When Loren left, he said it wasn’t me but the city. “This place hates me, Julian,” he said of LA. “I have to live in a city that loves me like this shithole loves that douchebag from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” Typically, he buried the casual cruelty under a bad joke, but it was the first crack in a reservoir of obsession he’d kept completely secret. When he abruptly left for Portland, he didn’t ask me to come with him, and I wouldn’t shame myself by following him.
Fast-forward three months: Loren’s parents come to me to find out what happened to him, and I take their money and buy a ticket to fly up there. Even dignity has an expiration date.
Call it morbid curiosity. Call it a need for closure. Call it revenge. Call it anything but what it really was.
I met his mother for brunch in Malibu. Old Hollywood technocrat class—dad a sitcom editor, mom a costume designer for the Disney mill—they wholeheartedly approved of Loren’s sexuality, but they never hid their disdain for his trashy taste in men. When he wanted to be a painter, they sent him to CalArts, and when he refused to produce anything commercial or salable, they let him move back into their compound in Pacific Palisades.
They didn’t even cut him off when he went up north, but within a few weeks of renting a frowsy bungalow in the dingiest corner of Southeast Portland, he stopped drawing on his allowance, picking up his medications from the pharmacy, and answering his phone. Mom kept calling, and once, a month ago, a strange, catatonically high person of indeterminate gender answered and told her Loren gave them his phone at a “potlatch.”
She told me what it was before I could look it up on my phone. “The Pacific Northwest Indians celebrated their material wealth by giving it all away,” she sniffed.
“Crazy,” I said. “Not wanting to be rich, I mean.”
She pursed her lips in an expression her plastic surgeon probably warned her against. Anyway, this person who barely knew Loren told her that he gave away everything at this party. Trashed the place. Invited kids off the street to squat there. “Even you wouldn’t believe the state of it,” she told me. Before they hung up and ripped the phone to a new number, the kid told her that as far as they knew, Loren went to live on the street or, as they put it, to “the Real City.”
I knew she was huffing class resentment to stave off her own self-loathing, so I didn’t poke, no matter how badly I wanted to. They marinated Loren in privilege and were flabbergasted that he’d use it to punish them for the unforgivable sin of bringing him into the world without preparing him for it, that his acting out was the closest thing their son had come so far to expressing love at all.
Local police and FBI failed to do anything about it. The more homeless kids disappeared, they seemed to think, the better. Two private detectives combed Portland’s tent villages and labyrinthine underground for weeks without finding anything she couldn’t learn from home, didn’t bring her anything but excuses to spend more of her money.
So now . . . she was asking me to find him. I’d seen where it was headed when she didn’t just pump me for information. She would pay for my expenses, naturally, but by the flinty gleam, I knew she was banking I’d be cheaper than the detectives and more diligent than the law because I loved her son and because I must know quite a bit about the underside of rocks.
I only said yes, so help me, because I was broke and the gallery was shuttered until the owner got out of a bottomless tax pit—not because I gave a damn what happened to her son or because that gleam in her eye reminded me of him.
One thing that hooked me, but should have made me stay away, was the video.
The second detective promised he’d be able to locate Loren in a matter of days by combing through TriMet and some commercial security video using face-recognition software. It was hideously expensive and produced a slew of false positives but eventually yielded one hit, which she was told was itself strange, but it was all too possible, given the genius of Portland’s homeless for slipping into every crack in the city to get out of the rain.
The video was a month old, and it showed a jittering stick figure on a light rail platform, fighting up the stream of rush-hour foot traffic. Face contorted, the low resolution and frame rate made him jitter across the frame like a whirligig, but it was unmistakably Loren. For one frame, the rolling eyes seem to pin the camera defiantly, to silently condemn and cry for help. You could dig up an unmarked grave and show me a dirt-clotted skull, and I’d recognize that smile.
His mother paused the video on his face and bolted down half her mimosa before she continued. It had to be some kind of prank, she said. The detective couldn’t explain it as glibly as he had Loren’s popping up out of nowhere, but she knew it couldn’t be true. I had to ask her what she meant three times before she fumbled her way to the Play button.
Loren’s manic rictus shrivels as he breaks the camera’s gaze and throws his arms around a short, skinny person with a shaved head, hard enough to make me twitch with jealousy. He windmills his arms so furiously that the sleepwalking commuters fall over each other to give him a wide berth. His arms go down to his sides, he tucks his head with the steely focus of a gymnast sizing up a pommel horse, and he runs and leaps off the platform into the path of the train, screaming into the station.
