The City Within
The Book ofGolgonooza
The City Within
The Book of
The City Within
The Book of Golgonooza
The Book of
The City Within by Nathan Batchelor
The City Within
by Nathan Batchelor
The left side of Corpse's body went numb after he landed on his neck, but what he remembered about the moment was not the numbness, but the intense memory of a periwinkle sky he witnessed as a boy of sixteen. For a power bomb, when the other guy picks you up, you're supposed to raise up from the waist so that you land on your back when you get slammed to the mat. But Philosopher hadn't given Corpse time to raise up. There was a pop of neck muscle or tendon when he'd landed. He'd looked up to see a skid mark of his face paint on the mat. The crowd knew something was wrong. Their gasps rattled the turnbuckles of the wrestling ring.
Corpse needed to get out of the match. He whispered to Philosopher. He mouthed words to the referee, Scott.
"I can't feel my fucking arm," he said.
A body slam came after Philosopher picked him up by his hair. His opponent must not have heard him. Then a kick came down on Corpse's neck. A real kick, what the boys in the business called a shoot, a real or unplanned event in a match. Philosopher had heard his plea for help, Corpse realized. But he hadn't cared. He was trying to hurt or kill him.
"Fuck you," Philosopher said.
He spat a big wad of tobacco and snot that hit Corpse's eye, slid behind the contact that colored Corpse's eyes white. Fire radiated across his eye and face. The smell of tooth decay tinged with artificial mint made Corpse retch. A kick parted his lips. A tooth caved inward like a nail hit on the side with a hammer.
There were no words to greet him backstage, just a pair of EMTs that led him to the ambulance. While the ambulance rolled toward the hospital, the EMT put down a notepad in front of him.
"If you could give me an autograph it'd mean a lot," the EMT said.
"What's your boy's name?"
Corpse's whole body seemed to ache when he spoke.
It was rare for him to give an autograph. He was a villain, a heel in wrestling lingo. Fans usually wanted to spit on him, not get his autograph.
"My name's Leon," the EMT said. "I'm training down at the power station."
The power station was the best wrestling school in Georgia. The EMT lifted a sleeve and showed a large purple bruise that snaked around his elbow.
Corpse passed the signed notepad back to him. The signature was chicken scratch. His hand had felt full of sand. "This is for you?"
"Couldn't get the Philosopher's signature. I figured you were the next best thing," Leon said, shrugging. "What would you tell someone trying to get in the business?" he asked.
"Get out while you still can," Corpse said.
At the hospital, after an array of scans and nurses telling him over and over to "be still," and "don't worry," the doctor told him, "The good news is, your neck isn't broken. As far as I can tell, your spine is fine. The numbness seems to be from hitting a spot on your neck that functions sort of like a funny bone."
Yes, the numbness was gone now. But in its place there was a heaviness.
"But I'm afraid I have bad news," the doctor said, taking off his glasses and rubbing them. "You have a city growing inside you."
"Sorry, I misspoke," the doctor said. "It's small now. Huts. People riding horses back and forth. Torches at night. No electricity. It's a village. Not yet a city."
"Horses? Not yet a city?" Corpse said. "I'm sorry. I think you're mistaken."
The man showed Corpse an image in washed-out black and white. There was a wagon trekking across a muddy road. A sun-blasted wooden sign hung crooked from a shop advertising cures for something called The Birdie Sickness.
"That's inside of me? There are people inside me?" Corpse said.
"Of course. Every city has inhabitants. I mean village. Every village has inhabitants," the doctor said.
"How did I get it?" Corpse said.
"Some people have a genetic predisposition. Others, just unlucky." The doctor waved his hand. "The details aren't important. Medical mumbo-jumbo." He offered Corpse two pill bottles.
Corpse waved them off. "Never give a wrestler painkillers."
Many of his friends had popped them by the fistful. More than one of those friends were now dead.
"Only one is a painkiller, and it's mild. The other should rid you of your problem."
Corpse looked again at the image. He was reminded of the sky from his childhood. He'd seen that sky only once, riding home with a friend and his girlfriend. He'd had a beer bottle between his legs. The window of the truck was down, and the cool evening air blasted the hand he held outside the window. There had been so much possibility then.
"I was almost a doctor," Corpse said.
"Oh," the doctor said. "Big step from there to here. You'd think they'd get you to wrestle in a lab coat and scrubs. Not this getup you wear now."
He had tried out a doctor character but found the persona inauthentic. He'd hit the right chord with the Corpse character. Everything about the character felt right, the face makeup that took an hour every night, the jeering from the crowd. What did it mean that playing a dead man felt right?
