Flash from City by the Sea by Doug Ramspeck
We’re delighted to share with you these two atmospheric flash fictions. When we first read Doug Ramspeck’s flash pieces, “Doppelganger” and “Frost,” we were taken with his wonderful evocation of the anonymity of the city. We loved the way the two pieces echo and speak to each other, and loved both endings, which feature the only spoken dialogue in either. Though the characters are unnamed (“the writer,” “the visitor”), and the setting is an unnamed city by the sea, and both the characters and the city are fogged-in, shrouded in mist, haunting, they inspire a feeling of proximity—nostalgia even—you won’t soon forget.
You’ll want to read these a few times, for the lush tone and setting, and the exquisite moments where characters and places recur. Then take a moment with Ramspeck’s author’s note, about unexpected detail and ghosts on the page. —CRAFT
In his dreams the people of the city are ghosts. The writer is walking down a crowded sidewalk, but the pedestrians around him are made of mist or smudges of light or dust. They speak in the voices of wind washing up from the sea into the alleys, in the voices of rain, in the voices of cooing pigeons. And in his dreams, the writer is forlorn, for he realizes he’s surely a ghost as well, that even his own hands are like the spray of the sea that evaporates in air. And often these dreams are so unsettling that he bolts upright in bed, morning light crawling through the curtains, but even so he can’t shake the feeling that he is not really there, that nothing is quite there, that everything is on that liminal edge between existing and not existing.
Usually, to settle his nerves, he walks the streets. He is old enough that he can’t move very quickly anymore, but still he feels the comfort of the effort. He reaches out to touch the stone solidity of buildings. He appreciates the sounds of his footsteps on the cobblestones. And he is grateful when someone bumps against him going past—the corporeal jar of it a small miracle. And often the writer walks on these morning excursions to gaze at the sea, which has no body in the ordinary sense, no stasis of being, but is forever in flux, forever on the edge of becoming something else.
In the evenings he writes. This has become his recent habit. When the sun steeps its rich tea on the horizon, he takes his pad and pencil to the writing desk, which has a view out the window. Sometimes he writes about the hills or the sea or the buildings lifting their arms in supplication or anger toward the sky, but mostly he writes about the people moving out beneath him, his fellow travelers of the world, the men and women and the children, all of them in motion like the waves of the sea. And soon, as he writes, he dreams that his words are bones and blood, tissue and thought, longing and disappointment, fever and contentment, and he is grateful, now, that the inhabitants of the city are spirits or wraiths. Indeed, he imagines he is speaking to them. Come to me, he thinks. Whisper in my ear. I promise I will be your amanuensis. Will attempt to put everything down word for word, syllable for syllable. Will try my best to be your doppelganger, even though I will surely fail, will always fail.
So this is what he thinks about while his pencil makes its scratches on the page, scratches he can barely read sometimes, so much so that when he returns to them later they seem a kind of perfect mystery, more wondrous than otherwise for having been rendered entirely unintelligible, some code to which he knows he will never again have access.
But one evening something unexpected happens. Just as he is attempting, in vain, to decipher a sentence he has at that very moment placed upon the page, he sees something on the street. At once he stands from his desk, and there, down from his window, down past the sidewalk outside the apartment building, there by the street’s edge, a young man is standing, looking up, shading his eyes in the last flares of evening sun. And this is the thing the writer will never forget: in that instant there is a shock of recognition that rocks him on his feet, that forces him to lean forward to grip the windowsill. The young man on the sidewalk looks precisely the way the writer looked when he was younger, is the twin of his former self. And the sight is so disturbing that the writer lets out a sharp grunt of dismay. But, yes, that is the younger him down on the street. This is certain. This is a fact.
So what does the writer do? Throws open his apartment door and starts down the stairs. Then throws open the door to the street. Then hurries down the sidewalk to the corner. Then turns. Then is ready to call out. But what will he say? Please. Please. Wait. I have to talk to you.
But the young man is gone by now, a ghost. It is a terrible blow. For a moment the old writer tries telling himself that his eyes were simply playing tricks, that he is losing his mind, that his faculties are slipping away, like water through cupped palms. Surely the man was never there at all. But even as he thinks this, he is walking down the sidewalks, walking toward the sea, looking. And then, when he arrives close to the water, he spies the young man again, there on the sand, facing the waves. And so the old writer approaches. He is trembling. Ill-at-ease inside his body. And when he touches the man on the shoulder, the man swivels at once, faces him, though his face is partly obscured in the red-orange flare of evening light, in the little brush-fire of dusk. The writer wants to speak, but what he sees in the man’s face is something he realizes he cannot understand. It is not sorrow or happiness or fear or loneliness or anything else to which it might be possible to place a name. It is what the sea feels when it comes foaming up the sand to slink around your feet. What the clouds feel when they slip past you on their sails. And now, all at once, the writer’s eyes adjust enough that he sees more clearly that this man is actually a complete stranger, that he is accosting someone who looks nothing like what he did as a young man, and that he has made a fool of himself while the waves keep rising toward them.
