working world refer to Friday as “TGIF” (Thank God it’s Friday) an acronym he’d bastardized into (Time Grows Increasingly Futile). He stood up from his uncomfortable, non-ergonomic office chair and stretched his lanky arms above his head before pushing his straight black hair back with his right hand. Treat’s lower back was, to coin a phrase popularized by Jonathan Harris (TV’s Doctor Smith of the 1960s science-fiction soap opera/comedy Lost in Space) “a disaster area,” a condition attributable, no doubt, to the combination of sleeping each night on a 10-year-old futon, riding two hours per day on a commuter bus with uncomfortable metal-backed seats, and sitting 40 hours per week on the hard plastic chair within his four foot by six foot cubicle. Stretching helped, albeit only slightly, to alleviate the pain. Treat kept a heating pad at the office for days such as this. It, too, provided a stanza of much-needed relief.
Treat walked to the window and stared out at the city. The city stared back, a cold, heartless black and gray immovable object whose vicious appetite was never sated. The insatiable city that gorged itself on people like Treat, stared back at him. The sun reflected off the arched glass panels of the adjacent Newlander building; the reflection was Cheshiresque, Treat thought. The city was smiling at him, but it wasn’t the smile of a friend or a lover. It was the smile of an enemy with whom he happened to share a flat. It was the cocky smile of Jeff Dahmer, Charlie Manson, Jack the Ripper, Leopold & Loeb, John Wilkes Booth, Jack Ruby, and countless others whose names were synonymous with evil.
Treat loathed the city—its lifelessness, its structure, its occupants (both living and inanimate). He hated the roars of delivery trucks, the unending pounding of horns by taxi cab drivers, the jaywalkers, perverts, foul-mouthed kids, and unfeeling, insincere lifeless automatons who stood behind the cash registers of the city’s endless eateries and retail shops. Mostly, Treat hated that he was a part—an active contributor—of the madness that was the city. He rode--was in fact dependent upon--its loud buses to go to and from work each day. He ate lunch at its restaurants at least once or twice per week. During the holiday season, he purchased goods from various city department stores. Treat’s own salary contributed to the city’s resources via the 7% city wage tax deducted from his bi-weekly paycheck. It had been deemed a “privilege” to work and live in the city, thus the wage tax had been created to remind its workers (and to satisfy the city’s financial hunger) of that fact. Although Treat lived in the suburbs, his residence was still within the city limits. Thus, he was taxed the same amount as individuals who lived within the belly of the beast. But he felt favored living in suburbia to living within the madness maze. He’d done it before and it had nearly killed him. Several of his friends had been killed--victims of muggers and drive-by shooters--but Treat had at least escaped alive.
Treat turned his back to the window and returned to his designated work area. Most of his coworkers had left for the day. Various manuscripts sat upon his desk like an abstract paper tower of Babel that he so wished to topple with the back of his hand. The red message light on his phone blinked off and on in repeated, hypnotic fashion. Someone, most likely one of the authors with whom he was obliged to correspond regularly, had telephoned. The clock on his computer screen read 4:25 p.m. Close enough, he thought. Whatever the message it could keep until Monday. The last thing Treat wanted was to spend the next half-hour debating with an author the difference between commas and semi-colons. He knew too well the difficult commute (it was always worse on Fridays) that awaited. Everything seemed to escalate during the Friday evening rush hour (an oxymoron if ever there was one). Volume was heavier, drivers less patient, and the buses more crowded. He shut down his PC and, grabbing hold of his shoulder bag and jacket, headed toward the elevator banks.
