A TRIPLICATE OF WORKS
FROM A BOOK CALLED
PALACE OF RUBBLE (Tenement #6)
Kyra SIMONE’s PALACE OF RUBBLE is a collection of stories composed primarily of single words culled each day from the NEW YORK TIMES, among other news sources. Written under constraint in the tradition of Oulipo—and accompanied by a suite of photographs by John DIVOLA—these hybrid works of prose are reconstructions that no longer resemble the original texts, yet draw from the same reservoir of vocabulary, conveying new images and ideas, while preserving some distant ember of the universe from which they were first generated.
Initially inspired by a photograph of one of Saddam Hussein’s demolished palaces printed on the cover of a newspaper Simone found discarded on a café table during the fall of Baghdad in 2003, PALACE OF RUBBLE has since evolved into an accumulation of texts invoked by a historical moment spanning the eras of Bush, Obama, Trump, and into the present day. Offering surreal glimpses of what might be identified as echoes of a post-Republic America, an imagined Middle East, and some other unnamed and unreachable world, it chronicles a vivid landscape of crumbling towers and heart-broken animals, eclipses, comets, and lovers in abandoned rooms, still searching for beauty amidst the ruins of the catastrophe bequeathed to them.
THE CLOUDS THAT PASSINSIDE THE ROOM A FRAMED PICTURE OF JESUS HANGS OVER AN ALTAR. The house is empty, but for the half-drunk man who slumps against the wall in a pinstriped suit. He has been there for hours, snoring through the dusk, his hat on crooked and a large duffle bag slung over his shoulder. The carpet is wet on the floor around him, the spikes on his shoes dripping with honey. The summer has been long and quiet in the city, a slow season of watching the clouds that pass. It’s as though a bomb has gone off in the streets, everyone on holiday somewhere else, the bakeries closed and the shops boarded up, as strangers with cameras march through town in other languages, the few remaining locals left to hide among the ruins. In his sleep, the man dreams of a place full of people he knows, a small town where heavy rains have fallen for weeks. The water comes down with the voice of a crowd as the skeletons of umbrellas lie abandoned on the sidewalk, the swishing of windshield wipers blurring all within view. In this place, he is a boy again, a teenager interlocking hands with a young girl, entering the cafeteria. They see each other’s outlines for the first time through their soaked clothes, as a woman in a black coat sits alone across the room and buttons the darkness around her. Later, they lie on their backs in a field, sneaking over the rock wall at night to watch a meteor shower. The wind blows over them as they cling to each other to stay warm, watching the stray wisps of falling light. They plan to lose their virginities to each other on a rock overlooking the freeway, but will end up doing it in the boy’s room when his mother is away. ‘On the radio they said there would be sixty an hour,’ says the boy, as a glowing rock the size of their heads streams across the sky, a fat tail of light blazing behind it. They both cry out, knowing they have never seen anything so beautiful. ‘Star gazing is like looking into the past,’ says the girl. ‘The light is so far away from us, what we’re seeing has already happened. Some of the stars are dead, burned out for ages.’ Around them it is sharp and shifting and magnificent, but something ominous comes with the rain. The man in the pinstripes wakes up and crawls to his altar. He begins to pray, the chipped rosary coiled around his fingers. Tonight, he will hit a home run that should be remembered for eternity, but the seats are all empty and no one will see it, just as he has never seen another light in the sky.
THE LAST MAN TO QUALIFY‘IF I COULD DIG A HOLE AND GO INSIDE IT I WOULD,’ says the cemetery worker, his feet dangling from the edge of a gravestone where he is perched like a bird. He is on his lunch break but the paper sack his wife packed for him is only full of air. Ice cream. Cigarettes. Meat. They have all been cut from the budget. A black car turns the corner at the graveyard’s periphery as if it has no driver. A woman crosses the street with an empty grocery bag hanging from her arm. In town there is no one in the windows. A row of mannequins at a second-hand clothing store stand emaciated at its entrance, naked, while men in suits and dark glasses walk down the avenue waving. If he were a bird, the cemetery worker would soar over the peninsula. From above, he would see the pair of boats approach each other on the water, two triangular shapes in a deep blue abyss, the people piled onto them barely recognizable as human, appearing only as a tangle of sunburned parts. The blue they have set out for is impenetrable, an unreachable indigo. Brilliant. Sapphire. Imaginary as the jewellery the tourists buy. The gems hang from the lampposts now, like rotting fruit, like buzzards from nooses. There are other ways of getting to the horizon, you might suppose. Like trying to marry the Polish girlfriend you meet online. It is late July in the square. Paint peels from the buildings like leprous skin. The café tables are tied to the cobblestones. There are no tattoos of movie stars on the bald surface of the cemetery worker’s head, only reflections of the swamp-green light from the florescent sign across the street: ‘LA PHARMACIE’ illuminated in neon. Near the capitol, the street is no longer visible. It is filled with bodies holding their fists in the air. The surrounding rooftops are strewn with the same shapes, indistinguishable from the figures on the boats and in the store windows. ‘All you care about is eating,’ the cemetery worker says to the ape who works for him, zoo shackles still rattling at his feet from his years of doing time. Together they tend the flowers over the graves, jasmine sprouting from the mouths of the dead, as they rake the earth and stab pinwheels into the ground. The old primate stands over a pot of boiling water. He tosses in a roadmap pilfered from the trash and watches it disintegrate, then a newspaper scattered with pictures of the felled dictator, both dissolving into a nice aioli. ‘You can’t eat that,’ says the cemetery worker, dipping his handkerchief into the mixture and applying it to his face like sunscreen. Once, in his hometown, it was spring. But a winter has followed, and overstayed its welcome. It has been a decade of disappointment. Young men die at sea. Others set themselves on fire. The oblong shapes stretch across the ground, dug out for their coffins like lanes in a swimming pool, the eighth row reserved for the last man to qualify. The spirits swim through the rectangles of dirt, imagining they are racing through water they once knew in life. A boy who died young thinks of floating on his back in the Mediterranean. First to reach the far end of his grave, when his hand touches the headstone, he is stunned by what he sees. As he registers the numbers on the scoreboard his eyes turn to gold discs. The anthem plays invisibly from somewhere in the background and metal tears stream down his cheeks. ‘It’s a dream,’ he says. ‘That’s it.’ ‘Do the dead have dreams?’ the ape asks, emptying the pot into the ground. ‘The unborn do,’ says the cemetery worker. ‘At a certain number of weeks, the foetus begins dreaming in the womb. But they only dream of what they know: a watery darkness they haven’t seen yet, though they sense is there. The mother dreams too. She dreams of her child, while it dreams inside her—a dream within a dream.’ ‘No one knows about the dead,’ says the swimmer, looking up from his grave. ‘Unless you consider death to be one long dream. But I can’t wake up from mine to tell you about it.’ In a bar somewhere far west of here, the swimmer’s face appears on the television. He is still teary-eyed as the flag of his country is hoisted above him at the award ceremony. A woman watching from the bar stares at the fluttering icon and also begins to weep. They cry in unison on either side of the screen, though this woman understands nothing of what the flag really means. The two boats collide in the blue abyss. If the cemetery worker were a bird, he would see the people tumble into the water. ‘Get the new lanes ready,’ he says to the ape, stabbing his shovel into the ground.
