Togetherland by Amy Stuber

With dark coats to our shoe-tops, we were glorious on sidewalks, heads floating, bobbing above concrete, walking, walking, 72nd, 71st, 70th. Stopped at the light, cigarettes going. Big sunglasses, big bags. We had zero interest in pleasantries. We carried Marlboro Lights in Marlboro Reds boxes. We weren’t total masochists.

We were 33, and we had been so many things: regular babies, child actors, regular actors, moguls.

A man stood behind window glass staring out at the morning. A boy yelled, “shit, shit, shit” at his mother. The light changed. We crossed, rounded the corner, and the smooth cake of a sidewalk square yawned open.

It was October 2019, and we had no idea what we were doing. Of course, we felt the fear and gloom of climate and Trump, but not even my sister, someone who might constantly think of the car flipping over ice, the foot catching on carpeting on the stairs, the plane slashing through air to tank on a highway, would have anticipated a sinkhole sighing in a sidewalk. 

We’d seen pictures of sinkholes, sure, but they were generally in fields or gaping in the middle of a street with cars right up to the edges. This one, small, on an untraveled block, seemed made for us, which was strange, though we’d had lives to that point where people did make things for us and send them with notes like, “I made this with the two of you in mind.”

We could do nothing but fall. Our coats ballooned around our mid-sections in ways that would, on film, look artful. Our narrow ankles in thick-soled shoes braced for who knew what. My sister, if she thought anything then, thought, what if there isn’t a bottom, what if we just keep falling. What shocked me most was that she didn’t scream.

The rats were as stunned as we were. While we reacted by standing still, they reacted with frenzy. They writhed, ran, screeched, scattered. They were aghast. Is this a dream, I knew my sister was thinking.

Firemen came as they do in emergencies. I want to say for the drama of it that when they pulled us out, rats the size of puppies clung to our coats as decoration, but that was not the case. Rather, the firemen lowered a rope ladder, and my sister steadied her thick shoes on each rung. “Wait,” I yelled up. Items pulsed around me. Chunks of asphalt. All manner of trash. Improbably, a paperback so old the cover image was only a smear of washed color. I grabbed from the hole before climbing a silvery pop-top from a soda can that I hoped some queen rat had secreted away for herself, for the lovely shininess of it. 

Back on the sidewalk, we didn’t wait to talk to anyone. We didn’t have that police moment like in crime shows where they ask you to tell them the story. Instead, we ran, our coats storm clouds behind us, for once not worrying about the spectacle of it. 

Bottom line, if she was doing it, I was doing it, too. Our coats took on air, not in the way of that Willy Wonka girl but like a coasting bird who knew it didn’t need to beat wings to keep flying.

We didn’t call the car service; we opted for an old-school taxi. The driver looked in the mirror, said, “Aren’t you…?” We didn’t need to look at each other to roll our eyes; it was enough to, in unison, think, eye roll.

In the morning, the hole was surrounded by cones and police tape. We were back, in big coats, big shoes, filled suddenly with purpose, aloft with it almost.

I held the silver tab so tight my index finger bled a thin line. We walked all the way down Madison and back up Park. We filled our pockets with bottle caps, downed leaves, shredded coffee cups and penned on each a time/date/place (charger cord, 10/11/2019, 68th & Park).

We filled our bags and then the cloth bags we carried folded in our regular bags. We hauled up to our apartment a stack of canvases painted with neon landscapes from where someone had left them on the sidewalk alongside an entire suite of oak office furniture.

We didn’t sleep. My sister turned on vintage metal that shook the window glass, and we worked as ants or rodents. By morning, our fingers were leathery with dried glue, and the canvases were splotched over with things and things and things. What the fuck are these, I knew my sister wanted to say. Still, her cheeks were pink, and she looked, for once, happy.

It was only a few weeks before they were hanging on the walls of a small gallery three blocks from our apartment. To the opening, we wore gauzy charcoal dresses to the floor and lined our eyes all the way around.

“I didn’t take you for artists,” someone said to us while we stood in front of the largest assemblage. Eye roll. Sigh.

“Tell us how this started,” someone else said while he squinted to read the time/date/place on a piece of paperboard that had held a hot dog. “The rats,” we said, “were mid-shin, that’s how tall they were.” The person said, “I doubt that,” and my sister said, eyes big, “Were you there?” 

The music wasn’t loud enough for us. The drinks weren’t the drinks we wanted. The people had too much to say. We rotated in our gauze dresses to look out the window where the dark city was everything. We walked outside and breathed and listened. We closed our eyes so we were one creature and tried not to think about the future because what was the future but a locked box that could contain either scorpions or crystals. Don’t open it, I almost said out loud, and my sister touched my hand. We loved it all. 

 

Amy Stuber’s fiction has appeared in Witness, West Branch, Ploughshares, New England Review, and elsewhere. She’s been writing since the 1990s, but she’s still very much emerging. She’s an editor for Split Lip Magazine. She’s on Twitter @amy_stuber_ and online at www.amystuber.com.

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