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On the Nile
by Feech
Feech -- all rights reserved
 

Damn this apartment anyway.

That's the third pair of slacks I've had ruined by water dripping from the rusty pipes in the ceiling. I'll never get the stain out. If it weren't for the place being so cheap, considering the location, I sure as heck wouldn't be putting up with this kind of shit.

Then again, maybe I would... It's hard to tell how far I'd really go with a complaint, if I started getting those "looks"... Mild expressions of disgust take on a whole new meaning when you can be reasonably sure they're all directed at you.

And now my decent clothes ruined, to boot.

Dignity doesn't seem to be my strong suit nowadays.

And speaking of location, it's the river itself being so close that attracts droves of cockroaches to my humid little basement apartment. Since my change, I haven't been able to lay a hand on a one. It's the thought of... Well, of someone, anyone, being reported missing the next day... So the place is completely overrun and I, as is so often the case with everything these days, simply put up with it.

Besides, we vermin have to stick together, eh?

The art department at the University of Iowa is an excellent one. Which is chiefly why I came here.

Then why am I a Political Sciences major?

That's easy. Barely any job market for graduates of the Political Sciences, especially when one is a very large bipedal fawn-colored rat. Gee, when I graduate, I just might have to fall back on my minor, which is art, with a sculpting concentration. And nobody can blame me for not trying to make something of myself. If society and your family want to hear something respectable about you, fudge it. Then do what you really want anyway.

I forget whether I was such a sneaky bastard before becoming a rat. Probably.

Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm damn good-looking. Won't kid you there. But, dashing or no, there's something about whiskers and a long, sparsely furred tail that turns a lot of people's stomachs.

And being the only high-degree SCAB I know personally doesn't help any, either.

So it's just me and the roaches... and my ART.

Well, there is my next-basement neighbor, Paul, but he owns two very large St.Bernard-Rottweiler crosses so I keep our interaction to a polite minimum. Always feel my own hackles raising my shirt when those dogs come at me for a greeting. Sure, they're just friendly, slobbery animals, but you never know.

Anyway, Paul doesn't seem to mind having a rodent for a neighbor.

Then again, his cockroaches lead unmolested lives too, and it's not because he has any moral problems with killing them. If that gives you some idea of his housekeeping.

The only real sense of freedom I have is my ability to see the river from my basement windows, to walk a mere block and be standing on one of the bridges beneath which it courses.

You might think I would feel free when engrossed in my art, but I don't. Completely the opposite, in fact.

I am trapped by my sculptures. The weighed-down air of the studios, the clay and other media ground into my fur so it takes twenty minutes with the lava soap to remove them, the need to create something I have seen before but no one else has.

I call it being "homesick for Heaven" sometimes, in my more melancholy, melodramatic moods. When I can't decide what to do, when I feel like I'm missing my family but know I'm not, and when absolutely nothing on Earth will satisfy me, I figure I must be missing something I can't even remember.

It's at those times that I understand the refreshing choice at least one person a year makes in Iowa City-- the decision to see what that river water feels like when plunged into from a bridge.

It is at those times that I work on my art.

I have to do sculpture.

If I can just make my hands remember, help the materials remember, maybe I can recreate something I haven't seen since before I was created. Maybe I can throw and force and weld and nail clay and iron and steel and wood together into a form that all of the depressed people in the world will look at and say, "There, that's what I'm throwing myself off the bridge for. What I'm sitting silent forever in a padded room for. I've seen it before and I'm waiting to see it again. I remember it from Heaven."

Which is probably why all of my works so far have been so abstract.

I get the feeling I'm doing something dreadfully wrong, but I sure as heck don't know what it is.

Failing myself, I think.

Anyway, if I'm failing someone, it must be me. I have so few friends to speak of.

So the only sense of freedom in my life comes from the everflowing, algae-scented Iowa River.

Which is why I'm practically ill with joy when the department commissions a piece from me for the riverbank.

It's due in the Spring of this, my sophomore year, and it's all I can think about. My Political Sciences work slips, to say the least, but I can make that up later-- what're grades compared to immortality?

