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Rise of the Phoenix
for Feech, without whose assistance with pacing and character voice this story would not exist in its present form
"This vicious, stinking zoo, this mean-grinning,
mace-smelling boneyard of a city: an elegant rockpile of a
monument to everything cruel and stupid and corrupt in the
--Hunter S. Thompson
"...Now I will believe
That there are unicorns; that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix' throne; one phoenix
At this hour reigning there."
--William Shakespeare, "The Tempest"
* * *
I _hate_ Milwaukee.
I know. It's trendy nowadays to hate the city that you live in. New Yorkers hate New York. Chicagoans hate Chicago. Los Angelites hate Los Angeles. But in these hates, there is a kind of fierce love, a loyalty, a damned-be-all pride. A hate you can really sink your teeth into.
Strip away all that. All the illusions and pretenses and love-it-or-leave-it's. I _hate_ Milwaukee. With a hate as dead and dull and listless as the soul of the city itself. Morning over Grey. Ten thousand shades of it.
I _hate_ Milwaukee.
I hate this room that I'm lying in. It's Grey. The carpeting is grey. At some unspecified time in the far distant past, it probably was brown or green or something, but now, it's quite grey.
I live in a grey apartment building with grey floors. The ceilings are also grey. The windowsills, too, are grey, and they open out into windows that are themselves grey with soot and grime, which is of little consequence because even if one _could_ see clearly through them, all you'd be able to see would be more grey. Grey of sky and grey of structure. Grey, grey, grey. The closet doors are grey. And, lo and behold, behind these selfsame grey doors are clothes, in various shades of grey. One stops fighting it after a while.
I don't know how long I've been here. I suspect all day. I am under the sneaking suspicion that the day is Wednesday, which means that, according to my planner, I should probably have arisen with the extremely grey dawn, staggered to the shower for a lukewarm rinse-off with cheap earth-toned soap, gone to the underwear drawer and selected some greyish "whites," and thence to the closet for a greyish sweater and some black jeans that have been washed so often that they are, you guessed it, quite grey. Thence to the grey refrigerator to gaze unappetizedly upon the lonely, pitiful-looking three-to-four-edible-things therein, and to close it sullenly after standing only for a moment in the vaguely-chilled grey light from within. Thence to the door.
Thence out into the city beyond. Thence to class in Salvador Hall. Where I would sit in a series of rooms of industrial blue-grey listening to a series of suspiciously identical grey-haired men in suspiciously identical grey suits lecturing to me on the principles of supply-side economics and whatnot.
Thence back here, to lay on this bed.
In my mind, I've simply cut out all the extraneous steps. And with the greyish-brown curtains drawn, I can blot out any evidence of the city without. The city that near-literally makes my heart sink every time I gaze upon its fiercely drab countenance.
Milwaukee is the largest city in Wisconsin, I am told; I imagine that lots of other people must live here. Occasionally, I catch a glimpse of one or two of them. Certainly not enough to match the population figures on the city-signs, which leads me to the inevitable conclusion that the faceless, rough, blobby masses of grey that I see crowding through the streets each day must actually be considered _people_, by certain select individuals in the Census Bureau. Go figure.
I lay. Or lie. Whatever one is supposed to say in such situations.
I am not certain whether or not time is passing. I assume that it is.
The dim grey of morning becomes the bright grey of noon. Thence onwards to the dim grey of evening. And then the dark grey of the night. Still I lay.
I _hate_ this city.
* * *
And I also hate losing.
Millie glares at me. "You _what_?"
"I... quit." I say, enunciating more clearly. "If it'll make you feel any better, you can have the point." I reach up with my cue to the wire containing the score beads and snick another one of my opponent's across the gap. "Play again?"
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" She says.
"Saving time." I say. "Every single time you get stripes, I lose. Never fails."
She just glares at me.
"Care to rack 'em up again?" I say, holding the triangle helpfully out to her.
She continues to glare.
"Pay attention to it, sometimes, Mil. Greater fates than ours are watching these games. And said fates have dictated that, lo, when Millie dost play billiards, and lo, when she scores stripes, then, lo, she whups my ass. Who am I to argue with the fates?"
