Amidst the tourist clutter of Cannery Row in Monterey, hidden behind the plastic and the lights and the packaged consumer filth, always sold, there was a row of ruins. Fenced off, caged, forgotten, crumbling with rust and jagged concrete, they lay half-submerged in the rocky coast of Monterey Bay.
As oblivious herds of tourists passed by one night, a teenaged girl inched on hands and knees along the top of one of the ruin walls, completely in view but unnoticed. No one cared. She was of medium height, medium weight, medium build, completely unremarkable except for her hair, which was glued into spikes, like a startled sea urchin. Her green eyes squinted into the grafitti-sprayed interior of the ruin as she crawled carefully, but with a casual clumsiness, slouching.
As the girl swung down the ladder at the end of the wall and landed on the gritty floor, crunching glass, someone called out to her from the other room. The ruin was divided into two equal cubicles with an open doorway in the middle, all elaborately spray painted and crumbling. The floor was cluttered with rusted cans and twisted metal, shards of glass and creeping shrubs shedding dead leaves, brown and rotting. In one of the rooms the debris had been swept vaguely into a corner, and chunks of concrete had been set out in a circle, where three people perched. The girl ducked through the door and they turned to face her.
“Hey, Bianca,” the nearest one muttered. He was a tall, skinny boy of about 17, with stringy black hair and disturbingly blue eyes.
“Hi, Dan.” The girl kicked over a concrete chunk and sat down. “Do you have the box?”
“Right here.” Dan brushed his backpack with one finger, gently. The small group stared at the backpack for a moment, completely silent as the fog began to drift gently across the night sky overhead.
After a minute or two of silence Dan opened the backpack- reverently, slowly- and brought out a box wrapped in plain brown paper, tied clumsily with string. Although the box was large enough to completely fill the backpack, it looked pitifully small and insignificant under the crumbling walls of the ruins and the heavy gray sky above. Scrawled on the side of the box in pencil were the words “the ruin man,” and a withered yellow flower was tucked under the string like a pitiful gift, or an offering.
Bianca reached out and lay her hand on the box, gently. It had been three weeks since she first heard Dan talk about the ruin man.
It had been a bleak May morning when Bianca huddled against the wall of the school library with Dan and their friends Amy and Scott to hear about the ruin man. Dan seemed very pale and almost inhuman, and he told then that he found something in the bushes down in the ruins on Cannery Row.
“Something alive,” he had said, blue eyes intensely bright. “It’s alive. It’s a god.”
Bianca had chuckled nervously and they all stared at Dan with his stringy black hair falling gently around his face. “A god? What do you mean?”
“The ruin man. That’s what he calls himself: the ruin man. Only he’s not really a man; just the head.”
The small group glanced at each other. Amy twirled her finger around in a circle by her head: he’s crazy.
“A disembodied head?” Scott grimaced. “Bullshit.”
“Uh, Scott…” Bianca muttered, drawing him and Amy aside. “Do you think he’s joking?”
“Of course he’s joking. You don’t really think…”
“No!” Bianca interrupted, quickly. “Of course not. I just think that, well, Dan’s been under a lot of stress lately, and…”
“Maybe he just snapped!” wailed Amy.
“I’ll show you,” said Dan, evenly. He had overheard them, even though their voices had dropped to whispers and they huddled away from him. His intensity made them nervous and uneasy. Bianca wanted to laugh or joke it off, but was stopped by his blue-eyed gaze. She nodded.
“Come to the ruins with me. You’ll see,” he said, and wandered off. After school they followed them down there.
Bianca had never believed in the supernatural. She was a realist, an independent thinker, unimpressed by hazy thinking and dreams.
“The ruin man will lead us out of poverty,” Dan had said as they walked down to Cannery Row, all the signs of wealth surrounding them. They were a scruffy group of intruders into a world of privilege and luxury, slinking almost guiltily as fast as they could toward the ruins. “Our god will lead us out of oppression,” Dan said. Bianca was suspicious of anything that promised to lead her anywhere, especially gods. Dan’s cultish mumbling frightened her.
At that time, only the sight of the ruin man himself would be enough to shock her into believing.
Three weeks later, Bianca was as devoted a disciple as Dan.
They all were.
- . . . . . * . . . . . *
The ruin man lay in a nest of the softest cotton, cradled gently against the sides of the cardboard box, face radiantly warm and alive. His eyes were closed, and he wore a smile of perfect contentment that was the most gentle, beautiful thing Bianca had ever seen. Pink, perfectly smooth, his face showed no signs of a beard and his hair was very short and soft to the touch, like the fur of a baby mouse. His age was difficult to tell, but soft wrinkles creased along the corners of his eyes.
Dan gently lifted the ruin man out of the box and held him up in front of the group, and they stared at him in the dim evening light. It had been three weeks since they had first seen him, but even now they were awestruck. His smile broadened a little as they muttered praise, but except for that his face remained the same, calm and serene, eyes closed. His neck was truncated close to where his shoulders should have been, but it was bloodless, smooth and rounded, like it had grown that way.
“Does anybody have an offering?” asked Dan. They had taken to bringing little gifts to the ruin man, small trinkets that they arranged on the ground like a makeshift altar.
“I do,” whispered Bianca. She fumbled in her pocket and brought out a delicate silver pendant on a chain, swinging and catching dim light as it spun. It was a tiny horse with wings.
“It was a present from my father,” said Bianca, biting her lip. “It was the last thing he ever gave to me.”
