The Grace Labyrinth

The Grace Labyrinth
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The streets ran a spiral course through a maze of low-rise apartments, each broken and blackened and missing concrete in patches. The apartment blocks rose up out of the earth no less naturally than the few trees still growing here, and down these disintegrating backstreets moonlight gathered and grew, stretching our shadows in the carnival glow from all the shopfront neons.

Terry had been awake for the last two or three days. At least that’s what he’d been telling me – the black circles under his eyes seemed to bear this out, though otherwise there was nothing different in his gait or demeanor, nor the slow rambling speech that wafted out his mouth in endless ostinato.

“Come on, comrade,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder. He’d picked up that word, comrade, somewhere and ever since it’d stuck in his speech like a splinter none of us could remove. It struck a sour chord in his Manchester accent. “Let’s go.”

We walked, and the fractured sidewalks rose and fell like a calm sea. Canopies of trees quieted the streets in a gentle green hush, and the amber streetlamps, few as they were, made shadow puppets of the other nightwalkers.

“You know where you’re going?” I asked.

“That’s why you’re here,” Terry said, letting out a huge laugh that sounded like a threat. “You’re the navigator.”

“Where’s she live?”

He drew a sharp breath through his teeth and clenched his fists.

“You live in this district.”

“But I don’t have any idea—”

“You know all the streets.” He calmed a little. “I think … her apartment has bars on the windows.” He considered this a moment. “There’s a plant. Some kind of ivy.”

That could have been any one of these buildings, and by the look of utter hopelessness on his face I sensed he knew it too. He was shaking a little.

I tried to get my bearings in the night, and in a sleepy topography of color I marked my way – storefront neons, paper lanterns, the green for hire light of a passing cab. Just beyond, the apartment blocks were rabbit warrens of winding alleyways and black courtyards, each wall flaking pastel paint, every surface joined by a hopeless tangle of power lines.

Even after dark, summer heat rose up from the pavement. Some of the convenience stores were still open, so too a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant here and there. Terry walked ahead of me.

“Things are better now,” he was saying, and I couldn’t tell if he were only talking to himself. Often his constant murmuring never quite formed words – his lips moved, sound spilled out, but it was just noise, no signal. “I haven’t had a drink in five days.”

“Hey, man. Good for you.”

He didn’t look at me when I spoke, and whenever I tried to match his pace he would speed up. But there was something nervous about it, a little twitch that manifested in his voice. Soon enough I gave up and hung behind.

There were few other people out at this hour. The city was naked without its crowds, and sounding these streets felt like a violation. The shirtless pot-bellied men drinking beer on the sidewalk and shouting wild toasts, the taxi driver pissing in the bushes, the stray jogger or dog-walker: we were all complicit.

“Mate. Don’t walk behind me. You’re making me nervous.”

I tried my best to keep up.

“Does this neighborhood look familiar?” I asked, just to say something, but in truth each street was identical to the last, block after block of gruesome Stalinist architecture.

“Maybe. We’re close. I can feel it.” He laughed again, though now the sound was weaker, less sure of itself. “Things are going to be better now. I haven’t had a drink in a week. Listen, mate, I don’t know what I’d do without her. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” Another laugh, this one back up to its usual power. “I bet I sound like I’ve been drinking, don’t I?”

I didn’t know what to tell him so I just laughed too.

“Have you met Grace before? I can’t remember.”

“A few months ago. The four of us had dinner. Thai food.”

“Right. I had pad Thai, she had the curry.” He stroked his chin and gazed off into the darkness. “What did you guys have?”

“I don’t remember.”

“All right, then, which way?” he went on, not really listening. Maybe he’d only brought this up to give me the scent of her memory so that I might lead him to her.

“I don’t know.”

His eyes narrowed and for a moment his face tightened and something under his skin started to simmer up.

“There’s a market up here. Do you remember seeing a market?”

“Maybe. I think so.”

So we wound a course through the narrow streets to a night market in bloom – a garden of blinding color. More red lanterns, orange coals in countless grills, the yellow glow of bare bulbs illuminating whole encampments of candy-colored tents.

“Maybe she’s here somewhere,” I said.

“I hope so. She’ll know I haven’t been drinking.” He let out a slow breath. “I’m nervous, mate. Am I sweating?”

He was drenched in it, but I said I couldn’t tell in the dark, and we waded through the thickening market crowds and orange burnished light toward the smoke and shadow and sweat and bustle, the fresh produce, hot meals, crates of slithering eels and gasping fish, the rows of baked goods, houseplants on dirty towels, racks of secondhand clothing, all the children’s toys gathered in metal pails and broken boxes.

