Chapter 3 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

On the west side of town, near the Geddes Point subway station, was a house that was commonly referred to as the Asylum. It was a small frame house in a more or less suburban area that was inhabited by a group of artistic souls who had banded together in order to ease the financial burden of Life. The inmates of the Asylum were: Jim, a writer; Bill, an inventor; Suzanne, an actress; Pauline, an artist; Torrence, a cartoonist; and Lynda, a musician.

The building had three floors: the ground floor, the upstairs, and the basement. Jim and Pauline each had rooms on the top floor, the third room there being a bathroom. The ground floor had five rooms: Living room, Kitchen, Bathroom, Lynda's room, and Suzanne's room.

The basement was given over almost entirely to Bill. Most of the space was taken up by his shop, which was cluttered with tools and various raw materials, to say nothing of a large number of incomplete inventions. In one corner was a furnished area, where he relaxed, and off from it were two finished rooms, a bathroom and a chamber little larger than a walk-in closet. The closet was where Bill kept his mattress, and at night he would lock himself in.

The basement bathroom contained the entrance to the last room of the house: the Bomb Shelter. You went in through a secret trapdoor in the floor, and this was where Torrence, the cartoonist, lived. He had managed to fix up the place so that it was quite functional as living quarters. The lead-lined concrete walls, fourteen inches thick, looked fine when covered with wood paneling, and the concrete floor was far less impersonal when covered with thick shag carpet. When he first moved in, Torrence found the place stocked with numerous cannisters of survival food, the "best used by" dates long expired and the containers themselves rusting. These he hauled off to an antique dealer, from whom, via bartering, he'd managed to obtain a large roll top desk. The installation of this, and a fairly shabby couch, into the Fallout Shelter was no easy feat, but once accomplished it made the room quite cozy.

Jim's room, on the top floor, was quite barren. The walls, which had once been a jolly shade of pink, had faded to a dull gray. Their adornments were few: a detailed map of the city and its subway, a color glossy photograph of Jim's parents, and a bulletin board to which was thumbtacked each and every rejection slip that Jim had ever received.

Jim did his writing inside a large walk-in closet. There he kept a desk, around which raged a hurricane of books and papers. When working, Jim would lock himself into his closet. When he had visitors, he kept the closet door shut.

Jim was a man who kept few possessions. His files, containing copies of all of the various things he had written, and his small library of precious books, were all that he truly valued. He was a man who kept his bags half-packed, who did not wish to be burdened by numerous material belongings. Several years of traveling had left their mark on him.

Pauline's room, on the other hand, was one of tremendous clutter. Each day, she brought home various objects that she had obtained, often by rummaging through other people's garbage. "You'd be amazed at what people throw away," she'd proclaim to anyone who seemed interested. The stuff she brought home fell into three basic categories: stuff she herself could use, such as old clothing and the like; stuff she could use as pieces of her sculpture; and stuff she could use as subjects in still life paintings. The room contained boxes and boxes of old things, plus a number of stretched canvases, some blank, some bearing partially completed paintings, and a number of constructions that Pauline liked to think of as sculptures.

Lynda and Suzanne each decorated their ground floor rooms with images that reflected their desired professions. Suzanne's walls were covered with movie posters, tacked up in layers that reflected her most recent genre interests. Since Lynda played the saxophone, her walls bore paintings and posters that featured saxophones. Her bed even had sheets that were decorated with numerous little saxophones.

The four private rooms above ground and the entrance to the basement all had separate-key deadbolt locks, which meant that anything beyond those five doors was considered open territory, a sort of no-man's land. It had become more or less a public place, open to everyone, like the lobby and hallways of an apartment building. The front door was never locked, and bore a small sign that said: "If you're cool, walk in." Because of this casual attitude, a great many people considered the Asylum a home away from home, and a hip place to hang out.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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