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By Keltie Zubko

Balanced half on a battered metal rung, half on the front of the stone-faced building, the young man stretched to touch the letters of the sign, and then down behind them. He felt for wires and fittings that once supplied the electricity, making them glow, a beacon in the dark, inviting the neighborhood to watch stories by the light of their artificial fires. “Blockbuster,” it still spelled, in dull yellow and faded blue, though the windows were covered over on the inside with sun-brittled brown paper, torn and hanging loose in spots, unable to hide the hollow space inside.

Guild Theatre Detroit (detail) by Bob Jagendorf via Flickr(CC)

“Guild Theatre Detroit” (detail) by Bob Jagendorf via Flickr (CC)

One hand gripped the railing of the ladder that couldn’t quite reach, no matter how close they’d maneuvered it to the storefront, anchoring it on the rough pavement. The old ladder had to do, since there was no cherry picker, nor smooth and safe scissor lift. Beside that closed business waited another empty space, adorned with a neat “for lease” sign pasted squarely in a window that once revealed alchemists (of sorts) behind their counters. They’d bent over mysterious stainless steel machines that steamed, hissed and bubbled with the ritual of creating customized coffees sipped by patrons sitting outside under umbrellas in the sun. Some great corporate mark had hung like a full green moon above their oblivious heads. Now weeds, cigarette butts and dog filth homesteaded the unswept concrete. He wondered where they got their coffee now. There were no such places left, advertised by signs at least, anywhere in the city.

His ambition was obsolete. He’d have to do as his new boss said.

He reached long, nimble fingers between building and the plastic, groping for some past electrician’s work. The sign was only a little faded, had stood up well in the rain and sun, but that didn’t matter; it was destined for the scavengers’ carts, and the best price they could haggle from the old man. He pushed his fingers just a little deeper, skinning a couple of knuckles but still probed, and tried to pry some space to go in further. No good. Whoever had mounted the sign in the first place had done a decent job, the kind of job he’d wanted to do. That sign had been put up there to outlast depression and disaster, the weather, vandals, and even bankruptcy. And he, well, he didn’t have the right tools, no rubber-footed ladder, no extendible poles, not even the right wire pullers. No delicate, needle-nosed pliers, no crimpers with eccentric designs, and certainly no cutters so sharp and fine they inflicted no pain. Now he’d never have tools like that, never have an education on how to use them, do anything, design and construct and build systems to light, to heat, to power. He had nothing but his hands and they were tools of destruction. Now he was one of the barbarians, too.

“What’s taking you so long, brat?” called the man named Tom, supervising from below. He’d wedged his body, supporting the ladder so that his contortions appeared natural, and not his regular, twisted posture. “Thought this’d be an easy job,” he grunted, “specially now with your help.”

“I can’t get in there to disconnect it.”

“Disconnect it? Are you kidding me? I told you! All ya gotta do is yard on it and it’ll come off.”

“But wouldn’t it be better to do it, so it could be… might someday… be reconnected?”

Tom laughed in a few short, phlegmy bursts. “Don’t you worry about that. These are never going back up again. Just see’s ya don’t crack em.” He shook his head and settled back to his hold, bracing the ladder. “But hurry, will ya? I want to get out to that crazy coiler’s and back before dark.”

The kid paused, and the man called up to him, “Come on, use the tool I gave you, then just give it a good yank. There’s no juice left in any of these buildings. Nothin’ll bite ya!”

“I know, I know,” the boy said to himself, not to the man below. Sadly it was true. Very few places had electricity anymore. His ambition was therefore obsolete. He slid his hand out, gripped the edge and tested for any amount of give. Nope. He’d have to do as his new boss said. He reached down to where they’d been placed in the makeshift holster his ma had sewn onto his jeans, converting them from the garb of a student into worker’s pants, one of the last things she’d done for him. He grabbed the cracked rubber-covered handles and drew out garden shears. Ancient and rusted, they looked like they couldn’t cut tall grass, much less shielded electrical wires that once fed power to signs. But they opened and closed with an approximate enough slide of metal on jagged metal.

