The three women were running late for their meeting, but the oldest one made the tallest one stop the car on Sylvester Street. The shortest, youngest one sat in the back with her seatbelt on. The Wash-N-Slosh was next to great, green eyeball painted on Madame Cazee’s storefront window; they were across a lane and a sidewalk on the driver’s side, and hard off the passenger’s side were the remains of the Wayside Inn. Remains aren’t ruins: ruins give some clue as to their former identity, but remains are just a pile of shit. The Colosseum? Even with half the floor missing and stripped for parts, you could tell something happened there. But the Wayside was just jagged pieces of charred timber lumped on top of one another; the fire and its fighting had destabilized the building, the engineers said once everything cooled off enough to check, and so the insurance company sent a wrecker to knock down the teetering frame and the bricks that still clung to it.
Lower Montana took one of the bricks and tossed it into Manfred Pierce’s grave when it was her turn to do the bit with the shovel. She tried to loft it in gently, but bricks are terrible at “gently,” and so it banged onto the casket and CHANK shattered into crumbly red pieces; Lower buried her face in Flower Child’s dress-blue armpit. Little Aleppo’s entire Fire Department was there. Nothing looks sharper than uniforms at a funeral. Manfred would have worn his, but there wasn’t enough of him left to dress. The undertaker laid out the shoes, polished to a shine like a showroom Porsche, and the bellbottom pants with the buttons up the sides of the waist, the blouse with its sweeping, three-striped cowl, and the neckerchief. The hat, too, even though he despised the hat.
He was not buried with his medals. They were burned with him. Manfred kept them in a silhouette box behind the bar at the Wayside, behind the top shelf booze, next to a picture of a tall, skinny woman who was happy and with her friends. Good conduct, two for marksmanship. Combat ribbon, too. When the cops used to bust the place, before the riots and protests and lawsuits, back in the bad old days, he would brandish the medals at the officers.
“Just so you know who you’re arresting,” he’d say, and sometimes the cops would hit him with their sticks, gentle as a brick hitting a casket.
The raids stopped, but the assholes didn’t. Uptight marms and martinets would barge in to interrupt everyone’s fun. (Ironically, they would instantly become the new source of everyone’s fun.) They’d yell about this and that. Deviance! (The crowd would nod and agree; the Wayside was chock-a-block full of deviance.) Sodomy! (That, too.) There was, the scolds would assert, errant faggotry afoot! (This always got a healthy cheer.) Pestilents! Child-tempters! Villains, the lot of you, they’d cry, and the crowd at the Wayside would raise their drinks and egg the assholes on.
Until the magic word.
“I’ll tell you what all of this…this…this heathenry is! I’ll tell you! It’s downright un-American, that’s what!”
And then there would be silence. Behind the bar, Manfred Pierce would retrieve the silhouette box of medals from behind the expensive booze.
The deejay would generally have slipped on John Phillips Sousa by this point.
The scold would have generally realized he was surrounded by this point. Manfred had a whole speech, and it was a good one. It was tough to argue with Communist shelling. What could possibly be more American than being shot at by Commies?
And then the scold would leave, unharmed, to go and bother sinners no more.
They stopped popping in after a while, but Manfred left the medals up and now they were gone just like he was.
“You remember the Human Fountain?”
“That man was a performer,” Lower said.
Steppy Alouette rolled down the passenger’s side window of the red-and-white Mustang SSP with the cherry bar on top and the Fire Department’s badge on the doors. The glass was thick with rain, and Steppy didn’t see too well anymore, anyway, so she rolled down the window to squeegee the drops off and cranked it back up.
“The guy that pissed?” Flower asked, checking the time on her watch and the car’s digital clock.
“‘The guy that pissed.’ Heh. Like calling Tommy Amici ‘the guy that sang,'” Steppy said.
“He pissed on things! It was disgusting.”
“He was incredible, Flowy,” Lower said. (She called Flower “Flowy.” It rhymes with “Maui,” not “Joey.”)
“The pissing? The public pissing? That was incredible?”
“You remember the bowling pins, Lower.”
Lower Montana released her seatbelt and scooched up on the backseat so her head was parallel with the other two women’s.
“–he would pass around the bowling pins so everybody knew they were real. And he would be 25 feet away from them. I’m not exaggerating.”
“She’s not,” Steppy added.
“He’d knock ’em all down.”
“Not every time. I saw him make the 7-10 split one time. It was poetry.”
“Yeah, no. Disgusting,” Flower said.
“He would throw playing cards and then shoot them out of the air,” Lower said. “You have to at least admire his aim.”
“I don’t at all.”
Steppy patted at Lower Montana’s forearm.
“Do you remember dick-tack-toe?”
“No,” Lower answered.
“I think he did this routine before you started coming around. He had a tic-tac-toe board made of paper and he would hang it over by the pool table. He’d stand by the bathroom door. What was that, 30 feet?”
