THE BURNING CITY
a story by d.n. stuefloten

 

 

1.

     The car phone rings. She picks it up.
     "Yes?" she says.
     "When you getting home?"
     "George?"
     "Look--I'm hungry and tired. I want to pop something into the microwave-"
     "Go ahead."
     "I can wait--you know--"
     "No, dont wait."
     "You dont mind?"
     "I'm still on the Harbor Freeway."
     "Oh. Shit."
     The car hums. The windows are tinted. The upholstery is red leather. Other vehicles are stalled around her. No one has moved for minutes, perhaps many minutes. When she looks out she sees barren concrete buildings. It is late afternoon and the sky is quite leaden. It seems to her that she has never seen this sky before, nor these buildings. She considers this for a moment as she sits in her car. She pokes with a long red fingernail at a button. Music rises around her. Not long ago the radio had mentioned riots. She remembers this suddenly, as though she is only now awakening from a dream. In the dream an announcer in a happy voice described black people throwing stones at passing cars. A truck driver had been pulled from his vehicle and beaten. Some buildings, perhaps entire neighborhoods, were burning. She remembers this information slowly, piece by piece. She remembers the announcer's rich baritone, the way his voice caressed the vowels and threw out, almost fiercely, the consonants. She had caught the excitement of his announcement before she understood the meaning. It is only now that the meaning comes to her: knots of angry black people at corners, fires burning, rocks shattering windshields, a body beaten on a street. She turns her head. She is still in her car. The motor is running at an easy lope, but the car is not moving. Next to her a man is leaning half out the window of a pickup. He has tattoos on his biceps. He is a thin man with wild eyes. His face seems slippery with sweat. He is staring at her. No, he cannot stare at her: she is invisible behind her tinted windows. He stares at her windows, not at her. Nevertheless he pants like a dog. His breath is almost visible, like the exhaust fumes of the cars and trucks stalled around her. For a moment she imagines she can smell his breath, something rancid and nasty. What would it be like to be such a man? To lean out the window of a pickup on the Harbor Freeway? To have tendons and veins everywhere? She watches his muscles move. She can see them coiling around his arms. His muscles move just as a snake would move, insidiously. She considers this, sitting alone in her car, legs slightly parted, long fingernails--they are curved like talons--gliding gently across a black skirt.

2.

     The car phone rings. She picks it up.
     "Yes?" she says.
     "Did you call me?"
     "George?"
     "The phone rang--a little while ago--"
     "It must have been someone else."
     "I was in the shower--you know--"
     "It wasnt me, George."
     "Well, in any case--"
     "I'm still on the Harbor Freeway."
     "Oh. Shit."
     The car hums. Cool air flows around her. The windows are tinted. She is wearing a black skirt. Her feet are arched in their shoes. Pedals depress beneath them. The motor roars. Yes, the car is complete. She looks to her left. A man is getting out of a pickup next to her. He is a stringy man, uncoordinated. He falls onto the hot concrete. His long arms and legs flail for a moment, wildly. Through her tinted window she sees his white face shining with sweat. After a moment he struggles to his feet. He stares at her. No, not at her: he stares at her tinted window. Can he see himself darkly in her glass? He weaves up the road, in the narrow passage between stalled cars. As he does this he falls against doors and fenders. He bounces from one side to the other. Fists appear at windows, shaking at him. One man gets out of his vehicle. The two men shout at each other. None of their words can be heard in her car, whose air-conditioning hisses soothingly. Above them the sky is leaden. A sunset is beginning: an orange glow at the horizon. As the two men come to blows--the blows seem violent, yet ineffectual--she lowers her gaze to her lap. Her hands lie there, fingers intertwined. She can remember the radio speaking to her. She considers this as she watches her red-tipped fingers mesh together. A message was delivered in a rich baritone. Orotund vowels emerged. A consonant, delivered sharply, made her wince, reflexively. The city was burning, the man said. At street corners black men hurled stones at passing motorists. The announcer's voice had been oddly pleasant in its excitement. It had vibrated within her body. She can feel a slip--is it rayon?--beneath her black skirt. It slides against her thighs whenever she moves her legs. Outside heat rises everywhere. She can see the heat. It is quite visible when she lifts her head and stares down the rows of cars ahead of her. It is rather like peering under water, she decides. The heat has made the air thick. She opens her mouth--she can taste her own lipstick--and watches the two men flailing at each other in the narrow passage between the rows of cars.

3.