“I never meant to hit her.”

“Maybe you should call her again.”

He did, and for a moment I lost him in the delirium of color, though I soon enough marked his silhouette in the crowd – the only person not moving, like a feature of the landscape itself. By the way he stuffed his phone back into his pocket I could tell she hadn’t answered, and of course I hadn’t expected her to. Neither of us said anything for a while and we pretended to peruse the market stalls.

“I might get a kebab,” he finally said. “Do you want one? My treat.”

“You go ahead.”

My phone buzzed in my pocket but I didn’t feel like answering so I let it go. Terry was trying to talk to the old kebab woman. He spoke her language poorly and she struggled to understand. My attention drifted off to the other vendors, most of them pulling up stakes, shouting a few last-minute pitches to anyone in earshot. The man next to me was loading up crates of unsold fruit onto a little motorized cart while his sons sat up front and pretended to drive. A beer truck was stuck in the way and the driver laid on the horn. Somewhere beneath all this Terry was screaming at the kebab vendor and pounding his fist on the cart.

“Goddammit, can’t you understand me?” For a second it looked like he wanted to hit her, and maybe he did, but ultimately he just threw some coins at her, took his food, and stomped off.

I moved on through the market toward a dilapidated neighborhood of whorehouses disguised as hair salons. I bought a couple fried pancakes and ate them as I walked, leaving a trail of crumbs by mistake. A prostitute stood outside one of the hair salons, playing on her phone, and I glanced at her for a little while, and she was pretty in the way that most people were in the dark, and anyway I was a little drunk. It was quieter out here, and I kicked around on the street corner and finished my pancakes and checked the time on my phone. Two missed calls from my wife.

When I looked across the street again the prostitute was gone. Terry caught up with me a few minutes later, and he was holding a greasy bag of barbecue skewers and naan bread.

“What’s the matter, comrade?” He looked genuinely concerned. “You upset about something?”

“Nah, I’m good.” I glanced back toward the market. “Everything okay back there?”

“Yeah,” he said, though he thought too long on it. “Have a kebab.”

“It’s all right.”

“Suit yourself.”

Behind us the market was veiled in smoke, and all the sad Khrushchyovkas faded away into the gloom. Families moved through a coal-scented mist, half-visible – silhouettes of little girls in flowery dresses hopped circles around their mothers, laughing, singing. On flicker-lit walls weather-beaten bulletin boards formed huge mosaics, though most of the postings had moldered and dripped away like liquid. Stenciled advertisements grew less legible as the alleys moved away from the light and into invisible courtyards.

“Grace left her fiancé for me,” Terry was saying. “I know she can’t still be mad.”

“Do you think we’re on the right street?”

“No, I don’t.” He drew air sharply between his teeth and clenched his fists. “If she would just answer her fucking phone. I wouldn’t ever stonewall her like this.” He looked thoughtful, and in an instant he dropped his kebabs. He didn’t pick them up, and anyway why would he. “I shouldn’t have hit her. I just lost my temper and – fuck.” He kicked a dustbin but the sound wasn’t loud enough to draw any attention from the market.

We wound through a narrow, curved alleyway between rows of bungalows. They’d softened and rotted and fused together, and now they were indistinguishable in their decay – their age and provenance both a mystery. Wooden pallets and broken furniture were heaped atop corrugated tin roofs; doors and shutters were bound shut with fence pickets; an odor of mold and dust wafted out from gaping windows, open doors. Narrow tributaries of mud, planked in plywood, snaked off into a glistening, moon-wet black, and this neighborhood, nearly invisible even in daylight, was so superannuated that its age had weight, a gravity almost, and somehow it was harder to walk here – the muddy, dream-heavy footsteps of sleep.

Terry murmured his way through, and I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until we cleared the alleyway. A long two-story building of red brick stretched out just past, and in the moonlight it looked like a steamship run aground, another geriatric thing abandoned here by mistake, but it was only some kind of factory. I couldn’t tell whether it was still operational, or what it produced. Beyond it were more apartments, and from somewhere in the dark came the cold stench of sewage.

“Keep your eyes peeled,” I said, but what was the point.

“This doesn’t look familiar.”

“Well, what the hell do you want me to do about it.”

For a long time he was quiet, and we stood streetside waiting for some flame of intuition.

“Sorry,” he finally said, and he seemed to mean it. “Thanks for coming with me.” He cleared his throat and ripped off a piece of naan bread and ate it. “I only wanted the company.”

