“Urban Imagination”–Bruce Holland Rogers

Bruno woke up to the radio news warning of a much longer commute than usual. Traffic was at a crawl on Highway 99, on the Beltline, on the Delta Highway, and everywhere because of some kind of breakdown. He was still half asleep when he first heard the phrase “reality breakdown,” and it didn’t alarm him much. Once he had awakened to a report about the lobster catch in New England, and his still-dreaming brain translated the story into something about the wasps that lobstermen were finding in their traps. Every few years it happened that the lobster pots contained some wasps, but this year, it was happening earlier than ever. Because the same stories repeated every hour, he had heard that story again after his first cup of coffee. The lobstermen were catching soft-shelled lobsters. There was no mention of wasps.

But the reality breakdown was still a reality breakdown even after Bruno had showered and taken his coffee. The radio voice said, “Drivers aren’t sure of their exits as a lot of signage and landmarks have changed. You might want to call ahead and make sure that your job still exists and is still located where you remember.” Bruno could easily believe that something very strange was going on because there was a mature oak tree in his back yard that hadn’t been there the day before. Through the summer foliage, he could see a very nice tree house and a family having breakfast on the tree-house balcony. A little girl waved at him. Bruno did not wave back, but not because he was unfriendly or because he disapproved of a tree house. In fact, he approved of greater housing density and urban infill. But he wasn’t sure of the permitting for a tree house or for overnight oak trees.

Bruno did not call to make sure his office still existed and still needed him. A city would quite naturally continue to need a City Planner.

Bruno rode his bicycle on the path along the river. The Willamette had changed course, and the University had become unmoored during the night and drifted downstream, settling at the base of Skinner’s Butte, which was now an island. To the south lay open country. The Post Office, the Hilton, the Hult Center and all the streets of downtown were gone except for the city administration building. Bruno struck out across waving fields of ripe grass and wildflowers.

The building was abandoned. Bruno decided that he must survey the scene from the roof. Inside the elevator car, he noticed that the office directory no longer said, “City Planner,” but now read, “Urban Imagination.”

Below, the valley stretched far and wide with only a few streets, an occasional lamp post, and the odd business here or there with no way to get to it. The city was virtually a blank slate.

“There,” Bruno said. “That’s where there should be a walking mall, close to the university…” No sooner had he spoken the words than the streets and businesses emerged from the grass. By speaking the words, Bruno integrated mixed income housing into the district. Apartments grew from the rooftops of bookstores, restaurants, and boutiques.

“A metro,” Bruno said with a smile. Why not? He established the stations before building the neighborhoods around them. He laid out the surface streets, assigned bridges.

He did not have to consider. He simply gestured and spoke. This version of the city had been growing within him for years. He defined districts and traffic flows from the rooftop, then descended to walk among his creation. He added details as he walked, and as he walked, citizens emerged from the metro stations, finding their way to work. Bruno added a coffee shop in the parking garage. He drew the library a little closer to the central junction of the metro. He positioned the jail in convenient proximity to the university.

The jail made him wonder about bad neighborhoods, and no sooner had the thought occurred to him than he found himself walking into one. The apartment buildings needed paint. Loud radios clashed from open windows. Too much asphalt. Nothing green broke the rigid, dirty lines. Bruno felt out of place here. More than out of place. Imperiled. Two men were watching him. He did not like their expressions. They began to follow him. He imagined that they were the type who would kill him for his wallet.

Stories by BRUCE HOLLAND ROGERS have been translated into over two dozen languages and have won two Nebula Awards, two Micro Awards, two World Fantasy Awards, and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches fiction writing at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.


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