FOR A FEW WEEKS in early March, every morning at 3:30 a.m., the Smoking Girl joined Cliff for a cigarette break in front of the office building in which they both worked. He didn’t know her name, never got around to asking her. Then she disappeared, and Cliff’s troubles worsened.
Cliff was a little man who lived in a mid-size city some 500 miles from the coast of the nation, a city the color of gray stone, that gray stone that one sees everywhere, granite or slate, or something like that. He lived in a city that was the color of an unbeauteous stone.
Cliff was only a little over five feet three inches tall. When he was around 26, his hair began to fall out, and it was now completely gone other than bushy triangles of fuzz on the side of his head, which he cut himself from time to time, and which hung down over his ears when he couldn’t be bothered to cut it.
He worked at an office from midnight to 8 a.m., an office with a ground floor lobby that was described as “faux art deco.” Cliff didn’t know what that meant, but he accepted it as fact. Faux art deco. Anyone who worked at Cliff’s company during the daylight hours might see Cliff leave in the morning, at the start of the workday, and never really know who Cliff was or what he did all night.
Some years earlier, a new law took effect in his city, which banned smoking inside office buildings. So, after that, Cliff habitually took a break at 3:30 every morning and went outside into the darkness, stood in front of the building, faced the mostly deserted street, smoked a cigarette. After a while, he would flip his sparking cigarette butt into the pothole puddle, listen to it hiss, then go back to work for the remaining several hours.
Sometimes, while he smoked, he would think about his job, construct elaborate plans to improve quality and client satisfaction. One morning, some years back, he bought a journal from the newsstand on the ground floor of his building, in which he would scribble these brainstorms. But his ideas stayed in his journal. He wasn’t happy with his job, after all, but he was glad for the paycheck, and he didn’t want to anger anyone in management. Still, the ideas came.
CLIFF WAS 53 YEARS OLD IN MARCH 1988. He’d had a fiancée a long time ago, 23 years ago, when he was just thirty. She called herself D. Just an initial, one syllable, D. She pronounced it “Dee,” but she spelled it “D.” She’d been 6 months pregnant when she left him, back then, so Cliff probably had a grown son or daughter by now, somewhere. He had no way to find his child. His fiancée, when they were engaged, was like him, all alone. So when she left, there was no one to call and ask. He wished there were some easy way to flip a switch and look people up, track people down, because he wondered if he had a son or a daughter, he was just curious.
Someone told him once, maybe fifteen years earlier, that he had “trust issues.”
He didn’t know what that meant, trust issues. He just didn’t trust people. It seemed to be a reasonable state of mind, not an issue at all.
He started to have some hope, in early March. The Smoking Girl gave him some hope, for a little while.
“May I join you?” she said, as he stood in front of the building, smoking, and he nodded and grunted. He later wished that he had said something more compelling than a grunt combined with a nod.
She was probably ten years younger than he was, but, in his head, he called her the Smoking Girl. He was a fifty-three-year-old man, after all, and the year was 1988.
She was pretty, he thought, he told himself, although in March 1988, she wore a winter coat, with a hood over the top of her head, only a few tufts of brownish hair were visible, and her face was pale and too-white in the light of the night street lamps, and who could really tell, and who cared, after all?
Their conversation that first night was mundane and brief. Still, she habitually joined him on subsequent Tuesdays and Thursdays — the work shifts began Monday night and Wednesday night, and so when she joined him, it was Tuesday or Thursday — and she joined him two or three minutes after he arrived at his spot, with the building behind him, and the pothole puddle in front of him.
Maybe she enjoyed their conversations, maybe she liked him. Maybe she just thought it was a convenient time for a smoke, and a convenient place for a smoke. She didn’t dislike him, and that was something. She kept joining him, and their conversations remained friendly, though mundane and brief, except once.
