|Wall of Poppies|
Thursday, May 7, 2015
In the Architect’s defense, and aside from his officer manager's guilt-inducing sighs, he did have a curiosity to see the old place before it was razed. Yes, it was just a typical, tattered, and threadbare Deep Rapids bungalow home, yet it was the last bungalow on the block, and, well... It was kind of a shame that the restoration push led by that mixed residential community –and with full funding and moral support from his very own office manager– had completely fallen through at the last minute. Already, the aluminum siding business at the end of Indiana Avenue and the six houses along it were demolished and taken away. His office manager's rush to get him there, perhaps to save the day and rescue the last remaining bungalow, smacked dreadfully of sad desperation.
"Let's get there before it's all too late." Mrs. Strauss said under her breath, pushing her teal-colored fingernail into the key chain a half dozen times to start the car.
"What do you imagine I can do, Gail?"
But she ignored his question, just like the first time he had asked her earlier in the day. Understandable. She went to every community meeting, even brought in snacks from Dancing Doughnuts and flavored coffee from Cravens. He was impressed by her new activism. She usually stuck to managing the company affairs and tending her home.
“And what about my meetings with–“
“Brad bailed on the Homeplex meeting,” she peeled out of the drive, “and I told that witch accountant of yours to reschedule.”
“Clara won’t be happy with that.”
“Well....” Mrs. Strauss looked in the rearview mirror and straightened out a couple of her gray curls with her long, teal fingernails. “Clara the Witch has no say in the matter. And before you ask, I responded to all your emails from Billy and Mr. Douglas from Hobart, and I returned a friendly call to that little jerk on the Eastside who claimed we installed the wrong grade windows.” She glanced over at him. “He admitted his confusion and won’t be calling old Gail anymore.”
He looked over to window, to hide his grin. She knew more about the day to day operations than he did. Unfortunate that the whole association with City in the last few months… Well, it changed all the good dynamics of his and Mrs. Strauss’s relationship. Not to mention, City was wearing him down. All those meetings. The long, boring, colorless PowerPoints. The miscommunication. The contractor bids and rebids. The traffic and the back and forth runs to suburbs and downtown. The bizarre interest of the media and their vans and their mysterious appearances and disappearances. The unseasonably deep winter freeze. The headaches. The headaches…
He had wished, more than once, that he never signed a deal with the mayor and the board. Even the usually collective and formal Mrs. Strauss was cussing under her breath and heading toward imminent, if motherly, reprimand. Coming out of retirement for this? She’d say. Never in all her life! She'd shake her head at the media circus. And then yesterday, when she realized the last house was to be razed instead of safely tucked inside the proposed retail zone, she let it all out.
"Those goddamn snobs! Can't see a family-run boutique or a poor man's cafe so close to their pools? Half the businesses in this village are run from repurposed homes. They didn’t even consider our side!"
Agreed. But what could he do? The mayor and his new beautification committee often operated on their own assessments, often without his knowledge, often revealing plans to the media before verifying through him. Often. Maybe they paid off the zoning people? Politics, you know?
What can I do now? I didn't see this one coming, Gail.
Everything was signed, stamped, wired to the media, and then set to be celebrated at a fancy ball. He thought to ask her, once more, what he could do, but no. He knew that she knew that they had no way to stop this. Better to just keep quiet and wait for the inevitable in their rush to Deep Rapids.
Thank goodness, he thought as Mrs. Strauss roughly parked behind a dumpster; no media vans this time. But the demolition crew were all over the place. He felt a streak of pain up the side of his head and begin pulsing under his left temple as he warily stepped out of the car.
"Are you coming?" He bent his head back in.
A clumpy frost of breath rolled into the car. "Gail. I don't know what you think I can do. Look. They are seconds away from bulldozing the place. It's a done deal, I'm afraid, and I couldn't stop it even if–"
"I don't know what you're talking about. Just... get in there and see what's going on and… make sure it isn’t yet another miscommunication."
He closed the door harder than he meant, but sometimes he felt he worked for her instead of the other way around. He carefully stepped over the deep tracks of frozen mud of what used to be a lawn, waved at workers who he couldn’t remember their names. The contractors had to be more than annoyed when he walked in on their clamoring about their work zone among the obnoxious roar of engines and the sometimes panicked expressions and spontaneous blowups among the construction crew (destruction crew is what Mrs. Strauss called them as they parked). But they must have thought he was nuts when he asked them to take a break so he could conduct a “personal walk-through of the premise”.
