The City Where We Once Lived: A Novel

The City Where We Once Lived: A Novel

by Eric Barnes


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“Barnes has constructed an intricate apocalyptic world that frighteningly mirrors present-day reality.”—Shelf Awareness, starred review

In a near future where climate change has severely affected weather and agriculture, the North End of an unnamed city has long been abandoned in favor of the neighboring South End. Aside from the scavengers steadily stripping the empty city to its bones, only a few thousand people remain, content to live quietly among the crumbling metropolis. Many, like the narrator, are there to try to escape the demons of their past. He spends his time observing and recording the decay around him, attempting to bury memories of what he has lost.

But it eventually becomes clear that things are unraveling elsewhere as well, as strangers, violent and desperate alike, begin to appear in the North End, spreading word of social and political deterioration in the South End and beyond. Faced with a growing disruption to his isolated life, the narrator discovers within himself a surprising need to resist losing the home he has created in this empty place. He and the rest of the citizens of the North End must choose whether to face outsiders as invaders or welcome them as neighbors.

The City Where We Once Lived is a haunting novel of the near future that combines a prescient look at how climate change and industrial flight will shape our world with a deeply personal story of one man running from his past. In lean, spare prose, Eric Barnes brings into sharp focus questions of how we come to call a place home and what is our capacity for violence when that home becomes threatened.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781950691142
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 04/14/2020
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 466,086
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Eric Barnes is the author of two previous novels, Shimmer and Something Pretty, Something Beautiful. He has published more than forty short stories in Prairie Schooner, North American Review, The Literary Review, Best American Mystery Stories, and other publications. By day, he is publisher of newspapers in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga that cover business, politics, the arts, and more. On Fridays, he hosts a news talk show on his local PBS station. In the past, he was a reporter and editor in Connecticut and New York. Years ago he drove a forklift in Tacoma, Washington, and then Kenai, Alaska, worked construction on Puget Sound, and, many years ago, he graduated from the MFA writing program at Columbia University. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.

Read an Excerpt


Years ago, I would walk into a house that I once owned, back on the south side of the highway. It was the house where we lived when the first of the children was born. The new owners hadn't changed the locks, even many years later, so my old key still worked. But someone finally found me, sitting in the kitchen. I didn't hear the man coming down the stairs. He recognized me. After a moment, he said I could stay for another minute, but then I would have to go.

But I couldn't stay. I told him I was sorry. I told him I would never come back. And I never have.

The worst part is waking up. I'll remember everything I had. Through most of the day, I am able to forget. But in the moments after I wake up, I will always have a second where I find myself remembering. Their faces and their movements, the smell of them before they went to bed. The sounds of their voices every time they would come home.

I came here to the abandoned North End less than a year after they died, returning to this place where I grew up. Where I was born forty-five years ago.

Five miles by ten miles, the North End of this city has nearly completely died. It started decades ago. The closing of dirty, aged factories. The migration from downtown to the suburbs. The rise of crime and the spread of homeless camps in vacant buildings and emptied warehouses. The failure of schools, police, the very streets we drove along. People kept moving away. The cycle, of abandonment and disrepair, it was the only thing growing stronger.

There were once more than a million people here.

Now, even the homeless have moved away.

For a time, there was an effort to tear down whole blocks of houses. The last-ditch effort of a city government that has since evaporated. The power and water and gas were shut off to some blocks. Bulldozers cleared the land. The remnants of the homes were hauled away to somewhere else in the North End. Left behind were the dying grass and a few dead trees, and the flat, concrete outline of a neighborhood.

Otherwise, nothing changed.

Most neighborhoods were left standing, though, even as they too were emptying of people. No buyers of the homes, the residents shut their doors and moved. Some houses still have their porch lights on. Years now they've been untouched.

* * *

There are many things here that you don't need to buy. There are abandoned stores that still have clothing and blankets and towels. There are matches and light bulbs and batteries in most any home or building. There is more here than those of us who are left could ever possibly use.

We get food from a small corner store a half mile from my hotel. It was probably once a liquor store. You enter through the front door and immediately there's a protected room, thick glass and heavy bars and a shallow slot through which you pass your money. The other side of the glass is piled very high with boxes. I can't make out the person on the other side. He or she is a shadow, a muffled voice. Taped to the window is a handwritten list of what's available for the week. Cans of food most of the time. Bread some weeks, just two or three slices in a small plastic bag. No fresh vegetables or fruit. No drinks. No milk or cheese. You say what you want and the person tells you what it costs and after you've slid your money through the slot, the person slides back the food you ordered.

Most days, they can't make exact change.

I don't really eat much. So none of this is a problem.

Outside the store, only the right side of the building is lit, the other side lost in darkness.

There is one last overpass crossing the wide, deep highway. It is the only way to get from here to the South End, where a million people now live. The other overpasses were closed, one by one, over time. Unsafe and crumbling, they are barricaded with concrete blocks and barbed wire on top of fences and signs that point anyone to turn away from here.

