Once upon a time is what Noalee wishes she could say about this time of her life. She sighs and glances at the burgundy underbelly of the hotel awning. She was hoping travelling to a different place would help, but this trip to Atlanta, her annual visit to company headquarters, may be making things worse. The anticipation of her swim is what pulls her through a normal day. She wonders what will pull her through this one. Her eyes turn to the heavy gray sky, then to the thick, wet air. Stuck to the pavement in front of her is light pink chewing gum, all stretched out and looking like a spider web.
The concierge steps forward, dressed in a top hat and tails. White gloves. He smiles at her.
Noalee pretends she doesn’t see, looking past him toward the parking garage. She’s waiting for her rental.
“Meeting over?” he asks in a loud voice.
She nods, looking down at her chest and peeling off her name tag. She wonders if she should think of this day as abnormal.
“May I offer some suggestions for lunch?”
She’d rather just walk away and let that be her answer, but she forces a no-thank-you out of her mouth. Then she steps to the side where she leans against a column. She’s so hungry she feels weak.
The meeting this morning made it clear that it would be another year without any changes. Insuring lives for a hundred years, their advertising claims. What kind of life do you have, she always wants to ask. Is it worth it? She sighs again as if she’s deflating.
This feeling she’s been having lately, she’d thought agreeing to share a room with three women would surely scare it away, if the trip itself didn’t. Yet it turns out the other women like to stay out late. They like to shop. They like to keep the TV on all the time. Noalee doesn’t enjoy any of those things and pretending she does forces her to separate from her body. So sometime around midnight the first night, she quit trying. Now she avoids the room until she’s ready to sleep.
Noalee has tried other tactics as well, hoping to dislodge this feeling she can’t name. At the Northeast Frankford Boys and Girls Club, the children asked her to read once upon a time so many times her tongue began to spit the words out. She told the kids life didn’t happen like that. Will you read it again? they begged. Then she tried building houses with Habitat for Humanity. She wanted to build small, cozy houses, but everyone wanted a big house. They’d watched that show too often—the one where all the dreams come true, dreams bigger than the families had known to dream.
Last weekend, though, she just sat on the couch in her apartment on the tenth floor. Just sat there by herself staring at the dust motes floating in the air. Oh well, she thought. Okay.
The hotel door opens, and a couple emerges. The man speaks to the concierge.
“Underground Atlanta?” the concierge says. “Yes, lots of places for lunch. Great fun. Horse-drawn trolleys. People in old-timey clothes. Storefronts like after the Civil War. Just take Courtland to Pryor Street. There’s a giant yellow arrow. Follow the signs.”
Now the woman says something.
Again the concierge responds in that booming voice. “No, not really underground. But after Sherman, the rebirth of Atlanta started there at the railroad depot with the rebuilding of the tracks, and later, what with the traffic, viaducts were built.” One white glove makes an arc in the air. “New city above. Old city below. Perfectly safe, it is.”
Noalee’s always listening to other people’s conversations. Because she’s never having any of her own. She shakes her head, like the etch-a-sketch she had as a child, erasing that picture of herself. But she can’t stop the feeling from expanding. The glass of water is full. One more drop and over she’ll go.
Here’s her car at last. A metallic blue mustang and she had requested black.
“Need directions, ma’m?”
She shakes her head again. Hunger pains pull at her stomach as she pulls the twisted seat belt across her body. She knows how to get to Miriam’s. That’s where she always eats when she’s in Atlanta. She inches the car forward and looks into the traffic. At Miriam’s, she knows where to park and what to order.
Her legs feel like cement girders. Her arms slide to the bottom of the wheel. She’s only twenty-seven.
In her rearview mirror, a car pulls up behind her. Ahead, the traffic is bumper to bumper and moving quickly. There’s no way she can make a left turn across three lanes. An old woman waves her in, and she turns right into the flow. She makes another right in order to turn around. Now she’s on a one-way street. Four lanes. Courtland Street. Courtland to Pryor Street, the concierge had said. Cars whiz by on her left. The lights are all green. She feels as if she’s caught in raging whitewater, the current pulling her forward. A billboard with a giant yellow arrow points right to Underground Atlanta. She swings right with the traffic. Now another yellow arrow points straight down.
Noalee jerks the car to the curb. She takes a breath that throws her body backwards as it fills with air. What is she doing?
