‘City Beautiful,’ a Short Story by Portland Writer Callum Angus
When the northeast corner of the Multnomah County Justice Center turned invisible, Jawad was staring at his laceless shoes awaiting a bail hearing. At first, he noticed a blur in the corner of his holding cell. He crouched down to look closer: sure enough, a transparent bloom was spreading so he could see downtown through a smear of brick and sunlight; it was lunchtime and there were tall men without hats, dogs having bad days, food trucks serving passive-aggressive customers. His cell was on the second floor, and while it may have stung in the ankles were he to jump, he didn’t think twice. Jawad was innocent of the crimes the DA was trying to pin on him (despite the fact that he shared a skin color and last name with the real culprit) and knew not to question this temporary loophole—being as his court-appointed lawyer refused to make eye contact, it was likely his best chance at avoiding prison.
He could hear the no. 2 bus hiss across the street at the stop where he used to transfer to visit his sister, he could feel the wet breeze ferrying sunlight through the walls to where he crouched, and it was almost natural for him to jump, land on the sidewalk, and run ... only he found that when he set his foot down, it was like walking on glass. All of the sounds and smells and pungent breezes of downtown came wafting in, but the northeast corner of his cell was just as solid as it was before. He stomped his foot, but nothing changed. He stomped harder. He shouted and several people stopped and looked alarmed at the man hovering 20 feet above their heads, beating on air with his fists and weeping as he hadn’t since he was a small child, calling out, Why, why, why? until his fingernails were broken and bloodied by the wall that was and wasn’t there. Two guards came in and put Jawad in a chokehold until he passed out, and then they stood and stared at the man lying on the floor in front of the hole in the wall that wasn’t actually a hole, and marveled at this newfound cruelty.
From the curb, observers stared up at the office cubicles and holding cells, each neatly contained in the grid of the building like Barbie’s Prison Dreamhouse™. The city had been caught with its pants down, or at least the judge who had been on a fourth-floor toilet close to the exterior wall when its heretofore reliable brick had flickered and disappeared was caught with his pants down, and he found himself sweating through the remains of a bad lunch in full view of midday rush hour. People darting to court with their folders of documents stopped and stared open-mouthed at the building’s insides revealed. The judge fumbled his newspaper in surprise and it floated down to the crowd below, which howled with laughter: The inner workings of justice! There they are!
A white tarpaulin fluttered in the wind as men on ropes secured it to scaffolding while onlookers watched from behind a line of caution tape, wondering what could have caused such a miscarriage of physics and light. Soon it would look like just another building under construction in the city center being made taller and scrapier. The cops on duty were standing over a homeless man, telling him that now that the rear wall of his makeshift home had disappeared, he’d have to camp somewhere else.
Oliver took the long way home from school through Laurelhurst Park, even though his mother warned him not to. Oliver knew that her caution had no real basis, only that relations between the families who lived in the lush green neighborhood near the tennis courts and the people who lived in tents and RVs on its edges were currently bad. Oliver wondered if they had ever been good.
To his mother, the people who lived in the park canceled out some of its charm. Tents among the rhododendrons were distracting; they did not follow the spring directive to bloom. Oliver thought that might be true in terms of flowers, but if human suffering was in season, then the gardens were a riot unrivaled in Portland’s park system. On the rare occasion that the door to a tent was left unzipped, Oliver had never been brave or rude enough to peer inside for long, but he did not feel unsafe walking by himself in the daytime. The campers left him alone—avoided him, really—for fear of rich mothers.
As he neared his home in the gathering dusk, the street seemed much busier and more lit up than usual. So bright was the glow that Oliver’s first thought was a great fire had engulfed the homes on his street, but he soon saw the illumination was from the incandescent bulbs blazing inside the houses, which were usually covered by Sheetrock, insulation, sheathing, and brick. Those layers were now gone, their contents visible to all passersby. There was his science teacher’s kitchen, all marble countertops and chandeliers, unmade beds just above. Oliver’s housed neighbors paced on the sidewalk, loudly asking what was going on. Dogs barked madly inside transparent prisons, cats found new hiding places, and the sound of dozens of hammers rang out as fathers nailed quilts to their (invisible) walls for a semblance of privacy. Oliver’s father was doing the same in his room when he finally found his way home. The boy convinced him to let him take over the draping, and then left the job unfinished.
Every house on the block had been afflicted in the same way, while the tents and temporary shelters across the street remained untouched. Tam watched from the mouth of her tent feeling a little bit righteous, but also nervous about what would happen next. Even though she largely kept to herself and passed her time completing word search puzzles and picking scabs from untreated eczema, three years of living on the street had taught her to expect the unexpected.
