September 2013

The Bucik Brothers Build the Eighth Wonder of the World

i

“Sorry, but quite frankly you don’t have a snowball’s chance,” said Shelton, his lawyer. Shelton had advised Henry and his wife five years before on the sale of their home in Crystal Springs and their subsequent purchase of their downtown condominium overlooking the lake. But he also had considerable experience dealing with commercial real estate developers and municipal zoning officials, so his counsel was not to be taken lightly. “A snowball’s chance in hell, that is. I can draw you up a blue-ribbon petition, and you could collect signatures from every householder within a quarter-mile radius. I can draft appeals to the Zoning Board and to Historic Preservation, too. But the Bucik Brothers are about as connected as you can get in this town without being family—no, wait, there’s a nephew married to His Honor’s sister-in-law’s daughter, but that’s inconsequential given that the Bucik Brothers developed City Front Homes, financed Harrison Place, and are major equity partners in the construction of the new Convention Forum. Besides, their current interest in Lot 24 is the core of City Hall’s master plan to attract 20,000 new residents to center city, and do you have any idea of what that translates to in annual property tax dollars, over and beyond the sales tax revenues from the increase in transactions and consumption? Dear God, they even got the city to turn its back on the demolition of the Old Mercantile Building, Tiffany dome and all, despite the opposition of the Preservation Council, the City Beautiful League, and the Association of Architectural Historians, and you think you’re going to stop them from building the Bucik Tower simply because you want to keep your unobstructed view of the lake? Besides, they’ve always coveted your block, and they would’ve had it, too, if your condo board and the Preservation Council hadn’t made an end run around the city and gone direct to the Feds. And, believe me, that won’t happen again.”

“One small victory for our side,” said Henry.

“Right, and don’t think the Bucik Brothers have forgotten either! Listen, I’ll be happy to spend a couple of $250-per-hour hours researching your options, but frankly, and now I’m speaking against my own best interests, it would be a waste of your hard-earned retirement savings, because even if you had a leg to stand on, which I’m pretty sure you don’t, the Bucik Brothers would bury you, level you quicker than a flea-bitten flophouse.”

Of course, Shelton was right. But Henry was not yet ready to admit defeat, and since municipal regulations and the zoning code would provide no relief, he decided to seek extra-legal support and visit Madame Tamara.

Admittedly, this was an extreme measure, but he regretted not having resorted to extreme measures when faced with hopeless cases before, in particular when his wife was dying of ovarian cancer. Angela had always said that her grandmother—born in Bukovina and said to be a hundred at the time of her death—swore by the “cures and curses of the gypsies,” and during Angela’s last days, as Henry sat by her bedside holding her hand, he was certain that he had heard her whisper once or twice, “the gypsies, the gypsies.” He doubted that Angela had Madame Tamara in mind or that she thought any good might come from a visit, but he regretted not having then sought her out–or, at least, another of her kind–if only to reassure himself that he’d done everything in his power to save her. Now he would leave no regrets behind, although this time he intended to visit Madame Tamara not for a cure but for a curse.

ii

A hand, with stars trailing behind it and an extended finger pointing upward, directed him to the second floor where he could have his palm read, his spirit cleansed, or his body massaged. Madame Tamara shared her building with an adult bookshop, a discount liquor store, and a shop selling pizza by the slice, all the final vestige of the ramshackle district into which the neighborhood had sunk before the abandoned warehouses and tenements had been transformed into condominiums and lofts, before the sales sheds and derricks sprouted in every corner parking lot.

A dark, narrow staircase led to a dark, narrow corridor, and Henry found himself under the observation of a woman in a bathrobe leaning against a doorjamb as he approached Madame Tamara’s office at the far end of the hall. Another young woman was sitting behind the desk in the reception foyer of the office, and if it weren’t for the wrinkles at the corners of her mouth and the sagging skin beneath her deep-set eyes, Henry would have assumed she was hardly twenty. Her pale complexion led him to doubt that gypsy blood coursed through her veins, although she was wearing a multi-colored peasant blouse, sufficiently unbuttoned to expose some cleavage and sheer enough to reveal that there was no bra underneath.