There were no suicides or accidental deaths on the TriMet red line train or on any other MAX line that day, that week, or that year. Unlike the lethal meatplows beneath New York and Los Angeles, the MAX trains were like cuddly plush toys that made it almost impossible to get seriously injured. The city said the video was a hoax when she showed it to them, and though it wasn’t doctored, they quietly threatened to sue her if she didn’t keep it to herself.
So she fired the detective, and after fighting several times with her husband, she called me.
• • • •
Loren always insisted the absence of seasons was why everyone in California acted like they did. A little seasonal depression was essential for healthy human development.
Portland was one big seasonal depression support group. Since nearly every day was cold, wet, and miserable, there was a muted patience and sweetness, a sly acceptance of whatever it took to get through the colder, wetter nights, and a winking shared knowledge of some unnamable factor that made it all worth it.
It was supposed to be spring in Portland, but even when the sun came out, it was pale and weak as a stepfather’s love, with deep-blue vampire shadows you could still freeze to death in.
Perhaps a lifetime of learning geography from wall-mounted maps had ingrained in me a sense of the Pacific coast as a vertical surface, a continuous climb from the slough of Southern California to the foggy heights of Oregon and Washington. Even after weeks in Portland, I never lost that queasy vertigo sense that one false step would send me tumbling south, all the way back to where I belonged.
It should have been easy to find him. Compared to LA, Portland was a baby city, a bunch of parks and absent-minded grid-sprawl you could see from one end to the other even as the plane circled the airport. If Loren was missing, it was because he wanted to be.
But then you set foot on the street, and you fight to keep from turning a reflexive, protective blind eye to the city within the city. Blink and it’s gone, lost in that flicker between blackness and sight.
Hollywood has its infamous locust hordes who come to be discovered but end up turning tricks in hour-rate motels, shinnying up stripper poles, and sleeping in campers or under bridges, but the climate is forgiving, even if the city is not. The dream is real and alive even if it might as well be on another planet. You could at least understand why so many come and stay to be eaten alive.
But why did they come here? The weather wept, and the streets buckled and broke under their own weight. Bloating woodwork, swelling moss and mushrooms, and eroding bricks. Hillsides strewn with tents and trash, begging bowls and incoherent cardboard epitaphs, shivering with the soul-sapping chill under every bus shelter—these uninvited pilgrims come to witness a miracle they could not begin to describe, numbered in the tens of thousands on top of the old, infirm, alcoholic, mentally ill, unwanted, superfluous citizens trapped there by birth, all here to feed themselves to a fiery dream of a new utopia that burned all the brighter for the certainty that it existed nowhere on this Earth, that the dreams of those manicured yuppie houses in the nice neighborhoods were some kind of lure like the glowing bit on a deep-sea predator’s snout.
I couldn’t begin to understand how Loren could want to lose himself among them, but to an artist addicted to hopelessness and doom, they must have attracted and inspired him as powerfully as whatever it was that kept them here.
Loren’s last known address off Burnside was being remodeled, and the new occupants wouldn’t let me see it, so I wandered the neighborhood, showing Loren’s picture to anyone on the street, offering them money. I gave a lot of it away but got nowhere.
I ate breakfast at a place that only served biscuits and thirty flavors of gravy, bought vetiver and rhubarb essence at a Goth aromatherapy boutique called Euphobia, and ate sundew salad at a vegan café that only served carnivorous plants. Everything I saw, I imagined him mocking it as I searched every passing face pushing a shopping cart.
In a coffeeshop twelve blocks away, I stopped to order a mocha when I chanced to look at the art on the walls. Like every café in the area, they were crowded with borderline amateur paintings and photography by local artists with hilarious price tags, but looking at the series beside the register, I got a weird rush of familiarity.
The pics were of a demolished house, poorly lighted attempts to make abstract textures out of the damage, with craters kicked in drywall and slogans scrawled in spray paint and blown out until they were satellite imagery of an utterly digested landscape. The words metamorphosis, dream, and reality, before and after . . . appeared over and over . . . and always surrounded by a pink corona like a halo of worms—“The Really Real” . . . and “The Sister City.” And everywhere, a black squiggle like a question mark clutching a staring, lidless eye.
“Yeah, Topher took those,” the cashier said in response to my staring. “Squat house down the block. Street kids threw a rager there. My housemate got a sweet egg chair out of it . . .”
I went to the men’s room. It had a poster from The Cars That Ate Paris, a diorama of half-melted vintage action figures, and an empty crimson square on the peeling purple wall with a grubby paper caption taped nearby that read, Unknown, Metrocorpus IX (Julian), oil on canvas, $75.
My hands shook so bad I pissed on my shoes. I washed up and pulled my sweater up over my shoulders, turned around to look at the tattoo I’d gotten right before Loren left LA.
