Redefining north.

City Council by Zach VandeZande

City Council by Zach VandeZande


Associate fiction editor Ben Kinney on today's bonus story: Zach VanZande's short and hilarious "City Council" explores personal emergencies--those problems in our lives we might not be able to explain to others (or even to ourselves)--but which threaten to overcome us nonetheless. Throughout the story is an ever-present panic from the blare of the siren, a panic that is always too quickly replaced by gnawing curiosity.

City Council

for Spiderweb Salon, every last one of them

The city council, in a fit of anxiety and democratic governance, decided to open up the old air raid siren for public use. The general feeling was that in an emergency, there would not be time for nuance, caution. What there would be time for was a stomach-plummeting wail. The council was made up mostly of people who still watched the local news.

A button was put outside city hall under a plastic cover, along with a little placard that said “In case of emergency.” For two weeks it was talked about in the little coffee shop on the town square, and that was that. Then one night around midnight Mike Evans went out there and put thumb to button. Sharon had left him. When the cops took him away he blew a .14, so even though he was within his rights from a public nuisance standpoint, they still dinged him for drunk and disorderly.

It sort of took off after that, especially once it got out that the town ordinance was worded in a way that made sure any townsperson’s judgment of what constituted an emergency would be deemed sufficient. Everyone feels moments when they’ve had enough, when their inner life is crushing down, or maybe they’re just scared or found an odd-shaped mole on their back. And the button was there for them.

At the next monthly council meeting attendance was well above average (26 people, up from the previous month’s 4, one of which was a non-voting toddler). People wanted to know why when the siren went off. They felt they had the right to know. A revision was made to the ordinance: anyone could press the button, but afterward they had to write their reason in the logbook, which an enterprising teenager—this was the same intern who posted the town’s weekend arrest mugshots to the police department’s Facebook page every Monday—took to live tweeting.

From there, it took off. The siren would go, and we would check our phones.

Sylvia, who leaned on the button for half an hour, wrote: because of my father, who justified everything.

Artyom, who always said in his thick accent to call him Art, wrote in Russian: I am here and not here. It didn’t show up on most of our phones, which couldn’t display Cyrillic. Terry, who fancied herself a poet, said that it was all the more beautiful, our not even being able to see. Before her own blare of the siren, she wrote: I always shy away from the long shot I should most take.

Sharon, Mike’s Sharon, went up there herself one day, saying: f*ck that c*cksucker Mike Evans. She censored it herself.

When Greg Dobson passed on, we let the mourners have their turn, every day at sundown for a week. The silence would be pierced, the birds would be spooked, and we would look to the people who were still around. For most of us, the siren didn’t mean much—it was like a flag at half mast, just sort of there. But that doesn’t mean it meant nothing.

Then Billy McElroy went up there to lean on the button because his favorite TV show had been cancelled. He was a sensitive kid, a loner. Some of us called him a little shit for using the siren for something so small. Those of us who looked at his face through the coffee shop window while his thumb went white from pushing knew there was nothing small about it. There’s a pit at the middle of each of us was our thinking, and who wouldn’t lament the loss of something that made you forget about it for a minute or two?

A funny thing about when Billy went up there: he didn’t put his name, and they let him use it anyway. This broke the floodgates all the way open. Not an hour went by during daylight without the lonesome and tremulous blaring. And the logbook filled up with things:

Hope takes admitting to what you don’t have yet.

We should love each other more than we do.

For Laika, that poor cosmonaut dog who burned up on takeoff. (We suspected Art on this one, but it turned out to be a young boy doing a research paper on space for school).

This feeling I have didn’t need a reason, so neither do I.

We wanted to call some of it overblown. We even liked the pun of it. But whose heart deserves silence? What isn’t an emergency, when you get right to it?

And can you believe something was sated inside each of us when the calm would break open, when the wailing went? Can you believe the city council member who championed the idea ran for mayor and won? And that we’re happier, and a better community? That we learned to love our town, and by turn each other, a little more?

It’s okay if you don’t. Put it in the logbook. Press the button. We’ll listen for you.

Zach VandeZande is the author of Apathy and Paying Rent (Loose Teeth 2008). His work has recently appeared in Portland Review, Hot Street, Crack the Spine, and Punchnel’s, and is forthcoming in Atlas Review, decomP, Bop Dead City, Necessary Fiction, and the Adroit Journal. He is currently a PhD student of fiction at the University of North Texas.

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