Pressured to capitalize on a late market –an incredible growth on the south side of Deep Rapids for not only commercial development, but actual mansion-development– the architect and his new firm invested heavily in the properties set for demolition late autumn, just three weeks before Christmas. He needed the land; it was worth gold. He needed six properties to build his new mansions. Well…six properties to build his three new mansions. City practically begged him to invest in their plan – much of it already drawn up. He remembered thinking it was a reasonable, if unusual, way to revitalize what was described to him as ‘a crib’; though crib or not, he knew nothing about the area. Even Mrs. Strauss was supportive –until she saw City’s prerequisites and the inevitable ‘Who in Indiana needs a pool that large?’ gasps and the ‘Two kitchens. Two? Why, there’s two of everything. Everything!’ shrieks.
Boom town. This place was a major boom. The Millennials – no, not them, but that one sliver of generation between the X and the Y who had money, who were digital, who wanted the feel of community, and who had 21st Century prerequisites to what ‘community’ meant. They wanted to live inside the city, yet not in the city. The south side of Deep Rapids – “SoDeRap” as they referred to it (pronounced, as the architect was corrected, so-dee-rap); the new village imagined on huge, colorful posters met their vision and conditions. SoDeRap had its planned trail park and its glossy fresh markets; its robust garden shops, and, of course, its vicinity to the Deep Rapids brew pubs and nightlife, yet its quiet distance from it all. Daring investment, because the crime rate increased dramatically just a block further south. City took notice, and they gave overwhelming support to clear those areas next for new investors north in SoDeRap….
Not that he had to do it – the walk-through that is. The old 1930s bungalows along Indiana Avenue were officially condemned by City thanks to friendly nods, winks, “and paid votes of sorts by that damn ‘Boot committee’” as Mrs. Strauss concluded. Indeed, the Beautification committee was quite helpful in making way for the architect…generous, even. So, when the architect informed them, with Mrs. Strauss's urging, that he would like to see what was inside the last SoDeRap bungalow on the block before it became a pile of splinters, the calls and texts coming from the Committee’s office were expressive in their confusion. Apropos to Mrs. Strauss’s transferring the calls to voicemail since nine that morning – a fact she shared in the car joy ride to save America’s last bungalow.
With his hands in his thick and warm overcoat and his breath like puffs of white molasses in the hardening chill, the architect got the eerie sense that he was walking through a crypt as his steps echoed solidly inside the barren house. He went from the family through an arched entryway that took him to the small dining room. Beyond another arch was the tiny galley kitchen. He turned around with really nowhere else to go, and took in what looked like an old greasy spoon diner. He imagined what the space may have looked like when things, and people, were actually in it. He really had a difficult time doing so; these homes were terribly small and tight. The kitchen was smaller than most apartments of today, which made him shake his head in pity.
He heard two contractors talking just beyond the bare kitchen window. He noticed the outlet near it was gone. Yes, of course. All the wire had been removed. All the metals…all the old arteries – gone. He opened a closet near the back door. Ah, yes. These old houses looked as worn as a country road, like the Depression came and never left. Grease-stained garages…warped kitchen drawers…musky mop closets…stained wallpaper…on and on, weariness and just-making-it-by evidenced by the bent and the chipped and the splintered and the sun-bleached.
“Hey, there. You coming out fella?”
“Uh-yeah. Give me a few.”
Why? Why a few minutes? Why did he need to see this house? Might have had some historical value...or some sort of value that drew him in. Sure. Maybe, he failed his job by not examining the site more closely, and this was... Yeah – that’s why, he told himself. Architects are supposed to appreciate all styles of homes, right? And, of course, Mrs. Strauss’s urging…and arm bending brought him here. But to do what?
He returned to the dining room. The arched entryway was not especially unique, yet it was charming, except for the rusted tack still stuck in the trim; two pieces of gold tinsel pinned behind it for who knows how long. He trailed his fingers along the inside of the arch. The grainy plaster gave him an uncomfortable chill. They felt so dry, so cold, and so…ancient.
He took notice of the art deco glass panels planking the sides of the front window. Lovely. Quite lovely. Formality was still present in these barren rooms. The wide bay windows that extended further out than any modern house, though warped and brittle from years of greenhouse radiation, still held a majestic view – if only over a few feet of lawn. He stepped into the middle of the room, scoped the red-tiled fireplace and its gingerbread mantle…made of solid oak, he deduced. Still in great shape, if scorched in places…if painted over in an attempt to modernize or hide away the memories from another era. The thick Greek column trim made to look like they supported the mantle made him grin. A typical façade. A forgivable attempt to bring some class into this little workman’s home. Were the other bungalows since razed like this?
Perhaps he shouldn’t have assumed the Beautification Committee performed a thorough assessment on the homes’ value after all. Did Zoning get accurate information? Were the restoration folk lied to? Did it matter either way? No. No, of course not. He reasoned these bungalows were built for function. These small homes; they have become functionless in today’s society. No blame. No guilt. Besides, what he was to build in its place was in response to demand, just as these homes were at one time. Functional homes. Architects must meet function above all else.