“Sit down and lend me your palm,” she said as soon as he entered.

“I’m not interested in having my fortune read,” said Henry.

“Maybe not read, but improved, and your immediate love problems solved, if you so choose. You have been referred here, haven’t you?”

“No.”

“Well, give me your hand, anyway,” and this time, after sitting down across from her, he did.

“Oh, yes,” she said, stroking his palm lightly with the tips of her fingers, “I foresee all your tensions going away. And for just a hundred dollars.”

“A hundred dollars!” he exclaimed, quickly pulling his hand away. “For what?’

“To have your tensions removed. Or your love problems solved.”

“I’m not here for that!”

She leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms over her chest. “Well, then, if you’re not here for that, just what are you here for?”

“A curse,” he said. “A gypsy’s curse. Are you a gypsy?”

“I’ll get Madame Tamara,” she said and rose from her chair.

A moment later, a heavy-set woman, also wearing a peasant blouse, replaced her at the desk. Henry would have preferred, in addition, a colorful scarf wrapped around her temples, gold rings dangling from her ears, and costume jewelry up and down both arms, but she did have the requisite bronzed complexion and burning black eyes.

“Fifty dollars,” she said. “Fifty dollars for a gypsy’s curse.”

He reflected for a moment and agreed to her price.

“And who’s the unfortunate target of your wrath?”

“Not who, but what. I want you to curse a building site, one that may soon be under development.”

“No problem,” she said, and she handed him a notepad and a fountain pen. “The address, please.”

He wrote down the address and the name of the future development and drew a crude map of the site.

“Ah,” she said, “The Bucik Brothers. This won’t be the first,” and then she left him alone for a few minutes, returning with a candle and a small plastic vial, the remnants of a prescription label still attached to its surface. After lighting the candle, she stripped the page with its address from the pad, rolled it into a cone, mumbled a few words into the open end, and touched its point to the flame. Once it caught fire, she dropped it into an ashtray, and then after mumbling a few more inaudible words, she poured the cinders into the vial and stuffed it between her breasts. “It’ll stay nice and warm there,” she said, “like an egg in an incubator, and after forty-eight hours, your curse will be hatched. That’ll be fifty dollars, please. Cash.”

He counted out her fee in fives and tens.

“If you should change your mind,” she said, “and wish the curse to be removed, it will cost you another fifty dollars. But don’t wait too long. After forty-eight hours, it’ll be too late. Here’s my business card. There’s an emergency number there where I can be reached night and day.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Henry.

“Think about it. Curses often have unforeseen consequences. And sometimes they bite back, and harder than you’d expect.”

“I’ve thought about it,” he said, leaving his payment and the card behind on the desk.

But he hadn’t really thought deeply enough about it. Otherwise, he would have been more explicit. A simple bankruptcy, a surge in interest rates, a failure of one of the Bucik Brothers’ riskier ventures, anything that would prevent the obstruction of a view he and his wife, when she was alive, had awakened to every morning since he had retired and moved back to the city. Certainly, he didn’t want to cause anyone physical harm, and, of course, even if he had heard about it, he would not have felt responsible for the freak accident—the bouncing cinder block that broke the leg of a worker–on that first day of demolition. Nor was anyone at fault for the scores of falls and mishaps, as well as the three fatalities, that plagued the site during construction. Spot inspections and investigations from the city and the Occupational and Health Administration slowed progress, but no negligence could be found on the parts of the developer, contractors, or subcontractors. A bolt of lightning, a swinging beam, a crazed pigeon, acts of God and bad luck, and it wasn’t until the Bucik Tower had become the Bucik Center, the Eighth Wonder of the World, and he learned that a newspaper columnist had suggested that the site may have once served as a mass grave for Confederate prisoners of war and therefore may have been cursed, that Henry again thought of Madame Tamara. But by then the columnist had been silenced by the threat of a lawsuit, and Henry had already been confined to his bed, from where no more than shadows could be seen.

iii

By the time the crews arrived one fall morning to demolish the vacant warehouse and the parking garage across from him, Henry had resigned himself to the inevitable. “I suppose,” he thought, “it’s a blessing Angela’s no longer here to see this,” and he recalled the pleasure she took in viewing the sun’s iridescence at dawn, and the slow white sails and sleek tour boats multiplying across the surface of the lake as the summer advanced, and the full moon trailing its silvery wake as it rose above the horizon.

