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Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart

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Strange that I didn’t see who she was when she stood in the street, arm upraised, headlights strobing her like flashbulbs, exactly as she’d appeared in the publicity stills that papered New York City for one whole summer. Only when she got in the cab and told me where she was going and slumped back in the seat, and I looked in the mirror and saw the look of utter exhaustion and emptiness fill her face—only then did it click.

“You’re her,” I said, breath hitching.

“I’m somebody,” she said, weary, clearly gut-sick of having this conversation, but I couldn’t stop myself.

“You’re Ann Darrow.”

“The one and only.”

And maybe I had recognized her, on some unconscious level, because I hadn’t meant to pick up any passengers when I got in my cab and started driving. Friday nights I’d sometimes hit up the Ziegfeld, the Palace, drive in circles to see the movie stars arriving at their premieres, and, later on, leaving, and later still staggering out of their after-parties. Purely recreational, usually, but that night it was downright medicinal. I needed that glamour, those sixty-karat smiles, the wonder in the eyes of the crowd. The lie of a beautiful world.

Bombs were falling, four thousand miles away. Crematoria were being kindled.

I pulled away from the curb. One of her posters was framed on the wall of the room I rented. The only decorative touch that had followed me through all five of the boarding houses I’d lived in since getting kicked out of the house. Ann Darrow, eyes wide with terror, arm upraised to fend off something monstrous. A massive black outline hulked behind her. Art deco lettering beneath her blared KONG: THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD.

“You Jewish?” she asked.

“I am,” I said, tracing my profile in the rearview mirror. “The nose gave it away?”

“The eyes,” she said. “The only people who look really scared today are Jewish.”

It took me an awful long time to say, “That’s because most people have no idea what horrible things human beings are capable of,” and even once I said it it wasn’t quite right, didn’t quite capture the rich flavor of my fear, my rage.

“Some of us do,” she said. “Some of us know exactly.”

“I’m Solomon,” I said.

“That why your radio’s switched off, Solomon?”

“Yeah, sorry. Couldn’t stand to hear it one more time. I can turn it back on if you want to listen to something.”

“No,” she said. “That’s one of several things I’m trying not to think about tonight.”

September 1st, 1939. At 4:45 that morning, Germany had invaded Poland. Word was, England and France would be declaring war within the week. Not that anyone expected them to lift too many fingers to save the millions of Jews in Poland.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Forgot to ask—where you heading?”

“Just drive,” she said. “I’ll figure something out.”

“You coming from a movie premiere?”

“Yeah,” she said. “The Women. It had its moments. They love to have notorious floozies and disgraced politicians show up on the red carpet. Who am I to turn down free food and alcohol?”

Normally, my New York City cabdriver cool prevailed. Even with only five years’ driving under my belt, I’d already had more movie stars in my back seat than there were cross streets in Manhattan. But this was no movie star. No fraudulent sorcerer, whose magic was made up of lighting and makeup and special effects and screenwriting. This was Ann Darrow. This was someone who knew what magic was. Who’d been held in its hand. Who’d been lifted high into the sky by it, and then watched it die.

“Let me guess,” she said, catching my repeated mirror glances. “You were there that night. You were in the theater. You’re a baby, you would have been, what, twelve?”

“Twelve exactly,” I said, startled. Most people pegged me for far older. I’d been driving a cab on New York City streets since I was thirteen, and nobody’d ever batted an eyelash at it. “But I wasn’t in the theater that night.”

“I know,” she said. “Somebody tells me they were, I know they’re lying. Swear to god, you add up all the people who’ve told me they were there that night, there were a couple million people in the audience. Place only had a thousand seats, and half of them were empty. People make it seem like Denham was some kind of genius promoter, but that piece of shit was as bad at that as he was at everything else.”

I had so many questions. For years I’d dreamed of this moment. Now my words were nowhere to be found.

“Let me guess,” she said. “You want to know about . . . him.”

“Yeah.”

She rolled her eyes.

She wasn’t that much older than me. She’d been twenty, when she traveled to Skull Island. But those events, and the six years since then, had accelerated her aging. From her purse, she pulled a bottle and a glass. Not a flask; a glass, in her purse. “You want a drink, Solomon?”

“Not while I’m driving.”

“Where are your people from, Solomon?”

“Poland,” I said.

She cursed, so softly I couldn’t hear which one. “You got people over there still?”

“Three grandparents.”

“Oh, honey,” she said, one hand reaching forward to touch my shoulder.

She was kind. That much was true. I’d imagined her in the hold of the ship, comforting Kong in his chains and his seasickness. Backstage, calming him down while tiny men flashed cameras in his helpless face. Eighty stories up, pleading with him to pick her back up, trying to tell him that the airplanes wouldn’t shoot him while he was holding her. Angry at him for not understanding her, or for understanding and not wanting to put her at risk.

