Because there are so many chapters and because I’d like to have the book posted in its entirety before Valentine’s Day 2016, I’ve decided to start posting two chapters a week.
I hope you enjoy Chapter 5.
“Compared with my present imprisonment the future holds no interest for me.” –Raoul Vaneigem
It was cold, clear and windy as Ike and Fred traipsed uphill toward the bus stop. Though they were only a little late, they walked a bit faster than usual, just in case. Sure enough, less than half a block to the stop, the 56E roared by them without slowing.
“What the—?” Ike yelled, running hard. As he rounded the corner, he saw that no one was waiting at their stop. He heard Fred catching up, as the bus slowed half way down the hill to take on two more passengers. Ike waved furiously, but before he had closed the distance, the bus was moving again.
“Damn you!” he bellowed, laughing. Fred was pelting along behind him, laughing too, both going full-out.
Fortunately, several people waited at the next stop, the shelter at Graphic Street, including an eccentric babushka and a blind man, who took his time getting into his seat. Ike and Fred queued in behind a woman still waiting to climb aboard. The covered dish in her hands smelled suspiciously like brownies. Both men were panting from the exertion.
“Shit,” Ike explained, recovering his composure.
“Fine day for it,” echoed Fred.
A pretty Russian woman with a cloud of blonde hair smiled at them as they collapsed into vacant seats. Fred smiled back.
“I never thanked you for the bus pass,” Ike said, as he shoved the colored ticket into his coat pocket. “Looks like it may be a while before I get another vehicle.”
“I believe you will find the bus an amazingly kaleidoscopic social milieu,” Fred said, leaning in toward Ike. “Far less limited than the androgyn-chic set you mix with in the office. “
“As opposed to the over-age geeks you crunch numbers with all day.”
“Precisely.” His glasses slowly defogging, he continued. “Look around you–drunken lovers, families, working stiffs of all races, the elderly, the foxy, intellectuals, washed-up Hells Angels and hipsters. The Spectacle may be driving a seat-warmed, shiny black Lexus, but it is jammed bumper-to-bumper on the exhaust-choked Parkway, while our real life, the true community of ecstatic citizens, shares gossip on the 56E.”
Ike grimaced. “I hate to tell you this, but your real life smells—“
A woman in the seat behind them snickered. Apparently, this particular aroma traveled.
The bus stopped again, at the shelter in front of the broad, brick courtyard of Saint Rosalia church where five people waited. Fred watched them board—the middle-aged woman tugging three tote bags, the college student with a nose ring who read chick-lit novels, a black man carrying his infant son whose tiny curled hand beat upon the air.
“Here comes the artist,” Fred whispered to Ike, who was sitting in the bench seat directly in front of him.
The girl in question was a petite blonde, fashionably casual, probably in her early twenties. She had only recently begun to ride the bus, and from overheard cell phone confessions to her mother, it seemed she’d begun a new job as a graphic designer. After pitching something into her over-sized handbag, and hitching the thing back onto her shoulder, she wove her way toward a seat in the back. Fortunately, a discarded Post-Gazette in the aisle caught her attention and she bent to pick it up.
Fred did not have to alert Ike to the situation at hand. Both sets of eyes were glued to the girl’s tight, low-slung jeans, which, rather than displaying the upward curves of peachy felicity, instead revealed a descending triangle of white lace.
“Thong,” Ike whispered back with vague longing. The girl sat down beside a woman doing a crossword. Ike looked away, contrite. It was rude to stare.
In three more stops, the bus became full to capacity, bodies packed together in all the seats, with a swaying mass of humanity clinging to the overhead bars in the aisle. Ike was among them, having given up his seat to an old lady carrying a folding cart.
The sun flickered serenely over the deep blue Mon as they sailed into town. Almost the last to leave the bus at Fourth and Wood, the two young men skipped through traffic toward their building, Ike stopping at the Café Tour in the lobby for coffee before following Fred up to the 13th floor. Fred drank that swill they made upstairs because it was free, but for Ike, coffee was one of the holies of life that ought not be desecrated. He ordered the largest size they had, left a tip in the jar, and headed for the brass elevator doors of Purgatory.
