Author: Jeremy Nathan Marks
“Life is sweet at the edge of a razor”
I was sitting on the levee in the hot sun listening to a trickling sound. Near me, a man was taking a leak in a desiccated bush. I watched the sun turn his stream a brilliant gold, reminiscent of that Frost poem about fleeting beauty. I could mistake the sound of the man’s stream for the once great river lying like Ezekiel’s bones in front of me.
I lit a cigarette and thought, “Oh, Mississippi, where have you gone? Shall your waters rise again like some cursed Confederate cause, climbing up from our undead past?”
Across the river, brown smoke hung low over the threadbare casino and the derelict marine terminal. I recognized that smoky smell as a scent of burning brush. Why anyone wanted a fire amidst this infernal heat was a mystery to me, and I inhaled and held my breath until the ash in my lungs made me cough.
The pissing man moved on, walking back toward the big Arch. I watched him for several minutes until he resembled a beetle beneath it. Then that giant horseshoe lifted him into the sky like a soldier winkling a meal from a stinking shell. Up he went and disappeared into the maw of the old observation deck.
If you are not from my city, you might find it hard to believe that an inanimate object, a monument made by men, might eat its own. But the fruit of man has an appetite, and his cities are organisms.
I walked down into the riverbed. There has been no water anywhere near the levee for months. What remained was a tiny stream, a trickle like some blessed spring. People had gathered in groups, dropping plastic bottles into that trickle, collecting its fluids for survival. At first, no one believed the river would go away, that one day they would have to drink their urine. No one could accept that the great Mississippi would abscond. So, they left the river catfish to suffocate in the sun. They left their whiskers for the birds and started shooting pigeons and seagulls because the Mississippi River catfish had followed the Dodo onto the happy hunting grounds.
Don’t ask me to explain the logic of my people: they would kill for a catfish now. They scour the river bottom for anything digestible. I have seen little children lie in the dirt and eat it like those rebels we learned to mock. Nor does it matter that the dirt is filled with silicates and poisoned by fertilizer. No one thinks about the future; appetite is our commanding officer.
I walk over to a clear spot beside the trickle. I crouch on my haunches and put my cracked fingers in the stream until the skin feels moist, then I suck on them like they are coated in ketchup and brown sugar. The water is warm, so I slather my fingers in it and imagine I am dining out.
I sit down and don’t get up for hours. At one point, I feel the shadow of the Arch creeping up my back. The monument likes to cross the Mississippi in the afternoon to cope with its own boredom. I close my eyes and concentrate on the beast. I can see it lifting its legs, taking wobbly steps down the hill toward the river. In my head, I ask it to piss on all of us because the waste of monuments is like the ambrosia of Gods. I know that if the Arch took a leak, it would save us all from starvation. After all, why shouldn’t the works of men save their creators? Not every invention is a Frankenstein or HAL 9000.
I see the Arch trip, fall, and faceplant in the riverbed, driving a few people into the mud. I wait for it to get up, but the Arch stays down in the dirt for days. I watch the sun set, the moon rise, and satellites crisscross the sky like distracted stars. I want to pull down everything I see and suck on it. Perhaps the night sky is peppered with granules of salt. But no matter how far I extend my arms, everything remains out of reach.
Then something interesting happens. The Arch, which I realize is either dead or comatose, has left behind two gaping holes in the earth. Bones have sprung up from the spot where it stood, and they begin branching out like Joshua trees. These bones, spiny at first, are soon enfleshed. I can smell their meat and skin cooking in the sun.
The bones reach a human height and, like soldiers, form a line to the north and the south. I count at least three dozen of them, with trunks of a human width. On their fleshy branches, flowers bloom with blossoms that smell like dead game. The blossoms burst, revealing fruits shaped like livers, kidneys, and other organs. I walk over to the trees, pluck a duodenum, and bite into it. It tastes metallic.
I open my eyes and find the Arch lying face down in the petrified river. What I thought was a vision was actually an observation. Bone trees are rustling in the ghiblih breeze, their giblet fruits swaying from brittle branches. I leave the Mississippi trickle, hike up to the trees, pluck one fruit, and take a bite. I break a tooth.
In my hand, I am holding a piece of metal, a segment of the Arch.