“Standing here, in the street, in this light rain,” she said, and then she stopped and took a long drag on her cigarette. It was almost done, her cigarette, but she didn’t flick it into the puddle just yet, she stared at it, the little glow in the dimness. “Standing here like this, in the rainy night,” she continued, “it reminds me of one rainy night in the forest, when I was little, behind my house, hundreds of miles away from here. Maybe thousands, I don’t know.”
Cliff nodded. He said that it reminded him of being on the rooftop of his building with his dad, looking at the stars through a telescope.
The Smoking Girl looked a little disappointed. Her eyes grew distant.
He could tell that she wasn’t listening anymore, and he didn’t know why. He knew that he had done something wrong, and that something had just changed, some previously possible future was no longer a possible future. Like the time he’d skipped his college entrance exams, inexplicably, thoughtlessly, decades ago. Just stayed in bed, pulled the blanket over his eyes, just lay there all morning. Afterwards, some future no longer existed.
Cliff wanted this moment of awkwardness to end. He wanted the Smoking Girl to leave, he wanted to feel free of this discomfort, and so, without really thinking much about it, he narrowed his eyes and looked at her quizzically, almost crossly, warning her away.
She tossed her cigarette into that eternal puddle. Maybe she muttered some kind of brief pleasantry — maybe she thanked him for his company and the conversation, Cliff couldn’t really tell. Maybe she said nothing at all before she left.
He smoked a little more, alone, then he took the elevator up to the 32nd floor. The Smoking Girl, at her desk, animatedly flipped through a bulky, ponderous document, debated something with her supervisor. Cliff wanted to approach her, to apologize, but he knew that would only make everything worse.
WHEN HIS SHIFT ENDED, Cliff returned to his apartment, fed his dog. He told his pet all about the Smoking Girl while the dog ate. Cliff’s dog was a mutt, a little unidentifiable ball of fuzz who’d followed him home one day and had never left.
“I should have said, Tell me about that,” he said to the mutt. “Why was she in the forest, on a rainy night, as a little girl? What did she want to tell me? What was she waiting for me to ask?”
But he didn’t really know, anymore, how to ask anyone questions, to learn about anyone else’s feelings. He was just out of practice. So, instead, he’d told his own story, about his own childhood.
He was used to talking about himself, in his head and to his dog.
“It wasn’t bad or evil,” he said to the dog. “It was just a mistake. It changed the dynamic. You see?”
THE FOLLOWING WEEK, when Cliff arrived at the office, he saw her across the night-staff room, sitting at her desk.
He considered waving, but he didn’t. He figured he would see her later. He didn’t want to make a scene, especially after his faux pas.
“Faux pas,” he said, under his breath. Such a lovely word, such a nice sound.
That was March 14, a Monday. She didn’t join him to smoke at 3:30 that morning, and when he returned to the office, after his smoke, she wasn’t there.
He asked a colleague where she was, the girl who usually sat at the desk at the opposite corner of the room. The colleague didn’t know who Cliff was talking about.
He went home, patted his dog, fed his dog some kind of food out of a can, which he didn’t recognize, even though he must have bought it himself. He shrugged. The memory problems of a 53-year-old man, he laughed to himself.
THE FOLLOWING WEDNESDAY, March 16, he didn’t see her, and when he asked after her, more vigorously, to more people — “Where is the girl who usually sits here on Tuesday and Thursday, the girl who smokes, the Smoking Girl?” — no one knew who he meant. He said that he was pretty sure that this desk was not usually unoccupied, but this jarred no memories. At 3:30 a.m., he smoked alone.
When he returned home after his shift ended that morning, March 17, he opened his refrigerator, intended to retrieve the carton of eggs that he had bought on Tuesday, but he didn’t see the eggs there. He was sure he had bought eggs, and he was sure he had not eaten them.
He found frozen egg substitute in the freezer — he didn’t remember buying it and didn’t know why he would buy something healthy, he didn’t need to be healthy, he had no one to be healthy for, he did not want to live forever, he did not even want to live all that much longer — then he looked for the pork sausages, but he could find only turkey sausages, even though he was sure that he had bought pork sausages.