A knock on the passenger window and she jumps. It’s a man with a stubbly red beard and little black circles for eyes. He’s holding on to a cart filled with a sleeping bag, a plastic water jug, and a wrinkled brown paper bag. Noalee pulls a dollar from her purse and leans across the seat to give it to him. Raising the window, she wonders if a dollar is the right amount? From her rearview mirror, she watches him continue down the street. He peers into a trashcan and pulls something out, which he hugs to his chest and then places in the cart. Noalee can’t remember what that feels like—finding something she wanted to hug to her chest.
She puts on her blinker to signal a turn. She follows the signs, descending below street level into the underground parking structure. The last song on the CD ends, and the car fills with silence. When she opens her door, Noalee realizes that she’s parked in the darkest area of the lot. While she’s moving her car closer to the thin rectangle of September sunlight filtering through grass and spilling over the top of a high concrete retaining wall, the music begins again. First she hears the piercing cries of an electric guitar, then the soothing notes of a piano.
It’s an uphill walk over the railroad tracks into the hidden city. With each step, she feels time accelerating from day to night; for what starts out high above as the second floor of the parking garage gradually closes in on her, the underside of the top floor turning into an obscure, false sky. Despite the illusion of night, Noalee feels the heat of day. She pulls her loose cotton dress away from her skin. She doesn’t know why she chose this orange dress, why she put it in her suitcase, why it’s even in her closet. She doesn’t like bright colors. She lifts her dark hair off her neck.
When hunger grips her stomach again, Noalee is passing the old Railroad Depot. All she had this morning was a latte, and now her mouth tastes like metal. She puts a foot down into the street. A horse drawn trolley grazes her arm, forcing her back to the sidewalk. A breeze rustles brittle leaves around her legs. An old woman in a colorful skirt passes her.
Noalee smells vanilla and looks up, inhaling the light, sweet scent. Her stomach muscles unclench. In front of the restaurant, a guy dressed as a snake oil salesman stands on a soap box. Inside, she recognizes Lucas, a guy she liked in college. He nods, then moves toward her. How curious to run into him, she thinks, as he invites her to eat with him. At school Lucas was part of the drama crowd. Noalee, on the other hand, has never been part of anything. Not even a family. She was an only child, then her parents divorced. Now she hasn’t married.
Noalee slides into the booth, and Lucas sits beside her. Why didn’t he sit on the other side? She puts the messenger bag she uses as a purse between them, then blushes as she sees herself reinforcing the boundaries. Always staying on her side. Keeping people on theirs. Lucas is talking, but Noalee drifts away as she always does, watching herself rather than being herself. She butters bread, one bite-sized piece after another. She hears only words—law school, plaintiffs, millions—not meaning.
When his foot touches hers, it shocks her, and in that moment, as her foot is reflexively jerking away, she catches herself, and with her hands, as if her leg has no ability to move on its own, she places it with the foot attached intentionally back where it was. Lucas scoots closer to her, pressing her bag against her. She watches herself move her purse to her left side. She turns her head in slow motion back to Lucas, who’s buttering a piece of his bread, which he raises to her mouth. Their eyes meet as he places the warm bread inside. She swallows, then moves slightly forward and kisses him. When she opens her eyes, she knows Lucas isn’t what she wants. She’s settling for what’s in front of her—again. And she knows what comes next. Becoming accustomed to it.
Something else is happening. That feeling that usually stays deep inside is rising to the top, as if she were sitting on a see-saw with this feeling on the other side, and the further down she goes, the higher it rises. Until there it is, in the emptiness across from her at the table. It’s not connecting she wants, but belonging. It’s not the spark she seeks, but the place, the hollow where she will fit. Noalee picks up her purse and scoots Lucas out of the booth. She mumbles goodbye as the food arrives, weaving and stumbling toward the parking lot, feeling the hard ache of cobblestones through her sandals. She needs to get back to the world she knows. She gags on the emptiness and throws up in the gutter, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
As she crosses over the abandoned railroad tracks with pain now jarring her head as the stones had jarred her feet, the old woman in the patchwork skirt comes out of the darkness to her left and passes her heading toward the Depot. Noalee smells vanilla and turns. The pain lifts. It’s not the world she knows that she needs to get back to. It’s something else. Ahead of her is the darkness of the old world. At her feet, the two steel rails. Noalee stands there as if calculating whether she could make it if she jumped. She needs to move now or she never will. She steps forward onto a wooden crosstie—halfway. Now she must look as if she’s waiting for a train to run her down. But she’s not against life; she’s just against this life.
