Suitcase pulls up in his little red hybrid, holding up half of Division Street on my behalf while I get in—fumbling with the handle and then closing the seatbelt in the door, but eventually making it.
It’s a short drive through heavy conditions. The city is snowier than I’ve ever seen it. It’s practically unrecognizable, like the weather that obscures it—erratic and unpredictable, pleasant for weeks and then all at once the temperature drops, the lake freezes over, and the snow piles up.
Yet Suitcase and I are still driving to lunch as usual, which in the moment impresses me so much that I share it with Suitcase. “Habit’s audacity,” I say.
Suitcase shrugs. He’s not listening. “Carob and Toad are waiting for us there,” he says. “I told them to order margaritas. You don’t have to drink though.”
After a few minutes of white-knuckle driving we arrive at El Barco, its conspicuous copper hull rising out of the sidewalk at the corner of the street. Suitcase pulls up next to Guapo and rolls down his window. Guapo, in his rubber boots and weathered orange safety vest as usual, his eyes barely exposed by his ski mask in the cold, directs us down the alley and parks us in the last spot, between two dumpsters.
Suitcase thanks him and hands him a dollar. “Muy frío,” he says.
“Hace frío,” I try instead. Guapo smiles, but doesn’t really look pleased.
There’s no one else outside the restaurant, the tables and chairs of the bow’s outdoor seating section totally submerged by the snow, but the inside is totally packed. We were lucky to get a spot with Guapo at all. Even luckier that Carob and Toad secured a perfect 4-seater by the last starboard window, closest to the kitchen.
“They’re totally slammed today,” says Suitcase, sitting down next to Toad.
“It’s a perfect day for Mexican,” says Toad. Carob agrees. Every day is perfect for Mexican when it comes to Carob, but she doesn’t love El Barco. It’s not the kind of Mexican she knows from home.
Our waitress brings us our frozen margaritas, a pitcher of lime and a pitcher of tamarind. She’s a new one, older than usual, and with a sympathetic lisp. The owner of El Barco, who naturally calls himself Captain, hires only the most beautiful women in the West Side as wait staff. According to Suitcase it’s one of the more covetable positions in the city to have.
She takes our orders. The signature dish at El Barco is La Ballena, the whole extra-large red snapper, but we order steak tacos and carnitas fajitas in our usual way. Suitcase feels the last-minute urge to express himself and throws in some fish tacos and ceviche at the last minute; it’s not a thoughtless concession to make at El Barco.
I obtain permission from the table to salt the chips. The salt slips straight through them, so I resort to salting each one individually, and then flipping them onto my tongue at the last minute. I’m what they call a supertaster, I have sensitive tastes, but that has nothing to do with my affection for salt. My salt consumption comes from my family.
Suitcase grabs a key lime from the table basket and squeezes it over the chips without permission. “No one’s getting scurvy on this ship,” he jokes.
Carob laughs. She and Toad are maybe a little drunk already. Toad tries to put a napkin in her lap and drops her phone. Its screen, already riven with microfractures, strains ever closer to cracking, but for now Toad’s avoided catastrophe.
Outside the window the Protean snow is falling in all its forms, laying out a geology as it inches up the glass, blocking out the diffuse white light of the winter sun; dull, sluggish flakes the size of my thumb in one layer, a diamond-like frozen dust glistening in narrow bands across another. The snow itself seems to grow stronger as it stacks, even as it crushes itself under its own weight, and my nervousness—which never really went away—returns.
Seated with my back to the rest of the tables, I keep looking over my shoulder, wondering when they’re going to come out, cancel our orders, and tell us it’s time to go home, that the doors have stopped working and the power’s about to go out; but everyone is eating and drinking, totally oblivious. It’s business as usual in the city of the future.
Toad is telling us about her new job in the financial district uptown. “The fascist farm, you mean,” I say, but it’s a bad joke, and she takes offense at it. Carob comes to her defense; even Carob is tired of talking about fascism, it seems.
Seeing Carob throw her support behind Toad—or maybe just because he agrees with me—Suitcase backs me up. “Everyone in Trump Tower’s a fascist.”
