With balmy breezes and crystal skies, brilliant days that fade to starry nights, and air that tingles in sagging lungs, Leisuria is home to thousands of persons who worked their buns off, day after day and year after year, at jobs they did not especially like and careers which failed to develop their talents, while raising a family, paying taxes, and fulfilling the demands of faithful stewardship. They scrimped and scrounged, clipped grocery store coupons, let nothing go to waste, stuck to a household budget, and took vacations rarely, a week of camping or a visit by car to relatives, all to save up for the golden prize of retirement.
The city claims an elevated site, a dry plateau in the southwestern United States, where the sun always shines. Hundreds of miles from the nearest town, aloof in its arid landscape, it strikes some as a desert mirage, a tender plant in a hostile environment, where nature can harbor at most a few souls lightly strewn across the plain. An artificial wonder, it flowers in a void.
Leisuria sprang from a mining camp, an old ghost town that once extracted veins of silver, lead and copper, a place so transient it never had a name. Outside developers with deep pockets perceived a modern gold mine, as it were. They invested in infrastructure, drilled water wells to bedrock, buried utility and communication lines, built sanitary sewers and waste disposal plants, and set aside land for shopping centers.
Schools were omitted from the urban agenda, as children are few in Leisuria. The service workers who flock to the jobs created by the city are not allowed to marry and raise a brood of young. They are maids, gardeners, health care aides, and construction workers. At the first sign of domestic bliss, of settling in to a stable lifestyle, they are hustled into exile, back to the foreign country of their birth. Taciturn and young, they seldom speak to their thin-lipped employers, who would just as soon do chores themselves, except for the aches and ailments to which they are unwilling martyrs.
Acres of one-story houses arranged on winding streets and cul-de-sacs shelter the elderly. Tile roofs ripple over drought-resistant shrubs and hardy pines planted in yards of pebbles and gravel. Artificial stucco in shades of brown and beige coats the walls like a uniform of creaseless khaki. The neighborhoods bear names like Mountjoy, Avonlea, and Faircrest, storybook titles that lull and beguile. The residents are avid readers. Their first glimpse of Leisuria came via illustrated ads and informative brochures.
Construction is shoddy, though the literature maintains that it meets the standard required by law. The ever-present glare of the sun conceals the gaps and flaws of a thin veneer over sticks erected in less than a day, a method that mimics the wattle-and-daub of prehistoric huts. A high wind would flatten the place like a house of cards. A sudden downpour, a whole year’s rain in one fell swoop causes floods and excuses, as officials struggle to deal with a sea of mud. Sirens wail along with the storm, and emergency rescue vehicles stray, never to be found.
Apart from freakish weather events, Leisurians live in an orderly world of birthday parties and interior décor. They are active adults who participate, senior citizens who vote. They reply in full to opinion polls. They subscribe to the latest news. They volunteer, and they donate their time. They belong to a wide array of clubs, religious and secular, as well as book discussion groups. They mend their social safety net.
Casual dress is mandatory. Bankers, lawyers, insurance agents, investment brokers, all succumb to Leisuria’s heat-sensitive style. Men and women play golf as often as twice a day on the manicured course. Real estate brokers say it is one of the best, designed by a noted golf professional, and it does look attractive. The senior center hosts classes in painting, sculpture, weaving, beadwork, and every other conceivable craft, and some that are not.
Dating is possible for those who are still mobile, and whose optimism functions unimpaired. Dining out is popular. A number of sit-down restaurants vie for the mealtime crowd, with early bird specials, salad bars, and weekday themes. Drinks flow freely and cool nights glitter, while just beyond the gay festoon of paper lanterns, the bloodthirsty desert bides its time.
Youngtown is the city of perpetual youth. Inhabitants are handsome, frankly good-looking, or madly attractive, with a certain boyish charm, as the case may be, or the rosebud freshness of early womanhood. Having achieved their personal best, Youngtowners bask in the glow of their being and radiate perfection. They have hit their stride and are in the zone. Quite a few of them model on the side or appear in films and television ads.
Thanks to mild weather and an active lifestyle that does not interfere with earning a living, they engage in sports, outdoor activities, aerobic exercise, hiking, mountain-climbing, bicycling, swimming, and long-distance rowing. They believe—and scientific studies confirm—that health is beauty, and beauty is health. They have stars in their eyes and wings on their feet. The ink is still wet on their academic diplomas. Everyone has landed that first real job, embarked on a career, joined a new company, or dipped their toes in the labor pool.
The city itself is spanking new, a triumph of private enterprise and real estate development, meticulously planned and market-researched to appeal to young people, specifically those with disposable income. The downtown sparkles. A paradise of coffee shops, smart boutiques, upscale eateries, and trendy bars with live music on weekends, the urban core is a commercial home run. It sets the stage for a vibrant dating scene, where young people of exceptional beauty and talent can meet a partner as hot as they are. Word is out that in private life, Youngtown is a sexual free-for-all, where anything goes. Bookstores and newsstands are absent, however, since no one has time to read. Likewise, the seamier side of life is missing: adult movies, prostitution, and so-called massage. How could they compete?
