ISSUE 5 · FALL 2010




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Copyright © 2010

Benjamin Robinson





The Abandoned City

BENJAMIN ROBINSON

 

 

Nicholas is doing nothing today, just resting in the Eames Lounge, cradling the bundle in his arms. He has on a white short-sleeved shirt and his forearms, the color of duct tape, sport a fine weave of follicles. He kicks his trainers off and swivels his feet up on the Ottoman. There is a jar on the timbers beneath him. He reaches down and dips his finger in.

The berries are on the cusp of ripeness. A team of pickers is on hand, waiting to harvest the crop. He sees them toiling through the night, their fingers stained with juice. There is such a glut of berries they can eat with impunity.

He pulls his finger from the jar and offers it to the top of the rags.

“No jam today? Shame on you, little one.”

For Nicholas it is a day off from the hustle and bustle, and a change to catch up with his old friend, Stanley. He removes the bundle to the kitchen in preparation for Stanley’s arrival. Everything must be just so. When he places it on the bottom self of the fridge, the coldest place in the apartment, it is lit up, rendered in living color. Fridge bulbs are the soul of discretion, built for the long subzero days and nights. He closes the door and it is alone with itself in the dark. Nicholas thinks about the cold air falling about it. He imagines explorers in furs trudging across the snow, their faces hidden behind goggles and balaclavas. When he is entertaining Stanley he will think of them weathering the storm together, intrepid adventurers reaching the summit with flag aflutter.

He picks out a record and places it in readiness on the turntable. Should Stanley be peckish there is Turkish delight on a little silver dish on the table.

The old bell tolls its surging jangle. Nicholas is excited. Sunlight streams through the frame as he rushes down the steps.

“Stanley!” he says, greeting his old friend with a kiss. The light from the street is harsh; it brings with it a blast of humid air. He ushers Stanley in and closes the door.

“What? You have no words for your old friend?”

“A terrible thing has happened, Nicholas.”

Up in the apartment Nicholas offers him the sanctuary of the Eames. “What is it, my friend,” he says perching on the corner of the Ottoman. “Tell me.”

Stanley buries his head in his hands. “They kidnapped Gina,” he sobs.

Nicholas goes over to the record player and turns it on.

Elvis’s voice—singing Love me Tender—drips like honey from a knife.

Nicholas stares out the window. “Elvis was a great man, his death a tragedy for all.”

Stanley lifts his head. His face is etched with pain. “You have to help me, Nicholas.”

“I will do everything in my power, my friend.”

Nicholas listens as his old friend relays his woes. Money borrowed for his ice cream business to get him over a bad spring, then more money borrowed when the summer failed to materialize.

“You should have come to me sooner.”

“I kept thinking things would get better.”

Elvis has reached the third verse and is asking to be taken into his true love’s heart, where he belongs.

“Have they contacted you yet?”

“Not yet.”

Nicholas puts his arm around Stanley. “You are an unlucky man, my friend. Had the sun come out you would have sold much ice cream, and Gina would be smiling. Everyone loves it—so soft, so tender. With things as they are it is a comfort. I have some in my fridge. We will have a bowl together.”

Nicholas retires to the kitchen where he sets two metal bowls on the countertop. He opens the freezer compartment of the fridge and takes out a big tub. He runs the scoop under the hot tap—a trick his father taught him—before sinking it into the fleshy cream. With one bowl in his palm and the other balanced on his forearm he re-enters the room.

“It is a beautiful autumn day, is it not, so let us enjoy your beautiful ice cream. What do they call it?”

Stanley is in a daze. The music is deadening his senses. “My ice cream?”

“No, when the summer is late.”

“It’s called an Indian summer.”

“That’s it,” he says, setting a bowl in Stanley’s lap, “we are having an Indian summer!”

Stanley stares into the frozen curl of vanilla.

Nicholas pulls up a wicker chair and hands Stanley a spoon. “Vanilla, so intense, so pure. Let us eat to Gina’s safe return.”

