Winner of the 14th Annual Boston Review Short Story Contest
May 1, 2007
May 1, 2007
15 Min read time
I found this piece imaginative and original; the author has taken an odd and beautiful concept and expanded upon it in a daring and beautiful way. The story has a nice dramatic arc, and the final image was oddly moving, satisfying. The story has real heart, and the author seems willing to go into strange territories. The story reminds me of the work of Steven Millhauser, Aimee Bender, or Ben Marcus: using fantastic elements to get at very real emotional material. Promising and exciting work.
—George Saunders, contest judge
(How did he come to bear others’ homes on his back?)
That question can only be answered by the one holding the strings ascending from Hram’s pivotal points, as from the joints of every bearer.
It’s not that Hram didn’t like bearing a building; he did. He received no acknowledgment—at least not from the tenants. He wouldn’t have wanted the residents of the building he bore to know that he chose where they would be when they walked out the front door of their apartment building in the morning, briefcase or tool kit or purse or newspaper in one hand, brown paper lunch bag in the other, ready to participate in maintaining the universe, their first task that of finding their way to the office or factory, which could be anywhere within their city. They would get to the end of the front walk, where Hram could see them, and look around, trying to get their bearings:
—the portly, sallow man in 2A, brushing cat hairs off his wide lapels. He always thought he was late and would explode in frustration, his upper lip curling out and in, out and in.
—the tall, timid woman in 2B, whose suit, shoes, hat, and purse were all cheap and all matched. She was new to her job, and her boss had made it clear that he found her attractive, which both scared her and reassured her of the possibilities for advancement. As she left the apartment building she would look distressed, but she was secretly glad to have the task, between home and work, of trying to determine where to go. If she had to sit on the same train every day she would get sick from anticipation.
—the single mother in 2C, with one child to take to school and the other to take to her mother’s. She was always searching for a way to speed her family to their destinations. The older child proudly carried his mother’s welding mask and was excited because every morning was an adventure. The younger child looked sleepy.
Hram laughed quietly at his tenants’ problems. Sometimes he followed one of them to see how long it took and what method, if any, was used. Once in a while Hram caught sight of one of his tenants still searching, hours later. If he liked that tenant, Hram would sail ahead to put the apartment building in her path, so at least she could go home, call in sick, and enjoy the rest of the day as a truant, watching daytime television, going through old photographs, playing air guitar. If he didn’t like the tenant, he would just continue following, laughing, at a distance, until the workday was over and the tenant gave up and returned home.
Each day the bearers chose the place where they would go at night, after all the tenants were in. They would remain fixed there for a few hours in the morning and evening of the next day, a system that permitted tenants to find their way home in the evenings almost without exception. During the day there were charts the bearers could consult to inform their choice, lists of zoning rules, maps, development plans, treatises on sewage disposal and transit management, official and unofficial histories of the city, biographies detailing the lives and contributions of its most eccentric and wealthiest residents, all meant to instruct and inspire. Hram used these materials desultorily, thinking it sufficient that so many of his kind were so apparently conscientious about their choices. There was always a queue for the best materials. The few who made it to the front probably decreased the degree of chance in their choices, he thought, as he sailed past them, and all the others must have been there to impress.
The bearers were not allowed to be stationary for more than those few required hours morning and evening, and, in any case, it was uncomfortable for them to be in the same position for any longer. Theoretically, they could return to the same spot for as long as they wanted, but in fact there was rarely any advantage in that beyond a few days, and so they continually searched and re-searched, formed and re-formed. The strings ascending from their bodies implied that they were subject to some governing force, but they behaved as though they had full power over their actions, as long as they complied with certain known rules.
Hram never paid for a stopping spot, though he negotiated and, at times, bullied. He had also been bullied but generally preferred to move on than to tangle. There were always places nearly as good, sometimes better. He chose depending on whether he was in the mood to gentrify a decrepit neighborhood, to create the single residential space in an industrial zone, the last modest walkup in the heart of the commercial center, a set of breezy beachside condos, or just another suburban cinder block, indistinguishable from hundreds stretching to all sides of it, between manicured lawns and scrawny trees with fences around them to keep the dogs out. He imagined, and sometimes overheard, the tenants’ preferences:
—the sagging divorcée in 3A who made an effort to flirt with the man in 2A. Her husband had departed with the children five years ago, and she rarely left the apartment except to get sleeping pills and attend Jane Austen Fan Club meetings. She had her groceries delivered, but if they didn’t arrive in time, or didn’t arrive, she went out to buy cigarettes. When the building was on a beach or park, she went out, carrying a book, wearing a hat with a long chiffon scarf, and took advantage.
