DISPATCHES FROM DEAD CITY
Love thy neighbor, but don’t stick around too long
“Billboards?” William asked over the phone. His voice seemed small, reaching us, I imagined, from somewhere inside his mother’s house in the mountain, where he liked to play the grand piano and persecute the help, whom he refused to call by their names, calling them only that: “the help.”
“Yes, billboards,” Cole repeated. He had called us, William, Julia and me, on one of those group calls we used to love when everything was fine. They had taken on a grave, urgent tone in the past month.
I stood alone on the balcony of our home. Inside the apartment, my parents consumed the news voraciously, speaking in hurried voices. When the phone rang, I heard my mother say “Hello,” after which her voice dropped to a whisper.
“Just go outside, and you’re bound to see one,” Cole said. “They’re everywhere. It all happened overnight, apparently.”
“What do they say?” Julia asked. The signal was weak, transmitting only the structure of her words, not the warmth of her voice.
I leaned over the railing and saw, in the smaller building opposite ours, a hand pulling open the doors to the upper floor balcony. A balding man in his early fifties stepped outside cautiously, carrying a container of something I could not make out. I squinted. Next, his wife appeared, clutching what seemed like a heap of freshly cleaned, white clothes. I knew her well: as I sat at my desk trying to learn history dates by heart, I would watch her scurry into the apartment to retrieve wet clothes and out to the balcony, where she swung her arms from the laundry basket to the wires overhead. When she was not there, traces of her lingered in the soft sway of the shirts, towels, and trousers, and the shadows cast on them by the changing sun.
“Big block letters,” Cole said. “In all three languages.”
“What do they say?” William repeated.
“He who lives like a dog will die like one,” Cole replied slowly.
A strange rustling rose from the city, as though it were breathing, ribcage rising and receding like the tide. A mist appeared near the sea. The bald man’s wife laid a white fitted sheet across the plastic picnic table. Wielding a large pair of scissors, she cut across the sheet while her husband held its corners fast, then brandished the result, a rectangle one meter wide. The man was holding what I could now see was a can of spray paint, the kind our grocer, a man by the name of Badry whom I would always remember chiefly from the shameful run I’d made to his shop on the morning of my first period, sold at the back of his store, in between Christmas decorations and cord extensions. From across the street, and despite the excited voices of my friends rising out of the cell phone, I heard the distinct rattle of the can as the man sprayed the sheet with words in an ink that was blood red. He held out the result of his work for their admiration—the single loop, the several angles, the audacity of red paint on a common sheet.
I stepped back from the railing until I was certain I could not be seen from any of the high-rises that surrounded ours and collapsed into one of my parents’ deck chairs. Lights had begun to shine everywhere, on towers and in streets. By the sea, the fog lingered over the waterfront.
Across the street, the balcony was deserted. The spray can lay discarded on the plastic chair. From the railing, a plastic broom handle jutted out, two ends of the sheet tied around it. The flag swayed gently in the wind.
What’s yours is mine
We had spent the afternoon parked by a field in the mountains, where the city could be seen as though from an airplane, drinking cheap wine and enjoying the safety of our position, above the turmoil that raged below, above the billboards, which had appeared three days before now and had continued to appear throughout the city since we first heard about them from Cole.
Now William was speeding through the streets, eager to get us home before curfew, though this kind of wariness did not resemble him.
“Slow down,” Cole said. “There’s something ahead.”
“What the fuck is this,” William asked without a question mark.
“What the hell do you mean, roadblock? Since when?” William spat as he spoke. “This is my road. I’m on this road every day. There is no roadblock.”
“Slow down,” Cole said again.
Random shootings had multiplied; we could hear them from our apartments at night. They sounded like firecrackers. They were followed in the morning by angry diatribes broadcast on all radio channels. On TV, the enraged faces of politicians appeared nightly, animated with a sort of delight over the fury their words were eliciting.
“This isn’t the army,” William said, lower.
The car slowed to a crawl as we neared two pickup trucks parked across the road, their doors wide open. A small group of men in dark boots, who, from a distance, strangely resembled black beetles, stood under the halo of the street lamps. Looking at us.
William reluctantly rolled down not just his, but all of our windows.
He shut off the engine. Everything fell silent.
I shuddered in the cold air.
Two of the men looked at our license plate. Another made for the driver’s window. Against his white shirt, the strap of his gun seemed like a pageant winner’s ribbon, or perhaps a mayor’s sash.
The man, I now saw, was no man at all, but a kid our age. He seemed familiar, possibly because he had that air of childish boredom worn by all the boys in our year.
“Show me your ID,” he said.
William looked at him directly, their faces inches apart. He did not speak; he did not move.
I heard Julia fumbling for her bag. Cole’s hand jutted from between the seats, holding a passport.
I produced my own, from the bottom of my backpack.
Now the man held all of our IDs, save for William’s. Our friend had not moved. He continued to stare the boy in the face.
William remained silent.
“Give me your ID or get out of the car.”
“William, hand him the ID,” I said.
“Give it to him, Will.”
William seemed to snap awake and leaned over my knees to open the glove compartment. I could sense the boy tensing up on the other side of the door. The laminated ID shone orange in the streetlight glare.
The boy took one look at the papers and raised his head.
“Be careful. You shouldn’t be out here driving late at night for no reason.”
He tossed the passports back into the car. Three of them landed in William’s lap.
Someone knocked and came in before we replied
That night, after nothing could be done to save the last strips of blue from the darkening skies, but before the heat of the scorching afternoon finished seeping out of the pavement, something appeared in our great city of —–.
Those who had gone to bed early never heard or saw a thing, but those who wandered the streets, the disinherited, lonely, or abandoned, were privy to the strange events that unfolded that night. Smoking insomniacs, leaning against the railings of their balconies, wondering if a dream had come to them with sleep; drunks, thinking what they saw was no more than a symptom of the red drip-drip tumbling down their veins, stumbled down streets unbothered. But Karel, the homeless man, who, with pores so wide and skin so red, made small children wail, was counting the day’s proceeds in a beheaded can of condensed milk when the men appeared. They ran out of the truck like water, faces smoldering below their hard hats.
Not one of those rare people who were on the street at the time thought to do or say anything, to warn or call, to expose or confront. We believed, perhaps, that what our eyes had witnessed would become clear as the night ended, the meaning of it exposed by daylight.
By the time infants began to stir in their beds, and birds of the city began to sing, and steam slowly escaped coffee pots, the inhabitants of —– rose from their slumber to find that where there once had been nothing of particular importance—a quiet street filled with the scent of honeysuckle perhaps, a bench covered in chipped green paint, a string of fire hydrants—there was now something.
A wall, visible from the street, from apartments, from balconies a hundred yards away, clear as the billboards, the roadblocks, clear as death itself: separating, dividing us from our brothers.
Marie Baléo is a French writer born in 1990. She began writing fiction and poetry in 2017. Her work has been nominated for a Best of the Net award (2017 and 2018) and for Best Microfiction (2018) and Best Small Fictions (2018), and her poems and stories have appeared in Passages North, Yemassee, Litro, Lunch Ticket, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is an editor for Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. Marie grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, and Oslo, Norway. www.mariebaleo.com