Zingpow is a resort town, a seaside splash of glass towers, whitewashed villas, and thatched huts on a sparkling beach, with a harbor for yachts, an indoor shopping mall for luxury brands, and exclusive clubs in which to dine and dally. Zingpow is a playground for the elite, a getaway for the one percent. Zingpow is a jolt for the idle and a balm for the weary, a place to rev up and a place to relax. Zingpow accepts major credit cards, wire transfers, and pure gold.
The thatched huts, in case you are wondering, are snack bars, watering holes, and places to rent umbrellas, jet skis, inflated balls, and all manner of recreational gear. The huts are not really constructed of bamboo and reeds, but of artful materials that resist decay and rodents. The glass towers are top-of-the-line hotels, condominiums, conference centers, and corporate offices for vague companies that go by initials. Zingpow offers a favorable environment for legal regulation and tax collection. Favorable, that is, to the vague companies and the people who own them. The authorities are mum on who these people are. The authorities keep a vise-like grip on the media, and they frown on fact-based reporting.
All that glass, and the steel and concrete it conceals, might seem unsuited to the hot climate. The same goes for the asphalt highways, parking lots, flat roofs, and unshaded plazas. The midday sun can be brutal! Is Zingpow on Borneo, the Malay Peninsula, or a speck of land in the South China Sea? For sure, it is somewhere in Asia. Tropical cyclones pummel the coast. Alternate years bring drought and flood. Disasters are natural. Rest assured that all interiors are air-conditioned, electrical power is always on, infrastructure is are up-to-date, hyperlinks are live, and energy use is sky-high.
Because visitors and residents come from so many countries, speak different languages, and cherish hostile ethnic claims, Zingpow evolved a unique vibe, a post-literate culture. Signs posted in public places for toilets, exits, and travelers’ amenities use pictograms, directional arrows, and universal symbols instead of words. People know English, but the authorities discourage a reliance on the language of British imperialism and American hegemony.
Restaurant menus are color illustrations. Dietary restrictions, whether medical or faith-based, are a challenge. Chefs use plant-based protein instead of pork and beef, herbs and spices from the ends of the earth, and methods of searing and mincing that make identification of the raw foodstuff anybody’s guess.
As for religion, Zingpow welcomes hidebound tradition and spontaneous inspiration. All the major belief systems have a mosque, temple, shrine, or church. The International House of Prayer has a franchise. After an incident involving a film star, the authorities banned cults based on mind control, drugs, group sex, and calisthenics at dawn in public parks. Zingpow is tolerant up to a point. It embraces diversity within a social paradigm of extreme wealth. What people do in private is their own affair, and they can buy the ultimate in privacy protection.
Is Zingpow in good taste? The dominant architectural style is extravagant, a confabulation of Super Glitz and Retro Camp. Interiors are slathered with mirrors, sheets of colored marble, rare wood veneer, and artificial lighting. Gilt surfaces and chrome finishes gleam at every turn. Costly fabrics appear in drapes and upholstered furniture, with faux leopard and zebra pelts, crystal chandeliers, fountains in pools, and gas flames that spurt from the water.
To avoid unwitting ethnic slurs, skirt the language issue, and appease government censors, the entertainment industry shuns live theater—plays, revues, stand-up comics, and variety shows—in favor of music, chorus lines, performing animals, and purveyors of illusion. Spectacles rule, and special effects are spectacular. Explicit sex is taboo, though bodies are lubricious. Cineplex movies are shown round the clock, with cartoons and animated features claiming the largest audience, child and adult.
The graphic character called Zing, a mascot who appears in print ads and videos, is an adorable, genderless, furry ball, a guinea pig who babbles in a squeaky voice. As cute as can be, Zing is too excited to make sense. Zipping through town, it is always up to some new trick, which leads to hilarious accidents and ends in Pow!
Zingpow has no political life, no ideology, and no idea how things get done. Carefree visitors are all too familiar with repressive regimes, and long-time residents have no use for opinions. Newspapers, radio, and television media are owned by the state, which censors the internet and intercepts mail. The host country is an absolute terror, as lethal to dissent as it is archaic, based on tribal clans. One of these clans is the city’s ruling family, headed by a person whose age and gender are unknown, and whose title is the Most High. Secretive and omnipotent, the ruling family rules through professional bureaucrats, a well-paid clique of administrators, lawyers, finance ministers, and propaganda flacks, collectively called the authorities.
Beneath all the glitter and glamor, discreetly silent, dressed in sober uniforms and drab overalls, an underclass of servants supports the lifestyle of the rich. These cooks, cleaners, and maintenance workers live in underground tunnels and windowless mezzanines in the glass towers. Desperately poor and badly fed, they are refugees from persecution and destruction in war-torn countries around the world. None are natives or citizens of Zingpow. Enticed by menial jobs and temporary visas, all can be deported at the whim of their employers, though many have no country to return to.