Tam was not much older than Oliver when she spent her first unplanned night outside. Her much older then-boyfriend, with whom she’d been staying, had stopped answering her texts shortly after she came out to her parents, and since then, she’d been finding ways to survive. She moved around a lot, but Laurelhurst was the nicest place she’d lived, and although she had doubts about how long the city would let her stay, she hoped she could live on its edges forever. Tam was still young enough that forever was an innocent amount of time; she fully expected her life to be brief, so she could entertain thoughts of forever with the dispassionate remove of one who wouldn’t have to deal with its consequences. She wandered her park (as she thought of it) in the early dawn before joggers and mothers with strollers regarded her with suspicion, watched the ducks swim back and forth across the pond in search of crumbs and seed, listened to the mournful notes of a Native American flute player float from the shade of the cedars on the water’s edge, and felt peace in the assurance that when she was no longer around to enjoy it, this place would go on.
Tam watched a woman approach the row of tents looking determined and a little out of her mind. She stopped at the tent next to Tam’s and started tugging at the corner of a blue tarp the owner had tied to a telephone pole to keep his cookstove out of the rain. Pots and pans and gas canisters clattered to the ground, and a tower of neatly packed containers of leftovers exploded on the pavement in a confetti of rice and steamed veggies, some sticking to Tam’s shin. The woman turned to leave with her prize, but was brought up short by Tam holding onto the other end of the tarp. She wobbled unsteadily to her feet—sitting most of the day gave her needles and pins in her legs—but did not let go of the tarp which stretched a taut cerulean ocean between them.
“That’s not yours,” Tam said.
“I need this,” said the woman as she pulled the tarp harder, showering Tam with leftover raindrops that had collected in its troughs. “Look at my house. Its walls are gone. I need something to cover it up.”
Tam didn’t know which of the dioramas aglow in the dusky twilight belonged to this woman; she’d probably seen her walk quickly by with her eyes averted, or back too fast out of her driveway. And yet Tam realized that despite all that, and to her chagrin, she pitied this woman. There was a fear behind her eyes that Tam recognized—a desperation not to be seen, to hide away from the world, and now that that privacy had been ripped from her under circumstances beyond her control, she panicked. Tam could relate. She let the edge of the tarp fall and the woman scurry away.
Strolling the sidewalk and pausing in front of each home to take in its many rooms, Tam admired the blazing chandeliers and chrome appliances. Normally this stretch of road felt forbidden to her, with its gates and sprinklers and the knowledge of small security cameras tucked away and monitored by teams unseen. Now, with the walls down, the family rooms and kitchens and even the mudrooms were inviting: their warm wood grain and plush upholstery practically beckoned her to sit, relax, and be at ease. She almost felt like a welcome guest, if not in the homes themselves, then perhaps as a museum patron observing at a cool remove the affluence of the leisure class.
“You get away from there.”
The woman had secured her tarp and was back to shoo Tam from the spectacle her house had become. But she couldn’t keep everyone at bay, as word had spread, and other city dwellers had begun showing up to gawk at the transparent neighborhood. In bed that night, Oliver watched the shadowy figures of lookers-on walking by as he gazed up at stars paled by streetlights, and Tam watched the lights on the housed side of her block burn steadily through the darkness.
High up in the Cascades, a forest crew cuts down a massive fir. Just when the foreman is about to shout the predictable warning, it flickers and turns invisible, and instead he shouts WHAT THE HELL? as the transparent tree crushes a dozer. Meanwhile, above the city, a helicopter whips up a harsh breeze of mechanical disturbance, only there’s no sign of a cockpit or propeller, just two Nike executives with headsets and aviator sunglasses looking the part of uneasy gods levitating over the waterfront. A week in, and pilots can no longer see to land at PDX, so they skip it entirely.
Several weeks after Jawad’s breakdown, the Justice Center remains swaddled in a tarp that appears to breathe with each breeze that ripples through it. Most have forgotten that beneath the drapery, the walls are still invisible—except for the people inside, who walk its halls haunted by electricity traveling openly through menacing wires and water swooshing down pipes that drip with condensation, all distracting from the business of justice.
Some interior walls have been afflicted, too, imposing an open-office plan on everyone from the most important bureaucrats to those awaiting bail. Jawad has found himself with a direct line of sight across several cubicles on the fourth floor into the office of the judge responsible for his sentencing—he’d been tried and found guilty in a see-through courtroom where large oaks swayed in the breeze and created a green bower above.
Jawad no longer tries to test the bounds of his transparent prison. Instead, he waits and watches through the walls as the judge files motions and considered things like force, intent, and punishment, while pretending not to feel the prisoner’s eyes on him.
Callum Angus’s debut story collection, A Natural History of Transition, was a finalist for a 2022 Oregon Book Award, a Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Fiction, and the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award. He lives in Portland.