The ceviche arrives first, and from then on the dishes just seem to keep coming. The food is so good we stop paying attention to the snow, darkening the windows entirely, especially as the atmosphere inside, with the seasonal gas lamps lit, is so fastidiously bright and so charming. Suitcase digs in.
Suitcase isn’t his real name, of course. As kids we called him Nutcase, because he was the type of nut to sneak into the teachers’ lounge between classes just to microwave some silverware. After his parents died he started wearing suits. He’s into grey suits now; everything he wears is grey. He likes the indeterminateness of grey, a quality so mutable it isn’t even sure how to spell itself, grey or gray. The only thing not grey are his shoes, and those will be grey soon enough.
Toad, too, has gone through several different nomenclatures. She used to be called Frog, but she’s a sour drunk, and when she drinks too much and throws a fit we call her Toad; now it’s just Toad all the time except with Carob, who still calls her Frog.
A carob is a kind of nut or something that tastes like chocolate, but Carob is probably the least nutty person in El Barco.
“Still snowing,” I say. “We should probably leave sooner rather than later, don’t you think? We’ll need to buy a snow shovel from Jewel-Osco just to get the car out.”
Suitcase yawns. “Look around. Do you see anyone else making for the exits? You’re an alarmist. Finish your tacos. You haven’t even touched your Coke. Don’t you want a margarita? This is the city of the future. The future is safe.”
I take a sip of Carob’s third margarita. She tries to play with me under the table, but I’m not feeling playful. I pull out my phone and check the weather app. I’m the only one with my phone on the table.
“That’s weird,” I say.
“My phone says it’s 98 degrees and sunny outside.” I show it around. “Now it says it’s a hundred degrees!”
Suitcase thinks about it. “Not possible,” he says.
Naturally Carob agrees. She’s never had any faith in the algorithms, after all. She thinks she’s smarter, for example, than all three of the major map apps on her phone. I maintain full faith and certainty that neither her nor I know the road better than any one of the three major map apps, even if nobody knows this city like Carob.
Toad, however, believes in the machine, and when her own phone confirms my report she starts to freak out a little. We look out the window and watch in real-time as the snowdrift gets wetter, denser, taking on the quality of an ocean under the ice.
Suitcase lays a bundle of cash on the table. “Alright, let’s get out of here.” He leaves a ludicrous tip, but I guess he knows what it’s like in the service industry. I myself have never worked a day in my life.
The weather outside is even worse than the weather app predicted. The sun seems to have halted directly overhead, looming alone in a sky of uninterrupted color, and the snow is responding in kind. Guapo’s already stripped down to just his jeans and work vest and he’s still sweating.
“Muy calidad,” says Suitcase.
“Que caliente,” I try. Carob says nothing.
The car gets stuck in the hot slush and Guapo and Suitcase have to push us out. Toad takes the wheel. We get on Division, whose gutters and drains are already starting to overflow, the blackened snowmelt lapping up against the sidewalks. The snow melts off the roof of the car in a steady stream, the windshield wipers working uselessly as though in a hard rain, or an automated car wash. Toad’s hands clench the wheel.
The car fishtails a bit as we crawl through Wicker Park, lightly flooded, wheels spinning in a vain but not fruitless search for friction.
“When was the last time you had your tires rotated?” asks Carob.
Suitcase shrugs. “Certified pre-owned, good to go.” He plays some swing music on the radio.
The skyscrapers, encased fully in ice only hours ago, are shedding their frozen chrysalides like fracturing glaciers, and each new release sends a tidal ebb through the streets, each one threatening to be the one that claims our wheels and drowns us.
When the engine starts to flood it’s clear that we’re not getting anywhere unless we get wet, and we lower the windows and swim into the flood.
We disrobe down to our underwear and tread water. “It’s rising too fast,” I cry. “There’s still too much snow!”
Sirens sound off in the distance, ricocheting between the soaking-wet buildings until they, too, submerge.
But Suitcase, in his usual way, isn’t bothered. He’s floating on his back and calling out to the seabirds, who seem to be speaking Cyrillic. Toad follows his example, climbing on top of a bus shelter and turning over in the sun to help even her tan. Carob, ready for action, has gone diving for survivors, or in lieu of survivors some treasure.