Outside, the hot summer air smacked his face, a bitter contrast to the air-conditioned exterior out of which he’d just stepped. Treat’s joy at having left the office behind quickly faded as he looked across the street and watched the Route 9 bus—his bus—pull away. Typically, another bus would arrive in 10 minutes. But this was Friday, and grid locked roads and disabled, overheated vehicles and automobile accidents could wreck havoc with the bus’ scheduled departure times. Eight blocks west, at Broad and Walnut, ran the 27—it was another bus that could transport Treat out of the city and to the safety of home. Occasionally he would walk the eight blocks, knowing he could take the 9 if it happened by. Most days he chose simply to wait. There was a set pattern to his work life—arrive via the 9; work; return home via the 9—and Treat was not one to deviate from structure and habit. He looked up. The 19-story Penn building shadowed him as if he were but the most insignificant of insects. The desire to leave won over his penchant for familiarity; thus, despite the heat, he began walking toward Broad.
The walk from 5th to Broad via Walnut was, as a matter of course, non-threatening. He’d walked the path many times, day and night, when he’d lived in the city. Treat passed the Washington Hospital at 7th and the city’s tiny theatre district (which began at 8th and ended at 11th). Around and in between the various theatres were small businesses and restaurants as well as several vacant buildings. In that regard the city was like the mythological Hydra. Each fallen business seemed, more often than not, to be replaced by two. Treat looked at the strangers that passed by him; they moved with urgency and determination. Theirs was a sea of faces passing by him in violent waves and he suddenly realized that he, too, was walking quite quickly considering the outside temperature.
The white Impala crept slowly toward 10th and Walnut and a hand from within the vehicle tossed a half-full soda can toward a trash receptacle. The poorly aimed throw missed its target by over two feet; it landed on the sidewalk before rolling into the street leaving in its wake a stream of carbonated fallout. Treat yelled out to the passengers within the Impala, but it blew through a red light and vanished into the distance. The soda can slowly rolled further into the street before being smashed flat by a city-owned recycling truck.
The afternoon sun continued to burn. Any previous cloud cover had long since passed, and the temperature was expected to continue its ascent into the evening hours. Tiny beads of sweat ran from Treat’s neck down the small of his back. His forehead was also wet with perspiration. Treat looked east for signs of the 9, but did not see it.
The incident occurred one block later, at 13th and Walnut.
As he was crossing the intersection, Treat’s eyes gazed ahead, assessing the upcoming sidewalk as a running back on a football team might assess the positions of the opposition during play. He’d learned from his tenure as a city resident to always look down field. He saw six or seven black youths approximately 20 feet distant. They were neither coming nor going, but stood unmoving as if they were a part of the city’s infrastructure. The hot sun continued to burn the city’s rooftops and pavements. No more than five feet distant Treat saw a white man of medium build who looked to be in his mid-30s. The man wore a Hawaiian shirt and stood holding a video camera in his right hand. Treat felt a sense that something was not quite right—that something bad was about to happen. He felt the city expand and contract around him as if it were breathing heavily with a lover’s anticipation. Against the traffic light and into oncoming traffic Treat hurried to the southern side of the intersection. From the northern side of the street one of the youths yelled, “Faggot!” to the camera-holding, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing man.
“Did you just call me a faggot?” the man asked once, then twice.
This exchange continued for several seconds when three of the youths suddenly charged at the man. The slapping sound of fists on soft flesh lasted but a second yet seemed to be the only sound evident in the area. The dozens of motors from the line of vehicles in the street, the humming air conditioner units that hung from the second story windows, the conversation of passersby, the steam rising from the thin openings of the various man-hole covers—all of these sounds stepped aside and bowed before the ages-old sound of violence. The incident seemed to occur in fast motion, and ended in seconds as the youths, having assaulted their prey, retreated to the safety of their vile flock. The man pushed himself off the ground holding his face with one hand and reaching for his camera with the other. A series of taunts emerged from the mouths of the youths who began to chant, “Zero! Zero!” rhythmically and started to walk westward toward Broad. The sounds of the city returned: A car horn. A motorcycle engine. Conversations. He tried calling 9-1-1 on his cell phone but could not get a signal. He looked left and right for a public telephone but there were none in view. He thought certainly someone passing by would call for help—most of the population carried cells. But no one called. He was only one block from Broad, but he lingered in the vicinity of 13th. He felt no urgency to walk in the same vicinity as the hostile youths even though he needed to continue westward to catch the 27 in order to leave the confining metropolis behind (at least for the weekend). The assaulted man, he saw, was speaking with a female parking authority employee, most likely asking her to call the police. The woman spoke into a wireless radio, but the frown on her face was all telling. She knew the police would be able to do nothing. The youths were gone, had blended into the horizon like so much litter on the street.
