Allison Vast in the Immediate City
Allison Vast walks across the crest of city slums eating peach gummy Os. Dawn is just breaking and no one is around but Allison, not yet. Down below, the streets are lined with parked cars, layered with gum and newspaper blowing around like loose plumage. Allison Vast is wearing a shirt with a picture of the Grand Canyon on it, also sleeveless, so that it shows off the molar tattoo she’s got on her left shoulder. She doesn’t really want to go to Civilization Dan’s today. She’s exhausted from bartending, only partially conscious, smelling like maraschino cherries and bleach. But it’s been a few days and she wants to see what’s going on. She climbs down a fire escape down between goliath tenement houses and passes through an open window into Dan’s book-lined apartment.
“Good morning, Allison, how are you?” says the old man holding a tome facedown against a doublewide scanner. He’s smoking a cigarillo with his other hand and wearing one of twelve identical sets of regal gray pajamas. This is Dan, or Civilization Dan in some circles, due to his near total knowledge of human history. Civilization Dan’s apartment is full of books, old textbooks mostly, concerning empires of all kinds, political patterns, migrations, war maps, unifying ideologies, and macro-dramas. He has twenty bookshelves and more volumes stacked against every wall, in every gap. He has books in his oven. He has books in his bed.
“A little tired.” Allison throws the gummy O bag into the trash, stands with Dan as the white light in the scanner comes down across the pages and back up again. An image of the spread appears on one of the two laptops in the room.
“Already started? What’s with all this motivation, Dan?” Allison yawns and sits down to crop and organize what Dan has already scanned this morning.
“Now that the end is in sight, I’m suddenly very interested in reaching it.” Dan exhales cherry smoke and flips the pages. His voice is soft and authoritative like he’s doing a voiceover for a documentary at all times. Allison hits Tab. Allison hits Command + S. “We’ve got one more bookshelf and we’ll be caught up.” Dan points to the last bookshelf, a skinny metal one between the entry window and the north wall, meaning that Dan’s mission to digitize and make public his staggering library will be finished in about a month.
Dan scans the last spreads from his current book, showing up on Allison’s screen as maps of the Philippines, lines signifying shipping routes and borders. So many lines it looks like a net holding the little islands together.
“Why don’t you make some coffee or something?” Allison suggests.
“Good idea.” Civilization Dan retreats into the kitchen to grind his dark roast.
Allison has been working for Civilization Dan for eleven months, crawling in the window of his apartment and providing a buffer between Dan and technology. Dan has picked up certain elements (like the scanner) but doesn’t understand FTP or how to put anything on the Internet. Civilization Dan only really understands the Internet in theory or through metaphor.
When Allison found the flyer, she was drunk, walking to the Corner Market for cigarettes and Bugles. The flyer was taped to a telephone pole and was notable because it was written up in an extremely sloppy, almost illegible, calligraphy. It read: “Computer Assistant needed for work. Learn about history and earn ten dollars an hour. Weekdays. Call Civilization Dan at 212-343-6698.” At the time Allison Vast was between boyfriends and spending most days drunk and alone on her couch listening to The Replacements and most nights mixing drinks in an underground bar. Allison Vast had never been to college and her understanding of history was pretty much limited to things Abraham Lincoln may or may not have done. The next morning, she called up Civilization Dan and took the second gig.
“Oh Allison, I’ve got to ask you something,” Dan says from the kitchen.
“Do you remember the Byzantine Encyclopedia set I have? We haven’t scanned them yet but I’ve shown them to you.” Dan pokes his head out of the kitchen, brow locked down in a serious expression.
“Yeah, there were three volumes, right?
“Right. The Byzantine Empire was the eastern segment of the Roman Empire that survived after the fall of Rome in the late fifth century. During the peak of the Byzantine Empire, a group of monks in Constantinople created the encyclopedia set using movable type. They made maybe five copies of each volume, Allison, so they’re all extremely rare.”
“What language is it in?” Allison asks.
“Obvious to you, dude.”
“Well, my set is missing,” Dan says.
“Did someone break in and steal it?”
“I don’t think that’s very likely. The choice is a little arbitrary.” Dan blows smoke out his nose. “I feel like the culprit might be Trask.” Allison pauses, hands over keyboard. “He could have pinched my encyclopedia while he was still stopping by. I hadn’t noticed they were gone until yesterday when I went to scan them.”
Trask and Allison had been hired at the same time but Trask had dropped off a year ago, after working with them for just a month or two. “It would be a shame if they didn’t get scanned, Allison.”
Civilization Dan brings two steaming coffee mugs out. He hands one down to Allison.
