by Matthew Spencer with images by Guy Merrill
“We thought it wasn’t just overhead, but miles above us. A gate or a road, a country whose roads are built up there, away from us.”
Away from us, but even our best estimates were off. We had been waitlisted, shuttled between spreadsheets, for two years, three years—it was tough to tell exactly. The matter dropped from daily concern. Events intervened. Charges of manslaughter were brought up, then swift acquittal. Sometime afterward, months maybe, an envelope arrived. It was ductile, slightly damp, outwardly no different from a bill or a collections notice. Enclosed were further instructions, printed in a range of commonly spoken languages. We had come that much closer, speaking purely of process. Boxes had been checked, values had been entered.
The application, the in-person portion, took place in a corporate park in a distant suburb. The office, the “mirrored bunker” as we called it, stood wedged between a state highway and a vocational school for the blind. Heavy metal double doors opened onto a hive of cubicles anachronistically furnished. Chairs held synthetic upholstery, bright and abrasive, eminently flammable. The clerk assigned us was still young, lidded with shortish blondish hair. Her keycard badge read, “Dannie Flechette, three years top quartile service.” She gave us scalding coffee, watery and sugared, with insoluble powdered creamer. Beneath her swift fingers, the keyboard clacked; we answered her questions—the keyboard clacked, rising in chorus with other fingers, other keyboards.
The application session last well into the evening. Standard psychometric tests were administered, family health histories discussed. The ethics questionnaire highlighted fast changing social norms. At the end of the session (announced abruptly) we were left alone in our assigned cubicle. The office had grown quiet. A potted stood fern stood restfully in its pot. Another clerk arrived—youngish blondish also—and instructed us to fetch our bags from our vehicle. We had been approved; we were going up there—it was imminent, scheduled for the next morning. Additional coffee was on offer.
The waiting room had the feel of a private residence. A tartan blanket lay folded on the couch. Shelves held books reflecting personal taste: maritime history, paperbacks of classic novels. Cots were available, stored in a closet, but we spent the night awake, too excited for sleep, watching documentary after documentary about musicians who had died. The television was, unlike the other furnishings, completely contemporary. It carried channels unknown to us. For decades of our adult lives, we had been ignorant of all this programming.
A discrete knock initiated our departure. We shouldered our bags and said goodbye to waiting room and the television. A brief shuttle ride, less than a quarter hour, brought us to the elevator. It was housed in another “mirrored bunker”, a narrow shaft rising skyward from a low drab edifice. In the lobby, as we stood in line, we fell in with an elderly couple newly remarried. They were leaving behind a large orchard, peaches and apricots, to their adult grandson. They shared with us some of their exotically spiced fruit leathers, the cornerstone (edible) of the family business. Between us, to either side of us, arriving passengers exited the elevator, tanned from the intense sunlight of the upper reaches. They greeted us, their counterparts from below; they shook our hands; they expressed unqualified enthusiasm for being up there, overhead. “Not overprized, not in the least.” They were as tired and sociable as we were.
The elevator held a good half dozen of us, with ample room to spare. Gold interlocking symmetrical ovals patterned the floor. There were two buttons: “Bottom” and “Top”. The door closed with a simple chime. We felt the downward tug of acceleration. The elevator rose quickly (mere minutes of travel) though none of us felt that expected popping in our ears. A phone was being passed around, hand to hand, with pictures showing a tall to average-sized man. He knelt beside a row of small to average sized trees, all in full flower. Someone else told a joke. Its punchline was “the sailor walks”. The same chime sounded again—twice this time. We stepped off into vast airy regions. A network of roads spread out before us, parallel those below.
“It moved into itself, vibrating, reflecting colors from somewhere else.”
The pictures were no good taken from a distance. And having a full two hours before sailing, we paid the meter, checked the timetables, and headed by foot into the waterfront heritage district. Placards on brickwork commemorated various bordellos. There were sites of labor disputes resolved by gunfire. Nostalgic eateries lined the principal boulevard. In a display window, a machine pulled and folded pastel strands of saltwater taffy. Its stainless-steel mechanical arms, in their cyclical upswings and downswings, achieved intermittent congruence with the other structure, housed across the street, in a purpose-built pavilion, beside the municipal playground and the daffodils. These two structures reminded us of another partial congruence, helpfully detailed in a printed brochure, involving two gentlemen, sons of a bigamous father, who had, as strangers, encountered each other on that very boulevard. This happened in a time now outside living memory. Walking along the boulevard, the men stopped, facing each other, struck by the resemblance. They exchanged cards and awkward pleasantries and walked on, each having his own pressing business. They were never reacquainted, at least in person, the younger having died in a somewhat famous maritime disaster, not here but in another watery and expensive region. Their final correspondence evinced gentle regret. They should have grown up, they agreed, together, as brothers proper.
Along the spotless confectioners’ window, inside and outside, the image of the two structures, the two machines, phased in and out of congruence. It was the same old evocative mess. Our proximity did not improve resolution. We entered the shop, bought some candy, several sacksful, crossed the street. We dropped our change into the change collection box. From the pavilion speakerbox, a synthetic fanfare played. Another placard provided more context, a paragraph at least, on the other structure and its construction. Maintenance was said to be expensive. A charitable foundation had been established for its upkeep. They greatly appreciated our donation. A printed hyperlink invited us to find out more. We observed its vibrations, its folding movements, minute by minute gaining a kind of hazy familiarity.
About the Author
Matthew Spencer is a writer based in Seattle. His translation of Anecdotes by Heinrich von Kleist was published in 2021 by Sublunary Editions. His writing has appeared in Socrates on the Beach, Asymptote, and Harpers. He is the author of Paradise Almanac, a weekly literary newsletter.
About the Artist
Guy Palmer Merrill is a musician, visual artist, and public art collections manager. His work has been exhibited at The Alice, Fred Wildlife Refuge, and Tacoma Art Museum, among other venues. He is represented by J. Rinehart Gallery. He lives and works in Seattle.