Millie picks up the chalk and starts rubbing it with a dry rasp on the tip of her cue. Her gaze does not waver.
"Play." She says, at last.
I sigh. "Very well. Draw out the farce. Go ahead. I'm leaving the bead on your side, though. We'll see if we have to change it."
Millie shrugs and begins wandering around the table in a predatory fashion, analyzing the positioning of the spheres like a diviner might tea leaves or cattle organs.
I sigh, leaning heavily against the rack. "Millie?"
"What's the point?"
"Eleven-corner." Declares Millie. She strikes. Smack. I look on with a sort of grim fatalistic satisfaction as, just as predicted, the eleven vanishes from sight. The woman could probably do this sort of thing professionally, if she had a mind to it. She looks the part, for one. Tall, skinny, blond butchcut, the works. She'd even look good in one of those vests that you always see the pro's wearing. Whereas I, on the other hand, would not. Among other things.
"Personal crisis time again, Justin?" Says Millie, eyes still fixed on the table. "I know that voice..."
I trail off.
"Yes?" Says Millie.
"Millie, have you ever felt like Nothing?"
"Fourteen-corner." Smack. "What do you mean?"
"Like _Nothing_. Like a great deal of Nothing. This whole goddamned city is just one big mass of Nothing-ness. Grey fucking nothing. And you breathe it in and drink it up and you allow it to work its way into your body, until all you are is Nothing as well."
Millie looks at me. "Being a bit nihilistic tonight, are we?"
"I didn't even _move_ today, Mil. The alarm went off and I just sat there with it buzzing. It was like a test of endurance or something.
"I did. It shut itself off after an hour."
"Feh." I say.
"Nine-corner." She says. Smack. "Skipped class?"
"Again? Thirteen-corner." Smack.
There is silence.
"Can't be good for you, you know."
I turn away, looking across the room through the blue-grey smoke of the pool room. The evening is just warming up, and the air is filled with the dull, round noise of mock-ivory. "Going to class is good for me?" I inquire.
"If you ever want to get your Bachelor's, well, yes. Fifteen-corner." Smack.
I make an urgh-ing noise and cover my face with one hand. "And then what, Mil?"
"Grad School?" She suggests.
She just shrugs. "Who knows."
"I mean... look at how much good it did you!"
She looks at me sternly. "I happen to _like_ tending bar, Justin. Don't start getting highbrow on me."
"That's not the point, Mil. You _know_ what you're doing. You've got your place here. Me... I don't even know who I am..."
"Twelve. Side." Smack. Mil lowers her cue and leans on it, studying me.
I gesture helplessly. "I _mean_ more than a suit and a tie and an office on the corner, Mil. I can just _sense_ it. These past few days I'm seeing everything with a new sort of clarity, like I'm being given a chance to look back on it before it's even begun. And I do _not_ want to wake up one morning forty years down the road and realize that all I've done in my life is serve as another gear in the chain... a progressively bigger gear, with every raise and each new office, but still a gear..." I mesh my fingers together as a sort of visual aid. "Still just turning on cue whenever the next gear on up decides to move..."
Mil frowns at me. "Now you're getting trite."
I sag. "I know. I can't even think up decent Oscar speeches anymore. Mil, what the fuck is wrong with me, here?"
"Offhand, I'd say..." She pauses again, considering the table, weighing her options like a lioness surveying the herds.
"I'd say you're in the process of becoming a reasonably well-adjusted member of the modern American rat race. Welcome to the real world, bucky. Eight ball. Corner." Smack.
"I was afraid you were going to say that. Nice shot."
"Thanks." She reaches up to slide a bead across, forgetting that I had already credited her with the win. Hell. What's one more.
"Again?" She says, tossing the balls back onto the felt-covered table. "I still got an hour before I go on shift."
I shake my head. "Sorry, Mil. I think I'll quit while I'm behind."
"Suit yourself." She says, and begins gathering them into the tray.
"Mil?" I say.
"Mm hm?" She says.
"How do you do it? How do you stay sane?"