And then the stranger says, “Do you want something?”
This time it is different. This time there is no excitement or expectation. No dream of seeing the city for the first time. Discovering its wonders. No, this time—his second trip—the visitor arrives in the city with a profound sense of discouragement, defeat. Climbs off the bus with his head down. The sea, after all, is a dull slab to his left. The hills a dull slab to his right. The city cold with winter, a few stray flakes of snow drifting around him. And the visitor trudges forward with his suitcase. And why is he here? Looking for work. Has lost his business in his old city. Has lost his wife, who divorced him. Has lost his children, who went with her. So what is his plan? To find work, maybe even better than before? To curry favor with his ex-wife and his children? To bring them here?
No. He doesn’t believe that. Doesn’t believe in new starts. Everything is less than it once was. That’s what he believes. The roll downhill.
He finds a one-room apartment in a neighborhood—as near as he can tell—populated mostly by prostitutes and thieves. Finds work as a bookkeeper and sales clerk for a furniture store. Making far less than he made before. With vastly higher expenses. What’s the difference between a divan and a couch? his customers ask. Is this a credenza desk? His boss spends much of his time in the alley behind the store, his cigarette smoke lifting like some secret language into the sky. And the visitor, whenever he joins him there, looks up and watches that smoke making its desultory sojourn toward the clouds.
So does the visitor make friends? No. Does he grow close to his colleagues at work? Not at all. Does he look for the woman who robbed him the first time in the city? Not really. He spends most of his time when not working lying on his narrow bed or standing at his apartment window, gazing through the frost at the blur of sea. Spends most of his time ironing his shirts or walking to the market. At first the prostitutes ease close and make their suggestive remarks, but he pulls out his pockets to show them they are empty. He is showing the thieves this as well. Eventually he is left alone. He is one more oddball in the neighborhood. He is invisible.
And that’s the thing. Sometimes when he is walking to work in the snow, or walking home in the snow, or walking down to the pier and watching the snow being swallowed into the sea, he feels that he isn’t there at all, not really. He doesn’t believe in ghosts, but it seems that he’s become one. Sometimes, as he crosses streets, cars don’t seem to notice him and nearly run him down. Sometimes, on the sidewalk, pedestrians bump against him then look puzzled, as though they are uncertain what they struck. The visitor watches his breaths offering their small clouds into the air, but maybe that’s all he is now, some little spurt of vapor.
And he grows to hate the city. Why wouldn’t he? If before—when he lived elsewhere—the city seemed exotic, a place where anything might happen, now it seems more like a place where you simply cease existing. Cars and buses crowd the streets. There is the constant blare of voices. But none of it is real. None of it means a thing.
In his worst moments, he lies on his bed or stands at his window—wiping away the frost with the side of a palm—and thinks about a girl who died when she was sixteen, the first girl he ever kissed, though she was fourteen at the time, and he was, too. But then, at sixteen, she jumped from a high bridge over a deep ravine, and that was that. Why? No one knew. Or at least never said. She was alive and sitting in her desk at school one day, and the next was nowhere at all, at least not in any real sense. She had a small gap between her two front teeth that he remembered, and one of those teeth was slightly at an angle. He remembered her tilting back her chin when he bent down to kiss her that time, and there was a jagged scar beneath the chin that he recalled, a little lightning bolt.
Now she is a ghost. And he is a ghost. And his wife is a ghost. And his children are ghosts. And when he rises in the morning, the snow is a ghost coming down.
And he imagines his ghost life stretching out toward some distant horizon. Imagines himself walking toward it, but it is so far away, like mountains that loom before you but never get any closer, not matter how long you keep going.
So it is a relief, a wondrous relief, when one afternoon on the sidewalk he nearly bumps into a man he knew quite well when they were boys, a man from the old city, someone the visitor called a friend in better days. Both of them are shivering in the cold and snow, stamping their feet, but both seem relieved to see the other, and chat away happily about old times. They even mention, in passing, that poor girl who killed herself. And the more they talk, the more the visitor begins to imagine going back home to that smaller city, returning to his wife and children, back to the place where he was once happy. And he tells this to his former friend from childhood, tells him that he feels like a ghost in this city by the sea, a living ghost, and then, much to his surprise, his former friend laughs loudly, almost rudely, and thumps him with condescending firmness on his shoulder, saying, “Everyone feels like that. It just means you’ve grown up.”
DOUG RAMSPECK is the author of six books of poetry and one book of short stories. His most recent book of poems, Black Flowers (2018), is published by LSU Press. His first book of short stories, The Owl That Carries Us Away (2018), received the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, and is published by BkMk Press (University of Missouri-Kansas City).