There are a million stories in the naked city.
And I can hear every
Not Sandburg, of course; I can't hear him. After all, it's late at night when any sane person would be asleep, so of course Sandburg's not home.
But next door, Emma Russell is explaining to Ted that if he doesn't like her cooking, he's more than welcome to do his own. Remembering our last cookout with the Russells, Ted might be better off.
Downstairs in the Garcia's second bedroom, Juana is reading her brothers an illicit bedtime story--their mother put them to bed hours ago, but the lure of The Secret Garden overcame the boys' obedience. When Juana starts describing the garden beyond the walls, her quiet admonishment to the baby sounds like part of the story: "Hush, Angel." I try to cling to her voice, soft and quiet, but other less-endearing noises steal my attention.
In one of the townhouses down the street, a husband is apologizing to his wife for working late tonight. By the sound of her luxurious moans, she's not at all sorry that he chose not to say it with flowers.
Some guy with a voice cast intentionally low is promising his bookie that he'll have the money soon, just as soon as the old lady bites it. Bookie seems less than impressed.
There's been a minor accident a few streets away; I can hear the two people involved exchanging insurance information...okay, now they're exchanging a bit more. Maybe the accident wasn't such a bad deal--already they seem to have a lot in common. People who see a fender-bender as a possible pickup deserve each other.
A hooker six blocks away is begging for her evening's hit. Her voice is high and wavering, telling her pimp that she needs it bad, so bad.
A sexy female voice is describing...an autopsy? What the--oh. X-Files. Go Scully.
A teenager, his voice tinny over a bad cell-phone connection, is telling his parents that he's at the library. Yeah, kid, and those are the librarians chanting 'keg-keg-keg' behind you.
A couple is having a fight; he's screaming at her, and she's throwing things. I can hear two children crying in another room. I remember Stevie and me hiding in our room, listening...there was nothing I could do then, and there's nothing I can do now. Failure tastes like ashes; I push my hearing further.
Almost a mile away, I can hear two EMTs discussing their patient's treatment; the patient is crying softly, and her son is promising all and sundry that the snake isn't poisonous. I have to agree with the dad, who is explaining that the snake isn't going to be theirs after this, either.
Extending the radius of my hearing by another half-mile, I can hear the men on a boat wondering if they shouldn't be heading back to shore. They're worried about an approaching storm.
I extend farther, checking out the weather. Should be okay: sounds like a little rain with gentle winds. Standard for Cascade.
I beat against the breeze, pushing my hearing farther out to sea, picking out the muffled, intent noises of that manmade shark, a Navy submarine. The sailors on nightshift are fulfilling their roles with easy efficiency, although I don't envy them their recycled air and industrial surroundings.
"Jim, where are you?"
Farther out, the clicks and squeals and calls of marine animals, like an invitation to come join them. I wonder if I could--
"Jim, please come back, okay? Come on back."
--join them. They're calling-
"Jim. Come on."
"Jim." A hand ghosts over my arm, not in contact but sharing a few degrees of warmth. Sound joins in calling me home, his low voice cushioning my return.
"Yeah Jim, right here."
Opening my eyes, I see Sandburg squatting by the side of the bed; with the extra weight of his backpack, that's got to be painful. I reach out and tug him up to sit on the edge. Accepting my manhandling without complaint, he pauses only to kick off his shoes and drop the bag before pulling his feet up and sitting cross-legged. "Where were you?" he asks.
"Yeah, I got that." He grins. "How far out?"
There's no way I'm telling him about the boat or the submarine--I don't want to spend the next few weeks eavesdropping on sailors to satisfy my resident researcher. Instead, I give him a caricatured impression of himself: "Far out, man."
"Whatever." But he's laughing with me, and it feels good after hours of listening to the best and worst that Cascade has to offer. "Trouble sleeping?"
The wry companionship in the question is both warming and distressing; he's not sleeping much these days, either. Although, for him, it's less aimless distraction and more overbooking. I'm hearing the million stories in the naked city--he's living them.
There was a CD he used to listen to, a singer with a little-girl voice, and at one point she yells, 'I just want a bit part in your life'. Lately I know how she feels.
Okay, so that's petty. He's given me as much time as he can spare lately. I'd even give up more time with Sandburg if he'd just use it to sleep. But Mrs. Phillips is getting closer by the day, and Sandburg spends more time at her house than the loft. And I wouldn't change that. But I'd do anything to get rid of those circles under his eyes.
Well, no, I wouldn't. Because he'll get more sleep once Mrs. Phillips is dead, and I certainly won't do anything to hasten that.
Besides, he doesn't look as bad as he did back when the whole Sci-Fi addition to my life started. My newfound ability to sense stuff before it happens--before it happens to Sandburg, that is--tells me he's just tired, not in danger. I wonder if something in him says the same thing about me? I know he's concerned but not worried as he leans in closer.
"I'll take that as a yes," he says. Guess I took too much time on the answer. What was the question again?
