“So long as anything stands in the way of the employment of oneself, freedom will not exist.” –Eugene Varlin (1866)
As Ike sat down at his desk to eat a cold slice of all-meat pizza with his first cup of coffee early Saturday morning, the sounds of Gordon already clicking away on the site plans on the other side of the cubicle wall, Ike’s head still buzzing with confused dreams that involved an invasion of aliens, mud, pizza and his favorite voice telling him cheerfully to fuck off, he found an unexpected message from Paulette herself. They hadn’t talked much last night—Paulette said Constantia was having a rough time at work, so she was taking her out for drinks. Just the girls. He understood that, and besides, he was still flying so high from their afternoon adventure that he was prepared to be content. He left Fred a note to check on his girlfriend, in case he hadn’t been told yet about her current situation—whatever it was—or had forgotten it in all the madness of his Visitation. But this was definitely not the kind of message he expected.
Remember my friend who wants to build a house?
I told him about you. Can you meet with him today?
She had sent it around three AM. He texted back immediately.
You want me to give him advice?
Mid-morning, his eyes blurring as he re-tagged yet another door call-out, Ike heard his phone vibrate the desk.
Just talk to him.
His imagination was racing, and had been since he’d read the phrase build a house. Could he convince this friend to let him design the house? Was this what Paulette had in mind? Whether it was or not, that was what he planned to try for. His eyes fell again and again on the spiral bound booklet propped beside his monitor, moved to his desk at work as a way to keep his spirit on track when he’d fought his own bout of alienation. Ike decided to put in four and half hours—Gordon couldn’t complain about that—then rushed to meet Paulette. At my place. He blinked, but assumed they were heading to the client’s house together from there, except there weren’t any trailers in Bloomfield.
Paulette stood huddled in the vestibule when he arrived, the collar of her leather coat pulled up around her chin. She let him kiss her, then pulled away.
“We’re meeting Lance—remember him?—at Dean’s Tap Room. Like, now already. What took you so long?”
He had to grin at the location she chose for a business meeting, though he wasn’t sure he knew anyone named Lance. “I had to clean up—I rolled out of bed and went pretty much straight in this morning,” he said, shrugging lightly. “Didn’t figure it mattered if I looked like hell.”
“I bet I’ve seen you worse,” she said with obvious amusement. “But please—ditch the tie.”
She was. So he did.
Lance sat at the bar, choking down a laugh when he saw them coming. They probably did make a curious picture: Paulette in that snug leather coat and him in a gray wool topcoat and Italian loafers. Because he’d seen this guy before.
Ike shook hands. Along with the ponytail and earrings, Lance had strong, gnarled hands with a firm grip. And he’d been a decent pool player, who’d also lost to Pauli, Ike recalled and saw that this guy did, too.
They took a booth, ordered food and drinks.
“You’ve got a lot of options,” Ike explained, when he’d heard about the tract of land in Butler County. “If you have house plans you like, you may not need an architect—what I do—you need a builder.”
“No plans,” Lance said. “Just land and a honey-do list bigger than King Kong’s …You know how it is. No time like the present, I say to my old lady.”
“Daisy,” Paulette said to Ike.
“There’s some cash put by, not like we’ve hit the Lotto or anything—“
Ike nodded sympathetically. “I suppose Pauli told you, I’ve worked on ideas for affordable small houses, if that’s what you’ve got in mind.”
Paulette rolled her eyes, but Lance frowned approvingly. “I like the affordable part.”
“A house is still a house, and it’s never cheap. Running utilities to a lot can be a big expense to start. Any chance there’s electric, gas or a well on your land?”
“Sure is. We live there now in a trailer.”
“That’s excellent. Look at this then…”
Lance flipped through the design book, enjoying the photos and collages more than the sleek computer renderings or even the watercolor sketches that Francie had done. Finally, he went back to one, poked the page with a finger. “I like that, except with a wrap-around porch and a car port maybe.”
Ike turned the page sideways between them and fished into his bag for tracing paper and a pencil. Unrolling a stretch of trace over the illustration and plan, Ike began to sketch, adding on the features Lance had asked for, changing the elevation with a few sweeps as he suggested how the roof line might be adjusted. As he drew and described, Lance glanced at Paulette.