It was lifted directly from my favorite of his paintings, from the one that had until recently hung on this wall. I rolled my shoulders to make the spiny, leech-like creature curled around a staring hazel eye seem to undulate under my skin. I’d hoped Loren would feel inspired by it, but he dismissed me as one more canvas he couldn’t bear to look at and asked me to keep my shirt on in the future.
Thankful as always that I wasn’t in North Carolina, I nerved myself up to go look in the women’s room. The decor was similar, and between posters for Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Exterminating Angel, a small, unframed canvas hung on the wall. The caption said, Unknown, Metrocorpus IX (Julian), oil on canvas, $75. The abstract bramble of nested translucent forms was mostly the rosy pink of blood-flushed tissue, tessellated organic shapes that could be sexual organs or the topography of a mammoth organic landscape. Branching hairs suggested veins and arteries or bridges, causeways, and castles. The small canvas had a catalog sticker on the back from Morphos Gallery with a phone number.
I ran outside into a downpour, like waves crashing down on your head, and nearly crashed into a naked guy.
Without looking at him, I apologized and walked down the street holding the painting to my chest to keep the rain off it when I realized he was following me.
The guy stood a good head and a half taller than me. He staggered, growling and red with road rash like he’d just been thrown from a moving car. He was completely naked, except for a white gym sock on his left foot. A passing car splashed him, and he nearly veered off the curb to chase it but turned to challenge me. When I foolishly made eye contact, he charged, holding something out in front of him in both hands.
I turned to run and hit a traffic signpost hard enough to make it sing. I staggered backward into the path of the naked man.
He stopped me from falling in the street and gently draped something over my shoulders. I jerked away involuntarily, my fight or flight instincts flying right out of my head. It was a thick overcoat, raindrops streaming off its waterproof shell, the lining warm and dry, but in my terror, I thrashed out of it. He turned like a matador and threw it over the next person walking down the street, a slight, short woman with purple hair staring into her phone and smoking furiously. She accepted the overcoat as her due and kept walking.
I was thoroughly dumbstruck, and it dawned on me that I recognized the beatific vacancy in his smile. Before I could stop him, before I could frame the words, he threw his arms out and leapt into traffic.
I thought because of this that I was hot on the trail, that this was the city pushing back, but perhaps, if I was not trying to be a real detective, I would have recognized that this was just Loren, saying goodbye.
• • • •
The last time I saw Loren was on a rare rainy Sunday in LA after his last show at the gallery. We collected the uneaten sandwiches and hors d’oeuvres and took them down to an impromptu campground near the Echoplex. The city wouldn’t tolerate anything that looked like a dwelling in plain sight, but the gaggle of shamefaced people huddled under tarps stretched between shopping carts and wheelchairs had lived there for months.
Loren offered them the food. “Nobody else even sees them,” he said.
“That’s a survival reflex. You couldn’t help more than a few of them without going hungry yourself. And what if they don’t deserve it?”
I don’t know why I was taking up his parents’ bullshit arguments against him. Maybe because fighting with him was the only way to get a response at all.
“I’ve seen the people at the top,” he said. “Seen what it takes to get there and stay there. Trust me, they don’t deserve what they have . . .”
He finished distributing the sandwiches and finally let me drag him away. I needled, “Do you feel any less guilty?”
“Do you?” he asked.
He asked to see my wallet. I took it out without thinking, and he walked over to an odd patch of dry pavement beside the curb. He took out some cash and held it out to the knife-bright wind. It disappeared, but the wind didn’t take it.
He came back over and handed me my wallet, several dollars lighter. I started to yell at him, but for just a moment, staring at that spot where he’d given away my money, I could see something stopping the rain, something that almost had a face.
In the car, I told him to quit clowning and give me my money, I didn’t have parents to replace it for me. He sighed like I’d missed the whole point. “You don’t see them,” he said. “Not the ones who really need help.”
He must have been right because I didn’t see him again after that day either.
• • • •
It took Loren’s mother another month before she withdrew her support. An angry message told me she hadn’t hired me as a surrogate trust-fund brat, and if I didn’t intend to produce results, I could shift for myself. By that time, I had already stopped spending her money after splurging on a new laptop and an ancient Volvo station wagon. If I was going to find Loren, I wouldn’t need it; I would never even perceive him if I didn’t reject it. I wasn’t trying to find her for him anyway.
