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"The City Alchemist" - a Short Story  by Roman Payne

"The City Alchemist" by Roman Payne

The City Alchemist
By Roman Payne
"The City Alchemist" llustration by Roman Payne - copyright 2005
(Illustration: Ink and Watercolor, by Roman Payne, Copyright 2005)

W could have died a thousand evenings in this apartment, on these strange chemicals I’ve concocted—watching the damp blue of dawn grow sad smells and visions in this sparse flat. I am a good alchemist, and if I die I know that I will leave important discoveries behind.
I have a rack on my desk, which holds my tinctures and powders. Some of them I revere and use often and some I revile and abstain from with fervor. One in particular is a grey powder made in my mortar from the seeds of a plant sold in a nearby nursery. I take the ground seeds and bathe them in an acrid chemical whose properties quickly extract the alkaloids of the seeds—I am adamant in not revealing the names of any of these ingredients. This solution, I boil, which removes the colour and dissolves the hard testa and the fibrous endosperm of the seeds. Once cooled, a film appears on the surface of the solution; and once this film is removed and dried, it can easily be made into a powder possessing strong psychotropic properties. This powder is best administered sublingually, nasally, or orally (ingested in a capsule).
......My experiences of taking this powder nasally: First, a slight burn is felt on the mucous membrane, then an acrid taste fills the throat and involuntary shivers follow up the back. The body temperature cools slightly; then, after a few moments, the body resumes normal functioning. After about thirty seconds, brain processes suddenly alter. Thoughts concentrate on slumber; and as focus diminishes I, if standing, find myself half consciously falling to the floor.
......I have timed the sleep which occurs next—between four and four and a half minutes – though it seems to last only seconds because of its dreamless qualities. When I come to, after this thick sleep, I wipe the saliva from my throat and untangle my arms—as during all of this they usually get caught around my body somehow; and I stand abruptly to find, mostly visually, a clear and sharpened picture of the wakeful world. Like walking out of a damp and drab room into the color-saturated warmth of a fresh spring garden, this is a moment of exquisite perception. It is the moment I give thanks to the chemical: my illustrious grey powder, that which I treat as my child and speak to continuously during the experience. Those moments are pleasant, but what follows is more curious and divine:
......A clarity comes to mind and eye after waking that instantly convinces memory that sleep is an extinct function. A vivacious energy, a will to create, a will to comradeship and a will to action for the pleasure of acting—not for power—these spirits flood me profoundly. For two to two and a quarter hours following, I have a love of joy and sorrow. I share kind words with the people of the streets that I pass as I leave my flat—usually such words that I am asked what I seek for with such sincerity. During this part of the evening I find myself capable of walking through the crowded streets fancying that others recognize me as a citizen of the city; as they so obviously permit me too to glance at their faces — whether or not they are conscious of given me this permission, I know not; nevertheless, it is my fancy.

