NEW YORKERS IN SPACE by Marty Fugate
Imagine an alien starship. Close your eyes and try real hard. See it now? Got a clear picture in your mind? It’s wrong. Whatever you’re imagining is a rip-off from faded memories of Star Trek, Star Wars, the Alien series or something. That’s not it. Now try to imagine the inside of an alien vessel that doesn’t look like a rip-off from Star Trek, Star Wars or the Alien series. You can’t do it.
Because the real thing is unimaginable and inhuman. Something utterly other.
Something created by beings very different from us. Indifferent things, unfeeling and very cold things, at least judging by what they did to us, which was to poke their hard, horny alien thumb directly into the pretty blue eye of planet Earth when we weren’t suspecting it.
They wounded us.
Sudden icewhite crystals the size of mountains appearing at random points on the globe. They popped into being and started growing, all five Platonic solids: a cube, a tetrahedron, a three-sided pyramid, four-sided pyramid, an octahedron, a dodecahedron, and that other one, whatever you call it. I’ve been beating my head against the wallskin for years, and I still can’t remember, though I can tell you the names of all seven dwarfs, the seven deadly sins, the four cardinal sins, the capitals of all fifty nonexistent states, the names and crew of each manned space flight, both Russian and American, the capitals of Canada’s nonexistent provinces and most of the nonexistent world capitals, all the British Kings since Henry V, the divisions of Japanese history since the Tokugawa shogunate, all the Chinese dynasties, the entire periodic table of elements, the range of the electromagnetic spectrum, the human digestive tract, the classical forms of rhetoric, the varieties of propaganda (according to the American Freedom Institute), all the American Presidents and Vice Presidents, NFL stats since the beginning of time, and all the Bond girls up to the Very Bad Day. It passes the time, but I still can’t think of the name of that other damn platonic solid.
But you have to admit it’s pretty damn good for somebody with an 80th percentile on his math SATs trapped on an alien slave ship for five damn years (based on hair growth and sleep cycles) with no reference materials.
But I do remember the Very Bad Day. The day of the unseen aliens.
They came, they ripped us apart, they made us bleed.
Their tiny, pretty crystals got bigger, fast. Growing and propagating like faceted, shiny kudzu. Ripping into our cities at random points. Crystalline tentacles shooting out over the landscape, crossing hills, crossing highways, then joining, more cubes and pyramids and isododecaherons popping out like glass apples, then sending out more shiny feeder roots. The jeweled madness growing, ripping into everything for a day or two, uncuttable, unburnable, unstoppable and hard as the reality of death, until some of the solids opened and some of us were compelled to enter and they took us away, though damned if I know if “some” were left behind on earth or if there’s any earth left at all. But I do know they took us away. I was going through New York City at the time. Got held up at the airport on the Very Bad Day. My jaw dropped open as I watched TV, then no TV, then this.
Now it feels like we’re moving somewhere, though there’s nothing to look at, no windows or anything quite so human as that. We’re here in some interior space. Random expanses of whiteness, sometimes corridors, sometimes big open rooms, diffuse light without source, no right angles. Whatever it’s made of is all crystalline and faceted. It’s hard looking, but feels more like skin, not like the death-diamond stuff that took earth, so “wallskin” is what I call it. It’s soft, and it gives, and you couldn’t hurt yourself on it if you tried, which, you gotta figure, despite knowing better, we still do all time.
Sometimes it all shifts, the wallskin’s facets start crawling like time-lapse photography of “The Amazing Growth of a Common Salt Crystal” from some old science class, but it all looks the same when the walls stop shifting, so I don’t see the point. For some reason we never seem to get horny, sleepy or hungry or ever need to go to the bathroom. Our clothes, the ones we came in, never get torn or worn or dirty. That’s basically it.
Not much else to tell.
But fuck it, since I’m talking to myself, I’ll repeat myself, so, as I told me the last time, we sit around on these angular shapes that change but don’t change. There’s nothing to do. People talk, look around, wait. Sometimes an alien passes over us, a blur of indeterminacy floating in the air. This blur is like the blind spot in the back of your eye, except a blind spot that moves. To some people, these blurs look like patterns of numbers; others see colors, others feel the first touch of madness. We, meaning the human types, sit and wait, and every now and then, one of the blurs floats up and makes one of us disappear for no reason at all.
All we know is we don’t know anything. None of us. So I might as well shut up.
But I won’t.
I wander. I mutter.
You’d think I’d drive everybody crazy and somebody would say, “Shut the hell up,” and then maybe kill me, but they don’t. There are no fights here. No suicides either. This is not to say we’re all happy-happy. People do get pissed off.
But nothing much happens.
