I woke as the first rays of sunlight pierced the sky and stained it red. I slid out of bed, ignoring the shock of cold where my feet touched the floor, and dressed in a shabby gray suit. I had only one pair of shoes, so my worn black and white sneakers poked out from the slightly too-long hems of my pants. I straightened myself up as best as I could in front of the vanity mirror on the dresser, threw my Work Pass around my neck and then grabbed my case and portable easel. But before leaving, I stopped to dab a little more green in the eyes of the young girl who sat on the edge of my uncle's pinewood easel. She was an Old Town girl, wrapped in a brown jacket that was far too big and clutching a ball of yarn the same color as her eyes to her chest, as well as a few bills with which to buy it. Satisfied that the green in her eyes stood out enough, I left, locking the door behind me.
It was a clear day and the crisp, snapping wind which was characteristic of fall blew through the labyrinth of streets that wound around the buildings. Trees that had grown up through the concrete shed their colorful leaves, which the wind picked up and carried with it. I walked to the tiny corner bakery and bought one of their cinnamon buns, the best in either the Old Town or Edison and walked about a half mile more to the tram stop.
The tram was an Edison construction, a contraption of steel and wires and glass that was out of place in the slow decay of the Old Town. There was a small line of people waiting for the next cab to come in, each with a laminated tag around their neck. "Culture and Recreation District" was written on mine in blue block letters, a barcode nesting between the "C" and the final "t". Several pairs of tired eyes glanced at me as I approached, making sure I took my place at the back of the line before turning towards the sky again to watch the approaching cabs. I waited for several minutes while cabs came and people got on. The man in front of me, who wore a hat that had been fashioned to look like a nesting chicken, boarded the red cab that came in. I stepped up to the platform and scanned my tag at the little barcode reader perched on a metal pole. It beeped in affirmation and a minute later, a blue cab rattled its way down on the wire and stopped in front of me. I clambered into the steel cage, sat on the hard plastic seat and closed the door. The cab took off with a jerk, climbing up until it was floating high above the Old Town. Soon, it veered off the main line onto the line for the Culture District. Empty blue cabs floated on a separate line above me, heading back towards the docking stations.
The cab picked up speed until it was buzzing by at a steady twenty miles per hour. I watched the rooftops and the overgrown gardens and parks fly past below me. Sometimes I caught a glimpse inside someone's window and felt the slight guilty thrill of being able to peer into a stranger's life. After about ten minutes, the cab slowed and began to descend as it approached the domed Culture District. A square section of the dome seemed to disintegrate for a moment, but as soon as I passed through, it materialized back in place. The tram moved down into the city, past Edison Stadium, past clubs and bars catering to every niche and fetish and the large community of galleries which all lead up to the very altar of art: the enormous Edison Public Museum of Art, a labyrinthine cathedral of smoked glass and sculptured steel. The cab touched down at the station just yards from the art museum. It then locked into the dock with a click and the door popped open. I clambered out, dragging my things with me. Men and women, all with blue Work Passes hanging from their necks milled about the station, chatting or sharing cups of coffee under the watchful eye of a bronze Calvin Monroe.
I crossed the platform to one of several Check Booths lined up along the station. I rapped on the window and the woman whom I saw every day, but who never recognized me looked up dourly from her magazine.
"Good morning," I said, smiling, through the closed window. She stared at me for several uncomfortable moments, as if deciding whether or not to acknowledge my presence. Finally, she opened the window and slid a barcode scanner in front of me, falling back into her chair as if the small action had exhausted her. I leaned forward and scanned my tag. The woman looked over at the computer screen on her desk and then swiveled her bored eyes back to me, checking the photo against my own face to make sure I was who my pass said I was.
"Allen Wilton?" she asked, to be doubly certain I was myself.
‘Commuting Workers must always behave in a courteous and professional manner towards all citizens of Edison.'
She made no reply, but clicked the mouse in confirmation. The closed gate that lay directly to the right swung open and I passed through it, leaving the clerk to her magazine.
The gate opened out onto a narrow raised terrace, covered by blue and white striped canopies. Bicycles wove their way through crowds of pedestrians and magnetic trolleys sped along invisible routes above. There were no streets here like in the Old Town, only open expanses of concrete between the buildings, parks, gardens and squares. On the other side of the tram station was the main entrance to Edison Park. Symbolic gates, always open, flanked the wide path leading into the park and a granite arch bore the inscription ‘For the Enjoyment of All' in gilded italics.
