Exerpt from CAIRO by Louis Armand (London: Equus, 2014). First published in Golden Handcuffs Review and online at nthposition.
Osborne stared at the morning’s headline blazoned in two-inch serif across the front page of The New York Times. METEOR STRIKES GROUND ZERO. A Dominican waitress came and refilled his coffee. Behind the counter, Little Joe was raving to anyone who’d listen about the Yankees Stadium being torn down. “I ask you,” he gesticulated wildly. “What’s the world coming to?” At the back of the diner, some clown in a suit was complaining into a cell phone, making a regular pain-in-the-ass of himself. Osborne folded the paper and tried to concentrate on the funnies. But they weren’t, so he tossed it aside. Little Joe called over: “Hey, you hear the news?”
“What news?” Through the diner’s half-fogged windows, Osborne made out an old negro sitting on a bench across the street. Dirty red duffel coat. Beside him on the bench, a neatly arranged pile of snowballs in the shape of a pyramid, and a sign: KING CHEPHREN’S BLIZZARD BALL SALE. A group of kids in blue school uniforms waiting for a bus. Early morning traffic. People on sidewalks, minding their business, going places.
“There’s some genuinely weird shit happening out there, hombre.”
“You don’t say.”
“Check this out. Last night, some guy on a Greyhound bus, in the middle of Sas-katch-ewan, gets his head cut off by this freak who it-just-so-happens is sitting next to him. I mean, this freak cuts the guy’s head off with a steak knife. Comprendes? The other passajeros, they don’t even figure what’s going on, when the freak starts eating the guy. Right there in front of whoever. Just like that.”
“They have buses in Saskatchewan?”
“I’m telling you. Mucho — weird — shit.” Outside a prowl car drifted across the intersection and pulled up in front of King Chephren’s bench. NYPD 34th Precinct. Tinted windows. Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect. Three tables up, the waitress was giving the clown in the suit the push-off. Osborne glanced back across the counter.
“Joey, you know anything about meteors?”
“Meteors?” Little Joe leant forward, squinting, elbows on the zinc top. “You mean like stuff falling out of the sky?”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean.”
“Well, amigo, now you mention it. There was a big piece of something landed in the downtown this very a.m. Now ain’t that some coincidence? You read about it in your paper there. Lots of talk. Sometimes this, sometimes that. How it always is. Aliens. Terrorists. Who the fuck knows? Pardon my Esperanto. You ask me, it’s all that global warming they talk about on CNN too much. How the dinosaurs copped out. Extinguido.”
“Anyone been letting slip about dinosaurs, Joey?”
“As my Jewish customers say. Mark my words.” Little Joe straightened up, draping a dishtowel across his shoulder. “We don’t find a ticket outta here soon, we’ll end up the same way.” He stood there with an almost thoughtful expression on his face, lost for a moment in otherworldly visions, then pointed at Osborne’s coffee. “You need me to get you anything with that? Eggs? Bacon? Piûa Colada?”
Osborne shook his head and looked back across the street. The patrol car was gone and so was King Chephren. Someone had knocked over the old man’s sign. The school kids were already pilfering the snowballs, chasing one another around in circles, the smallest wearing a scarf that was too long and dragged on the sidewalk. Osborne eyed the traffic as it passed close by. The kid looked like he’d wind up under the wheels of a delivery truck just about any second now. There were sounds of a scuffle from the back of the diner. Osborne looked away from the window just as the Dominican waitress hustled the suit out the door. He thought: Accidents don’t just happen. Something makes them happen.
It was his cue to check the clock behind Little Joe’s head, aware now of something almost forgotten. He fished a crumpled piece of paper from his inside coat pocket: a date, time and address scrawled in thin blue ink. Doctor Doom. Cedar St. 10:00. “Appointment with the devil,” he muttered. Little Joe, index finger of his right hand poised just beneath his left nostril, regarded Osborne with a mix of anticipation and uncertainty, unsure if the remark was perhaps meant for him. He was about to complete his gesture when the lights over the counter flickered and died. It was the third blackout since Osborne had come in.
“You should get someone to fix that,” said Osborne unsmilingly, glancing up.