“And he would pick someone to play against, whoever he thought was cute. They would be X’s. So, his cute date would walk over to the board and write a big X with a marker. Then, the Human Fountain would THWAP take out a square with a piss-bullet. Always played to a draw.”
“Living theater,” Lower said.
“He was a real estate agent during the day.”
“Commercial stuff, yeah.”
Flower laid her hand against the horn NYAAAAAAAAH. Lower and Steppy turned back towards her.
“We’re gonna be late.”
They were late. Cohen & Pine was on the Upside, way on the Upside. The poor rented, and the rich bought, but the wealthy? The wealthy built, and Cohen & Pine designed for them. There was the art house called Slapping Tushees on Mt. Chastity that was made of glass and uncomfortable couches. The boutique motel in Jeremiad Springs, The Boogaloo, whose rooms were modular and shifted about from night to night depending on the whims of the innkeeper. They had spearheaded and birthed the Hoppington-Grace Housing Projects on the Downside in the 70’s, which was a bold experiment in city planning and urban policy that was made entirely out of concrete and right angles, and everyone hated so much that it was torn down halfway through construction.
Hawkins Cohen was identifiable as a marathon runner from two blocks away. The bones in his face jockeyed for prominence and cords ran up and down his stork neck. You could just tell he got up at four in the morning and had a favorite oatmeal. Hawkins’ watch was the opposite of a Rolex: sleek, and hugging low on his wrist, almost unnoticeable. He wearing a black suit that was slim-cut and single-breasted. Open collar on a white shirt. Rectangular eyeglasses. Balding hair cropped very close as if to say it did not matter: lesser men think about their hair; architects think about the future.
They had said hello, Steppy and Hawkins had, and introduced themselves, Flower and Lower and Hawkins had, and coffee was offered by Hawkins’ assistant, who looked like a baby version of Hawkins, which was politely refused by all. Steppy and Hawkins discussed common acquaintances on the way into his office.
“The Comtesse died.”
“Du Brionne,” Hawkins said.
“I thought she was in Paris,” Steppy said.
“She’s in Paris and dead.”
“Better than being alive in Philadelphia.”
The corner office looked out onto the Verdance and the Segovian Hills simultaneously: both the east and south walls were entirely glass, and when it was not raining they were full of green. The hills and the park, they erupted with life and depended on photosynthesis: green, man.
Except for every 18 days, when it rained and the view was mushy and gray.
“Ladies, what we’ve done–and I’m being candid–is, I believe, to translate intention into situation. We at Cohen & Pine don’t see ourselves as architects so much as artists, or maybe benevolent gods. We have heard you. We have listened. And from your prayers, we have delivered.”
Hawkins was in an award-winning chair; the women were on a paradigm-shifting couch. There was a table in between them, and it was the best fucking table you’ve ever seen. Real humdinger of a table.
“Are any of you familiar with the work of Chico Delacruz? He’s doing incredible things with biomimicry. His last piece was a gas station that looks like a bush. Incredible.”
“It’s a bar, Hawkins,” Steppy said.
Flower Childs did not like clever people, and she was getting the feeling that Hawkins Cohen was a clever little bastard. She tried to surround herself with smart people, or at least competent ones, but clever fuckers were a pain in the ass. Every conversation with them felt like a competition; it was why she avoided Lower’s faculty bullshit with all her asshole professor buddies over at Harper College. Funny people were fine, but the witty were not to be trusted, she thought.
“I’d like to see what you’ve come up with,” Lower said.
Lower Montana was a clever person. She was excellent at going to school, so much so that now she got paid for it. Lower was an Assistant Professor of History at Harper. Local history. She called it “herestory,” but not out loud. The 101 class, the review class that all Freshman were required to take, was based on her textbook A People’s History of Little Aleppo, and she led the advanced sessions on the economics of the Main Drag and graduate seminars on the Menefreghista’s role in race relations.
Hawkins smiled, but just with his lips, and slid a drawing towards the women.
“We call this Bundled Fruition.”
It looked like a wadded-up piece of paper fetched from a wastepaper basket. Or a crumpled handkerchief.
“The asymmetry of the walls represents the struggle for gay rights,” he said.
“It’s bold,” Lower said.
“What’s it made of?” Steppy asked.
“Phosphorous ignites in contact with oxygen,” Flower stated.
“I know,” Hawkins said, excited. “The opening shall be a delight!”
“I thought it was a fascinating experiment in materials, Hawkins,” Lower said.
“Thank you. We have more, we have more ideas, so many ideas. What do you think–”
He slid another drawing across the table.
Someone with no knowledge of architectural theory would mistake the drawing for a bunker.
“We call this ‘Bunker.'”
It was a bunker: concrete walls and a slit to look out of.
“The martial aspect of the design pay tribute to Manfred Pierce’s military service, and also Corbusier.”