“And I suppose none of that would be quite so precious,” he thought, “if we weren’t fated to lose it all some day,” and even though there was still an autumn chill in the air, he settled down on the terrace outside his bedroom, a tray of freshly baked scones and Angela’s best tea placed on the small garden table in front of him. He had resolved to take full advantage of every last day that remained.

But just as he was pouring his first cup of tea, the eastern wall of the warehouse across the street below collapsed and its roof imploded, driving a billowing cloud up from the ground. An updraft accelerated its climb, and although it became thinner as it rose to the twentieth floor, it still drew a fine, translucent veil between Henry and his view. A powdery film fell across the hot tea in his cup and black fragments of dirt speckled the butter melting on his scone.

Eventually water would be sprayed across the lot to control the dust, but still there always seemed to be a cloud, like the unexorcised phantoms of the old warehouse and parking garage, hovering above it, and there was little Henry could do to soften the pulsating racket from the jack hammers, the sledges, the rivers of brick and stone tumbling down chutes, and the roaring engines of the trucks hauling away earth and rubble and the steam shovels that had already begun to excavate even before the old walls had been flattened and the debris removed. Rivulets of yellow water flooded the streets and the gutters.

Now, to insulate himself from the dirt and the noise, he would keep the sliding doors to his terrace shut. But still he could feel the vibrations from pumps and compressors as caissons were bored and drained, and hear the muffled percussion of steel piers and sheet-piling being hammered through the sand and clay to the limestone bedrock below. Convoys of trucks—honking, braking, idling—arrived day-after-day, bearing their loads of steel beams and plates, bricks and blocks of granite, pipes and reinforcing rods, bales of cable and coils of wiring, mixing their exhaust fumes with the clouds of dust they stirred. Concrete mixers churned and steam engines chugged, it seemed, around the clock.

One morning he awoke to find what first seemed to be the huge triangular eye of a monstrous skeletal stork staring at him from above his terrace. A steel girder hung from its gigantic pointed beak, and when he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, the beak became the beam of a derrick, one of three poised at the corners of the block. By the end of the week, a tall forest of steel had been fixed into place, beams and joists running between the columns like interlocking branches.

As the girders rose upward, immense slabs of reinforced concrete were laid down, floor-by-floor. Pipes, ducts, and wire circuitry sprouted and coiled about the girders and then the joists like ivy and foliage, and teams of welders, riggers, fitters, stonecutters, electricians, plumbers, and plasterers populated the floors. Masonry stretched across the tower’s base, growing row-by-row, then sheeted with granite and marble, and above this foundation huge plates of structural glass were fixed into place.

As winter and spring turned to summer, Henry continued to avoid his terrace, but one late afternoon, as the sun was falling behind his building, the steel pillars rising like spikes beyond his twentieth floor, he ventured outside to see extended beneath him across the uppermost level, a latticework of small-gauge railway tracks, like those he and his father had spread across his basement on Christmas week. Hoppers filled with workers and artisans, lumber and tile, sheets of fiberboard and terrazzo, appliances and fixtures of every sort, trundled back and forth, as if here, too, a tiny village were being fabricated, although the glow coming from the open furnaces and forges scattered about lent to this miniature world something of the infernal.

Or perhaps this last vision was merely a dream, or something Henry had imagined, for the next day—weighed down with groceries, struggling to extract from his pocket the key to the temporary entrance in the parking garage—he suddenly became short of breath, and before he could set down his bags, he fell to the ground, unconscious.

iv

Although his father had died of a cerebral hemorrhage and there had been several strokes in his family, Henry had always been in good health. But walking over and through the wrecked sidewalks, the muddied streams, the boarded ramps and scaffolding, and the narrow plywood passageways was often difficult and slippery, and when the entrance to his building was blocked by excavations to reinforce its foundational underpinning and to replace an antiquated sewage system, even the simplest of errands required a long detour through the parking garage. Along with the disturbances next door, Henry attributed his constant headaches, his physical exhaustion, and his eventual collapse to these long dirty walks and to the noxious exhaust fumes that permeated the garage.