"Am I okay to wrestle?" Corpse asked.
The doctor stared. "Yes, of course. Why wouldn't you be?"
* * *
Atlanta. A group of homeless huddled like cows beneath an underpass, rain pelting the streets. The MARTA train blasting across the rails. The smell of rainwater seeping in the cracks of the cab's window. The city is a patchwork of cities. Cities whose tarnish have just worn away, exposing the rot beneath. New, beautiful cities blooming between the cracks of the dead and dying ones.
Corpse knew the cities by their inhabitants. An old man without a bottom jaw playing a one-string guitar on a sidewalk. A woman with a humpback, naked except for her neon Nikes giving a blowjob to perhaps the skinniest man he had ever seen. This was a dark city.
The cab left him in a construction lot. He walked toward the black sedan. He felt brand new, likely from the pain killers surging through him. He knew why so many of his friends abused them now.
Sewer steam swirled near sodium lights. The sedan window, black and electric-powered, slid down. The man inside wore black shades.
"Don't tell me you have cold feet," the man said.
"Nothing like that," Corpse said. "I know what's at stake."
"Everything is at stake. The whole world," the man said.
The man's hands moved in the shadows of the car interior. There were long scars between the fingers, as if he'd taken a knife and carved the meat of his hand to make his fingers appear longer. Corpse could see himself in the sunglasses of the man. Traces of paint stained his face. He could never get it all off.
"Are you sick?" the man asked. "Is it cancer?"
"Do I look sick?"
He heard the MARTA train screaming down the tracks. He looked around but didn't see the train. Somewhere a cat hissed in the darkness.
"No, it's nothing like that. What do you want?" the man said.
"I need doctors, the best," Corpse said.
"This is Atlanta. One of the most connected cities in the world. We can fly anyone in."
There was a rattle inside of him. The train felt like it was as close as the sedan. "Do you hear the train?"
"I don't watch for trains," the man said. "I do the accounting."
He seemed to be doing something in the darkness with his hands. Corpse caught sight of a blade.
"You don't look like an accountant," Corpse said.
This was his first meeting with the man. He had spoken to him on the phone after he'd found the note in his locker room that offered a way to take care of your family. Money was hard to come by in the profession. On the road three hundred days of the year. And he'd been in the business so long, there was nothing else for him. Whatever it was, it was framed as a way out. Then after he'd learned what they wanted him to do and after he agreed, he knew he was making the right choice.
"I'm not that kind of accountant."
"Then what kind of accountant are you?" Corpse said.
The drugs in his system were making him brave.
"A different kind. Look, you've got us worrying making us come out here like this," the accountant said. "It'll be simple."
"You still haven't told Philosopher what's happening, have you?" Corpse said.
"Of course not. That's what makes it so good," the accountant said. "That's what makes it art."
* * *
The doctor looked up and down the image. "Certainly. Yes, it's a city now."
"I thought it was a village," Corpse said.
"It used to be a village, but the technology has advanced. There's been a population explosion." He showed Corpse the image. Kids in jeans were jumping rope. Hand-rolling a cigarette, a man seated on a stoop watched cars pass on a road.
"Your city has grown," the doctor continued. "But I can't tell you if it will flounder or flourish."
"Is there any way to stop it?"
"There's a lot we don't understand." The doctor took his glasses off and blew on them. "Just keep taking your medicine."
* * *
"Can I talk to Danny?" Corpse pulled his own hair lump by lump out of the sink drain. It had fallen out when he combed it. When he'd weighed, he was up five pounds, though by his reflection in the locker room mirror, he should be down ten pounds. Were the people inside him using him for energy? He imagined stones being dragged out of a cave, being hauled by hundreds of slaves. It had taken the Egyptians hundreds of years to erect the pyramids. Did the place inside him have its own pyramids? How long had it taken them? And what came after a city? A nation? A world?
"Dad?" Danny's voice was deeper than he remembered. It was perhaps deeper than his own. Corpse wasn't even sure if it was his son's voice.
"Do you need any money?" Corpse said.
"I'm good," Danny said.
"How's school? Eighth grade this year."
"I'm a junior, Dad." His words were flat and did not hold the warmth Corpse thought a son should have for a father. He wondered if Danny had kissed a girl or thrown a punch. Had he been drunk before? Was he a laughing drunk like his dad, or a venomous snake like his grandfather?
"I need you to do me a favor. I need you to look something up for me. A friend of mine is sick. And I'm not good at computer things," Corpse said.
"What kind of sick?"