Little Joe picked at the inside of his nostril. Sighed. Inspected the end of his finger. “They’d need to fix this whole fucked up nation first.”
“Well,” Osborne sighed, getting up from his stool. “You know what the man says.” He dropped a handful of change on the counter.
“Not me, padr ón,” Little Joe said, whipping his finger across his apron front. “What he says, el hombre?”
“He says, electricity ain’t just electricity.” Osborne winked. “It’s information.”
The Dominican waitress stalked back past with a breakfast special on a tray, rolling her eyes.
“You wanna tell me what that’s supposed to mean?”
Osborne picked up his copy of the Times and thrust it in a coat pocket on his way to the door. “Beats the hell out of me.” Then: “Twenty bucks says Pittsburgh take the series.”
“Pittsburgh are maricones. Pinstripes, five-zero! You don’t believe me? Pinstripes or nothin!”
Little Joe stared after Osborne’s departing figure as it slipped out the door. The waitress was standing beside him with a tray of dirty plates, still rolling her eyes. Little Joe turned to her. “Información. You think I don’t know what the guy’s talking about?”
“I think you both loco,” said the waitress, disappearing into the kitchen.
The cold hit Osborne full in the face the moment he stepped out of Little Joe’s diner. He checked his watch to make sure the time on the clock over the bar had been right. Quarter-to-eight, give or take. Early days. He pulled his coat closer and shivered. Across the street, two women in headscarves were sitting on the blizzard king’s bench, talking and laughing. Yellow school buses chugged up the hill. A Domino’s Pizza delivery van. The Paterson Express. The subway seemed like a bad idea in blackout weather so instead he zeroed-in on a cab idling on Fort Washington beside an empty newspaper stand. He rapped on the driver’s window. The driver’s head reared up from sleep like a sea creature.
Inside, the atmosphere was tropical. The driver, air-con working overtime, looked like a comedy stand-in on the Raoul Castro Show: mirrored aviators and a loud — check: very loud — Havana shirt. The heat took Osborne’s breath away. In the fewest necessary words, he directed the driver south. WTC. Ground Zero. The driver cast a sceptical look over the rims of his lenses, scoping Osborne in the rear-view.
“Maybe drive so far to Port Authority is possible.” Heavily accented Amerikanisch. “After, who know. Traffic much bad. Always in Manhattan bad, but today is worst.” Osborne registered the scepticism and stared back.
“Fine. Get me to 42nd and I’ll walk.”
“In theez weather? This is much, kamarad.”
“I suppose you’ve got a better idea?”
“Yes, very better idea.” The driver spat, hitting the ignition. “Go to Rio, my friend.” He grinned as he pulled out into the traffic. “You know perhaps joke of Soviet taxi driver?”
“Do I want to?”
“No, but I tell it you anyway.”
Osborne stared out the window. A garbage truck passed them heading in the opposite direction, towards the cloisters. As it passed, Osborne noticed a woman in a fur coat walking along the sidewalk, a large Styrofoam cup steaming in one hand and something green perched on her shoulder. “You’re not from around here,” he said absently. Well who the hell was from around here, except the Ricans? Osborne’s gaze followed the coat on the sidewalk. It’s a parrot, he thought. A green fucking parrot.
The driver looked up at the rear-view, then back at the traffic, edged into the next lane. He laughed. “Me? Sure, around here! Hehe. What you thinking? I grow up in Far East Side. Hehe. Vladivostok. Like Woodstock. Hehe. Other end from Brooklyn Bridge just. Hehe.”
The coat with the parrot was lost back behind the traffic now. The cab made the lights at the bus terminal and swung around onto the Westside Highway.
“When I was boy, they say — in Soviet Union, nobody watch television, television watch you.” Osborne watched the river go by. “Same for taxi. In Soviet, taxi drive you…“ The driver guffawed and switched on the radio. A female voice was running through a news bulletin at top speed. Osborne couldn’t make any sense of it.