Stabilizing himself with one hand, with the other he poked the shears into the gap where his fingers had been. He located the wires, like a malevolent surgeon finding the strong, healthy tendons to cut and immobilize. Images from old movies of war-front surgery flashed into his head, not that he’d witnessed in real life, but just movies, like ones that had been available in this very establishment. War gore, or perhaps that story of a climber, arm trapped in a crevasse, dismembering himself to get free. That’s what he had to do to the sign clinging on the side of the building: cut it loose, dropping it to his boss, below. But no freedom came from this severing. His own subsistence, he supposed, since his Ma and sister were gone, and he’d never go back to tech school, now.

He got busy, real busy, shying away from those images, adopted a roughness that was not naturally his when dealing with electricity or tools. All the scavengers did it like that, and now maybe he knew why, now that he was one of them.

Yank, snip, pull, jerk, and then more snips, only they were sawing motions not clean, quick cuts. He could almost feel the building shudder, the sign shriek as he pulled it off its mountings and dropped the letters one by one, as he’d been told to do.?

“Hurry, boy, hurry!” urged Tom as he scuttled between the store face with its now-trembling ladder, and the truck box where he loaded the letters one upon the other, carefully as if they were more than just weathered plastic.

When they finished and packed up, the kid climbed into the box and rode, sitting backwards, pressed against the sign’s letters, all tucked together into the truck that had no tailgate. He sat holding them there, while Tom drove the thing away, heading to the warehouse on the edge of town. He watched the storefront recede, the wires that he’d yanked and cut, hanging loose like drool down the face of the building. He pressed his arms into the plastic letters, cradling them as the truck bumped over the corrugated street.

Face turned away from the shrinking old strip mall, he looked out the side, anywhere but where they’d been plundering the last sign of any kind of commercial life. The truck swerved, avoiding road-holes and ridges of crumbled asphalt. He held onto the shifting letters as if they could make a break out and escape, fling themselves on the road, rather than be carried away like this, sold as captured slaves. That was the fate of all signs and fixtures these days, as the businesses they represented shut down: ripped off buildings and posts, they were transported. It had been more systematic, just after the crash, but now it was getting to be ruthless and very competitive. All that was left were smarmy little painted signs proclaiming “for lease” in letters too small to read from any distance. But that didn’t matter because they didn’t mean it anyway.

The white sides reminded him of those backyard storage tents people used to buy at Costco, stuffed with their over-flowing possessions.

Without the businesses denoted by the signs, their choices were unknown and hidden, therefore restricted. There used to be not just one coffee shop at that mall, the kid remembered, but two; one was expensive and catered to a certain type of person and the other offered fast, good, cheap coffee. Both places had often been lined up out the door. Now any coffee was a luxury in price, usually served by a surly waitress, made by a haphazard cook, and of unreliable quality.

What now were all the buildings that they passed? Where were all the services, the merchants, the possibilities? Everything was temporary and shortages ruled. If you wanted something, you had to spend your time tracking it down, by word of mouth, and usually barter something else to get it. The signs had been the guides; without them, the road was confused and dark and he wondered if it was even worth seeking. That was a mental path he didn’t want to go down. He shifted his attention to the large plastic pieces corralled in his care as they bumped along the track that had once been a highway.

He shuddered in the draft. He hated this new job, would not have taken it, if he’d had any other option. He wanted to stay at the technical school being shop boy, assistant janitor – anything – would have camped on the grounds high on the hill like others of his former classmates, overlooking the trade school, now with bars on its windows, sneaking down to eavesdrop on lectures for the dwindling classes, spy on experiments in the shop lab. Many did that at first, since barely anyone could pay tuition, but now the school was closed, barren of teachers and tools and electricity. And there was not even a sign to tell what it had been.

