Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Urban Renewal

This is a story I wrote for a collection a few years ago (rejected). Might as well throw it up here!

Urban Renewal
by Karen Joan Kohoutek

Minneapolis, Minnesota

You know how it’s like the city can’t wait to tear things down? Like they’re not going to be happy until it’s all demolished. Well, there’s actually a reason for that. I don’t normally talk about it, because people think I’m crazy, but you’re cool.
It started when me and my friend Rosie were hanging out at this dive bar on Hennepin Avenue. It was on the stretch between the oldest strip club on the street, and the biggest gay bar. We got downtown early because our friend’s band was opening at this old speakeasy-turned-punk club, but of course everything was running behind. So we went down the block for a drink.
Downtown really lighted up early in those days. There was a mix of clean shiny chain restaurants for people who came from the suburbs for a night out, and some great record stores for all the kids who came to see bands, and tons of rundown brownstones with street-level bars that looked a hundred years old. Plus porn shops, and pizza by the slice. So there were people everywhere. We’d passed a couple of middle-aged men in dressy ladies’ pantsuits, wearing necklaces with huge baubles like my Grandma used to wear, stumbling down the street, already completely drunk, trying to help each other walk. Not to mention some girls, and guys, in miniskirts and sequined tops, strutting in front of packs of college boys.
We were at the Sportsman’s, which had this really distinctive smell. Something leaked every time you flushed the toilet, so there were always pools on the bathroom floor, and sometimes streaks going down the wall, so the whole place always smelled moist. As the night wore on, it would stink more of heavy cigarette smoke, and the reek of beer and puke. We loved it, though, and drank cheap gin and tonics that were almost entirely made of gin, and played crazy-ass songs like Johnny Horton on the jukebox.
Most of the walls were black, and the color would rub off slightly, leaving a faintly glittery trace -- like asbestos paint. The wall by the narrow stage was a dirty red, and it was covered in graffiti, mostly written in black felt-tips: identity scrawls, names of bands, and a lot of stuff about fucking the police, the state, and the President.
There was a gap of barstool between us and this old guy, and before long, we’d gotten deep in conversation.
 “You know the City Council wants to tear this all down,” he said, gesturing slightly.
“This bar?”
“The whole neighborhood.”
“What the fuck?” I asked.
“You know, to protect the children.”
“What, from sin?”
We all laughed. At every corner, packs of wanna-be gang-bangers, teenagers and younger, hung around and hollered when you walked by, offering you drugs. The city didn’t give a shit about them.
“That would be terrible,” Rosie said. “I moved here because of this street!”
That was true; it was Moby’s Whale of a Drink, down the way, that had convinced her she could live in the Midwest. She went on, “A town without a Skid Row isn’t worth living in.”
The old guy chortled. “Skid Row, my ass. This is nothing. This town used to have a real Skid Row, down by where the library is.”
“Yeah. There were blocks of businesses -- bars, cafes, old hotels. There were a few places where transients stayed, they were cut into partitions, with chicken wire over the top.”
“By the library,” I clarified.
“Yeah, between there and the Post Office. It’s all offices now.”
It was just a couple of blocks away. And it was weird, because that patch of downtown had always seemed really creepy to me. The buildings were huge Stalinist bunkers of dark concrete, deserted after five o’clock, but whenever I cut through there I always felt like I was being watched.
“So what happened to it?” Rosie asked, twirling her straw.
“Well, you know, officially it was the same thing. Urban renewal. But I worked maintenance for City Hall, and I heard all kinds of things. I don’t really like to talk about it.”
“Come on,” we coaxed, and finally he gave in.
“You kids know about evolution, right?”
That kind of surprised us, but yeah, we did.
“Originally we were animals. Apes. Eventually, the apes got self-consciousness -- but from where? The truth is, self-awareness is a parasite. Or a demon. Depends on how you define it. It’s a being actually separate from the host that carries it.”
He’d seemed normal enough for the kind of old guy you meet at a dive bar, but Rosie and I gave each other a look, like, shit, he was a Hennepin Avenue crazy.
“They figured it out with confession,” he went on. “All those centuries ago. That’s just one method to cast it out, mentally, but it works. Like therapy. There’s all kinds of ways.”
“Huh,” I said. I usually humored these guys, and I hadn’t gotten mugged or raped yet, so I stuck with my dumb luck.
He went on. “As they turned into human beings, with this self-consciousness, they poured their sins and guilts and shame into pockets in the earth. For a while, that would work like compost. But over time, all that badness would fester, and swell, until it poisoned the whole society built over it. People began to move over the earth, fleeing from the miserable parts of their own thoughts that they’d buried. They came to America, right? Where there was endless land, and not enough people for their sins to bother anybody.
“But just like a brand-new landfill, before long, it started piling up and building and building until it burst.”
He downed his beer.
“That’s what happened here. By the time this century rolled around, it was a mess. That shit had gotten into everything. The buildings were soaked in misery.”
“This place oughta be soaked in misery, if anywhere is,” the bartender put in.
“Booze is an antiseptic,” I said. “Everybody knows that.”
We all laughed, except the old guy, who looked grim.
“Another beer?” the bartender asked.
The old guy nodded.
“Eventually, badness was erupting all over. It came through the sewers, up out of the electrical outlets. Finally the city tore it all down, ripped out the brick and wood and rotting flesh, and poured new concrete over it. Stamped it down, to hold it off, for a little while, anyway.”
“So the potholes?” Rosie asked.
“Don’t ask!”
The bartender started to hand over a new bottle of beer, and I noticed this groaning sound coming from somewhere. Then there was a smell. Like I said, the room was already pretty bad, but this was a horrible, unholy smell leaking in, seemingly straight up from the floor. I instinctively put my hand in front of my mouth, tried not to breathe in, and suddenly there was a dull shaking underneath us.
“What the hell?” I said. “Are we having an earthquake?”
“That’s the stupidest fucking -- “
Before Rosie could finish thinking, a huge splintering sound torn through the room, floor first. A mass of burnt-looking, oily flesh seemed to ooze up from behind the bar, only super-fast, and it sucked the bartender up into itself, with a squealing cry of pain and anguish.
I caught a glimpse of Rosie’s face, turned white and contorted, and we grabbed each other’s hands and ran, half pushing the old guy in front of us. The surface of the bar buckled and jumped, and glass flew everywhere, from smashed drinks and exploding bottles.
We burst through the fire doors. A crowd was already starting to gather outside, to see what was going on, and we stumbled away, gasping, feeling protected by the weight of other people who could be eaten instead of us. The walls shook and the roof started to cave in, and we watched, frozen, until the Sportsman’s as a pile of charred rubble. Fire trucks shrieked around us, and we backed further away, and then me and Rosie looked at each other.
“Well,” she said. “I guess the City Council is going to hear about this.”

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