Blog

The Manhattan Phone Book (Abridged) by John Varley


May 26, 2011 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Fiction


This is the best story and the worst story anybody ever wrote.

There’s lots of ways to judge the merit of a story, right? One of them is, are there a lot of people in it, and are they real. Well, this story has more people in it than any story in the history of the world. The Bible? Forget it. Ten thousand people, tops. (I didn’t count, but I suspect it’s less than that, even with all the begats.)

And real? Each and every character is a certified living human being. You can fault me on depth of characterization, no question about it. If I’d had the time and space, I could have told you a lot more about each of these people … but a writer has dramatic constraints to consider. If only I had more room. Wow! What stories you’d hear!

Admittedly, the plot is skimpy. You can’t have everything. The strength of this story is its people. I’m in it. So are you.

It goes like this:

Jerry L. Aab moved to New York six years ago from his home in Valdosta, Georgia. He still speaks with a southern accent, but he’s gradually losing it. He’s married to a woman named Elaine, and things haven’t been going too well for the Aab family. Their second child died, and Elaine is pregnant again. She thinks Jerry is seeing another woman. He isn’t, but she’s talking divorce.

Roger Aab isn’t related to Jerry. He’s a native New Yorker. He lives in a third-floor walk-up at 1 Maiden Lane. It’s his first place; Roger is just nineteen, a recent high school graduate, thinking about attending City College. Right now, while he makes up his mind, he works in a deli and tries to date Linda Cooper, who lives two blocks away. He hasn’t really decided what to do with his life yet, but is confident a decision will come.

Kurt Aach is on parole. He served two years in Attica, up-state, for armed robbery. It wasn’t his first stretch. He had vague ideas of going straight when he got out. If he could join the merchant marine he figures he just might make it, but the lousy jobs he’s been offered so far aren’t worth the trouble. He just bought a .38 Smith and Wesson from a guy on the docks. He cleans and oils it a lot.

Robert Aach is Kurt’s older brother. He never visited Kurt in prison because he hates the worthless bum. When he thinks of his brother, he hopes the state will bring back the electric chair real soon. He has a wife and three kids. They like to go to Florida when he gets a vacation.

Adrienne Aaen has worked at the Woolworths on East 14th Street since she was twenty-one. She’s pushing sixty now, and will be retired soon, involuntarily. She never married. She has a sour disposition, mostly because of her feet, which have hurt for forty years. She has a cat and a parakeet. The cat is too lazy to chase the bird. Adrienne has managed to save a little money. Every night she thanks God for all her blessings, and the City of New York for rent control.

Molly Aagard is thirty, and works for the New York Transit Police. She rides the subway every day. She’s charged with stopping the serious crimes that infest the underground city, and she works very hard at it. She hates the wall-to-wall graffiti that blooms in every car like a malign fungus.

Irving Aagard is no relation. He’s fifty-five, and owns an Oldsmobile dealership in New Jersey. People ask him why he lives in Manhattan, and he is always puzzled by that question. Would they rather he lived in Jersey, for chrissake? To Irving, Manhattan is the only place to live. He has enough money to send his three kids—Gerald, Morton, and Barbara—to good schools. He frets about crime, but no more than anyone else.

Shiela Aagre is a seventeen-year-old streetwalker from St. Paul. Her life isn’t so great, but it’s better than Minnesota. She uses heroin, but knows she can stop whenever she wants to.

Theodore Aaker and his wife, Beatrice, live in a fine apartment a block away from the Dakota, where John Lennon was killed. They went out that night and stood in the candlelight vigil, remembering Woodstock, remembering the summer of love in the Haight-Ashbury. Theodore sometimes wonders how and why he got into stocks and bonds. Beatrice is pregnant with their first child. She is deciding how much time she should take off from her law practice. It’s a hard question.

(162,000 characters omitted)

Clemanzo Cruz lives on East 120th Street. He’s unemployed, and has been since he arrived from Puerto Rico. He hangs out in a bar at the corner of Lexington and 122nd. He didn’t used to drink much back in San Juan, but now that’s about all he does. It’s been fifteen years. You might say he is discouraged. His wife Ilona, goes to work at five P.M. at the Empire State Building, where she scrubs floors and toilets. She’s been mugged a dozen times on the way home on the number 6 Lexington local.

