The faces in the rain leave impressions deep and enduring. The world opens and reveals its strangeness.
Written and performed by Michael Meinberg @meinberg13
Tracks “Spider’s Web” ”Intractable” “Dama-May” “Air Prelude” and “Awkward Meeting” by Kevin MacLeod of incompetech.com
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
I woke in the morning, feeling more tired than when I went to sleep. The dreams that had haunted me faded with the light filtering in through the windows of my apartment, which while small still served my basic needs. I went through my post-awakening rituals in an attempt to build some sense of normalcy into my routine, to try and reground myself in a world that seemed to twist and distort itself every time I looked too carefully at it.
For a moment, I considered telling someone what I saw on the street. But there was no one to tell. My co-workers weren’t friends, they were rivals who would use my statement as indication of a flaw, a tool they could use to keep me from becoming an Autocrat. I couldn’t tell the police. The police never listened anyway, and it’s not like I had solid proof of what happened
I didn’t even know if anything actually happened, or if it was a passing delusion imprinted onto my memories, a retroactive application of my dream’s logic onto reality. But that didn’t sit right in my gut. I felt that I had indeed touched the out-of-the-ordinary, I believed it, and that had to be enough.
I went through work with an eye towards regularity, with an aim of feeling at home within my own skin. I joked and laughed with the team, and scribbled my notes on my ever-expanding spreadsheets. After a short lunch, I felt the color return to my face, as creeping dread began to subside. No matter what happened, it didn’t matter now that I was in the company of my peers and infused with the banality of the daily grind.
The team and I went out for drinks once again, though I was certain not to get as intoxicated as the night before. Considering the hangovers they were nursing, the rest of the team seemed inclined to agree. Our chatter was more somber that night, the usual comparing of notes and talking new openings in the ladder.
A trumpet sang over the jukebox as we all joined in that mellow mood. Most of the team had settled down, married with spouses they could barely stand, with kids they rarely saw, in houses they could scarcely afford. They were happiest here, I could tell, suffused in the air of their peers. And I stood apart from that, too young and too unattached and not living up to the standards of consumption that they embraced.
I tried not to let that keep me from their comradery, and I asked them about their walk home. Nervous energy crept into my voice as I asked if they had seen anything strange on their way home. They agreed unanimously that their return home had been troubled, but then went on to describe an encounter with a homeless man, pissing on the street. The recollection of the homeless man’s humiliation made them burst into raucous laughter. I did my best to join in, but found the laughter hollow in my throat.
After that, I spent the rest of the night talking with Teri. She was unmarried too, though quick to point out her boyfriend. I wasn’t exactly disappointed. My burgeoning friendship with Teri helped me understand my place in things, and I had no real desire for a relationship. But she was also the only unmarried woman I ever spent time with.
The unwritten rules of advancement said I was supposed to get married before too long. That single people were too rash, too impulsive, too unburdened for the highest reaches of leadership. That is to say, they needed places where their rivals could leverage them. A person that couldn’t be blackmailed would be too dangerous, too free, to be allowed to rise to the top.
Still, it was nice to have someone to talk to. Someone who could understand. So, I wound up asking her if she had seen anything strange. And her story was a lot more interesting.
While Teri lived in a better part of town than I, her path led her through one of the worse neighborhoods. The buildings were openly decaying. The rain slowly eroded cracks into the facing of the buildings and then wormed its way into those cracks, crumbling bricks and swelling wood.
She had been careful to keep her umbrella up as she walked, despite the reduced flow of rain. The rain always felt disgusting on her skin, too thick, too lingering, like it was bleeding in through the flesh into her body. But most of her journey went quietly. She rarely got hassled in the poorer neighborhoods.
Folks there had their own work to do. The manual labor kept them exhausted, unable to lift their shoulders in any act of rebellion, no matter how large or small. Instead, the neighborhood was infused with melancholy, from the very walls of the buildings which seemed to weep as she passed them by.
But as she passed into her home neighborhood, the air shifted. Heaviness pressed down on her shoulders, a weight that hung in the air, unable to escape. And there at the mouth of the alley across the street, a pale-skinned, middle-aged man in a rumpled and soaked suit knelt. He had his hands cupped and dipped them into the water of the gutter, pausing before lifting them up and drinking deeply.
He continued to drink, heedless of his surroundings, pouring the water into his mouth faster than he could swallow, splashing the liquid over his face and chin. Teri stepped in towards him and called out in his direction. The man ignored her and continued drinking more of that liquid, and Teri couldn’t help but shudder in revulsion at the sight of it.
Eventually, the man went perfectly still, hands still dipped into the water. The ravenous expression on his face transformed into a vacant one, eyes staring dead ahead. Teri moved in closer and dropped a hand onto his shoulder, once again asking if he needed any help. She even offered to call up medical and see if they could do anything.