He had vanished like a raindrop in a puddle, but he left ripples. I tried everything I could to trace them, working at coffee shops and pizza parlors and volunteering at halfway houses, but no matter how many free slices and mochas I dished out, no matter how patient I was listening to anything a street person cared to share with me—and they love to talk once they know someone’s really listening, and for much of their day, they have nothing to do but talk, if only to themselves—but there are things nobody who has never slept rough can ever truly know. Even if we ask.
There was no weird conspiratorial vibe when they shrugged off your questions, but the eyes always went glassy when you asked about a particular person or about how they lived, that was deeper than shame, or if you asked about the striking surge in the numbers of the mentally ill, even if you heard them tell each other constantly that there were more and more checked-out basket-cases among them, and most weren’t like that before they came here.
There may not have been any suicides on the TriMet lines, but there had been an obvious spike in overdoses, bridge dives, and hit-and-run accidents where the victims were homeless and couldn’t account for their actions. You heard kids share stories about friends committed and diagnosed with exotic brain dysfunctions only to be turned out on the street by an overloaded social care system, about friends vanishing for days on end and returning with no memory of their whereabouts but with weird new second-hand habits and patchwork personalities, about weird incidents like when a vegan hippie who overdosed on Fentanyl came to and sucked her boyfriend’s eye out of his face before running into freeway traffic. They were superstitiously afraid of talking about this shit with outsiders unless you provoked them—by speculating, for instance, that it must be a dangerous new drug.
“It’s not a drug that’s got ’em so fucked up,” a toothless young lady told me on Hawthorne as she ran off with my last few cigarettes. “It’s the dream.”
I had made a lot of friends and started to feel like a welcome guest, if not a part of the city, so long as I kept my mouth shut about being from California. But after talking to hundreds of people—kids younger than me, refugees from culture wars, burnouts who’d licked sin’s ashtray and never quite recovered, hippies for whom homelessness was just an endless folk festival, and so, so many decent, normal people that society had no use for, just hanging on and hoping it wouldn’t get worse when it had never gotten better—I never got any closer to Loren.
The solution, when it came, might have been sent by the same agency that delivered the image of him jumping in front of the train. It was so obvious, I should have seen it the first day.
I lost my job and couldn’t find another one. The following week, I got kicked out of my apartment and overnight found myself sleeping in the Volvo. By then, I knew all the seldom-patrolled dead-end streets, all the parks and backwater neighborhoods where the residents didn’t call the cops at first sight of someone sleeping in their car.
It all happened so fast; it was like being swallowed and eaten alive. I had been living in my car for a couple days before the shock wore off. But even when my car was towed and I took to the streets with a dome tent and sleeping bag bought with the last of Loren’s family’s guilt funds, it took weeks before anyone believed me enough to tell me about the Dream of the Sister City.
If it wasn’t what brought them here in the tens of thousands, it was still spoken of in enough halfway houses and bus shelters to feed a myth that plagued seekers after stranger visions than those the mainstream faithful sought at Sedona or Kathmandu, stranger miracles than could be had at Lourdes or Graceland, and it was what made so many of them stay long after the city had decisively spit them out.
They talked about it in haunted stage whispers. For each, it was different in its particulars but so uniform in its qualities, in the ineffable nature of the true experience, in its superior clarity that made waking reality seem like a faded filmstrip projected in a well-lighted room, that you knew it was not a dream they were talking about but the Dream.
Arguments raged about every aspect of it, from how and where to sleep to make it come to what it meant and which was the true Dream. Some people dreamt it their first night on the street and never again. Others who’d lived on the streets for years didn’t believe in it until it came for them once in drug-deep sleep and left them chasing it forever after. Some claimed it only found them when they were dead drunk or stoned while straight-edge fanatics swore that any drugs at all prevented a true visitation.
I soaked up every tidbit I could ferret out or eavesdrop on. I ditched alcohol, meat, my phone, all contacts or memories from my old city, my name. I stopped bathing and started smoking pot, panhandling, foraging from dumpsters, letting whoever I was with name me, so I was a reflection of the City to my peers and invisible to everyone else.
What was known and accepted was that it only came to those whom surface reality had abandoned or cast out, a secret frequency only perceptible to those who’d tuned out the city’s fake dream of a perfect world you could buy, marry, fuck, or kill your way into, only to those who slept in the streets and parks in the cold, naked embrace of the really real, who lived or died by its mercy.
In the Dream, you walk the streets of the Sister City. Sunlight poured like wine through gorgeous blown-glass towers and tree-temples, grown rather than hewn, in an eternal Maxfield Parrish afternoon. Tiny shops gave away miracles, libraries creaked with doors to deeper dreams, museums cluttered with everything not yet invented or imagined, galleries of blank canvases exploded with the contents of your imagination the moment you walked in.
