Kites rise highest against the wind – not with it.—Winston Churchill
Meetings, meetings and more meetings. Shuttling from the rush to make a noon deadline, to a forced, lunch redesign strategy meeting fueled by greasy pizza that clamped them all in the vise of client demands and code requirements, then on to a series of web conference calls, where the rank and file listened to both sides politely whine at each other while calculating how many more evenings and weekends they were about to lose. Ike was no fan of these exercises in long distance project management; sticky problems always come up in designing and building even a tool shed, but to do it from a distance…
When as a student he admired the sleek and exciting design solutions of FKRS and dreamed of being a part of a team like that, it had never occurred to him that the projects weren’t going to be in Pittsburgh. When his dad ran into a situation on a job, he’d slip his hammer into his tool belt, dial the cell and maybe run over to the architect’s office over lunch or after hours, usually the same day. Perhaps Ike had been naïve: the complexity of even arranging a simple meeting—a phone or web conference call, with schedules to coordinate, egos to pacify, spaces to reserve, equipment to wrangle—was daunting. It was the office manager’s job to do most of the scheduling, but as the months went on, Ray turned more and more to Ike. The trust was great; the secretarial duties sucked. He’d spent five years in college for this? And still, after all of the talking and debating and listening to the arguments, solutions and compromises, someone still had to do the actual work of producing the drawings. And most of that work now had to happen after hours. The thought of quitting recurred more often than it ought to have.
Not that he could quit. Money issues aside, quitting would make his dad right, and he was too right too often as it was. Like about being an architect. It wasn’t what Ike had thought it was, or he wasn’t who he had thought he was, and maybe, like his dad had said, it was all some sort of competition—professional versus builder—where Ike tried to show himself the better man. What a load of shit. Ike just loved beautiful design: it moved him like religion was supposed to, so that it hurt to make these shabby compromises, and in some weird way, it felt also right to spend the long hours at the computer and the drawing board, hoping with his efforts to raise the thing up, find the beautiful line again, find the truth in what the building could be. Become intimate with it, Amanda had said. Stay as close as you can and know it. Those words in his head, more than anything else, was what kept him in his seat day by day.
Absently, forehead to the glass, Ike stared out the window, watching a Veterans Day parade go by, majorettes and high school marching bands in formation down Fifth Avenue, glimpsed as they crossed the intersection with Wood. Most of them stopped, executed a maneuver or two, and played for a few minutes before moving on. He couldn’t hear more than a thin bleat from the horns at this distance, but he saw the white flash of the baton flying up and–catch it, catch it, catch it—they did, as the snow swirled and the pigeons circled restlessly, and Ike stared at life throwing a party off in the distance, marching away from him. But then Gordon bounded down the spiral stair, and he knew it was time for the afternoon conference call with the contractor. Stay close to it, he told himself. If he got any closer to it, he’d be on site digging the damn foundation himself.
Fred wasn’t having any better time of it. His rancor about the job had faded; he’d done what he had to do and it was out of his hands. What incensed Fred at the moment was that holiday displays were up all over the city two weeks before Thanksgiving. Gigantic, golden snowflakes lit with dozens of tiny white lights hung from the light poles all the way up Wood Street and he’d noticed the tall Christmas tree already stood in the portico of City Hall. Those light-pole snowflakes looked small and sad from the twelfth floor, but down on the street, they were festive, especially with real snow swirling about them. The only thing that made it slightly less alarming was the frequency of snow squalls, sometimes brief white-outs that blanketed the region in the week leading up to Thanksgiving.
The low clouds and the fast-encroaching evenings, the sun slipping behind Mt. Washington well before five o’clock was depressing. In other years, Fred had worked at places where he got out at four or five, so it never seemed as bad as it was here. By the time 5:30 rolled around, the darkness had surrounded them for so long that when you rode home on the bus, you were ready to give up and go to bed. Only a friendly jar of elixir and an evening by the fire staved off the worst feelings. Worse, the work he was doing at FKRS still felt wrong, though he’d done what he conscience told him he had to do—and in either case, what choice did he have? There was a full 11 years and 2 months left on his mortgage, even with Ike’s most welcome contribution. Fred was quite convinced he’d be certifiable long before that.
There was no color in the sun’s setting tonight, low clouds going wall-to-wall in a heavy, soul-damping gray. Maybe if he went over to say hello to Esmeralda, look at the colorful little world at her desk, maybe then he’d feel capable of enduring another hour in the vacuum. Fred stepped out of the conference room, shutting the door gently behind him. It was quiet on the 13th floor, as it always was, poor souls entombed alive with their betters. Below, it was boisterous industry; much as Ike disliked his tasks, he was free to enjoy his companions. No wonder Esmeralda, or Colin Radnor for that matter, avoided being in the office as much as possible. It was a mousetrap at the other end of which someone was waving a thick stack of $500 dollar bills, and everyone salivated, and reached for that golden ring. Snap! Poor, sad, little architects. Poor, sad each and all of us.
Fred strolled past the office manager, who glanced up at him with her de riguer contemptuous sneer, and rounded the wall toward Esmeralda’s aisle. There were three purses on Amanda’s desk—each large enough to count as carry-on luggage—a gold one, a navy bag loaded with silver buckles and fittings, and a rigidly constructed triangular purse in ostrich leather dyed sea-foam green—and though they were a good sign of Amanda’s presence, he’d neither seen nor heard her today.
Esmeralda’s cube was dark. There was not even a lingering scent of candle wax. Had she been out all day and he’d failed to notice? He would give her a call as soon as he got home.
Ike was actually on the bus that evening, as he had been, uncharacteristically, every evening this week.
