Nothing ever happens in the darkest city. At least nothing that matters. Icarus drowns every day in its rivers and the fish turn a blind eye, bury their noses in mud.
Actually, something almost happened once, or people mistakenly thought it did, but the records were corrected soon after and the blunder is talked about now only by those who remember the day with a certain sense of wistful regret. Call it nostalgia for what never happened. It was a typical hour of an afternoon of little light, the smallest burden of light, when, of course, nothing was happening, but for the purposes of illustrating what it looks like when we are misled into believing something has taken place, here is the scenario:
A mother pushing a stroller with a child inside is attempting to cross the street but she is doing so where the edge of the sidewalk doesn't quite meet at street level and there is jolt, not exactly rough but it was enough, and the child, not buckled into the stroller falls out onto the ground, hits his head or his knees or both, that part is hardly relevant, and he begins to cry, more like a wail, after which the mother picks him up and slams him back into the stroller, says "Sit down and shut up", and continues to cross to the other side of the street while the child's cries are muffled by distance.
In the darkest city there is a law against fucking on tombstones. But in a place where even the stones are falling apart it is not uncommon for two people to get high and make love among the broken slabs out of boredom. Like the stones, some of them are falling apart beautifully, hair and eye shadow and torn jeans of another era. Always another time. Some are simply lost, done with a future life they might never live; they will become nothing. Some have known this for as long as they could remember so they do it out of desperation, out of a blind need that has all of the appearances of passion. But it is not that. Things happen out of passion. But not here.
So when two people are caught fucking on tombstones, and inevitably they are, out of carelessness, stupidity, or outright disregard for anything sacred, the city makes a big deal out of it and calls it vandalism. They always want everything to mean something, to be of consequence, and don't understand that some things can simply be as inconsequential as two lives wanting nothing more than to live. There is a fine, a slap on the wrist. A good talking to. Everyone eventually knows their names as the two who were caught fucking on tombstones. Their names are easy to remember because it helps us forget our own. What no one ever asks is whose tombstone it was. How did they choose where to lie down? What name, what epitaph burned briefly as they lay there counting stars?
Even outside of the cemeteries the darkest city is a city of ghosts. Beer drinking ghosts, gambling ghosts, daytime-TV-watching ghosts, drug addicted ghosts, unborn ghosts, slit-your-throat-for-a-pint sort of ghosts, you get the idea. They prop up the broken awnings, they lean against guard rails and bar counters at noon. For them everything has already happened.
The rooming houses are full of them. The abandoned factories are full of them. The workshop floors still echo with their footsteps. On a quiet night you can hear the machines, the gun-like staccato, the sound of a man clearing his throat as he looks around for the boss then down to the ground and spits. At home maybe he chooses to end it all, maybe it has already ended. What he cares about is that when he wanted to spit he spit, and it felt as good as few things ever do.
Depending on whom you ask you will here many different stories about how the darkest city got its name. Some are humorous, some make obscure references to the long dead and famous, some to an act of God. But stories always try to hide something. That’s the point of a story. And the storytellers are no better. They are weak and they want attention.
The fact is that the darkest city is dark. I heard a man say that once at a roadside bar as bleak as its name. He was nursing a beer. It was the only honest thing to ever be said in the darkest city. What people happened to be there simply nodded and that’s how you knew it was true. I just kept watching him as he turned his beer on the counter, as the glass groaned against wood, an already somber sky above turning black.
Because the darkest city did away with history books years ago it is difficult to confirm any one myth of its name. The books were always the same, year after year, an anthology of names and numbers, until someone finally asked, "What's the point of history if it never changes?" And since nothing ever happens in the darkest city then naturally nothing ever changes, making the point of a history moot. The past, present, and future are now all lumped into one, a perpetual remember when. Has happened, is happening, and will happen all refer to the same thing, which, grammatically speaking is impossible, but historically speaking it could be understood as the life of a photograph that never is and always has been.
