I’ve just gone through a bout of writer’s block trying to create a fairy tale. So I put it aside and asked my Vine and Facebook friends to give me three words for writing prompts. I told them that I would chose three and try to write a story using them. When I got the list, it was so juicy and challenging that I decided to use ALL their suggestions in one story. So from Vine I’d like to thank Jimusey, Marlinsmash, StrawberryCam,and Tracey Sarno. I’d like to thank Marius Weyland Riley, Karen Faris, Deanna Aronchick, Kerry Ottenson, and Mary Autumn Hale from Facebook. Thanks for putting up with my dry spell, and I hope you enjoy this story. It’s a little different from my “darker” fare. XO H. R. Christian
Charlie opened his eyes and looked at his hands. They were raw- pink and fragile. His nails were dirty, the ends ragged and crammed with dirt the color of a wood frog’s skin. He didn’t really know why they were like that. The thing inside his mouth felt more like the dry leather tongue of a shoe than the moist tongue a man would have. His black canvas sneakers were wet, an unpleasant swampy mush of water and foot filth mashed between his toes that he could only imagine was his socks. His pants were wet up to his knees, his legs sore like he had been on a march through the Burmese jungle with the Chindits. But that was impossible. It was 2017, not 1944. This was New York City, not a southeast Asian jungle. The last thing he remembered was being very sad and standing in the rain in a state of inebriation, then boarding 6 train and riding to 125th Street. There was a fuzzy memory of waiting on the B15 bus to take him up Willis Avenue in The Bronx, then nothing. He couldn’t even remember why he had been sad. Alcohol truly made him forget.
The rooftops around him were flat and covered with huge piles of of large-grained gravel. He stood up carefully, the sharp edges of the rocks digging into his palms as he pushed himself up. His ancient iPod hung around his neck on a lanyard like a pair of birding binoculars. He looked at it and saw that it was drained of power. “Well, I can’t listen this until I find a power cord and an outlet.” His thoughts ran, concentrated on his music rather than his surroundings. The songs might have given him a distraction, an escape from the pounding confusion in his head while he scoured the roofs for any clue that would have told him where he was. As far as he saw, it was a just chaos of flat roofs with occasional buttes of buildings rising from the general level. It almost gave him the feeling that he was on the ground. He came to his feet and tottered over to the edge of the roof he was on, expecting to be no more than a story or two in the air. To his surprise he was perched on a virtual eagle’s nest, far higher up than he thought. The street below was a thin, gray thread, and the traffic noise no more than a slight ringing in his ears.
“We’re pretty high up, aren’t we?”
The voice came from Charlie’s left. He whipped around so fast he nearly lost his balance. There was a man sitting on a bare spot on the roof, leaning up against another building that was about four feet higher than the one he was on.
“What? How did I get here? I mean, I was waiting on the bus then I was here.”
“Sounds like you had a blackout. You’re a drinker, I can tell.” His cheeks, red as a ripe strawberry, quivered as his voice boomed out, echoing over the surrounding buildings.
“Well, you’re as dirty as I am, number one. You look like you had a rough night. And I can smell you from here. Your breath is pretty strong. I’m guessing you drink bourbon?”
Charlie thought a moment. “I like it, sure. But I’m not a drunk. Just had a bad night is all, I think.”
“Sure, son. Just one bad night. It took you one night to wear down your clothes and get them filthy like that.” The man’s voice rose. “ Yep. You haven’t been a wino sleeping in the streets at all.”
“I wouldn’t consider myself a wino, mister.”
“Ah, but would everyone else think so?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve got an apartment. I live somewhere. I mean, I’ve got a place in Manhattan.”
“Are we in Manhattan?”
Charlie was stumped. He didn’t know exactly where they were. The cityscape around them was familiar, but at the same time unfamiliar. For all he knew they could be somewhere in Brooklyn. New York was a big city, and he hadn’t been everywhere in it. “I’m not sure, but we’re in the city somewhere. I just can’t place it.”