Of course, he needed to eat. His ma’s friend Tom gave him a job of sorts, being bum boy to the crippled scrounger who’d met his match on some sign, somewhere. Rumor had it he’d tried to pull one off a building before the electricity was dead. They said the power was off, but still it – or something – bit him back, twisting his sinews, burning them, shortening his arms to a curl, his legs to a crawl, so he needed someone to climb the buildings and do his dirty work for him. The boy sighed. At least he didn’t put up the “for lease” signs. That filthy job belonged to the banker’s boys who never had to scramble up the sides of buildings or get their hands into real muck and grease.

Almost all the buildings they passed were darkened. Gone were the welcoming “open” signs, warming the night. Even “closed” signs would have been a comfort, showing something existed to protect and lock up. The light standards stood like empty torches, housing the nests of birds instead of illuminating their way. Traffic sounded like the coughing of decrepit equipment, engines that could barely fire as they made their way to the warehouse of the Old Coiler, Tom’s name for the elderly man who would buy their booty. He knew vaguely what that meant, but didn’t believe in superstitions.

He’d asked Tom what the guy’s real name was, having heard different versions. It depended who you asked. Leonardo. Nikolai. Mr. Dyson. And there were strange tales of the man’s behavior, that he talked to birds, or painted pictures of strange-looking girls, or started fires, or could make the air move without any visible apparatus. Tom just laughed at him.

The Old Coiler’s building, when they finally got to it, lay low against the ground, so wide and long it undulated with the landscape’s curves, seeming to spread out in all directions when you were right up close to it. The white sides reminded him of those backyard storage tents people used to buy at the long defunct Costco store, set up in their back yard, and stuff with their over-flowing possessions. But this was huge, like a carnival or old-fashioned circus tent and much stronger, with a curious metal roof so that it really could have landed there overnight, all in one piece, unfolding, while gently releasing itself down to rest upon the earth, where it anchored and held on as if it had been there for hundreds of years.

Tom backed up the truck to the one set of double doors in the center standing open like an expansive host, receiving in the small crowd of rag and sign men with converted Kabuki cabs, wheel barrows, a few gas-eater vans and rarely, a truck like the one in which the kid crouched with the hoard he held from slipping out. As they backed closer, a single bowl-shaped industrial light that hung from the ceiling above a counter, flickered, making all the faces in its purview appear to be trembling the nearer they came to the tall figure holding court behind the makeshift counter.

Before Tom could yell at him, the kid scuttled forward to the truck’s edge and began to pull out the first of the big yellow and blue letters stacked there side by side, a compressed word that couldn’t be read any longer, as familiar as it had once been to their everyday life. Their previous life, that is, he thought as he pulled out one, then another, and stacked them on the dolly to be wheeled into the warehouse.

Voices of the waiting salvagers around him, murmured.

“No point in having signs if ya can’t light up, can’t even heat the building.”

“And what chance anyone’ll lease those buildings with no light, no heat!”

“Maybe not now, but someday…” Laughter interrupted the man and he quit talking.

The kid tried to listen but the voices ebbed and faded. Tom joined him and the stack of letters, loaded on a dolly. More people lined up behind them. Night was coming on a long day of scavenging and they all wanted to collect what they could and be done. The kid looked up at the building.

“What is it, a museum?”

“More like a graveyard, son,” said a sepulchral voice behind him, but when he turned no one said anything more.

Tom hissed at him. “Your ma promised you’d be no trouble. This crowd will take our bizness, kid, so best you keep your mouth shut. And that goes for when we get to the front of the line.” They inched closer.