She pauses, chewing on that one for longer than she has on any so far. And then, she dumps the balls back out on the table. They roll about en masse and bounce quietly off the soft felt bumpers for quite some time. As they do, she passes several of them under her elegant fingers before selecting three-- the red, blue and yellow solids-- and lets her hand rest lightly upon them, rolling them subtly back and forth.
"I think..." She says, her features illuminated in faint prismatics from the cut-glass beer-company lamp above the table, "...that it might very well be the colors..."
* * *
Two-Fifteen, now, after the bars close. A bit later than you'd find in some cities, especially on the weeknights, but this is Milwaukee, and in Milwaukee we ferment things. A half-hearted snow falls from the sodium and steel colored sky, instantly becoming thinnish slush upon contacting the tainted sidewalks of the city. Millie and I walk through the Midwestern cold, through canyons of bleak steel and stone, coats huddled about us. Millie always thinks it's better to have a man around in situations like this. I've told her on a number of occasions that Millie herself would probably be enough to scare off most ill-doers, but I suppose it's the principle of the thing. We've been doing this ever since I started hanging around in bars until all hours on the weeknights. Mutually agreeable situation. Millie gets the dubious protection of having me around to discourage the lurking underbelly of humanity, and I get to continue my conversations with her long past quitting time.
Millie blows into her hands to warm them. "So basically, what you're saying is, you're stuck."
"Exactly." I say. "I can't _leave._ This city is like a... you know..."
"Magnet? Whirlpool? Black hole?"
"Something." I say. We step down onto the soggy asphalt of the street proper as the light flicks to 'Walk.' "I mean... I'm almost through my Bachelor's, Mil. A year, at most. Even if I could leave to go somewhere else, I'd just be going backwards. Transfers wouldn't agree, requirements would change, yadda Yadda, Yadda yadda. I'd probably end up with another year tacked on. Moot point, anyway. I don't even have enough money to move, Mil. I'm stuck. Here. Downtown Milwaukee."
"Save up." Suggests Mil, helpfully, as we crest the next curb.
I laugh, trying to make it sound bitter and mocking, but it just comes out sounding stupid.
"How 'bout getting something from your Mom?"
I laugh again. Same deal. "Mil, you don't seem to realize that indebting myself to Her is a worse thing than being trapped here. Ol' Cindy and her Mom-Trademarked Guilt-Inspiring Voice of Death is not something I care to experience any more than is absolutely necessary. Besides, you _know_ it's been so hard on her making ends meet... she might not be able to scrape together enough funds between the Bimini vacations to actually do me a favor one of these lifetimes."
Millie says nothing in response, and I know that she's beginning to get sick of the blackness. Hell, I'd be getting sick of it myself.
We trudge through the gathering slush, past broken windows and clustered monuments to human fallacy. Occasionally an off-duty cab speeds past, spraying our shoes with road-filth while dank winds attack our hands and faces. Another block.
"Besides. She'd hate me for it."
Millie rounds on me with an exasperated noise. "That's it, Justin. I'll listen to the financial woes. I'll listen to you pissing about your parents. But I _refuse_ to listen to you making excuses for wallowing around in your own bile on the grounds that your life is somehow the express property of your mom and that you've just got it on loan or something. I used to think that way sometimes too, Justin, but I broke out of it and I think you can too. You looking for advice, here? I'll give you some. Find something that _matters_ to you and _do it._ Imagine that there aren't any barriers. No walls. No artificial social constructs to block your path. Bam. You're you. You're there."
"Right." I say. "Envisioning myself there is just going to make it happen. Previously insurmountable barriers will fall away, all through the power of *Imagination!* I can't believe I never saw all of this beforehand! How stupid I was!"
"For Chrissake, Justin, this is _your_ fucking life!"
I spread my arms dramatically to the wasted city surrounding us. "And what a life it is!" I exclaim.
"At least it's yours."
"I could say the same thing of my excreta. That doesn't mean I wanna keep it around."
"That's it. I'm not listening anymore." With an incline of her chin and a clench of her jaw, Millie tunes me out.
"Fine." I say, sullenly. I manage only a few more steps before tossing myself down on a broken foundation block. Millie turns back to me.
