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The White City
By Alec Michod, Rick Michod
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 Alec Michod
All rights reserved.
Chicago in October. The wind off the lake is already blistering. It sneaks along the shore and then turns sharply inland, funneled between the massive buildings, then settles, before striking again, more blustery than before. Some find respite just outside the Electricity Building; others head for the Wooded Island, which, despite being surrounded by lagoons, remains largely serene. The Women's Building, if approached from the west, blocks the wind temporarily. But there is no real cover. Lips chap. Eyes tear up. Skin crackles. The Stock Exhibit will close early today, on account of the wind distressing the livestock and summoning up the soil. There are rumors that this afternoon's parade might be rescheduled, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Extravaganza postponed, and the Movable Sidewalk, which juts out into Lake Michigan, damaged permanently. Ferris's Wheel, which has revolved without stopping since the fair opened back in May, came to a grinding halt just before sunrise; the fear was that the wind might detach one of the cars, large as any house, and send it plummeting to earth, killing hundreds. Today's World's Fair specials are twice as infrequent, due to the gale-force waves the wind's drudged up, and the Alley El, which loops downtown before heading south, runs at half speed, the elevated tracks buckling in the wind, so that, overall, attendance is down. High above the White City, the sun's piercing — a sun not of October but of July. Not a cloud in the sky, not yet.
It is late morning, a Monday. The year is 1893.
Even inside, wind batters the windows from their panes. Pipes clang. The hanging paintings rattle. And everyone's scrambling for cover, because at any moment, they fear, the Palace of Fine Arts could crumble, since, like every other building in the White City, it's made only of white staff, a plaster of Paris and fibrous jute-cloth admixture. Even the austerity of the ceiling, a sweeping gilded cupola imported from a hillside Umbrian monastery, cannot calm such fears, although Elizabeth Rockland would like to believe so and to convince her son of this as well. To this end, she says, "The sky's too taupe for my liking," but Billy is more interested in overheard whisperings — there's been another killing this morning, the third in as many days.
William Rockland, a wide, buttery man with wide, buttery jowls, doesn't mind the windows rattling. In fact, he doesn't hear them, so determined is he, leading his wife and son ever onward through the crowd, gesticulating wildly, his eyes restless. He is not a consoling guide in such times, being anxious by nature. His cheeks redden, perspiration drips from his brow, and the man nearly collapses from shortness of breath if you so much as look at him. Billy, following obediently, shrivels from embarrassment. His father's intentions are good — they're going to be late for lunch with Potter Palmer, and nobody's late for lunch with Potter Palmer — but everyone's looking, so he soon finds his way into the hoop of his mother's dress and hides.
Bombastically, "William!" Like William Rockland, Potter Palmer is a portly man, with the mustache of a walrus concealing his facial chub and, on account of a top-heavy torso and spindly legs, a rather noticeable wobble. Billy likes to watch Palmer walk, but Palmer talking is even more amusing, with his ruddy cheeks jiggling spittle, so he peekaboos his head out from beneath the dress. Nobody notices. "I don't have much of an appetite just yet," Palmer is saying, "so why don't you and I off to hear Mr. Douglass" — the abolitionist, who's speaking this noon — "and the ladies can do as they wish, and we'll all just eat later. How's that?"
"Boo!" Billy shoots out from under the dress, prances around, wagging his tongue. His hair, which is longer than it should be, droops over his entire face, covering both eyes. Mother Rockland spent a full hour with him in preparation for today's luncheon — puffing out his hair; insuring that each curl sits in its right, smart place; powdering his cheeks; ringing his eyes with color and rouging his lips. The results are phantasmagoric, conjuring the spirit of a lost, imagined daughter.
Finally, William Rockland pats his son on a shoulder and says, "Off you go."
But where? Billy looks confused, so he says, "Where?"
Down the marble staircase and out into the sun-streaked day. Mother leads, offers a hand, but Billy bats it away. Behind them treads Mrs. Palmer, opening a sun umbrella. Just as soon as it's opened, however, the wind turns it inside out and launches it from her hands. Bertha Palmer sniggers, embarrassed.
Columbian Guards, walking stiffly, tip their hats.
They walk directly into the wind, bracing their coiffures, while Billy darts in and out of the crowd, flirting with throwing himself into North Pond, skidding to a stop, sprinting straight at Mother till she leaps, from fright, out of the way and into the arms of a passing gentleman with wiry hair bulging out from beneath his bowler and wearing a purple velvet jacquard. They pass a portly man with a spotless cream-color suit and vest and an equally spotless hat the color of snow before it goes ashen. Melodies and fragments from minstrel songs drift in off the Midway, a mile-long slag of shanty exhibit huts geared toward entertainment, not instruction. There you'll find the Moorish Palace, Hagenbeck's Animal Show, a Turkish Village, a German Village, a Street in Cairo replete with dancing girls, and perched loftily over all, Ferris's gigantic wheel. Here in the White City, however, the buildings are tall and distantly placed, everything's set off in a glass case or hung on a wall, and the people walk around with blank faces saying nothing, searching for the eleven-ton cheese or the fifteen-hundred- pound chocolate Venus de Milo. Aside from the Electricity Building, with its illumined dynamos, there's nothing here Billy has a desire to see.
