OBLIVION

The city of Tempe, Arizona, is disappearing. No one’s quite sure where it’s going, but every day, we wake and something else is missing. The sprawling mall was one of the first things to vanish, though if you squint you can still see the faintest impression of its foundation. The manmade lake went completely dry. The light rail, tracks and all, left an empty path running through the greater metropolitan area. Commuters trek to work by following it, looking like exiles wandering the desert. The Sheriff is blaming illegal immigrants, as usual, but it really just seems like the desert is eating away the city, like dust storms are blowing in while we sleep, swallowing up steel and concrete, parking lots and strip malls, this garish oasis built in the dry dryness of the valley. Some people go out at sundown, wait and watch to see what happens while everyone else sleeps, and we never hear from those people again. Maybe they disappear, too, or maybe they don’t see anything. Grimes tells me she wants to go out into the erasure of night, find out what’s going on, but I’m too afraid. Not because I’m afraid of disappearing, not exactly. I’m afraid that when we disappear, wherever we go, Grimes and I won’t end up in the same place.

O  LIVION

Besides, we can’t disappear yet, not while the bowling alley’s still here. After Grimes played a show in Tempe, her tour bus was stolen, or devoured by the desert maybe, so she decided to stick around here for a while, and together we started a bowling team. Our team is called Pins & Needles, and it’s me, Grimes, the Sheriff and Lucy, a local high school student. We’re doing pretty good, climbing the ranks in the league. The Sheriff never takes off his aviators and he’s always chewing on red licorice. He’s dead set on us becoming league champions. He hates to see what’s happening to his city, but he thinks the league is exactly what the people need right now. He also thinks, as league champion, the citizens will start to listen to him, respect his opinion. Lucy works as a living statue in the park next to the lake. Or now, the crater that used to be the lake. She’s always trying to win stuffed animals out of the bowling alley’s many claw machines, but she makes time to pick up spares, to freeze in her bowling stance until every last pin topples. Grimes and I just like bowling. We tease each other when we roll gutters, we dance to the music played over the bowling alley speaker system. Grimes always wears fingerless gloves, but she takes them off when it’s her turn, holds her small hands above the air dryer to dissipate the sweat on her palms. She always bowls with a fourteen-pound ball, marbled a swirling green that looks like slime or poisonous fog, but she says it’s the color of moonlight.

O  LIV  ON

I became friends with Grimes because we both love pop music. It’s one reason why we like the bowling alley, too: they never play anything but the pop stations. You can tell by listening to Grimes’s songs that she’s into what’s on the radio, what gets blasted at clubs. Her music is catchy, danceable. Reviews of her newest album have said things like, “Visions is a love letter from pop music’s future”* and “These songs are coated in enough sugar to satisfy your ear’s sweet tooth, but there’s also something darker trembling just beneath.”** Meanwhile, my love for Top 40 shows up in my stories. I let Grimes read the story I wrote about Ke$ha and me being paranormal investigators. She reads through it quickly, her finger following the lines on the page. “When did you meet her?” she asks me. “I haven’t,” I say, “I actually haven’t met anyone in my stories except you.” She looks at me, her eyes big like I’ve told her something secret. “You’ve written about me?” “Well, no, not yet,” I say, “but soon.” The truth is, I’ve tried writing about Grimes, about our bowling team, about this disappearing city, but nothing I type comes out right, and I just end up pressing hard on the delete key, peeling the sentences away into white, or highlighting every word and making them vanish with one tap.

* Fader, Isabelle. “Visions is a vision.” Dish & Spoon Feb. 2012. Web. 5 April 2013.
** Cole, Percy. “Grimes-Visions: Album Review.” Devour Vinyl Feb. 2012. Web. 5 April 2013.