But the man only stared forward with a vacant expression, failing to see anything. Eventually, Teri backed away, feeling unsettled by the man’s behavior. She was about to turn and resume her return home when he suddenly focused, looking straight in her direction. But he didn’t see her, instead his glare pierced straight through. Curious, she peeked over her shoulder.
There was an ivory-skinned woman walking in their direction, dressed in the finery of a Luminary, all silks and gold, with an oversized handbag inlaid with pearl held firmly in hand. This other woman smiled warmly before retrieving a small bottle of water from her handbag. To the parched man, she said, and Teri could recall the words perfectly, “Drink up sweetie. Drink your fill.”
The man hesitated like a cornered street cat offered a scrap of meat. But then he ravenously snatched forward and popped the cap off, drinking the water with the fervor of a drowning man gasping for air. The women then turned her gaze fully onto Teri, who couldn’t help but feel like a specimen of curiosity.
The two talked for a few moments, with Teri forced on the defensive by the woman’s sudden appearance and her peculiar bearing. The woman asked questions about Teri: her name, her place of employment, how she felt about the city, how up to date she was up on current events. Teri responded as clearly as she could, though she stammered as the questions grew more abstract.
But the woman only followed up with further queries, with a handful of barbed retorts that seemed specifically designed to make Teri question her place in her life, and within the society of the city. And her words were persuasive, worming their way into Teri’s head. Finally, the woman offered a bottle of water to Teri. Feeling off-balance and dizzy, Teri reluctantly agreed and then made hurried excuses, before slipping away from the others to go home.
After hearing her story, Teri and I agreed there was some kind of drug in the water. We bandied about taking the bottle to the chemist, but decided that there was nothing to be done. The best solution would be to dump the water, though Teri professed reluctance to doing so.
I’m not sure why, but I didn’t tell her about my encounter that night.
I let Teri’s story riddle around my skull as I made my way home that night. I wondered what it would take to make a man bend and scrape and deface himself in such a way. I wondered at the powerful need that would bring a well placed person that low as to drink water from the gutter, regardless of decorum.
The nature of needs as powerful as these, to fill an emptiness in the self, were things I barely understood at that age. It’s probably because I was ignorant to my own need, my urge for control and the freedom that control brought. Looking back now, I can see what a fool I had been. I thought then that humiliation was the worst thing that could happen to a person.
Now, I know that there are far worse fates.
Still, that moment began my genesis, the transformation of my mind. I began to see the places where the society of the city prioritized the satiation of needs above all else. And how it manufactured so many of those needs: the need to look a certain way, the need to have the latest fashion or luxury good, the need to have a better home, the need to conform, the need to rise above, the need to be more than what one’s finances allowed.
The city’s engine burned on needs, from the basic needs to eat and drink and breathe to the need to achieve. Without those powerful needs, those urges that had to be answered, the city would grind to a halt beneath the sudden awareness of self. I don’t know how many others had undergone such a revelation, but I knew even then that there had to be others.
Perhaps that’s why communications technology lagged. The city could create anything, turn raw materials into any sort of wondrous creation to follow the whims of the consumers. But books, beyond the carefully sanitized textbooks afforded to students, were rare commodities indeed. And the only source of news were even more carefully curated pamphlets, handed out at reasonable cost on street corners.
One could subscribe to a professional journal, but those came with their own costs and required memberships in byzantine societies. Knowledge remained at a premium, affordable only to those who already possessed power.
Over the course of the next several weeks, thing remained quiet, allowing me to continue my thoughts. I began to keep a journal at home, detailing my experiences in a way of exploring this burgeoning philosophy. I skipped the trip to the pub once a week, and instead spent my time observing those on their way home. I saw the manual laborers, their backs bent from their labor, pursue simpler but more vibrant pleasures at the dens of prostitution and semi-legal drugs. I saw the wealthier citizens engaging in expensive alcohol and carefully prescribed pharmaceuticals, designed not to help with mental illness but to create store-bought pleasures.
Everything returned to this need, and one need above all others. I saw the need to escape from the reality of their world. Most did so safely, clinging to their like numbers, to those that dressed and walked like them, that filtered through the same spaces. But some lingered in stranger locales. I saw a young woman disappear down an alley, into a back door accompanied by the sound of jazz. I waited on a bench outside for a few hours, only to see her emerge, the blissful expression of an opioid high on her face and the tell-tale bulge of a book in her handbag.
I spent time one evening in a pub down by the docks and saw a group of sailors speaking in a foreign tongue, one melodic and flowing, but incomprehensible to me. They seemed to be sharing tales about the origins of their tattoos. The tattoos were abstract things, patterns built upon patterns, sprawling over biceps and forearms and shoulders. One, the eldest by appearance, had a tattoo that ran up along his neck and over his jaw. He seemed to be afforded the most respect by his peers and did not pay a single coin for his drink.
As time continued to slip forward, I began to forget more and more of my strange encounter. I had the peculiarities of the city to distract me, after all.
But soon enough, I would again be reacquainted with the faces in the rain.