Treat was a mere half block from Broad when the 27 sped by. His few minutes of hesitancy had been costly. However, in the distance eastward he at last saw the long-overdue 9 bus approaching. It was hot and crowded on the bus (the air conditioning wasn’t working) but he managed to find a window seat toward the back. Treat breathed a momentary sigh of relief for no longer being vulnerable t the city’s external unknowns. From his seat on the bus, he could simply sit and watch the many strangers who were engulfed in the city’s madness.
His thoughts invariably drifted to the man in the Hawaiian shirt. Treat’s heart raced with a mixture of anger and frustration. He’d wanted desperately to intervene in the altercation, to aid the outnumbered man he’d seen assaulted. But while his heart desired justice, his mind governed his actions (inactions). Fear of personal injury spoke louder than the shame of watching from a distance an outnumbered stranger take a fall. “Coward,” he whispered to himself. “Better a coward than hurt or dead,” his mind rationalized. While this tug-of-war between mind and heart, right and wrong raged, the 9 sluggishly moved across town. Treat looked toward the sky, looked for the calming blue of the horizon, but the city’s skyscrapers obscured it from his view. There was only glass and concrete, stone and iron, brick and marble. As the bus crept across 21st street, he saw for a moment the sky and sun. Seconds later it was replaced once more by the buildings that towered over the city’s residents like back alley thugs. Ahead, traffic had ceased to move. Anxious drivers began to press maddeningly on the horns of their cars, trucks, and SUVs. The bus driver joined the fray as the bus’ horn bellowed with obnoxious urgency. Traffic did not move for several minutes. Overhead, atop the screaming vehicles, he heard the sound of a jet engine. Treat’s blood froze as waves of déjà vu swept over him.
It had begun like any other work day. The commute, the office jokes and quibbles, the morning coffee. Without warning New York and Washington, DC were attacked. A national panic ensued and office workers in various cities were sent home. However, bridges were quickly being closed for fear that they would be targets for terrorists; this action prevented many from being able to leave the city. Major roads soon overflowed with volume. Minor roads followed suit. Treat had tried to find a bus but could find none. He’d walked uptown to the train station hoping to catch the R6, but the stations were filled to maximum capacity and it was later announced that the trains would no longer run. There was a sense of urgency to leave the city on 9-11, but the city would not allow it. Finally, he’d found a bus and climbed aboard. The bus was headed eastbound. Although Treat needed to travel westbound to reach home he assumed the bus would, at the end of its run, begin heading west. However, at 6th and Chestnut, only two blocks from his office building, the bus driver announced, “Last stop.” When Treat asked if he would be heading west, the driver replied no. Nearly two hours had passed and the gridlock was staggering. When at last he secured transit on a westbound bus, the trip was excruciating. Few spoke. Most simply stared out and up at the sky—wondering and waiting. He’d written a letter to his lover, wishing they were somewhere safe, but knowing “safe” was an imaginary concept that did not exist upon 21st century earth.
On 9-11 Treat felt the city itself was the enemy. He felt that way again (to a far lesser degree) on this hot Friday afternoon as the 9, finally reaching a speed slightly above tortoise, approached the expressway onramp. The worst was over, he thought. As it approached the onramp the bus suddenly turned right onto Market street. Treat tipped his head back in defeat and disgust. The transit buses deviated from the expressway only when driving conditions were excessively prohibitive (usually attributable to multi-vehicle accidents at the expressway’s exit 42 ramp). The bus crept east on Market, bringing Treat back into the city, before turning north onto the Boulevard. Using this alternate route the colorful transit bus drove through several of the cities slum neighborhoods—neighborhoods that once had shone, but had long been neglected by its inhabitants who treated their dwellings and streets with less regard than one might treat a cockroach at a dinner party.