It's not clear what will happen if the last overpass is deemed unstable too.

The highway intersects with two other highways, which together mark three of the four borders of this large area known as the North End. The highways were built in straight, deep trenches, cutting through neighborhoods fifty years later, tall concrete walls added as sound barriers in the twenty years after that.

From my hotel room, I can see a few sections of the walls. But I can't see the vehicles down on the roadway.

The fourth border of the North End is the bay, far to the north, many miles away. I haven't been there since I was a child. There were parks there then and boats to rent, but over the years that area was given over to a port. Grain elevators and loading piers and massive fueling centers for the ships and barges that eventually stopped coming as this city died.

The water reaches into the city, though. Via a series of canals stretching down from the bay. Some canals are narrow as backstreets, others are wide, grand avenues of water, with ornate, block-long bridges crossing over them. Other canals run close to the houses, houses that have small docks leading from their back doors to the water. Still other canals are lined by old, wooden houseboats, ten and twenty stationary floating homes, many now slowly sinking into the cold water beneath them.

* * *

I see the police car turn onto the main boulevard when it's still a mile away. There aren't many cars here anyway, but this one is brightly white, the blue and yellow lights flashing, even though it drives very slowly as it makes its way downtown.

Car 4043, painted on the roof.

Some of the traffic lights still work, but the car moves steadily forward, ignoring them. The car crosses the small bridges over the canals, moving straight toward this building it seems, and I wonder for a moment if the police are trying to find me.

I don't think they'd have any reason to do so.

I watch them stop below my building, staring down at them through my binoculars as I lean my head partway out my open window. It's cold today, but not blowing hard. Even as high as I am, I can hear their radios, indistinct words buzzing out from the open car windows.

As they get out of the car and look around at the empty downtown, it's clear they had no idea that this all is here. They keep looking up, turning their heads, talking to one another across the roof of the car.

One is shaking his head.


The other officer, a woman, is trying to use her cell phone. She presses buttons, holds the phone to her ear, then in a moment stares at it in her hand. It won't work here, but it will take her some time to realize.

I decide I should go down and talk to them.

When I push open the front door of my building a few minutes later, both police officers jerk their bodies, turning around to me, hands on their holstered guns.

I raise my hand. "It's all right," I say, and immediately I try to think of the last time I have spoken.

It's hard to imagine what I look like to them. My hair is long and I don't shave often. I'm wearing a wool blazer and a sweater underneath it and weathered jeans stained in many places. I look as if I'm a tired and worn college professor standing now as the sole survivor of a plague.

"It's all right," I say again, and as I walk forward they keep their hands on their guns.

It hurts my throat a bit to talk. Mostly I notice my lips and tongue, like they are new to me.

The officers are both so very young-looking. Fit, broad- chested, the man's hair closely cut and the woman's jaw seems tightly drawn. Sculpted.

No one here is young or well-groomed and if we're fit it's only in the sense that we are able to continue to survive.

The radio from the car continues to emit the buzzing drone of digitized voices. I see the cell phone in the female officer's hand. I point at it. "That won't work here," I say.

She glances at it. "Why?"

I point up. "The towers have all failed," I say. "Years ago."

It's been a full week since I have spoken. I remember the last words I said. To the person at the corner store. "Thank you," I said.

We stand here, the police officers and me, outside my building, staring at each other. The woman glances around, as if expecting other people to come out and speak to her.

"Do you need help?" the male officer asks me.

I shake my head. "No," I say. It's a moment before I think to say, "But I assume you do."

It has started to rain, very slightly, heavy but erratic drops hitting us here and there, as if a person in one of the buildings above us is throwing down small handfuls of water.

"Someone is missing," the female officer says. "A woman. She's gone missing. And her family thinks she might have come here."

"To this building?"

"To the North End," the man says.

"It's a big area," I say.

He nods. It's clear they had no idea how big an area this is.

"Have you ever been over here?" I ask.

They shake their heads.

"It's a big area," I say again.

We're silent. It seems as if they are unsure what to do or say. The script they usually follow in a missing persons case has unexpectedly slipped away from them.

"There's a newspaper here," I say. "If you have a photo, they will run it."

"Who reads the newspaper?" the woman asks.

"People who live here," I say.

"How many people live here?" she asks.

"Maybe a couple thousand," I say.

They both look around slowly. As if trying to see some of the other people I've mentioned. Wondering, I'm sure, if they are even now being watched.

Probably they are. Me as well.

"Why do you live here?" the male officer asks me, then raises a hand, shakes his head. He didn't mean to ask that out loud. It's just what's on his mind.

"This is where I grew up," I say.

"But why live here now?" the woman asks.

I think about this for a moment. "Do you want to give me some information about this missing woman?" I ask. "They'll put that in the newspaper too."

The woman reaches inside the car and pulls out a piece of paper. I step forward and she hands it to me. There's a black and white photo of a woman who's been crying and a brief description of her. It says she's forty. It gives her name and where she is from in the South End.