The man standing behind the counter must have been tall once, over six feet, but now he was stooped over and ready to bend in half, drawn downward by the loot on the counter. At first the kid thought his eyesight mustn’t be too good, since with every sign placed before him, he reached out a thin bony hand to touch it like he was touching flesh, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, checking to see if they were fattened up yet, or he thought with a sudden pang, like the doctor reaching out to feel for warmth, a pulse, a breath, in his little sister’s body. He shook his head and concentrated on watching the old man, and then noticed that he didn’t actually touch them, just spread his hands out over the signs, palpating something in the air just above the surface.

Growing out of a delicately pink skull, a shock of pure white hair stood up on his head, straight, like he’d been hung by it, or it was made of meringue, stacked and heated to keep its impressive height. He moved his head side to side, contemplating the goods presented for his purchase. His voice was soft but raspy, like a gentle metal file putting the finishing touches on a part that had been machined only roughly.

“The boy is mine,” he said. “He belongs to me.”

The scavenger just ahead of them was presenting an insurance agent’s sign, dignified even while thrown down on the rough counter by grubby hands. Bending over it, the man’s nostrils reacted to some unknown scent, he shook his head over it – seeing what? – till finally he sighed and said, “Okay, I will take it off your hands but you don’t get the premium. It’s a hard one to use, but I’ll help you out, this time.” He wrote on a small chit of paper and waved the guy away. “Lean it over there and take this to my assistant for payment.”

Then he turned to Tom and his stack of large plastic letters. The kid felt a subtle crackle of something in the air, like static. “You’ve got another new boy?” The old man whispered to Tom.? Tom shrugged, and motioned to the kid to lift the signs onto the counter.

They rested in the over-loaded dolly, inert, opaque with no light, no life, disconnected from their meaning and context. The kid held the stack steady while he placed one, the large “B” on the counter in front of the old man.

No one made any sound as he studied it, laying there vulnerable as a naked woman. The kid had a sudden qualm about how he’d ripped this one’s wires off the building. He felt like a murderer forced to bring his victim before the pathologist. When the old man put out his hand, it seemed the fingertips with their slightly bulbous tips, were sentient, and avid to tease out nerve-endings and the hint of any possible life. What traces could he read, the boy wondered. Tom’s black eyes tracked every move. The old man bent over further and sniffed with the immense nostrils of his bony nose, inhaling long and deep whatever it was he could detect. Over each of the letters in succession, his hands traced the same ritual motion, the blue or yellow plastic reflecting up on his skin, then, seeking without touching, sniffing again, he closed his eyes to listen, as if there were a hum just beyond their ken, too high, or too low, the kid couldn’t tell.

On each occasion, the kid wondered: did he imagine there was a flash of light between the man’s hand, with its long fingers, the yellow nails curving down toward the plastic so that they dipped, almost but not quite touching. Was there a flash of connection, some electricity between the fingernails and the gutted fixture, the light that wasn’t connected to anything?

Tom didn’t respond, just looked blandly on. Maybe he didn’t see, but the boy did, or thought he saw. Working his way through the letters, the old man breathed out that he’d “take that one, now let’s have the next one.”

“They’re all from the same building, should be the same, doncha think?” asked Tom.

“Nay,” said the white haired man behind the counter, standing in a pool of light from the fixture above. He looked colorless, the way people do outside at night in the middle of an electrical storm, the lightning stealing their flesh tones making them just light and dark so that he was at times, a negative of himself. His expressions changed and the boy saw them flickering as the light did. Outside, the night deepened. The kid didn’t relish the drive back to the occupied part of town, in the empty truck box, through the dark and nameless streets.

The old man whispered, not taking his eyes off his hands hovering over the last letter of the sign.

“What’s that, boy?”

The boy didn’t know whether he’d heard the sound of the words with his ears, or just the shadow of them in his mind, for Tom didn’t react at all.

“Nothing.” He mumbled.

“You are feeling it, too, aren’t you, hmmm?”

“Uh, I don’t know what you mean.”

“The cry of pain. The creation dying, ripped from its source of life. You feel it, too, don’t you?”

“But I was the one who pulled it off the building!”