LIV  ON

On her eighth birthday, Grimes was given a football. She spent many childhood years in her backyard, throwing passes to herself, organizing scrimmages with other neighborhood kids. She dreamed of being a wide receiver, diving into the end zone under white-hot stadium lights. But in high school, they told her she couldn’t try out, that she was too small, that girl bones were softer than boy bones. She settled for being a cheerleader instead, but the rest of the squad kept getting mad at her. She never remembered to face the stands for a cheer because she didn’t want to take her eyes off the game. She didn’t like the pleated skirt, the red spanks she had to wear. She didn’t like that, because she was small, she was the one who got thrown into the air. She eventually joined the bowling team instead, where no one got mad at her for dancing, even when her line of frames was a long parade of zeroes. When the university’s football stadium disappeared from the Tempe campus last week, Grimes dug out her old cheerleading uniform. She wore it to our bowling match and did cheers whenever the Sheriff rolled a spare, did a back handspring when Lucy, a stuffed giraffe peeking out of her pocket, rolled a strike, the electronic frame lighting up a big flashing X. I painted a G on my chest and acted like a fan going wild in the stands, cheering us on, but Grimes, she didn’t really notice.

LI    ON

Vanishings keep altering the city. One day we hear that all the animals disappear from the zoo. We go because Grimes thinks it will be creepy, in a cool way, and she’s right. We walk through the zoo, looking into empty habitats half-expecting sleepy animals to emerge, tapping on the still glass cases in the reptile room, chatting with zookeepers who have nothing to do. We squint our eyes in the nocturnal area, wondering if the bats are still there in the darkness, what difference it makes if they are not. We read lion facts on the lion placard: did you know a group of lions is called a pride? Did you know that female lions do almost all of the hunting? Did you know that lions are endangered because people kill them for their medicinal and magical powers, for ritual acts of bravery?*** We look at the illustration of the lion and try to conjure a vision of it here. Near where the baboons once were, we see Lucy in a red ballroom dress, doing one of her living statue routines, spinning on her toe like a dancer in a music box. She is trying to cheer up a crying kid whose parents didn’t know about the absent animals. A lost cloud of cotton candy clings to the boy’s cheek. The Sheriff’s at the zoo too, investigating. “We’ve just got to get started on that wall at the border,” he says, “I’m sure they’re taking everything over there, building a Tempe to have all for themself.” Grimes usually gets in fights with the Sheriff about his crazy ideas, his thinly veiled racism, but this seems downright delusional. We stifle smiles, imagining the exact replica of Tempe being built as we speak, the animals stolen without the zoo to house them. When the Sheriff is safely out of sight, we crack, our laughter echoing against the mock rock walls of the elephant habitat, their deep round footprints the only evidence that something enormous once roamed here.

*** “Let’s Learn: Facts About Lions,” Tempe Zoo.

I    ON

Later that week, we head to the bowling alley, ready for our match with the number one ranked team in the league, a group of bankers called the Pin Numbers. They wear ties even with their bowling shirts. But when we arrive, the bowling alley is gone and the Sheriff is standing in front of where it used to be, yelling at members of the Pin Numbers, asking for their documentation. “Hey, let’s all just calm down,” I say, but no one hears me. Lucy is nowhere to be seen. “This is their doing, I’m sure of it,” the Sheriff says, pointing at the bankers. “They knew they couldn’t beat us.” Grimes tries to reason with the Sheriff while I call Lucy, to let her know not to come, but she doesn’t answer. By the time I hang up, it looks like one of the Pin Numbers is about to slug the Sheriff, and the Sheriff has his hand on his holster. Fortunately, his holster is empty, since the bowling alley does not allow firearms, or it didn’t when it was still here. What he does have is a pair of handcuffs. When the banker swings and misses, the Sheriff pulls the man’s hands behind his back, cuffs his wrists. “We’re going to have you deported, son,” the Sheriff says, his aviatored eyes like two black holes. The banker says, “I was born in Philadelphia!” We’re yelling at the Sheriff but he shoves through us, puts the banker in the back of his car, sirens away. We stand there with the other Pin Numbers, who are swearing at us and calling their lawyers. “I’m sorry,” Grimes says. She does a cheer, a cheer of hope, hoping that the justice system will work and the Sheriff won’t be able to hold the banker for very long. The movie theater’s still there next to where the bowling alley was, so we go to see that new Tom Cruise movie, Oblivion. Grimes teases me for finishing my box of cookie dough bites before the previews end, before the real story starts.