So Cliff cooked turkey sausages with scrambled egg substitute, and he thought about the Smoking Girl, and how he always missed opportunities, how his life was an array of what-if’s.
He fed the mutt, and he ate his scrambled egg substitute and turkey sausages, wished he had some real eggs, and missed his pork sausages.
WHEN HE RETURNED TO THE OFFICE THE FOLLOWING MONDAY, the lobby design had changed. It was no longer “faux art deco.” It was gray, with arches and arcades. Cliff might have described it as “Romanesque,” if he’d had the vocabulary.
“New design,” he said to a stranger on the elevator. He laughed a little. “I like it, but I do not know who made the change, or how they managed to make all these changes over the weekend.”
The stranger shrugged.
“It looks the same to me,” he said.
“It doesn’t look different to you?” Cliff asked.
“Different from what?”
“From before. Different from faux art deco? What would you call this?”
The stranger used a word that Cliff had never heard.
“What do you mean by that?” Cliff asked.
The stranger turned away, lowered his eyes, stared at the elevator buttons.
On the 32nd floor, the desks in the workroom had been rearranged, and Cliff could not find his seat.
“Anyone notice the changes in the lobby design?” he asked, as he wandered around the room. “No longer, whatchamacallit, faux art deco.”
His colleagues shrugged, as the stranger in the elevator had shrugged.
Of course, no sign of the Smoking Girl. No office memory of the Smoking Girl. She was just gone gone gone.
“IF YOU WERE ME,” he said out-loud, to the mutt, while the mutt ate breakfast the following morning, “would you be happy if the whole world suddenly changed? I guess you’d want the whole world to change, if you were me.”
The sun rose over the far distant skyscrapers, on the other side of the river. Were those skyscrapers there before? Were they there yesterday?
“The thing is,” he said, raising his pointer finger, looking at the tree outside his window, which was suddenly bedecked with brilliant purple flowers. “The thing is … nothing that matters is changing. Why do I care if there is a tree with purple flowers outside my window?”
HE WENT TO THE BANK, and he asked the teller to check his balance, but nothing had changed there. The bank teller was a young woman, a pretty young woman with an unusual skin color and a pretty smile.
He asked her to check again, but the balance was still the same.
“Purple flowers in trees,” he muttered, right there in front of the bank teller, “but the same fifty-four dollars and seventy-six cents in the bank.”
He smiled at her, and she smiled back, distantly.
When pretty women were forced to smile at Cliff, they always smiled distantly. Other than the Smoking Girl, he supposed.
He stood in front of the bank teller, and he thought about the Smoking Girl, and he wondered where she had gone.
HE APPEARED WITHOUT NOTICE at his doctor’s office. He had known the doctor for years.
“It is an emergency,” he told the doctor. “I remember things that apparently never happened. And I do not remember what is apparently acknowledged reality.”
The doctor was a short man, probably sixty-five years old or more by now. His hair was gray, and his jowls sagged, but his eyes were still youthful.
In the examination room, he looked up Cliff’s nose, tapped the side of Cliff’s head with a small metal hammer.
Cliff stared at a mole on the left side of the doctor’s face.
“I have lost my memory,” Cliff said. “Have you always had that mole on your face?”
The doctor looked up.
“What mole?” he asked, and the mole disappeared.
“Nothing,” said Cliff. Then: “But you see, that is what I am talking about. That kind of thing happens all the time.”
The doctor tapped Cliff’s head again with the small metal hammer, then he grunted and nodded with what seemed to be satisfaction.
“Nothing wrong with you,” he said.
The doctor sat down at his desk, and he looked over the top of his glasses at Cliff.
“Just to be sure,” he added, “visit Dr. Sloane at the Memory Center. X Avenue. Ask Bea to make an appointment for you on the way out. But, again, nothing wrong with you. I tapped your head with the little hammer, and everything is fine.”
