Chapter 18 (counting down to 0)
Houston was a dingy city before the oil money dried up. Now, it looked and felt like the bottoms after the surge dragged the world out to sea. Bayous, bays, and near constant floods left a wet, greasy sheen on anything on the lower part of the city. The unique sinking and swelling of the ground, along with aggressive cherry tree and live oak roots, ripped apart sidewalks and streets, scattering concrete shrapnel. Pedestrian traffic was not much of a concern. Not groundside. Lynx grew up down there; in the deep divide between the wealthy and the poor, the secure and the vulnerable, the white and the not-white. It was in the very non-metaphorical shadow of the elevated rails, skywalks, and high-rises that the 'other side of the rail tracks' became a vertical distinction.
Lynx knelt on the sidewalk to tie his shoelaces. They always seemed to be coming undone. Like everything in his life, he'd been wearing the wrong size too long. Perhaps his feet wouldn't like the correct size. It would be too comfortable and then he'd forget he was wearing shoes. Maybe he'd walk into the bayou with them on. Or the shower. They'd be so comfortable he'd live in them until the seams gave out and fell apart. Lynx was a Texas native, though his lineage went back to plantations, not to indigenous people. He had round, dark eyes laced with apathy and exhaustion. In the summer they seemed to sink even further into his skull, giving him the appearance of a wolf.
The streets were lined with trees and electronic billboards that digitized in and out of focus illuminating the night. One billboard changed for a moment to a picture of a laughing couple. Black is Back! Had it gone anywhere? Lynx wondered. It was a notice about the upcoming Juneteenth Parade and BBQ in Emancipation Park. Oddly, the park that once offered amenities to local families in the historically black neighborhood of Third Ward was gentrified by the low income housing think-tank that moved in across the street from it. That building had long fallen into disrepair and the ridiculous palm trees that festooned the front entry were all that was left of their promise to provide beautiful low-income housing to Houstonians. Asphalt carpeted the area and held the remains of the flood water like a dimpled bathtub. The couple dissolved and dark silhouettes breaking free from chains flashed on the screen with bold yellow typeface. June 19th 2059. If there was one good thing that came out of the second civil uprising in 0-20 it was the resurgence of interest in Juneteenth.
"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere." —General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865
There they stayed. Freed and yet forever enslaved by the history of their blood, sweat and sacrifice. Juneteenth was mostly still only celebrated in Texas. The faces digitized back to fuzz before reconstituting into an advertisement for a new Asian fusion restaurant in the upper city.
The model was smiling happily, her slender arm acting as an arrow to indicate the new restaurant. Maybe she would lose the smile when the camera turned off. Lynx stopped on the corner staring at her huge, happy lips. Maybe her name was Corrin. Maybe she hated her job. Years later she could look at the photo of the advertisement and wonder, what was I smiling for? They paid me garbage and I was so anorexic I couldn't have eaten at the restaurant if I'd tried. Lynx wanted to whisper in her ear. Tell her not to worry. He would have taken her out to eat, even ordered dessert and let her eat it all. He wanted to take her tiny fragile hand and tell her she was beautiful, but not because she was thin or clear complexioned, but because she owned herself and her thoughts. Whatever those thoughts may be. But what kind of assurance is that? It was not a security he could give. After all, she was just a model trapped in a billboard.
Are we going to march?
Damn straight we're going to march. It's Juneteenth. Don't you have any pride? How the hell did I raise you without any pride in your skin? Lots of folks died giving you that freedom you swagger around with.
I have pride, mom. Maybe I don't walk around waving it like a flag, but I'm certainly not afraid to walk the road I walk, walking like I do.
Lynx's mother had grown angry then, her cheeks lifting even higher than normal. When she was angry, it was hard to ignore her.
Without realizing it, Lynx wandered down a narrow alley and came upon the house where his single mother raised him. It was no longer a house or even a recognizable piece of land. The city bought it, bulldozed it, and built a parking garage. Space 8, ground floor. Climbing over the low retaining wall Lynx walked down the empty rows to the place where his bed once was. Remains of being human were strewn about. It was too late for the margarita crowd and not late enough for the jagerbombers. He sat down on the pavement in Space 8 and tried to remember how his mother looked, before.