“You’re right, baby doll. The kid’s OK.”
She gave him an I told you look that Ike didn’t notice.
“I’m thinking, with the land paid for and utilities at least close to the final building site, you’ll be looking at materials and labor under 50K.” He was proud of a house that cheap.
Lance lifted his eyes. “If I do some of the labor, how much we saving?”
“You have building experience?”
Ike was used to this sort of challenge; he knew he didn’t look like he did construction. “Eleven years. All residential, tract houses in Moon and South Hills for my dad’s construction company.”
“I’ve helped out some guys with stuff. On the side. I know some.”
“You can’t build it alone, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Nope. I’m thinking you and me building it.”
Ike startled. Hoping no one noticed, he reached for Paulette’s beer, not daring to look at her. Under the table, her knee was pressed hard against his.
“We could do a lot of it…” Ike sat still for a moment, his eyes closed. “Don’t hold me to the numbers yet, though I can work them out—you saw it itemized in the back of the booklet—I think under 30K.”
“With your fee?”
“My fee’s in there, but labor’s something else again…We’ll work it out.”
“You keep it under 30, and we have a deal.”
“You’re serious? You’re going to hire me to design and build a house?”
“Shouldn’t I?” Lance reached into the chest pocket of his Harley-Davidson jacket, pulled out a money clip and peeled off a couple hundred dollar bills. “How’s this to start you?”
Ike’s mouth dropped open.
“I ain’t one of your fancy, uptown clients, kid. No shell games here. My money’s the real thing.”
Ike looked at the cash and grinned. “You’ve got a deal,” he said before he knew what he was doing.
The men shook hands and Paulette proposed a toast. Probably he should have thought it out more, look before you leap and all that, but damn it, he didn’t care. Ike grabbed on with both hands; he had no idea what was going to happen or how it was going to work out, but no way was he letting this chance get away. Besides, he was feeling lucky.
When they emerged again onto the street, Lance jogged over to his pickup and Ike took Paulette’s hand, squeezing her fingers until she looked at him. He reeled her in for a kiss—a frantic, over-excited kiss, a request for comfort, their joined hands wrapped behind her in an embrace.
When he pulled away, she shook herself, breathing like a swimmer emerging from the water. “Slow down, baby,” she said. “We’ve got all day.”
“My life’s about to get really insane…” he said, watching her, trying not to look troubled. Because really, it was insane already.
“Doing this with Lance?” The words came forward mechanically.
“And my job at FKRS. But I’ll make it work—just you hang in there with me.”
Paulette nodded with undue concentration. He had to admit, it sounded like the promises he’d made to Francie ages before, and he’d thought then that it was all working, but maybe their failure had all been his. He glanced fearfully at Paulette. Now that he knew he was capable of such destructiveness, he was afraid for her.
“I want to hang out and watch movies and… stuff,” she said. “With you. Just goof off.”
He looked at her. “Can we?”
It was 3:30. Paulette shut her phone.
“Con will be at work by the time we get there—“
“You want to?”
She did. He felt her trembling in his arms and hoped he understood it, took in the mysterious shadow that fell into her eyes, a look that cast a night-like intimacy over her every movement, and hoped it was for him, her thoughts of them.
They rented movies—Ike heading straight for Comedy while she chose from the Indy selection—bought food and wine, which Ike insisted on so enthusiastically that, though she was not a fan, she agreed to—and headed back to her place. Ike knocked playfully into her shoulder as they entered the building, in honor of the circumstances of his last visit, or what he’d heard of it, as it really was a black page in his mind.
“Not funny, dimwit,” she smirked at him, slamming him back hard enough to bounce him against the wall.
“Let’s go look at this Magic Palace of yours,” he said. Following Paulette into the apartment, Ike draped his coat over a chair and headed down the hall.
“On the left,” she called after him.
He entered a cave-like room, blinds drawn to blank out the bleary December glare. She flicked the switch behind him, and Christmas lights came on.