Cliff had never heard of this test, the little-hammer-test.
The doctor flipped open his prescription pad.
The mole was back, this time on the right side of the doctor’s face, angrier and darker than before.
“Have you always had that mole?” Cliff asked.
“Since I was a boy,” the doctor said absently, as he scribbled out a prescription. He didn’t look up. “It’s nothing to worry about. Very benign. So benign it’s almost benevolent.”
He stood up, ripped the paper off the pad and handed it to Cliff.
“But I get asked about it all the time,” the doctor continued. “Everyone worries about me. I am surprised you never noticed it before.”
Cliff took the paper. The mole disappeared.
“What mole?” the doctor asked.
WHEN HE WOKE THE NEXT DAY AT NOON, Cliff looked for his dog, but a cat stood in his kitchen. The cat stared at Cliff with those weird, piercing cat-eyes. The cat had a collar around his neck, the ID read Vicious Monster. The cat blinked, then the cat licked his own face in that awful way that cats do, that blinking, face-licking thing that cats do, which Cliff had always hated.
FROM NOW ON, Cliff mused, as he headed up X Avenue to the Memory Center, I will express alarm only after others express alarm. I will note differences only if others first note differences. I will agree, mostly. And I will keep my eyes open for the Smoking Girl.
He reached the address, 496 X Avenue, in the middle of the business district, a four-story, transparent and all-glass building, stitched together with electric pink beams, an aviary of some sort, hunched beneath 100-story office buildings.
Outside, fifty men stood in line. Each wore a bowler hat, and a suit with a yellow tie. Inside, flying peacocks and ostriches flitted among high branches, and men in bowler hats, with suits and yellow ties, hovered in the air, held aloft by great butterfly wings.
Cliff went to the front of the line and asked the first man what this place was and why these businessmen in bowler hats were waiting. The man didn’t reply, didn’t even acknowledge him. So he asked the second man in line, then the third, but he was met with the same reaction.
He didn’t go in. He knew that this was not the Memory Center anymore. He walked across the Avenue to the Papaya joint to eat dinner, except that it wasn’t the Papaya joint anymore. The menu on the wall was old and faded. This had never been his Papaya joint; it didn’t serve papaya. He had never cared about papaya till it was gone. He stood at the counter and ordered. The attendant nodded when Cliff ordered, even repeated the order, but then apparently forgot all about Cliff. After a few tries Cliff walked behind the counter and got himself a hot dog.
He hung around the Papaya joint that wasn’t a Papaya joint for a few hours, watching the changed city change some more, from gray to blue to green to a sort of violet red, then he walked the few blocks to his office, where he found a young man sitting at his desk, and where his presence was met with baffled stares. He didn’t look even familiar to anyone. He did not shout Remember me? No one remembered him. He knew that already.
He went back home, packed his bag. Everything was different, the city had changed, it had moved on without him, so maybe it was time for him to move on as well. He existed — he thought, and therefore he was, like the fella said — but he didn’t exist the way he used to. He had gone from sort of to barely, from the sort of existence of a midnight office worker in a one-room apartment to the bare, mere existence of an unemployed middle-aged man with no plan at all, no future, and a dissolving past that no one else even remembered. Was there really a place in the world for a man who had once worked from midnight to 8 a.m. but no longer did, a man who might have a child out there somewhere whom he had never met, a man who knew how to speak only to his dog, which was not a dog anymore?
His cat eyed him suspiciously from the corner of the kitchen. In the cat’s mouth, a kind of half-rat/half-cockroach, with six legs, those beady suspicious rat-eyes, and mandibles.
“Are you my friend?” Cliff asked the cat. “Are you the mutt, transformed into a cat? Or are you different altogether? Do you know me? Do you like me? And what do you have in your mouth?”
The roach/rat, to Cliff’s horror, began to speak English.