“What, you want me to go talk to him? I don’t know where he is.” Allison just wants to work for a little bit, maybe play Pizza in Space, which is a calming mobile game where she can steer a slice of pizza through an endless asteroid belt.
“I’ll give you a field bonus,” Dan says. He keeps his eyes on Allison and blows across the surface of his coffee.
And, like that, Allison Vast is back up on the gravel-topped city with an objective she doesn’t know if she’ll pursue or not, hopping the slim gaps between buildings. The city has started moving underneath her, pedestrians on crosswalks and traffic bleeding from parking garage origins. Allison jumps into Deck 3 of one, and jogs down the stairs with change shaking in her pockets. On the sidewalk, she threads through commuters towards the arts district, where the gallery Lakia works at is supposedly hosting Monet.
Lakia sits at a small table covered in pamphlets with a bright orange barrette in her hair and a white shirt.
“Hey,” Allison says.
“You stop by to see me?”
“I’m here for the water lilies,” Allison says. There is a huge one framed behind Lakia, lilies floating on a blurred field of pink and blue, every brush stroke visible. It’s exhausting for Allison to look at, and she has the fleeting thought that she’d like to paint over it in white paint.
“Are you mesmerized?” Lakia leans across her table. “Each one of these is worth more than forty million dollars,” Lakia says. She points towards two guys in suits milling the space in serpentine patterns. “That’s why we got Vince and Simon over there. They’re playing D for Monet.”
“What do you do?”
“I answer questions. I know some trivia. Did you know that Monet tried to drown himself in the Seine?” Lakia says. Allison just stares at her. “You seem sort of out of it, Ally.”
“Yeah,” Allison says.
“What are you doing up? I thought you worked last night.”
“I did work last night,” Allison says. “I’m working for Civilization Dan today. He sent me on a mission.”
“You looking for the deli again?” Lakia asks.
“I don’t think that deli is real.”
“That’s what I’ve always said,” Lakia says.
“You remember Trask?”
“Trask?” Lakia cocks her head at Allison, and the silence of the gallery rushes in. Allison doesn’t want to see Trask at all. He’d been the sort of ink-eyed musician type who Allison always felt that she alone was responsible for fucking. Only in this case he didn’t have a guitar or any of the normal human emotions that could make a song come together, instead he wrote computer viruses and played MMORPGS. Sort of a bait and switch maybe, Allison thought. They’d slept together twice, both times at Allison’s place, the first time drunk, the second time sober. After the second time, he idly drew a pentagram on the wall behind her bed with a ballpoint pen. Then he’d stopped calling her and stopped coming in to help. Dan and Allison had been deeply at peace with both developments.
“Used to work with me and Civ Dan. He stole a couple books.”
“Got any fucking cigarettes?” Lakia asks. Allison nods. Lakia stands up and stretches her arms above her head. “He probably already unloaded those suckers online.”
“Yeah probably,” Allison shrugs.
“Hey Vince, I’m taking lunch for a little bit.” Vince doesn’t acknowledge Lakia in any visible way but the girls leave the gallery, light cigarettes, and walk along the battery. Sea birds dip down over gray green water and farther out, Allison can see the barges and tankers floating in the saline fog. Allison tells Lakia about the Byzantine Encyclopedia set, and Lakia asks Allison:
“Was Civ Dan ever married?”
“No, I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s been married. I don’t think Civilization Dan has sex. I can’t imagine him sleeping with anyone or bringing romance to a woman. It’s like he thinks on a different scale. Like any one life is too small.”
“Unless you’re a king or a civil war general. Then personality counts to a certain degree.”
“Hm,” Lakia says. “Only relates to those few bros that the cruel aperture of time has magnified instead of totally obscuring.”
“I guess,” Allison says, flapping cool air through the bottom of her Grand Canyon shirt and squinting at the horizon.
They walk three blocks to the Expo Center, which contains a massive, permanent flea market. The Expo Center is buttressed on all sides by one hundred steps, giving it the appearance of an Aztec ziggurat. And it’s true that the Expo Center may be the nexus of all cultures, the crease they run to like beads of water on a folded page. At the base of the construct is a small village of food carts serving Gyros, Pho, Pizza, BBQ, whatever. Allison and Lakia get a quesadilla and split it on the steps, in the massive blue shadow of the Expo Center. Lakia says that she’s getting studio space of her own, soon, that she’s saving up, but Allison’s eyes keep falling shut, and she only catches part of it. Allison tries to stay awake by focusing on chewing the quesadilla but the quesadilla fails her, and she passes out upright and has a series of terrible dreams.
In the last dream, she is moving through some Monet type paint-air and it’s thick and she feels like she might be suffocating even though her breathing is regular. The colors blend, pastel and unexpected, blues cut into greens. There is the smell of vomit. There are dull voices talking at once, like through cement.