Like the gates, the inscription was purely symbolic. In reality, Edison Park was the playground of the wealthy and the well-to-do. An enormous country club occupied at least half of the park and it ruled over the rest of the area like a castle over the countryside. The club house itself was styled after the ancient colonial mansions of the Old South and boasted as its members all the most important figures of Edison and a good deal of political figures and celebrities from outside the city. Across from the country club gates was a marble fountain surrounded by a blue tile square that was a meeting place for those of more modest means. Children played by the fountain, splashing each other with streams of water which dozens of sculpted fish spat from their mouths. Adults chatted at benches or lounged on blankets in the grass around the square while the owners of lunch carts leaned on the handles of their mobile livelihoods and smoked cigarettes.
It was here in Blue Square, as it was called, that I would set up shop today. The two foot long piece of metal I held unfolded into a full size, lightweight easel. And I took a poster from my bag advertising my profession:
HAVE YOUR PORTRAIT DRAWN
30 $ PER PERSON
ADD 10 $ COLOR
On the poster were examples of my portraits. Simple, semi-realistic portrayals drawn in charcoals or pastels. It was usually visitors to Edison who paid to have their portrait drawn sitting beside whatever landmark I happened to be hovering around that day. Almost all of them had cameras to capture these images faster and more accurately, but a drawing seemed to appeal to their vanity in a way that a simple photograph could not.
While I waited for someone to drift by, I took out a sketchbook and a piece of charcoal and sketched the fountain, the children splashing at each other, a hot dog cart meandering by. People came and went and I made little sketches of the interesting ones in the corners of the page. As it neared noon, I feared today would be a slow one. True, drawing portraits on the street let me do something I enjoyed, but it was not a stable way to make a living by any means. As a farmer depended on a good crop, I depended on a steady stream of tourists that, like a field, flourished in the summer and dried up to nothing in the winter.
Disappointed, but not disheartened, I decided to wait for another half hour and then move to another location. Turning from the fountain to a neatly organized rectangle of flowers and turning the page I picked a single deep purple iris out from the rest of the garden and began to draw.
It was in that moment I first met her. I barely glanced at her as she moved with a small group across the square. The group was nothing more than a single unit of noticeable wealth strolling across the pavement on a dozen limbs that moved at odd intervals. It chattered to itself in voices that all sounded different, but which were really all the same. The only reason I distinguished her from the rest of the group was the stupendous hat perched atop her head, sticking out over the heads of the group like some giant green and gold bird. And for a brief moment, as the collective moved past me, every other eye turned in the opposite direction, hers locked with mine. Discs of amber flashed with curiosity before a voice of the group pulled them away from me. She was gone.
Ignoring the vague feeling of apprehension in my stomach, I turned back to the iris. At this point, a small brown moth had lighted on it and opened and shut its wings slowly. I set about capturing it, sketching out the body as fast as I could. Then wings began to unfurl under my charcoal. A dark shadow fell over me and the moth fled.
I cursed to myself as I turned around, to find the woman in the flamboyant hat standing over me. With the company of the group absent, I could see the simple knee length dress made of green silk and matching jacket she wore.
"You make faces when you draw," she said before I could say anything to her.
I was a little taken aback at the comment, but moved quickly into a salesman persona. Putting on a sunny smile, I stood up and greeted her.
"Good afternoon, ma'am. Would you like to have your portrait drawn? I'm sure that a lovely lady like yourself would look even lovelier sitting at the fountain or reading on a park bench."
"No thank you," she answered, "I can't really see what that has to do with anything.... I can't decide whether it makes you look intelligent or dull."
"Well, I guess it doesn't really matter much, all in all. You are talented, and that's what counts. I think you might be perfect for the job, actually. I'll have to talk to P-"
"Miss Werner! There you are!" a voice cried from behind her. It was followed by a man, possibly in his late thirties, who was several inches shorter than her. His hairline was just beginning to recede. The balding man took one look at me, or rather my Work Pass, and raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, hello Mr. David," she said in a weary voice, "I'm guessing Leon is pitching a fit."
"We were all worried for you, Miss Werner. Please try not to wander off, we're behind schedule now."
"Alright, Mr. David. I need to talk to Paul anyways," she said, with a glance in my direction.
"Well," she said, "it's been nice talking to you."
I watched them walk away, so stunned that it was several seconds before I realized what was going on.
"Wait!" I called, "Come back!"
But they had already disappeared into the crowd.