Author's note: This story was written for Girl Friday's Sing Me A Story Festival, involving stories based on songs. This story is based on the song "Mortal City" by Dar Williams.
Special thanks to Friday for creating the Story Fest, and also for editing this story!
She never should have rented this apartment in the Mortal City
The cold comes though every crack she puts her hand up to
The radiator's broken, so she has to use electric heat.
I hurried around the apartment, trying to get everything ready. There just wasn't time, wasn't time. It was nearly five; he was going to be here at 6:30.
My apartment was a freezing cold mess. The damp December weather seemed to be slithering its way inside, rain pelting a drumbeat against my single-pane windows.
I gathered up clothing, books, paperwork, whatever I could carry from the floor of the tiny studio flat, stuffing into the place's only closet. Grabbing a broom, I started sweeping frenetically.
"What was I thinking, doing this? I barely know the guy. Then again, I barely know anyone here," I muttered to myself.
I had moved to the "big city" six months ago to take an entry-level job right out of college. Having lived in a small town and then on a college campus for my whole life, this teeming mass of a city frightened me to death. I hardly left the apartment to do anything but go to work and buy a few bags of groceries.
"What the hell was I thinking?" I wondered again.
And tonight was the first date with the brother of the guy she worked next to
He lived a couple streets away
He listened, he had things to say
She asked him up for dinner sometime
Sometime was tonight
Jim worked in the cubicle next to mine in the accounting department at Huston & Waters. Nice guy. Married, two kids, pictures proudly displayed on his desk like works of art by the old masters.
I got friendly with him the first month or so that I worked there. Partly to have someone to talk to in cubicle hell, and partly because he was married, so I knew he was "safe," so to speak.
After we got to know each other, Jim had started to tell me about his "baby brother" Matt. "You'd like him, Lanie. He's about your age, smart as a whip. When he was in grade school, we were sure he was going to be a rocket scientist or the president or something."
"So what does he do?" I had asked.
Jim frowned. "He's a carpenter. Does repair work for some of the mid-sized landlords in town. Gets free rent at one of the buildings out of it. I try and tell him that he's wasting his talents, but he says it makes him happy. He likes working with his hands."
Finally, I had agreed to meet Matt. He came to lunch with Jim and me one October afternoon.
I instantly liked him. He was sweet, funny, and his relationship with Jim was cute. You could tell Jim was trying so hard to be the "older brother," trying so hard to steer Matt's life for him. Problem was, Matt wasn't listening to any of it. We shared a couple of secret smiles as Jim went on and on about Matt's "potential" and how he was wasting it.
Over the next couple months, Matt and I talked on the phone regularly, but Matt never asked me out. Frustrated, I'd screwed up my courage last week and asked him over for dinner.
And here we are, I thought to myself, sweeping the last of the dust, hair and other detritus into a dustpan. As I packed the cleaning equipment away in the closet, the apartment at least looked presentable. It was the best I could do at this point.
After taking a quick shower and dressing in a simple pair of khaki pants and a blue sweater, I started on dinner. Nothing fancy, just pasta with my mom's homemade marinara sauce, and a Caesar salad I'd picked up from the corner deli.
The rain outside seemed to be hitting the window harder; it sounded like pebbles hitting the glass. With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I realized those were pieces of ice hitting the window. I turned on the radio to find out what was going on.
The radio gave updates on the ice storm while she made the dinner
They said, from all the talk, you shouldn't drive or even walk
And this just in — We're asking everyone to turn off their power
They need it at the hospital.
Several citywide generators had failed, according to the news reports, and there was a danger of brownouts or blackouts at some of the local hospitals.
"Shit," I said, turning off my lights and, unfortunately, the furnace too. Sure, we'd be cold, but how could that compare to someone's life being in danger?
The streetlight outside my kitchen window gave me enough light to see my way around, and I lit a few candles, placing them around the apartment — but nowhere near my gas stove, where the tomato sauce kept bubbling contently. The candles gave a cozy feel to the whole place and would keep Matt from seeing any leftover mess, right?
As the radio DJs droned on and on about the storm, and what roads and bridges were closed, I started to think maybe Matt and I should cancel on tonight. The blaring of horns outside my window made me realize that traffic wasn't going anywhere, so I called him to see if we should just postpone our date.
She ran around pulling plugs, then she called him up
Maybe now they shouldn't meet, he said that he would brave the streets
She met him at the door with a blanket and a candle
Saying, I heard it on the radio, I had to turn my power off.
He said you're not the only one, the streets were dark tonight,
It was like another century
With dim lamps and candles lighting up the icy trees and the clouds and a covered moon.
Matt kicked off his icy boots and left them in the hallway outside my apartment. I handed him a blanket and then, despite the dimness, gave him the grand tour.
The place was nothing more than a single large room, my bed — made for once — pushed up against the far wall. A rickety dining table with three chairs, inherited from my junior-year roommate, was the only other major piece of furniture. The galley kitchen occupied one corner of the space, the tiny green-and-white bathroom next to it.
"Not exactly Buckingham Palace," I said nervously.
"No, but the rent's probably close," Matt said. His grin was adorable and made my stomach flip.
"You should see the place that Waters Realty gives me," he said. "They only give it to me because they couldn't rent it to anyone else. Slanted floors, dripping sinks, and a window that faces a brick wall."
I offered him a glass of wine and to my relief, he accepted, which meant I could have one. I figured the wine would help settle my nerves a bit, and maybe even warm me up.
I gave him the blanket I'd been using, and pulled one of my grandmother's afghans off my bed to wrap around my shoulders. Matt graciously agreed to help me set the table and soon enough we were sitting down to eat.
Nearly everyone in this city had made me feel nervous, feel on edge. They weren't as warm and friendly here as I was used to, and I felt like I had to keep my guard up all the time. But Matt wasn't like that, and I felt myself opening up to him, telling him how much I hated it here.
She said what kind of people make a city
Where you can't see the sky and you can't feel the ground?
I tell you something, I have this feeling that this city's dying
He said, it's not dying it's the people who are dying
She said, yes yes I think the people are dying and nobody cares.
We had all this technology our dreams were bold and vague
And then one city got bad planners, one city got the plague.
I was stunned. He got it, he got me. When I said the city was dying, he didn't laugh at me. He said it seemed like the people were walking around, already dead. I must have stared at him in stunned silence for two entire minutes.
He. Got. It.
Matt continued, telling me about how he was frightened of this city, just like I was, when his family moved here.
"I was thirteen, just about to start the ninth grade," he said. "My dad got transferred, and we left a small town in Iowa to come here. Can you imagine? The tallest buildings I had ever seen in my life were grain silos, and now we were living amongst these concrete and steel giants."
I smiled, picturing Matt as a gawky teenager, his brown eyes staring up at the city's skyscrapers.
He asked why did you move here? She said, for the job
For the job and I've been so lonely here, so lonely
There's no one I can talk to, you know I don't even know your brother.
I felt my throat tighten as I kept talking to Matt, telling him how it was hard for me to make friends, and in this city it seemed impossible. I told him about my freshman year at college, about how I hardly left my dorm room until my suitemates forced me to.
A single tear ran down my cheek as I told him how the cycle was starting again; I was barely leaving this frigid, tiny apartment.
Matt reached over and gently, so gently, brushed the tear aside with the back of his finger. I felt a shiver run down the back of my neck from his touch.
.... There is more of this story ...