“You can’t place it because you don’t know where you are. You’ve never been here before so how certain are yo that we’re in New York. We could be in Newark, or even Philly.”
“I’d know if we were in Newark. I could see the Manhattan skyline from there.”
“Could you now? Well, it just so happens we’re in New York, but I’m not about to tell you where. This is very amusing to me.” The man laughed. “I’ve been in the same boat you’re in- stuck in a place, not knowing where you are or even how to get back to where you came from.”
“I’m not even sure I really want to be anywhere right now. My head feels wobbly and my stomach is upset. I think I need to get on the ground.”
“Good luck with finding your way down, then.”
“What do you mean? I got up here, didn’t I?”
“Then I can get back down.” Charlie turned and looked at the buildings around him. They were so packed together that he could only guess that he came up some stairs and though one of the many doors that opened out onto the roof. “All I have to do is find the unlocked door.”
“Did you notice that when you came through the door that it shut behind you? Lots of these doors open from the inside but are locked from the outside.” The man chuckled and pulled out a bagel from his jacket. “I’d be glad to share my breakfast with you. Are you hungry?”
It was then that Charlie realized he was hungry- very hungry. The bagel in the man’s hand looked huge, much bigger than a regular one. It seemed to be at least eight inches across. The cream cheese filling looked strange. “Yeah. I am. But what’s that in the middle?”
“We’re near loads of restaurants, brother. The better question is what’s not in it?”
“What do you mean?”
“By loads of restaurants? What do I mean by loads of restaurants?”
“Yeah.” Charlie peered over the edge of the roof. “There doesn’t look to be anything like a restaurant below us.”
“They’re not down there.”
“Well, where are these loads of restaurants then?”
“They’re up here.”
Charlie looked around. All he saw was roofs, chimneys, and fire escapes. There were a few sheds here and there, but over to the horizon there was no sign of a restaurant. “Still don’t see them.”
“Come over here and sit down. Eat, and then I’ll show you where they are.”
He sat next to the man who had a thick blanket covering the coarse rocks. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it kept the sharp points of the gravel from sticking them too hard. The bagel was dripping with butter. As he inspected it he saw specks of other things that looked like herbs, bacon, cream cheese, and vegetables. “There sure are a lot of things inside this. You were right. What’s not in it?”
“I told you. The people up here are really talented. There’s a place just over there.” The man pointed across the street at something that looked like a green house on the other roof. “They make the most exquisite artichoke pizza with goat cheese and a stuffed garlic crust.”
“I kind of like just plain pizza, you know with just tomato sauce and cheese.”
“Well, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I like it.”
“I thought it was pizza.”
The man laughed, and when he did it was like music filled the overcast day. A light breeze ran across his hair, and fluffed out the great white beard billowing out from his chin. His eyes matched the gray blue of the sunless day, but more intense than the sky above. They were large and it was as if the man could see beyond the cloud cover into the brightness of the sun. He had a long, straight nose and a wide smile that showed a small gap between his two front teeth. His long fingers held on to a similar bagel as he took bite after bite. “Why don’t you eat your bagel, Charlie?”
“I am.” Charlie took a bite. He never tasted anything like it before in his life. The bread was dense, chewy but with an airy texture. The filling had so many complex flavors he couldn’t identify them all, but they delighted him. Then he thought a second. “How did you know my name is Charlie?”
“You said it last night when you got up here. You were, well, more than a little drunk. I’m not surprised you don’t remember much. Like I said, you look like a drinker. And drinkers black out.”
“So you’ve been up here all night?”
“I’ve been here for a long time.”
“You sleep up here?”
“I never go down. Never. There’s everything you would ever need up here.”
“You can’t be serious, man. You never go down? You sleep up here? So these restaurants, they just give you food?”
“Eat your breakfast and then I’ll show you around. You’ll see what I mean.” As he spoke, a cloud of banana yellow butterflies appeared on the horizon of the far away roofs, soared upwards to the sky, and disappeared, growing smaller and smaller in the distance.