A CERTAIN MUSIC
A YOUNG MAN LEANS ON THE BALCONY, a shiny red wig covering his dark curls. He wears his dead grandmother’s floral-patterned housecoat, unbuttoned to reveal the scars across his bare chest where the glass has been removed from his body. He has stayed here to be among her things, to wear her gloves and pearls, to be surrounded by her knick-knacks—the clothes she’d sewn for his Barbie dolls as a child, her sunken throw pillows, her church lady smell. When he saw her in the casket, her pen was still in her pocket, her hair still neatly arranged in a bun. He waited for her chest to move, but her lips were purple, no ticking from her rib cage since it was pierced by a fallen shard. Where the young man leans, delicate plants grow at the perimeter of the balcony, masking a dishevelled horizon beyond it, the streets below filled with piles of glass, a detritus of prisms distorting the view, glowing in patches of cracked rainbow light. An old peddler walks through it carrying a stick loaded with cotton candy, his feet clanging with a certain music as they drag through the debris. When the wind blows, the bundles of pink fluff drift into the air, casting long U-boat shadows across the road, floating like clouds past the empty buildings. Everyone here has reckoned with the glass. It falls from the sky daily and can be felt in the heart, the ears, the eyes. Some people still find pieces of it in the corners of their houses. Some have ingested it without knowing, like spiders that crawl into a person’s mouth when they’re sleeping or the fragments found in spoonful’s snuck from the sugar jar at night. The window panes are all missing, punched out from their frames. There is no glass left anywhere that isn’t broken. It can only be dug up from the ground or collected in buckets where it leaks from holes in the roof, its transparent dust sifted through fingers, squeezed and released from bloody palms. Children pick up the jagged shapes and use them to burn insects on the sidewalk or string them together and hang them as wind chimes. They use them as knives to hold up the tourists—those who haven’t already been impaled by flying shards against the walls like notes to a dart board. It didn’t say anything in the guidebook about that. The inventory is as such: a pile of yellow worker’s boots. A broken elevator. A package of birth control pills floating beside a half-eaten lollipop and an Islamic amulet meant to protect the house stuffed down the drain of a shattered toilet. A curved sectional sofa in an empty lobby, covered in plastic. A ladder in a dark room, leading up to a single square of light in the ceiling, the only exit. On the roof a little girl holds a white dress up to her body on a hanger, sooty handprints dirtying the gauze of the skirt. One of her eyes is real. One of them is glass. Her father covered the other half of her face with a pillow when they were in the hospital, so she wouldn’t see any of the carnage around them. Since then a tower of pillows have been stacked in her bedroom. She is a joyful child who spontaneously dances in the street when she hears a catchy song. Now the clang of a certain music can be heard from below. A bundle of cotton candy floats up to her out of nowhere and she stuffs a handful of it in her mouth, feeling the pink fluff dissolve on her tongue into tiny specks of glass. When she grows up, she will set her dress on fire. She will become a woman in a black wide brimmed hat who sits alone in a cinderblock café of empty tables. ‘We haven’t forgotten you,’ the graffiti on the wall will say outside. She will stand in front of it as she reapplies her red lipstick. In her future life, she will work all day, putting food out for the street cats at midnight, the felines lounging about like goddesses on the acropolis, unbothered by the din of the glass falling from the sky. ‘We’ve become used to the sound. It’s like hearing birds,’ says one of them, licking the dots of glass from her paw, imagining a world of milk and money and meat. A rain cloud passes over and showers down a new burst of shards. In a moment the polyester panels of umbrellas will be torn to pieces. In a moment the man on the balcony will soar into the abyss of rainbow light.
Kyra SIMONE is a Tunisian-American writer from Los Angeles, now based in Brooklyn. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in a variety of literary journals, including THE BAFFLER, BOMB, THE BROOKLYN RAIL, CONJUNCTIONS, THE DENVER QUARTERLY, the ANTHOLOGY OF BEST AMERICAN EXPERIMENTAL WRITING, and elsewhere. SIMONE is a member of the publishing collective Ugly Duckling Presse, and part of a two-woman team running the editorial office of Zone Books. She is at work on a novel.