Everyone had a memory palace for a home—a museum of self, limited only by the imagination that furnished it. Or they lived on the infinitely hospitable street, drifting from one generous gourmet cart to the next, idling in beer gardens and vineyards, arcades and cafés, botanical gardens and patches of untamed wilderness teeming with gentle wild animals; chasing parades and carnival processions and fanciful phantoms in need of rescue or ravishing; riding gondolas across glassy azure canals fringed with the minarets of pleasure palaces, meditation temples, hanging gardens, and mercurial follies that melted or mutated into ever-stranger forms when you stared at them; or flying like kites high above it all, and somehow you knew that if you wanted to join them, all you had to do was climb to the top of one of the iridescent spires and jump into the wind.
Always the arguments over details and geography, but always left unsaid the certainty that it wasn’t something from their subconscious, that it persisted when they woke up with eyes gummed shut and cheeks encrusted with happy tears, that it was more than merely real, that it was somehow the real face of their city, the true essence, open only to those who had nothing else.
Even when you could get someone talking about the Dream, they would clam up if you tried to connect it to the incidents, the disappearances. Those people were fucked up on some new drug. Those people were doing it wrong. Those people weren’t what the Sister City wanted, so they fried out. They slurred the ones who never came back from wherever their dreams took them as cotards, without knowing what it meant or where it came from.
And even when you’d pulled a dumpster run with someone to steal rubbery potstickers and rancid rice for a late night snack, they would just walk away if you pressed them about Ovid and Circe Crawley.
Portland’s answer to Peggy Guggenheim, Circe Brewer used the last of her family’s timber fortune to bankroll a series of storefront art galleries and ill-advised forays into radical street art that led her to Ovid Crawley.
A notorious local poet and performance artist, Ovid Crawley captivated Circe and offered a way to burn her upper-class peers and cement her legend, through him and her abiding obsession with the young homeless community of Portland.
While they lavishly supported soup kitchens, fundraiser concerts, libraries, art and education programs, and even mobile showers and a free barbershop for the homeless community, they moved into a three-story loft downtown that soon became a clearing house for parties, drug abuse, and orgies involving intoxicated minors. Police were called by neighbors to clean up after fights, overdoses, and confrontational art installations like enormous quantities of spoiled meat assembled into a church.
While they reveled for years in their scandalous lifestyle, the local scene eventually saw the sexually omnivorous Crawleys as perverted poseurs and users who exploited homeless youth without trying to get them off the streets at all. Indeed, Ovid preached that the homeless were Brahmins, the soul of the sister city, and must be protected from the system rather than absorbed back into it.
One by one, their venues and parties shut down. The last, Morphos Gallery, was replaced with a sensory-deprivation tank salon only a week before I arrived in town. The faded flyers for the last show still littered the cobweb-strewn atrium of the new salon—Dream of The Sister City, slated to premiere a few days after their closure, presumably would have featured the work I’d stolen from the coffeeshop.
Street rumor had it that the Crawleys had gone underground, themselves now homeless and squatting on their own foreclosed properties, but anyone who still hung with them was forbidden to associate with outsiders, which gave it the mystique of a cult. And the seekers most consumed with the pursuit of the Dream tended to be those who ran with the Crawleys.
I slept in parks and under overpasses. I cadged spare change outside Powell’s. I ate unfinished breakfasts out of trashcans. I hooked up with younger men, older men, and even a couple women when it was really cold and the loneliness was more than I could take. I disappeared from the sight of normal people, slowly became invisible. While I never remembered my dreams, I began to wake up to my leaky tent sagging under a torrent with a formless feeling of having just been somewhere wonderful.
I asked only the ones I felt I could trust about the Crawleys and still lost more friends than I made. I never found anyone who supported them, but the rest were too afraid even to admit there was anything to be afraid of. But finally, I found a kid who told me that there was a park in St. Johns where some said you could catch the Dream any night of the year that the moon was visible. He was no more specific than that, but I had nothing but time and the rains had finally tapered off, so I camped in every park in the north end of town until I found it.
Every tree in the park and the surrounding street was in feverish full bloom, petals like carpets of cotton candy and sherbet in the gutters, musky sick-sweet perfume of tree-semen so thick it congealed in a paste on your palate.
A caravan of battered, moss-infested campers lined the back of the park and dirtbag nomads squatted over a latrine trench they’d dug in the bushes. A little girl threw a tantrum outside a camper over a kite tangled in a nearby tree. Someone inside hollered back, “You climb up and get it. You still got toes . . .”