They finished. Charlie never felt so satisfied with anything that he had ever eaten before. The man stood up and extended his hand to help him get to his feet. They walked over the gravel, which seemed to get easier and easier to Charlie. The rocks didn’t impede him as much as he thought they would, like he was actually floating over them. They went towards an old fashioned caged fire ladder.
The man worked the complex bolt and swung the door open. “Go ahead. Climb down.”
“I thought you said the restaurants were up here, like on the roof.”
“Don’t you see the other roofs? They aren’t all as high as this one. We’re just going down to explore some other places.”
“All the way down?”
“Oh never. Just down a level or two. You’ll see. Just climb down. You’ll know where to get off.”
“Like I said, you’ll know.”
“Okay, but why should I trust you? I don’t even know your name.”
“Like William with a ‘gu’ instead of a ‘w,’ right?”
“Exactly. Now go.”
Charlie descended the ladder. His feet were a little shaky. He kept looking down, and the tunnel of metal rods appeared endless. He couldn’t even see the street level below, like by getting inside the ladder’s cage it had elevated him to a dizzying height. His anxiety engulfed him, a manifestation of fear. “Guilliam, is it much farther? I’m kind of unsteady on this thing. How did I ever get up it last night?” He turned his head to see the older man above him.
“I never said you took this ladder to come up here. I just said we’d use it to go see some of the restaurants. You came through a regular door, not this fire escape. Don’t be scared. There’s no way you can fall all the way down.”
Suddenly the ladder ended with a floor made by a basketweave of iron rods. There was a cage door like the one on the upper level. Unlike the one above, this one swung open easily. Charlie stepped out onto another roof area, this one covered with similar large-stoned gravel as the one above had. He held the door open for Guilliam who stepped out and waved his arm like a maitre d towards the rear of the roof.
“Go this way. I have some things to show you. Just walk over to that wall.”
Charlie made his way to the low wall that separated one building from another. On the other side was a gently sloping roof with the same gravel. But buried under the gravel was produce, and lots of it. There was a row of artichokes with everything but their green conical tops hidden by the bluish rock. A few feet away were rows of green and red apples peeking out in the same manner. Carrots with frilly tops lined up like orange pencils in a box. Arugula, spinach, and kale were bunched together, leafy football players in a huddle. Beyond the vegetables was a small building that connected with a few more buildings on the roof, creating a maze of small alleys. The other buildings had porches with all manner of fruit, vegetable and herbs buried in the stones. There were even wheels of cheese and crates of eggs, all strangely interred.
“What’s the deal with the groceries?”
“That’s what the restaurants use. They store their produce out in the air where God can see it.”
“It’s an expression up here. It just means the air keeps the things fresher than sticking them away in some dark refrigerator or pantry. Come on. There’s the restaurant that I wanted to take you to.”
Charlie looked around. “I still don’t see a restaurant. I don’t see any restaurants.”
“There’s a lot of them. You’ve got to know where to look. Come on.” Guilliam climbed over the wall and walked gingerly down the roof to the small building. A rusty barbecue grill stood next a worn green painted door with a window in it. He knocked on one of the thick glass panels. It opened and a young woman with thick auburn hair and a small mouth poked out her head. She looked about thirty years old. A single oboe was playing a haunting tune inside the building, and the notes snaked through the opening in the door past her head and into Charlie’s ear.
“Guilliam! You’re here early today! And who is your new sidekick?”
The old man stepped aside and pointed. “Oh him? That’s Charlie. Hey Charlie! Let me introduce Josephine. Josephine, this is Charlie. He just got here last night.”
“Hi Charlie! Come on over. Any friend of Guilliam is a friend of mine!” She swung the green door all the way open and stepped out onto the roof. Her white dress crested like a wave in the light breeze, and her hair spread out like wings.
She looks like an angel. Charlie’s thoughts raced as he walked over to the porch. He extended his hand to her.
Her fingers went to his palm, and traced the lines. “Welcome to my little restaurant. Won’t you come in?”