Soon, they stand before the Women's Building. Outside, halfway up the front steps, a young Negro woman is passing out a broadside entitled "The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition." Bertha Palmer takes one, smiling a wide thanks, and says, "I do think Miss Wells is quite fantastic."
The Negro woman, though a smile crosses her face, says, "It is by Mr. Douglass, ma'am."
The Women's Building is located to the immediate left of the lip of the lagoon, just north of the all-glass Horticulture. High above sits a creature, neither fowl nor marsupial, but some ghastly blend of the two. The structure itself is hulking, despite its medium size, and as a whole more masculine than feminine, more brawn than bust — the steps out front are as steep as any, and one invariably breaks into a sweat in ascending.
A chirpy Bertha Palmer says, "Oh, well, I knew that."
"Dear, you're dripping," says Mother Rockland. She bats the air directly in front of Billy's face.
They're halfway up the second flight of stairs when Mrs. Palmer halts dead in her tracks and laughs. A woman in an ornamental black hoop dress with dernier-cri buttons along the front side and a smile that's bigger than the Sahara appears before them.
Bertha Palmer says hello: "It is such a beautiful day."
"It is," the woman replies. She regards Mother Rockland and says, "Hello, I'm Jane Addams. How do you do?" And then turns to Billy, offers a hand, and says, "Hello, young man. How do you do?"
Billy says nothing. Grunting, he sits on a step toward the top and rests his head in the trowel of his hands.
Mother says, "This'll just take but one moment, dear."
Jane Addams, whose Hull-House made kindergarten a household word, says, "Excuse me, but I am actually running late." Mrs. Rockland nods. Before Jane Addams hurries off, she says, referencing the boy, "Keep him in your sight at all times." Again Mrs. Rockland nods. Jane Addams turns to Bertha Palmer and says, "We wouldn't want another to go missing." A momentary pause. "See you soon, I hope. Tomorrow?" And with that, she's off.
Mother Rockland's hand closes around young Billy's and squeezes. She yanks him up and drags him along — up, and inside.
Inside, no wind. All's silent, save for the sounds of scuttling fair-goers. Immediately he breaks her hold and skitters off to a bench with an ornate sloping back, where he sits, watching everything and everybody, eyes darting about as they will, impatiently. Displays in the Women's Building are of lace and embroidery, steeped in nostalgia. Included is a glassed-in copy of Jane Eyre — the book, not the personage. He's tired but can't sit still. He'd much rather be back in the Palace of Fine Arts, surrounded by the swirling seascapes of Homer, the naked torsos of Rodin. Here everything is so — lackluster. He hops afoot and approaches his mother, tugging at her dress in an attempt to distract her.
But she'll have nothing of it. She scowls, splitting her face in half, and then returns her attentions to Bertha Palmer.
Billy would like to know how it is possible to talk as much as they do, but he simply looks up at the Cassatt, the pastels blurring together. Instantaneously, he becomes dizzy. It appears, at first, as either sky or sea, a wash of blue that spreads horizon to horizon and becomes blurrier the longer he looks. A glance at Mother finds her still talking to Bertha Palmer, now laughing, now listening, her ears slanted. He does not mind, although he would like her to notice his latest trick — standing on his head. Presently, he does just this, placing the crown of his head upon the cement bench, arms outstretched, then kicking his feet up until they're balanced aloft. Upside down, everything appears smaller and blurrier, but perhaps that's on account of the lack of oxygen. The muscles in his legs and arms and stomach clench, and blood floods his face until it darkens and Billy gasps for air. Before too long, Billy can't hold it any longer and collapses over onto the ground, banging his head on the underside of the bench. It hurts, but he springs to his feet and nearly curtsies, checking to see if Mother has noticed. She has not; in fact, she's ambled off with Bertha Palmer, stands on the far side of the exhibition hall examining a statue, made by Alice Rideout, intended to represent Sacrifice. Has she forgotten about him entirely, or will she return, more attentive than before? He has one more trick up his sleeve — to skid across the floor and slide into her, tackling her. It would be a risky endeavor, to be sure, but he's done it before, to triumphant success (a few months ago; she was injured, her ankle fractured, but such are the risks, Billy figured and figures still, of being a mother). He is about to do just that, has gripped his hands together into fists, set to run, when off in the distance, across the hall, only a few feet from Mother and Bertha Palmer, he spots a man who, though full-grown, nevertheless stands no taller than Billy Rockland. A midget. He's heard of them, yet hasn't seen one. More than Mother's attentions, he'd like a gander. Perhaps he'll find a friend, or be guided out of the current hell he's in — guided off and to Electricity. That would be ideal, so he's off after the small man, hoping he's headed for the Electricity Building. Soon enough, they're down the stairs and out, back into the day.