“The air is texturous,” says Allison Vast.
“Ally, hey, wake up,” Lakia says. Allison comes awake, surfaces out of that painted lake, shivering, into the warm noise of the city. Lakia gives Allison two capsule uppers that she eats without hesitation because Allison is fairly certain she doesn’t want to slip into any more Monet dreams. “I got to get back to work,” Lakia says.
“You going after Trask or not?”
“Only the cruel aperture of time will tell,” Allison yawns.
“Peace girl,” Lakia says, and walks down the stone steps to where the city starts, orange barrette like a small beacon, and disappears. Allison lights a cigarette and waits for the uppers to come on. The Expo Center discharges ceaseless people down the steps past Allison, two guys dressed as X-men engaged in an argument over the value of an X-Men comic, a woman in a denim dress with a box of pinned butterflies, a group of children on a field trip spinning around some nucleic assistant teacher. Everything that they knew in Constantinople, Allison thinks, they put into this tiny encyclopedia set: the sum of their knowledge. And when she and Civilization Dan drop that into the Internet, what a small fraction it will turn out to be. A tiny, confused chapter sharing a URL with so many others like it. Allison Vast wonders if knowledge will continue to scale out, if understanding will increase at the same rate, ad infinitum. Or if there is a limit, diminishing returns, where the hardware of the human nervous system sort of gives out and our understanding plateaus between a question and an answer.
Allison’s smartphone vibrates. She has a message from Civilization Dan that says: U FIND MY BOOK. Dan sends text messages that make him seem insane. He can’t help it. It’s always U COMING IN 2TODAY or THE DELI IS REAL. She’s seen him texting before and it’s agony for Dan. He only does it when he’s flustered or concerned. Allison never responds to his texts so she doesn’t respond to this one, but as long as her smartphone is out and the nervous wakefulness of the uppers are coming on, she does a search for Trask. The tenth result is a six-year-old LinkedIn profile. Trask has no image, no introduction, just all the computer programs he knows how to use in one sinister block of text. And a phone number and address. Allison tries the number. It’s been disconnected. Allison weighs the option and decides to drop in. She walks down the stone steps, past the food carts and walks towards uptown, where maybe Lakia will be wrong and Trask will still have the encyclopedias somehow.
The apartment building she finds is very small; a decrepit, repurposed hotel in Korea Town. Two floors of cracked windows on an exposed brick façade, squeezed between a parking deck and a noodle house. It seems like the sort of place Trask might live. So Allison tries to get in but the front door is locked. Allison goes down an alley to the back where she manages to pick the lock on a thick fire door with a bobby pin.
She navigates a service hall to the lobby, which has a claustrophobically low-hanging chandelier, an oriental rug, and a spiral staircase next to a wall of small mailboxes. The floors are numbered in a strange way, with the three hundredth floor at ground level, one and two below and three and four above. Trask had listed 103 so Allison descends into the narrow red halls of the sub-basement.
There’s a pleasant odor of saffron masking something deep and rotten here. Allison remembers the way Trask fucked; desperate and distracted. Shoulders pushed back bat-like at orgasm, eyes wide open. Allison walks down the dim hall to 103, braces herself, comes to full posture, and knocks. There is nothing. No sound but a fluorescent buzz and some mechanical grinding from a distant room. She knocks again. The listing was six years old. So there’s no reason to think that Trask would still be around. Less reason still to think he’d have the encyclopedias. But could he really sell something so niche online? He might need a fence for something so rare. Something nearly one of a kind. Allison tries the knob. It gives.
Allison sees the form of Trask, lit by a single monitor, caressing the image of a cam girl with a custom cursor that looks like a dragon in flight. He’s got ear buds in, which explains his obliviousness to Allison’s knocking. The cam girl spreads her legs on a Peruvian quilt and then shuts them again, teasing Trask. Trask reaches his dragon cursor over to the left of the screen and tips her two dollars. The cam girl says something Allison can’t hear and spreads her legs again, locks them apart like wings pinned, licks her fingertips, and masturbates. Trask reclines and begins to masturbate as well, his outline quivering in LED light. Allison isn’t surprised, like this might be Trask in his sexual element, like this was normal and it was the actual sex they’d had that was the deviation. There seems to be some sacred choreography to it. The matching rhythms of Trask and the cam girl, the even intervals between Trask’s tips, the way his dragon cursor swoops around the screen. The cam girl is still talking on mute, mouthing what has to be the word “yes”. Trask’s dragon cursor moves across the cam girls still tits. Allison has to stop this now. She flips a switch and a dim gold ceiling light comes on. Trask tries to stand up and turn around at the same time but trips on his pants and falls onto the carpet with his dick out. The cam girl stops masturbating, says a few mute words and leans forward to look into her screen. Allison shuts the laptop.