"There's something growing inside him."
"No," Corpse said. He told Daniel what the doctor had told him. He described the images.
"What was it before it was a village?" Danny asked. "One person?"
Corpse didn't know the word for a place smaller than a village, if there was one. But that's what it must have been, some sort of settlement.
"Something smaller," Corpse said. "But I don't know the word for it. What's smaller than a village?"
"A hamlet," Daniel said.
"A hamlet, I see," Corpse said. "What's bigger than a city?"
"A metropolis. But Google says that if it's that big ..." His son trailed off.
There was the distinct smell of eggs cooking. There was the sound of a lion roaring. These were things from the city within him, he realized.
"What?" Corpse said.
"Hours," Daniel said.
"What do you mean, hours?" Corpse said.
"That's how much time he has left," Daniel said. "He should be in a hospital."
"You know I love you, Daniel?"
* * *
The stadium was packed. There were people standing in the aisles. Signs were raised that read, Put the Corpse back in his grave, and Kill the Corpse. Sparks of fire from Corpse's entrance pyrotechnics danced across his chin. He tried to take in the boos, the insults hurled by teenage boys. This was the last time he'd see and hear the crowd. There was an energy here that he couldn't get anywhere else. There was no high higher than the pop of a crowd.
Losing would be easy. Philosopher was shooting on Corpse from the moment he entered the ring. The punches were real. Corpse's cracked lip and black eye were real. Art and drama were abandoned. Corpse staggered away momentarily, and grabbed at the ref's shirt, before being pulled back.
He heard a train. He imagined it roaring out of the locker room into the ring, smashing into him. Part of him thought it would be a refuge from the punches. He tried to smile. He couldn't ever be the dad Daniel needed, but the money would help. Yes, the money.
Philosopher clotheslined him over the top rope. Corpse smelled things that reminded him of childhood. Water from a hot rubber hose. Fresh cut grass. He couldn't tell what was inside of him from what was outside of him. Philosopher raised a chair high above his head. Smoke rose in front of stars above a river. The fires of some industrial park glowed in the night. The chair came down on Corpse's head.
He heard nothing. He saw nothing. He felt the referee raising his hand, then passing him the belt. He had won. The belt was heavy. But holding it, he felt it didn't belong to him. It belonged to them, to the train that he heard, to the fires that he saw, to the kids splashing in a dollar-store inflatable pool.
"God, what have I done?" he said.
He collapsed. On his back, he saw a woman floating in front of him, white veil over her head, saying, "I do." She was radiant, happier than he'd ever seen someone.
* * *
The room was dark, and he could hear cars whistling by, the laughter of a construction crew behind the beating of a jackhammer. If those sounds were outside or inside, he couldn't tell. Then, staring up at the ceiling, a child on a bicycle pedaled across the popcorn sheetrock. He smelled meat grilling and garbage in the streets. His limbs were heavy. He imagined hundreds of people out in the streets, shoulder to shoulder, looking up into the sky.
"We had a deal," someone was saying. It was the accountant. Corpse raised his head off the table, saw the man sitting in a lacquered wooden chair, his hands covered in blood. Below him, there was a pool of blood.
"Where am I?" Corpse said.
"The city," the accountant said.
"I don't know what happened," Corpse said. It was hard to think. The voices of a hundred people spoke in his head. "I'm sorry."
"You did everything we wanted you to," the man said.
A horn sounded somewhere. Corpse saw a barge moving beneath a bridge. It was inside the man's mouth.
"The ratings were through the roof," the accountant said. "The downloads of the match broke records. We're trending everywhere. Major news outlets have picked up the story. There was a fire in you, in those last moments, something alive that we've never seen before."
"I was supposed to lose," Corpse said. "You said I would only get paid if I lost."
"That's right," the man said. "And you won. You pulled out the victory."
"This whole thing was a work," Corpse said. "He was in on it."
"Of course, we had to tell him. He was upset at first, as a philosopher would be concerning an issue of truth," the accountant said. "Everyone was in on it."
"I'm getting my goddamn money," Corpse said.
"There is no money."
Corpse was suddenly a boy easing a credit card out of a wallet while a man buckled his pants. Corpse could taste what the boy tasted, the salt and sex of the man.
"Here's what's going to happen." The accountant's words brought Corpse back to this reality.
He motioned to a TV above where another man sat. The man's hands were bandaged. Perhaps another accountant, Corpse thought. There was a counter with a box of disposable gloves. I am in some kind of hospital. A promo ran on the television. There was Daniel, crying. There was his ex-wife. There was a body bag being pulled out of a river. There was a picture of Corpse, without makeup, his real name listed below his picture, Ingolf Klump, dates of his birth and yesterday's date.