True, whatever sculpture I create may not be out on the riverbank forever, but in the mind's eye of every student or visitor who passes by on the bank sidewalks it will remain, a part eternally of the University of Iowa. Whatever their opinion of the work, I will have had an impact on the image of this town. That's a significant accomplishment for a rat who finds himself hiding in studios and a dingy apartment all the time. I don't know why I've been fooling myself with cologne to mask the slight rat odor, with slacks and well-cut jackets to prove I'm still human. All I get are grimaces. But rat or no rat, I use the same materials as other artists.

It takes careful planning to juxtapose the proper durable, outdoors-appropriate media with the images in my head. I work for a month on just the planning and drafting. Then I have to clear the expensive materials I need, all the while putting up with those pesky assignments and exams for my courses, and finally get to work on the actual product.

As usual, except for when walking back and forth from the Art Building to my apartment, I spend a lot of time in dust and splinters and see very few people. As the weather becomes chill, heading into winter, not only does my apartment become more uncomfortable (except that most of the roaches disappear after the heat goes out for two days), but I see less and less people on the sidewalks.

Only Paul and his dogs ever spend much time outside at our building, and in the first snows I begin spending time at school late into the night, just because I don't like the idea of being greeted by an overzealous monster on a slippery sidewalk. By an hour or two after dark, it's usually safe to assume that my unpredictable neighbors are in for the night.

Even when I don't work on the riverbank piece, I sit on it, contemplating. Sometimes I even contemplate adding myself to the piece.

Of course, the route home is never completely dark, even late at night in the dead of winter.

The sidewalk, bereft of snow, is bone-dry and scuffs the layer of clay off the bottom of my shoes.

The river is black. Over its slowly moving body, shimmering lights keep watch, reflections of the yellow ball lamps lining the opposite bank. Here and there, a blue-shining streak adds color; a reflection of an emergency light guiding any nervous campus night-loners to a phone. The tan bricks of the University buildings I pass on my way are illuminated dully by bulbs hidden under their eaves.

Under one of those dull lights, on a cold night approaching the really cruel nights of most Iowa winters, I see a small blot that makes me look twice.

I walk this way every night, and every night I see less and less people. So it is with some odd sensitivity that I know that the blot I am seeing is another living being. I step closer for a better look.

Is it really? I've never seen one here in Iowa City before... yes, I decide, it really is a little brown bat, clinging with pitiful might to the beige bricks. He does not move.

Of course, I think to myself, he's hibernating. But I think it's a heck of a place to do it in. Is it possible he's actually freezing to death? I know better than to handle a wild bat. Then again... It's the old cockroach dilemma.

I'm almost certain that's not a SCAB...

By the time I realize that I'm freezing and look at my watch, I have been standing there forty-five minutes. The miniscule blot has not moved.

"Well, 'bye," I say, moving awkwardly away from the wall. "Have a... good winter, I guess..." I get the distinct feeling I am not talking to a sentient being. The sensation is one of relief.

Winter goes. I work on the piece. In my mind, I begin calling the metal-and-stone sculpture "Rising Pit," because it reminds me of a hole jutting out of the ground rather than descending into it, but to anyone else's knowledge it is just "Untitled", and will remain that way. My classes, other than my art courses, are a crashing bore. Which probably proves something, but I don't know what.

Paul is the only person outside of the art department who is intrigued with my work. He visits me at the studio one day, sans dogs, and holds an in-depth discussion with himself on the potential for application of some of his power tools in a place like this. I smile, periodically, my mouth twitching just the slightest bit, but otherwise ignore my neighbor. I find it hard to hold conversations with Paul. He seems to want me to agree with his advice, and I cannot. So rather than argue, I shut up. That works well enough.

Two weeks ahead of time, right before Spring Break, I finish "Untitled". Now all that remains to be done is to wait for the University staff's employees to help me move it. I'll have to add some parts once it's outside and in place, but for all intents and purposes my attempt at immortality is done. I sign it, "Jacob Isaq".

