Shirley composed herself for the thirty-odd cluster of people from the city. She stood near a hatbox-sized statue of a blue fox and took comfort that she had the most beautiful face among everyone there. The figurine sat behind a gallery window tinted yellow by pollen.
“Ms. Berks,” said August, “You’ve been renting room in Ed’s Sculpture Gallery…tell the people...for how long now?”
“About three years - starting in 1896,” said Shirley.
“Would you tell the folks here how much you pay to rent?”
“Two dollars and thirty cents a week.”
“For that kind of money, wouldn’t you prefer a bigger space?”
“Of course. And you know what’s stopping me.” She flared her arms. “Too crowded here. Popularity has led to a glut.” She sparked a cigarette.
“She’s right, folks,” said August. “The Street of Statues is too dense. We need to stretch our wings downtown.” August hopped over to his wheelbarrow, lifted out the hydrant with both hands and clanked it into a socket in the street. Then he braced his wrench onto the nozzle. “Expansion!” he hailed. The wrench grated; yellow paint flecks fluttered onto his boots.
At first you could only hear a shop door clapping shut. A carriage horse whinnied. Then the small street quaked. A wooden crate of eggs tipped off the sidewalk and yokes bled. Shirley dropped another cigarette into the street; it quivered and fell into some new rift.
The window Shirley had stood before now rippled like water. The fox statue blurred. The letters on the window, Edwin J Mattson Family Sculpture Gallery, were drifting apart from each other. But nothing like that had happened with the last hydrant in February of 1895.
The crowd thinned. The sculptors filed out of their galleries and surrounded the hydrant with black pedestals cloudy with fingerprints. Some kids stayed to walk along new, warm, bone-white stripes of sidewalk until fearful parents called them home.
Shirley was rearranging an ivy halo on one of the smaller gargoyles. She wiped sweat from her hairline and turned to her assistant, Fain. “I have some more work for you if you’re finished cleaning those,” Shirley said. “The celebration pennants - let’s string them across the Street from the windows. They’ll look divine.” She pointed to one of the three-story galleries. “They’re on the second floor up there. I’ll meet you on the other side.”
Fain marched into the gallery and up the creaky, paint-smelling staircase. She had to impress Shirley. Fain leaned out the window and her belly kneaded onto the cool sill. In her deepest soul, Fain wanted to live on the Street of Statues since she moved to the city last year. Fain bound the window pull with the pennant cord. She aimed, and lobbed the bundle into the warm spring morning. The pennants pinwheeled, crested, but then dropped. Green, blue and yellow triangles sprinkled the cobblestones. The line’s too short now, she thought.
“Should’ve known,” Shirley called, “these won’t do now.”
Inside the Dressing Manufacturer, the stretching had squeezed the aisles to a shoulder-brushing tightness, pushing paint canisters into aisle’s centers and squeezing the buckets from both sides. Crates of fabric crushed together. Fain chirped at Walter, the clerk, “We’d like a few yards of those pennants, please. We’re going to display them across the Street of Statues. An exhibit for the whole city!”
“Look around,” said Walter. “Everything far enough away from that hydrant’s getting scrooched. It’s worse the further you go out - and I live way out in the Outskirts.”
“That’s where she lives,” said Shirley, pointing to Fain.
“And for what?” he said. “Bigger lodging for that fancy gallery? The displays on the wall over there - I spaced them nice and even. Now they look like some nut’s quilt.”
Once they finished, Walter clapped the wrong change into Fain’s palm.
“May I ask you something?” Fain said to Shirley after they left. Now was her chance. “I’ve been helping you for nine months. I know I’ve been diligent in my time here. And, I was wondering, since there’s more space since downtown’s stretching, if there’d be space enough for me to live on the Street of Statues.”
Shirley paused. “I don’t mean to sound presumptuous, but you’re not really an artist, are you?”
“Of course I am. More when I was younger...I mean I....”
“But you’re not currently exhibiting?”
Fain said nothing.
“I’m sorry. We’re trying to foster a community of artists here.” Shirley set the mess of pennants on the platform.