Elvis is closing his set with Wooden Heart, his smoky tones hovering over them with a hungry heart.

“I feel sick,” Stanley says. He leans over the Ottoman and vomits.

Nicholas jumps to his feet. “You must not upset yourself, my friend. You must trust me that Gina will be returned to you unharmed.”

“She is all I have in the world,” Stanley says, swabbing the vomit with a tissue. The fabric is incapable of holding the lumpy sputum and it spills out the sides, dribbling through his fingers, back onto the shiny black leather.

Nicholas leads Stanley towards the door. “Leave it with me. I will contact you as soon as negotiations are concluded.”

When Stanley returns later in the day there is a little girl sitting in the Eames Lounge with a bowl of ice cream in her lap.

Stanley bursts into tears and falls at her feet. “Gina!”

Nicholas emerges from the kitchen, glowing with pride.

“It is a miracle. You have brought my angel back.”

“Did I not tell you I would? You must have more faith, my friend.”

“How can I ever repay you?”

Nicholas is forthright in his answer. “I want you to come and work for me, Stanley. I am going into the ice cream business. With this Indian summer we are having there is much money to be made, and with your expertise we will clean up, my friend.”

Stanley gets to his feet. “I will work hard for you, my friend. I will not let you down.”

“We will have some ice cream to celebrate.”

As they eat, Nicholas regales them with tales of the city’s illustrious past, their scoops of vanilla softening as the story progresses.

Born of eternal hunger the city rose like a soufflé out of the acrid ground upon which it was founded, its infamous confectioners wreathing its now-derelict walls in such empyrean vapors as to render it as impenetrable as a fortress. These voluptuous aromas were said to fill the bands of transients who regularly passed through the region with an insatiable desire to embrace the city’s gastronomic delights. Upon entering the city gates the travelers were informed that the price to be paid for the indulgence of sweetmeats was the soul of an unborn child. Weakened by appetite the weary voyagers agreed, reasoning that such a vague, illusory concept—the existence of which they sorely doubted—when weighed against their collective satisfaction was but a paltry outlay. The unscrupulous acquisition of these invaluable commodities exacted a heavy toll on the city and led to its eventual downfall. For the city they saw before them, with its parasols and paramours and parlors, was a petrified shadow, an icy confection melting before the sun-flares of its former audacity.

On the way out they pause on the stairs and Nicholas points to a big painting that stretches from the skylight to the cold stone floor beneath it. “Do you see that picture, Gina?” he whispers, bending down beside her. “That is a picture of the horrors of war. But it is also a picture of redemption, of the hope that springs from war. And it is people like your father who inspire such works of art. Always remember that.”

The following morning Nicholas takes delivery of a new state-of-the-art freezer, and not a day too soon; the bundle is beginning to stink like a piece of old cheese.

Stanley starts work in one of Nicholas’s fleet of new vans, supplying the city with ice cream. The vans have a quote from the Psalms on the side: He casteth forth his ice like morsels: who can stand before his cold? As Stanley drives through the sun-drenched streets an image flutters above his head like the cooling trim of a sunshade. Nicholas has little Gina hoisted on his shoulders and is carrying her out of the city to freedom.

All morning the talk is of war.

“A terrible business, terrible,” the women say as they stand in line.

“Who will save us?”

“What will become of our city?”

Stanley listens patiently to their protestations, dispensing the cones with a smile. The city had not been abandoned, he tells them; a new range of ice creams will be shortly unveiled.

At lunchtime he is glad of a chance to put up his feet. He must call in to Nicholas later. He has been working on the new ice creams and wants Stanley to try some.

Nicholas is looking debonair in a beige tee-shirt, pale taupe trousers, and weathered sandals.

“I’ve been thinking, Stanley,” he says, running his fingers through the surf of his hair, “what the people need is something to distract them, a fortification to take their minds off the war and let them enjoy the spell of weather we are having.”