Whatever the cause, his doctors could not agree on the precise physical reason for the collapse or his debilitating weakness or the difficulty he had breathing when he regained consciousness. They were concerned, however, and when he was finally discharged from the hospital after weeks of inconclusive tests, he was ordered to remain in his bed until his breathing improved and he had regained enough strength to walk without assistance. Miss Morgan was hired to accompany him during the day, to see that his physical needs were met, his oxygen tank replenished, and that his medication was administered properly. Sometimes she sat by his bed and read to him.

Of course, by then the direct rays of the morning sun had been obscured by the progress of the rising Bucik Tower, and his bedroom lay in shadows almost the entire day. The hibiscus in the corner of the room, which he and Angela had transported from their porch in Crystal Springs and which had bloomed season-after-season whether placed inside or outside on the terrace, died.

From his bed, though, he could still see the open sky unobstructed, and even on an overcast day, the low, rippling cloud cover reminded him of the gray surface of the lake in winter, and sometimes the sun, setting from the other side of the building, cast a streak of orange or purple across the clouds, and the reflection from the new glass curtain wall of the Bucik Tower filled his room with a spectral light.

But one morning he awoke to find a thick, linear shadow stretching across his field of vision, as if someone had painted a black streak across the sky, and Henry asked Miss Morgan to step outside to see what it was.

“No need to step outside,” said Miss Morgan. “I already know what it is.”

“You do?”

“It’s one of the girders of the Bucik Center spanning the roof of your building.”

“The Bucik Center? I thought it was the Bucik Tower?”

“It was, until they purchased the air rights over your building and the lot on the other side, to the west. They’ve already hoisted the derricks up to the twentieth floor. Quite a sight to see, I must say.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That girder above is the first to support the bridge floor, extending over your roof, from the east to the west, and across the streets on either side. Both streets, in fact, will actually run through the Bucik Center. Otherwise, your building will be fully enclosed.”

“But that’s unheard of!”

“Not really. It’s been done before,” explained Miss Morgan, who had studied architecture before entering nursing school. “Grand Central Station in New York, about a hundred years ago, and then there’s the Gothic San Francesco in Rimini which, in the fifteenth century Alberti encased almost entirely inside the Tempio Malatestiano. Of course, that isn’t quite the same thing, and you are right in one respect. The scale of the Bucik Center will be unprecedented. One critic even called it the Eighth Wonder of the World, straddling our city block, he wrote, like the Colossus of Rhodes was said to have straddled the entrance to the Mandraki Harbor.”

“But that’s a fiction, isn’t it?” asked Henry, “A myth?”

“Sure, but the Bucik Brothers liked the idea anyway and have decided to incorporate the other Seven Wonders of the Ancient World into their structure. Very post-modern, don’t you think? Let’s see, the entrance will be designed after the Temple of Artemis, and there’ll be a Hanging Garden of Babylon on one of the setbacks. From a distance, the central structure will look something like the Great Pyramid of Giza, although topped with a navigational beam reminiscent of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. The towers to the east and to the west will be based on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, although, of course, now there’ll be two of them. I don’t know what they’re planning to do about the Olympian Statue of Zeus, though. Perhaps one of the Bucik Brothers . . . ?”

“Nobody told me anything about this!”

“You haven’t been reading your mail, then. It was all approved at a special meeting of the Board. And permission has been granted from the National Trust to run elevator banks through your building’s roof to what will be the floor above. It’ll be disruptive for a time, but it will eventually give residents here complete access to the retail concourse above, the gardens, the casino, the sky lounges, and the bird sanctuary. You’ll also be offered discounted memberships to the Bucik Center Health Club, with its gymnasia, natatoria, weight rooms, and running track. And now that the most recent investigation has been completed and construction resumed . . .”