ON

It’s that night, as Grimes and I are talking about which parts of Oblivion we predicted from the beginning, when the power plant disappears, and with it, all the electricity. Darkness tumbles onto the city like a clumsy child. The city of Phoenix glows across the bridge, but Tempe is otherwise thick with lightlessness. We feel like the redacted portion of a classified document. Grimes and I are sitting on the floor in my apartment, listening to her boom box, which is, fortunately, battery-powered. Her song “Skin” is playing. We listen to her voice sing, “You act like nothing ever happened but it meant the world to me.” In his article “Mechanized Life,” Joshua Lack discusses the techniques electronic music uses to feel organic and natural, to connect with and simulate human emotion. About “Skin” he writes, “The delicate synths and skittering percussion… strive to replicate the sensation of being touched, and there’s enough breathing room, enough split-seconds of silence, that Grimes makes the song feel like a hand reaching out, then pulling back, afraid of its own tactile power.”**** In the dark, I ask Grimes to tell me secrets. She tells me how, as a teenager, she and her friends used to play chicken with trains. She tells me she makes a mix CD for every first date she goes on. I try to make out the details of Grimes’s face in the dark. I start to wonder what would happen if we lost track of who we were. Maybe, without any light, she’ll think I’m someone else, I’ll think she’s someone other than who she is. In the dark we could be anyone. I consider making up secrets that make me seem like a more interesting person, someone braver, that I’m the one stealing Tempe away so she won’t leave, so she won’t forget me when she resumes her tour, but I don’t. I tell her the real ones. How in college I got off to the sounds of sex that came through thin dorm room walls. How I once stood at the edge of a bridge, looked down into the swirling throat of the river and reconsidered jumping, drove home and wept in my parents’ garage instead. Grimes doesn’t say anything, and for a moment I think I’ve crossed a line, revealed too much of myself, but then she slides closer to me.

**** Lack, Joshua M. “Mechanized Life.” Weather/Sounds. March 2012: 101-109. Print.

O

“Okay,” I say, “I’m ready.” “Ready for what?” she asks. I tell her I’m ready to go out into the night, to see what can be seen. I grab a flashlight, Grimes puts on her old headlamp, which makes her look like a miner. We wander up and down the streets of my neighborhood, looking for any calling card of disappearance, but the sculptures in every turnabout are still here, their multicolored tiles brushed grey in the darkness. We walk down Mill Avenue, where many of the bars are still open, candlelit, packed with bros in backwards baseball hats, yelling at black TV screens as though there is a game on, as though the score is close. When we reach the park beside the craggy crater of a lake, we look up and think, for a moment, that the moon, too, has vanished. Then we realize it’s new tonight, we see its black silhouette ink-dropped against the purple sky, it is only just beginning. “Oh,” Grimes says, awestruck. She grabs my arm and, for the first time since we started hanging out, I actually feel like I’m really, truly standing next to her. “Oh, Sam, look,” she says, and I see what she sees: all throughout the park, shining like pewter, there are statues of Lucy. Hundreds of them. Lucy in a tutu, spinning on her toe. Lucy in a policeman’s uniform, baton in mid-swing. Lucy standing in front of an invisible lane, holding an invisible bowling ball right in front of her serious face, the pockets of her hoodie overflowing with stuffed lions. “Will this be in the story you write about me?” Grimes says. “Yes,” I say, “Yes.” We look across the crater at the glass cathedral of Phoenix’s unfinished skyline. “Do you think the city will ever come back?” It’s so dark I can’t tell which one of us says this. Maybe we both do. Grimes picks up a forgotten football, tosses it to me. “Go long,” I say. She puts her headlamp on the ground and runs, darting between snarling statues of Lucy in football uniform, all poised to tackle. She goes so long I can’t see her anymore, I can just hear her voice calling out to me. I think about how quickly the desert will forget about us after we’re gone, about how it will be like we were never here at all. Another secret: I never learned how to throw a perfect spiral. I grip the ball tight in my left hand, pull back, step forward, in what I imagine is the ideal stance. I let my fingertips linger on the ball as long as possible before it soars invisible into the cool night air, away from me.

 

 

 

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© Sam Martone