“What the fuck, Ally?” Trask sits against the wall and pulls his pants up.
“You have the encyclopedias?” Allison looks down at him.
“What are you talking about?”
“Civilization Dan thinks you stole his Byzantine Encyclopedias and we need them back.”
“I didn’t steal shit.”
“I’m going to look around,” Allison says.
Trask swipes the dye black bangs out of his face and says in his best stern voice, “You need to get the fuck out of here.”
“This place is disgusting,” Allison says.
“Don’t touch those,” Trask says as Allison pokes through a pile of unmarked DVD cases on his table.
“How do you live in such a sad environment, Trask,” Allison’s gaze crosses empty beers and microwaveable soup containers. Trask stands up, checks a few empty cigarette packs before finding a smoke. Allison doesn’t see anything. The light she put on makes the room look so much smaller. A crooked mattress lies on the floor directly adjacent to the refrigerator and a hand sink. Besides that, it’s just the fold out table with the laptop, external hard drive, television, oscillating fan, all plugged into the same power strip. Everything else is actual garbage. Allison yawns, runs both of her hands through her hair.
“Is this the ideal situation for a young man these days? Beating off to cam whores and eating instant soup? You know the sodium levels you’re dealing with?”
“Just leave,” Trask says, this time with indifference, back against his wall.
“Why would you steal something we hadn’t even scanned yet?” Allison shakes her head. “You think Dan was just not going to notice?”
“Don’t know why you care. Civ Dan doesn’t pay and history is totally stupid.” Trask ashes into one of a hundred empty beers.
“I’m getting paid fine,” Allison says.
“You still working three jobs? Yeah, you look like shit.”
Allison stands there in her own faded laundry, shredded denim, molar tattoo. She does feel light from exhaustion, the upper thinning her out a few dimensions. She shrugs.
“All Dan’s shit. The past. Whatever. It crowds us out.” Trask finally stands up, opens his laptop, and reconnects to the Internet. The frame where the cam girl was is just black. “They’re under the mattress. No one wants to buy them anyway. Forgot I even had the fucking things.” Allison lifts the mattress and finds the three thin volumes, each one featureless, faded brown. She flips the first one open and finds an illustrated black sun surrounded by Greek characters. Probably the right books, Allison thinks.
“Dan will be happy about this,” Allison says to Trask. “It’ll mean something when we get all this done.”
“It won’t mean shit.” Trask asks, idly clicking hyperlinks. “How close are you?”
“Close. Like maybe a month out.”
“Allison Vast, student of history,” Trask mumbles.
“Yeah,” she lies. Student of nothing. Student of measuring grenadine. Student of blacking out in Ruby Tuesday. Student of sleep loss and wakeful disorientation. “See you Trask. Stop being such a morlock and come up to the surface sometime.” But Trask just waves and Allison climbs back out of the Korean apartments complex with the Byzantine Encyclopedias in a plastic bag.
The walk back is long. Allison gets a text message from Lakia that says: “There is a dude who just came in the gallery who is v hot.” Then later down the sidewalk: “He likes the lilies.” Then later: “Monet had cataracts when he painted the lilies.” Then later: “They were his last works.” Then later: “I would like to fuck him.” Then later: “Not Monet but this guy.” Then later: “You know what I’m saying.”
Allison Vast walks along the battery and turns right onto a long pier. She feels she needs to rest for a second, like she’s lost all momentum, the upper has totally worn off and she is nauseated and dizzy. She walks to the end of the pier and sits down on a bench. The wind pushes and pulls on her, blasting her hair into chaos. She pulls the first volume out of the plastic bag and flips through the book, and doesn’t understand any of it. She thinks again of adding it to the Internet, letting the white light of Civilization Dan’s scanner pass over it. She saved these books from being lost, forgotten. Pretty soon, Allison knows, history won’t be able to be lost. Once it gets online it can stay forever, piled on top with everything else. All the History, all the events, all the minutiae that happen from now on will remain. Until the very end. These encyclopedias are some of the last losable things, Allison thinks.
She tosses volume I into the ocean. It falls and slaps against the water. The waves push it under the pier and it’s gone. She does the same with volumes II and III allowing for small intervals between. Each time it feels so good, barely conscious, eyes hovering on the shimmer of the ripples, the distortion of the waves.
Joe Worthen is a writer from South Carolina who graduated with a MFA in Fiction from The University of North Carolina Wilmington. Joe writes weird stories and works in the lucrative and developing pizza industry. Check out his website for other stories and interviews and comics at www.mezacht.com.