The crazy Russian had been right. It was gridlock across the island all points southeast of Port Authority. Osborne’s feet ached with the cold. Blackouts had put the southbound subway off limits. There were crowds blocking the avenues and cross streets, but the scene below Chambers was like nothing he’d witnessed before. There were people everywhere, spilling out into stalled traffic, moving in a type of zombie automatism. It reminded him of a scene from Dawn of the Dead, except it wasn’t. It’d been different when the Twins burned. There was no panic this time, only the sense of a great spontaneous migration, spiralling towards the Zero.
After Chambers, progress became almost impossible. Osborne tried heading towards Cortlandt, but it was the same story. Then quite suddenly he found himself being swept along by the crowd, trapped by competing crosscurrents. For a while the transition left him completely disorientated. Then, as he entered deeper into it, he became aware of the crowd as a complex entity with its own mind, its own stream of consciousness: thought-objects knotted together, eddied, spread out. He searched for the flows, the still points, seeking to make headway towards the impact site.
As he drifted east Osborne gradually sensed a change in the atmosphere. The crowd grew more diffuse, less of a mob and more like a gathering of the tribes, each with its vaguely defined zone. It reminded him of the park enclosures on Tomkins Square. Winos, punks, hustlers, old guys playing chess.
At Sixth Avenue the peddlers, sniffing a buck, had set up along the sidewalk. The first one he saw was a black woman, hunched under a blanket in a wheelchair, selling bits of Martian rock behind a makeshift stand. A tiny bleached-out version of Old Glory fluttered at the end of a car aerial taped to the back of her wheelchair and a black-and-white portrait of Buzz Aldrin. It jived weird. Flashback to the old man’s blizzard balls on 181st street. Flash forward to people standing on the roofs of parked cars. Over the sound of whistles and sirens, a stereo was blasting out a retro Public Enemy track. 911’s a Joke. Some of the people on car roofs were dancing to it.
Osborne persisted southbound. Three blocks down, a UPS van had been rolled and set on fire. A mob of office clones gathered around it stamping patent-leather shoes against the cold, shouting into cell phones. A prophet of UFO doom ran through the crowd screaming religious nut gobbledegook. In the distance a police loudhailer, rippling with feedback, repeated an order to stand clear. It was impossible to tell where it was coming from. Up above, the black wasp-like silhouette of a helicopter moved silently in and out between the tops of buildings.
Osborne veered left and found himself in a narrow cross-street, a backwater the human tide had almost passed by. Abandoned lorries blocked most of it. Under a scaffolded overhang, a dozen or so dead souls were gathered in front of a storefront window, transfixed. Osborne edged by. Behind the window, TV screens flared in unison. Images cascaded. A fireball falling through night sky. Helicopter searchlights above a trademark Manhattan skyline. Aerial views. Smoke rising from the impact site. Crowd shots. Hysterical. Car horns blaring. Someone flipping the camera the bird. Talking heads on fast rotation. Then cut to a patched-in view of what looked like some post-apoc excavation site, flooded up to the knees of emergency workers, circa Ridley Scott’s Alien, only this one was real.
The Zero. A mile-wide hole in the ground. It’d been that way since Al-Q kamikazied a pair of 737s into the Twins a decade-and-a-half previous. It seemed like ancient history already. Archaeology. Across the bank of TV screens, a team of army engineers in radiation suits was sifting through debris above the waterline. The remains of a ruined subway train hung from a wall of exposed girders. Tilting up, the camera revealed the smashed faìades of neighbouring monoliths, their windows blown in.
Osborne pushed-on again, circling, cutting back, navigating by indirection, past makeshift barricades, across St Paul’s cemetery and almost getting within sight of the Fulton Street station before being forced back again by a scrum of Krishnas in yellow bedsheets. Half an hour of shouldering through the peaceniks he found himself at Broadway and Liberty, at the lower end of the Zero. A street preacher was standing in the middle of the intersection howling into a megaphone. “And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth. and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake!” The crowd-mind had opened a space around the preacher. On one side of the intersection, the riot squad lined up behind striped blue and white barriers. On the other, a procession of flagellants stalking back and forth like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, weirdly menacing. The crowd dug the scene. Bottles flew. Cops stroked truncheons and tear gas canisters, expectant. The preacher ranted. The chorus threw up their arms and writhed.