—the two university students in 3B, roommates who had sex with one another at night, though they didn’t speak of this to each other or anyone else. When the building was near the campus, one or the other might come home for lunch, and other students drop in later to drink beer and listen to albums. When it was otherwise situated, they were more studious.
—3C was empty but wouldn’t be hard to fill.
Once, Hram came upon an avenue of newly restored historic buildings, including the homes of the city’s two greatest 19th-century writers (distant relatives and rivals, in love and letters), the home of the progressive judge who dismantled the factory towns on which the city’s three largest family fortunes had been built, the courthouse where that judge presided (now a museum), and the headquarters of the shipping company that started—and finished—the building boom at the port. The avenue lasted, in various compositions, for nearly three days, and Hram lingered there throughout, admiring the plasterwork and bas-reliefs, eavesdropping on tourists and guides. Those who saw it still talk about it. Hram was a bit disappointed that none of the tenants in his building had had the time or inclination to take advantage.
It was in those days that he first saw Pela. She bore a building similar to his in size, but, in contrast to his stucco facade, hers was of red brick and better maintained. (The caretaker in Hram’s building was a DJ convinced he was destined for better things and neglected his work as such dreamers do.) She kept to the avenue’s end, he noticed, and looked like she, too, was interested in the lessons of the past it so briefly made available. Hram was unambitious and had always been glad he bore a residential and not a commercial building, but he was mildly envious of bearers whose buildings had architectural or historical significance.
The next time he saw Pela, she was hovering uncertainly near the queues for recent updates on property tax and quarantine regulations. He saw her give up and depart. They sometimes crossed paths in front of the television station, where they glanced at the headlines’ LED parade across the smoked-glass vitrine. He always waited for the sports highlights but noticed that she took particular interest in reports of violent crimes and glazed over a little, as he did, at the governor’s regular statements in support of the nation’s going to war, a possibility that seemed remote and unlikely despite the politicians’ repetitious alarm.
Finally, they made eye contact. It was during a very interesting few hours when the ancient trading post (where, with startling efficiency, the region’s indigenes had bartered away their birthright for cocoa and rum) was situated on its probable original site. The A-frame building had been reconstructed from a few beams and stones. Archaeological fragments were displayed within, alongside cheesy half-life-size dioramas demonstrating the uses of ancient tools.
After that, she started looking out for him, too. At first, they would simply slow if their trajectories coincided. After several such acknowledgments, it began to happen that one would curve toward the other. Then each began to curve more, to approximate the other’s direction, so that eventually they were traveling short distances together, without abandoning their original destinations. Increasingly, though, their destinations became the same. There may have been rules against this, but it was not something they planned or agreed upon or even, for some time, acknowledged. They made no effort to find out about governing regulations. Their behavior may even have been sanctioned.
She didn’t have his mischievous attitude toward the tenants of the building she bore. She seemed at once more detached and more anxious. If a tenant had a big day at work or other pressures, she would choose her location to accommodate. Unlike Hram, she would never tail any tenant for the sake of mere interest. And since his stance was essentially capricious, Hram was more often content to accept Pela’s routes and destinations than she was to follow his. It still happened that some idea or place would catch his fancy; in that case she would eventually join him, or he, eventually, rejoin her.
It was thus their buildings became neighbors. A solid, decent-looking man in Pela’s building habitually left for work at just the same time as Hram’s single mother. He always helped her carry things to her car and was eventually invited for dinner. Hram’s 3C was filled by a tenant who moved out of Pela’s 4B. The two university students found out that there were three more of their number next door. The sallow man in 2A developed a boundary dispute with a widowed seamstress involving their cats. There was an Independence Day party with lawn chairs and another when the city’s football team won the national medallion.
The change in the residents’ lives was significant, but not radical or puzzling. In contrast, the bearers’ existences changed fundamentally. Hram wondered if the routine and expectations were something akin to what it felt like to have a home.
The city was in a phase of intense self-regard and re-evaluation. Its residents were therefore taken aback when they learned that the long-imminent war had already begun. Demonstrators for every side hastily appeared in the streets, trying to find those of their own, or a comparable, political ilk, trying to find the appropriate government building to picket. This was much more difficult than it had been because, without informing the city’s residents, the government had committed to keeping all significant buildings moving fast and mostly toward the periphery, to diminish their vulnerability to bombs. Low flying planes menaced the city at odd hours. Rumors floated that these planes were seeking to destroy the city’s two tallest and most important commercial buildings, which had not been sighted in weeks. Citizens began to grumble: the economy was grinding to a halt, with workers in banking and trade nearly unable to attend to their jobs. What was the point, they said, in protecting the buildings if they were empty? But others said there was symbolic value in keeping the city physically intact, and since the war was largely symbolic, the objectors silenced themselves.