"What." She says.
"Not much point in keeping me around, is there."
"Come on, Justin. Stop screwing around."
"Get... the fuck... out of here. You've only got about six more blocks. The streetlights start working after three. Can we cut the bullshit and make the assumption there'll be no gang-raping mobs lurking in the shadows, just for tonight, huh?"
She stands there for a moment with her eyes focused into narrow slits.
Then she smacks me one, but good.
It's not one of those spur-of-the-moment overcome-by-emotion slaps, either. It's very calculated.
"You deserve that." She says. And she's right.
Millie walks off into the city darkness, leaving me sitting there on a damp foundation block in the middle of this Pandaemonial town, watching the devils at play upon the broken streetlamps.
Good one, Justin. Real good.
I sit. And sit. And sit. My motivation centers have completely shut down. I am conscious of myself becoming gradually wetter and colder, the grey of my clothing darkening with the falling sleet to a uniform charcoal black, but there is nothing in the world that will make me move from that spot. I'm proving a point. As to what precise point this is, I am uncertain, and I am likewise uncertain as to who I'm proving it _to._ But here I am.
After an hour, I come to the conclusion that I am indeed proving a point here, and said point involves hypothermia. Sighing heavily at the stupidity of it all, I heave myself off the block and begin the trudge back to my own apartment.
I don't make it far. Black despair falls like hard rain within my mind, beating it back and down and away, and I am on the verge of stopping dead-still in the street, throwing my head back like a suicidal chicken and letting the falling water fill up my lungs until I perish, when my eye beholds something that gives me pause.
White. Bright, halogen white. My brain fixates upon it, and insect-like, I am drawn forth.
There, in a paved-over courtyard fronting a small, lunatic-fringe Christian-type denominational church, is a sculpture. It rises high, twice the height of a man, and its twisted and rusted iron planes give it a look of decay and disrepair. The shape is of nothing, a tall, willowy thing with one, flat, backthrown projection that shelters a tiny portion of the cobble-block upon which it is based. It means nothing, intrinsically, as is the case with all modernistic art.
But in my cold-muddled brain, and at this specific angle, the structure resolves itself into the shape of a bird, a great angelic bird with sheltering wings outstretched in a posture of ecstatic glory.
All is silent and bright.
At least it's an overhang.
My muscles complaining and balking at even this effort in the mid-February cold and now-rain, I clamber up to the cobble-block pedestal, curl up beneath the wings of the statue, and, despite my better judgment, drift off to sleep.
* * *
Morning again over the city of the damned. I can't even recall when I last actually _saw_ the sun. I'm forced to try and surmise its existence from vague signs and hints that I receive in my daily life, i.e., sometimes the greyness is a brighter hue of itself. I imagine that this same rationalization is what most responsible people are trying to perform with regards to their hypothetical God. Feh again, twice.
Then again, I shouldn't be so critical. After all, the nice folks at whatever church this is had just enough bad taste in sculpture to hire whoever it was what wrought this hideous bit of metal which even now shelters me from the continuing rain. Who says there's no value in Organized Religion. Feh, feh, and again, I say, feh.
My muscles are burning and cramped, and, as expected, I'm damn cold. Damn, damn cold. A few less degrees last night and I'd probably have been frozen stick-solid.
Clambering down from my rude perch, I blink away the last vestiges of sleep from my cold-foggy eyes and rest for a moment beneath the shadow of the angelic bird. Thursday. I think. My mind is swimmy and disoriented, and it takes me a moment to even vaguely attempt even this much.
It comes to me that this is what people probably mean about hitting new lows in life. Organization is breaking away around me. Thursday is Philosophies in Small Business Management. Thursday is Philosophies in Small Business Management. Thursday is Philosophies in Small Business Management with Doctor Pryor in room four-oh-seven of Salvador Hall. There is a response paper due today. There is a response paper due every Thursday, to be turned in at the beginning of every class period, reacting to the presented reading material listed on the syllabus. All books will be found on reserve in the John H. Truitt memorial Business Library. Grades will be calculated on a ten-point scale, and the combined grades on all the papers for the semester will be worth the same as one Examination grade. You may throw out two.