Bianca’s father had abandoned the family when she was eight, leaving her with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Salinas. Eventually Bianca’s mother had gotten a job in Monterey, near Seaside, where she moved in the hopes of finding a safe place to raise her child.
Bianca dropped the pendant and it fell to the concrete with a pitiful tinging sound. She muttered praise to the ruin man.
“One day,” said Dan, “The ruin man will lead us out of our poverty and help us overthrow this oppressive system. What else could he be but a god to guide us? What else could he do but help us be free?”
The group sat in silence for a while as the ruin man smiled down on them and the fog continued to drift overhead, soft and wispy like the cotton nest in the cardboard box.
- . . . . . * . . . . . *
Amy broke the silence by reaching into her own backpack and pulling out a package wrapped in tissue paper. “I have another offering,” she whispered. Amy was a skinny girl with very short red hair that stuck straight up from her scalp, making her whole head resemble an apricot.
“What is it, Amy?” Bianca leaned in curiously. It was a large, strangely shaped package and she had no idea what it could be. She hoped it would be a worthy offering. Skeptical, independent Bianca was now fiercely devoted where the ruin man was concerned, a true believer in three weeks. Her science and reason had no explications for the ruin man, no justifications for his existence. After a period of denial and then hysteria she had abandoned both science and reason and settled down. Although she had never heard the ruin man speak, she believed that someday she would, when the time was right.
“I found these under a rock next to the ruins,” said Amy, tearing through tissue paper.
Bianca leaned closer. “They’re arms,” she gasped.
Amy had torn through the last of the tissue paper to reveal human flesh, soft and pink. Two human arms lay in her lap, each one truncated near where a shoulder should have been but bloodless and rounded like they had grown that way. Amy brushed the palm of one of the hands and the hand gently closed, clinging on to her fingers like a trusting child. The group stared in wonder.
“I know what he wants, now.” said Dan. Everyone turned and stared at him, wide-eyed.
“He wants us to put him together! Don’t you see?”
“Well, yeah.” Bianca looked around the ruin. “But where is the rest of him?”
“Let’s look,” said Scott. He got up from his concrete block, and began rooting through the piles of debris. Scott, a muscular boy who looked vaugely oriental, quickly sorted through the rubble.
“I can’t find anything here,” Scott said, disappointed.
“Wait,” said Bianca, climbing on top of the wall and looking down to the ground below, “I think I found something.”
Bianca crawled to where the wall met the hillside and then slid down to the rocks below. Overturning some rubble, she uncovered two human feet ticking almost comically out of the ground. “Found the feet and legs!” she yelled.
After that discovery, their work seemed easy. Although it was late and dark they plowed enthusiastically through the ruins, at last finding a full human torso underground. Then they carefully carried all the parts into their compartment of the ruins, arranging them into the form of a whole human on the ground. The ruin man’s head lay on a pillow of cotton, and Dan lay his shirt over the ruin man’s naked body, like a blanket.
The group sat patiently in a circle around the ruin man. The sun had set hours before; it was dark and cold, and Dan shivered, crouching close to the wall. They all waited silently for some movement, some sign of change.
“Please,” Bianca whispered through clenched teeth, “come on….”
“Soon,” said Dan, repeating words they had all heard a hundred times over in the past three weeks, “The ruin man will lead us out of our poverty and help us overthrow the oppressive system. What else could he be but a god to guide us? What else could he do but help us be free?”
Just then, a faint red glow formed around the ruin man, gently building into a wave of soft warm light. The light hung for a second just above the ruin man’s body and then faded, seeping into the concrete and the rubble and the twisted shards of metal and glass on the ground.
- . . . . . * . . . . . *
The group sat in silence. Slowly, the ruin man stretched and moved his limbs, all of them seamlessly connected to his torso like they had grown that way. In the dim light he seemed ominous and strange. As they stared in awe, he sat up and then stood, wrapping Dan’s shirt around his waist and blinking at them with clear dark eyes.
“Our god,” whispered Dan.
They all stared wide-eyed at the ruin man, waiting for any movement, any gesture of approval. He looked ready to speak.
“Don’t call me your god,” he said at last, “How could I lead you out of oppression when, just a few minutes ago, I was absolutely nothing? You created me. You can liberate yourselves. If you can put together a man from pieces found in a ruin, you can bring yourselves together and make a difference. And please don’t worship me.”
Dan waved an arm weakly to indicate all they had given him, to show him the flowers and the box and the small offerings on the ground, and most of all their own dedication and worship which they had given unquestioningly. Bianca and the others sat still and gawked at him, stunned mute. The ruin man stood and stared calmly back at them, still wearing the same serene smile that they had trusted, still the same beautiful ruin man who they had counted on for answers.
Then the ruin man turned and walked to the ladder, climbed it, and walked gracefully away from them on top of the ruin wall. He paused for a moment, standing gloriously high above the ruin and the bay and the city lights gleaming on water, and then leaped off the wall to the hillside. The group below watched him silently, wide-eyed.
“I don’t understand,” Bianca said, as they shivered miserably in the dark. Scrabbling on the cold concrete, she found her pendant and put it back in her pocket where it belonged, now.
“It’s all so pointless. Fucking POINTLESS,” moaned Amy, who looked ready to cry. “It was all for nothing, wasn’t it?”
Bianca thought about this.
“Not completely,” she said, finally, tipping her head back to look at the sky. “Maybe he gave us something after all. Maybe he’s right about not needing a leader.”
They sat in silence for a while and then struggled to their feet, climbing up the ladder and out of the ruin one by one, heading off together into the dim gray morning.