You get mad, you start to fight, and then you just get tired and sit down, the life just goes right out of you. It’s like there’s instant Prozac in the air.
Are we there yet?
Are we there yet?
Ha-ha, that joke was really funny a thousand years ago.
Ha-ha, no, I have no idea where we’re going. Could be death, slavery, a lab, to be eaten as food, to be tortured, or any of a thousand other Twilight Zone possibilities, not that we can watch Twilight Zone.
There’s no TV.
There are no tapes.
No boats, no lights, no motorcars.
Not a single luxury, ha-ha, ain’t that right? We’ve got nothing, which leaves us with nothing to do but sit around like dumbasses singing the Gilligan song for hours, not that anybody’s done that for years. Even if we did, we’d probably even get that wrong because there’s nothing to refer to except our memories of earth which are all dull and dim by now, which is why we’re turning dull and dim. All of us.
Except for the goddamn New Yorkers.
Yeah. The goddamn, motherjumping nasal-talking, remember-when, do-you-know, have-you-seen, yeah-I-did, fuhgetaboutit New York City natives—about 80% of our merry company, the loud majority.
All of us, at least in this ship or whatever it is, were in New York City on the Very Bad Day. But that’s where the similarity ends.
The rest of us dance the edge of madness. The New Yorkers are still back in New York.
They remember what they’ve left behind in exact detail, in microscopic, eidetic, exacting detail, although it never seems to occur to them that they’ve actually left anything behind. While the rest of us moan and beat our heads against the wall they just sit around and talk.
As if nothing had happened.
Not talking the way I do—wandering the faceted, always-lit maze, babbling to myself constantly because, as a former writer, I can’t break myself of the habit of narrative.
Not like the ones who talk to themselves because they’re crazy.
Not like the others, the sensible minority who don’t talk, either to themselves or each other, because it’s too damn depressing.
Not like the smaller subgroup of those who do talk to each other, usually nut cases, huddling in little whispering conspiracies in some crystal corner like the aliens won’t hear you if you whisper, talking and whispering and building elaborate architectures of craziness, all these paranoid-schizophrenic speculations about Who They Are and Why They Did This and What They’re Going To Do, not to mention the other variety of whispering lunatics, who find their own corners where they get into their latest “Lets Take Over the Ship Plan #4,072,” based on childish bullshit and denial that ultimately fails and goes nowhere and leaves them even crazier.
The New Yorkers just talk.
Like nothing happened.
Like the two sitting just a few feet away from me. You hear them, me? Yeah, I hear them. I don’t want to listen, but I have to.
Because they never stop. And there’s no escaping them.
We’re outnumbered here.
I’m starting to talk like a New Yorker here.
There isn’t a corridor, cavern or crawl space in this clean, well-lit, crystal maze without any New Yorkers.
The way they used to do in restaurants.
“No, no. You don’t wanna do that. You take the number 4 subway up to 156th Street.”
“Number 4 to 156th. Best way.”
“So, it’s the wrong way.”
“It’s a different way.”
“It’s not the best way, that makes it the wrong way.”
“Best way, wrong way—we’re talking two blocks! What’s it to you?”
“I gotta know the best way! I’m a survivor.”
“You’re a New Yorker. But I walk. I walk all over the place. Twenty fucking miles a day. What’s two fucking blocks?”
“It’s two fucking blocks. Hey, ever eat at that great Italian cookie joint?”
“Y’know the one down on First Avenue? Y’know? Down on First Avenue?”
“You talking about the one near Seventh?”
“Yeah. I can’t remember the name. It had a name like VD.”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Venerios! Anyway, what I do is I go there every day for one of their ice cappuccinos. Every day at 3pm like a fucking clock. You know they make their own ices?”
“They got their own Eskimo?”
“Yeah, they got their own fucking Eskimo. You busting my balls?”
“Yeah, I’m busting your balls.”
“Fehgedaboutit. Anyway, I’m just saying, they make their own ices. Right there on the premises.”
“Yeah. And those sesame cookies… ”
“Shut up! Shut the fuck up!”
One of the muttering crazies has gone up to these two New Yorkers. Balling his fists. Wild, mad eyes.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
“Shut the fuck up!”
“Didn’t your mommy teach you manners?” says one of the New Yorkers.
“Go take your medication,” says the other.
“I’m gonna kill you fuckers!” screams the crazy.
“Yeah?” says one of the New Yorkers.
“No,” unclenching his fists. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, you are pretty sorry.”
“I don’t know what got into me. I gotta go sit down.”
“Go sit down.”
The crazy looks real tired all of a sudden. Like he’s just run that New York marathon. Head hanging, slumped and exhausted, he trudges away to one of the crystal ledges and lies down.
“Gonna kill us,” says one of the New Yorkers. “Fucking pussy.”