Outside the windows that wrapped around three sides of the office, there was a city alive with building itself up, tearing itself down and generally changing its attire. Directly behind Ike, Wood Street was quiet. A brown brick Victorian extravaganza, the Arnott Building, soared directly across the narrow street from him, encrusted in lion’s heads and elaborately carved acanthus and wave-scroll course work, culminating in an Ionic balcony held aloft by over-sized scrolls wrapped in garlands. More quasi-classical carving frosted the small story above the balconies, Greek keys alternating with Roman egg-and-dart string courses, all culminating in a cornice of fan-backed tragic masks. It was bizarre and beautiful, so that for a moment, Ike mused that perhaps the Peter Keatings of the world had their own kind of genius. Not that Ayn Rand or her legion of architectural acolytes would agree, for they all would rather have been iconoclastic Howard Roarks.
To contemplate, to tolerate, and worse, to love, such rich, historical pastiche was blasphemy indeed for one reared in the shadow of modernity, the de rigueur design faith for the aspiring architect in these opening years of the 21st century. The study of the early Modern geniuses—Wright, Corbu, Gropius, Mies, Louis Kahn—was now canon. The Beaux-Arts was dead; even Post-Modernism took the living forms of the past as a sort of joke, to be hurled about like the one-liners of a drunk comic on open mike night. Francie, for one, was a decided acolyte of Venturi, though for Ike, his earliest work, at least, was saddening. A pediment, an arch, a colonnade—a living language or signs? He hated all that philosophical gibberish that turned away meaning by shredding everything into atoms and then into increasingly miniscule subatomic bits until there was no life left. What was the difference between the pastiche of the Arnott Building and Venturi’s? Reverence.
So Ike came out of school still feeling half-formed; he had proclivities and secret passions, but he did not have conviction. Now that he was working, and in the very firm that had been at the top of his list, none of it seemed to matter. He’d been far happier in those high school summers helping his dad build cookie cutter split-levels in Penn Hills and Moon Township.
Even though he was gainfully employed, his dad still asked him to help out sometimes on weekends when they were short on the work crew. Ike knew how to do everything: frame, roof, plumbing, electric, brick, siding, window installation, you name it, he’d done it. He was glad to go: to swing a hammer again, the scorch of the sun sheering through you as you shingled a roof, and sloshing down a beer on the tailgate of somebody’s pickup when the day’s work was done. His dad had a keen eye for the pleasure Ike took in building, and during all his years of schooling had never failed to let him know how much better off he’d be at Duckworth Construction, whose emblem was a golden duck plastered on the door of the heavy white equipment truck they all piled into for their jobs. It made Ike cautious, and more sanguine than he really was, when he spoke to his parents about FKRS.
The morning was dragging. Ike was still waiting for Ray to get back from the staff meeting to tell them all what the hell they were doing this week. He opened the sheet he’d been working on last week, and puttered around adjusting dimensions, yawning, half listening to Willie’s monologue of expletives on the other side of the cube wall as the Revit model again went into convulsions and flat-lined.
“…elements stopped showing up…Not responding; shutting down?… Fu-uck…Nadia! I need you to save to central.”
Nadia didn’t answer; she didn’t have to. The Revit monster pulled this stunt several times a day, especially when deadlines were looming, which lately seemed to be every other day. Too many people working in the same part of the building; it’s going to happen. A plastic Godzilla flew over the cube wall onto Ike’s keyboard. Poor Willie—he was back to the expletives again.
Ike turned his gaze back to the washed out sky. The prospect to the north was alive with the happier men of the building trades. A blue glass building was rapidly being sheathed, its transparency sinking beneath a dark mirror of cloud and light, a crane soaring above, hoisting steel to the wranglers who hung precariously from the beams twenty-some stories above the ground. Across from the PNC Tower, three new stories were being added to an existing building; at the moment, its undergarments a bit exposed as it awaited its cladding. Over by Market Square, two 19th century retail and office buildings had been gutted; welders had been on the roof every day this week, unknowingly entertaining the architects with their decidedly unsafe working methods. And behind him somewhere on Fourth, a grand old bank building, one of the jewels of Banker’s Row, was being renovated into luxury condos. From this little vantage point, the world was alive with the business of building.
When he turned back to his monitor, all he had to reward his eyes were toilet partitions. He’d been drawing and redrawing them for the last two weeks and expected to be Toilet Boy for the indefinite future. After all, Ray had handed him this task as a reward for creating a perfect door schedule. And this was the thing to which he’d enslaved his passion for building? Not at all. Duckworth was a realist: You have to start your career somewhere, and that somewhere may as well be an ADA-compliant toilet partition. Surely, even Corbu had been on TP duty at one time, paying his dues in the days when drawings were made with pen and ink on vellum. Then again, probably not.
