All City

Alex DiFrancesco

June 27, 2019 
The following is from Alex DiFrancesco's novel All City. A superstorm hits New York, leaving behind those who had nowhere else to go. Mysterious murals appear, bringing hope to the forsaken, and the media, having long abandoned the city, “discovers” them. The landlord class comes back to claim the city for themselves. Alex DiFrancesco has published fiction in The Carolina Quarterly, The New Ohio Review, and Monkeybicycle; and nonfiction in Tin House, The Washington Post, Longreads, and Brevity.

The wind came first, and with it brought the clouds that came between the city and the sky. The clouds were heavy and low, the color of a sinister nigh; more steel than sky. The steel slammed down into the skyline and turned off all its light. The wind whipped the clouds, it tore at street signs, it lofted the garbage cans, and it gave wings to anything that wasn’t nailed down, and to some things that were. The bridges swayed and broke, their cables popping like gunshots, huge chunks of concrete and metal falling down and down, splashing into the water and disappearing to the bottom of the river.

The rain came down in sheets. It was a wall, impenetrable, hitting all it reached with a sting of weight and gravity. The rain came sideways and down as it swirled in gusts of the feverish wind.

The sea, turbulent in the storm, began to surge into the New York Bight, filling it with the millions of tons of seawater the storm had brought along to the city like an unwelcome guest. As the Bight filled, the water began to spill over. Tiles popped off of the Holland Tunnel as water forced its way through.

The subway tunnels filled with salt water that corroded their already weakened tracks and pipes. The water surged up over the streets, over the tires of the cars parked there, into the basements of buildings, into the buildings’ lower floors, then up into the higher floors. The people left behind scrambled to carry their possessions higher and higher, up stairs, down hallways, up stairs again, until finally it became obvious that there would be no place high enough, that the waters would keep coming, unrelenting. A force. 


We could only tell it was morning by the fact that we’d woken up. Without any windows in the room, there was no light to tell us. The sounds of wind and rain had stopped. There was an eerie, peaceful feeling in the room. The candles had burned down to nothing just before we’d fallen asleep. We’d watched each one wink out in the darkness. Then Jaden had gotten the couch ready for him to sleep on, and I’d covered my head with the blankets and squeezed my eyes shut as tight as I could.

“Jaden?” I said, not long after I’d opened my eyes. “You awake?”

“Yeah,” he said, next to me. My eyes adjusted to the dark enough to see him. He sat up and stretched his arms above his head as if it were any other morning, as if we hadn’t seen all we’d seen last night. I didn’t want to turn on the TV or go outside. I just wanted things back the way they were. Not back to last night, back to years ago when I was a kid, helping sweep up the block after a block party that my mother and father had taken part in putting together. There had been the easy way of hiring the department of sanitation, but there’d barely been enough money to pull the whole thing off, much less hire them. As someone young and able to do little else, I’d always gotten put on the street clean-up committee. It hadn’t been so bad, though. While cleaning the streets I’d always found things—money, lost jewelry, treasures shining in the dirt and empty cups and food-stained paper plates. Once, when I was fourteen, I’d found a little bag of weed and slid it into my pocket before anyone saw it and smoked it in the park with my only friend who knew how to roll a joint. Lying there in bed, I wanted those days back. Before the storm. Before any of the storms. There was a longing inside me until that voice that’s my reality came back and said, “You don’t have time for this shit, and the past couldn’t have been that great anyway.”

“Want a breakfast bar?” Jaden asked me. Without waiting for me to answer, he got up from the couch and walked over to the boxes and the cooler he’d dragged into the living room the night before. He took out two blueberry cereal bars and handed me one. We ate them in silence, chewing slowly.

After we finished eating, I grabbed my bag and went back into Jaden’s bedroom to change clothes. I pulled on a pair of tight-fitting black jeans and my still-wet combat boots. I pulled on an old band T-shirt that I’d gotten at a stoop sale, a band called the Ramones that I’d heard on a light rock station and liked anyway. Next, I layered on a fleece-lined hoodie and a vest that had a million pockets in it for things like my cell phone and keys and wallet. I checked my cell phone before putting it in a pocket, and saw that, though the battery still had some life in it, there was no reception. I walked back out into the living room where Jaden was waiting.

“Let’s go see what it looks like out there,” I said.

“You’re ready? Okay. Let’s go up through the fire escape onto the roof.”

We made our way toward one of the rooms off the entrance hallways, where a guy named Kyle stayed. There was a fire escape through Kyle’s window that didn’t have a tree in the middle of it. There was sunlight peeping out through the crack at the bottom of Kyle’s bedroom door. I took it as a good sign. I was hoping, really hoping, that last night had seemed scarier from where we were than it actually had been.

We opened the door and stepped through it. The guy had left the room a complete pigsty when he packed up and left—dirty clothes and plates everywhere. We stepped over the garbage, picking our way between piles of it. Jaden opened the window. He put one leg over the ledge and then another so that he was standing on the grating of the fire escape.

“Holy shit,” I heard him say from out there.

“What?” I said. “What?”

“The water made it out this far,” he said, his voice at. Okay, I thought to myself. So there’s a little water down there. No big deal. Couldn’t be that much. Not this far into Brooklyn.

But when I climbed out into the fire escape, I saw that I’d been very wrong.