The wind blows across her face, bringing with it a hint of vanilla. Noalee looks at the blurry darkness ahead of her. That woman. And then there’s a curious tinkling of glass from the darkness. As if saying, yes, hope. And Noalee bends her knees, swings her arms back, and jumps over the second rail, landing on both feet on the other side.
At the Depot, she pauses. She feels a breeze on her back, the splitting as it goes around her, the coming together again in front of her. She shivers, breathing in vanilla. The colorful skirt billows out and then disappears around a corner. Her heart quickens. The colors are there in front of a shop and then gone again. “Balder’s Apothecary Shop.” At first, Noalee is unable to find an entrance. Then to the right, she sees a small wooden door, rounded at the top and covered in two columns of five brass panels, but without a knob. She bends down, puts her hand on one of the panels, and pushes the door open.
Inside, it’s cool. The smell is stronger, richer, a heavier scent, darker, as of the bean itself. Noalee leans against a wooden counter, breathing easily inside this vanilla cocoon and away from the noise and the people on the street. All around her is the melodious sound of glass on glass. She looks up. Hundreds of wind chimes, all made of glass of different sizes and shapes. The sound is continuous and deep, many-layered. It’s refreshing, as if it were the rush of a waterfall, the sound thick with the many droplets of water.
Paintings—impressionist landscapes—cover three walls of the shop. A large mirror covers the fourth, above a back counter where glass jars filled with powders of all colors are stacked on glass shelves. Noalee peers over the front counter. Below the jars are wooden drawers, hundreds of them, and again no knobs. On the counter on which she’s leaning, several mortars sit, each with a pestle resting inside, grains of white in one, pearl in another, and what looks like seashell in the third. Blank canvases of all sizes and shapes are stacked in a corner.
A rush of the glass draws attention to a breeze. It’s coming from a door at the back of the shop. Noalee pauses at the threshold. On a small stone terrace, the vanilla woman is sitting in front of a blank canvas, her back to the doorway. Beyond the terrace, the white berries of mistletoe shine from the branches of two shade trees. Enclosed by the walls of the surrounding buildings, this outside area is no bigger than a large room. Noalee places one foot onto the terrace. The woman picks up a paintbrush. Noalee notices her own heart and moves her hand to cover it. The woman rests the brush in her lap.
As if she were playing marco polo and had called out hoping someone would answer, glass chimes against glass. Her heart. Noalee smiles and drops her hand. It’s time to come out of her head and into her heart. Time to let go.
She lifts her face and opens her chest. The breath flows all the way through. She steps forward so that both feet rest on the tiny stone terrace.
Noalee sits on the stones, breathing deeply and fingering the separate patches on the vanilla woman’s skirt, the rough edges binding them together. The vanilla woman is painting. Roofs. A row of roofs. Not with colors, but with shades of white. On the skirt, Noalee discovers a yellow patch. Inside it, turquoise circles beaded together. She hasn’t thought of her grandmother in years. She died when Noalee was five, but Noalee now remembers a long skirt, a yellow shirt, a translucent turquoise necklace. And arms so wide there was always a place for Noalee.
You’ve lost your bearings, dear, the woman tells Noalee in a safe, soothing voice. Then she turns from the painting to face Noalee, handing her four objects from her lap: a membership card, a swimsuit, a swim cap, and goggles. Noalee grins, surprised. She had expected the woman to look into a crystal ball.
You must do the work yourself. You see, it is only you who knows.
Noalee closes her eyes to concentrate on the voice. The vanilla woman continues to talk, giving instructions. Her words settle in, fill holes, quench.
Then Noalee is on the street again, setting out to find the end of the tracks. The vanilla woman waves and says, Remember, the first time, it’s not really the end. When Noalee arrives at this false end, the old gas street lamps are farther apart and there are no trolleys or people. Her heart pounds. She begins to count steps, to steady herself. At forty, each of the two steel rails curves out and ends.
Where the road crosses the end of the tracks, listen for the old souls. Noalee turns an ear skyward. She hears the tinkling glass—ahead, on her left. The woman said to look for a small door, similar to the one at Balder’s but with more and smaller brass panels. You are your own North Star, Noalee repeats in a whisper, as she bends down, pushes the door open, and crosses the threshold.
She shields her eyes until they adjust to the fluorescent lighting. Noalee smiles. It’s an old YMCA. She pulls the card the woman gave her out of the side pocket of her purse and shows it at the desk without stopping. On the left, after the swinging gate, she looks for the first blue door. Pushing it open, she enters the women’s locker room.