“Yes, I know that, but still, you feel it. Unlike this rabble who see only faded plastic, words without meaning, empty ideas; you feel it as surely as if it were your own living body. You feel that which remains.”

The boy didn’t answer. Still, Tom kept his vigilant, but deaf silence, waiting for the final assessment. An exchange must have happened, but without words, more as a wireless transference of thought waves. He tried to stop trembling, then looked up to see Tom watching him closely with a coldness he’d never seen before.

The kid dropped his eyes and his head at the same time. He could feel the old man retreating, and then turn his attention to Tom, who spoke at last.

“So what’ll you give me for it?” his voice loud with bravado.

“I could say ‘nothing, unless I get the boy, too,’ but I know your thoughts on that.”

“The boy is mine. I need the boy. He belongs to me.”

The kid thought he heard a whisper, but couldn’t tell where it came from. “Are you sure?” it breathed, “are you sure?”

Once more the kid felt rather than saw the old man retreat, and shrug.

The boy stood still, leaning against the counter with the signs, stacked once more on the dolly, holding them on. He looked up, past the old man and Tom, his eyes straining to see what was in the building behind them. For the first time, he noticed it was crammed with junked signs and electrical fixtures of all shapes, sizes, materials and descriptions, bursting their high metal shelves, row upon row, stacked higher than he could see without tipping his head back too far on his neck.

“So whadda ya say? You gonna take em?”

“Yes, oh yes.? These’re good ones. Could do a lot with em. Course not while it says “for lease” all over everywhere, but eventually.” He turned away from Tom, ignored the boy, and bent over the counter, writing on another slip of paper. He stared at it for a moment, then slid it across to Tom.

“Is this acceptable?” the old man asked with a hint of a warning to Tom in his voice.

Tom stared, his mouth pulled down, but the boy couldn’t tell if it was an expression of anger, or disbelief. He nodded quickly, twice, his eyes fixed on the paper, not looking up into the man’s face.

“Then have your boy take these carefully to the very back of my warehouse, to the very back, mind. The workshop. He can do that while you cash out.”

Tom hesitated, looked at the signs on the dolly and narrowed his eyes at the boy. “Do as he says, and hurry right back. It’s late. You won’t want to walk back to town in the dark, on your own.”

The boy’s eyes widened as he looked at Tom, and he avoided looking at the old man who spoke to him, in words they all could hear.

“Just keep on going till you find the first empty shelf. It will be a long way, almost to the end, but don’t worry. You will find the right place for these.” He gestured with his long arms, motioning the kid to pass beyond him and into the dim warehouse.

As he passed the old man he thought he heard, “Go have a look in the back, boy, by yourself. Don’t take the rag and bone man. Just go and have a look: creep in quietly and if anyone stops you or asks who let you in, say the old man did.”

“What do I call you?”

The old man cocked a thick white brow upwards, “Name, boy? I need no name.”

The boy shrugged. Seeing the rag and bone, plastic and metal picker shuffling away from them, he turned and trundling the dolly, proceeded gently into the shadows, past the old man, like a flood crawling, or night-time shrinking or day-light growing across the floor. He didn’t want to lose his ride back to town with Tom.

He wheeled his way in. Shelves extended deep into the distance in front of them, and on either side, further than he could see. Not that he was looking side to side. He needed to keep his hands and his eyes on his load and in front of him.

On either side he passed the carcasses of signs, at least that’s how they seemed without their lights, like dead things, not breathing, just waiting, some with just enough light shining occasionally upon them, children whimpering in troubled sleep. Or others with a deep anger at this forced inactivity, that would pounce and claw and bite, if they only could. If only they had power.

The building went on and on, longer than it looked from outside. He could not see the end. It seemed dark before his eyes, but as he went, light blossomed on directly above him, dim and gentle lights, at first, then heating up as they sensed the life there, in him, below them, crawling along the floor of the huge warehouse with his cargo. And when he passed by, the lights faded and he heard them sigh and go out.

