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  • I Went to the City in the Year of the Flood
  • Nellie Croy Smith (bio)

I arrive in the gut of it, as everyone does, on a train—a fast and brutal line of something, with me at its point. I am a beast of burden, luggage in tow, a quiet girl among other quiet girls, a human with a black dress, a sweetheart with a sour face. The building hums around me. The world lurches like a drunk.

Trains don't let you go until the right door opens. Cry, vomit, die, doesn't matter: the train goes on, until there's a space and a door. Good train, bad train. I ride and ride and ride until suddenly I am there, and I have taken the wrong train so I go the other way and it is no matter.

The feast, when the doors open, is there waiting: a broad, sweet city, a people so vast they cannot be numbered, like Abraham's stars. Sarai waits in her tent. The angels will visit soon.


I am here to buy cherries and eat them by the bowlful. I am here because I want sentences so big I can't say them without breathing in the middle. I am here because my old life didn't want me.

I am here, flown in from the hot fields of Ohio, straight across soybeans, over the Pennsylvania wilds, over the Jersey turnpike. I am here because I feel changes coming like angry dogs. I am here because it seems like the world might end this year, like evil is going to sweep us all off our feet and present us with a dark bouquet, a gift from an unkind lover: a future without love, or green places, or hope, or money to buy cigarettes or a doctor or a way to get home at night. I think of how all of these good things are about to be taken. I [End Page 25] want to savor them. I want to bury my face in the city, in my life, while they are there, to make hay out of the sweetest grass I can find.

I am here because this is what people do when they feel walls around them collapsing in and the cold march of time bearing down like an angry mother who says, You are my child and I will take you home, I will take you home at the end of all this.


Train again. The man next to me writes a list. It is, according to his title, A List of What's Important. On the list is family, friends, and several other words I can't read. The web of his handwriting is so tangled it has knotted on the page. He writes in letters as big as a child's fist. He is intent, nose down, his back an inverted hook. The train opens, reveals a yellow-tiled corridor as hot as a birthing room, and it is the right door for him. He departs, and his seat is filled, and I will never see him again.

Another man cracks a newspaper, tilts it toward me. I look away. Here everyone is made of fluffy air and no one looks around corners, or under the seat, or at headlines, into the glowering slits of buildings. Here, everyone walks the promenade, holding the world together.

The door pulls open, and I am out.


Here: the streets pressed in neat squares. Faces like a thousand shiny coins. A bubble where they can't touch. No Twitter feeds, no fair-weather smilers with their bobbly mouths, no tickers with america or immigration or economy here, and no sign of the great, infernal T that is everywhere in the great pumping heart of the country, the big red T that squats and glowers, the blunt, decapitated cross—the crossbeam where sane people go to hang themselves.

We are all sick of the T, and the city will not have it. I have arrived, and the T has retreated obediently, like sick-smelling air, into the west. No one will tolerate it here. The people here are beautiful...


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pp. 25-33
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