Lately, I have been keeping my evenings with a certain lady who is new to our city and our country. She is conservative and wakes at an ugly hour, insisting that we trod about the streets to see again all of the statues, the cathedrals, and the shop signs. I fear that this much mingling with the city can lead to an unhealthy method of living and I accompany her only after refusing silently and to myself.
......If it is before six in the evening, the art galleries on Elizabeth Street are open and she insists we stroll that cobbled and peopled road and stop at each gallery with any open door. she tells me to wait at the curb while she goes in to see the paintings on display. I think she does this for me, with kind intentions, as she knows that the lights in those galleries are very bright – noxiously bright, in fact – and could cause me to have a bad reaction, which would certainly interfere with the gallery-goers, the delicate canvases and deli tables. She’s convinced it would be the sort of reaction that would completely horrify the fellow onlookers; And so, even though I implore to be taken in with her, she asks me to wait out front, in the fashion of an uptown hired driver who smokes on the curb while his lady goes shopping.
......Yet, I forgive all of our miscommunications for she is an unaccustomed foreigner in a new country and, let’s not forget, in a new neighborhood as well. She stays on the upper-west side of town and I, in the south, at the intersection of the financial and commercial districts. She is quite polite and insists that she come down to my neighborhood to see me - usually in a conversation that wakes me early and dreadfully.
......After breakfast I wash my face; I soap my shoes and my legs and put them in trousers. I hurry to the corner to wait for her. I realize that it is too much to arrive at the corner at one, for a five o’clock engagement, but I think it would be tragic if she were to be early and find me absent. I am never hungry for our engagements because a vendor sells corn on my corner and I have over six ears as I wait; but the little lady must eat every eve at seven.
......In the cafés, we talk idly and sit languidly at a rear table—near the kitchen where I can take food from the dolly and put it on her plate. She sighs constantly. She doesn’t ask questions and this is distressing, though safe. She doesn’t know my dreams, nor what I do. She did ask me once what I did for a living but I stumbled on my words and soon she became disinterested, forgetting that she had asked. It has never come up since. Though I love my work, and work alone – late and often through the night – I desire to spend a night with her and often, as the hours wane on our engagements, I ask her to visit my flat. She refuses consistently. I decided never to ask her again long ago, but one night – a few nights ago – loneliness enticed me to wave my rule of no longer asking her to visit my flat; and since we happened to be passing my building on our end-of-the-evening stroll, I entreated her to come inside the lobby and walk up the stairs and see my place and, to my great delight, she agreed.
......I asked if she’d be needing a place to sleep; because my blankets were warm and, though withered, were nice.
......She said, ‘Oh no!’, that she was ‘to meet someone at midnight at a certain bridge that was said to carry the moon and all its light gracefully across the river’. I said that I knew 'all of the bridges in the city and there was none that could do such a thing', and she responded that 'the person she was meeting knew much more about the city than I, and knew of a bridge that the moon went right comfortably over’. And I asked her the name of such a bridge, but she wouldn’t tell me. I was certain that this was her feminine way of asking me to meet her at midnight without making it too unchallenging—and thus, unromantic. As a result of this thought, I turned to her and asked that we depart each others company immediately and meet ‘under the broad moon at midnight’. She then opened her mouth to speak; but I interrupted, insisting that she ruin nothing by telling me which bridge to go to, but rather to write it on a piece of paper and place it in my frock coat where I could find it later. She seemed annoyed by this and responded that she really couldn’t see me this night at midnight but only needed a place to tarry until then. I could not understand the woman’s game but agreed knowing that she had our rendezvous planned—I took her by the cuff and pulled her into the doorway where we silently ascended the stairs.
I was embarrassed by the yellowing paint in the stair-well and explained that it was going to be painted—that I had spoken to the landlord and had even sat in on a meeting where such issues were addressed, and she could be sure that I took a very active role in such matters as seeing to it that things in my environment look pleasant and nicely kept. The stairs swayed back and forth as we climbed them and flakes of paint fell from the ceiling downward. I was very concerned by this and assured her that if a flake hit her head, I would pay for her hair to be cleaned. By the end of this statement I realized that she had probably not heard me as she was all the way at the top of the stairs trying to open the door. I hurried up and explained that it was my neighbor’s door that she was trying to open, but that if she really wanted to, we could knock and ask if we could enter and keep them company. She denied having any desire for this and asked me where my door was. I led her down the hall to a door that looked rather informal and shoddy in her presence. I had to stick my fingers through a hole in the thin wood to unlatch the lock, as there is no doorknob. I could feel her disgust, and stated that I had bought books on doorknobs and was very interested in putting one on, and even that there was a break in the conversation at the meeting I attended where I stood and referred to the books, their authors and the controversial methods of putting on doorknobs, where I was silenced with a promise that the resources for such an undertaking were indeed available in a neighborhood as developed as my own.
......I could not find the poor lady when I entered my flat as she had run past me, past the bathroom, and directly into the curtain that covers my bed to block the light. I made sure to explain where the bathroom was but she insisted on sitting on the floor, aside my bed, to look in the mirror and adjust her makeup. Laughing at this, I informed her that it wasn’t for a lady to let the man of her company realize she was wearing makeup, or if she was, that she cared to adjust it. She ignored this—I think out of embarrassment.