“I’ll tell you what I’d kill for.”
“One of those sesame cookies.”
“Yeah. They’re pretty fucking good.”
“I like to take half a bag home for the wife.”
“Yeah, yeah, but I know a better place. What’s that place down on Avenue A? What do they call that?”
“Oh yeah, that, yeah, yeah, you’re talking about, yeah, OK, that little joint you used to hafta go downstairs?”
“Yeah. You gotta go downstairs. So what’s it called?”
“Yeah. Carmichael’s. Where’s that? That’s about Seventh and A … I think.”
“Yeah. So what I do, I go down from 68th street where I take this class. Walk down 68 blocks for one of them cappuccinos they make there.”
“Two brothers own it.”
“No two cousins. Sal and Vinny.”
“No. I know these guys. They’re brothers. ”
“Yeah? Why don’t they look like each other.”
“Why do you think?”
“One’s fat, one’s thin, that don’t mean they’re not brothers. That happens all the time, ask your mom.”
“Ask your fucking mom. You busting my balls?”
“Yeah, no, I’m just saying, looks can be deceiving. Brothers don’t always look like each other.”
“Maybe they’re gay.”
“Not these guys! These are like two heavy guys. Like Russians or something.”
“Oh those guys. But those aren’t the Carmicheal’s guys. Those are those guys in that place on 12th Street and Second Avenue.”
“Yeah, you’re fucking right. 12th and Second, that place. That’s what I meant. Carmichael’s—what the fuck was I thinking? I meant that Russian place. What’s that called?”
“And it’s not Russian, it’s Ukrainian. Those guys get real pissed if you call ‘em ‘Russian.’”
“Russian, Ukrainian, whatever. Shit.”
“You look like shit all of a sudden.”
“I feel like shit.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I must be losing my fucking mind.”
“Now I can’t remember their fucking names.”
“Who? Who do you think? Those two heavy guys who own Rifka’s. Russian, Ukrainian, whatever. Those two guys.”
“Oh those guys.”
“This shit is gonna drive me crazy. So, what are their fucking names?”
“Well, it’s not Sal and Vinny.”
“You’re a big fucking help.”
Hours and hours it goes on like that—the New Yorkers talking, always talking, wherever you go on the ship.
This leaves me with fairly limited options. I can look at the walls. I can rock back and forth like an autistic child. I can wander around talking to myself.
Or I can listen to the unending talk of the New Yorkers.
“You know that big deal they’re always talking about, those great bagels you can get on Broadway and 74th?”
“Oh yeah, that place.”
“Yeah, that place.”
“That little place near the funeral parlor.”
“Yeah. Those were good bagels. Not the best, understand, but good.”
“Good but not the best. That’s my pronouncement.”
“So what was the best?”
“Now we’re talking Soho.”
“You get screws down there! I don’t mean like get screwed, like hammers and nails and hardware shit. Screws.”
“Fuhgetaboutit. You’re fucking nuts.”
“The best bagels. The best fucking bagels in the world. Better than pussy.”
“You got a screw loose.”
“No, no, no.”
An Englishman strides up to them and says, with shaky, brittle, barely suppressed hysteria: “It’s all gone, you know.”
“What’s gone?” says one of the New Yorkers.
“Everything, including your precious New York City. Gone. The lights, the motorcars, Times Square, all of it. None of it exists. Which means you can stop speculating about where to obtain the best bagels now. Please?”
The New Yorkers start laughing.
“It’s gone?” says one. “The whole fucking city?”
“Yes,” says the Englishman.
“So what the fuck happened to it?”
“The aliens came,” he politely explains. “They …”
The New Yorkers lose it. One falls on the floor.
“Stop! Aliens. You’re fucking killing me!”
“I’m gonna piss my fucking pants!”
“Never mind,” says the Englishman and wanders off sadly.
“Jesus,” New Yorker wiping away tears, getting back on the crystal ledge.
“Aliens. What a crazy fuck. But you’re crazier. Bagels—and we’re talking not only bagels that don’t taste like insulation foam but the ‘best fucking bagel in the world,’ here—in fucking Soho?”
“Place called Jerry’s.”
“OK. You got a fucking point. OK.”
“That place down there by the docks. Jerry’s.”
“Yeah, OK, Jerry’s. I know what you’re talking about. They make some pretty good fucking bagels there.”
“But only a few of us knew about it. You know. So you know I’m not fucking crazy.”
“OK, you’re not fucking crazy. But Jerry’s is Jerry’s. Jerry’s isn’t Soho.”
“Those bagels were like authentic, original recipe, Jewish-type bagels. Like the bagels all had little yarmulkes. Like they were circumcised.”
“Yeah, OK. But Jerry’s isn’t Soho, that’s my point.”