Outside, the sun's sharper, the wind's stronger, with gusts that freeze the fluid in Billy's nose upon contact.
The small man zigs in and out of shadows, zagging left and then right, so pursuit is difficult. Still, Billy tails him around the bank of a wading pool and alongside a lagoon, then over a footbridge. Two women scantily dressed in lace affixed with jangling ornaments pass by, one saying to the other, "What I'd really love to see is the Dead Letter Office."
Billy swivels around, enrapt. Once he's spun a full circle, he realizes that he's lost the small man. Woods surround him, shading out the sun. Fear ripples up his spine, causing him to want to retrace his steps back to the Palace of Fine Arts. He'd like to return. He'd like to find Mother. Instead, he makes his way deeper onto the Wooded Island. The Wooded Island has hidden away on its modest acreage two rather captivating rarities: a Japanese Ho-o-o Den and the Hunter's Cabin, monument to Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Swans and mallard ducks float on the leafy water of the lagoon and come to shore searching out shade and respite, for this onslaught of people, even for a duck, can be somewhat onerous. Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, especially the latter, have for long been heroes who have fertilized the Rockland boy's imagination with yearnings for adventure if not in fact a fast-paced life perennially on the lam, and for this reason Billy Rockland decides to postpone his trip to the Electricity Building.
High above, an owl hoots. Wind shrills.
He sprints off into woodland, rustling leaves underfoot and sticks and twigs too slight to bear his weight, which is willowy, so that with each step there's a snap. Trails crisscross the island, and every now and again there's a park bench for the relaxation of fair-goers, a few of whom are indeed here, relaxing, though not too many, for clouds have advanced upon the day. Carefree, he treads on the few flowers that remain and on various shrubbery. He steps into muck. Soon it's advanced up his legs, covering first his shins and later his kneecaps, his knickers mud-splotched. The earth just gives way. He falls to the ground — on his face.
He lies in the mud and rolls over and over again. Then he's supine, pretending he has passed on from this world.
Sounds of birds in the tops of the trees, a duck quacking.
Sun clips the few clouds advancing off the lake and bakes the boy's muddied face. The mud hardens. He rolls onto his back and sets his head upon his cupped-together hands, reclining, and whistles to a melody he only just made up. After a time, he opens his eyes and is surprised, if not exactly frightened, to find a tall man with a black hat towering high above him blocking the light. Standing there tall as the heavens.
"Don't be frightened," the man says.
Just then, a rustling is heard in nearby shrubbery, then the splash of water as a mallard plops into the pond.
"Are you all right?"
The man's voice is lower than his father's. It just might be the deepest voice he has ever heard. Now that Billy has sat up, the man's no longer blocking the sun, and Billy must squint or shade his eyes with a hand.
But he does neither, just sits there staring up into the glaring sun.
"What are you up to?" The man holds out a hand, the very palm of which has the size, if not the malleability, of a pillow. "It'll be dark soon. I was taking a walk through here. Just visited that ... thing over there," the man pointing lakeward, toward the Ho-o-o Den, "and then I spotted you. You should not be in here by yourself." He coughs. Mucus dribbles from between his lips. He winks. "But here you are. I like that," then doffs his hat. "Hannibal Skurlock's the name."
"Billy," says Billy.
A splashing sound in the water immediately to their left startles them both.
Skurlock furrows his brow and asks, "How old are you, son?"
Billy shrugs, saying nothing. Still, he reaches for the man's hand, to be helped up.
As he stands, the child's head spins. Everything spins. Eventually he says, "Thanks," and is set to leave. But then one of those monstrous hands clamps down on his left shoulder, detaining him.
Billy looks around, up at the man, and smiles.
Skurlock inquires, "Where are your parents?" His face, Billy notices, is jagged, uneven; it looks like an apricot mashed underfoot. Thunderously, Skurlock says, "How shall we locate them?"
Right behind them, a rustling in the thickets.
Billy anxiously shudders, says, "I have to go." But on account of Skurlock's grip, he can't.
"Where are they?" says Skurlock. "I'll take you to them."
"Electricity." It just slips out.
"We'll go together," and they're off together.
Excerpted from The White City by Alec Michod, Rick Michod. Copyright © 2004 Alec Michod. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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