"You killed me off?" Corpse said.
"The angle is a mob deal turned sour."
The angle was the story presented to the fans.
"You don't work for the mob."
"And you're not a corpse." The accountant looked him over. "Not yet at least."
"What's that supposed to mean? I have a son for Christ's sake."
"Your run is over. You will be given food, drugs, even women if you want."
"You think I'm just gonna sit here?"
The man motioned downward. "You can't move." He took the knife from his hand and pressed the tip of the blade against Corpse's ankle. Blood welled from the cut. He felt nothing. "Part of your disease, your cancer or whatever is wrong with you."
"I want Daniel to get the money."
"I've already told you. There is no money," the accountant said.
"There is money, by God. There's always money," Corpse said.
There was the strength and rage of thousands or millions inside of him. He raised up, the city inside him shifting, nausea rolling over him. His hand caught the accountant's wrist. Wrist bone and tendon cracked. The movement caught the accountant by surprise. But the accountant was a veteran at this work. The butt of a gun cracked against Corpse's nose, warm blood flooding down his face. Then the barrel pressed into his chest. There were two piercing noises. The shockwaves rattled his whole body.
"What is going on?" the man who sat below the TV said. "You weren't supposed to shoot him."
"He broke my fucking wrist," the accountant said. "It wasn't supposed to happen like this."
"Fucker's crazy," the other man said. "Philosopher knocked loose every last marble from his skull. Shoot him."
"I've already shot him twice. You told me I wasn't supposed to," the accountant said. "Christ, I need a hospital."
"We can't go to a hospital, not with your hands."
The sight of the accountant's hands disgusted the other man. Who would do that to themselves?
"Anyway, things are different now," the other man said. "Shoot him again."
Another shot. Corpse's blood scythed across the accountant's shirt.
"Again," the man said.
Corpse's face burned. His vision was cloudy. It took him a moment to realize he'd been shot through the eye and that the white matter splattered across the bedsheet was part of his eye or brain.
He saw a woman raise her hands inside a wooden church. He smelled the peppermint that rattled in her mouth as she choked out a Hallelujah. He smelled the sweat and cologne of the preacher. He felt the stickiness of the lacquered pews on the preacher's palm. One of the gunshots had knocked something loose, some fold of viscera that held the city inside him.
Corpse. A bad father who wanted to make it right with his son. A failed doctor named Ingolf Klump. A wrestler and villain. A man is a patchwork of men. There is something shared between a man and a city.
"I am my own city," he said. "I always was."
It hurt to speak. It hurt more to breathe. But he could leave something for Daniel, he thought, tasting the sand of a baseball diamond, smelling the oiled leather of a new glove. He would do that. He would die, and then do that.
"Usually they talk about light before they die," the accountant said. "Their mothers or their children." He brushed his hand down his shirt, shuddering when his fingertips felt viscera.
"He has a boy," the other man said.
"Had," the accountant said. "A dead man owns nothing."
"A corpse you mean," the other man said.
He took the gun from the accountant and wiped it down with a handkerchief. He checked Corpse's pulse.
"And yes, he's a corpse now," the man said.
"Your jokes aren't appreciated," the accountant said. "Let's get the hell out of here."
"What's the client going to say about this?" the other man said. "We were supposed to let him die from his condition."
"I'll think of something," the accountant said. "Open the door for me."
The accountant froze in the hall.
"Something's wrong. Something's different," he said.
"What do you mean different?" the other man said.
The fire alarm sat slightly higher on the wall. The light switches were a darker shade of gray. They had been partners for near a decade, but there was still the illusion of impressing the other man. You couldn't let your guard down in this profession.
"Nothing," the accountant said.
The other man noticed differences too. In the stairwell, the exit signs glowed in a deeper shade of green. The doors were made of a heavy wood rather than a composite material. He was disappointed at his own lack of attention to detail.
"I don't remember a church being there," he said after they had left the building and stood in the street. "I thought that was a Chinese place. What the fuck is wrong with me today?"
The sun had set, and the sky had turned a periwinkle that gave everything a tinge of incongruity. A pickup truck raced by. When the accountant saw the face of the boy sitting in the passenger seat, he emitted sounds that his partner had never heard. Deep guttural sobs.
The other man was suddenly afraid. The sounds the accountant made were not those of a sad man. They were the cries of a scared one.
"Something's wrong," the other man said, looking up at the sky. "Something's very wrong."