Or such, at least, is what the citizens deduced the government had resolved, and when confronted, officials confirmed this. In point of fact, practically none of the city’s residents had any control over the movements of their buildings, or knowledge of the mechanism by which they moved. Priests and politicians both claimed access to the means of control, and citizens made themselves beholden with petitions to these intermediaries, even while their bearers were listening to find out what the residents believed and wanted. The bearers listened at public meetings and coffeehouses. They tried also, when they could, to overhear secret desires, expressed only in dining rooms and confessionals. It is unclear how much control even the bearers had over their movements, but they had enough to want to act in the citizens’ interests, and co-operating in a city-wide shell game would surely be best for all concerned.
Hram wondered what it would be like to bear one of those now empty buildings—he thought he would feel dull and self-important. Besides which, a bearer charged with such responsibility would have to travel alone.
In Hram’s building, the divorcée, surprisingly, had sprung into action, along with one of the university students and the single mother, who might have been the most politically committed, but had the least time to offer the movement. Hram was keen to keep abreast of the city’s position and the citizenry’s reaction. He would regularly cross the corner of the famous park where soap-box orators came to speak and glide close by press scrums to catch unmediated comments before they hit the news. He once nearly caught up with a munitions factory, though the windows were shaded with a reflective coating.
It was quickly evident that Pela acted on an impulse opposite to his. If any individual in her building desired to get involved, she would help. Otherwise, she kept to the quietest zones, whether because of some opinion of her own or to protect those residents who wanted to maintain a facade of normalcy. She and Hram started to drift apart.
I live in apartment 4, the only apartment on the top floor of the building Hram bears. For years I dealt with the frustrations of commuting, which are considerable in any large city and especially so when one is of no fixed address and one’s workplace is also constantly on the move. I worked according to others’ schedules, fulfilling demands I saw as pointless, until finally, owing to a happy, unforeseen coincidence of technology and economics, I succeeded in becoming self-employed.
Hram thinks no one in the building—no city resident, for that matter—sees him or knows what he does, and this is true of my neighbors, whose lives are full of real things and real concerns, as mine once was. But with all my attention trained on the ephemeral and the virtual, I began quite naturally to perceive him, and then to watch him, since I spend large portions of my day, in any case, standing and looking out my window. I have recounted the above based on these observations, during which I also gave Hram and Pela their names. I don’t know if they have names; if they speak, I cannot hear them, although maybe I could develop that ability, too, with time and diligence. The stories of my fellow tenants are based on gossip.
I did not observe the bomb hitting Pela’s building. She was in some residential zone, while our building was near a military base on the outskirts. I remember watching the soldiers frog-marching one another into simulated shanty-style prison camps. I read later that the bombers were probably expecting to hit the Aerial and Naval Defense Headquarters, whose route had been leaked to the press. But of course the route was changed when the leak was discovered, and instead the bombs splattered an unfashionable and waning shopping mall, an amusement fair of the kind that sets up in small towns and suburbs one week a year, and a few middle-income apartment buildings, including Pela’s. The destruction was thorough and the city’s residents shocked.
She looked very light as she approached, her back bare but for shards of the foundation and rubble, chunks of which rolled off from time to time with her movements. Half of one of the bushes that had stood by the front door bizarrely remained erect, one side of it burned off, the other scarred but recognizable. She moved slowly, and when she was close, she reached out to touch Hram’s shoulder with her hand and then put her forehead to his.
The residents of our building, the ones who were at home when she arrived and the ones who came home later, saw what had happened to her building. They were dismayed and panicked. They looked for news. They tried to console the single mother, who had tried, without success, not to get her hopes up about the gentle, steadily employed man. She was crushed, but pulled herself together for the sake of the children. The divorcée proved her mettle, and even motivated the awkward young office worker, who made lasagnas and oatmeal cookies that we ate together in front of a television.
Below us, the bearers made love, although I don’t know if this is what they call it. At first, their parts, meeting, made clacking noises, sometimes like plastic, sometimes like wood, sometimes even chiming like ceramic or clashing like wires. The lines ascending from their limbs crossed and uncrossed, crossed and uncrossed. This continued for two—or, no, I think it was three—days, while the noise grew softer and softer until there was no sound at all. Sometimes they would be still, embracing, and sometimes move vigorously. Then Pela was pulled away. She was tugged until their parts disentangled, then swiftly removed as if drawn by those strings, not up but away. Though if she was moving in a very long arc, she might eventually have ascended.
We haven’t seen her since.
(Who holds the strings?)
I can’t see that far up, but I know Hram was made for this work, as Pela was, and as each of us is, meant for some task, some work, even if almost none of us finds it, that task we are meant for, just as almost none of us finds perfect love.
For Carlos Estévez.
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May 01, 2007
15 Min read time