HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.
Check out our social media as we’ve posted more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…
You Just Don’t Come Here
Halfway between the valley hamlets and the metropolis of Lakeview, Main Street rashly makes a turn away from the SkyTram and routes around a landlocked island for a solid five miles or so in order to avoid a certain forsaken stretch of land. This, my friends, is The Bog – a grotesque garden where desperation grows like flowerbeds into heaps of crumbled brick and flaming husks of shattered lives, where misery takes the shape of tin roofed slums and chimneys abandoned by the homes they once stood next to and climbing clouds of a smouldering tenement will to go on and finally, with a supernatural determination, of souls who move hazily through the chalky air that stains everything. On occasion, a stretch of the SkyTram slithers along an omnipotent track, gives out a grisly groan and comes to a repose, and promptly we ash-grey people scatter away with broken wheeled shopping carts and dime bags of Sniff and stir up a murky fog which screens our opaque procedures from your gawking eyes.
Above the desolate land and the seizures of bleak air which float eternally over it, safe in your tram car, you’ll observe, after a time, the smile of Doctor J. M. Goldberg. The smile of J. M. Goldberg is white and enormous and sparkling – the teeth are three yards high. They shine out from no head but, instead, from a duo of thick titanic fleshy lips which pass under a fictional face. The eternal reminder of just how depressing our lives really are. Clearly some zealous wag of a dentist fixed it there to ripen his practice in the neighbourhood of Bridgeport to the North and then sank down himself into life’s unstoppable decay, or neglected it and relocated far far away. But his smile, faded by time and adulterated with a blackened tooth and disembodied ‘stache by many a graffiti punk, remains a symbol of humiliation over our solemn wasteland.
The Bog is bounded on all sides by a deep foul section of the Élan river, and when the SkyTram is at a halt, you impatient passengers have what has been said the best and only view one should have of our dismal island. Like spectators on a safari romp you ogle the landscape in reassurance that your lives, when you get down to it, aren’t really all that terrible. Secure in the knowledge that we, the pitiable pariahs, are at least contained to such a desperate swath of land.
When the city fathers first laid the groundwork that would later become Lakeview, a swamp near the mouth of the river was drained. Within the marsh the remains of prehistoric peoples were discovered completely intact. The make-up of the phosphates, enzymes and whatnot had preserved the bodies in their entirety, all the way down to the half-digested food in their stomachs. For thousands of years it had trapped these people in the unchanging muck, unable to decompose and move on. In this way, the name “The Bog” was acutely appropriate. Things in The Bog are sedentary, never changing, no matter how much time passes.
And in summer the mosquitoes and stench still take ownership of the long gone wetlands. The Bog is a self contained, landlocked island. It is formed by a split in the river that surrounds it creating an almond shape. There is limited access on and off the island – only three bridges – which is why, over the years, it has been the sight of many a street hood’s hideout. This has been beneficial for both those living in the other parts of the city, keeping the waifs out; and for the criminals in The Bog, allowing them to stroll the streets with impunity. Right there, in the centre of the city, abandoned buildings crumble to the streets, filling them with yet more debris. The street lights haven’t worked for years. Many have been cut down and salvaged as scrap, others accumulate rust and tags and stickers. The streets are filled with loose bricks, stray severed pipes, and broken lives. The only light The Bog sees at night comes from the scattered high rise tenements ablaze in their final glory. The slumlords pay the gangs to torch them so they can collect on the insurance money. Never mind what we’ve left behind. Family photos, heirlooms, a family pet. A little boy once asked me, “What’ll we do when we run out of buildings?” To which I didn’t have the heart to answer. In The Bog, thinking so far ahead is only gonna result in heartbreak.
At night The Bog comes alive. The tweakers, itchers, shakers, sleepers all crawl out from their holes into the thick night dense with humidity like breathable sludge. The street gangs come out too, breaking our windows, slinging Sniff, and shooting up the occasional rival’s car or home or family. It’s all a part of the ambiance of decay. Lest we ever forget dear old Dr. Goldberg. In The Bog there’s less traffic, less businesses, less buildings and less people. You can always tell when you’re leaving one neighbourhood and entering another in Lakeview by how much garbage is on the ground and by how long the grass is on the public plots of land. But in The Bog, block after block blends together into a great cacophony of gloom. We locals have a saying, “Welcome to The Bog. Careful not to fall in, or you’ll never get out.”
It didn’t always use to be this way. There was a time when The Bog was just as beautiful a neighbourhood as any other in Lakeview. But, even in the land of milk and honey, you’re still gonna get curds and whey that find their way to the top. Years ago, BigCorp bought our tiny island, before it bought up the rest of the valley, claiming an urban renewal plan was in the works. Three generations later and we’ve yet to see a dime. Even our firehouses are burned out. Cops don’t come to The Bog. Not unless they’re doing another raid with an entire precinct behind them. And our last hospital – it burned down years ago. If you need medical attention, you best pick your bullet-holed-Swiss-cheese-ass up and drag yourself to the other side of the bridge. No one’s gonna take you – you’re on your own in The Bog. We’ve been recognized as a national humiliation for years. And like most things in America that are shameful, we’re swept under the rug of denial and left to fend for ourselves.
They say the best view of The Bog is from a tram car, safe and high above the smouldering wasteland it has become. Addicts come from all over the city to snort or smoke or inject their poison of choice in plain view. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who the bums are versus the junkies. Men are gunned down in the middle of the sad street and there are no repercussions. The only law in The Bog is survival of the fittest.
Perhaps the only draw for anyone to The Bog would be Thalia’s Passion Palace or Gorsky’s House of Delight. In Lakeview there is a red-light district, but it’s not in The Bog. It’s in a safe part of town where Uptown assholes won’t be forced to rub elbows with the dregs. These two establishments operate under the watchful eye of the Russians. To call them brothels would undercut what they do. Thalia’s and Gorsky’s are the kind of place you go when you won’t have to worry about cleaning up the blood when you’re done. When you have an amazing itch you can’t reach with porn or a partner. When you’re afraid what would happen if anyone ever found out what really got you off. They are the “custom back scratchers.” They are the ones you whisper your secrets to, like depraved erotic priests.
As for the drugs, everyone knows they come from BigCorp. It’s not like they try to hide it. The BigCorp logo is tattooed on all the baggies and papers. Some of the pills even have the symbol pressed right into them. All those concentric circles like a madman’s kaleidoscope. It’s been said that the drugs BigCorp pushes on The Bog change people. More so than addiction. As if, after sniff enters the body, you cease to be human. You become…something else. Which is ridiculous, because who ever heard of a corporation being so ballsy, so careless, so cruel. Just another conspiracy theory made up by poor people.
Every night before bed, the nightly news reports about our latest victims as the people in the valley change the channel. Most of the time it’s a bystander, someone completely innocent. One woman even got hit by a stray bullet while watching the news in her living room. She had a husband, three kids and six grandchildren. Had.
But one thing no one ever dared to talk about was the size of The Bog. Specifically, how it was growing, like an invading cancer or weed, taking over other parts of the city. They all noticed it, but stayed quiet regardless. The Island was expanding. And if ever I had the gumption to answer the little boy – “What’ll we do when we run out of buildings?” – my answer would be, “There will always be more buildings. The garden is vast and full of sorrows.”
J. Ryan Sommers has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago. He and his wife have recently left the windy city and relocated in Houston where Sommers teaches English and continues to write. His story is not meant to hurt or criticize any particular group of people. Rather, it is a response to the struggles of the growing socioeconomic divide.