The bombardment of Philadelphia began at 7:30 a.m. Lucy Harrington was buttering the toast and felt the floor tremble.
"Brad? Is that the Turks? Are they supposed to start today?"
Upstairs, the foamed face of Brad Harrington poked out of the bathroom. "Looks like it, huh?"
The Harrington's house, near the western edge of the city, lay only three blocks from the inner wall. The ground trembled again, and a spray of stone fragments flew over the crenellations.
"Goodness," said Lucy, "They must have very large cannons."
"Thirty-six centimeter Yordleys. General Dynamics. A little recoil problem, but those babies really pack a punch." Brad was head of systems for Eagle Textiles and a military buff by avocation. He had correctly predicted the demise of the crossbow the previous year, when the city had switched over to flintlocks for the front-line soldiers. Brad said there would be a serious parts and maintenance problem if the siege went on for more than five or six weeks. The Turks had vowed to keep it up for a year if necessary. They had streamlined their pillaging apparatus to such an extent that the claim seemed realistic.
Brad strolled into the kitchen wearing the plaid sport jacket that Lucy (secretly) felt made him look indecisive. At the office, it was (secretly) referred to as "Braddy's wimp coat." It had large pockets with flaps which would not stay down. The pattern on the lapels was misaligned and warred with the pure horizontals and verticals of the body. Brad defended his jacket against suggestions that the plaid was not authentic. He had seen it on display during a trip to Scotland, he said, though he could not remember the clan.
"I need guavas for tonight," said Lucy. "Can you stop by Reem's?"
Brad broke the yolks of his fried eggs and smeared them over the whites. "I dunno. The military's moving supplies through. They've blocked off the river drives."
"But if you go up Henry Avenue--
"I don't think so. No."
A cannonball, arching above the inner wall, snapped off the corner of a crenellation. Deflected, the sphere splashed into the tot lot swimming pool.
"Oh my God," said Lucy. "What if Mary's kids had been playing there?"
"They wouldn't be, this early."
"But somebody should warn people. They should block if off if it's dangerous."
"Nobody in this city's ever seen a Yordley in action. Boom! They could send one of those suckers all the way to City Hall and right up Rembly's rectum. We might have to be evacuated."
"Well, if we don't want a cannonball in the soup."
Lucy turned on the TV. Mayor Rembly had just finished making a statement. Standing silent, he exuded dignity, with his gray-white hair textured in sweeps over his ears and his earnest yet confident eyes. When he spoke, however, he had a slight lisp and usually smacked his lips. He scratched some part of his body whenever he was asked a question. Each term the party (Democrats) searched through the political woodshavings for a candidate with charisma and new ideas, but no such person was willing to be mayor of a city-state constantly on the brink of war. Rembly was too impassive to be corrupt, but his aides raked in the chips with both hands.
The morning TV anchorperson, a wide-eyed woman with a look of teddy-bear wonderment, rattled off sound bites. The Turkish army was variously estimated to number from 30,000 to 3000,000, with from 16 to 45 Yordleys aimed at the city. A General Dynamics' spokesperson had confirmed that the latter figure was the number contracted for but would not comment on whether all had been delivered. The mayor had threatened to cancel General Dynamics' contract with the Navy Yard, but the legal precedents were ambiguous. A deputy police commissioner, under indictment for corruption -- as had been each of his three predecessors -- had gone over to the enemy, taking with him a list of drug dealers in the North Philly ghetto. It was rumored that the Turks planned to use their suppliers to undermine the morale of the city army, then exterminate them as undesirables once the walls had been breached and the city captured.
Brad left for work. Eagle Textiles' headquarters were in the Nicetown Business Mall. He would have preferred to go by public transportation, but there was no direct SEPTA route between West Philly and Nicetown, in part because Fairmount Park intervened, in greater part because few people had reason to go from one of these places to the other. This morning, because of the troop movements along the river drives, he was caught in a 20-minute backup on the Roosevelt Boulevard extension. The mall planners had badly underestimated parking needs. Brad was assigned a space in a secondary lot almost two blocks from his office. He only enjoyed driving in the country, but the last time he and Lucy had gone past Media, the Turks had stopped and questioned them three times. Twice they had commented on the size of Lucy's breasts.
Lucy spent much of the morning staring out the kitchen window. The cannons had moved south and there was minimal activity on the wall, but the tot lot had been cordoned off with police barricades. An officer was stationed by the cannonball, now lying beside the pool, to discourage the curious and keep children away. At 10:30, a convoy of Jeeps stopped and collected the cannonball, but the policeman remained behind, sitting on a bench, trying to entice a squirrel with a small bag of pretzels.