Oh, shit, it said, as it tried to squirm free. Ouch ouch ouch. Please let me go!
Vicious Monster dropped the wretched creature at Cliff’s feet, where it let out a long, last gasp, and expired.
Cliff decided he would bring Vicious Monster with him. His cat still recognized him, after all, which was reassuring, and he could also use a friend adept at killing this new world’s awful talking creatures.
He walked through the park, the bag in one hand, the cat in the crook of his arm. In front of a gazebo, they came upon some sort of eight-armed ape and a man in a striped jacket, bow tie and straw hat, playing a two-man tuba.
A little crowd gathered around, smiling, and clapping periodically.
Forget the eight-armed sort-of-ape. Cliff had never seen even a two-man tuba. But he didn’t tell anyone that.
“Very nice,” he said to an old woman, who clutched her purse to her chest. “Very good performance, I think so, anyway.”
Just pretending everything were normal.
The old woman stared straight ahead.
“You know nothing,” the old woman said, not looking at him. “You know nothing about music. You know nothing.”
Cliff and his cat walked north through the park, past a lake filled with fiery flying fish, over jagged, snowy mountains, under purple flowering trees that sheltered birds that screamed threats and obscenities into the cloudy, yellow-green air.
Upon emerging from the park, Cliff and his cat descended into the train station, then hopped onto a train bound for a city on the coast. The conductor asked Cliff for his ticket, but Cliff shrugged and said he didn’t have one, and the conductor asked no further questions.
He stole a danish from the train café, no one asked him for money. He sat at a booth in the café car, and he read a book he’d brought with him, and no one bothered him. He stroked his cat’s fur, who purred.
After some hours, the train arrived in the city on the coast, and Cliff exited the train with his bag and his cat.
Cliff and Vicious Monster took a bus uptown till they reached a block of luxurious apartment buildings, the kind of fancy apartment buildings Cliff had never even visited, ever before.
They descended from the bus. The sun was setting, dyeing the bay in the distance a deep, vibrant orange red.
The cat was gone. In his arms one moment, gone the next.
He chose one building to make his home, a skyscraper right on the corner, which overlooked the park. He just walked in, strode past the doorman, who nodded absently at Cliff.
Cliff rode the elevator up to the top floor, padded along the carpeted hallway. He tried various doors, till one opened up, the penthouse. It was empty. No furniture, no nothing, a vacant home. Cliff took a shower in the empty apartment. It was the best shower he’d ever taken, streams of hot water rotated and pounded on his tight, tense skin. After a while, he felt relaxed, and then he slept in the opulent master bedroom in the empty apartment, on the floor. He lived there for a while, stole a TV for the living room, stole a sleeping bag for the bedroom, explored the neighborhood during the day, stole food from the fancy restaurants on the avenue and ate in the park on the edge of the lake. He watched the water, the tourists threw breadcrumbs, the imported goldfish and koi leapt for the breadcrumbs. One day, a new occupant arrived, a late-middle-aged man with graying temples and beautiful, radiant skin. The man marched right into the apartment while Cliff sat on the floor in the living room and watched TV. The man had a woman on his arm, a much younger woman, tanned and slim and elegant.
“Why is the TV on?” the man wondered. Then he saw Cliff. “And you,” the man said, quizzically.
Cliff scrambled up from the floor.
“I am nobody much,” he said. “The world has passed me by.” The way my own life passed me by when I skipped my entrance exams, all those years ago. “The world has forgotten me.” The way D. has forgotten me, in the years since she left me.
“Certainly,” the man said. “I get it.”
Cliff grabbed his bag and left the apartment.
Agitated at the loss of his home, he wandered across town to the docks, stared out at the bay, at the ships coming and going, the gulls diving for food.
An old woman stood a few feet from him, also watching the gulls.
“The world does not know me,” Cliff said to her, and he thought, The way my child does not know me.