“What’s the difference? It’s in Soho, that’s my point.”
“Who goes to Soho?”
It goes on like that.
The rest of us are worried, mad, hysterical, or locked in quiet desperation.
But the indifferent, obsessive New Yorkers go on talking about CBGB’s and the scene at Astroplace in the early 80s, where they were on 9-11, what a certain cheesecake was called, who made it, disputing street numbers, getting into the scholastic fine points of who was shot at what street corner, the operating hours of some restaurant or the name and ethnic background of a long dead waiter with lunatic exactitude as if nothing had happened and they were merely taking a ride on the subway.
It doesn’t occur to them to be terrified. The aliens, our abduction, this brokedown crystal palace we’re in floating through space, where we’re going, what’s going to happen to us—none of that’s real to them. New York City is. It’s all so clear to them, every detail of it, all bottled up in their minds like the miniature bottled city of my childhood Superman comics. Kandor? I think that’s what they called it.
But the New Yorkers would remember.
They remember everything.
I envy them. When I try to remember where I came from, it’s just a blur, like the occasional floating shapes in the bright, faceted corridors. I grew up in Florida. They kept tearing things down as fast as I could remember them. After awhile I just stopped trying.
Not the New Yorkers.
I try to imagine what they’re talking about, listening to the words drifting by: bodega, Korean vegetable stand, egg cream, gem spa, Second Avenue and Eighth Street, 30 Rock, Astroplace, Washington Square, Bloomingdales. The words drift into my head, but it’s all empty reference points. Battery Park, Studio 54 that time when … it all means nothing to me. I try to remember scenes of New York City from old movies I’ve seen, but my memories of movies are just as faded as my memories of the real world.
But not to them.
Movies are another favorite topic, just so long as they were shot in New York.
I envy them their memory, their denial, the precise city grid of their minds. It’s like they haven’t even left.
Yeah, I envy them.
I want to be like them, wandering endless city streets and eating endless bagels in my head.
There are also times I want to kill them, but that would just make me tired so I don’t even try.
A New Agey guy with a crystal around his neck, scoots next to me on the outcropping where I’m sitting. It’s like he’s reading my mind, like he knows exactly what I’m thinking.
Perhaps it’s my habit of saying everything I’m thinking out loud. But I say it …
“You want to kill them.”
“I want you to kill yourself.”
“Funny thing. When they leave New York, you want to kill them; when you go to New York, they want to kill you. There’s a karmic symmetry.”
“No, you can’t sit any closer.”
“Why do you think they chose only New Yorkers? Only New Yorkers. Why do you think that is? There must be a reason.’
“The reason is you’re nuts.”
“Yes, no, why, why am I nuts?”
“Because they didn’t just choose New Yorkers. It only seems that way—OK, laugh. You’re still nuts.”
That’s when he laughed and leaned closer.
Then he whispered, “Of course we’re all New Yorkers. Shiatsu massage, see?”
“But it’s all so obvious. New York City is like one big foot, ha-ha-ha, one big foot.”
Then he skipped and ran away.
A second later one of the floating blurs chased him down and he disappeared in a flash of light.
But he’s got me thinking.
One of the advantages or disadvantages of being a writer is stuff sticks in your head—useless stuff, trivial stuff, like trash blowing on a chain-link fence. You never know when some of that useless stuff might be useful. As things turned out, some trash blew into his head about foot reflexology one day.
And I think I know what he’s talking about.
Foot reflexology is based on the dubious New Age notion that every point in your body has a corresponding point on your foot—or feet, to stretch the analogy—but I think I see what the New Age loon was driving at:
On your foot, one point over here is the spleen; a point over there is your cojones.
In New York City, a neighborhood over here is the Ukraine, a neighborhood over there is Okinawa, here China, there Puerto Rico, any part of the planet you want.
Why go to the trouble of abducting human samples from all over the place when they’ve already been gathered in one place for you? Perhaps New York City had been originally designed for that purpose in the first place. New York is the planet, the planet’s New York. We’re all New Yorkers, even if we’ve come from someplace else. It’s your one-stop-shop for humans. Why go anyplace else?
That’s my theory. You guys going to kill me for saying that? Make me vanish in a flash of light? No? OK. Cool.
Anyway, I think this is a very important revelation. I think if I thought about it long enough, I could actually take it somewhere. But I don’t think I’m going to get the chance.
The crystal walls are turning transparent.
I can see stars now. Something shining. Getting clearer.
A big bubble floating in space with an exact duplicate of New York City inside. I don’t think it’s a miniature.
Some of us start shouting and hollering.
The native New Yorkers look out at it like it’s no big deal, then go back to their conversations.
Originally published in Cosmic Debris.