My racks of test-tubes, mortars and pestles, jars of herbs and seeds and bottles of chemical solutions were kept on various benches and tables throughout my stoopy though ordinary room, where my lady was now present and apparently expecting to be entertained. Directly beside her – where she sat on the floor – happened to be arranged some of these very jars and test-tubes I had just mentioned; but I didn’t care to hide them, nor deny their existence, just as I didn’t care to explain their purpose. At the moment I only cared about the rapture I felt having finally brought my lady upstairs. And how cute she looked as she sat on the floor, looking about the room with her eyes and blushing her cheeks with a brush.
......The clumsy girl knocked over one of my minor concoctions when she stood up to use the toilet and didn’t even notice until I barged in the bathroom after her to inform her of her blunder. All fifty centiliters were lost; though, luckily, it was a chemical that I felt no special empathy for because of the nausea that accompanied its tedious and rather paranoia-inducing euphoria.
......So I barged into the bathroom, clutching the empty test-tube while screwing up my face as properly as possible, but she didn’t even pay attention to my complaints; she was busy shaving between her brow with my razor. She was silent and I was silent; but finally when I began to speak, she interrupted that I ‘should never barge in on a lady when she is doing her things’. I noticed then how beautiful her eyebrows were and forgot about my ruined work. Apparently, in the gaiety of the moment, she forgot about what she was doing as well because blood began to trickle from her meek brow. I turned to hand her the towel but remembered that the only towel I owned hadn’t been washed in a long time and might sting her eyes. She then, too, noticed the blood dripping from between her eyebrows and asked for a towel. I told her I didn’t have one — though I caught her looking at the towel in my hand, which wasn’t well hidden behind my back despite my tremendous efforts. I had to think quickly; I threw it in the toilet and ran out screaming that I had ‘the perfect thing!’.
......I returned with some lotion, a thick cream kept in an amber-tinted jar, that I had made with forty-percent benzocaine, two-percent cetyl-phosphate, and linseed oil. I tried to paste it on her face but she took it exclaiming that she would save me the pleasure. I thought it silly that she should be so embarrassed by her folly but I agreed to let her get the blood on her hands. It was really sweet and quite romantic of her.
As she pasted the cream on her brow, I pointed out that I had made that lotion, and wasn’t it some lotion? She asked if I was a sort of nurse. I was so intrigued that she wanted to know what I do. Could I really share my work with someone? Could I let her in on my passion? On my life? She kept pasting the cream on her brow where the blood had been and her cheeks sparkled under the low-wattage bulbs of the vanity mirror. Meanwhile, I reassured her that it really was, after all, some lotion, and dragged her to the other room, in sudden confidence, to show her my other creations.
......Noticing that I had neglected to put sheets on my bed, and that my mattress was quite damp and stained, I led her to the kitchen and sat her on the counter. I brought my racks of chemicals in and set them on the oven—it was cold – the pilot-light was not lit - and I had no need to worry about explosions; so I, too, sat on the oven and blackened the back of my trousers. The lady brushed off her clothes and sat on the floor—I made a mental note to clean the counters next time. With my apartment’s apparent new habit of being frequented by lovely members of the opposite sex, I, from that day forward, decided to make an exaggerated effort to keep it clean. The kitchen is very small and the two walls nearly touch. I ambled around her so she would not see my dirty britches, and sat down on the floor in the sudden heat and feverishness of the moment.
......Our knees touched slightly as we sat on the floor beside each other and it felt quite good. When she reminded me that I took her in there to show her something, I thought quick and hard to find a way to take the chemicals off the stove without disengaging our knees. It was useless—I had to stand. I stood.
......I brought the rack down to the floor and sat back down—thrusting my knee into hers hard as it had been. She looked at me strangely and scooted a foot away.
......I showed her the tinctures, and explained that I would have had another, had she not knocked it over. I showed her the tonics and herbs, the topical-ointments, the suppositories, the aqueous solutions for subcutaneous injections; and when it came time for the powders, I took out my favourite first. It was grey. Yes, it was grey, but it shimmered so opaline in its corked glass jar. What infinite beauty it had. She asked what it was for and I said, “For life, for pleasure, and to make moments not so tedious.” She raised an eyebrow, still wet from being washed of the blood; her eyebrow signaled either interest or sudden distrust of her company. I kept speaking of the glories of the wondrous grey powder. It was when I professed that it cured nervousness that she became truly interested and agreed to try it. She agreed to try it! This thought intoxicated me. Finally, I would have an objective understanding of the capabilities of this glorious grey powder. She was to become my Belladonna. I could see, not just feel, its effects. My lady would reveal to me the potential of my child. I ran to my desk to get the time clock.
......“How could I be clinical about it if she keeps talking?” … “No,” I assured her, “it will not make you sleepy, but you can sleep here if you want to” … “Yes, it will not interfere with your going to the bridge, but we can hire a driver if you’d like, and I’ll carry you home afterwards if you are too tired.”
......“I don’t want to be tired. As you promised, I want to be free of nervousness; and I want it to begin when I go to the bridge – not before,” she told me.
......“Don’t worry, any fatigue that is produced – and slight it will be – will come and go within minutes after administration … and the effects that relieve all forms of nervousness do not carry any side-effects of fatigue and will continue for many hours. Not only will you not be nervous, but you will be gay and charming and a real joy to be around. We will laugh all the night, my dear!”
......I think she was, afterall, quite afraid to try my little grey child, but I exclaimed, adamantly, that it was mild and would make her feel at ease—like after a drink of Pernod.
......I tapped the jar until a strip of powder formed on the pane of glass I was holding. The line of powder was at least three times larger than the largest dose I had ever taken; I wasn’t sure how her body would tolerate the amount — but I had to know the potential of this substance.
She asked if it could be swallowed instead of inhaled, and I said that it could be but it would not be as effective and she would have to ingest twice as much.

