The City Alchemist
a short story by Roman Payne

I 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 roots of a plant sold in a nearby nursery. I take the ground root and bathe it in an amber resin—I am adamant in not revealing the name. This resin I boil, which removes the colour. Once dried, the mixture is easily powdered and taken through the nose or sublingually—producing noteworthy results. 

First, an acrid taste fills the throat and shivers follow up the back. Then, thoughts concentrate on slumber; and as focus diminishes I 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 the dreamless qualities. When I come to, after this thick sleep, I wipe the saliva from my throat and untangle my arms—as they usually get caught around my body somehow—and stand abruptly to find a clear and sharpened picture of the wakeful world. For this I have to thank the chemical, which I treat as my child and usually speak to continuously during the experience. What follows is 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 action for the pleasure of acting—not for power—these spirits flood me consistently. 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 streets permitting others to recognize me as a citizen of the city, and they permit me to look up as I pass—if not in reality, then certainly in theory. 

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 galleries are open and she tells me to wait at the door while she goes in to see the paintings on display. I think she does this for me, as she knows that the lights in those galleries are very bright and I could have a bad reaction with the fellow onlookers—even though I implore to be taken in with her. 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, I desire to spend a night with her and often ask her to visit my flat. She refuses consistently. I decided never to ask her again long ago, but one night loneliness enticed me to wave my rule and after entreating her to walk up the stairs with me 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 only to write it on a piece of paper and place it in my frock coat where I can find it later. She seemed annoyed by this and responded that she really couldn’t see me tonight 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 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, and that if she really wanted to, we could knock and ask them to keep us company. She denied any desire for that and asked me where my door was. I led her down the hall to my 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 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 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 a 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. 

The clumsy girl knocked over one of my minor concoctions when she stood and didn’t even notice until I barged in the bathroom to inform her of her blunder. Luckily, it was a chemical that I felt no special empathy for because of the nausea that accompanied it’s tedious and rather paranoid euphoria. Well, she didn’t even notice then; she was busy shaving between her brow with my razor. And 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, she forgot about what she was doing in the gaiety of the moment because blood began to trickle from her meek brow. I turned to hand her the towel but remembered that it hadn’t been washed in a long time and it might sting her eyes. I told her I didn’t have a towel—though I caught her looking at it in my hand, 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 that I had made with forty-percent benzocaine 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? 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 and I had no worry about explosions; however I, myself, 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. 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 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 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 another, had she not knocked it over. I showed her the tonics and herbs; and when it came time for the powders, I took out my favourite first. She asked what it was for and I said, “For life, for pleasure, and to make moments not so tedious.” It was when I professed that it cured nervousness that she became truly interested and agreed to try it. This thought intoxicated me. Finally, I would have an objective understanding of the capabilities of this glorious grey powder. 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 kept talking. “No,” I assured her, “it will not make you sleepy, but you can sleep here if you want to, yes. It will wear off by the time you have to go to the bridge, but we can hire a driver if you’d like, and I’ll carry you home afterwards if you are tired.” 

I think she was quite nervous to try it, but I exclaimed, adamantly, that it was mild and would make her feel at ease—like after a drink of Pernod. 

I laid out a strip of powder at least three times larger than the largest dose I had ever taken—I had to know the potential of this substance.

She asked if it could be smoked instead of snorted, and I said that it could be but it would not be as effective and she would have to do twice as much. 

It was cute to watch her take a pile of greyish powder up her nose and choke a little afterwards. I took the glass straw from her and 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. “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 sweat and began pacing. 

“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 and I could see her from the fire escape, walking on the stone street towards the river—she was patting her hair and hurrying. 

Finally, I was left alone with my wondrous little grey child—Ah, then I realized I had given her the last of it. 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 but, oh, what a surprise I would have for her upon returning.


©2000 Roman Payne

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