The worn, yet sturdy wooden floors had their own stories. Where dark rings and deep scratches lay, he could tell where the potted plants were placed and where the furniture was moved with some struggle…and where heavy objects were dropped as evidenced by the gouges. Still, the floor's condition was fair overall...and possibly could be rescued.
He startled. “The Pincher” suddenly powered up just outside the front window. He imagined being crushed along with the house, wondered if they remembered that he was inside. He opened the front door, stuck his head out and waited for the operator to look at him. He nodded at the guy and closed the door as the exhaust fumes poured in. As he turned, something caught his attention behind the stairs to the second floor.
He took notice of the flowered wallpaper with a light blue background; almost teal, with red poppies – or some kind. Could that possibly be original? He dated it around 1950s, but couldn’t be for sure. Someone had taken great care in keeping this house up. Up close, he realized the wallpaper used to be a darker blue as evidenced by the shadowy rectangles where pictures once hung. He took a few steps up, noticing the stairs did not squeak as much as he expected. He went up to the landing and looked down the dark hall, unsure if he had the time to go all the way down to investigate the bathroom and two bedrooms.
Besides, he already knew what he would find. These homes were all the same. The bedrooms would be tiny, and they would lack closets…only enough space to support a full-sized bed and a wardrobe.
Lacked closets. I mean... really?
And the bathrooms would be no larger than an actual closet. Incredible, he thought, that people – families – could be supported in such tight spaces. He shook his head. A shame, really. What about privacy? What about…noise? How did children grow up here?
Cracker-box homes like these.
“Jake! There’s a Boot Com rep here and wanting to know what the hell you are doing in there.”
"Just give me a second, Larry! Almost done.”
He barely distinguished from the shades of the dark hallway a small-framed print or painting still hung on the wall off-kilt and opposite the bathroom. It looked creepy to still be hanging. Ghostly. He took a couple of steps closer; didn’t want to go down the spooky hallway any further. He squinted to get a clearer look at the picture... braved another step closer... and closer.
“Mr. Schultz? Jefferson Ledbetter here. May I have a word with you? Outside, that is?”
Ah. A standard print of flowers…more poppies, in a garden, and the actual colors muted to a bore. He took a half-step further down; he could see just inside the bathroom and its pink tiling; the toilet removed for resale.
“Goddammit Jake! We’re swinging in a sec!”
He jumped back and knocked against the print. Something slid from behind it, pinned between his coat and the wall. He let it drop to the floor and then bent down to get a closer look at it. A photo. An old, black and white photo with its sides in a scissor-like cutout.
He picked it up. It was slightly curled, but still pliable. There was a young girl in it. She was sitting on a lawn. A dog, a Shih Tzu and clutched in her hands, peeked out from her crossed legs. He could make out a paved road behind her and an old Mercury, or some sort of 50s-like car, parked next to a Chevy –
"Jake! You need to get the hell out of there now -- that Boot rep is looking ugly. Oh. Sorry, man. No offense."
“Door, please? Thank you. Uh, Mr. Schultz? We, -uh; oh, there you are. Please can you come out and enlighten us on your need for this unscheduled walk-through?”
He had a strong desire to save it from destruction, but he couldn’t explain why. It was weird to do that. Yeah. Too weird. What would he do with it anyway?
"Not a walk-through. Just making sure we haven't left... anything behind."
He had to go. There was nothing he could do. Gail would just have to deal with it. Maybe she could make a better argument to save some homes in the next block south, before their demolition begins in spring.
He greeted Mr. Ledbetter, but said nothing more. He glanced back when an argument ensued between a couple of contractors about an air compressor and hose still left in the basement. He could tell Mrs. Strauss was watching him, her hands clutched on the steering wheel.
“Sorry Gail.” He closed the door, gently. “I really am.”
Mrs. Strauss put her safety belt on, glanced at her dashboard. “You need to close your door again.”
He did as he was told. She then backed the car up, said nothing more. They drove past the dumpster, and then past the Mr. Ledbetter’s black Cadillac, and then past the newly bare lots of frozen mud and brown clumps of grass.
“I’ll do a better job next time.” He studied her featureless profile. “Before signing off on anything…,” He reached over and squeezed her shoulder, “…anything with City.”
She stopped at the light at the end of Indiana Avenue, looked down at her chest and reworked the brown collar flap of her coat. He looked out his window. He knew he failed her. He knew, too, that he failed himself. This whole Boot thing, he thought, was a terrible mistake. Maybe he should just –
Mrs. Strauss whispered and then pulled onto the road when the light turned green. "She always loved her poppies."