What day is it again? Fuck it. Who, indeed, cares.
Warm. Need shower. Need warm water. Need threadbare woolen blankets. Need old sleeping bag stored on the upper shelf of the outer closet. Need to wrap self up therein. Need warmth. Oh, fuck, need warmth.
My feet tingling from the lack of blood, I resume my long-delayed walk home through the progressing grey of morning.
* * *
I toss the mail upon the table. Three-or-four official-looking grey envelopes and one brown-wrapped box. The envelopes are, respectively, a credit-card application, the W-4 forms from my place of employment, and a phone bill. The box is from Mom. Joy.
I've got a date with my shower. But, as I am a pathetic social prole, I must open my mail first.
I inspect the W-4. It tells me how much money I, supposedly, earned this year.
I compare it to the 1040-EZ (whose two-letter suffix I will ever consider a cruel, cruel jest in very poor taste) tax form resting bleakly nearby on the to-do area of the table.
Boxes. Lines and boxes. Little grey-green boxes to enter the calculations in. Little grey lines. Boxes inside boxes. Only fill in the _grey_ parts of the form if you answered "yes" to question 3b. All inside the flat rectangle of the form. Big, flat rectangle box. Box from mom. Inside the grey box that is my apartment within a big row of grey boxes all stacked up in rows and rows and... boxes. Nested boxes. One inside the other. Layers and layers of social construct, walls to keep me in, walls to keep me out... camera back to Mom's Box... from "Mom", no return address listed dear justin just a little something from SoCal thought it might brighten your day a little to get something from your old Mom
Exhausted, cold, and utterly fed up with everything, I slam the box back down on the table.
There is a dull crack, as of shattered glass, or crystal.
Oh. Now that's great. Just fucking great.
Massaging my aching temples with one stiff hand, I tear aside the brown-paper wrapping to expose an old checkbook box. Atop the box is a little note.
--Hi, Justin. Greetings from San Bernardino. Writing with a different pen today-- lost your Father's fancy NASA pen somewhere. Sure will miss being able to write in free-fall. Ha, ha. Weather is hot here. Sometimes wonder if it's _ever_ not hot in Calif.! Ha, ha! Took about an hour drive to Barstow yesterday. Kind of boring, until you get to see Calico, just a few miles down the road! Mum always thought that there weren't any real old genuine Ghost Towns anymore! Pretty amazing. Anyway. Found this _beautiful_ piece of yellow quartz just lying there in the dust. It was _so_ pretty. I just had to mail it to you. How are the grades coming this Sem.? E-mail me sometimes! I have an address, you know. Eye is getting all blurry again. Probably going to have to have a second surgery. Guess we all just wear out, sometime. Oh, well. Love-- Mom
I can hear her voice saying it as I read, like some cheap and melodramatic cinematic effect.
Sighing, I open the box.
Well. I had expected _some_ of what I'm seeing. First, whatever it is, or was, is quite broken. I attempt to piece it back together in my mind, and I'm sort of ending up with a rough, chaotic crystalline shape. It's not quartz, I see... but I'm not quite sure what it is...
It is... was... used to be... hollow...
While intact, this fact was probably not noticeable. The crystal is a rich, golden color whose precise hue seems to both defy description and conceal the internal lines.
The box is wet. Inspecting more closely the one large remaining chunk, I see that the cavity within the crystal formerly contained some quantity of a sort of fluid, the same rich golden color as the crystal. A bit remains unspilled in one shattered end. It appears to be a rather thick fluid, the consistency of syrup or, perhaps, honey. In a sort of blind experimental curiosity, I touch one finger to the liquid. It feels... warm. To the touch. I bring my finger away.
It stands in sharp contrast to the otherwise unadulterated dullness of... well... everything else in my world.
My eyes narrow. A geode, or something? A fluid-filled rock? Did Mom realize what she was sending me? Probably not. She just thought that the color of the crystal was nice.
Frowning curiously to myself, I bring my finger again close to the crystalline shards, turning some of them over experimentally with one--
Damn sharp edges.
Acting utterly on reflex, I bring my wounded finger to my mouth and--