307. Give Me Air

I exist for open spaces. I lived a long time in a small city, but I could walk to the edge of town in five minutes. I spent four years at Michigan State, but that campus was a sylvan paradise. I only lived in a true inner city once, and it almost killed me.

It was Chicago. I know people who love Chicago – Andrew Greeley made a carreer out of loving that city – but they didn’t live where I did. 53rd street, student housing for the University of Chicago, a few blocks from the true south side. The same general area where President Obama got his start.

No, I didn’t meet him. He was in Hawaii, still in middle school, when I was at Chicago.

I never felt more at home intellectually, or more adrift in every other aspect of my life, than the year I spent there. It wasn’t just the dirt and the crowding and the nightly killings. It was that I would have to drive for hours through packed traffic to get to see open space. Without a car, I could have walked until my heart broke and never have reached the open sky.

I left after nine months with a master’s degree and a permanent case of cold chills.

When Keir Delacroix, in the novel Cyan, finds himself stranded on Earth after returning from exploring that virgin planet, I knew how he felt, and I knew where I had to put him. Chicago.

* * * * * * * * * *

The sky was slate gray to match Keir’s mood.    

Snow had been trickling down from ruptures in the sooty sky since noon, and now the dark of evening was upon him. He squatted against the bole of a smog blasted tree, staring at the house where he had been born. It was a half century older now than it had been then, although Keir was only thirty-nine. Even then, it had been old; a two story cottage subdivided to hold a dozen apartments. Now it had endured fifty more years of smog, fifty new layers of winter soot from a thousand chimneys, and half century more of the assault of air borne chemicals from the steel plants.

The orbital factories around L-5 were supposed to have removed the stigma of pollution, but even they were unable to cope with the needs of an Earth groaning under the weight of twenty billion people.

Someone came out the front door. Like Keir, he was bundled against the cold and he kept his right hand in the pocket of his coat. He looked around uneasily, saw no one but Keir, and advanced across the lawn. The grass was dead and brown, withdrawn from the sidewalk near the street to leave a barrier of frozen mud.

Keir drew a deep lungful of cannabis and threw the drag away.

The man was lean to the point of emaciation. His eyes were sunken in deep hollows. Keir nodded a greeting, but he only responded, “What do you want?”

“Nothing,” Keir answered. “Not a damned thing in this world!”

It was not the answer the stranger had looked for, but Keir let it hang between them for a moment before he went on, “I was born in that house – grew up there. In the little apartment to the left at the head of the stairs.”

“Who are you?”

“Keir Delacroix.”

The man knew him; it was written on his face. “What do you want with us?” he demanded. His voice was as tight as his face, all hard edges and deep hollows.

Keir sighed and shook his head. “Like I said; nothing. I don’t even know you.”

“I think you had better move along.” The stranger gestured with the hand in his pocket, and Keir finally decided that he did not have a gun. It was a foolish and dangerous bluff. Keir rose stiffly and threw back his shoulders to ease the strain of sitting too long in one position. The man stepped sharply backward toward safety.

Keir only shook his head and turned away.

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