The servants have mastered the art of invisibility. Despite their obvious presence, people say they never see them. The authorities have no data on how many there are, how long they have been here, what they earn, or how they survive. Without them, the city would grind to a halt, yet they are unimportant. With no immigration status, no voice, and no disposable income, the servants do not legally exist. Such is the magic of Zingpow!
Grogdram was a bustling seaport in its heyday, which was well before the year 1800. Now it is a haven for Sunday painters, weekend sailors, holiday excursionists, and those who contrive to escape the big city for a week in the summer. Breezy and restorative, with subtropical flora found nowhere else in the British Isles, the town and its vicinity offer bracing walks along the cliff and over the shingled beach. Visitors collect fossils and shells, take the air like a cure, gape in the natural history museum, and gobble fried fish with greasy fingers. They drink beer, wine, and alcoholic beverages made with rum in quaint taverns and public houses. At times, they drink too much.
Grogdram abounds with bed-and-breakfast rooms, cozy cottages, housekeeping suites, and authentic houses. The owners have installed all modern conveniences and winterized their homes at great expense, and they need the income. So they camp in a trailer, or they move down the lane to cheaper lodgings, or they pitch a tent in the national park that buffers the town from the workaday world.
Ships and crews that once called Grogdram home sailed from the port on voyages that lasted for years, and they longed to return. Many a sailor sang of his love for the girl he left behind. He pined with regret for the curving shoreline, the beauty of Grogdram Bay. While aloft in the rigging, he fancied he heard the bell of St. Nicholas. Or he glimpsed the light of its beacon in the gloom. He cursed the cruel fate that sent him off to sea, to the danger and hardship of life on the waves, when he might have stayed snug by the hearth his mother tended.
So persuasive were these shanties, so brightly did they celebrate the Grogdram of desire, the town itself paled by comparison. After he had lain in a proper bed, with sheets and a pillow, in a house firmly anchored on solid ground, the sailor just back from the far side of the globe strolled on the Promenade with his hands in his pockets and felt a little lost. What did the ballad sweetly sung, as well as the picture he clasped to his heart, have to do with this dump?
The rocks draped with seaweed, the smell of rotting fish, the swarms of flies, the scream of gulls as they swooped overhead, and their squabbles over scum that floated on the water, these details sullied the memory he cherished. The old woman who ran the boarding house where he stowed his gear was mean and abusive. His mates from previous ships were scattered, some to the bottom of the deep blue sea. Those he remembered from childhood had grown older, thicker and duller. They had married and settled down. In a few days, restless, he would find another ship and go abroad again. Then he could sing of the home he missed.
The Grogdram of the musical past is preserved. The gilded steeple of St. Nicholas presides over roofs of red tile and blue slate. Cobblestone pavements gleam when wetted by a summer squall. Ancient houses of tawny stone and blackened half-timber tilt and totter, as if about to tumble on the heads of visitors. Uneasy at the spectacle, the visitors poke each other and laugh.
Balconies carved of snow-white stone remind you of Venice, while pointed arches and glazed tiles strike a note of Morocco. The Promenade is a chorus line of stucco houses painted in shades of apple green, yellow ochre, rose pink, and airy azure. The Marketplace boasts an ensemble of townhouses built by wily merchants and tough sea captains with grizzled beards. The gables retain their stout beam hoists for storage above, spaces now adapted as luxury lofts. Down at street level are smart boutiques and restaurants, with lesser-priced cubbyholes on narrow side streets. All ages, genders, dietary creeds, and ethnic persuasions are welcomed with open arms. Grogdram does not discriminate.
The Rock to one side and the Hardplace to the other guard the strait to the harbor. A few boats remain from the fishing fleet, while the basin teems with yachts and pleasure craft. From the central pier, a tour boat leaves at the top of the hour for a narrative cruise along the coast. At night, the boat offers dining and live music. The karaoke cruise is popular. For the sea shanty singalong, costume is optional—a black eye patch, a bright kerchief tied over the head, knee breeches, and silver buckles.
Like the Grogdram of song, the city of the present may seem a bit much. It is far too clean and colorful. It conveys the impression of a movie theme park, a showcase of lyricological fluff. Long John Silver, with a parrot on his shoulder, will appear any minute and curse in stageworthy dialect. On an otherwise realistic outdoor set, the shadows have been erased, the flash of knives in a brawl, the staved-in barrels, the crippled beggars, the stink of hot tar, and the rattle of chains from a convict gang. Maybe these are minor details, things we learned in school and forgot, unpleasant facts we prefer to gloss over. Maybe they never happened.