“I don’t have anywhere else to be,” I murmured, waving it away and there was an apology somewhere in the gesture, though maybe he didn’t see it. We moved away from the factory and back into the maze of walk-ups, the network of concrete recursion where each apartment reflected itself a dozen times over in the structure opposite or beside. Only in the soft marbling of soot and water damage was there any variance.

“Maybe that one,” he said, pointing at a barred window with a bunch of leeks and peppers hanging out to dry. I didn’t believe him but we went to the door anyway, and the street spoke a language of hesitations that muted our step.

Terry stopped at the doorbell panel.

“Fuck me, I don’t even remember which floor.” He kicked the door, and a couple lights came on inside. “Fuck.”

“Try calling her again.”

He did, and I went back to the street while it rang. I was close enough to hear the message he left: “Grace, honey, I’m outside your door. Let me in. I love you.”

No more lights came on anywhere down the street. I waited a long time.

“This isn’t even the right fucking address,” he mumbled as he came stomping back my way. “Everything looks the fucking same.”

He calmed as we walked, and for a while he talked about Grace, how they’d met, how she’d be going back to England with him soon, how perfect his life was now that they were together, and all of this existed in the present tense with neither reluctance nor equivocation – no doubt at all that she loved him still.

By mistake we returned to the night market, but it was late now and most of the vendors had gone. The few who remained were busy packing their carts and rolling their tents, and those representing nearby stores and restaurants were carrying their tables and scales and cash boxes back indoors. The market noise died to a gentle gloom. When they’d finally gone it was a street just like the others, indistinguishable except for all the trash left behind.

“If I weren’t drunk I wouldn’t have hit her,” Terry mumbled. He didn’t look at me when he said it.

“Were you arguing?”

He just shrugged. After a while we started walking again, and the street spiraled in on itself, or seemed to, concrete block after concrete block after concrete block – and following every turn I thought we’d wind on toward the end, but it just kept going and exhausting itself as it went.

Terry made a phone call every now and then, each message a reflection of the last: “Grace, honey, I’m on your street. Come down and talk. I love you.”

“She’s probably asleep,” I told him after four or five more fruitless phone calls. “Maybe you should try in the morning.”

“I need to talk to her tonight.” He wrung his hands and bared his teeth. “I have my heart set on it.”

We walked on, and sometimes Terry knocked on a door, maybe seeing something there that I couldn’t, but this yielded no results and with empty hands we followed the spiral deeper. Surely this coil of moonlight had a solution.

“You should tear up that bread and leave a trail of crumbs,” I said.

“What are you talking about?”

“Navigation.”

“You’ve been drinking, mate,” he laughed. “I can smell it on you.”

“Good for navigating.”

“You lucky git.”

The neighborhood opened upon what would have been, hours ago, a busy thoroughfare. Now it was haunted by its own emptiness. The art-deco ruins of another factory towered up just beyond, but these were more cathedral-like, more angular and pleasing. I stared at it awhile: relief to eyes gone aching from all the concrete cubes. We turned back, once more, to the labyrinth.

Terry knocked on doors and made phone calls with no observable result. I looked for cracks in his composure but they were hard to see in the night – masonry invisible as it was immoveable. There wasn’t much else left for us to say.

My phone buzzed in my pocket again.

“Aren’t you going to answer that?”

“It’s not important. Don’t worry about it.”

“Are you sure?”

“The wife just wants to know where I’m at.”

“So why don’t you tell her?”

“Well, we don’t know where we’re at.”

We were coming up on a familiar landmark, a sprawling brick tenement sweeping grandly up and down a lane that had, over many years, tightened into a narrow alleyway. But tonight there was a field of rubble and empty starlight in its place. I opened my mouth to say something about it but couldn’t think of anything. Terry didn’t notice, not that I’d expected him to, and anyway what was the point – another marker of poverty and desolation had been removed and the neighborhood was probably better for it.

“How long have you two been married?” he asked.

Across the debris field the architecture continued its recursion. I could feel dust in my mouth, and I spit a couple times and started counting months.

“About two years.”

“So how is it going?”

I was taken aback by the question and didn’t really know what to say.

“It’s fine,” I finally said. “Of course it’s fine.”

Past the empty lot, past the apartments, cars plied a ring-road overpass like shooting stars. I found myself watching without really knowing why.

“Have we tried this street yet?” Terry wondered.

“She’s not answering her phone.”

“I’ll try this street.”

“No one answers their door at this time of night.”

“I have to talk to her.”

“You’re going to knock on strangers’ doors all night.”