“What about the new hydrant? All that new space?”
“Exhibiting artists are our patrons. They need the space,” Shirley said. She whisked herself away cradling a gargoyle with a raspberry head.
August Abram was a machinist who lived two blocks from the Street of Statues, next to a Loan and Storage Company. He was well-liked enough so that sometimes, chat with his neighbors would rise, and he’d learn of their lives. This was why he thought he was a good person. That evening he was standing three yellow lugnuts on his workbench when a knock at the door startled him.
Shirley bent her head to avoid the hanging pipe. “August,” she said, peering at a hydrant sketch - he’d chalked it on a tablet which leaned on the radiator - “are you trying to make me upset?”
“The hydrants. Expansion for all, you said? Look at it now. It’s the gallery owners who got what they wanted. I heard you told Saiquot to expect one. The big capitalists. The rest of us are getting pushed.”
The stubble on his chin blurred as he shook.
“God you’re boorish,” she said. “Why the statues? Why their block?”
He whirled to face her. “Because - listen! It’s not a my block or their block issue. I made this beautiful thing. Something that would make life around here perfect. I’ve actually manufactured more space! And I thought: if I could choose one part of the city to expand…” August stammered, “w-why not pick the most aesthetically pleasing block? Some very gray spots in this city, yes?”
“Aesthetically pleasing. You’re always saying that. Gray spots, is that it? Just name the Outskirts if that’s what you’re talking about,” she said, her face staying sour.
“That and I thought you’d enjoy it.”
“Well, I can’t enjoy it. You’ve shrunk my room! And remember where I hang my self-portraits? I walk through that hall sideways now it’s closed so much.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t plan on all these side effects. The pushing.”
“It’s all scrunched! The walls are rumpled like a damned accordion.”
“I said I didn’t plan that! You want things back the way they were? Streets…stuffed with horses…no room on the sidewalk to move there’s too many people?”
“You...can’t entertain guests because only stout Walter fits in your living room?”
“Stop. What are you going to do about this?” said Shirley.
He raked his chin. “I’m raising money to build another one, yes?”
“I told you, Saquoit!”
“No more rich people!”
“That’s how funding happens now. My God. Please,” he said. “Try to enjoy the art. I’ll have another fête when this is ready.”
After she stormed out, August paced around his footstool. Then he kicked a ceramic orange - part of a gift from one of the sculpture house owners. The orange rolled into the bathroom and banged against the clawfoot tub.
Fain peered out her brown-speckled window. A field of brambles and thorns shivered. She was about to sip coffee, steam warming the wings of her nostrils, when the city quaked. The installation of August’s fourth or fifth hydrant - she couldn’t be sure which: he’d gotten so much more since offering his services to private capital - had caused this tremor. She set the mug on the table and steadied herself on a chairback. A scritching sounded. Fain turned. August’s hydrant had shifted the brambles; they used to only sprawl across the crooked dirt road. Needles now scratched her window.
When Fain opened the door, vine clots dumped in, a tangle of fingernail-yellow and green. She unsheathed her pruning shears.
As do all newcomers to a city, Fain used the skyline as a compass. But now telescoping disks of gray sky obscured her view. Each lens dimmed progressively darker. It was like looking into binoculars from the wrong end. They shrouded the taller turrets and church spires.
Fain noticed new parts of her blighted neighborhood deformed from downtown’s stretching: from the side of the junk dealer’s house, bricks leaked and clanked onto the storm cellar doors. She had to get out of this neighborhood. She had to get closer to the statue street. Fain hurried to the farmstand Downtown to start her 3:00 PM working shift.
Shirley knew the Dressing Manufacturer where Walter worked stood on this corner. Where was it? The fact that these streets and shops were separating depressed her. So too the clots of automobiles. In fact, parked across the street, the ends of an acorn-brown one had pulled apart: there was an abscess in the side door, through which she could see pipes and a rusty engine. The car reminded Shirley of her time at the women’s art school, of viewing an anatomical diagram of the face’s muscles. What big-headed classmates, what a pompous asylum. She shook off the memory.