Zeland Cruz shares an apartment with two other secretaries. Even with roommates it’s hard to make ends meet with New York rents the way they are. She always has a date Saturday night—she’s quite a beauty—and she swings very hard, but Sunday morning always finds her at early mass at St. Patrick’s. There’s a guy who she thinks may ask her to get married. She’s decided she’ll say yes. She’s tired of sharing an apartment. She hopes he won’t beat her up.

Richard Cruzado drives a cab. He’s a good-natured guy. He’s been known to take fares into darkest Brooklyn. His wife’s name is Sabina. She’s always after him to buy a house in Queens. He thinks one of these days he will. They have six children, and life is tough for them in Manhattan. Those houses out in Queens have back yards, pools, you name it.

(1,250,000 characters omitted)

Ralph Zzyzzmjac changed his name two years ago. his real name is Ralph Zyzzmjac. A friend persuaded him to add a Z to be the last guy in the phone book. He’s a bachelor, a librarian working for the City of New York. For a good time he goes to the movies, alone. He’s sixty-one.

Edward Zzzzyniewski is crazy. He’s been in and out of Bellevue. He spends most of his time thinking about that bastard Zzyzzmjac, who two years ago knocked him out of last place, his only claim to fame. He broods about him—a man he’s never met—fantasizing that Zzyzzmjac is out to get him. Last year he added two Z’s t his name. Now he’s thinking about stealing a march on that bastard Zzyzzmjac. He’s sure Zzyzzmjac is adding two more Z’s this year, so he’s going to add seven. Ed Zzzzzzzzzzzzniewski. That’d be nice, he decides.

Then one day seventeen thermonuclear bombs exploded in the air over Manhattan, The Bronx, and Staten Island, too. They had a yield of between five and twenty megatons each. This was more than enough to kill everyone in this story. Most of them died instantly. A few lingered for minutes or hours, but they all died, just like that. I died. So did you.

I was lucky. In less time than it takes for one neuron to nudge another I was turned into radioactive atoms, and so was the building I was in, and the ground beneath me to a depth of three hundred meters. In a millisecond it was all as sterile as Edward Teller’s soul.

You had a tougher time of it. You were in a store, standing near a window. The huge pressure wave turned the glass into ten thousand slivers of pain, one thousand of which tore the flesh from your body. One sliver went into your left eye. You were hurled to the back of the store, breaking a lot of bones and suffering internal injuries, but you still lived. There was a big piece of plate glass driven through your body. The bloody point emerged from your back. You touched it carefully, trying to pull it out, but it hur
t too much.

On th
e piece of glass was a rectangular decal and the message “Mastercard Gladly Accepted.”

The store caught fire around you, and you started to cook slowly. You had time to think “Is this what I pay my taxes for?” and then you died.

This story is brought to you courtesy of The Phone Company. Copies of the story can be found near every telephone in Manhattan, and thousands of stories just like it have been compiled for every community in the United States. They make interesting reading. I urge you to read a few pages every night. Don’t forget that many wives are listed only under their husband’s name. And there are the children to consider: very few have their own phone. Many people—such as single women—pay extra for an unlisted number. And there are the very poor, the transients, the street people, and folks who were unable to pay the last bill. Don’t forget any of them as you read the story. Read as much or as little as you can stand, and ask yourself if this is what you want to pay your taxes for. Maybe you’ll stop.

Aw, c’mon, I hear you protest. Somebody will survive.

Perhaps. Possibly. Probably.

But that’s not the point. We all love after-the-bomb stories. If we didn’t, why would there be so many of them? There’s something attractive about all those people being gone, about wandering in a depopulated world, scrounging cans of Campbell’s pork and beans, defending one’s family from marauders. Sure, it’s horrible, sure we weep for all those dead people. But some secret part of us thinks it would be good to survive, to start all over.

Secretly, we know we’ll survive. All those other folks will die. That’s what after-the-bomb stories are all about.

All those after-the-bomb stories were lies. Lies, lies, lies.

This is the only true after-the-bomb story you will ever read.

Everybody dies. Your father and mother are decapitated and crushed by a falling building. Rats eat their severed heads. Your husband is disemboweled. Your wife is blinded, flashburned, and gropes along a street of cinders until fear-crazed dogs eat her alive. Your brother and sister are incinerated in their homes, their bodies turned into fine powdery ash by firestorms. Your children … ah, I’m sorry, I hate to tell you this, but your children live a long time. three eternal days. They spend those days puking their guts out, watching the flesh fall from their bodies, smelling the gangrene in their lacerated feet, and asking you why it happened. But you aren’t there to tell them. I already told you how you died.

It’s what you pay your taxes for.

Comments