The world outside the building looked like a lake. Water was up to the halfway mark of the first-floor windows. We were as far as you could get on any side from water, but the water had found its way right to where we were. The water was murky, brown and green and gray at the same time. I broke up my brain a bit trying to figure out where it all had come from—the rivers, the ocean, the rain? But those things had been there before, and they had never swollen so much that the water came in this far. I mean, I knew the oceans were rising, everyone knew that. But they’d been rising, and still they’d never come in this far inland. I just kept thinking, How did this happen?

There was stuff floating in it, too. Wood and branches and clothes and bags and newspapers and shoes and garbage and things I couldn’t identify. There were little swirls of these things, as if they were about to be sucked down in some whirlpool. But then they just bunched up together and broke apart and started floating away again.

“My God,” I said. “Mi fucking dios.”

Over an alley as we were, we couldn’t see too far beyond the edges of it. Jaden started climbing up the ladder to the silver-painted roof. The ladder went down to the second floor, but no farther. I could see him climbing up above me, just his ass and legs moving up and up. I started up after him, my knees shivering just a little bit in the cold and maybe because heights aren’t especially my thing. The last bit of the ladder, where I had to stand on the top and scrabble up to the roof without holding on to much, made me feel queasy. But I made it. I was up there and we were looking down.

All around us was water. It made the buildings look like Legos floating in a bathtub. The sun was shining down, but the air was cold and the slight wind still blowing up off the water was colder. Around us we saw groups of people here and there standing on their roofs, waving over at us. I thought to myself these must be the people who are left. Not just left after the storm, but the kind of people who were like us who were still left in the neighborhood, left behind by what had been happening all around us. People who’d been forgotten.

Off in the distance, we heard the buzz of a motorboat heading down what had once been streets, but were now canals of water. There was a smell in the air like rotting, like shit, and I wondered what had overflowed—sewers or some kind of waste treatment facility, or what.

Yet despite the smell, and the garbage, and the looks of fear I could see even in eyes that were buildings away, there was a kind of peace, too. A kind of stillness that made everything seem okay. The way the sun was reflecting in the water and off the buildings as it rose up in the sky. The blue of that sky itself, so untroubled and serene. I almost forgot where we were for a moment.

“Holy shit,” Jaden said, and where we were came back to me full force.

“What do we do?” I said. “We can’t even walk out the door. The water’s too high. The entire first floor must be flooded.”

We wandered around the rooftop from edge to edge. It was an island now. Around us, people were waving their arms at us, maybe hoping we had some kind of answers that they didn’t. I looked across the alley at a short, brown-skinned man in a yellow baseball cap. I waved back at him.

“Hello!” I shouted.

“’ello!” he yelled back, his accent thick and unidentifiable.

“What are we going to do?” I shouted.

“We have to figure out a way out of here,” he yelled back.

“My wife and baby are here. We’ve got to get to somewhere safer. Is your cell phone working?”

I shook my head, then yelled, “No! Do you have enough food for now? Water?”

“For a little while,” he shouted. “We have a radio. They said there’s a shelter not too far, on the third floor of MS 587. We’ve got to figure out how to get there.”

He stood there waiting for me to say something back, but I had nothing to say. I looked down at my combat boots. They were soaked and felt like wet weights on my feet. I tried to think of something to say to this man who was worrying about his kid’s life, and I couldn’t think of anything at all. His arms, which he’d been gesturing with, fell down to his sides as the silence extended. We stood there quiet for a few more minutes, looking at each other. I don’t know what he saw in me, but I could see his desperation, his fear, all the responsibility on him that he had no idea how to handle given the circumstances. When he finally saw that I wasn’t going to say anything else, he turned and walked to the other side of his roof and started shouting o the edge. I couldn’t hear what he was saying.

I turned to find Jaden sitting on a dry spot on the roof. His head was down between he knees. He usually looks so smooth and strong and like he’s right in control of everything. Right then, he looked shaken.

“They’ll come for us, right?” he asked when I got up close to him. “Somebody’s going to come for us eventually? They wouldn’t just leave us here to die, would they?”

“I don’t know, Jaden,” I said. “Depends on who they are. And who they think we are.”

“We’ll be able to flag someone down,” he said. He tried to make his voice firm and failed. It sounded like another question.

All morning the boats went down the canal-streets just near us, but not next to us. When we saw people manning the boats far off, they looked official. Some wore uniforms and caps, some had on army fatigues. We went down into Jaden’s apartment and watched the TV for a while. It told us things like “State of Emergency” and deployment of the National Guard. We went back up to the roof and saw birds flying overhead like they do when someone’s on the loose. We tried waving up to them. We wished aloud that we had those bright-colored flares like they have in the movies. Of course, we didn’t.

I saw the man across the alley again. I yelled out to him, “What’s your name?” It seemed important, suddenly, that I know who was there in trouble right next to me.

He yelled back, “Samuel.”

“Where are you from, Samuel?”

“From New Jersey,” he said.

My face got hot, knowing I’d asked a stupid question.

“Why are you still here? Why didn’t you get out?”

“I don’t get my paycheck until tomorrow.”

Well if that didn’t just beat all things, I didn’t know what did. I walked back to the far corner of our roof where I couldn’t see him, where he couldn’t see me ball up a fist and punch the ledge of the roof. There were another couple people across the alley on that side, and they waved their hands and called out to me. I ignored them. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to care about any more people until the ones I was already caring about got out.


Excerpted from All City. Used with permission of Seven Stories Press. Copyright © 2019 by Alex DiFrancesco.

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