Lucy turned on the TV at 11 o'clock. The teddy-bear anchorwoman had lost focus in her eyes, but they still held a manic naivete. Reports of a breach in the Northeast Alley had been denied by the local commander, but no journalists had been allowed near the Holmesburg wall. A rotund army spokesman said the situation remained "stable but elusive." The cannonball from the tot lot was exhibited and described. Pickets at Dilworth Plaza next to City Hall carried signs condemning General Dynamics. An old man reminisced about the incursion of the Medes 60 years before. A commercial for Mattel was shortened by five seconds to remove references to Turkish Action Figures. A Presbyterian clergyman intoned an interdenominational prayer for peace. Vandals had scrawled "Fuck Rembly" on the Claes Oldenberg Clothespin facing City Hall (the anchorwoman used a circumlocution for "fuck"). Four banks had been robbed by a man wearing a Porky Pig mask. A tiny woman with a sharp, batlike face said that her handbag had been snatched by Turkish sympathizers. A section of the inner wall near the Baltimore Pike Gate had collapsed, presumably from construction defects, and the district attorney was considering empanelling a grand jury to investigate. A black woman with a history of miscarriages had given birth to a healthy six-pound, four-ounce baby on the Market Street subway line. Sewage had been backing up on Ranstead Street in Center City for the past three weeks.
A tentative knock rattled the front door and Lucy hurried to answer it. A Turkish soldier, bleeding from the shattered middle finger of his left hand and a compound fracture of the left shoulder, looked at her with weak, appealing eyes. He muttered a few coarse phrases. Lucy, frightened, did not know what to reply.
"I don't speak Turkish," she said at last.
The soldier took a half step back, a full step forward and dropped to his knees, then onto his face, two-thirds of him inside the door, his ruined finger leaking bloody muck onto the beige wall-to-wall carpeting. Lucy backed away. Through the open door she could see a section of the wall. Five or six figures ran along the top at a half trot. Reaching behind her, she touched the telephone but did not lift the receiver. "Brad," she said into the air.
The Turk groaned. His pragmatic flak jacket featured an abstract design derived from the woven-rush padding once used by the Turks to absorb the impact of arrows. The pants held a similarly abstract camouflage, based on reeds and cattails. He had lost his weapon but carried a small capped powder horn and a torn pouch for lead shot thonged to his belt. His mangled hand clawed reflexively and Lucy gagged.
The TV rattled off statistics and urban tragedies. The cannons sounded as though they were returning north. The figures on the wall trotted past again, going in the opposite direction.
Lucy hurried into the kitchen and set a pot of water to boil. She had been glad to have a gas range, since she thought it would be easier for the Turks to interrupt electric lines, but Brad said that all the natural gas was piped in from outside, so once the enemy destroyed the pipelines, there would be no more gas for the duration of the siege. For now, the burner snapped on with its usual friendly pop. Lucy took two clean, all-cotton dish towels from the linen closet and set them by the range.
In the living room, the Turk had turned slightly on one side, his weight carried on his right arm. He stared at a commercial for a cigarette lighter which glowed in the dark for use in romantic situations. The tip of his broken collar bone poked through his shirt and the armhole of his flak jacket, but surprisingly little blood flowed from the wound, compared with the steady stream from his truncated finger. Lucy knelt and touched the shoulder as gently as a butterfly. The soldier said something in Turkish and she shook her head.
"My name is Lucy. Lucy." She pointed to herself. "Lucy."
"Ahmed," said the Turk. Half his face smiled; the other half seemed immobilized. The floor shuddered from an impact against the wall and both sides of his face twisted. "Shhh," said Lucy, "shhh."
Sharp spats from the kitchen announced the water's boiling. Lucy snapped off the TV in passing, extinguishing the anchorwoman as the round O of her mouth matched the startled Os of her eyes. Lucy lowered the flame and dropped one of the cotton dish towels into the water. She set the timer for three minutes, frowned, increased it to five.
A broad sweep of the wall was visible from the window. Bunched foot traffic dashed in both directions, then suddenly fled from a spot almost directly opposite the window. A cannonball, unseen, sent a shower of stone upwards like dark fireworks. The Turkish soldier released a high-pitched rattle of words. She could recognize only a recurrent "Allah."
Every Turk she had seen on TV, whether speaking in Turkish or English, had peppered his monologue with "Allahs." She knew it referred to God, but it seemed more like "ya know?" When the timer dinged, she pulled the towel from the pot with spaghetti tongs and dropped it onto a clean plate. Water overflowed the plate onto the formica. She set the timer for another five minutes to let the towel cool.
In the living room, the Turk was in a fetal position, his good hand between his thighs, grasping his crotch. With his feet drawn up, his entire body was now inside the house. Lucy tried to close the door, but its sweep would not clear his legs. "Can you move?" she asked. "Move? Go over there?" She made shooing motions with her hands. The Turk grimaced. She pointed to the door, to his legs, made the shooing motions again. Lying on his side, he inched like a caterpillar until she was able to work the door past his buttocks.
At the sink she washed her hands, then again, watching the city wall intently. She dried her hands on paper towels, tipped the excess water from the plate, brought the plate with its still-hot dish towel into the living room, a dry towel tossed over her shoulder. She ran upstairs and rummaged in the medicine cabinet, finding a spray can of Bactine.
