On the day of his death, The Artist wakes to the sound of tapping. Faint, nothing more than a spigot dripping, or the rhythmic work of a hammer—tap, tap, tap. Nevertheless, the sound propels him onward, feet blistered and bleeding, west towards the bay.
It is not yet dawn. Still early, still cool—the city remains in perfect darkness. Not long ago the last of the neon lights shuttered out, the cable cars were overturned on sloping tracks; shop windows were shattered, pilfered, and abandoned.
Now, The Artist walks the empty sidewalks, maneuvers empty streets where forgotten cars the color of coal, and steel, and oil seem to seep into the earth. The waning moon clings to the side of the rolling hills, casting long shadows in the darkness. He passes The Grace Cathedral, The Fairmont with its pink façade, the flags of fallen capitals still extending from the eaves. Soon the day dawns cool and crisp, with copper streaks of sunlight that hint at the end of summer.
He prefers the night, it tightens around him—the world feels small and tame. In the daylight, he feels the absences more, the unnatural silence of a stagnant world, no birds, no insects, no humans. But he has work to do.
He crests the hill on Sacramento Street overlooking the coast. Sunlight ricochets from building to building, skyscrapers, row houses, homes, the glass shimmers and looks like water. He wraps a handkerchief over his mouth and nose. The city air has grown putrid with decay. Bodies, he imagines, stacked high in buildings, dragged from streets early on, but then left to rot in alleyways and coffee shops.
He stops at a bench, pitched at an angle to match the slope of the hill. He places his pack down, leather and well worn, and pulls from it a small radio, which he sets beside him. Then, he removes a large drawing pad, a tin box of charcoal pencils, an eraser and a map.
He flips the radio on and turns the dial. Static. He leaves it on; the white noise is an optimistic sound, as if at any moment with the careful adjustment of an antenna a voice could begin to speak. He then prepares his tools. Today, he says, we’ll be discussing the importance of perspective.
He begins to draw the scene around him. We will call this one San Francisco at Daybreak. Think of a hill, he says, pulling his charcoal pencil down the length of his pad. A street runs down the middle, buildings and homes line either side. To illustrate proper perspective, parallel lines must meet at the horizon. For a complex scene such as this, you may have two horizon lines.
He draws the buildings, the trolleys upright, he draws the parked cars, the ocean, the bridge in the distance. Then, he draws what isn’t there: he populates it with people, and dogs, children, birds. Creatures of every order. Faces of friends and family he’s lost, a woman he loved who didn’t love him back. A replica of what life once was.
It is afternoon when he finishes, the sun is slanted in the sky, and clouds billow overhead. Carefully, he puts his tools away. He is methodical in his preparation and his completion. He rolls the drawing, ties it with twine, and slides it into the narrow barrel of a plastic tube. He studies the map and draws a red X on Sacramento Street.
He travels on. The hill turns flat and pockmarked concrete winds past the Warf, and Madame Tussaud’s and the frozen faces of celebrities smile at him from the windows. He walks through the Ferry Building, each falling footstep sounds like clapping. Outside the air is flat, and the ocean still. He leans over the banister on the pier and looks below watching as the waves beat against the concrete.
The Artist reaches into his pack and pulls out the drawing. He drops it in the water, then in quick succession drops twenty more identical tubes. They bob on the water, and for a few moments crash against the cement. Soon, though, the tide takes them and he watches as the last of his drawings disappear beneath the current.
He sits on a bench and listens. He can hear his heart beating, the waves crashing, and for a moment he hears the low murmur of humanity—of life continuing on. But there is no sound, not really, and the silence moves him onward as it always does. He stands on the farthest point of the pier. From where he stands he can see the vague outline of Alcatraz, and Angel Island, and empty boats bobbing.
He pulls a silver revolver from his pack. On the day of his death, The Artist, alone on the pier cannot hear the sound of a bird pecking, faint, nothing more than a spigot dripping or the rhythmic work of hammer.