Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Conversion

It was his second morning in the city. He had spent the night in a flophouse and when dawn came collected his things and went out in search of work or breakfast, or failing that a deep, fast-moving river he could throw himself into. The morning air was grey, metallic, and saturated with dust. There was a ruckus coming from a tavern but his pockets were empty and anyway he didn't want company.

He stepped into the flow of pedestrians. Their faces were downcast and ashen, and they were treading forward, anonymous and expressionless, at a uniform mechanical pace. He let himself be carried along until he came to the corner of the avenue, across from the El line heading uptown. He crossed and stood beneath one of the cast iron supports that held the tracks aloft. A train was screeching to a halt above him and the column shuddered with the vibration. He watched the passengers disembark and begin their descent, then stepped away.

All at once, without the slightest premonition, he felt like he had been struck by lightning. He staggered forward a few steps, then sank to his knees; for a brief moment he blacked out entirely. He felt a man's trouser leg graze his shoulder and keep going, but he couldn't raise his head to see who it might be. The sidewalk no longer seemed solid beneath him, and a deep chill quickly spread through his limbs. For several minutes he knelt there without moving, then at last he opened his eyes, swaying and blinking at the harsh glare reflected from the pavement and feeling the blood slowly return to his extremities. He slid one shoe forward, then pushed up with the other leg until he stood once more with his feet solidly planted on the ground.

He took a few steps and was surprised as he did so that his feet appeared to meet so little resistance. His body seemed unimaginably light, as if it were not tethered to the earth at all. He quickened his pace, then shortened his stride and began to run uptown, underneath the tracks, slowly at first in a kind of wayward lunge, then faster and faster as he felt his strength increase until he seemed to be propelled forward by the sheer momentum of his flight. Block after block he dashed across intersections with no regard for traffic, jostling one puzzled stranger after another. He ran ten blocks, then twenty, then forty, until when he came to the end of the overhead line and emerged from its mottled shadow he stopped suddenly, gasping for breath, and stood looking in awe from left to right at the great concrete edifices soaring around him. Through a gap between buildings the sun fell across his face and seared his skin like a brand.

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