Stanley looks at Nicholas’s toes. His nails, long and ragged, are the color of dappled sunlight. “It’s a terrible business, Nicholas, terrible.”

“But there is still enjoyment to be had in an ice cream?”

“It is one of life’s little pleasures.”

“Then I think you will be pleasantly surprised by this new flavor of mine,” he says, scurrying into the kitchen.

Alone in the room Stanley gazes at Nicholas’s art collection. A big stone Buddha on the floor by the window. A collection of African masks covering one wall with a screen-print of Elvis—dressed as a cowboy and holding a gun—hanging opposite them. And over the fireplace an oil painting, blackened with age, of a Madonna and child. As he stares at the image of Elvis he thinks of the old man who had stood all morning in the shadow of the church, watching people buying ice cream. Just as Stanley was about to drive off he approached the van and started ranting at him. “That’s it ice cream man, have your moment, have your day before the bombs come raining down and we’re all blown to smithereens.”

Nicholas returns with a little silver bowl, a ball of ice cream snug in its dewy socket. “I see you are admiring my Warhol. The Elvis holds a special place in my heart. It was my first acquisition.”

“I do not recall him being a cowboy.”

He sets the bowl and a spoon on the coffee table. “The image was taken from the publicity still for the film Flaming Star, you know it?”

“No. But it is a very good likeness, all the same.”

Nicholas gestures to the spoon. He has a twinkle in his eye. “I have condensed the sequence of impressions into a single serving so you can experience the full effect in one sitting.”

Stanley dislodges a divot and slips it into his mouth. As flavor streams from the globule he sees a boy standing alone by a wrought iron gate. When he takes another milky morsel a man in a cape bends down beside the boy and whispers something in his ear. Something about the man disturbs Stanley. As he watches the affable stranger he pictures Gina smiling at him, being taken in by his charm. By the time the bowl is empty the boy is dead.

“How do you conquer it, Stanley?”

“What?” Stanley says, looking perplexed.

“Fear of death, paralysis of thought and deed, how do we defeat it?”

Stanley is lost for words.

“You look it in the eye, that’s how. You freeze it in a moment so intense it turns the heart cold with rage. Then anything is possible.”

“It could have been Gina,” Stanley mutters.

“We are all victims of fate, Stanley, one way or another.”

On his way home Stanley picks Gina up from school. “Papa, papa!” she shouts when she hears the chimes, the muggy pings rising to a slow crescendo. Each van has been allocated an Elvis tune and Stanley’s is Love Me Tender. As they speed away Gina sticks her head out the window, her ice cream dripping a trail of milky explosions along the lane.

Nicholas waits anxiously for the bundles to arrive. He weighs them, records the date and time of delivery, before putting them in the freezer. As the fighting intensifies the bundles become more frequent and the freezer is soon filled.

The old man who had ranted at Stanley is a regular fixture in the city. The people call him Sook. He arrived from overseas and took up residence in one of the dilapidated villas along the river. Of independent means he is rumored to have once been a celebrated singer. Prematurely aged and overweight his boyish visage flickers with the vestige of some long forgotten limelight. His sumptuously thick hair runs over his head in a tangle of oily rails. A frilly shirt surges over his gut into a pair of purple slacks that fall frayed and flared over his boots like the folds of a curtain. Each morning he takes up his position in one of the city’s dilapidated squares. When Stanley passes him he glowers at the van and points an accusing finger.

“Do you not hear them, crying for love?”

Stanley ignores him—when the new flavors arrive, he’ll see.

The Indian summer blazes a trail through the autumn. A second freezer is delivered, fitting snugly in beside the first. In between managing the influx of bundles Nicholas works in secret on the new ice creams, forbidding Stanley access to the parlor until they are perfected. When Stanley meets him he explains that like the ice cream he sampled in the apartment each flavor will come with a story, and each time a cone is consumed a little more of the story will be revealed. There will be four flavors in total: Raspberry Ripple, Rum and Raisin, Blueberry, and Chocolate Chip.