A place without history also has no beginning or end, which theoretically makes it impossible to get lost. Which, of course, means everyone is lost, unable to get attached to anything, to get one’s bearings in space or in time.
An unintended consequence is that without a beginning or end asking for directions is useless, and giving directions is even more so. In the darkest city old men could be seen on their porches killing time, just waiting for someone to stop and ask them how to get from A to B. Most wait their whole lives to be asked. A few are luckier than the others and with a grave face shrug their shoulders as if to say sorry. Some simply go on practicing not knowing, just in case they are ever asked.
Call it hearsay or legend, or believe what part of this you will, but in the darkest city, generations ago, it was decided by a nearly unanimous vote that all those living in the darkest city would lead dark lives. The one dissenting voice was laughed into silence and eventually into obscurity. If you live outside of the darkest city that's what you know. To illustrate the point, in the books there are a couple of photographs of electrical wires and vacant lots. They are labeled as Fig. 1 and Fig. 3. In between there is blank space and the children are all encouraged to guess and draw their own Fig. 2s right onto the pages. They love that part of the lesson! Naturally it's a trick, but the kids don't learn about it until much later. Some never do. Meanwhile pictures of the darkest city hang from magnets in grandmothers’ kitchens until they grow yellow with time. In the corner the ubiquitous gold star as proof that the child has indeed got it all figured out.
The railway station, like most things, shut down long ago. But the silver rails still cut beautiful lines of coming and going deep through the valley and the freight trains move through at a steady pace. You can hear them in the distance, the steel wheels on rail echoing off the hills, the sound seeming that much farther away, impossibly far, so that you begin to doubt what it is. Like a second-hand story passed down until it has gotten so far from itself you can’t even begin to guess how it started. In those moments all you can do is trust what you know – and you know the trains pass through here, you know that distance can be misleading.
There is a combination visitors’ center and gift shop located just off the main highway that runs up along the city’s eastern flank and continues north. Almost everyone continues north.
But those who stop usually make a point to pick up something at the gift shop. The most popular item is the all black teddy bear wearing a black t-shirt with embroidered "Someone in The Darkest City Loves You" across the chest. Second is the snow globe with black snow, the Darkest City dark chocolate collector's tin, and of course the "I Love My Coffee Dark, Just Like My City" coffee mug. The shop is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. On Sundays the main room doubles as a banquet hall for corporate functions and weddings.
Conspicuously absent from the visitor center’s litany of brochures (two, to be exact, the rest of the wooden slots filled with Chinese takeout menus, an undertaker’s flyer, and a circular for the nearby supermarket where all of the offers have already expired), is any mention of the number of telephone and electrical wires suspended above and crisscrossing the darkest city. In fact, if you sit still and listen hard enough on a quiet summer evening some say you might still be able to hear Marconi’s echo radiating from one of the central towers. From there the voice frays and splits and dissipates through the cables along with hundreds of other voices that had something to say once, begun a sentence with conviction then reconsidered, stopped midway and seemed to ponder over a great thought, an epiphany, but in reality it was probably much simpler than that.
As would be expected, there is no shortage of churches in the darkest city. Sometimes the candles serve as the only light for days on end. But each church wanted to be the first and that led over time to animosity, outright hatred and violence by otherwise good men and women, not to mention the little kids who, upon learning that they might not be the first, indeed possibly second, third, or even last, would throw temper tantrums and could not be appeased with the sweetest indulgences. In what is remembered now as a miracle, an immaculate act of governance, one particularly inspired mayor, mostly because he hated the sound of whiny children, passed legislation mandating that all churches from then on would be called The Darkest Church. To differentiate among the churches one simply would add its location, for example The Darkest Church on Broad Street or The Darkest Church on Main Avenue. What was undoubtedly an act of sheer brilliance and outstanding leadership is instead now attributed to an obscure interpretation of the scriptures.