“I never knew them,” I said. “My parents came over in 1920. For a while their parents were happy to stay where they were, but since stuff’s been getting scary over there we’ve been saving up money to bring them over. Now I can’t really see that happening.”

We both watched the next several blocks slide by. Street signals switching, red to green. Crowds throbbing. Laughter. Hunger. None of them carried what she carried, the secrets of something extraordinary.

No sense lying: I wanted something from her. I knew it was wrong, to expect anything of a woman who’d spent six years with everyone clamoring for a piece of her, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask, but I could hope. For something—anything—no one else knew. Some piece of him.

Ann Darrow tipped her head back, to down her drink. Saw something high above. “There she is,” she whispered.

There she was. I didn’t need to crane my neck to look to know what she was seeing. The Empire State Building, showing through the gap between buildings made by 37th Street.

“There were no people living on Skull Island,” she said, and chuckled at my shocked expression. “Cannibal natives, that was another one of the lies Denham told the reporters, in the weeks before Kong’s debut. He thought it added to the story. Savages menacing the virginal blonde. People eat that shit up, he said. Every time he told the story, it got bigger and crazier. Spiders the size of houses. Pterodactyls. The T. rex was real, but to hear him tell it she had horns and breathed fire and flew. Only Kong stayed the same size.”

“Because he was bigger than anything that asshole could dream up.”

“Exactly,” she said, raising her glass again. “He never hurt me.”

“Everyone knows that.”

No New Yorker ever accepted the story Denham tried to spin: Kong the Monster. From the moment he fell he was myth, was legend, the hope and hero of everyone who ever tried to climb up from the grit and filth of our streets while the little people tried to drag them back down. He was ours. Every souvenir stand and tchotchke shop in the city sold Kong figurines, Kong toys. Every Halloween, he was the most popular costume. And practically half the city had one of those lockets around their neck, with a tuft of black fur purporting to be his.

All the property damage, all the people who died—no one blamed Kong for that. It wasn’t his fault he was bigger than life, bigger than us, made for a better world than ours. You didn’t blame the flames that burned down your house. You blamed the man who started the fire.

“Is it true you agreed to be in the movie?”

“Of course not,” she said, snorting. “Denham told producers I was on board, but that was a lie.”

RKO optioned the story, started preparing to make the movie, but the outcry had been immediate, and immense. The Mayor flat-out refused to let them film in his city. Said it’d be like recreating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire for film. People died. Kong died. And so, so did a part of us. Some things were sacred.

“So where were you, Solomon? That night.”

“Home. Lower East Side. Six families, thirty people, one apartment. One radio. Everybody glued to it.”

Even over the air, even as a thing described by strangers, our hearts were with him. Little boys pounding our chests. Imagining something strong enough to derail a subway car, to shatter the thickest chains . . . but still too small for this city, for its big buildings and its brutal cops, who had bullets where their hearts should be. Which one of us wasn’t Kong, a king among ants even as they destroyed us?

When he started climbing the Empire State Building, I slowly backed out of the room. Nobody saw me. They weren’t there; they were imagining Kong’s ascent. No one heard me scamper down the stairs.

I was a kid. This was my city. I’d sprinted its length more times than I could count. I knew how long it would take me to make it to 34th and Fifth. But how fast could King climb to the top? He’d be slowed down by the beautiful woman he carried.

I never thought he would die. I didn’t imagine it was possible.

Thick crowds kept me from getting onto Fifth Avenue, but I could still see him. A tiny spot so high above us. We heard the airplanes, a distant sound, getting nearer. We’d gasped, as one. We heard the gunfire.

I didn’t tell Ann any of that. She’d think less of me, if she knew. I’d seen her when she came down to street level again. Bracketed by cops; coat draped over her shoulders. I’d seen the tears streaming down her face, and I’d seen her hate. “What is wrong with you?” she’d shrieked. No one answered. No one knew.

After Kong, Denham spent three years with his back up against the wall. He was still news for a little while, the Herald-Tribune running interviews headlined “Most Hated Man in New York City Speaks Out,” but before long he was just another one of yesterday’s villains, drinking himself to death beside all the other politicians and businessmen who never let a little thing like morality come between them and money. Everywhere he went, someone wanted to take a shot at him, and Denham’s crippled manhood wouldn’t let him back down from a single one. Until somebody cracked a rib, drove it into some important organ. Even in the hospital he was dialing up journalist numbers he’d committed to memory, offering them exclusives, and even when he told them he was dying they hung up on him.

“I hate this city,” she said, watching the after-theater crowds spilling off the sidewalk onto the street.