Old women, with white hair, bulging stomachs and huge, sagging breasts, walk around naked. One winks at her and the others smile as they continue to chat in the steamy changing room. Noalee makes her way to an empty spot. She opens her purse and reaches for the midnight blue swimsuit, two tiny silver birds on the front left. In a corner with her back to the wall, Noalee takes off her clothes. Not looking up, she pulls on the suit. She removes the silver goggles and midnight blue cap and then stuffs her regular clothes in her large purse. She crams it in the open gray locker to her left, not meaning to bang the tiny door closed. A second later, Noalee removes her purse from the locker and drops it in the trash. She must believe—really believe—in what she’s doing.
Toward the back is the second blue door. Noalee pushes it open, finding herself at the top of a stairwell. She twists and turns down the old cement steps, ignoring the graffiti. She inhales the chlorine, the smell that covers all others, and she coughs several times, adjusting to its persistence. The last blue door. She leans with her whole body to push it open.
Her heart catches at the unnatural dark blue of the water. It releases as her body moves to the deep end. When she bends down to dampen her cap and goggles, her hands disappear in the opaque liquid. She puts them under again, and again they’re gone. Putting the goggles around her wrist, she twists her hair into a ponytail, which she holds tight against her head while she stretches on the midnight blue cap covered in silver moons. As she tucks in the stray wisps, she feels a pleasant tingling. She places the strap of the goggles over the back of the cap and pulls the silver eyes to her forehead, feeling a swoosh of cold as she draws them over her eyes. For a moment she can’t see. Trust the goggles, the woman had said. So she presses in to lock the seal. Then trust yourself. Noalee raises her arms over her head and pushes off with her feet, and in the second before she enters the water, fingertips first, she believes.
As her hands part the water with her first stroke, much as a curtain opens on a stage, the sun hangs at a high angle. People pour out of church on this hot and humid afternoon, and she drifts down a street as if she has no place to be, as if gravity is the only reason she’s moving. Left foot, right foot, she thinks, not swinging her arms, each rough step taking something away from her. She has no energy to prevent this depletion; perhaps she will simply disappear. Looking up, she notices she’s passing under a rectangle of sky between two shop awnings. She stops to stare at a tree planted in a square of dirt, right in the sidewalk, and wonders whether the square was left without cement from the beginning or whether it was hammered out afterwards. A bird lies in the street next to the tree. Flipping back and forth.
At the shallow end, Noalee hoists herself up the ladder and out of the pool. The vanilla woman made it clear—swim in only one direction, dive in at the deep end and surface at the shallow end. Noalee takes small, careful steps, trying to grasp the rough surface of the concrete with her toes. As she nears the deep end, she pinches the wet flesh on her forearm but feels only the water between her fingers. In she dives again.
This time, it’s deep in the night. Sitting in bed in a dark room, she holds a wine glass. She looks through the glass coated in condensation to the golden liquid inside. Then she looks up through the wall of windows to the night illuminated by a full moon. Heavy condensation also coats the windowpanes, which are holding and muting the strong moonlight. A glance at the man beside her—a husband, a lover, a stranger—oblivious to her. She blows a breath into the frigid darkness, wanting to know if the air is cold enough for her breath to be visible, for her breath to crystallize. She looks back to the wine glass. And then there it is. If she were outside looking in, what is cold and being held would not be the moonlight but this room, this icy air she’s breathing—her.
Noalee reaches her hands to the hollow, metal railing, lifting her upper body so that she can thrust her feet onto the bottom step. She shivers. With equal effort from her arms and legs, she pulls herself out of the water. Then she turns around and sits down on the edge of the pool, on top of the ladder. The vanilla woman said no matter what, no matter how long she was here, not to quit. This would be her only chance. Noalee stands and turns again, using the rail for balance. She watches her feet come out of the water and step to the cement floor. She looks up to see her body moving to the deep end. Her fingers check the suction on the goggles. She pushes the body in.
A dusting of the yellow-green pollen covers the streets, the cars, the mailboxes. It hangs in the air, clouding the view. Dark, thick piles of it accumulate along the edges of the street, as if it’s dirty, exhaust-tinted snow that can be controlled. But the fine dust blows in through the screens, in through the quickly-opened door, the slightly-opened mouth. Unlike an insect, it can’t be shooed out or expelled. Instead it melts or mixes; it becomes unseverable.
She washes her hands, using her nails to scrape the underside of her other nails. Then she flushes her eyes, patting them dry with a hand towel from underneath the cabinet. She runs a finger along the counter. Leaving a momentary white trail, she looks for a surface on which to give a yellow-green fingerprint. Finding nothing suitable, she rinses her finger again.