They made dinner, or Fred did—Ike had stopped at a downtown bakery for bread (and brownies) over lunch—whipping up the usual kidney beans and rice with lots of onions and spices, while Ike drank and leafed through Culture Jam. Fred had been thrilled when he first noticed Ike browsing in his library, hoping to have someone new to discuss ideas with, but Ike didn’t seem keen to debate what he read. Perhaps the books were mere distractions from thoughts about his job; Fred could certainly empathize with that. And so, once again, attempting to connect, Fred found himself griping uselessly about work. He knew that, personally, it was the least of what was eating him, but it was the thing he allowed himself to speak about.
“Why don’t you look for something else?” Ike said, thumbing through the illustrations, pausing just long enough to take in the captions.
“I could. I have.” Fred paused, looking for the chili powder, which Ike retrieved from a nearby shelf and tossed to him.
“None offer the variety of experience, or the steady work, or—” Fred paused with a self-deprecating frown as he stirred a copious amount of garlic into the mix. “Honestly, none pay as well as Numb4 does. When you see the dirty games some of these Fortune 500 companies play with their earnings to keep it in a select few hands, it would make you weep.”
“With envy.” Ike’s brooding deepened. He pushed the book aside. Between the flurries beading up in the window screen and the steam from the cooking on the inner glass, he found himself staring into a hazy mirror that refused to come into focus.
“Really? You covet that level of money, long for the hard-scrabble of Mammon?”
“You don’t?” Ike asked incredulously, reaching for the comfort of his elixir. Why was it when he was this miserable all he thought about was women? Not even Francie, really, not anymore, though he’d been dreaming about her pretty often lately. He’d tried flirting with the girls at work, but they laughed it off and they were right; they worked together and it was better being pals and drinking buddies. But when Amanda Franklin was the last woman he’d had any meaningful conversation with in months he was outstripping even his own definition of pathetic. Not that he got out much these days; not that it was conversation he was missing exactly…
“It’s not what I want,” Fred was saying over the hiss and pop of the frying pan. The food smelled achingly delicious. “You cannot change a system you long to be a part of.”
“Vive le révolution,” Ike intoned, managing the accent, if not the enthusiasm.
“It is in my nature. I want to be happy.”
“Money can make you happy.”
“Fleetingly, perhaps,” said Fred, as he clicked off the burner and began shoveling the food into a casserole dish. “But I cannot endorse the idea that the pursuit of money beyond necessaries will bring happiness. Frankly, I am a little surprised that you do. I always imagined your dedication to the architectural profession to be one of devotion to a creative craft which brings use and beauty into the lives of everyone.”
“Wow,” Ike said involuntarily, following Fred into the dining room. It was like a catechism, his catechism. “Yeah, well, all that sounds good, but if I wasn’t making a decent living out of it, I wouldn’t do it. I like my toys too much.”
“Which toys? The flat screen TV you don’t have and would rarely have time to watch? The truck you seem to be doing fine without?”
All of that was true; Ike hadn’t even thought about it. Maybe he’d been in the Casa too long—he was turning into Fred. But money or no money, Fred still seemed troubled, even after the exorcism. Guess there wasn’t really any magic in the magic.
But it wasn’t FKRS or Numb4 that had Fred in a knot and he, at least, knew it.
For a week he had ignored her; didn’t call, didn’t email, though there was silence as well from her side. Finally, he’d called her cell phone on Friday afternoon and left a message; Constantia did not return the call. On Monday he called her apartment, and spoke to Paulette, who promised to convey his desire to speak with her roommate. There was still silence. On Tuesday, at lunch, Fred went to Weldin’s and bought a blank greeting card, penned a brief missive and mailed the card to her. The art on the front was of the animals of Noah’s ark, a peaceable kingdom curled up two by two.
The phone rang Thursday night around 11:00.
“Fred?” the smooth little voice asked.
“Oh!” he gasped. “I’m glad you called. You got the card, then?”
“Yes. That was really sweet. And I’d like to, I’d like to go to the zoo. I’ve already arranged for someone to cover my shift Saturday. So, we can talk—then—it’ll be better to talk when I can see you.”
“Can you smoke at the zoo?”
“I highly doubt it! It doesn’t matter. Don’t give it a thought.” She was clearly glad though that he did give it a thought.
“Very well , then. Shall I pick you up or meet you?”
“You have a car?”
“Yes, I have, I just don’t use it much.”
“Pick me up. Around 10:00, OK?” Her voice sounded teary.
“Yes, I will bring the car for you. Constantia—“ He paused, really unsure about this minefield of communication. “Are you crying?”
“Yes. I’m so glad you don’t hate me.”
“I don’t hate you. I will never hate you. I will see you Saturday morning. It’s supposed to snow, so be prepared.”
“I will be. I missed you.”
“I missed you, too.” That was a surprise. He hadn’t known he was going to say that and the mystification sounded in his voice.
Constantia coughed out a laugh. “OK, nutter, I gotta get back to work. See you.”
“Good night, Constantia.”
It took him a while to replace the receiver, lost as he was in thought-free contemplation. Something was beating in his chest—his heart inevitably—though he didn’t usually notice it as he noticed it now. It felt particularly creepy, and he wanted a distraction, but was afraid to move. Not that he was in pain; rather, he was in a state for which he had no label. It did hurt a little, actually, in a shivery, effervescent way like drinking a cold glass of Perrier straight down. Minutes passed before he realized how shallow his breathing was, so he leaned back into his pillows, and stared into the darkness. He looked at that darkness all alone for a long time, and sometime, gently, fell asleep.
In case you want to catch up on what you’ve missed, the first twenty chapters are here.