It was cute to watch her sniff the powder up her nose. She choked a little afterwards. I took the glass straw from her as she sat there on the floor, twitching her nose from side to side, looking cockeyed straight ahead, and I went to prepare a place for her four-minute nap. I ripped down the sheet that hung from the ceiling and spread it across my dingy mattress. I awaited her sleepy words and motions towards the cot, but she never made them. In fact, she attested that she never felt the effects of my creation.
......Shocked, I immediately provided more. I laid out another strip of powder on the glass. ‘Maybe I gave her too much,’ I thought, ‘Perhaps her body is just preparing itself for shock.’ … “Sometimes it doesn’t work well the first time you try it,” I lied. It was quite annoying when she refused to do more, making excuses. “Well, I’ve been weary all day. I don’t think anything could raise my spirits.”
......“No, it should knock you out,” I said boldly.
......“Maybe I have an immunity.”
......“Impossible!” I was angry, embarrassed, I took the sheet from my bed to wipe my off sweat and began pacing the floor.
......“Well, it’s eleven-thirty; I must leave. Thanks anyway.”

......My lady left.
......The door wide open, I could hear her clopping on the stairs. I heard the lobby door slam; I ran out to my window and I could see her from the fire escape, where I stood watching, walking down the stone street towards the river—she was patting her hair and hurrying.
I crawled back inside the window and attended to the glass jar I had taken into the kitchen. Finally, I was left alone with my wondrous little child—Ah, then I realized I had given her the last of it. The jar that once held that opaline powder was empty. I would have to make another batch.

While fetching the ingredients from the window I looked to the street now empty of people. I realized it would take hours to concoct another vial of the tonic; and soon, the cold damp mist of early morning would slip over the sill and chill my bones. I thought of the woman waiting at the bridge for me. It was a female game to leave me to guess which of the city’s bridges she would run to. I could see she went east from my window. That left three as probable. Well, she would have to wait the night out alone, I’d other matters more important to attend to. But she would return, no doubt, after a while spent awaiting my arrival in the cold, damp of night. And oh, what a surprise I would have for her upon returning!



AUTHOR'S NOTE: “The City Alchemist” was written in my apartment in May of 1999 on Houston and Mott Streets in New York City. Its windows faced west revealing the roofs of the bodegas and the bars below as well as the constant stream of traffic on Houston street, which we watched – the famous Maggie Mayfield, Mich Poe, and myself, till many a sad, damp, blue-grey of dawn came arising.

- Roman Payne



"The City Alchemist" - a Short Story  by Roman Payne
From The Old Century - written in 1999
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