"This will hurt," she said as she knelt over him. "Hurt." She screwed up her face and nodded. The Turk did not respond. She sprayed the Bactine on the protruding bone and he arched and spat like a cat, then slammed against the floor and began to cry. Lucy tried to work his arm through the armhole of the open flack jacket but could not get the angle right without causing him intense pain. She indicated that he should sit up. He sighed but did not move. When the next cannonball shook the room, she yanked the jacket over his bent forearm and hand. The Turk squealed, a high sound at the edge of hearing.
Returning from the kitchen with a pair of scissors to cut the shirt sleeve, she flipped on the TV again. A new anchorperson, an earnest male, explained that the breach in the Northeast Alley had been confirmed, then denied again. Two more purse-snatchings had been attributed to the gang of Turkish sympathizers, though authorities admitted they may have been copycat muggings. The Turks had raised the toll for commuters using the Ben Franklin Bridge, and they would allow nothing edible to be brought in from New Jersey. Rates were also being increased in the Camden Red Light Zone. Mayor Rembly had announced an evening TV address, probably to discuss rationing. He said the city could withstand a six-month siege if the populace practiced "cooperative austerity."
"My husband calls Mayor Rembly an asshole," Lucy said as she tied the dry towel around the cleaned, disinfected wound, the bone still protruding. She added a sling made from knotted pillow cases which she insinuated under his body and over the opposite shoulder. She sang a lullaby, "All the Pretty Little Horses."
The phone rang. Brad had forgotten the manual for the new IBM 390C. He said it should be on the hall table, but Lucy looked and it wasn't.
"You put it in your briefcase last night, I saw you."
"Well, it's not there."
"I don't understand."
"Just look for the fucking thing."
Lucy found the manual on the dining room sideboard. The Turk began to pray or babble.
"What's that?" Brad asked.
"Sounds like Turkish."
The phone hung between their silences.
"You'll be home? On time?"
"I guess. Well, the traffic, ya know."
The Turk's body took on a rhythmic shudder, heaving into a tight ball, relaxing, heaving again. She brushed his forehead with her hand, then with the stained, wet towel. The rhythm did not change.
Over the sound of the TV she heard a Jeep pull onto the block, the first car since Brad had left. Normally, the street had sporadic traffic. The army had probably set up restrictions. The Jeep stopped and a door slammed tinnily. A few seconds later there was a clean, smart triple rap on the door. No on seemed to be using the doorbell today.
Lucy put the door on its chain and edged it open. She peered through the crack at a soldier, his leather cap set at the regulation 30 degree angle. His face was tired and his eyes drifted off to the side as he asked his questions and paid little attention to her answers, the same answers he had heard at every house in the neighborhood. No, she had not seen any Turkish soldiers. No, she had not heard anyone go by. No. No.
"You'll have to leave," she said to the form on the floor as the Jeep putted away up the street. The Turk's heavy features were plastered with sweat, his breathing as loud as waves crashing in from the ocean. His tormented body sought comfort through squirms and turnings that added sobs to the boomed breathing. "Allah," he muttered again and again.
How long would this keep up, going to him and away again, listening to that repeated word surrounded by sounds she could not comprehend, the TV nattering in cycles, everything repeated, amended, reaffirmed, denied, repeated, interspersed with the lackluster earnestness of reporters and inarticulate eyewitnesses? "Fuck the army," said Lucy, "fuck the Turks, fuck Rembly."
Brad's Mirandor, the Bulgarian car which had received Consumer Reports' top rating, hummed to a stop outside. A magnificent orange twilight spread like a smile over the black outline of the wall behind him. When he unlocked the front door, it bumped against something and stopped. He pushed. There was a slight yielding, followed by a resisting pressure that returned the door to its original position. Brad slipped through the gap and into the shadowy hallway.
He saw the Turk and his eyes popped wide. The soldier was dead, his face slack but twisted to one side.
"I'm in the kitchen, Brad."
"What happened? What's going on?"
"The Turks broke through the Northeast Alley. There's a breach down by the Navy Yard, but they don't think it will amount to anything. The man with the Porky Pig mask robbed another bank."
Brad stepped over the body, through the hallway and into the kitchen. Lucy sat at the table with a cup of coffee. She looked across the silhouette of the wall to the sunset, now green and mauve and pink and yellow-orange. A deeper, starker blue gripped the top and sides, moving in steadily, swallowing the other colors or pushing them down past the edge of the world. In the silence after the day's intermittent barrage, the sky spoke softly, without repetition.
© 2006 by Derek Davis
Bio: Derek Davis served for many years as arts and entertainment editor of The Welcomat, a truly alternative weekly in Philadelphia which later morphed into The Philadelphia Weekly, which is not alternative in any real sense. He was editor in chief of The Welcomat for its next to final year. During those years, and in 1995-96, at the Philadelphia Forum, he published about 30-40 short stories, mixed in with non-fiction in his weekly column. This story was probably one of them (I hope that doesn't disqualify it).
E-mail: Derek Davis
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