And then, on what is probably the most significant day of my life since the change, "Untitled" lands on the Iowa River bank. A small group of art students and a few stangers gather to watch me finish it, and though there's no fanfare, I go home afterwards and shout. I can barely eat for thinking about it. I decide I haven't looked at my accomplishment enough. I haven't had my fill of the sculpture yet.

I return to the spot, in the damp Spring darkness, and find my own work still breathtakingly there. I climb up, find a place to let my long, rough tail drape over the steel, and sit. For a long time. I think I fall asleep.

But when I am done sitting, I feel very, very satisfied.

I look at the piece once more and go home to the best night's sleep I've had all year.

During the next week, I become smugly used to the presence of my University-commissioned object. I actually spend more time on the bridges and sidewalks than before, and less in the studio, although I know that it won't be long before the forced love of creation grips me again.

This lasts for one week.

Then I find my sculpture, bleeding. I've come to see it, unable to make myself go straight home after a late-night visit to the only pizza parlor where they don't seat me last, and at first I do not notice its horrible condition.

As I approach, the familiar smell of fresh paint confuses my nostrils... I note the sour scent of newly-scratched metal, and the dry, round black smell that tells me someone has been smoking cigarettes here.

I see a glint that should not be there, that is wrong for the angle of my sculpture to the river lights.

And I begin to see that it has been mangled.

They used hammers, smashing edges of rock into dust and denting the metal so all dignity is lost. Rust cannot be far behind.

And across its battered form, the red spray-paint blood reads:

S C A B

running in open veins down the scratches the hammers-- maybe drills too-- have made.

Boy, they had fun.

My impulse to track them down and chew them into pulp dies unrealized.

Hell... it... looks... Better... that way....

Feeling the chill from the perpetual Iowa River, I turn from the changed sculpture and go down to the black water. I step carefully, checking for solid ground among the grasses, but I know that I am alone and that I have never been this close to the river before.

At the water, ignoring the mud on my fingers and clothes, I dip my head into the flowing liquid and let water cover me, almost to the ears.

It is an extremely cold sensation.

I hold myself under water for as long as I can, noticing the threat of the current as I bob slightly, knowing I could easily be carried out and away if I relax the merest bit...

I stiffen and force my head out of the water. And, damp and shivering, I curl on the riverbank and screw my eyes shut tight and begin to sob.

I do not move again until dawn.

When I drag myself home, there is no sound from Paul's apartment. He and the dogs must have gone somewhere and stayed out all night, or left early this morning. The hollow feeling I get at the lack of joyful barking from behind his door is something I don't want to identify right now. Later, Paul will come home and ask me how I am, and I'll tell him I'm surviving but the sculpture has been ruined, and he'll look at it with me and say they could have done a lot more damage if they'd have had a pneumatic drill, and pat me on the back and shake his head and offer me a beer.

Which I will politely decline.

And then I will begin to realize that the last place I want to be is in Political Science classes, that what I want more than anything in the world is to be a decent sculptor, and that this is the worst place in the world for me to do it in.

I will notice the remergence of the roaches, with the taunting warmth of Spring.

I will begin to go insane at the thought of spending one more year, let alone two, in this hole-in-the-ground.

It will occur to me that if I want to accomplish any more than that piece of crap with which I graced the lawn of the University, I had darn well better start getting my priorities straight. Am I an artist, or a liar?

A liar, I will decide.

Until I get out of Political Sciences, get out of this rut where any possible vision of Heaven I might have will be ever second-best to my own inhibitions and to the appearance of its Earthly creator...

A liar, until I cancel my lease and register at another school, someplace where they will appreciate my attempts at dignity, whether successful or no.

I don't know where I will decide to go.

It will be a place I have not seen, a place inviting to my exploratory instincts while not vicious towards my obvious label of SCAB.

No, I don't know yet where, when I wake up tomorrow, I will decide to go, but chances are it will be far less dramatic than my overwrought mind currently admits.

Someplace realistic, like... Minnesota.

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