“I’ve got to move,” he whispered to no one. He’d been trying to focus on a relocation plan--just a plan. But work had gotten so busy lately that he he’d neither the time nor energy to develop a strategy that would lead to eventual life in another--cleaner, safer, less life-draining, and most of all, smaller--city. Treat stared at the graphitti-covered one-car garage at the corner of 41st and Wyoming. The multi-colored paints had been sprayed across the face of the brick and mortar structure, tarnishing what once had been a simple, clean building. The house next to the garage was a burnt out shell. Several children were engaging in faux swordplay using broken strips of burnt wood for sabers.
The bus rounded Chesapeake Street. In the distance and growing ever distant was the city. Its skyline stood tall--immobile--like a barrier designed to keep something out, or to trap it within. The skyline’s focal point was the Despayre Tower, a 68-story behemoth of a building erected in 1932 post-depression America. To its immediate left was the 28-story Carlisle building and the 27-story Federal building.
The Federal building was an architectural bore that had gained notoriety in 1952 when noted philanthropist Charles P. Wassington was tried for the murder of 7-year-old Natalie, his daughter. The trial caught the attention of sensationalist journalists from coast to coast. On July 27, 1952, following a lengthy trial, Wassington was pronounced to be not guilty by his peer jury. That evening, Wassington broke into the Federal building and entered the courtroom in which his trial had been held. He was found hanging the following morning from a noose he’d fashioned on his own. His legs dangled just above the witness box. Beneath the judge’s gavel he’d left a sheet of paper upon which he’d inscribed the word “guilty.”
To the right of the Despayre Tower stood the Burple condominiums, two garish buildings of 26 and 32 stories, built in 1973. These five buildings were the heart of the city and, viewed from afar, looked very much like a hand with its middle finger extended into the air. This was, Treat realized, no accident of architecture. No coincidence. The city was sending a message to its populace--a defiant gesture that could not be misinterpreted. Its meaning was clear: do not screw with me. In that instant Treat saw the city for what he knew it was: an ugly obscenity that, although created by the hands of men, had assumed a life of its own. Its buildings and structures were the bastard sons and daughters of generations of the city’s original foundations (long since demolished to make room for newer, shinier, taller offspring). Structures built during imperfect times by imperfect men for the solitary reason of financial gain. Within the walls of those architecturally designed boxes lived, breathed, worked, and eventually died generation upon generation of men and women who, for the most part, served the city blissfully. In gratitude, the city bid them each farewell as the dead were ultimately laid to rest outside the city proper, but within view of its towering skyline. It was akin to a relationship with the mob--when you’re in, you’re in for life.
Treat was determined to defect. His eyes had opened. He’d recalled his summers of youth spent in Shushington--the smell of the trees, the grassy pastures, the air and water untainted by chemicals. It was all still there. The city had lured him by its siren song of bright lights, tall structures, and clubs and shops that stayed open for business all through the night. But the quiet of the country was still there, was still within reach. A small town, where trash was collected once a week on Saturday mornings, not each day during the evening rush hour. The thought made him aware that he would need to put out the trash the moment he reached home since he’d forgotten to leave the trashcans at curb side before departing for work (trash was collected in his neighborhood on Tuesdays and Fridays).
Treat removed his cell phone and dialed his home number to check for messages. The bus had stopped moving again. There was one message on his answering machine and as he played the message a thin smile formed upon his lips. Months ago he’d visited Maine for a short vacation. While there he’d perused the classified ads and responded to an opening for an editorial position with a publisher of science fiction novels and magazines. He’d interviewed well (he thought) and had hoped for the best, but having not heard from the company in 10 weeks he assumed the job had been offered to someone else. He listened on his cell to the message again. The words, “We want to make you an offer,” were enough to remind Treat of the dangers of forming assumptions. He played the message a third time as the bus slowly began to move.
He stared out the window once more. The city stared back, the obscene finger that was the Despayre Tower pointing directly at him from afar.
