Monday, March 30, 2009

Night piece (City)

One evening he was returning home from a weekend trip a few hours away. He had planned to avoid the city but had missed a sign, and not knowing the area he allowed himself to be drawn on by the traffic that was hurtling forward around him, figuring that one way or another he would connect with a highway he knew. All at once the concrete channel through which he was passing swerved and rose, and the skyline across the water came into view. He had approached the city countless times but never from that angle; illuminated as far along its length as he could see by an intricate array of tiny lightpoints it seemed more massive than he would have imagined, but also curiously unrooted, as if the entire metropolis might break from its moorings and slip away into the ocean beyond.

He crossed a high bridge and bore away to the right, still skirting the city, looking for signs with familiar names. The roadway swelled and dipped and twisted, rattling over metal plates and joins several stories above street level. He could see the crests of buildings on either side, but they were dark and he couldn't tell whether they were occupied or abandoned. As abruptly as it had appeared the skyline shifted into his rear-view mirror and then disappeared in his wake. In the lane to his left a cab shot by him and was quickly out of sight. The road divided; he made a quick decision and was almost immediately shunted downwards and off the expressway.

He braked and came to a stop in a line of traffic that had halted behind a red light. He was under the highway now, and could hear the rumbling of traffic overhead. A sedan drew up beside him. He couldn't see the driver but in the back seat there were two young girls wearing shawls and what looked like party dresses; they were restless and excited and kept popping up in their seats. When the light changed he veered to the right, guided by a lone rectangular sign that was bolted to the one of the columns that supported the roadway above him. He passed a block, then two blocks, of grated storefronts, waited briefly at another light, then headed up the ramp to another sinuous highway. The traffic was heavier here and he crept forward until he could merge; then he pulled out and accelerated into the flow.

Across three lanes to his left and the center divider cars and semis were whipping by in the opposite direction, in precisely synchronized clusters and pairs. As he headed away to the north the highway straightened. Flanked by symmetrical columns of apartments buildings it ascended a drawbridge and crossed over a dark canal, then passed through a brief stretch of salt marsh before once again edging back into the city's outskirts. He had come parallel to a rail line, where a score of brick red boxcars lay waiting or forgotten. Beyond the tracks a row of warehouses stood shut tight behind barbed wire, lit by single pale lamps below their eaves.

A mile further he entered the first stand of woods, only on the railroad side. A brightly illumined sign for a multiplex cinema, itself several stories high, beckoned on the left, followed by a stretch of low-rises. Then, before he was aware of it, there was nothing but shadow and the obscure forms of trees on either side.

He drove for the better part of an hour, exited the highway, turned onto one local road and then another. When he had parked and sat for a moment and begun to walk away he heard the sounds of the car's engine cooling off, and from somewhere near at hand the first frogs of spring.

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