“Me too,” I said. “Even if I also love it.”

Her eyes, on mine. “That’s it. That’s it exactly.”

The block where Kong landed—they kept it closed off for weeks. Because of the body, at first—a ten-ton corpse was not so easy to cart off—and then because of the crowds. We came by the thousands. Paupers and newsies and dowager empresses gathered on the shattered sidewalk. We stood, alone with our wonder, and wept.

How much did he change us? Who would we be, if he’d never come blundering into our lives to show us how full of wonder the world could still be, and how full of cruelty we still were? Vegetarianism skyrocketed, it’s true—papers said 30% of New Yorkers abstained from eating meat now, vs. half of a percent before 1933—and the country passed laws to limit animal cruelty, stop medical testing on mammals, make sure meat animals weren’t mistreated. Kong wasn’t the only reason, he just made a handy symbol of all that was majestic and worthy of respect in animals.

But we’d changed in bad ways too. Plenty of people hated the big ape, especially after the city voided all lawsuits for injury and property destruction related to his rampage, calling Kong an “act of God.” Someone shot the gorilla at the Bronx Zoo through the bars of her cage. Not to mention the backlash to the new laws. Big business laying people off, saying they couldn’t make money now that they couldn’t cram chickens into tiny cages and feed them shit. Out-of-work slaughterhouse men butchering pigs in the streets in protest.

“I don’t wanna take money out of your pocket,” she said. “You can drop me off wherever, go pick up some actual passengers, instead of an old drunk feeling sorry for herself.”

“No,” I said, not wanting it to end, not ever. “I was done already.”

Her eyes, on mine again.

“You still on the Lower East Side, Solomon?”

“Upper West,” I said.

“You want to take me there?”

I could have said yes. I could have tried to do what she wanted. But I couldn’t lie to her, not with my words and not with my body. And if I wanted her to share something meaningful with me, some secret she’d kept from everyone else, I couldn’t very well keep any of my own.

“I’ll take you wherever you want to go, Ann Darrow. I’d do anything for you—but if it’s a lover you want, you could probably find plenty of better ones than me.”

“Can’t get it up?” she snorted, wounded pride vying in her voice with curiosity, at a man who’d make such an admission.

“Not for women, unfortunately.”

She nodded. Looked out the window. An idiotic move, sharing that with her. Stupid of me to think that just because her empathy extended to monsters like Kong, it would reach all the way to monsters like me.

Central Park South; a line of tents that marked the entrance to a Hooverville. Men begged. Women walked up to horse-drawn carriages stopped in traffic, demanded money. Word was, only war would end the Depression, and wasn’t that some shit right there? Rich men fucked up so bad they made millions of people poor, and the only way to fix it was to make millions of people dead.

“Go to the Bronx,” she said. “Hunt’s Point. You can start the meter.”

“No ma’am,” I said. “You’ll always ride free in my cab.”

For a while we didn’t speak. I tried to think of ways to do damage control, but my heart wasn’t in it. We were what we were, Ann and I, and people treated us accordingly.

We crossed the Willis Avenue Bridge. Small houses sprouted all around us, and brand-new apartment buildings. Lots of my family members had moved up here. I’d have been able to afford a real place. But doing so would be giving up on any hope of finding love, finding sex, and I was eighteen years old and I wasn’t ready to do that yet.

“Everybody wants something from me,” she said. “Something I can’t give them, because I don’t have it myself.”

“What’s that?” I asked, knowing the answer, because it was what I wanted myself.

“They want Kong.”

She guided me—left, then right, then left again. Deeper into the Bronx’s weird warped topography, so different from Manhattan’s dependable grid. Finally we arrived at blocks and blocks of warehouses. She didn’t know the address, and we got lost a couple times looking for the right one.

“Park here,” she said.

I did.

“Follow me,” she said. And I did. I knew it was stupid. For all I knew her brothers were waiting inside, burly dock worker types who at a word from their spurned sister would gleefully beat me to death. But she was Ann Darrow, and I was as helpless in her hands as she had been in Kong’s, and I still held out hope that she could give me what I wanted.

And, anyway, would death be so bad? Who wanted to live in a world like this, anyway? A world getting its revenge on us, for all the damage we did, and damned if we didn’t deserve it—dust storms stripping the skin off the country; Oklahoma’s entire corn crop mysteriously blighted, according to the radio. A world where Germany invaded Poland and everyone else went about their business. A world that would kill Kong.

“This is where he kept him,” she said. I climbed the steps after her. “Before the Broadway debut. Dumbass Denham—he either forgot or never even realized that he bought the whole damn warehouse. He was as bad with his backers’ money as he was with his own. And after Kong he was so bogged down in debt and lawsuits that this was the least of his thoughts. He died without a will, without heirs. So I guess it’ll stand here until it falls down or the city gets around to foreclosing on it for unpaid taxes.”