He had a sense, from the corners of his sight, that the contents of the shelves were themselves flickering and lighting up randomly as he passed, like candles, or matches or brief shooting stars. But when he looked directly around at the signs on the rows of shelves, they were all darkened, and entombed in dark, as he and others like him had placed them, not so long ago. He trekked onward with his load, deeper and deeper into the recesses of the warehouse. He couldn’t see ahead of himself, and wondered in a panic, “How far does it go? And stopped, turned around to see back to the front counter, the people, the old man, the outside light.

But the outside world had sealed itself off. He couldn’t see where he’d entered. He turned around again and glimpsed a light ahead. Now he had to go on, and trust that when he made his way back along the same aisle, the way would be clear, the door would open for him, as it had closed behind him.

He heard thoughts, as he moved forward. The flashes. Where are they coming from? There’s got to be power getting through to them, somehow, from somewhere. Ah, it’s your imagination. No, it’s not. I can see it, jumping around, from sign to sign. But that’s impossible. Maybe so, but still, it’s happening, like they’re trying to stay lit in here, and there’s no power.

In the flashes, he saw the shelves were like a catalogue of the depression’s recent bankruptcies, names he’d never thought he’d see with their lights out, ripped off the sides of buildings, all that he’d grown up with, had taken for granted, never thought to revere as he did at this moment, for they were comforting: the icons of everyday life. And mingling with his own thoughts, he heard the staticky voice of the old man: “Possibilities, is all, kid, just possibilities.”

Still the contents of the warehouse loomed over and around him, infinite in the dark, stretching for miles outward and upward. It threatened to overcome him with fascination, absorption. But he couldn’t take it all in, and it revealed no answers. Even the question eluded him in the face of all this stuff, this stuff from the way the world had once been. Artifacts, junk, spare parts, samples of technology’s golden years. And his heart beating, the pulse in his veins, electric.

He pushed the dolly faster, through a thousand voices whispering of his abandoned dreams, a thousand ideas, inventions, hypotheses that the rag and bone pickers would plunder and sell for a mere one day’s existence.

Light grew in front of him from some unknown source and he rushed by instinct, plunging through the dark, that lit up at his presence to a single, modest door at the back of the warehouse. It came closer just as the strip mall had receded, as if it were drawing him, not that he was moving toward it. He pushed it open, pushed in the dolly first, the signs with that privilege, in and then, there he was, through that simple, unassuming door, across the threshold to what lay beyond: light that shone as bright as lights used to be in some hospital operating room. But these twitched and flickered, revealing tools and people working on some monolith at the far end of the workshop.

They gathered around, at the base of a tall device, a coil that filled the end of the room, reaching to the ceiling with huge rings of copper. The kid’s hands jerked, and dropped their tight grasp on the dolly handle. His fingertips prickled, but he stood still, unable to move further into the room, or to run out and back to the darkness.

A multitude of tiny flashes shot between the filaments of the coil, and stretched outward toward the watching people. Behind him he felt an answering crackle in the dead signs and light fixtures. All the hairs on his body tingled and straightened in recognition, or was it hope. The device beat and shot lightening as the workers watched their electrical heart laid bare, jumping with motive power. The kid turned back at the acres of slumbering signs, the corpses of past creation, in suspended animation, from where he’d just come. They lit up, momentarily but all at once, alive and glowing in their brilliant colors.

In the sudden dark that was the next heartbeat, he felt his choices, stark, laid out before him.

The dim outline of a worker next to him, turned closer, held out a hand that grasped his in its hot, electric grip. “The old man sent you? Welcome, boy.”

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About Keltie Zubko

Keltie Zubko is a Western Canadian writer who divides her time between Vancouver Island and Alberta. She has an extensive background writing about freedom of speech legal cases, but now prefers to explore our human relationship with technology in her short stories and novels.

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