The finished products are unveiled and Nicholas takes Stanley through the enticements. “These are my little ones, Stanley, each fated to die under the most horrendous of circumstances.” He points in turn to each of four large vats in the parlour, rising from each of which is the shaft of a paddle ploughing back and forth across the surface of an ice cream. “Raspberry Ripple falls into a lake and drowns. Rum and Raisin is killed by a drunk driver. Blueberry strangles himself on a curtain cord. And Chocolate Chip—oh, poor Chocolate Chip!—succumbs to a fatal skin disease.”

“What is the sequence of images for the Chocolate Chip?” Stanley says, relishing the cut and thrust of product development.

“First we see a boy examining a spot on his arm, picking aimlessly at the crust till he draws blood. The next cone brings images of a hospital ward—hair loss, vomiting, no detail of the chemotherapy is spared. Subsequent installments consist of the family huddled round the deathbed, their heartfelt sobs washing round the cold hum of the life-support. Then comes the deathbed scene proper, their little son’s face all gaunt and forlorn as he looses his fight against skin cancer. The flavour concludes with a harrowing graveside scenario.”

“It is a remarkable achievement, Nicholas, and a powerful indictment.”

“Atrocity is the axis on which the heart yearns, Stanley, and we advance or retreat on its impact.”

Stanley peers into one of the vats. “Who can resist chocolate? So dark, so intense.”

“Combine it with tragedy and you have the perfect antidote to war.” Nicholas strolls over to another vat. “Come, my friend, try some Raspberry Ripple. It will break your heart.”

Stanley crooks a dollop onto his tongue. Raspberry Ripple races helter-skelter across his taste buds. As the ripples collide and coalesce he sees a little girl walking with arms outstretched along the banks of an unfathomable lake. Below her the dark waters lap. Stanley takes another nip and notices the sunlight in her hair, her breezy cotton dress fluttering over the precipice. When he returns to his senses Nicholas is affirming the pre-eminence of iced confections.

“Ice cream is the food of the gods, Stanley, from the icehouses of Mesopotamia to the yakhchals of Persia, the Pharaohs, the Greeks, the Romans—all fell under its spell.”

They move on to Rum and Raisin. “With Rum and Raisin we see a man, slightly unsteady on his feet, trying to get a key into the door of his car. It is a lavish automobile, sunroof, leather trim, walnut interior; only a very important individual drives such a vehicle. Resting on the back seat is a purple attaché case. With the second cone we see a little boy walking down a country road. He is on his way home from school. His bag is cheap—the stitching has unravelled at one corner—and his shoes have seen better days, but he is happy.”

Stanley decapitates a buttery peak and sees a middle-aged man in a dark suit, slouched against the bonnet of a black Mercedes, his eyes pitching and rolling as he fumbles in his pocket for his car keys. “When will the subsequent installments be produced?” he asks, helping himself to another finger-full.

“The sequences will be expedited as the contingencies of consumption dictate. By means of a series of simple modifications the flavors will progress through their respective tragedies. Once a flavor’s narrative is completed it will return to its anterior manifestation.”

“It will be interesting to see how this all pans out, Nicholas. Will the ice creams be eaten in an orderly fashion, or will the citizenry move freely between tragedies, seeking out a favorite, perhaps. Do you intend to make all the installments available simultaneously?”

“I have kept the narratives simple enough so that they can be enjoyed at any point in their progression. For instance, Rum and Raisin’s crushing conclusion might be deferred while Chocolate Chip’s portentous inception is being sampled. The unfinished flavor can then be taken up again at a later stage without loss of continuity or emotional impart. But as you say, we shall have to see how it all pans out.”

“Might we consider vending the flavors randomly?”

“Out of sequence, you mean?”