A guy stood on a picnic table, shouting at a slouching crowd of losers sharing a bottle of Boone’s Farm. He wore a spotless white shirt and white pants in a place where such clothing, without stains or soil from work, were a miracle. His shirt shouted, IF YOU DON’T LIKE THE PROGRAM, CHANGE THE DAMN CHANNEL.
He shouted, “The Sister City remains invisible because it requires new eyes, but who will make it see itself?” A few disaffected high school kids heckled him, but a fringe of random people in telltale grimy clothes several layers too thick for the rare sunny weather nodded vigorously as he shouted.
An old man in a thrift store’s worth of raincoats sat at the picnic table across from the playground, hunched over in miserable contemplation of the trash between his mismatched sandals. Cars and trucks cruised up and parked on the potholed dirt road backing the park, waiting for childlike women to come out of the bushes to take them around the world. I wondered if any of them were visible to the snarl of rush-hour traffic creeping past on Fessenden, if I was visible even to them.
No one protested as I pitched my tent and unrolled my sleeping bag, ate leftovers scrounged from behind the taqueria down the street, studiously avoided looking at the other squatters setting up their own miserable camps beside mine, and waited for the moon to come up.
I drifted off to sleep listening to the traffic and the cackling of middle school kids sharing some truly deadly sativa on the playground.
And I went there.
The tent had become a gigantic lotus flower on a lily pad adrift on a burgundy lake. Musical swarms of chirping tropical fish burst from trees like towers of coral as the first rays of wine-thick moonglow peered through the jeweled domes and crystal spires that fractured them into a shower of kaleidoscopic light. On the great lawn where the playground had been, a pavilion spread out under firefly lanterns, teeming with acrobats, jugglers, and floral displays dripping with gemstone fruits and sultry perfume. Translucent crowds of robed and crowned sightseers gathered round an exhibit, their bubbling awe and appreciation competing with the flying fish.
The lily pad meandered to the shore, and I stepped off it to float among them, conscious of piercing stares prickling my skin, of waves of whispers at my back as I pressed through the crowd to face the object of their adoration.
A painting glistened, the pigments still wet, the canvas a pale skin stretched on a frame of bone. The subject was me.
I lay paralyzed in my clammy sleeping bag, swimming in sweat. Fingers of milk-pale daylight combed the grass. A camper peeled out of the parking lot, leaving a child wailing like an air raid siren at the curb. A small mushroom village of tents had sprung up around me while I was asleep. A woman in a parka held together with duck tape screamed, “You don’t know the difference between real and lies anymore,” at a shell-shocked man pushing a shopping cart overflowing with books in tattered trash bags. “We can’t live in a lie!”
The hunchback in the raincoats backed out of the sagging Coleman pup tent next to mine, dragging a sleeping man out by his ankles. As I watched, he rolled the man onto a low gurney and wheeled him across the lawn and the unimproved road to a ruin of a house almost swallowed by trees at the back of the park.
I struggled with my own limbs, heavy and foreign, and after maybe an hour I crawled out of the tent. No one else was awake, no one else saw what happened.
The towering five-story oaks bordering the park loomed over it like a green tidal wave poised to crush it or forcefully trying to hide it from the sky. The deep, shaggy thicket of the yard was a riot of flowers, completely obscuring the flagstone path across the long-gone lawn. A dead tree overrun with vines studded with coral-pink buds that dangled down to brush the ground formed a semi-private bower where two naked people of indeterminate age and gender listlessly coupled on a bed of crushed comfrey.
It was the kind of house somebody probably ordered from a Sears & Roebuck catalog a hundred years ago, but the warranty had long since expired. Something shaped like a man sat and smoked and watched me from the green nest of the porch, curtained off by spills of vine thick as garden hoses.
Blackberry and wisteria and more aggressive and exotic weed species scaled the walls and slowly pried off the Masonite siding, ripped down the fern-clotted rain gutter, and made inroads to conquering the sunken, mossy meadow of the steeply pitched roof as if the undergrowth had been tasked with razing the house to its foundations for some unspeakable offense against the fundamental laws of nature.
As I approached, the man on the porch retreated inside and slammed the door, but leaves and moldy newspapers kept it open. I hesitated before climbing onto the porch, noticed the light from the recessed windows set into the foundation. I climbed the stairs and forced the door wide enough to squeeze into a ruined room.
Black mold spewed across the ceiling wherever rats did not brazenly watch from gaping holes admitting on the attic. The floor buckled underfoot, curled tiles skidding away like stingrays from my creeping feet. Circling round a sunken spot in the demolished kitchen, I pushed open another trash-clogged door and went down the basement stairs.
The basement was lit only by a dim green light that spilled over a labyrinth of bodies. Pale, naked skin on rows of cots and inflatable mattresses, some with IV tubes snaking into arms and necks.