"Just...so much going on," is all I finally come up with.
He leans back at that, smiling at me in a kind of squint-eyed way that I can't quite interpret.
"What, Chief?" My attempt at bluster fails utterly; his smile widens as he leans back against the headboard, straightening his legs along the edge of the bed.
"Now, that I can help with, Jim. I may not know precognitive senses--" if he doesn't, then no one does. He's the world's leading and only expert on me and them-- "but I know distraction."
"You should be in bed."
"I should be right here." He chuckles softly. "Besides, I am in bed. Okay, so it's yours," the bed shifts in time with his shrug, but I don't see it because he's pushing me down at the shoulder, pressing me into relaxation. "Now lie down and listen to me. Shouldn't be that tough; you hear pretty well."
"Shh." He takes his hand off my shoulder but leaves it on the covers beside me, warmth radiating through the air between us. "Let me tell you a story."
"Humor me, okay?" His voice, if anything, gets softer. "I haven't had a chance to blither at you for a while."
True. Who'd have ever thought I'd miss it?
He reads my acquiescence somehow, and I can only hope he doesn't read the rest. That I actually miss his own brand of guerilla warfare on the loft. That I lie here and listen for him when he's miles away. What is he, my damn security blanket?
Glancing up and over, I see him propped against the headboard. He's settling into his tale, his voice deepening into something calmer than his lecture tones, less insistent than he uses on me.
"So a kid gets into college early." Without seeing him, I can tell he's smiling in reminiscence. I could tell even if he weren't talking, but knowing Sandburg, that's not likely to happen.
"And I'm not your average kid who grew up in a house with a nuclear family, you know? I'd lived in communes and group houses; I was used to chaos.
"But for the first time in my life, practically every part of the chaos, every distraction is...fascinating. I've got an English major as a roommate, and he's reading Shakespeare at a level I never knew existed. And the German major next door is Sturm und Drang-ing with the greats, and his roommate the math major is being seduced by the equations of music, and the music major down the hall is not being seduced by mathematics, doesn't even know that the chords he's playing are as intricate as fractals."
He shifts a little, sliding down, and I move to accommodate him, throwing off my comforter so that it doubles back over his legs. He actually pauses his story for that.
"Thanks, man." He sounds pleased but not surprised. Good. Like he'd really think I'd let him shiver.
"So I'm supposed to be studying people, right? That's my goal. But I barely even use that as an excuse, because I'm...I'm just enveloped by the activities and variety and...and everything."
"Like Cascade," I mutter.
"Yeah." He wafts his hand lightly over my shoulder. "Like you and your tribe. Now be quiet and go to sleep."
Concentrating on the residual waves of air from his gesture, I almost miss it when he continues with his story. "So, believe it or not, I'm not getting the full eight a night, you know? There was this guy down the hall--you remember Chet?"
"I thought I was supposed to be quiet, Chief."
"You are. Be quiet." He's smiling again. "Chet was a football player and, believe it or not, also an engineering student. I mean, that's the kind of impossible schedule that made even me question it. And he was a freshman like me. Lived up the hall. He'd move out of his room at night so his roommate could sleep while he--Chet, that is--burned the midnight oil, and one night early on, I found him almost in tears over his homework. I mean, this big, looming guy--you've met him--and he's just...broken... over the fact that he can't do this. It's what he's always wanted to do, and he can't."
Even after how many years, Sandburg's voice is tight with sympathy. Crazy kid. Lucky Chet, though, because yes, I've met Chet and I know the next part of the story.
"So I sit down next to him, still in the back of my mind figuring there's a good chance he'll just take his frustration out on me--that was before I knew what a big softie he is--and I ask him what's going on."
I still remember Chet's look of bemused gratitude as he told me about the anthrodork who sat down and got interested in statics.
"So I'm asking him what it's about--because what do I know, you know? I mean, this is not something I'd ever run across. And he starts explaining it to me, and by the end of his explanation--we both understood! He's a natural teacher; I envy his students now, you know? The Navy got a great deal in Chet."
Huh. I'd forgotten that. Chet's down in Florida teaching engineering to the nuclear sub guys--wonder if I was listening to his students earlier?
"And then I got to know his roommate, Andy--which, if you think about it, I owe completely to engineering, since I would not have been hanging out with those two jocks otherwise. But they got me involved in some pick up games and using the gym a little, and I was seriously wooing the music major's twin sister in the girls' dorm next door and taking a heavy course load and working...and you may notice that sleep wasn't really mentioned in the list."
Big surprise there. I can hear the exhaustion in his voice, remembered and current, and he slides down a little further, pulling one of my spare pillows behind him to cushion his neck and shoulders. I should probably help him get comfortable, but he wants me asleep. Although I'm not really close to dropping off, he's tired enough to accept a reasonable approximation thereof.