Many people said she was striking. They'd used words like, "stunning" and "aristocratic," though she usually mocked this type of commentary. All her muscles stood out like rockets against the bright night sky, ready to inflict pain or give comfort. A Black Lives Matter activist and professional concert pianist, she marched to death as she'd marched through life; boldly and with her chin at an angle of defiance.
To Lynx, it was not a physicality that radiated so much loveliness. It was a combination of sorrow and determination. She'd been in love with a woman named Gwyneth once. Lynx met her many times but only as a friend of his mother's. She had the vulnerability of a Monet with the intensity of a Goya. Dark sweltering eyes, ebony hair, and undulating waves of laughter. Lynx never knew why Gwyneth and his mother were not married. Though he never questioned it, they always shared a bed when she stayed over and the letters he found after his mother's death always spoke of intimate things that reached beyond friendship. Each one was signed the same, forever is too long, Gwyneth. He knew that somewhere Gwyneth had her own son. They lived far away and Lynx's mother never looked for them. One of the last letters from Gwyneth to his mother was dated just six months before his 7th birthday. At the end she had closed,
Does Man forget that We created him out of the void?
It was from the Koran though no explanation was given about its context. Something about the infinite had been important to Gwyneth and subsequently to his mother. Perhaps it was just a quote from the Koran. Perhaps Gwyneth was not Italian…She never came back to the house and all questions were succinctly shut down with a languid move of the hand like a wave of water crashing down. Things came and things went, it seemed to indicate. Later, with her defenses down, Lynx learned about Gwyneth and about the rejection.
Unlike the complicating relationship between his mother and her lover, Lynx's father was quite simple. He came. They made Lynx. He left.
Without true love in her life, Lynx imagined that his mother had him so there would be someone to talk to. It's lonely carrying the weight of the world alone. His mother forever carried the globe on her shoulders, but it wasn't just the problems of the world she took it upon herself to reform. It was the scoundrel next door that stole their email coupons, and the grocery that stocked only "American" lettuce at a premium. She attacked languages for having separate male and female modifiers, liberals for misplacing copies of "Revolutionary Suicide," holiday speeches for not mentioning the cruelty of manifest destiny, and schools for saying "one nation under God." Ex-pats that bought freedom with dynastic money, people that called themselves patriots, the Patriot Act (part 1 and part 2), and every film before the end of the academy all offended her sense of justice, although she claimed this last one was because she was slighted at a film festival in Mexico City. The list went on and on. She was a political Carl Sagen standing in the kitchen, counting the inequalities. Billions and billions and billions and billions…
Lynx loved his mother, but his mother had loved the world. He knew his place in her heart, yet he could never quite push himself into action. Spite she called it. He was rebelling against her by becoming politically inert.
in·er·tia noun in·ur'sha
So far, nothing had moved him to change. Inspired or uplifted him enough. The world was a tragedy so profound that only two options were available: learn to live within its confines and force a false happiness or live within its confines and accept the fate of sorrow. Lynx therefore remained balanced, seesawing between beauty and ugliness. To escape truly feeling he often ascribed stage directions and character analysis to the people within 'life.' Only when he was drinking did he falter from his perch. A sliver of acceptance or perhaps doubt would enter his mind. Lynx didn't drink much.
"Hey man, what are you doing?"
Lynx looked up from where he sat in the parking space at a parking attendant. His scraggly mustache was lopsided and he held his head off kilter to balance it.
"You can't hang here man. You're like gonna get fucking shot or some shit." The guy spit tobacco juice on Lynx's bed.
"I used to live here."
The kid whistled, "Man, you don't look homeless."
"I mean my house. It used to be right here. They tore it down."
"Aw shit, are you, like, protesting?" The kid looked around shiftily as though he expected Channel 9 to pop out with a livecam. He probably had a song prepared.
"Naw. I'm not protesting. Just wanted to sit for a minute. You know, think." The last word seemed foreign to the kid as he scratched his balls.