Thinking about that austere face with its round horn-rimmed glasses reminded him that Corbu—Le Corbusier—was French. Wonder what Fred had to say about him? The old Crow was passionate about drawing, for sure, which might make him one of the pantheon, though it was sometimes difficult to predict who would be in and who out. He’d ask one of these days. Get a few jars of elixir in him and Fred could out-talk Beaudrillard. Regrettably, this reverie was not the late afternoon variety, and rather than a 3:00pm glare, a shadow had fallen over his screen. 11:35 am.
“Lunch?” Lewis inquired, softly spoken as always, as if aware of the terrible power his voice might have. Too bad Phil hadn’t learned to pipe down.
“Yep,” said Ike, inhaling the aroma of chocolate from the Special Dark bar in Lewis’s hand. “Need it, want it.”
“Where you want to go?”
“How about Twelve-Six? I just realized I’m craving a bacon burger. ”
“Excellent. They’ve got a bottomless pasta bowl there on Mondays.”
“We rounding up the Lunch Bunch?”
“Yeah, I talked to A-man. Their meeting might run a little late. If you can wait, he and Steve want to go. I’m going to check with Wills.”
“Cool.” Ike picked up the little green monster that had lately been an aerial missile. “Give this back to him—I think he’s going to need it.”
Lewis drifted off to gather a few others, to vet Twelve-Six, breaking up the frustration of the seventh redesign of the gym elevations in a month with a little socializing. Ike clamped his head phones on and clicked his iPod to his favorite mix. Shut it out and get to work. There are a hell of a lot of partitions in a university gymnasium. Only an hour left to go for some relief.
“Hey, Fucks!” a booming voice greeted Fred in the lunch room.
Fred did not look up from his perusal of the New York Times, nor did he need to in order to recognize the presence of his favorite boor, a stentorian noise with a beefy physique and all the wit of stale saltines.
“The name is pronounced Fooks, if you please. F-u-c-h-s, Fuchs. Its meaning in the original German is fox. Besides which, I do not think it genteel to take the name of connubial bliss in vain.”
“You’re a nut job, Fuchs.”
“And you, Philip, are a horse’s ass.” Fred smiled to himself at the etymological nicety.
Phil sat opposite and began to spread out his fast food extravaganza, and it was one big, yellow bagful. He grabbed a fistful of fries as his first course. “How come you always wear the same clothes every day, F-man?” he asked, whereupon he stuffed the fries into his mouth.
“There is, as you have so keenly observed, a commonality to my sartorial deportment. I do not, however, wear the same article repeatedly.”
“So you own, say, seven blue oxfords and seven pairs of Levi’s?”
“You have hit upon it at last.” There was something sympathetic to Fred’s mind between the worldwide economic meltdown he was reading about and Klein’s pedestrian discourse.
Phil took a deep slurp of milk shake. “How come?”
Fred would have wagered a week’s salary that this one had not gone on to graduate school, though he did wonder what particular gift had shepherded him through five years of architecture studies. He would ask Ike later. “For the sake of simplicity and in identification with the working man, of which species I count myself a member.”
“A rhetorical flourish.”
Nadia was ascending the spiral staircase which devolved onto the open space of the lunchroom. She had her wool mini-trench cinched tight, obviously headed out. She smiled at Fred, as she always did; Fred took her for a kindly, sympathetic spirit within the Franklin-Furiosa landscape. Phil turned to watch Nadia walk away, clad as she was in a short, flouncy skirt fluttering above long, skinny legs. Fred was not immune to such enticements, except that he had long since recognized that women in architecture were often rather skinny, while the women in the support staff—the admins, accountants and the office manager—tended toward the strikingly Rubenesque. The exception: the incomparable Amazon, Amanda Franklin, who was both an architect and zaftig in extremis. Divas had a way with the flesh; as if their power manifested in their physical largesse. Though few others did, Fred rather liked Franklin. Yes. He smiled inwardly at the prescience that had brought him into a career in which to meet women to his specifications. The angular, black-clad mannequins in their expensively tailored costumes did little for his sense of aesthetics or his libido. No doubt they were all lovely individuals, but they had no chance to win Fred’s heart.