Mounted on the wall of a tavern near the docks is a leather whip with dark brown stains on the tips of its thongs. The proprietor calls it a cat-o’-nine-tails from the Black Tulip, a famous brigantine. Some sailors developed a taste for the lash. It tickles, he says. He winks and offers to demonstrate. A tattoo of a mermaid squirms on his arm, as he pours another glass. This one is on the house, if you say the word.
Falala is the city of children, where everyone age twelve and under gets to do whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t leave permanent scars. Grownups are allowed, but they can’t be bossy or make kids do ridiculous things, such as wear mittens when it isn’t snowing, or walk slowly on a level pavement. Teenagers have to be nice to their little brothers and sisters and let them use the bathroom at any moment, because emergencies happen.
Aside from that, Falala is a free-for-all, a giggle, and a romp, as much fun as a barrel of monkeys. There is a lot of shrieking and hooting, some jumping up and down, and no waiting in line ever. An ordinary day is when the Lost Boys led by Peter Pan meet their match in the girl department led by Pippi Longstocking, and they all get along like a house on fire.
Meanies, bad guys, bullies, wicked witches, evil sorcerers, and deformed old persons are banned within the city limits. Falala is a monster-free zone. No bogeymen, banshees, ghosts, or hungry skeletons. All spiders, centipedes, and creepy crawlies that live in dark closets and under the bed were totally eliminated by an expert team of exterminators.
Falala kids play games all day, run around loose, gobble snacks, and never take a nap because they never get tired. There is no official bedtime. They go to sleep when it’s dark and wake up with the sun. Bad dreams are banned, so they feel refreshed and ready for breakfast, which is usually a stack of pancakes with gallons of maple syrup. They take as long as they want to eat, because don’t have to rush off to school. There is no school! They soak up information like a deep-sea sponge, or they absorb it from the environment, the way a radio catches invisible waves in the air. They watch cartoons and videos, the same ones over and over again, until they know them by heart. They read comic books full of amazing facts, and cereal boxes ditto. They pick up songs without even trying, and they remember word for word what was said when a grownup thought they weren’t listening.
They learn how to perform magic tricks, do cartwheels and somersaults, slay fire-breathing dragons, and rescue a damsel in distress. A damsel is sometimes a little brother, and a girl can be a knight. Inside the house they build castles and forts from recycled furniture and make armored personnel carriers, battleships, and fighter jets out of empty cardboard boxes. Outside they run, skip, leap, twirl, and draw technical diagrams of thermonuclear reactors with colored chalk on the pavement The Falala municipal playground has the longest slide in the entire world, the bounciest trampoline, the most elaborate jungle gym, and swings that swing as high in the sky as a ponderosa pine.
Children rarely get sick in Falala. When they do, the symptoms are undetectable, and it’s never contagious. A case of the heebie-jeebies was reported, but it turned out to be a gross exaggeration. Sometimes kids are slightly indisposed, or they suffer a bump, or they get the hiccups. In the worst possible situation, they contract a malady like cooties, scabosis, or mush mouth. Even then, it’s not because they ran without looking where they were going, ate too fast, or drank soda while laughing. The real cause is a secret.
Cake and ice cream are staples of the Falala diet, along with pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, cinnamon toast, and a few fresh fruits like bananas. Milk is chocolate-flavored, juice is optional, and plain water is always ice cold. All drinks must be sipped through a straw. Candy is consumed any time of the day, with no limit on total sugar intake. Dinner starts with dessert, and then if there’s room, they might nibble pot stickers, pot luck, pepper pot, or pig in a poke. No vegetables are allowed, and never under any circumstances do they eat fried octopus, liver and onions, soft-boiled bugs, or cream of sludge soup.
Institutions exist, such as offices, banks, factories, and hospitals, but only grownups care about them. Newspapers are dull, except for the funny pages, and government is a bore. Kids argue, then vote on important stuff by acclamation. The public library has a few books and loads of movies, games, internet pods, and virtual reality portals. Firefighters let children ride on the hook-and-ladder truck with the siren on, and police let them drive patrol cars on high-speed chases through crowded streets.
Stores that sell fragile, expensive things and post signs against unattended children are subject to fines. Stores that sell clothing, books, and music must have a children’s department. The only stores that really matter are those that sell food and toys.
To claim full rights as a citizen, you don’t have to be born in Falala. To get there you don’t have to follow directions, or take the bus, or ride a mule over treacherous mountain trails. All you do is close your eyes, clench your fists, and do that thing with your tongue.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.