“They die if someone don’t care for them,” a voice like steel wool on silk said in my ear. I turned with my hands up in surrender, knowing it would be the man in the raincoats and knowing he was Ovid Crawley.
“They’re lost in the Dream,” I said, and he shook his head.
“If it’s just a dream, go show me proof that all this”—he waved contemptuously at the world—“isn’t just a nightmare.”
I said, “I’ve been there. I was there last night.”
“You’ve never been anywhere but your own head, boy.” He grimaced and gurned gray, toothless gums. Bloodshot eyes, like dirty pearls, and long, matted yellow-white hair like the roots of some poison plant. “If you’d been to the Sister City, if you saw it as it really is, you’d never come back.”
He took my arm, tugging me back upstairs. I offered to clean, to help take care of them, anything, if he could tell me what became of Loren Estes. He shook his head like a man for whom all names meant nothing, but he told me about the dreamers in the basement, and he let me help for a while.
The first, worst cases were committed to state homes and diagnosed with Cotard’s Syndrome, a brain dysfunction that left them unaware of, or unable to operate, their own bodies, but this was missing the point. A few who managed to get PET scans before they were discharged for inability to pay showed enlarged pineal glands and severe parietal lesions, leading to identity and memory disorders but also to strange new perceptions. Some of them could see into the Dream while awake. Bad things happened to sleepwalkers. Some stayed away so long that the Dream took over their uninhabited bodies.
“Nobody can face the Sister City in its true form. Even the seekers only perceive it through a stack of illusions because to see what it really is you have to face what you really are.”
I told him I was ready, and he spat in the air, caught it on his own face, smiling like it was the kiss of the sea. “You’re not ready, but she’s hungry, so I’ll give you to her, and she’ll let me alone.”
I asked if he meant to give me to the Sister City.
“No,” he laughed until blood vessels burst in his nose and cheeks. “I’m giving you to my wife.”
• • • •
TOXIC HUMAN DUMP, said the graffiti sprayed on the faded official warning signs on the cyclone fence around the old Portland Gas & Coke Plant. The hulking Gothic Revival ruin was impregnated with asbestos, and the soil was inundated with petroleum byproducts, and the water of the nearby Willamette was rife with PCBs and DDT, the whole coastline branded as one of the biggest and worst Superfund sites in North America, so it was the perfect place for a rogue artists’ collective. The sun wilted behind the shaggy green hills, and oily shadows seeped up out of the sour ground.
Ovid Crawley dropped me off at a rip in the fence in an ancient ice cream truck, offered me a surgical mask.
They were waiting on the other side to take me in. They ignored my words, pinned me down, and took my shoes, my clothes. When I shivered naked in front of them, someone traced the lines of my tattoo on my back, and I was allowed to stay.
I was kept in a closet, fed moldy bread and river water for I don’t know how long. I didn’t care, I didn’t keep track, because in between freezing, vomiting interludes of unwelcome wakefulness, I walked the streets of the Sister City.
Until one time when I woke to find them standing over me. I recognized the intense bald woman from the TriMet security video. With eager eyes, she searched me as a gang of hairless girl-boys presented and cavity-searched me.
“If you came to take him away,” she said, “we’ll feed you to the river.”
I told her I didn’t want to take him away. I only wanted to see him, to be with him. They half-dragged, half-carried me up four flights of stairs, out of the basement and through cavernous rooms with bolts and amputated struts where all the coal-burning apparatus once stood, dragged me up stairs like a ladder into the cupola on the roof, like a belltower, a studio with a breathtaking panopticon view of all of North Portland across the river, the forbidding mountains of Forest Park, the green soapstone sentinel of the St. Johns Bridge, and in the distance, the ghostly snowcapped fang of Mount Hood suspended on the eastern horizon.
I had eyes for none of it just then. For I had found him.
He stood shaking, naked, painting. The canvas was half-again his height, and he stood on a ladder. The subject might have been a pornographic landscape or a panoramic vista of some monstrous god’s half-flaccid genitalia. The brush strokes were crude, impasto scabs of layered oils littering the image like a malignant aura, but through it, I saw something I recognized . . . a lake, a lily pad, a pavilion, a staring hazel eye enthroned on an altar and suckling an eyeless army of starving larvae . . .
He turned and blinked those maddening hazel eyes at me, and something like a smile pinched his face. He did not recognize me, and in those eyes, I saw no sign of Loren Estes.