“Let the citizenry fit the narratives together themselves, like the pieces of a jigsaw.”

“That is an excellent idea, Stanley. My intention in producing these ice creams is to provide our citizenry with a means by which to negotiate the horrors of war, and such a proactive stratagem would enhance greatly this arduous endeavor. A selection of my little ones, at different stages of their demise, could be vended in Love Me Tender by way of testing the water—teasers, if you will. Should the approach prove successful we can roll it out across the fleet. ”

With Stanley whipped to a peak of enthusiasm they end their tour with an exposition of Blueberry.

“A little boy knocks over an expensive bottle of wine. It smashes into smithereens. There is an argument. Harsh words are spoken. The father banishes the shamefaced child to his room. ‘Out of my sight!’ he cries. The child prowls his enclosure like a caged animal. Outside the sun is shining. There is not a cloud in the sky. After a while the little boy climbs up on the ledge to look out of the window. On the lawn a lone blackbird is pecking the grass, enjoying the good weather. The boy wants to get closer, to open the window and wave to the lonesome creature. But alas! The last bittersweet cone sees him dangling blue-faced from the end of the curtain cord.”

This final image sees Stanley’s full-blooded zeal turn to ashes. Forced in on itself it struggles against its own reflection. Along with the brief glimpses he has been granted, a nightmarish scene cuts through the milky-sweet remnants lingering like a sigh upon his palate. The city has been eviscerated. The naked bodies of children are strewn like entrails across the rubble, their hair torn out in clumps, their faces pale with death. Stanley is overcome with a mixture of longing and despair. He chokes back a tear and scratches the tip of his nose. Composing himself he turns to Nicholas but cannot remember what it is he wanted to say to him.

“So there you have it, Stanley. Each blood-red raspberry, each rum-soaked raisin, each downtrodden blueberry, each desecrated chocolate chip, will remind us how precious are our children.”

Stanley clings to Nicholas’s words with the elegance of a drowning man. He claws a ray of hope from their bloated bellies and lifts it to the smiling sun. He is renewed, filled with that pellucid mixture of optimism and trust he sees in little Gina’s eyes each time they are reunited.

The thought of seeing Gina again has revitalized Stanley. As they leave the parlor he cannot restrain himself; he feels like he is going to explode. He wants to reach out, to kiss Nicholas on either cheek, but knows such a display of affection would be frowned upon. He satisfies himself with touching him on the sleeve, his fingers skimming the sleepy linen creases as, with eyes raised heavenward, he proffers his summation:

“The ice creams are a work of art, my friend, pure genius!”

Stanley’s van departs the depot as to a battlefield, its silvery chimes threading like a needle through the city’s humid streets. There is desperation in the air. Each batch is devoured before noon, the enticements unlocking a hunger from deep in the city’s anxious soul. Amid rumors of abductions and enslavements the rest of the fleet is deployed.

The narratives provide a respite from speculation about the city’s fate, the citizens returning to them again and again, never tiring of their opening gambits, their tragic dénouements, their toothsome blend of sweetness and suffering humanity. With the war stalled it becomes their daily ritual, to queue and purchase ice cream.

With their installments under their belts they lick their lips and pick over the bones.

“What sort of person doesn’t stop after hitting a child?”

“Each time I see her walking towards the lake, I reach out.”

“Such a beautiful boy, and destroyed for what?”

“Such people should not be allowed to have children.”

“Why is it always the parents’ fault? It was an accident.”

“It’s clearly the authorities’ fault. The lake should have been cordoned off.”

The war resumes its forward march, leafy branches sweltering under azure skies as autumn yields to a titular winter. From every corner of the city shelling can be heard, and in every alleyway and square the stories fester. In mosaics of curdled desire the tragedies churn through the citizens’ minds, the city’s fate suspended high above them like a diaphanous cloud. His voice returned, Sook sings songs of lamentation to tears and rapturous applause. Beside him, buffeted by columns of cheering children, Nicholas stands waiting. When there is silence he addresses the crowd.

