No Shortage of Light
by Kyra Simone
This is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress called Radiant Cities
At the edge of every city there is another city. A city that dances to the end of love. A city of forgotten towers. Towers that reach up into the clouds, as though at any moment they might disintegrate or take off into the sky. Sometimes they sway a little in the wind like wistful grass. Sometimes they seem immovable, heavy cement blocks tied to the leg of a convict thrown in the lake to drown. One might imagine them rocketing through space, sinking into the eye of a cartoon moon in the intergalactic dark. One might look at them and swell with terror or liberation at the thought of leaping from the highest ledge.
The buildings are always there in the distance, in that mirage of eternity where the sun meets the land. But it is rare that anyone in the real cities ever remembers them. The towers are only ever passed by, to be seen momentarily from afar, glimpsed from the car window or commuter train by some thoughtful person who looks up out of the blue and for an instant feels again that there is always somewhere else. The silhouette of structures one catches sight of on the horizon is radiant and illusive, a glimmer of silver prisms. They are full of people who have overflowed from other cities. Postwar nobodies. Foreigners. Fools. Disposable laborers. Sacrificial lambs. Few others have ever been to the cities at the edges or know their coordinates on any map. Those who live within their limits rarely leave. Anachronic and suspended, there is the feeling of entering a fortress upon arrival. All one hears is the desolate hum of the highway, unreachable somewhere far off, the resounding silence that rings through the arches and empty fountains.
We are here now in one of these cities at the edges. A Radiant City—as one has imagined it, and as it is. “Quelle horreur” said the President, the day the first tower was spotted on the horizon. “Magnifique” said the husbands when they learned the kitchen counters in the apartment units were tailored to the height of the average woman in high heels. Some might look at the Radiant City and see an oasis. Others see a prison, a hospital, an empire. To live here is to be stranded, to be part of a grand ensemble, each tower the chrome relic of a future that never arrived. The 21 grams pondered to be the weight of the human soul have evaporated from the buildings in infinite numbers. Now the structures exist in a space that is lost, halted in the corridor between realities, neither of the past, or the future, or any other oblivion of time.
There is no easy way to get to the Radiant City. It is cut off from mass transit, an isolated swarm of shapes, bound by a band of light called the Periphery, illuminated at all times. Whether near enough to actually see it, the Periphery pulses on the far edges of everyone’s mind, a peripheral longing that transcends human geography. Perpetually there in the sideview mirror, and yet out of reach, it fades and reemerges at various distances with the same relentless question: what is on the other side?
There are to be no miracles in the Radiant City. Or at least this is what the elders have said, the people from the "old country” who have been here for years. Inside the Periphery, life is contained. In a place with no miracles there are also no cars. The city has been designed strategically to account for the death of the street, streets that have been murdered, excommunicated, deported. This is a world made by a god who would never live in it. He is not the “God” we are thinking of, that bearded being in the clouds some imagine, or curse at, or wonder if exists. The god of this world is a man. We know this for sure. This is the only world he has created. In his utopian notebooks he drafted novel length rhapsodies about what this place would be like. In the Radiant City there would be no shortage of light, he said. Everyone would see the land for miles around. It would not be touched by cars or foundations. Everything would hover. Nothing would be obstructed from the light.
Some believe the Periphery is there to keep residents inside. Others see it as a barrier to prevent outsiders from coming in. “ATTENTION” it says in glowing letters on warning signs posted all along its perimeter. But few come and go through these portals. The hole torn open in one section of the barbed wire fence that has recently appeared is merely the idea of a point of entry or egress. In the beginning residents were forbidden to leave. No letters could be sent beyond the Periphery, no contact made with the outside. It was as if those who had come here were missing persons, disappeared identities. But now the chains are unnecessary. People in the Radiant City have grown to love the confinement, to be the keepers of their own locked world. It is rare to hear of a person wanting to leave, though somewhere deep inside, all of them want to. The veterans have told themselves they are the chosen ones and some of them believe it, that they are here to sacrifice themselves for some greater cause. And for the younger ones it is all they have ever known. The Radiant City is where they were born. It is where they have been married, where they have spent the summers picnicking with their families on the shores of the contaminated lake by the cemetery at the edge of town, where they have buried their parents and some of their children too.
In the tallest building of the Radiant City, there is a revolving door. When encapsulated between the glass panels in carousel, for a moment, it feels as though there is someone pushing in from behind. This is always a concern with revolving doors. One wonders if one should jump in with the person ahead or wait for an empty slot, and in the hysteria of the doors’ motion, the wrong decision is always made. But just as one might turn to look, it becomes clear there is no one else in the compartment of glass.