Of course it wasn’t him, Circe Crawley told me. Loren was the deepest Dreamer she’d ever seen. He would stay under for days on end and emerge with the most remarkable work, but under her wing, he went to sleep for weeks. He sleepwalked, even threw himself in front of a train once, but when someone thought to confine him up here and give him supplies, he began to paint.
The paintings in and all over the walls of the cupola studio turned Loren’s old work inside out, depicting with a crude literalism what he had painfully forced out in expressionistic fits when he could withstand going off his meds. It was as if someone else was painting Loren’s nightmares, someone who had not only seen them but could claim citizenship inside them.
Loren’s sleepwalking series was highly sought after by private, subterranean collectors who would pay anything for them because it was as close as anyone who hoped to cling to some shred of sanity could come to seeing the true Sister City.
She said some people think it’s the collective memory palace of the city, if not all mankind. The people who wander its streets were the homeless, and the people who lived and worked and sold their souls to the city were its bricks, its buildings and trees and books. Some thought it was a Platonic trip into the sphere of ideals, the archetypal city. Some were even dumb enough to believe it was heaven. But they were wrong.
The Sister City is a sleeping god, aloof of all attempts to awaken it. An unknowable other, dreaming its own dreams, and those who shared the Dream of it little more than bacteria at play in the fields of its flesh.
She had commissioned Loren to paint its portrait, but now she liked the one who’d take his place better.
But where is he, I demanded to know. I begged her to wake him up just long enough for him to see me.
Go and find him yourself, she said. Someone pressed a rag reeking of ether over my mouth, and someone else pinned my arms for a third someone to tie them down as Loren’s body came shuffling over, brush and cock equally engorged and shiny with crimson paint.
• • • •
I understand now why they couldn’t operate their own bodies properly after waking up. After taking a body in the Sister City—the true Sister City with all its illusions stripped away—it’s not that the human form is so difficult to operate so much as returning to it is like being buried in a cage of bone, an avalanche of unwelcome sensation, a nightmare of nerves. All that unnecessary complexity, all that evolution to create so much misery . . .
The Sister City could be all we know of God, that other we feel in the back of our minds, in dreams and visions when we are all but unmoored from the illusions of this world. It could be the sum of us, the integrated, unruly hivemind of humankind, but what to make of us, we uninvited parasites who crawl and feed upon it?
In the form of a flatworm infested with a rash of exquisitely sensitive eyes, on a foot that was also a tongue, I crawled across a sea of shit and a world of hurt to find him.
Across monstrous plains of inflamed epidermis, gasping, cavernous pores clogged with flukeworm winos, runaway teenaged amoebae, and schizophrenic fungi. I had no doubt that the parasitic fauna of the Sister City had something like intelligence, even some vestigial self-awareness, for I had seen one painting with my lover’s hand. But we were making them into ourselves with those infections of eyes and other sensory apparatus, though not one in a hundred saw the world they inhabited as it really is.
In recesses where the landscape was utterly engulfed by torpid swarms of parasites, I crawled among them, vaguely sensing the humanity in the ones I ate and the ones that tried to eat me. As I bored through the hermetic membrane of a Canadian woman named Libby MacEachern, I swallowed her spicy cytoplasm along with commingled memories of Providence Hospital emergency room and exploring a museum of dolls while riding the back of a giant cat in the Sister City.
I gorged myself on the mitochondrial ghost of a young man named Dylan Martin, a Californian beloved by friends for his sense of humor but never to be trusted with animals, laid low by Rohypnol in his drink at a bar only to wander an infinite library in pursuit of the most beautiful song he’d ever heard and convinced he’d nearly found it when I sheared him open and consumed his nucleus.
The crushing guilt I felt over devouring them was nothing to the agony of hunger, the ache of loneliness that made even the fleeting contact of predation seem like the promise of true love.
Crawled over wishbone bridges of crystal and cartilage, over dunes of shed cells and seas of sebaceous cysts, and at the end, I found him.
I knew it was him, as surely as I knew the mind occupying his body was not his, when I finally found it. Even as a segmented worm, he was magnificent. Cilia trees with compound eyes for fruit erupted all over his embattled membrane. A cloud of gray tumorous antibodies leeched his moribund body, but they couldn’t pry him away from his obsession any more than I could.
With hundreds of acid-dripping vacuole mouths, he clung to and burrowed into a nest of burnt-out nerves, trying to ignite the dead skyscraper neurons, trying to wake it and make it see itself.
I came back, and I freely admit that I killed his body to stop them using it, and as long as they force me to take my meds, I can’t go back, but I know he’s there in the Sister City, doing what he was born to do. The metropolis of neurons is firing like dying neutron stars, and soon everyone will see.
Soon all of us will wake up from this Dream.
Spread the word!