There's no explanation of why she is missing. No mention of why she might be here.

"Can we get your name and number in case we have more questions?" the male officer asks me.

I give him a name, not mine. "I don't have a phone," I say.

As they are getting in the car, the woman says to me, "Are you sure you don't need help?"

I shake my head.

She's still staring at me, from the mirror, as they drive away.

* * *

From a room on the other side of my building, I can see the South End at night. The glow of streetlights and homes and buildings and cars, shining upward, reflecting against the clouds, lighting them up with a dull, cold gray.

It's a view I only stumble on, not a view I want to see.

A million people living as if they had not abandoned this place where I still live.

* * *

I leave the missing woman's photo and description on a table in my hotel room. It's a week before I take it to the paper.

We move slowly here.

The police did not say she is in danger. They didn't say she is a murderer or a thief. They only said that she is missing. That her family wants her found.

Probably I only asked for the information because I work at the newspaper. Strangely, the paper still functions. It is only eight pages, printed once a week. I write every word and take every picture.

I do finally run the photo, after another week has passed, along with a short article noting that the woman is missing. That maybe she has come to the North End.

I wake up a few days later and find myself thinking that, as much as anything, I've run the article to give her a warning. They are looking for you. They know you might be here.

Maybe this woman wants a head start. Maybe she deserves it.

I've always assumed that lots of people here don't want ever to be found.

There are three of us who work at the newspaper. There is the old pressman in the basement who prints the paper and puts it out in the racks and boxes we still have around the North End. And the office manager who comes every day, but doesn't stay for more than a few hours. She is an older woman, probably fifty- five, though she often looks much younger.

Everyone in the North End seems to be a similar age. The people who are younger have aged from being here. The people who are older, maybe there's a way in which this place makes them seem healthier than otherwise they might be. They walk where they go. There is not the kind of food that would make you heavy or unhealthy.

There are, however, no children. I haven't seen a child since I arrived.

The office manager brings me my pay, every week, a small amount of cash in a stiff, gray envelope. It's not clear to me where she gets the money. But she also brings me things that make the office function, paper and pens and notebooks and folders. She brings these items in a brown paper bag that does not look like it came from a store. The pens don't look new. The paper is just a small stack, fifty or a hundred sheets, loose, not in a wrapper.

She brings black and white film for the camera, too, never more than one roll. I take pictures sparingly. We only get the chemicals to develop the film every few months, when the pressman goes to the South End to get the press supplies and the big rolls of paper we use for printing.

I take one picture every week of an old building or home in the area. I write a history of that structure, spending hours at the abandoned library researching the history of the building, its former tenants, its architecture, the history of the neighborhood where the house or building stands.

I write another article that covers some event that once happened in the North End. The opening of the port or the groundbreaking of a factory. Again I research it, both in the library and in the paper's archives.

This paper has been printed for over one hundred and fifty years.

I also write about the meeting, twice a month, of a commission who has responsibility for this area. The city government was disbanded, the area unincorporated nearly ten years ago. But we still fall in a county. The commission has so far been unable to let go of their responsibility for the North End, although they've tried to do so many times. The commission members meet in an old community center near the last overpass across the highway. They come in cars. They park close to the building. They talk for exactly an hour, spending very little of that time discussing what should be done for the North End.

Nothing that they talk about is ever acted on.

I'm not sure who owns this paper. Maybe the same family has owned it since it was first founded. There's no explanation in the paper. No owner who is listed.

For the most part, though, it seems this paper is like most everything in the North End — it is no longer owned by anyone.

And yet the newspaper is picked up and read by people who live here. I watch people take a paper from one of our old and beat-up racks or boxes. I see people outside our office, watching them through the dim and yellowed glass along the front of the building, taking a minute to read the front page of the paper they've picked up, then slowly walking away. There are three more boxes I can see from up in my hotel room and I've many times watched people take papers from each of those boxes too.

Always when people pick up a copy of the paper, they pause, standing still as they skim the front page for a moment. Every time.

It's as if they are looking for a specific thing. Maybe looking for some answer that, every week, the paper doesn't have. Or a next step they and everyone should take. A step that I have no idea how to find, articulate, or define.

* * *

From my room I stand watching the scavenging of buildings and homes and factories along the southern edges of the North End. Very slowly and methodically, the buildings and homes are being stripped of everything by the scavengers. Pipes are pulled from the basements. Aluminum gutters are pulled from the sides of buildings and homes. Copper wire is pulled from inside the walls.

As the North End began its final collapse — after the city government dissolved and services like schools and the police and the fire department were officially ended — heavy equipment was moved out of some factories, furniture was put on moving trucks, fire engines and police cars were, for the most part, driven away from their stations.

But, in the end, so much was left behind. People leaving their homes took only what they could afford to move. Some had the money to hire full moving services who could pack up and transport their things. But many could afford only to move what they could fit in their own car.

The scavengers, they don't come from other places. They live here. They are us.


Excerpted from "The City Where We Once Lived"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Eric Barnes.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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