It isn’t long until the water’s risen to Toad’s ankles and forced her back in. “This sucks,” she says.
“My arms are getting sore,” I complain. “I’ve never been a good swimmer. Not that it matters. We’re going to drown. The whole city’s going under.”
Carob comes up for air, notices me struggling, and puts her arm around my waist to support me. “It feels like a hot bath in here,” she says. “It’s disgusting.”
“I need a shower,” says Toad.
Suitcase plays dead, does the dead-man float until Toad paddles over and flips him over. “Come on,” she says. “Quit horsing around.”
“It’s like a holiday in the Caribbean,” says Suitcase.
We begin the long swim home. I’m the weakest link and I break first, my muscles giving out. Suitcase takes on arm and Carob takes the other and they pull me along until Suitcase has to let go, and then Toad takes over for an even shorter spell; Carob is the last to go, but even she goes under eventually, and we all huddle together around the top of a utility pole, hanging on in chain of which I’m the center.
The water gets angrier as it grows, and it starts to play rough, tossing us around and splashing sewage in our mouths.
“Y’all go on without me,” I say. “You can make it alone.”
“Don’t talk nonsense,” says Carob. “Look—we’re already being rescued.”
A creaking boat, clad in copper plating and smelling like fried fish, turns the corner, coming right for us.
Carob pulls off her bra and waves it like a flare at the vessel.
Toad covers her eyes with one hand and squints. “Is that El Barco?”
Suitcase laughs. “I told you we shouldn’t have left!”
Guapo spots us from his position at the bow and gives us two thumbs up, as high as his arms reach, before disappearing into the ship. El Barco doesn’t fight the thrashing floodwaters and it takes some time to reach us, heaving together in the heat but staying together. Worse still, it’s started to rain, and now the atmosphere itself smells like sewage.
When El Braco finally reaches us Guapo throws a rope down and meets us on deck.
“Thank you,” we all say. “You saved us.”
“You’re the last we can take on,” says Guapo. “Tables are full. You’ll have to use outdoor seating, sorry. Inclement weather. Garnishes on request. We only have so many key limes.”
Suitcase seeks out our waitress. “Hey, could we get some napkins over here?”
The bar and restaurant are in full swing inside, but Guapo and us survivors are alone in outdoor seating, and before long Guapo goes below deck. Carob puts her bra back on, and Suitcase doesn’t procure any napkins.
“We had the perfect damn table, too,” says Suitcase, “and we gave it up for a quick dip.”
The rising water has overtaken many of the buildings now, supercharged in the new rainfall. Freed from the limits of the street El Barco heads downtown, making a line straight for the Sears Tower.
“Why are we going to that tourist trap?” asks Toad.
“High ground, I guess,” says Carob. “Where else would we go?”
We stand together in the warm rain at the front of the ship and watch the skyline slowly level out, disappearing rooftop by rooftop into a new sewage-soaked horizon. All the little sailboats from the lake toss and turn in the distance like ghost ships, crashing over into downtown and capsizing against the skyscrapers.
Guapo comes back with a table umbrella and installs it for us before going back inside. It’s a comic gesture in the storm and I laugh as the umbrella is immediately lashed to pieces, but now Suitcase is looking agitated.
“What kind of service is this? They haven’t even brought us some napkins,” he says.
“Give up on drying off,” I say. “I don’t think it’s going to happen, maybe ever again.”
“We smell like dogs,” says Toad.
“Wet dogs,” says Carob. “Like all white people do.”
Suitcase paces the deck until he slips in the rain and loses his balance, falling against the rail. “This is unacceptable,” he says. “This is all completely unacceptable.”
I ignore him now. The view of the city is too beautiful to not pay attention to. Even in its violent transformative state it’s serene, in the moment static, and I feel better than I’ve felt all day. “It’s just going to keep on going,” I say. “Up, up, up. Maybe the Sears Tower won’t even make it. Wouldn’t that be something?”