As the days elapsed, the curb, like overproofed dough, had started to slide into the street.
Then she saw where the Dressing Manufacturer once stood. Bricks cobbled in clumps on the sidewalk. Was Walter trapped underneath the rubble? She ran toward it and saw a limb - but it was only an arm-appearing fabric roll. She veered off the curb to avoid two boys swinging around a drifting streetlamp. Then, flailing, Shirley tumbled into a gaping crack. She landed in something soft.
The boys appeared around the pit. “Is that Shirley Berks?” they jeered. “What happened? So rotten they flushed ya?”
White flecks clung to her legs. One stuck to her fingers. She smelled bitter, burnt wood: paper cigarette ends. She was stranded in a cellar of cigarette ends.
Shirley was alone with her thoughts for a half-hour. Then a round shadow cloaked her. He reached into the pit. His torn shirt hung down from his elbow like a flabby wing. His grip was tight; Shirley was fearful he’d rip her sleeve. “Let me go!” she said.
“You ok?” he asked.
She thanked him and hurried off. Walter had looked concerned, but Shirley hated chivalry.
She stumbled to the South 2nd Street Market. In front of a chain link fence stretched tight as high mandolin strings, with a yellow squash hooked over her apron, stood Fain in a green headscarf. “I’m sorry for what I told you earlier,” Shirley moaned.
“Oh,” said Fain. “Why did you say there wasn’t space?”
“Please, remind me, do you paint or,” she huffed, still exhausted from imprisonment, “are you creative in any way?”
“What? Why does everyone ask me that? I’m uncreative, mundane.”
“Forgive me. I don’t mean to be rude. I’m asking because then you could help me with my paintings. A community of compatible people…helps, yes? It…gets the ideas…gets the creative lagoon splashing.” She stared at her boot’s tassels.
“I can tell you don’t believe that,” Fain said. “You’re being unfair. I can still see your art even if all I have’s my opinion.”
“Well, what’re you selling?”
“Radishes. Root crops. I grow them in the Outskirts.”
Shirley looked off the table.
Fain said, “Excuse me. Why is everyone pushing to live here when there’s so much space there? Is it the prestige? Or just the proximity to the artists?” Then she bent behind the table. “Look, I have these too. From the first expansion.” She presented a spangling red radish that had warped to the size of a cakepan. “Go ahead, taste it.”
Shirley bit the crisp, peppery vegetable.
That final night, August’s brand new horse-drawn carriage, a curricle, clopped toward the hordes of people. Cops crossed their arms and leaned against freshly-lit streetlights.
Fain had been to this neighborhood twice before the expansion. But now August’s hydrants had tripled her journey. The trek had tired August’s other followers too. Families, angry and sleep-shorn, raised infants by their armpits, yelling that they needed space the most. “Think of my baby,” came from a pair of dirty knuckles strapped to an infant’s ribs. “We need space!” The baby writhed over a herd of hats. Fain recognized some of her neighbors. One of the bank partners whispered into his wife’s braided bun, “I’m glad they’re moving. The Outskirts people. Always thought they were too close.”
August sat on a throne wearing three necklaces of twinkling beads. His carriage stopped and the beads rattled. He stood and squinted into the crowd, scanning for Shirley.
Then, from across the street, glass squealed. Encroaching characters in the wire SAUQUOIT SILK MANUFACTURING marquee were squeezing out letter K.
The letter popped out and against the sidewalk it clanged.
Then the letter I dangled like a low note on a score.
August began, “We...all know why we’re here, yes? To see the expansion of Sauquoit’s Silks!”
As jarring as someone hurling a glass pane into the street, another letter, n, shattered.
“You made it this way!” shouted a gravedigger.
August eased his palms toward them and tried to grin but grimaced. “Perhaps mistakes were made - but that’s not going to stop me from trying to fix them!” He should’ve said fix instead of trying. His speech collapsed.
August still insisted on lifting out the hydrant himself. He embraced his invention. His boot tweaked and sank one step from the carriage.
Then, the iron’s coolness left him.