“Kong was here?” I whispered.

“For three weeks.” She rummaged in her purse. “I had a locksmith switch this out. I’m the only one with a key.”

The air in the warehouse was rank, mammalian. Wild. The smell of something uncageable, and caged. I shut my eyes. Breathed deep.

“That’s him,” I said.

“That’s him. Not as he was in the wild, of course. Chained, without access to the sea, he couldn’t clean himself properly. And his spirit came damn close to breaking. You can smell that, too. A sourness. But he was stronger than us.”

I stepped inside, with the same fear and humility as entering synagogue. The walls were blue. So was the floor. And the ceiling.

“What’s . . . ”

I looked down. The blue was a plant, a vine that had grown to cover every surface.

“Gorillas are vegetarians,” she said. “Most people don’t know that.”

“I did.” I’d read a lot about gorillas in the months after Kong fell. Dreamed of being a zoologist, except that you needed to be able to afford to go to college for that.

“Kong ate plants. So he had seeds, in his belly. Nobody but me noticed that something had sprouted from his dung. I potted it, kept it secret.”

I nodded.

“I made clippings,” she said, and gave me a small terra-cotta pot. “This is for you.”

Up close I could see spearhead-shaped leaves. Red veins spread out in curls and ripples. Vines trailed down the side, ending in fat seed pods. At the center of the pot the leaves curled inward, numerous and beautiful as the petals on a chrysanthemum.

A piece of him. Of Kong.

“Watch the center,” she said. “And be very quiet.”

I watched. I was quiet. I was patient. The pattern of the veins was so intricate. Hypnotic, almost. So much so that I could have sworn I saw one vine growing while I watched. But of course no plant grew so fast.

The leaf-petals parted, suddenly. Like an eye opening. And beneath the petals: an actual eye. Not human, but not far from it, either. All brown iris, and black pupil. It blinked, twice, twitched around as the eye scanned the sky. Then found mine. Held my gaze.

“Is that his?”

Ann nodded. “The plant took something, passing through him.”

I held the pot in my hands. Reverent; apologetic. Unworthy.

“I planted some in a vacant lot next to my building,” she said. “Near some kudzu. Came back that afternoon and it had totally swallowed up the kudzu. Would have covered the whole lot in a day if I hadn’t clipped it back.”

Her eyes were on me. Wanting something. “I—I don’t . . . ”

“We killed him,” she said. “We saw him, this god, this king, and the only thing we could think to do was capture and chain and kill it. That’s what people are. You see that, don’t you? I know you do. It’s why I brought you here.”

“Yeah, of course,” I said, looking back and forth between her eyes and the plant’s. “But I don’t . . . ”

“Skull Island was rough. Anything that evolved to survive there would be the ultimate invasive species. It’d cover the earth, if it got the chance. Choke off all kinds of life.”

And—I got it. I nodded. Said, “What a shame that would be.”

“The money from my book deal—I spent that on a tour of the USA, and then Europe. Dropped a few seeds wherever I went.”

“You spend any time in Oklahoma?” I asked, remembering the news about the blighted corn crop. 

“Just enough,” Ann said. “Maybe you want to help.”

“Thank you,” I said, my hands occupied, unable to wipe the tears off my face. Wondering where so many had come from, so fast.

She hugged me. She smelled like alcohol and lilacs and I sobbed into her neck.

I drove back into Manhattan. Headed for the Ziegfeld again. By now the after-parties would be getting out; drunk movie stars needing rides home. Plenty of people hailed me, but I didn’t stop. In the seat where Ann sat was a potted plant.

Kong was my passenger. He always had been. I’d carried him in my heart since the moment I watched him fall, felt the earth shake, the sidewalk shatter, my heart with it. All of our hearts.

On the corner of 54th and Seventh, I saw a woman leaning on a streetlamp. Dressed up; holding a high heel under her arm while she rubbed that stockinged foot. Her day had been long, and hard. She was angry. She was going to do something about it. Most people probably wouldn’t be able to see it, but I could. Now. How mighty she was. What heights she could climb to. How she could shatter the world with the seeds she carried inside her.

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ISSUE 154, July 2019

Best Science Fiction of the Year
 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer. His debut novel The Art of Starving (HarperTeen) was one of NPR's Best Books of 2017, and won the Andre Norton Award. His current novel, Blackfish City (Ecco Press; Orbit) is an Entertainment Weekly "Must Read" and was called "an action-packed science fiction thriller" and "surprisingly heartwarming" by the Washington Post. He's a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Workshop, and a winner of the Shirley Jackson Award. He lives in New York City.

WEBSITE

www.samjmiller.com

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