Out on the street, but safe in her car, she feels united with the people around her. She nods to the driver of each car she passes for surely they know each other, covered as both their cars are with pollen. It’s never been this bad, everyone says to her. They need to join in their struggle against this substance they’re breathing in, this force trying to claim them all.
Noalee’s upper body collapses over the side of the pool. Light blue drops of water roll down her face. She’s far more exhausted than normal, but this is not normal. She’ll keep going as long as it takes.
Just for a moment, as if to draw strength from it, she lets her face, chest, and arms hug the cement surface. Her lower body remains invisible below the water of the pool. That last one had taken her close to something but still wasn’t right. Close, but nothing.
She calls to her body. Again, she says. She straightens, raises her goggles and wipes her eyes. With heavy steps, she moves her legs out of the water. Slivers of glass seem to fall from her body, shimmering colors emerging. Is she breaking apart? Must she?
Her steps quicken. She fears if she doesn’t hurry, there might not be enough left to take her into the water. Goggles. Suction. In.
It’s late afternoon—the time of day that seems to catch and hold feelings. Taking a break, she stops by the convenience store for a cup of coffee. But the pot has been sitting too long, and the acrid smell turns her around. With a quick wave behind her to the cashier, she heads back to the car empty-handed and not breathing through her nose. There’s something about the smell of burned coffee that disturbs her.
At the diner where the waitress calls her by name, she requests a styrofoam cup of sweet tea, full of crumbs of crushed ice that she sucks on. It was iced tea she really wanted, after all. Getting back in the car, she rolls a small morsel of ice around her mouth with her tongue. Just for a moment her heart beats a little faster. As if she were a child reaching for a balloon, her body reaches toward her soul. She smiles. These moments come out of nowhere, surprising her.
She glimpses a stone fireplace one street over, and then another. So she turns left at the next corner and left again. Yes, a row—one row of identical houses surrounded by the other regular houses. It’s what she does, search for rows. And this one is full of color. Yellow, midnight blue, light blue, brown, sea green, and emerald. As if someone has given her a box of colored pencils all sharpened to the same point.
These rows are a link to the past, hidden in the present. Usually on the edge of a neighborhood that has turned into something else. The houses are always small. The rows, manageable. It might be four houses, or six or eight—always an even number and never more than ten. This time, it’s six. They’re usually made of weathered tropical wood. One chimney to the stars. Simple A-frame roofs. This street is flat so the roofs line up, the end of one nearly touching the beginning of the next, the symmetry reassuring.
She gets out of her car, breathing comfortably, the smell of something sweet in the air. Her shoulders wide, she climbs the three steps to the porch. Behind the moon-shaped door, there will be no halls. Each room will follow behind the other, single file. All connected. All joined. Open the front door and you can shoot an arrow straight through the doors of the rooms, and out the back. An arrow straight through the heart.
It’s the matching in a world of randomness that draws her to the houses. On the outside, for all to see, they belong to each other. Proudly. Yes, they say, there is something alike about us and we need each other to be whole. Each little house standing against a world of chaos. Doing its part. Lined up in a row. And sometimes, at just the right angle, the row appears to go on forever.
She lifts her arm, preparing to knock, when the door opens. There’s a tinkling of glass somewhere within. She smiles, crossing the threshold where she’ll spend the afternoon listening to the stories, watching the twinkle in the eyes, the patting of hands, the feeling of a soft blanket in a little nook.
At the end of the day, arriving home, she parks on the side street. She faces her row from the middle so she can take them all in. Five to her left and five to her right. Ten small houses—all white and all familiar.
It’s the copper penny on the pool floor. And she dives for it, going deeper than she ever has before.
Now Noalee sits on the top step of her front porch, sipping from a wooden ladle of blue well water, a hint of vanilla in the taste. Light glints off the silver tracks, which come out of the woods, pass by the well, and stop at her front steps, which also lead out to a sidewalk of seashells, walked down to a phosphorescent dust, forever lighting the way home. As the breeze lifts sparkling dandelion pollen from a small patch of grass, butterflies flash turquoise and yellow, and Noalee throws her arms around herself. All the houses in her row are white, with a deeper white trim, and hers is the one on the end.
Cynthia Newberry Martin spends her days in Columbus, GA and Provincetown, MA, where she is hard at work on a novel.
Image of “Underground Atlanta” by Chuck Grimmett.