Half on the sidewalk and half on the asphalt, the limp drool of the coldest piss the devil ever took was raising me just north of a blackout, and in a long second, I imagine a world of forgetful people. It felt good to be alive, but then it escaped me before I had a chance to thank her. Then I found my brain, and it fit back into place, and I remembered that reality had kicked my legs out from under me. I needed a coffee. Something hot. Something empty with flavor. First though, I had to do somebody a favor. A couple of flat-footed reptiles without an ounce of warm blood between them had put me on the concrete. I owed them now. I had to return the favor. It's just common courtesy. I wasn't raised by wolves.
They were bordering on biggish -- they ought to be ashamed though. They spent their entire lives smiling down at people, smiling down at their cellphones. They should have been getting into fights instead. The first had weak knees. He folded like a fan. The breeze was nice. The other one ran while he could. So I chased him. I caught up with him. He won't be running for a few weeks.
I went through his coat and took the key back. "Constructive criticism -- learn to comma-splice," I reminded him. It was a hell of a thing though -- I couldn't remember what the key went to. I left him his wallet and his phone though, in case he feels the need to make pixels.
I reacquainted the brick wall working the door back at the pub with a handful of twenties and he let me back in after I jumped on one foot and recited the alphabet in Greek. We had a laugh at that. Urgency and a cracked rib had accelerated me into sobriety. The air back in the pub gave me a contact high and was thrown right back down. I looked through the gloom and the non-sequential green, blue, and pink music that was displacing my common sense, and I asked the fella working the bar if he knew what the key went to. When he couldn't answer, I asked the girl that had been pouring drinks since 5:30 -- she mentioned a name. Charlotte.
The only Charlotte I knew -- well, at least I knew where to start. It would require a password. And I'd have to chase pavement for a stretch. It would give me a chance to think. There was a white door on a dirty building three blocks away that lots of people talked about but few went into. I was going to have knock on it and say a certain something. Then, Charlotte. Better start walking.
There aren't many sensible people left, but there was just enough rain coming down to send all those sensible people running. This evening was demanding senselessness though, and who was I to complain about these circumstances -- I'd stepped in shit. Now I had to clean my shoes. The cold front really had blown in with perfect timing, hadn't it? I passed yellow cabs, a black cat, an orange ramen-truck that served vegan food, and at last I came to the white door on a dirty building. I made a fist and swung it.
A slide showed me her eyes. "Password?"
The door opened, giving me a stairway and a frown. "You shouldn't have come back," she told me.
"Should? Should implies that there's a way things ought to be," I told her as I passed. "Or that fate will make cowards of us all."
At the top of the stairs, there was one more door, and then I was in. Not a bar, but it used to be. It also used to be a library, if you believe in them. Now it's a bit of both, a confusion, a cave in this city's mind where drunks beg brown bottles to listen to every pixeled word they can muster. A body was hunched over each table. Each table had a screen. Each screen was smeared with prints. The room laughed its doubtful hymn. It's a tough thing to ever sober up after seeing and smelling this place. It's a cage, but at least you've got the leading role. Only the deranged climb out of Tartarus and try to make good back on on earth -- only the arrogant and the blind stagger back into the dragon's mouth on purpose.
I shouldn't have come back? If there is fate, then I didn't have any choice, and that means blame is make-believe.
"I'm looking for an author," I said to the one pouring drinks.
"This was a library wasn't it? Libraries had books. Books had authors. Logic suggests I stand in a fine place to find an author."
"Fine logic. If you've eyes clear."
"Can't make promises," I answer. "But I'll take complements off of a bottle-man as they're dealt. I'm looking for Charlotte."
"Is that a name? A name doesn't help you. Everybody makes pixels --"
"-- And everybody's got a name. Yeah, I know. But I don't want pixels, I want ink."
Should I not have mentioned it? I'd have been better off suggesting we bow to a despot or the King of England -- one of the fat ones. I sobered a little bit more. Violence was averted when I took my key and went, departing the bottle-man who retained his rage long enough to tell me to go find the letter B set in bronze, and I walked deeper into the empty halls away from the sounds of dying electricity, and pinging feeds, and ill-formed sentences. Everybody makes pixels. Everybody's got a name. And that makes us all miserable, self-absorbed drunks. Some live with that better than others -- some can make it a metaphor. We love and we hate ourselves with every word we put on the screen and nobody's got the sand to put those words to the test -- to put them somewhere else.
The empty halls had empty shelves and the words on the pages in the books that they once held were as sharp as can be -- somewhere. Somewhere in the Archive with the other terabytes of words. Everybody makes pixels. Nobody's an author. I found the letter B set in bronze on a shelf. The shelf was empty, so I felt along its sides in the half-dark and found a keyhole. It resisted, then sprung, maybe breaking, but it loosening a door that I slid open. It had books inside.
"Charlotte," I said, taking one. The pages were noisy when I turned them, rusted with filth, and there were hundreds of them. "All one story. Just keeps going doesn't it? Crazy girl didn't know when to quit." I listened to my own words and felt admiration for this dead thing in my hand. She had made herself hard to find. I closed the book and took it with me. The bottle-man eyed me when I came back. He eyed me when I sat on the stool. He eyed me when I placed the book on the counter between us.
"Get that thing off of there," he said.
"It doesn't bite." I flapped the cover at him and barked and he was not amused.
He poured a drink in front of me. He swallowed it. Then he poured another and slid it to me. "I can read," he said. "I can write. I can put fingers to keys just as anybody can. And just as I can, doesn't nothing say that that book -- dirty as it sounds in my mouth -- is better than me. I've got thoughts. You can read them. Same as you can read this book."
"But I don't want to," I tell him. "We all make thoughts and we all make pixels. What's it gotten us? What's it made us? It's turned us into drowned rats, sinking into every word. It's turned us into tiny, choking, miserable authors. Look at us. Look at this city. All drunks, unable to tear away from the craft or tear away from themselves. It wasn't always like that. A long time ago, not everybody put everything on the screen. Only the weird. Only the best. Only the bravest. Only the most miserable. Only they made ink."
"They're south of the dirt now." I nodded and drank the whole glass and exmained it when it was empty. "That thing. That book. It just keeps going and going, doesn't it? Is it it any good?"
I shrugged. "I really have no idea. Ain't that the thickest misfortune? We'll all be reminded to remember."
I took the book with me and left the library and walked home in the rain.
-- @Alex Crumb (originally published 7/18/12)