"All right, just hurry up and think or whatever cause it's…not…well it's a garage. It's private property." The kid sauntered back to his plastic green and yellow lawn chair. Night was swooping in, stealing away the last drops of sweat to replace them with a subtle breeze. The loyal drunks were already arriving to occupy their spots still sticky from the previous night.
"Why feel sorry for the people taking their soma?" Michael asked, always eager to point such things out. He felt sorry for no one. "Everyone is complicit in their own death." On nights like tonight Lynx liked to think back on the days when his mother would turn off the AC and open all the windows to let the heat and city sounds float in along with the sound of the rail cars barreling through the neighborhood. Out of service heavy rail tracks scarred the wards alluding to a time before the 'el.' All elevated light rails were soundless. They echoed silence causing an auditory vacuum for anyone within a 2 mile radius.
The regulars were discernable from the rest by their stench of exhaustion that clung to every smile and wink. A couple walked hand in hand down Elgin towards Houston's groundside attraction district. Lynx shivered. To him, they were skeletons.
The walk home to the last shotgun house in fifth ward was a long one. Lynx lived there with Michael, an introvert named Ria, and Patience, the drug cook awaiting a slow moving eminent domain. Although unsightly, the house was shoved up against the bayou and between a graveyard and a warehouse. The truth of the matter was that no one in local government cared to improve the infrastructure or residential properties of the lower city when they had such high values in the upper city.
Lynx opened the front door with the key that sat on the top of the door frame. The one hallway was jammed with books from floor to ceiling on either side. They were all rescued from the burnings that happened recently after all print went to open format code. It was cramped even without the books and with them; Lynx became a giant trapped in a tiny box. They'd all lived there for god knows how long. Patience arrived first, followed by Ria, then him. Michael was the latest arrival when he moved in a year ago. This was a debatable point, though, since no one was really sure if he lived there or not. They all paid a nominal rent due to Patience's booming job as a very profitable cook. Ria stopped going outside a few years before and served as the real motivator for improvements. When asked why she didn't go outside anymore she merely half smiled and cocked her head as if she were listening to something—or someone—very far away. The house was so old it took all of Lynx's energy just to keep it standing. Running his hands over the spines, he thought about the beauty of what was rude and wild. What on earth had made him move into a house falling down with age?
Rats were not uncommon in the area. Most of the neighbors paid to have them exterminated, leaving them to nest in the nearest dilapidated structure. Built almost 200 years earlier in what was then still referred to as 'Freedman's land', their house was categorized in just this manner. It was really more of a sagging lean-to that was hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
When Lynx stepped into the living room everything he was thinking came to an abrupt stop. Michael, Sonja, Ria, and Patience were huddled together in one corner of the small room. The air felt alive and expectant.
"What's…" he started to ask when Michael interrupted him.
"Sonja and I found something at the bio-park. We didn't mean to bring it here. It just—"
"Showed up," Sonja finished.
All eyes were fixed on the doors to Ria's room. Lynx approached slowly, half expecting a new roommate when the door slipped free of its lockset and opened.
It glowed phosphorescent in the semi-darkness, holding them in Its gaze. In some ways It looked like a person with exaggerated features, yet felt entirely alien. It twisted towards them and laid a long hand-like part on the wall. Each of them felt a surge of electricity and for one instant the floors, walls, and roof evaporated into tiny numerals suspending them in the outside world, prisoners in a bubble of code. When the feeling passed, they were all acutely aware of the tightness of the old wood house. The room still held the hint of Texas blossom everyone assumed was wisteria. Suddenly It was in front of them with only an uncomfortable space between them.
"You're not real," Ria said.
"You're not real," It replied.
NOTE: This is the second part of a dystopian science fiction novel entitled "Zer0:Emancipation." The 20 chapters will count down every month from 19 to 0. The book centers on the near future in Houston, Texas, after the collapse of the oil industry. Four friends live and struggle together in a shotgun house located in the fifth ward. The numerical entity 0 arrives and begins to live with them, eventually revealing itself to be not of this world. Time begins to collide with space, creating holes and paradoxes in reality as the numerical representation of nothing erases everything. Racism, individual identity, and governmental failure are critical themes woven throughout.