     She is in her car. She is on the Harbor Freeway. A sunset has begun. Tendrils of smoke drift across the sun like hair across a face. Coming towards her is a man. He has tattoos on his arms. The arms are stringy, like the arms of a dog. He lurches against one car, then another. Fists emerge from windows and shake at him. His feet stumble and slip on the speed bumps which divide one lane from the next. There is blood on his face. When he reaches her car he climbs onto its hood. He does this without pausing, as though it were long planned. His arms grope towards her. He strains over the waxed metal of the hood which must be burning with heat. His feet are in Reeboks, or perhaps Pumas. The laces are untied. They hang from their eyelets like worms. As he crawls to her windshield he unbuttons his pants. His long fingers twist with this task. He presses his face against her glass. The distortion this causes is vaguely familiar. Has she seen before a face thus flattened? His pale eyes are wild. He stares at her. The air-conditioning hisses. After a moment she picks up her car phone. She dials 911.
     "A man is attacking me," she says.
     "Can you give me your address?"
     "I'm on the Harbor Freeway."
     "Your address, ma'am."
     "No, I'm on the freeway--in my car--"
     "A man is attacking you in your car?"
     "He's trying to break my window."
     "Can you drive away?"
     "No."
     "Is your car stalled?"
     "Everyone is stalled."
     "Ma'am, where are you?"
     "He's leaving now."
     "The man?"
     "He's leaving. Is he giving up?"
     "Ma'am? Where are you?"
     "He's going away."
     "Ma'am?"
     "Never mind, 911. I'll hang up now."
     She puts a hand under one breast. Her breath is shallow and rapid. She arches one foot, then the other. The man has left smears of blood and semen on her windshield. As he slithers away she can see him button his pants, furtively.

4.

     The car phone rings. She picks it up.
     "Yes?" she says.
     "Did you remember the tomatoes?"
     "George?"
     "The Weavers are coming over later. I thought I'd make a salad--"
     "Was I supposed to get the tomatoes?"
     "You forgot?"
     "I didnt get them, George."
     "Where are you now?"
     "I'm still on the Harbor Freeway."
     "Oh. Shit."
     She is on the hood of her car. Her black skirt and the rayon slip beneath it have been pushed up to her hips. The metal surface of the car is very hot, of course. Somehow her thighs are bare. The man probes into her with an urgency that surprises her. Has anyone ever been so eager to thus enter her? She can feel her vaginal tunnel distort with the man's violence. Her feet in red spike-heeled shoes are over his shoulders. Each shoulder is tattooed. Beyond the shoulders the horizon is swirling with black smoke mixed with the red glow of the sun. She can hear a radio announcing fires. Black people are rioting at the corners, a man says. They throw stones at passing motorists. The announcer's voice, as before, caresses vowels. The tossed-out consonants--the hard, cracking consonants--make her wince, reflexively. In some way the voice has penetrated her as effectively as the man sweating and drooling over her. There is a wild look in his eyes, which are pale, almost straw-colored. His fingers are long and thin. Red hair flourishes at his groin. His muscles coil up his arms like snakes. Her own arms have flopped uselessly to her sides. Has the man smeared her lipstick? There are red streaks on his face. Perhaps the red streaks are only blood. His hair is quite dirty, she notices. Oh, oh, oh, she says in rhythm to his assaults. Then he fills her vault with his come. The come is hot, like the hood of the car, and voluminous. When he lifts off of her she can feel the come spill out over her thighs, which are bare. The odor is rancid. I am quite disarrayed, she says to herself. She hears the words as they float past her, one after the other. Outside the heat rises like waves. The waves lap at the stalled cars. The city is burning, says the radio announcer. He seems almost gleeful. She reaches over and changes stations. The city can burn without her.

5.

     The car phone rings. She picks it up.
     "Yes?" she says.
     "When you getting home?"
     "George?"
     "Look--the Weavers--"
     "I cant talk now."
     "Theyll be here any minute."
     "There's nothing to be done, George."
     "Are you all right?"
     "I'm still on the Harbor Freeway."
     "Oh. Shit."
     She depresses pedals. The car inches forward. Next to her a stringy man crawls into the cab of a pickup. His legs flail, aimlessly. She flexes an arched foot in its high-heeled shoe. There is no safe harbor, she says sadly. The words taste of her lipstick, something waxy, fruit-like. On the radio an announcer chatters happily about fires. People are being beaten on the streets. Black men throw rocks at passing cars. The words have meaning, but no significance. Each consonant makes her wince, reflexively. Elsewhere the sunset has vanished. It is quite gone. It has been replaced by glowing fires. Smoke swirls within each fire. The smoke looks like coils of black hair. She watches her fingers as their long red nails tap at the steering wheel of her car. Her face is slippery with sweat, or perhaps tears. Oh, she says, or someone says, let the city burn. The heat, even in this night, rises like waves. Oh, she repeats, watching the vowels stretch themselves out, yes, let the city burn. The car inches forward. Around her the city burns with an odor like rancid oil.

___

The Burning City was originally published in The Spitting Image (1996).
Text and photos copyright D.N. Stuefloten.
Contact:
don@dnstuefloten.com

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