“One question,” Steppy said.
“Where’s the door?”
There was no door.
“There’s no door,” Hawkins said.
“You don’t think that’ll be bad for business?”
“But the symbolism is so piquant.”
“Need a door, Hawkins,” Steppy said.
“Mm. I agree, yeah,” Lower added, looking around for approval. She did not find it in Flower Childs’ grinding jaw.
Architecture would be so much easier were in not for people, Hawkins Cohen thought, with their fire codes and their need for bathrooms. He kept his smile on and slid another drawing over. Color this time.
“That’s a McDonald’s,” Flower muttered.
It was a McDonald’s.
“It’s not a McDonald’s. It’s a ‘McDonald’s.’ It’s a statement on hyper-consumerism and the gay obsession with body image.”
Lower looked to her left and right: Flower had her eyes closed in irritation; Steppy, in amusement. She said,
“It does look like a McDonald’s.”
“That’s the point,” Hawkins said.
“Uh. Yeah. Um, won’t we get sued? I’m not a lawyer, but won’t we get sued?”
Hawkins leaned forward on his award-winning chair.
“Yes! The lawsuit will be part of the building’s story.”
It was raining hard now–it came in bands–and the sound was PATAPATAPAT against the windows which made up the south and east walls of the office. The floor was made of the hardest wood available, Ultraspruce, and some areas had rugs. Hawkins did not have a desk, but a table that rose to bellybutton height. It was covered with sketchpads, pencils, pictures of the General Slocum Disaster. Behind the table, bookshelves had been staged.
Flower Childs leaned forward on the paradigm-shifting couch. (It was a couch beyond description, an original Ooso Pruus, and it had shocked the design world when it had been introduced; it was a scandalous sofa. Imagine a couch you could never dream of: that was the Pruus.) She was not wearing her uniform, which was boots, navy khakis, and a blue short-sleeve button down with badges and ranks and bullshit all over it, instead wearing her civilian outfit of boots, dark-blue jeans, and a blue short-sleeve button-down without any badges or ranks or bullshit. There were pens in the breast pocket: a clicky blue ballpoint, and a black Sharpie.
Heaven help the probie who didn’t have a pen and a Sharpie at all times in Flower Childs’ firehouse.
She withdrew the marker, uncapped it, flipped over the drawing with the fast food manque on it.
“It’s a tavern, Mr. Cohen.”
She drew a rectangle.
“It’s pretty much just a big room.”
She drew a skinny rectangle on the left side of the larger rectangle.
“There’s the bar.”
A triangle up in the corner.
Squat little rectangle.
Chicken-scratched around the edges.
“And, you know the bathrooms and the storage and all that shit.”
Steppy Alouette smirked. Architects needed to be kept to heel. They were tradesmen, no more and no less, but they thought themselves better than plumbers, and that made them dangerous. She had listened to an architect once, on a house out in the Jeremiad Springs: the magazines wanted to take pictures of it, but the roof leaked and there was no kitchen. The architect was Hawkins, as a matter of fact. It wasn’t his fault, she thought. If you let architects do whatever they wanted, then you ended up with buildings not fit for humans. It was in their nature, so a firm hand was necessary.
“It’s a bar,” Flower Childs said.
Steppy made them stop on Sylvester Street on the way back, too, even though it was entirely out of the way. The rain had washed the parked cars, and the road was glistening with puddles and temporary rivulets that came together on the unnatural ground, coalesced, shattered. On the sidewalk, pedestrians whisked themselves away. The joists and beams that used to be of a body were no longer, and the three women in the red-and-white Mustang SSP looked out the passenger’s windows and saw the place where they had been young, destroyed.
“This will be the third Wayside,” Lower Montana said from the backseat. Flower Childs turned to look at her, but it would have hurt too much for Steppy to do so, so she put two fingers on her left shoulder to show she was listening.
“March of 1856. First one opened in March of ’56. It was just about the first anything in Little Aleppo. They built the Main Drag around it. There aren’t any photographs, but there are several drawings of the interior. Bar on the right, piano and faro on the left. And the girls were upstairs. Burned down in ’71, along with half the neighborhood.”
Flower Childs ground her jaw.
“Manfred told me he took the Wayside over from a guy named Herbert Hantz, but I haven’t been able to find that name anywhere in the records. This was 1961 or maybe early ’62. Obviously, not the original location.”
“Obviously,” Steppy said.
The three of them looked at the rubble.
“And this will be the third,” Lower said.
The rain pounded down onto Sylvester Street, onto all the cars and manholes and sidewalk saints, and down the painted window of Madame Cazee’s and also the frontage of the Wash-N-Slosh, and onto the muted cherry-top of the Mustang and along the sidewalls of the tires and into the slutty sewers. The world went clean with the rain’s help, and the past rose from itself in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.