I try to take a picture on my phone, but the water has long since destroyed it, and anyway pictures never do this kind of thing justice. It’s the kind of thing that has to just be watched, be observed, and experienced just that once, in that moment, posterity itself non-existent. The only reason I don’t toss the phone into the water is because Carob will scold me for littering, and I’m really not a fan of littering in the first place.
Toad takes a picture right next to me, the artificial shutter sound almost startling. “Smile,” she says, and we all reflexively look towards the camera and smile.
“It still works?”
“Waterproof case,” says Toad.
“Can you call people?”
“I hate talking on the phone,” she says.
“You do it all day for your job,” says Suitcase.
“I’m not about to take my work home with me,” says Toad. “Besides, it’s almost dead anyway.” She takes one more picture of the skyline and puts it away.
Carob and I lean over the side together and try to make out the city below us. I hold my glasses to my face with both hands, paranoid that I’ll lose my glasses. The only time the dark water below us instills anything like thalassophobia in me is when I imagine my glasses drowning.
“I think we’re crossing the river,” says Carob.
“How can you tell?”
“It smells like an architecture cruise,” she explains.
Suitcase pushes between us. “What the hell are we going to do about this?”
“About what?” I ask.
“About this!” he cries, throwing his hands up.
“There’s nothing to do, obviously. The time for salvific individualism is behind us now.”
“What suddenly makes you so cool?”
“Look,” I say. “There’s waterspouts over Lake Michigan!’
El Barco is really starting to struggle now. Some of the copper plating has been ripped from the hull, and all the outdoor lighting has long been flung from their outlets. It’s okay, I think; that’s all aesthetic anyway. We don’t need that kind of thing anymore.
But it’s clear that we’re not really headed towards the Sears Tower anymore, and that the Captain has lost control of the ship altogether. Now we’re headed straight for the Trump International Hotel, its spire looming overhead and acting like a lightning rod, super-charged and ready to destroy us.
We don’t reach the spire, scraping our hull against the roof of the skyscraper instead and stopping a few feet away from it.
“Jesus Christ,” says Suitcase, his knees and elbow bloody from the collision, his spirits wounded, but otherwise unharmed. “Why do people live in this city?”
“The rain’s stopping,” says Carob.
“And the water’s calming down,” says Toad.
“The sun’s coming back out.”
“Is anyone else kind of cold?”
“Where are those goddamn napkins I asked for!”
Guapo comes out with some blankets. “The weather’s clearing up,” he says. “You’ll need these.”
“Look,” says Carob. “The flood is starting to freeze.”
Guapo spits over the side of the ship; it solidifies in mid-air and falls straight down, breaking against the ice below.
“We weren’t going to make it much farther anyway,” I say.
“Hey, Guapo,” says Suitcase. “Can we get a bite to eat around here or something?”
Guapo gestures to the ice. “The kitchen’s closed until the outing is finished,” he says. “The cooks want a break from all this, too.”
The rest of the patrons come out of the ship, drunk and fat on tortilla chips. Some of them are wearing ice skates. They jump down one-by-one onto the frozen surface, the roof of Trump Tower visible just beneath their feet, and begin skating.
Carob looks hurt. “I didn’t bring my skates,” she says.
“It does look like a beautiful day for skating,” says Toad, running after the crowd. Suitcase, who is way too cool in any weather for skating, stands around with me, who he knows has never skated before, has in fact never been out on the ice, and looks annoyed.
But I feel like skating, too, or at least sliding around on the ice, so I nudge Carob after Toad and, with her help, descend from the ship. Suitcase stays on board.
We don’t worry about Suitcase. The weather is good once again; cold, but dry, and the sun is shining. Carob looks beautiful, wrapped in her blanket, and we’re all feeling cozy.
“Look,” says Toad, pointing at her feet. “Something’s happening.”
We all stop and bend over to get a better look. Toad’s right; there’s something radical, something unspeakable, something deeply absurd at work in the dim but visible space beneath us. Our eyes struggle to adjust. The image is just too unreal, too convincing. We wait for the next revelation, down on our hands and knees now, as something new and unusual moves under the ice.
// "El Barco" originally appeared in The Gateway Review