It was then he heard shouting coming from the direction of the front desk. Upon keener attention, he recognized the dulcet tones of Amanda Franklin herself in the midst of a cell phone call. She stormed past them at the lunch table, Bluetooth clipped to her ear so that her jeweled hands were free to gesture melodramatically. Phil looked up with fear in his eyes, pausing in mid-chew to swallow hard.
Dame Franklin, as her employees called her behind her back, was six feet tall, her beloved stilettos pushing her further into a stratosphere which few of her colleagues shared. She invariably wore tailored black suits—today’s was wool bouclé with a leopard fur collar, the jacket short and fitted, the pencil skirt slit up the thigh on one side. Starburst earrings sparkled beneath a froth of dyed, orange hair; the earrings looked like diamonds, but as large as they were, they had to be fake. For a woman built on a grand scale, Dame Franklin had tiny feet, and the pointed, black pumps she wore made the most of it. They were gorgeous, the pumps, patent-leather with attenuated, curving lines; Fred thought they looked French.
“Oscar, dear,” the Franklin cooed as she peered into the kitchenette and then over the cubicle walls adjacent to the lunchroom. “Dear! You do not hear me. I agree with you—Yes!—one hundred per cent. Nothing states your arrival in the world like an all-metallic 80s discotheque powder room. You will be the envy of—well—everyone. James? Yes, dear, James will fall in love for it. You might drop hints. Decorating is a powerful aphrodisiac, Oscar. You will thank me one day,” she laughed, a great thunderous rumble that seemed to have its origins somewhere below their feet. “James will thank me one day! I’m glad you are excited. I am, too. You have no idea. Well, I kiss you good-bye now, dear. La!”
Phil was now standing with his back to the disgustingly grease-laden paper wrappers that had enshrouded his meal, awaiting his moment to shine for Dame Franklin. “Good afternoon, Amanda,” he said with a coy smile. “Are you looking for someone?”
“Is it? Already? I’ve just gotten up. My head! All of this international travel is positively killing me. I don’t even know what city I’m in. My God!” she shrieked, pointing toward Fred. “What is that?”
He was at that moment neatly folding the red plaid napkin in which he wrapped his homemade sandwiches. He stood, bowed slightly and lifted it for her inspection.
“I bring my sandwich in a cloth napkin for transportation to the workplace so that I do not consume the scant resources of our overburdened mother ship, whilst simultaneously providing a touch of restaurant elegance.”
“Of the peasant sort, I imagine.” She took in his round spectacles, blue oxford shirt, Levis and steel-toed workman’s boots, pursing her lips with appetite. “How endearingly bolshy of you.”
“Excuse me, the Stuart plaid is the tartan of kings.”
“Ex-quisite,” she drawled. There was something calculating in her appraisal of him.
“Fred has ideas,” Ike added, as he and four other architects arrived, still in their coats, from lunch on the town. His companions all mumbled their greetings to Amanda, in general, avoiding her glance. Lewis was the only man in the office taller than she was. She eyed him up.
Fred, meanwhile, was still focused on the compliment that had just been given. “I thank your interest, Ms. Franklin. Frederick Fuchs, at your service.”
“I adore green thinking, Frederick Fuchs,” she said, dragging her attention from Lewis. “I’ve never seen you before. Who hired you?”
“I do not at present work for Franklin Krasnoski Radnor and Sykowitz,” he said, with emphasis on the first name in the sequence. “I am temporary staff employed to close out your fiscal year accounting.”
“Really? We’ll see about that…” She winked at him, turned on her heel and confronted Philip, who stood dumbstruck throughout the entire conversation. Her voice attained auditorium dimensions. “WHERE is Colin?”
Her demanding tone snapped him to attention, and cowed the others into retreating a step. Phil was so tongue-tied, he drooled his response. “Mr. Radnor had a luncheon appointment.”
“A luncheon appointment?” She turned to Fred. “A touch affected, don’t you think? Probably another one of dear Deep Pocket’s fucking charities.” She laughed with force and stormed back into the lobby, shouting for the receptionist as she went. “Al-ice!”
“Smooth move,” Fred deadpanned as Phil wiped his chin.
“Shut up, Fucks. Nobody asked your opinion.”
Ike raised an eyebrow in comment as he passed down the stairs, back to his belabored partitions. There was no understanding Fred.