“Wow.” Kicking out of his loafers, he flung himself onto the bed, wincing as he hit the mattress.
“Ah, Red Blanket,” he said, patting the crumpled covers. “My old friend.”
She watched him from the door and then went into the kitchen. When she came back with glasses, forks, the corkscrew and the food, she found the opening credits of Army of Darkness already playing. The room was soon suffused with the conflicting aromas of spring rolls, pu-pu platter, spicy lamb, and a seafood noodle thing she liked.
Perching on the edge of the bed, Paulette laid out the picnic. “This is my thing, you know, the movies and the food—“
“With Constantia?” She nodded. “Thanks for letting me in.”
“You’d better behave or you’ll never be back.”
He tried for an innocent look to counter her gravely serious one, suppressing a grin at the nonsense heroics in the movie. “Care to define what constitutes bad behavior?”
Paulette picked up a scallop and slid it between his lips. As he let it melt in his mouth, he watched her absentmindedly suck her fingers clean. “So far so good,” she said.
He reached out to stroke her hip, the sexiest part of her body within reach, but she squirmed away from his hand. “Can’t we maybe just—hang out?”
Ike looked up at her curiously. “Probably just as well, I can’t do much more,” he said, tapping his side.
“I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“I know that.”
Full, buzzed and happy, he stretched himself beside her as she continued to pick at the takeout box, nudging himself closer until he had obtained as much contact with her body as their varying postures allowed. She tucked her toes absently under his leg. Ignoring the movie now, the lines of which he muttered gleefully under his breath along with the actors, his fingers lightly caressed her skin, trying for a reaction, which for some time she suppressed until at last, against her will, a small sigh of pleasure escaped. His lips took up what his fingers had been doing, and with a glance at her face, his cheek against her skin, he traced the entwined colored forms on the inner side of her wrist.
Ditching the noodles to the nightstand, she slid down beside him, her legs twined around his, his lips now pressing against her throat.
“Just your mouth and your hands,” he said against her skin. His nose was tracing her jaw line, his hands rising over her hip bone to her waist. “We won’t do anything else. Show me.”
She found she could. Her fingers traced down, a caress, a squeeze, down, the flick of a single nail, an unexpected shudder, and with each thing she let him do, something fell away, making everything easier. She felt safe. Her hands, too, moved with a new language, softer and then softer as he voiced pain and pleasure, her mouth making out a Braille over his temple and into his hair, spelling the words her voice did not know how to say. As the afternoon slipped away, the colored Christmas lights began to pulse above their heads.
Ike was at the dining room table that evening in a confusion of pencils, paper, scales and triangles; file folders, books, sketches and loads of curled trace lay in a debris about his laptop, which showed a detailed CAD plan. Fred had never seen Ike so intent on his work before.
“What is all of this?”
Ike startled. “Oh… Hi, Fred. Just working. How’s Constantia?”
His head dropped back toward the pencil lines he was making before he’d finished speaking.
“She’ll be fine. Somehow she feels personally responsible for saving everyone. I wish there was something I could do to make it easier…” He paused, surveying the mess. “Is this for FKRS?”
Ike’s head came back up, reluctantly laying his pencil down.
“No, this is for me. It’s a house, a model of a house I’ve been working on since Fourth Year.” He scrabbled through the clutter to pull the spiral-bound portfolio forward.
Fred flipped through the exquisite watercolor renderings of a compact house, clean and modern, with detailing that evoked the historic. There were plans, text… “It looks like a sales brochure; pick your style and it’s ready to build.”
“I may get to.”
Fred sat down, the book still in his hands. This was news.
“I met with a guy today who’s thinking of building a house. Oh, hell. We’re going to do it. He and I, as much as we can; I’m sure I can get some guys when I need them. The first thing is to get the permit process started, but before I do that, there’s one more thing I need to figure out.”
Fred’s voice was a whisper of awe. “You’re going to build a house?”
“One of my houses, Fred. Fuck DC. I know I can do it.”
“Only, I can’t get the numbers to work…”
Fred reached for the calculator. “Let me.”
Ike relaxed. Good old Fred. Communitas Felix indeed.
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