AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the City of Flickering Lights was started in mid- to late 2002. I remember taking a look at it one day and realizing it was getting a lot longer than I meant it to be, so I put it on a shelf for a while…and forgot about it. Years later when I found the story, I wanted to finish it so I started to type it up. However, by the time I got to the point where I had stopped, a funny thing happened: it felt to me like the story actually BENEFITED from not being finished. Something about the sudden stop was appealing to me.
Ever since I typed the story, I go back and forth on what to do with it. Then I came across this website, and I knew what I was going to do: I was going to submit the story as is and pose a question to engage you, dear readers.
So here is the question, which will be posed again at the end of this tale: Do you think I should resume writing this story until we reach an actual conclusion, or do you think I should leave it as is? You can let me know your answer in the comments section.
He thinks, “I am just another lover lost in the city of flickering lights.”
He listens to the dull hum of the train and puffs on his second cigarette. A “no smoking” sign buzzes over his head, but the car is deserted. In other words, there’s no need to worry about someone calling a cop because of his defiance of the rules. Then again, he doesn’t fear the authorities anyway. For a rich man like him, consequences are a thing of the past.
Moving the cigarette to his lips has become an automatic affair. He isn’t even conscious of how far the fire has moved down the stick until a startling pain nips at his fingers. A violent spasm shoots through his hand; the cigarette hits the floor and rolls under the seat across from him. He examines the skin for traces of a burn. Fortunately, there are none.
The car jerks and shudders as the train grinds to a halt. A quick peek out on the platform confirms this isn’t his destination.
The doors squeal open and shut. He melts back into his corner, shaping his body until he is one with the seat. He runs his fingers through his thinning hair and then adjusts his trench coat, gathering it in like a child would a blanket in the hopes that it could provide protection from unknown monsters.
This is how he acts when he thinks about her, which of course is all the time. First he sinks into depression when he remembers how they met. He can still see her coming out of the grocery store, her load of five or six bags so precariously balanced in her arms. Then he watched (as if in slow motion) as a young boy came charging around the corner to escape his older brother, not watching where he was going. There was a brief moment when the bags seemed to hang in the air forever before they came crashing down to the pavement.
The two siblings ran away, oblivious to the damage they had caused, as he walked over to the woman. For the first time he became aware of how beautiful she was. Soft, golden skin. Raven-black, silky hair. Deep, penetrating brown eyes.
He was lost. He had forgotten how to speak, how to move, how to breathe, until she looked up at him. When their eyes met, it was like an electric spark went off.
“Yes?” she said. Her voice was smooth, like olive oil.
He stood there, stumped. Yes? Yes what? Why had she said that? Then he looked down at the dietary carnage on the pavement, and it all came back to him. She was trying to gather up her groceries, but the bags were destroyed.
“May I help you?” he asked.
She smiled. It was a gesture that he could not decipher. Was she going to agree to his help, or was she daydreaming about slitting his throat? He wanted to solve her, to unravel this living, breathing, beautiful mystery. Not wanting to help gather up the groceries in silence, he struck up a conversation with her. By the time they were done he had her number, and a date.
The courtship that followed was dream-like, majestic; he was even tempted to say “perfect.” He never would have imagined a woman this wonderful could ever find him desirable (especially since this was before he earned all his money), and yet there she was. Was she flawless? of course not, and neither was he, but what made them work was that they were perfect for each other.
So where had it gone wrong? When did the tide turn? Now every day felt like a nightmare, a twenty-four hour torture device from which there was no escape. The only thing he could do to ease the pain was to immerse himself in his work.
He was a real estate agent; in fact, he was just starting out when they met. It wasn’t long before his career really started to move. Before they were together for even a year, he was able to open his own office. Things couldn’t have been better…at least, not when it came to his career. When it came to their romance, that was another story.
He couldn’t detect the moment when looking at his wife’s face started to make him sick, or vice versa. Somehow they had just grown apart. You would think there would have to be something different to make them get on each other’s nerves, but nothing had changed. They were still the same people they were when they first met. (Then again, maybe THAT was the problem: too much familiarity.)
The train shudders again, shaking him from his reverie. He looks out to see the train has finally reached his destination.
A gust of subway air attacks his nostrils when the doors hiss open. He steps out on the platform, lighting yet another cigarette as the train roars off down the tunnel behind him. He looks left and right, surprised to see the area is deserted. Glancing at his watch, he realizes there is no time to spare.
Upon reaching the stairs, a voice like sandpaper calls out to him from the shadows: “Hey, pal, can I have a smoke?”
He turns to see a homeless man crumpled on the bottom step, his face streaked with dirt and despair. At first he thinks the vagrant is middle-aged, but a closer look reveals he can’t be much older than twenty-five.
Already homeless. Broken by life. God only knows what this young man is willing to do for a cigarette, or already has done.
Well, he doesn’t have to do anything disgusting tonight.
Before handing over the entire pack to the poor fellow, he counts how many are left. The answer is ten. That seems like a decent number. It should hold the poor bastard over for a while. This is confirmed when he sees the bum’s eyes go wide with surprise and gratitude.
“Wow! Thanks, mister!” the vagrant says.
After answering with a quick nod, the man heads up the stairs. As he reaches the street, he realizes that poor sap on the stairs reminds him why he can’t just divorce his wife: if he did, then he’d be sitting right next to him!
