TO ME the Zytronian city spreads gigantic endless in every direction enormous population neighborhoods shops lights signs cars confusion of sounds faces shades glimmering speed trains roaring mad inferno of civilization. At the fixed center stand the towering turquoise-hued skyscrapers, my only guidepost.
After a month of drug-test screening, the Zytron Employment Agency calls with a position. I hike to their office. Due to my business background, they slot me for "guest" vocational teaching. I'm handed a stack of curriculum manuals to study. I listen to a couple lectures, and have my photograph taken. Before I leave, the man at the main desk takes off his glasses and looks at me. "Just between us," he advises, "you'll be sent to locations no one else will go to, on assignments no one else will take."
I need the money. I'm handed identification.
The first phone call is for a one-week assignment. The phone voices gives directions to the school: Get off when the subway pauses after such-and-such stop, then walk west for a mile. "The neighborhood and school aren't on a map," the voice tells me. "You'd find a blank space."
Next morning the subway pauses at a station without a name. I step off. Other subway stations are green-tiled new and sparkling. This one is grimy stark gray with age, tiles missing everyplace. The smell of urine is everpresent. I hear the patter of rats scampering, amid dust and debris. Outside, at the head of stairs, the neighborhood is as desolate bleak. The Emerald City is in sight an impossible distance away. I turn and begin walking toward the school's location.
Early morning, hollow-eyed crack addicts who've not been to sleep accost me, standing on broken sidewalks in front of shattered wooden houses that are ridiculously tiny. I push past without acknowledging these ghosts of the street.
In the center of the avenue a man in a long shabby coat stacks newspapers on a rickety table. I have no time to be curious about what he's doing. This is a nightmarish urban wasteland-- not the first I've ever seen! I walk quickly. Then a giant dirty brown school of many floors confronts me.
Glaring students block the steps, reluctantly allowing an entry for me. I enter a shrouded gray corridor of foreboding. A broken metal-detection machine rests uselessly in the hallway. Students wander the halls, though the start of classes is an hour away. My eyes take in the scene, discovering after awhile a sign with an arrow on it. "Office," the sign reads.
The second-floor office is behind barricades, an isolated outpost within the cavernous building. Heavy-set women clerks behind the counter are friendly. They're built like linebackers. "We weren't sure you'd make it!" one of them tells me-- as if the actual appearance of a "guest" teacher is infrequent. I sign a blank log and show my ID-- unnecessary. Why would anyone be here if they weren't for real? (I want to make sure I get paid.) A pale barking bulldog Assistant Principal hands me a schedule and folders of assignments. We ride an elevator to the sixth floor as he tells me my routine. He unlocks a reinforced barred door to a classroom. "Keep this door locked and closed," he tells me. "There will be security on the floor. If you have real trouble call the office."
He keeps the key to the room. I start to ask questions-- he's in a hurry and leaves. I check the phone in the room. It isn't working.
I write my name on the board along with ideas I want to teach: "Preparation for the Game of Life." The hallway fills with a roar of noise; with chaos. I open the door and prepare to greet the students.
(To be continued.)