“Fuck you, too,” he said softly, placing his right hand to the window and slowly closing all but his middle finger.
At 5:49 p.m. and ever so reluctantly, the 9 bus crawled to the intersection of O’Shay and Reed Streets and Treat hurried off. He looked east and west before crossing the always busy Reed Street, but stumbled onto the pavement which had recently been torn apart in preparation for a new layer of blacktop. Several moments passed as Treat gathered together the contents of his backpack, which had burst open. His thoughts aglow with his future career in Maine, Treat was oblivious to the city refuse truck as it sped ever closer. Its driver, attentively lighting a cigarette, took no notice of Treat. The last thing Treat saw before the 5.3 ton, yellow and black GMC plowed into him at 35 miles per hour was a billboard approximately 75 yards distant. It was part of a widely focused initiative to increase the city’s populace. “Stay a week…stay a lifetime” were the last words Treat saw before the pain and the blackness thundered down upon him like a thousand angry fists.
He dreamed of sunshine and corn crops, of blue skies and sandy beaches. He dreamed of shooting stars and daffodils, of autumn leaves crunching under foot and snow squalls at 4:00 a.m. He dreamed of horses in grassy fields, caterpillars on tall blades of grass, and big mouth bass swimming upstream. Far away in the distance a voice called his name several times in succession. The dreams faded then ended as his eyelids struggled to open. Slowly the silhouettes before him took the shape of a doctor and a nurse. The nurse, a stout Asian woman of 52, and the doctor, a 48-year-old man of Cambodian origin, spoke softly atop the various beeps and hums of the electronic monitoring equipment that surrounded Treat.
“You were in an accident. A bad accident. It’s really a miracle you weren’t killed,” the nurse said, speaking first. Her face wore a look of grim resolve; she looked almost embarrassed. Treat noticed, then, the clear plastic tube of the catheter that ran alongside the bed and was connected to a drainage bag. A similar tube ran from an IV bag into his left arm. His focus and clarity were slowly returning.
“Unfortunately,” the doctor continued in his best English, arms crossed at his chest, “some of the damage is of permanent in nature. The spinal cord was damaged here and here,” he pointed to the upper and lower quadrants of the nurse’s back as a frame of reference, “and there was trauma of severe to your thorax. These injuries because of you will be unable to move your arms or legs--unable to speak.”
Treats eyes widened as this stream of information was slowly absorbed. He tried to move his right arm but could not. Nor could he move his left arm or either of his legs. It was slowly seeping in.
“Fortunately, our care facility is fully equipped to provide you with the best long-term care available,” the nurse continued. “Many patients like yourself continue to have productive lives despite their physical limitations.” She began a diatribe about technology and the handicapped. She described computers that functioned by eye contact and a myriad of other technical advancements that would aid Treat in this new existence. Treat wasn’t listening. For several long moments he’d been applying all of his concentration in an attempt to force his limbs into action, his throat to resonate sound--any sound. But these previously simple tasks were no longer within his physical grasp and his mind drifted. He thought about the bus rides he would no longer take, the office job he would no longer have to endure. There were dozens--thousands--of experiences that would ever more be denied him, but at least he’d no longer be a pawn of the city; at least he had managed to find a positive in the Ocean Negative in which he was drowning.
The physician left to visit with other patients. The nurse spoke to Treat softly. “I can’t say that everything is going to be okay. But I can tell you that you will get through this. It’ll just take time. A nurse will be in to check on you every hour.” She walked toward a huge curtain on the wall immediately facing Treat. The nurse drew open the curtain. Treat reflexively closed his eyes for a moment as the bright light of day filled the hospital room.
“Some sunshine will help; it always does,” she said and left the room. Treat stared out the window. The city stared back. The Despayre Tower was directly in front of him with its companions--the Federal building, the Carlisle building, and the twin Burple condos--forming an official “fuck you” welcome. There would be no escape to Maine. Treat was a part of the city now. A permanent prisoner of the surrounding structures that would, day and night, stare into his eyes and remind him that he was--had always been--small, so small. He was nothing.
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