"And this is where Mrs. Phillips came into my life. She cleaned the dorm, and every night I'd see her coming to work when I was going down to the study lounge to learn statics from Chet, or playing guitar with Julie's brother, or watching soccer on the Spanish-language channels with Andy..."
He yawns, stretching out his lower back and sighing. "You get the picture, huh? And at first Mrs. P and I just nodded, you know, casual friends. But then one night she was having trouble carrying some stuff up the stairs--she should have used the elevator, but even then she was stubborn--and I helped her out, started talking. After that, I'd try to take a break around the time she had her lunch, about midnight, and we'd talk. We got to be good friends. I didn't know it at the time, but she was already estranged from her son and his family; I think I filled a gap."
He's good at that. He has a sort of Victorian-architecture approach to life: if it's bare, decorate it; if it's empty, fill it. Like a gas, he expands to fit any container: if Nature abhors a vacuum, she must adore Sandburg.
"So everything was going along pretty well; I wasn't nearly at Geneva convention levels of sleep deprivation...and then we hit finals."
He takes a long, deep breath, shaking the bed a little with remembered tension. "Finals were something I hadn't quite expected. I'd already been burning the candle at both ends and the middle, and suddenly everything's ten times worse, and I wanted to go through statics with Chet, and Julie's brother needed some tutoring in history...and long story short, I was really close to an edge and didn't know it."
I don't want to know. Bad enough to have precognitive senses; I don't want to feel his pain past-tense.
"And Mrs. Phillips, she's like...what?...a very subtle avenging goddess. I don't know. I'm pretty tired now, to be honest...what was she like? She was like the grandma I never had. Like the mom I never had really; the kind of mom who'd notice that I'm stringing myself out. Naomi always figures there's room for one more cause."
His voice is warm with affection for both women. So sue me if, right now with exhaustion a sticky weight on his voice, I can't find it in my heart to be warmly fuzzy with Ms. Sandburg. Mrs. P, on the other hand, has earned my eternal gratitude.
"And I didn't even get it at the time. That was the funny thing. It's the weekend before finals start, I'd been studying for weeks, my eyes hurt like they'd been used as ashtrays, and Mrs. Phillips comes to me and tells me that there was a mugging near her house and she's nervous: would I come stay with her for the weekend? And I'm torn, you know, because I've got all this studying and I'm so tired it's a physical ache to think anymore. But it's Mrs. P, you know? So it's not even Naomi's training that makes say I'd be happy to come stay with her."
Slurring his words slightly, Sandburg sounds like the remembered ordeal has pushed him over the edge of exhaustion in current time.
"I took all my books. Gonna study. But then I ate dinner with Mrs. P Friday night, and I don't think I thought about school once until Monday. Mrs. P told me about her family and her husband's family. Old family stories, and I'm like a junkie, soaking it up. And I slept in her son's old room, and I ate square meals for a change."
He reaches down and adjusts the sheet and light blanket closer around my shoulders, using the delicate touch of a parent with a sleeping child. It's just weird enough to feel right. When he finally speaks again, his voice is a low murmur in deference to my supposed sleep.
"And I did fine without that weekend. I came back and passed all my classes, and everybody else managed to pass without me. Yes, the world went on without Blair Sandburg. I felt kinda...reborn...or something. That weekend was a gift, you know? Mrs. P gave me a weekend of normalcy." He laughs softly, inserting the joke for me: "Not many of those in my life, huh?"
He slides down the final inches so that he's lying flat in the bed, rolled up like a duck-down burrito at the edge of the mattress. "You and Mrs. P, Jim; you two give me that. I want you to meet her. Maybe next week?"
Rolling onto his side, he brings one hand up by his cheek; I can hear the rasp of his stubble against his skin and the cotton of the pillowcase, harmonized scratchings, Martha Stewart raps.
Maybe he's not the only one who's tired.
"I wanted you to meet her a while ago, man." He's mumbling so softly I can barely make out the words. And that's saying something--just ask the sailors. "She kept saying no, that she didn't want you to see her like this. But it's not like you're going to get to see her any way other than dying." His breath hitches slightly. "Like it matters, right? It's just...you've met my mom, you should meet her."
Sinking lower into comfort, he adds softly, "She should meet you."
He sighs again, and his smile sounds sad. "Night, Jim," he mumbles.
I don't know if he's testing me or not, but I don't answer, and he slips easily, smoothly into sleep.
I could fall asleep now, I know. I could, and maybe I should. But I don't, not immediately. I can smell the change from waking to sleep, something earthier and mustier surrounding Sandburg like a halo, maybe an aura as Naomi might say. His lungs sound clear, now and in the future, and how's that for a crazy concept? The blood runs smoothly through his arteries and veins, tumbling crowded through capillaries. If I focus, I can even hear the change in the way his synapses fire, reading his sleep in mental lightning, so I do.
I could follow him down into sleep, let him be my guide. But for now, one of the million stories sleeps beside me, and I'm kind of interested in the plot.
There's just so much.
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