The old woman said, “You can never tell the world anything. It will not listen.”
Cliff began to reply, but then he saw that the old woman was gone.
He didn’t know where she had gone. She is probably with my cat, he thought.
Cliff still didn’t know why the Smoking Girl disappeared.
Maybe that was how everything started, this Great Changing. Maybe it all started when the Smoking Girl disappeared.
Or maybe the Smoking Girl’s disappearance was nothing unusual, maybe the Smoking Girl just left, moved away, didn’t bother to say goodbye, because why would she bother to say goodbye to a bald little man from the office who smoked every morning at 3:30? Maybe she still lived somewhere. Maybe she had not actually “disappeared,” she had just quit her job. Maybe no one remembered her because no one could be bothered to remember a twice-a-week nighttime office worker.
Cliff decided to figure this whole thing out. He retrieved the journal from his bag, the journal in which he had once written his thoughts about how to improve his workplace.
He wrote down what he knew about his predicament, things he did not know, and potential solutions. The things he did not know greatly outnumbered the other categories, and he worried that this would remain the case for some time, but he was determined to try.
The next day, he passed in the street a man with a monocle and a silver-tipped cane. The man seemed to make eye contact with Cliff, just momentarily, and there seemed some kind of knowingness on his face. Why, after all, would a man walk about the city with a monocle and a silver-tipped cane unless he were some sort of genius who could bend time and reality?
Who, Cliff wrote in his notebook, is the man with a monocle and silver-tipped cane? What does he know? Is he the key to everything?
Cliff followed the man with a monocle and silver-tipped cane up and down the avenue. The man walked a mile uptown, stopped, clomped his cane on the ground three times, then he walked a mile downtown, stopped, clomped his came on the ground three times.
Does this mean something? Cliff wrote. Is this the way the man changes reality, this stomp/clomp combo?
He followed the man with a monocle and silver-tipped cane for a month, slept on the bench across the street from the man’s building at night, followed him up and down the street in the morning, wrote in his notebook where the man stopped, where he clomped his cane. After the month was through, Cliff approached the man as he exited his building in the morning, but the man continued walking, showed no recognition, ignored Cliff’s entreaties as one would ignore any lunatic on the street.
Cliff continued to look for clues. He wrote down patterns that he thought he could discern. Perhaps there were no clues to be found. Perhaps there were no patterns. But Cliff kept trying.
He had all the food he could steal. He lived in a series of empty, luxurious apartments. He read great books. He missed his dog.
ON MONDAY, APRIL 15, 1991, he went to an early movie, a matinee at 10 a.m., a supposedly “classic” film, but something he had never heard of before, and reality had changed so much that he didn’t even understand it at all, too many unfamiliar references and words. He walked across the avenue, and a half block in the distance, he thought he saw the Smoking Girl, still wearing her winter coat, unbuttoned, the spring weather was still a little chilly so that wasn’t unusual, her pale brown hair still poking out of her hood. He waved, and she waved back. That is, from a distance, he thought she waved back. Or maybe she was just brushing hair out of her face. Or maybe she was waving at someone else.
Maybe she was the only thing that remained the same in the world, after all this time.
He ran up the block to try to catch her, but he lost her in the crowd. Maybe, up close, she didn’t even look like the Smoking Girl at all. His eyesight was getting fuzzy. He was getting older. This new unfamiliar world was a haze of color and blurred lines.
Maybe he hadn’t seen the Smoking Girl at all. Maybe he had, but maybe he hadn’t. Maybe it had been a trick of his failing eyesight, and a trick of his lonely imagination. Maybe she was here in this world, and maybe she had waved to him. But maybe not.
He thought about the Smoking Girl a lot, every day, usually, so it wasn’t surprising that he might make this mistake. Maybe she had been his last chance at happiness, after all. Maybe he would never know.
Steven S. Drachman is the author of a science fiction trilogy, The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.
Art design by Steven S. Drachman