Through the dimming haze of an autumn sun I see smoke pillar above idle students awaiting busses. The fortunate ones remain engrossed by iPhones and Droids, each distanced from nearby strangers despite physical proximity. I pass through unobserved and untouched, ephemeral as a shadow on a cloudy day, and enter the cavernous building. Immediate smells of cookies and coffee invite me inward, relics of a past time when the building had been a space of commerce, reminders of a past life when love had guided me.
A Muzak version of “Sea of Love” grates through tinny speakers. Although its truth has been replaced with lulling synthetic regularity, this bland arrangement stupidly spawns echoes of love she sang to me like a fading audio Xerox. The enfleshed forms around me remain steadfastly indifferent to the invisible perversion engulfing the room—indifferent, but not wholly oblivious: They hear without listening, their expressions and gestures choreographed as illustrations of the Muzak’s false beats.
The sight nauseates me. I remember having strolled through this space heedless of its grotesque axis; but now, deprived of the meaning that had once carried me through unmolested, the space presents itself as another version of a lobby where we linger, lifeless, awaiting the final articulation of our names in the obituaries.
The fluorescent glare of lights punishes my eyes. I squint, searching for shadows, but the obstinate beige emptiness defeats me. Bodies persist at the edge of my vision: Unnatural lights transform fading summer tans into pale, preserved corpseflesh. The reek of these bodies attacks me. I inhale flagrant fragrances, the costly colognes and perfumes that cover the lifeless hope and real despair anchored in each.
There is nothing real, nothing alive, nothing to love, nothing to bring joy. But their nothing is not my nothing: The tedium that poses as truth within their inhospitable inhabitations cannot entice me now. I avoid the chairs they idle in. I avoid the stores with the objects their fingers have grasped. I avoid the mothers raising children to thrive in a world of betrayal and greed. I avoid the doorways and drinking fountains, avoid the false tones of laughter and the pretense of studiousness. I avoid those in suits gripping telephones weighted down with the illusion of importance.
There are more before me: sticky fingers and dirty feet, breath drowning in cheap beer. Mouths with bright white teeth mimic laughter, despite lifeless eyes staring nowhere. My heart slows—or time does—as I avoid touching a flock of schoolgirls tittering past, tottering near the abyss that only I perceive.
And then, with horror, I see its malignant blandness encroaching on their young flesh, caressing each in turn. Numbed, the girls remain ignorant of the terror that overwhelms me as if I were cursed to re-experience the first moment when, trained to expose myself to the world’s joys, tastes, textures I had for the first time experienced the shock of shame. I walk faster, skin clenching sinews, apprehensive of a touch I want to lose.
My legs navigate toward the exit, toward a darkness more true than the exterior lights that fail to wholly destroy it. The aftermath of their aromas still clings to me, occupying my flesh, imposed upon and imprinting my skin, infusing my nostrils with cheap floral traces. Exiting, I look above me at the emptiness emerging between two buildings and see a black patch of sky that resembles a fist. I want to become elevated within it, to experience the gentle annihilation it promises. Arrested by this momentary hope, I watch the blankness become obscured by a cloud chasing starlight. With horror, I watch as the ephemeral presence of vapor blots out its particular nothingness until what once was blank fades into nonexistence. I am alone again.
I wander down an alley flanked by a trendy yoga studio and a corporate coffee store, encountering the stench of discarded food left to rot beneath the suffocating heat of the sun. With a potent shock that awakens a tremor deep within me, as though it too wanted to become my lover and grasp my soul in an unending instant, I behold the image of a slaughtered beast whose bloated bovine body both beseeches and warns me. Transformed from life into meat by our voraciousness, it fixes me with dead eyes: I see through them its cooling muscle and fat scattered in Styrofoam cases and shrouded with black plastic bags, reeking within metal dumpsters. More revenants join it, appealing and appalling, lamenting the brevity of life and the unmet longing for free pasture and bright skies. I strain to hear their last refrain bleat as it fades into concrete-covered earth, to remain attuned to the final summons of a spectral cry only my ears can hear, but I am interrupted by a car stereo blasting “Alone in my Home” from unrolled windows. The song dies. I hear nothing.
With a sudden gust of hot stink I realize that these unnoticed presences, mere remnants of hungry mouths that fed until overfull, still linger here as sentinels, policing the gap between the lifeless flesh and undead meat. Indeed, death belongs here where I walk, welcomed into each restaurant and onto each plate. The living feast on and dispose of death in dumpsters.
Every alley is a graveyard, each street a cemetery, every table a testament to mindless, bloody thirst. The guardian stares, eyes too weighted with sorrows to weep or rage: It bows its head and offers absolution. I stretch out a hand, and hope to feel the reality of a rough tongue’s caress to cleanse the taint of the mall from me. I want to reach out and touch the face of each departed thing that lingers despite itself.
Nothing touches me, but I feel that their undying continuance is an indigestible occurrence that generously allows the postflesh community to shower me with its gifts, inviting me, too, to become a nothing that is also a something. I stifle a shudder and realize that they offer an opportunity to overwrite my oncelover’s absence with a more potent version of nothingness than what she left behind. Touched, I weep past the dance of plants and ghosts around The Mill to my right and the drunken shouts from the beer garden to my left, finally exiting through an arched pavilion, feeling reborn into the possibility that even if I remain deprived of life, at least someday I may experience a true and real death.
Daniel Boscaljon, author of Vigilant Faith, will spend the year teaching about secularism in the Department of English at the U of I.