All housing dates from the current century: complexes of garden apartments, townhouses, villas, and starter homes. New cars are parked in private driveways and numbered spaces. Married Youngtowners have found true love, or they tied the knot with a childhood sweetheart. Some have started a family. The streets swarm with babies in strollers, toddlers strapped in bucket seats on the back of a bicycle, and strings of preschoolers walking to the park. Yards are littered with scooters, beach balls, toys in primary colors, inflated vinyl castles, and trampolines, as well as garden tools someone forgot to put away because something came up.
Naturally, Youngtown is ultra-high-tech, equipped with the latest electronic gear, with free Wi-Fi wherever. Everyone is connected and online, simultaneous and live. They carry on two or three conversations at once, they multitask, and they toggle with ease from work to play. For some, like those in the game industry, there is no distinction. They follow their passion, and they rack up followers on social media.
With no sense of the past, no knowledge of history, and a touching faith in information, as plugged by federal government sources and nifty ads, Youngtowners live in the present moment and look to the future. They discard a broken ideology. Unused to failure, they inhabit a world of hope and promise, the bright new world they see projected on luminescent screens.
Unfortunately, citizens must leave when they reach the age of forty. They go into exile or submit to euthanasia, to make room for the next generation. Visitors over this age can stay no longer than a few days, at which time they are locked in a black police van and driven out of town. This draconian law explains how the city maintains its youthful edge. The only reprieve is for pregnant women and parents of infants, who thus obtain a temporary permit.
Such is the appeal of Youngtown, that many cannot tear themselves away. They cling to the vision of endless vigor and lovely bodies. The city possesses a shady underworld of beauticians, life coaches, and make-up artists. Back rooms lurk in hair salons, clandestine day spas operate by night, and unlicensed personal fitness boutiques offer customized programs to turn back the clock. You can tone, restore, rejuvenate, and moisturize, all for a price.
The black market in cosmetic surgery surpasses comprehension. Face lifts, tummy tucks, suction here and implants there, gland extraction and hormone injection, bloodwork, gene splice, and full joint overhaul—anything is possible. Expenses for illicit therapy are matched by fines on those who get caught. Police raids, informers, and restroom surveillance are an unpleasant fact of life. The tragedy is, after all that effort, offenders whose only crime is to look as young as they feel are banished forever from the city of youth.
In a low-lying landscape scoured by glaciers, a place sorely lacking in natural beauty, Beh is the city of rank indifference, the place where nothing matters anymore. During the recession, Beh lost its cachet and failed to recoup. After the war, things never returned to the peak of prosperity. When the factory skedaddled south of the border, retail enterprises slid into a slump. The city’s reason for being was cast into doubt and called into question. For decades, nothing new has been built, and repairs have been patchy. The central business district dates from the 1950s, a streetscape frozen in time.
Inhabitants trudge through their daily routine with downcast eyes. They procrastinate and shirk. They affect a blasé attitude but are secretly depressed. They dress in muted shades and sack-like garments, shapeless pullovers and floppy hats, bulky mittens and oversize shoes. Skirts ride askew on uneven hips, and trousers flap around ankles. They shuffle on the sidewalk and drive too slow, habits that tie up traffic in knots. They talk in monosyllables in nasal accents, and they tend to repeat the same old news.
Boredom is the leading cause of crime. People find it hard to get out of bed in the morning. They look exhausted, and they yawn all day. Napping on the job is a frequent cause of workplace accidents. In a restaurant where tables are bolted to the slab, patrons doze over the blue plate special. Or they lie face down on the table. Napkins fall to the floor, and nobody bothers to pick them up. They lack an appetite. Statistics furnished by the public health department show half the population is thin and undernourished, while the other half is morbidly obese from binging on empty calories.
The climate is partly to blame. The sky stays overcast for weeks, or it rains for days on end. Winter temperatures hover at freezing, with gray slush in the streets and pervasive damp. Spring and fall are tantalizingly brief. Summer is oppressively hot and sticky, with no movement of air. Anyone smart who can possibly leave for a long vacation is advised to do so. No matter the weather, people carry a broken umbrella. They expect the worst, and they get it.
Strange to say for all this grayness, Beh is always on red alert or an orange state of hysteria. In stark contrast to the glum people, officials anticipate imminent threats. Security is paramount, and police are out in force. Patrols sweep the avenues, block the major squares, and comb the streets of the poorest neighborhoods. What on earth do they hope to find? Political leaders are forever on the lookout for terrorist plots and insidious unraveling of moral fiber. Or so they proclaim. Since nothing much changes from day to day, people shrug it off as a kind of theater, a show of emotion that nobody feels.
Meanwhile, they gather intelligence, analyze data, and play elaborate military games. Beh is a center for national defense. Its occupations relate to weapons: artillery, tanks, fighter jets, rockets, warheads, and missiles. Computer-savvy Behans simulate high-tech warfare, and they pilot remotely operated drones. The post-industrial base of the city proved ideal for this type of business, despite the side effects on morale.
People find refuge in the rhythm of the year. They add spice to a humdrum life by performing rituals. Toward the end of winter, they send each other red paper hearts edged with white lace. They wear green on a certain day in March. In spring, they hide decorated hardboiled eggs in the grass for children to find. In the middle of summer, they set off fireworks—the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air. As nights grow long, they pretend to be zombies while eating candy. The cold returns, and they drink concoctions and sing about icicles, reindeer, and snow. They admit these actions are a throwback to childhood. But going through the motions gives meaning to existence.
Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, The Fiction Pool, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Short Fiction.