It was probably Fred who saw Colin Radnor first, emerging from the elevator with his typically perky smile and bouncing gait, none of which meant much to him except that unless Radnor had other destinations, 3:00 pm was a rather late running luncheon. He shrugged, shook off his daydream about putting in an asparagus bed in the spring, and went back to his tally.
He was almost immediately interrupted. Everyone in the small conference room looked up. There was a scream from the design studio and it was Amanda Franklin.
Fred found the operatic quality of her voice impressive. She could have gone places with a voice like that.
A moment later, Colin came back into view, not quite running, but at a pace calculated to salvage a shred of his dignity in retreat.
Amanda had no intentions of losing her opportunity to corner him. She grabbed his shoulder, spinning him around where he waited, nervously jiggling his foot, for the elevator to arrive.
Fred was on his feet, watching through the glass conference room wall.
“Don’t think you can run away from me!”
“I have nothing to say to you.” Colin’s voice was hard and cold. He turned his back and resumed his watch of the lit numbers above the elevator door.
“How convenient for me because I have something to ask you: What I want to know is—what the fuck is that about?”
Livid, she pointed straight at Fred. Well, it was probably at the conference room full of Numb4 fiduciaries in general, though it seemed to Fred that it was he who stood accused.
Colin glanced in the direction indicated and merely shrugged. “I don’t know. Ask Ed.”
“He wouldn’t say.”
“Then I’m sure it’s not important.”
“My ass, it’s not important. They have adding machines, Colin, they aren’t lawyers or temps. Have you looked at the papers lately? This cannot be anything good.”
“I don’t know why you think it would have anything to do with me,” he said, smiling smugly. “Maybe we should step out to the stairs, Amanda. Your friends with the calculators are getting nosey.”
She didn’t turn this time. “I don’t care. I have nothing to hide.”
His voice dropped to a whisper. “I need to know I can count on you.”
“For what?” There was now an edge in her voice.
“For—for whatever comes. If you and I, if we—“
“For what? FOR WHAT, RADNOR?!”
“Shush,” he said, his head swiveling every way. He did not notice Fred lingering still in his shadowy spot inside the conference room door. “Don’t be like that. I need to know, we were close once you remember—I need—that you’ll be there for me.”
She laughed explosively. “You’ve got to be kidding me! Undying loyalty to an old lay? You’re out of your mind.”
He grabbed her elbow, forcing her toward the glass stairwell doors, even as she looked over her shoulder at the accountants. “Listen, I’m not saying you’re still in love with me—”
She opened the door.
“—or ever was—” she interjected as her heels clattered hastily onto the landing of the black marble and wrought iron spiral staircase.
“—but you OWE me.”
Her mouth clenched into a thin red line. Silent, they stood eyeing each other as she held open the door.
Colin broke the deadlock. “You know it. You owe me for—”
She heaved the door shut.
Fred continued to watch the conversation, at turns heated or fearful, by the looks of it, on both sides. People headed to the conference room downstairs saw them out there, nose-to-nose, arguing fiercely. Amanda’s hands were flying around, the long red fingernails gesturing right in Colin’s face.
Suddenly there was a booming “NO!” from Colin. “You will not tell me what I can and cannot do. I have the jurisdiction here, not you. Back off, Amanda, if you know what’s good for you.”
He was so loud now, his voice carried not only into the elevator lobby and conference room where Fred lurked, but also into the main reception area. The office manager crept toward the elevator lobby to listen, and others soon joined her.
Amanda did not back down.
“You fucking runt!” She grabbed Radnor’s tie, yanking him forward, inches from her snarling face. “I do not need a lecture from a goddamned Dudley Do-Right folksinger hack. Snap out of it—the 60s are over. All I care about is the prestige of this company, and if you do anything, anything, to put this firm in jeopardy, I’ll jam your balls so far up you’ll have tonsils again. How I ever fucked a sorry piece of shit like you, I’ll never know.”
Colin sputtered, staring back at Amanda, who, upon finishing her speech, turned on her heels and charged back into the office.
At the sound of the fire door flying open, the eavesdroppers in the reception area scattered.
Fred sat back down in front of his adding machine and stared at his empty peanut butter jar. A moment later, he stood up again.
Coffee. He’d see if coffee would jolt his mind back to the contents of Box 35.
The next chapter is here.