Walter hurdled over a broken teal broomstick. He squeezed the hydrant to his chest and zigzagged down the sidewalk. His bare shoulder bucked toward the crowd like tenpins.
Kids and families tugged at August’s hydrant. Boot-scraper-high dirt clouds seethed. Sauquoit Police beat citizens indiscriminately. A frayed denim suspender striped the sidewalk. The gravedigger swerved, shielding his stomach from a kick. Then a lanky pair of arms burst through the crowd and reached for the hydrant.
The hydrant forced Shirley into a strained step where her knee had to guide. Her lower back burned. She dropped the hydrant and tried dragging it. But the crowd closed in. Then the hydrant departed her grip. It was the Silk Company owner, Mr. Sauquoit, with August. The men were cobbling together a photo opp, even after the attempted theft. Then Saquoit’s face twisted. Down he went with a pruning shear to the shoulder. Fain pulled Shirley up.
August gripped Shirley’s other arm. “I’m doing this for us!” he pleaded.
But the gravedigger tore him away.
Fain and Shirley lugged the hydrant for a block, but it was too heavy. Then an engine roared, and an automobile veered so close that Shirley had to tip the hydrant to avoid popping out its mirror. But the car…kept passing? Glossy streetlight bobbed and forked over it. Shirley’s reflection dredged her memory. It was the vehicle which had looked so much like rubbery muscle. Its front tire ran over a wrench, and then she saw, out the front window, Walter. He yelled back, “Let’s go!”
The hydrant teetered in the backseat with Fain. Saquoit Police blazed behind them.
It was a convoluted ride to the Outskirts. The area was one of the only neighborhoods which hadn’t received a hydrant. It had also turned into the most neglected. Service-alleys sealed; sidewalks pushed together, damming up roads. The trio passed brick pillars lurching out of city limits. More stores had suffered the fate of Walter’s: he would never work at that Dressing Manufacturer again.
Fain and Shirley straddled the hydrant over a dandelion clump. They plugged it in place. Walter mopped his brow with a nearby cabbage leaf. Then, a cavernous rocking rumbled throughout the Outskirts.
Neighbors appeared in their sleepwear and Walter, Fain, and Shirley greeted them. Then a long hush unfolded. Shirley let Walter hold her hand.
Surrounding August’s hydrant the next morning, the sidewalk plates cracked open. Overgrown trees toppled and their hairy, star-shaped roots beckoned. Snakes sleeping on fault lines swelled and hid in overgrown cabbage patches.
Using the new space, Fain planted more vegetables. The land needed inordinate amounts of tilling, weeding and hoeing, but August was right: new people were settling in the city every day. And, like Fain, having zero choice, opportunity, or money to fund one of August’s hydrants, people were forced into the Outskirts. In the cleared field next to Fain’s home, Walter, Shirley, and the transplants helped build a community garden. Fain shared her vegetables with the Outskirts. True, the soil’s poverty hurt the potatoes and caused carrots caged in vines to blister from the dirt. But those moving near the Outskirts depended on this food. With the stretching they, like the sculptors on the Street of Statues, had cast off from what used to be so close.
As for August, he’d survived retribution from his fellow citizens. But soon other cities wanted to stretch too, and they persuaded him over with promises of fortune. He sank hydrants all across the United States. Cities sprawled. August abandoned his old rowhome. Wooden panels were nailed on his doors and windows. And that’s how his house stayed until - sitting on the fault line which would eventually swallow the Street of Statues - August’s house undocked itself from the sidewalk and sailed away from the city.
Walter would attempt to be entrepreneurial with his novel, long automobile. He would find smashing success with his invention, which he called a stretch limousine. With the profits, he and Shirley bought a farmhouse in the Outskirts and grew to bicker like schoolchildren.
works as a librarian in Philadelphia, USA. He serves his fellow workers in AFSCME District Council 47 and plays in the 'stoner Thin Lizzy' band, Canid. You can read his published fiction in the Santa Monica Review, Maudlin House, Heavy Feather Review
and collected on his website
. He's come to the realization that most 'conversations' between two people are just subtle battles to see who has to send the first email. Twitter: @unionlibrarian