“Friends, the time has come for us to move on from the attitude of mind that says we must remain aloof from the fray, evading the gathering storm. The flag of destiny raised must never be lowered or defeated. Our children exposed must never be abandoned, must never fall from the grace we will bestow with our fists if we have to. For too long we have stood frozen before the bright lights of destruction, churning a bitter lament. For too long the city has sweltered under this oppressive heat, days without succor with only the god-given morsels the furnaces of tragedy ferment to quench our flaming tongues. The time of sacrifice is at hand, of recompense, but also fulfillment. Tempered by an unearthly imbalance we’ve grown strong and in the march to freedom we will soar on the wings of angels, taking on behalf of all those suffering souls the cold blade of justice in our hands, drawing it down upon the heads of our enemies with a mighty strength. A cry is unleashed! We must fight to survive! Do we fall back on impotence, melt away like the stars in the dew or do we march towards redemption, our heads held high, our hearts beating to the drums of salvation? I raise my hands to the sky, my tongue to the heavens and demand that the city awaken. Take your rage from the dead and your barbs from the mouths of children. There’s work to be done. Let us prepare.” Following the speech there is loud affirmation of Nicholas as the people’s champion.

Stanley is heartened by Nicholas’s vehemence, seeing in his desire to protect the city’s children the moral consequence of his having rescued little Gina. At Nicholas’s insistence he and Gina leave the city. They trek through the night to a village high in the mountains where they will find shelter. The air chills as they rise, soft earth giving way to the crunch of frozen leaves.

The weather finally turns and the city is shrouded in snow. Plunged abruptly into winter the citizens turn to Sook for comfort, devouring his fiery injunctions as they once did their beloved ice creams, his frenzied incantations working them into spasms of delirium. Each song is prefaced by a call to arms—however humble, however lowly, each citizen must play their part. In fulfillment of his ministry hardware stores are looted, warehouses ransacked, and kitchen drawers plundered for weaponry. The city’s confectionery museum is stripped of its culinary artifacts: whisks, scoops, graters, zesters, pestles, butter paddles, fruit parers, spatulas, mezzalunas, wooden spoons, and waffle irons all retched from the anaesthetized stare of their glazed obsolescence.

On Christmas Eve, Sook coils his ragged army into the onslaught; mothers with rolling pins, fathers with pastry knives, children with piecrust trimmers advance behind an inviolable wall of sound.

High up in the mountains Stanley is comforting Gina. “I’m cold, papa,” she says, “I want to go home.”

Buckled by the wind the chorus breaks beneath them as first a wave and then a gutted whisper.

“Shall I tell you a story?” Stanley says, wrapping his arms around Gina. Gina nods and Stanley begins. “There once was a city that was trapped in endless summer. All through the autumn the sun shone and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. But the inhabitants of the city were frightened. A war was coming and they were afraid their city was going to be bombed. One man saw how unhappy they were and decided to do something about it. He bought an ice cream parlor and set about making some very special ice creams which when the people ate them made them see visions of things so tragic they remembered what it was to be brave.”

Gina’s head sinks into her father’s chest and she slips into sleep. He lifts her onto the bed and pulls the blankets up round her shoulders.

Down in the city Nicholas has placed the frozen bundles in rows on the parlor floor. Around them rancid odors rise from pools of frosted milk, and stacks of cones list against the walls like lazy sentinels.

The bombs come, just as Sook predicted.

Nicholas has to work hard to get the bodies out before dawn. Driving Stanley’s old van he works through the night, cranking the chimes out as the first cold rays clip the tops of the cypress trees. The rest of the fleet, burnt-out long ago, are smudges on the abandoned city.

To the sound of Love Me Tender they arrive, the partisans, the followers, to witness the atrocity. As Nicholas dozes in the Eames they find the children strewn across the ruins.