Comrade. I have to talk to her.”

Was he shaking still? It seemed so but I couldn’t tell in the dark.

“Maybe she’s asleep. She’ll call you back in the morning.”

“I have to—” But he couldn’t finish the sentence. He balled his hands into fists and pounded his head. “Fuck. Why is she fucking doing this to me.”

Through the frosted window of a delicatessen a man watched us, and in the humidity his shape barely carried a human form. He hovered there awhile before drifting back into the light.

“Did you apologize to her?”

I probably shouldn’t have asked. Terry just grunted and for a long time we walked in silence, and his quiet took on a different character: it cast long, resentful shadows wherever he stepped, and I hung back a little.

He tried a couple more doors, a couple more calls, and eventually I split off and continued down the street alone, counting the neon signs flickering there in the dark weightlessness of all these waning years – more hair salons, massage parlors, internet cafes – all bare white walls inside and no patrons. Here and there a little shop was still open for no real reason, and I could see the proprietors sitting behind their cash drawers finishing the last of their beer, sucking down pungent cigarettes, watching old propaganda movies.

On a whim I entered a restaurant, a compact twenty-four hour place that catered mostly to taxi drivers. I grabbed a beer from the cooler and paid for it and sat down. My bottle stuck to the rubberized plastic table cover and I flicked crumbs off the bottom every time I took a drink. An astrological calendar hung on the wall just across from me. Next to that a clock was bizarrely numbered in a combination of Arabic and Roman numerals; its hands were frozen at 1:VI. I drank the beer slowly, not really enjoying it or wanting it, but I was thirsty. I took my phone out and held it for a couple minutes. I wanted to call my wife back but I didn’t know what to tell her, and anyway I was happier just sitting here alone.

I watched for Terry out the window. When he appeared I waited awhile before going out. He looked lost.

“Mate.”

“You okay?”

“We should split a cab. She’s asleep. You’re right.”

“I live just over there.”

He stepped up his pace and moved past me, and his voice drifted back careless and empty:

“I said don’t walk behind me.”

So I kept up in half a jog and neither of us said much until my phone buzzed again.

“Please answer that. It’s driving me crazy.”

I pulled the thing out of my pocket and turned it off.

“Why would you do that?”

“I’ll get it later,” I murmured, shrugging. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I’ll probably wake up to a dozen messages tomorrow morning,” he said. “She’s asleep just now.” He waved his cellphone like an aspergillum. “We just started a bit too late was the problem.”

“Let me know what happens.”

“Listen, mate, are you sure you don’t want to split a taxi?”

“Nah, I could use the walk.”

“Well—” He gave me an over-formal handshake. “—until next time.”

I waved my bottle and said something and before he left we exchanged a few last lingering pleasantries and gratitudes. He drifted off in a moment, and before he disappeared I caught the bones of another phone call:

“Grace, honey, come down and see me. I’m having a walk in your neighborhood. Call me if you get this. I love you, sweetie. Miss you lots.”

I flipped my phone back on and counted five messages from my wife. But I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, or going home. So I returned the way I came and maybe I’d just stay out here all night.

The ruined streets unfurled black beneath scant windowlight, and somewhere Terry’s pleas were still caught up in the dust and night and made anxious vibrations in the shadows. For a second I thought about going back into the taxi restaurant for another beer, but I’d lost sight of the place and anyway what was the point. I turned my phone off again.

So I moved on, my footsteps echoing empty orisons over endless concrete, and all the hope caught up in the dirt turned now to vapor, lost at least for a moment. The windows were aglimmer here, there with light, and whether any love burned beyond I couldn’t know from the street. So I threw my empty bottle into one of the bins Terry had dented, and, tiring myself down to nothing, walked a stopless course beneath a constellation of streetlamp and curtainlight.

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Michael Gibson

About Michael Gibson

Michael V. Gibson is an editor and copywriter whose short fiction and travel writing has appeared in publications of several countries, including India and Australia as well as the United States. In 2016 he founded 'The Magnitizdat Literary,' an international journal of poetry and prose, and his first chapbook, 'Hôtel Souvenir,' was published in early 2017. A second, 'Lost Lands,' is forthcoming.

Michael V. Gibson is an editor and copywriter whose short fiction and travel writing has appeared in publications of several countries, including India and Australia as well as the United States. In 2016 he founded 'The Magnitizdat Literary,' an international journal of poetry and prose, and his first chapbook, 'Hôtel Souvenir,' was published in early 2017. A second, 'Lost Lands,' is forthcoming.

3 comments

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