Funny how that works. The wife sits home all the time, ballooning up to 300 pounds when she used to be only 110, while the husband is out busting his ass to make a living for the both of them. Then he has to give all of his hard-earned money away to her if the marriage ends. Why? Is that some kind of punishment for the man? Does the court assume it’s always the husband’s fault things don’t work out, so now he has to be taught a lesson by being forced to build his life all over again?
What nonsense, he thinks. What BULLSHIT!
He does his best to suppress his anger over this injustice. Out on the street, he lets himself soak up the sights and sounds of the city life. Musicians busking on the corner. Prophets in the park. Winos and junkies spouting disoriented philosophies on life. And everywhere, the inescapable vision of romantic couples bathing in the illumination of their successful relationships, so shiny-happy bright that you have to wear sunglasses to look at them.
He stares at them and wonders: why can’t that be me? Why can’t I be walking down the sidewalk holding my wife’s hand? Why can’t I taste her sweet lips as she kisses me while we listen to mediocre musicians trying to earn a buck? Suddenly he is overwhelmed by the urge to light up another cigarette. He gropes through every pocket three times before he remembers giving away his entire pack. For a moment panic sets in, but this is swept aside when he realizes there is a convenience store up ahead.
A bell jingles as he enters the establishment. To his right there is an obese man reading a newspaper. Despite a large fan blowing directly on him, two large sweat stains stretch out from under his arm pits.
“Evening,” the man says as he approaches the counter. The clerk only grunts a response. “Pack of Marlboro lights please.”
The clerk waddles over to the cigarette rack. His pudgy fingers have a difficult time yanking a pack free of its confines, but eventually it comes loose. Now the clerk turns back to his customer and tosses the cigarettes at him.
“How much?” he asks.
The clerk mumbles a price. He silently hands over a ten dollar bill, finally accepting the fact that there is no need to be friendly with this man. Barely muttering the words “thank you,” he takes the change off the counter and shoves it in his pocket while he heads back out to the street, to the cold, to the sights and sounds of lovers who know love now as he once did.
He stares at the pack of cigarettes and wonders why he bothered buying it. Oh, yes…it was on a whim because seeing all those romantic couples had upset him. Now he takes a peek inside his soul to see that flare of jealousy has already burned out. No matter. At least now he’ll have some cigarettes to smoke once his first meeting of the night is over.
This reminds him to check the time, so he pushes back the sleeve on his coat. He still has twenty minutes to spare, and her place is only five blocks away. If he heads there now, then he would be early. (She hates people who are early just as much as most people hate those who are late.) Then again, it’s been so long since he went there that the exact location escapes him. Better to go there now so he can definitely be on time.
And so his trip resumes. He walks with stiffness in his stride, almost like a march. In fact, he does sometimes feel like a soldier heading to his duty whenever he visits her. When you can’t get what you want…no, what you NEED…at home, then it’s your job to go out and find it. Not just as a man, but as a human being. If he heard of someone’s wife stepping out to get physical affection for the same reason, he wouldn’t hold it against the woman, just like no one in their right mind should hold what he is about to do tonight against him. Here he is: a creature built for intimacy, married to a woman who went stone cold on him ages ago, but won’t give him a divorce (not a cheap one anyway).
So what is he to do? What other options are there? Some would say masturbation, but that’s hardly a replacement for the caress of a lover. Others would say abstinence, but he knows that isn’t in him. His energy for life withers in the absence of intimacy. He needs it as badly as we need oxygen, as badly as we need our hearts to pump blood through our bodies.
So to her apartment he must go.
And he does go.
And he will go, heading toward his mistress’s apartment to get an embrace without love in a vain attempt to recreate the intimacy he once had with his wife, while the city of flickering lights fades into dawn around him.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: So there you have it, folks. The mysterious ending that is not a real ending, but the spot where I forgot to resume the narrative. There are a couple unfinished threads here. First of all, all we know about this man is that he is heading to see a mistress, but we never meet her. Second, we learn (very briefly) that his encounter with the mistress is only the FIRST meeting of the night. That begs the question: is there a second one? A third one? Just how many are there? And what are the others about?
So what do you think? Should I pick In the City of Flickering Lights up again and write it to a real conclusion? Or does it work ending in this way? You can be the judge!
STEVE GROGAN is a frequent contributor to Writer to Writers. You can find links to his other short stories below, as well as his Amazon Author page where you will find several books and short stories for sale. Currently, Steve busies himself with training in a martial art called Wing Chun Kung Fu and building an audience for his post-apocalyptic zombie webcomic, REDemption, which is like Dungeons and Dragons crossed with a George Romero movie…meets KILL BILL.
Author: Redemption Comics
Steve Grogan was born in the often-filmed city of Troy, NY. He has written in a variety of formats (novels, short stories, poems, screen and stage plays, blogs/articles) and genres (horror, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, drama).
Steve is also a father, a boyfriend, a musician, a fitness fanatic, and a martial artist. He has been studying Wing Chun Kung Fu since 1995, and he maintains a blog/YouTube channel that describe his training habits, epiphanies, and advancement. It also candidly discusses his stumbling blocks, such as his struggle with nutrition and mental health issues.
He is no relation to the New England Patriots quarterback from the 1980’s.