Perhaps one might have come here to see the apartment on the top floor. Why one might be looking at it or what has caused it to be empty is hard to say. A previous tenant passing away. A fire. A failing in the market. A mercury spill. These things have happened before in this building. Other things have happened, too. Wedding nights and cries in the stairwells, conversations at tables, lamps illuminated until the break of day. Dogs have killed each other in various households. Pipes have burst and elevators stalled between floors. There are many units in this single tower and many towers in the surrounding landscape. In each room a heart beats or ceases to beat within the chest of the body sleeping there. Stepping out of the revolving door into the interior of the building, one can feel the simultaneous use of faucets, the water running out in multiple households unaware of each other. Love can pass, one might think.
Inside the foyer, the wallpaper is peeling. The halls blink with yellow light, each bulb flickering with moths. A figure steps out from the door across from the elevator, carrying a broom.
“I’m here to see the apartment,” one might say to her, not sure of why the woman has emerged or if she is the person with whom to inquire.
“That’s on the top floor,” the concierge might reply, gripping the fabric of her grey sack of a pinafore, as she glares suspiciously at the fitted trench coat one might be wearing, or the shiny suitcase in one’s hand. Few people look so metropolitan here. Many of the residents in the buildings are old. Other people with suitcases have arrived from time to time. The concierge and the neighborhood children have seen them come and go, stern-looking men from other cities mechanically pushing the button before stepping onto the elevator. The suitcase carriers never become permanent residents. When they leave, they are gone suddenly and with no explanation. The children linger in the courtyards. Between them and the concierge, they know everything that goes on in the building. There are groups like this that prevail over every tower. Smatterings of delinquent children hang around the shops on the corners and loiter on the rusted fixtures in the desolate playgrounds. They are often seen playing in the ruins in the cemetery, or sleeping in the junkyard at the edge of town. Bruised eyes and chipped teeth, hands folded over their chests as they smoke cigarettes or flip bottle caps into the empty fountain, they observe every person who enters or exits the building.
No tenant of the top floor apartment has ever stayed long. The green door to the unit can be seen as one steps off the elevator, often left a few inches ajar, a flash of gold dust sometimes blowing out of it into the dark hallway. It is a small derelict space, not much bigger than a chambre de bonne. “Perhaps I’m too old to be living in a place like this,” one might think, assessing the square footage in a single glance. But these are one's circumstances. This is one’s city now.
“I’ll take it,” one might say, handing over a bundle of cash to the concierge for the first week's rent, as if this were an anonymous motel on the outskirts of Disney World. Pocketing the money in her pinafore, the concierge will likely leave the keys on the table next to the door. Once she is gone, one can put one’s things down, throw off the trench coat, and go about the room. One might notice there are a few dresses hanging on wire hangers in the wardrobe, the scent of singed fur wafting around the fabric. Or perhaps it will be the small porcelain tub along the kitchen wall that catches the eye first, filled with water as though someone has just been bathing in it.
There is a single window in the apartment. From the top floor, one can see far across the landscape. A cloud of gold vapor is emitted from an exhaust pipe over the lake at the edge of the cemetery near the city’s circumference. The dusk hangs frozen in the air, pink as the interior gleam of a pearl buried in the sand at twilight. For an instant everything is still. A bird flies from the roof of a building to a wire where a flock of others is roosting, all of whom depart as the incoming bird lands. Out of the heat comes a sudden burst of heavy rain. It has been like this all summer, but being new here, one hasn’t seen it yet. This is the sort of place that summer passes by, as the whole city waits and waits in anticipation of it arriving, until it is suddenly gone before ever materializing. The same sinking feeling still comes at the end of every August as it did when the Radiant City was new, as if having missed a rare display of aurora borealis that everyone else has caught sight of. It stays hot here late into the evening, the humidity thick as heat waves emitted from oven racks where poets have laid their heads. For fifteen minutes it hails large cube-shaped pieces of ice. Soaking wet, one of the children down below in the courtyard kneels over a puddle and gazes at a cube in his palm. If he looks close enough he can see a tiny horse riding over a sand dune inside it. But no one knows it’s there except for him.
Now is the time of day when the room glows orange. When the water in the tub turns cold in the summer darkness. Dragging one’s fingers over the surface, it is impossible not to imagine an infinity of days. Not to wonder what is contained within the surrounding rooms and what it will be like in the morning, or if anyone will notice one is here. It will be impossible not to walk to the single window and watch the sun sink into the horizon, not to see one’s own shadow grow long across the floor. As the lights begin to go out in the windows, the Radiant City disappears from view, as if it never existed in the skyline, its residents forgotten, long-established or just arrived. Here and there, stands a solitary person embedded in the landscape, a man on a balcony, a woman pushing a cart, a figure sitting with its head in its hands on the steps, waiting in the dull glow of the concrete.