“Um, I don’t have any money. Guilliam gave me a bagel this morning. I just don’t have anything.”
“Did I ask you for money? No, my dear. You don’t need any money for my restaurant. Just come on in, okay?”
Charlie let her lead him inside with Guilliam trailing behind them. He was amazed at how roomy it was. The light glowed from ample globes mounted on the ceiling, and the tables all had clusters of small votive candles. Each table had four chairs, four plates, and four goblets. On each plate was a small haystack of fried crispy noodles, his favorite food. Next to each plate was a pair of silver chopsticks. The oboe music faded into a melancholy but somehow upbeat guitar song that reminded Charlie of something, but he couldn’t place what it was.
“What’s this music?” He touched Josephine on the arm. It felt as warm as her fingers did.
“It’s called Thaumaturgy. By a group called The Orchids. I have the CD if you’d like to add it to your iPod.”
“It sounds like The Dream Academy. That’s a band from the 1980s.”
“I know. They did a song called Life In A Northern Town. I love that song.”
“I like them too. I really like this, but I don’t have any way of getting songs onto my iPod any more. I don’t have a computer or even wifi.”
“You don’t need it here. Hand me your iPod.”
“It needs to be recharged.”
“That won’t matter. I promise I won’t break it.”
He gave it to the woman and she slid her finger across the screen. She smiled slightly and handed it back. “Here you go. It’s all ready. You like music a lot, don’t you?”
Charlie stared at the iPod in his hand. It was fully charged and the song Thaumaturgy was showing on his music list. “How did you do that?”
“Let’s just say that the atmosphere up here is charged. Now, what would you like to eat?”
Guilliam spoke from the corner of the room where he had gone to look at a small shelf of books. “I’d like another bagel please. And my friend there would probably like to clean up. He doesn’t seem to be like me. I like being a little rough and dirty. It gives my soul grit, so to speak.”
“I’d like to wash my hands and face, if you don’t mind, miss. I was sort of indisposed last night, and, well, I think I’d like to feel a little cleaner than I am now.”
“You’re already clean, Charlie. And don’t call me ‘miss.’ You should call me Josephine.” Charlie stared at her again. Her smile was beatific. There was a scent about her of spices. He breathed in deeply. “I like your perfume, Josephine.”
“I use cinnamon essential oil in my hair. It’s nice, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Very.” He then realized he hadn’t been to wash his hands. He looked down at them, and they were clean, not raw and aching any more. His clothes that had been damp and dirty now looked freshly washed. He put his hand up to his face and felt his beard. It was dry, not greasy, and felt like down. “What happened?”
“You wanted to be clean.” She grinned at him. “So you got clean. You were unhappy last night. Are you unhappy now?”
“No. I’m very happy to be here.” He thought for a moment. “I can’t even remember why I was unhappy. I don’t remember being unhappy. I mean, when I first woke up this morning, I felt something, something awful. But now I don’t even know what it was.”
“That’s how it’s like up here, Charlie.” Guilliam stood next to him. “Everything on the roof, every restaurant, every ladder, every fire escape, you find happiness and peace. Isn’t it nice? It’s like our own nirvana up here.”
“Guilliam, of course it’s like a nirvana!” Josephine laughed. “Up here there’s no need to worry about what goes on at street level. Everything is timeless. Eventually everyone ends up here. Everyone is fed. Everyone is content. We aim to please here, and countless billions are served.”
“Wait. Billions? What are you talking about? Where am I?” Charlie felt puzzled, but not anxious. It was a happy sort of puzzled, though, and he had no desire to leave the restaurant to go back down to the street.
“I think you know where you are, Charlie. Just stay up here, and you never have to be sad again. You won’t even remember the feeling of sadness and depression any more.”
“You mean, well, I’m… I’m…”
Guilliam walked over to him. “Charlie, you are exactly where your journey took you. You don’t need the details of your life before here. And now you’re with the friends you were meant to have. Nothing else matters any more.” The old man put his arms around Charlie’s shoulders and gave him a long, warm hug.