“Investigation . . . ?”

“It was determined to be an accidental decapitation. A swinging beam. No one to blame, just like all the others.”

“The others?”

“You haven’t been reading your newspapers either, have you. There has, unfortunately, been several other fatalities on the construction site and God knows how many nasty injuries. One of the columnists even started a series on it. Something about a curse and the Confederate dead. It’s all very hush hush now.”

“No,” said Henry, remembering, “not the Confederate dead. The gypsies, the gypsies.”

“What’s that?” asked Miss Morgan, but Henry had already turned away to again concentrate on his breathing.

Before long the orange-purplish haze that had filtered into his room from the sunsets was gone, and so many girders and beams cross-hatched above him the sky vanished completely from sight even before the floor panels were laid. The lamps in his bedroom were now lit all day, and if it weren’t for the presence of Miss Morgan—or Mrs. Campbell, who now occasionally sat by his side at night—he would not even know whether the hour was A.M. or P.M. when he glanced at his clock.

Perhaps it was the noise of the construction—increasing now with the installation of the new elevator banks almost right outside his door—or the vibrations that seemed to be continuously in the walls around him or the impurities that he sensed were always in the air and seemed to have penetrated even into his oxygen tank or the absence of natural light or his inability now to swallow solid food or a simple lack of will—in any case, Henry became weaker and weaker, and could not leave his bed and, sometimes, even raise his head from his pillow without assistance. Miss Morgan, however, kept him informed of the progress on the Bucik Center.

“Extraordinary progress!” she said, “I know you’re skeptical, but the Bucik Center is really a revolutionary construct, perhaps the first of its kind, to deconstruct, rearticulate, and harmonize the obsolete hierarchical homogeneity characteristic of the vertically stratified and ideologically colonized higher structure and to replace it with a multivariate, spatially continuous built-form within a three-dimensional planning matrix that replicates the spatial articulations and morphologies of the urban landscape, complete with boulevard and galleria, piazza and agora, nucleus and radius, node and knot. In any case, that’s what the Bucik Brothers seem to be trying to do, while still, of course, optimizing net-to-gross spatial efficiencies. Did I tell you, by the way, that I’ve decided to go back to architectural school? Anyway, they’ll soon be giving ticketed tours to introduce current residents here to the public areas and the model homes. I’ll make sure a ticket’s reserved for you.”

But before the tickets were distributed, Henry had been returned to the hospital. Mrs. Campbell told him, as he was being moved from his bed, that a glorious day had been forecast, and he was hoping to catch a glimpse of the clear blue sky as he was being transported, But even though he was awake most of the time, he was taken through an interior corridor to the freight elevator, which brought him down to the parking garage and the ambulance that was awaiting him. From there he was driven into the fortress-like garage of the hospital, where he was delivered to another freight elevator, and that was all he remembered until he awoke in his bed one morning, surrounded by curtains, Miss Morgan by his side.

When she saw he was awake, she put down her book to tell him of the gala celebration that had taken place on the Esplanade to commemorate the opening of the Eastern Tower of the Bucik Center. She had gone back to his home the previous evening to water the few plants that were still alive and return several books she had borrowed from him when she noticed that a huge section of the opaque glass sheathing had been removed from the Eastern Tower, exposing an open loggia several stories tall and stretching almost the entire width of the structure. She slid open the door and walked out onto his terrace.

“It was as if a curtain had been raised on a stage,” she said, “exposing a vast, open space, right there in front of me, and extending all the way through the building. I don’t know what they’re going to use it for, but it seems now to be a permanent element of the structural design. In any case, last night it was a wonderful open ballroom, with bars and tables and an orchestra, and all of the women were in evening gowns and some of the men wore tuxedos, and you could easily see clear through to the lake, as if there were nothing in between. There seemed to be some kind of festival going on at the lakefront, too, since the sailboats were lit up like Christmas trees, and they were sailing across the lake, almost as if in a procession, their colored lights reflecting against the water, which suddenly was all lit up by a burst of fireworks, and when the fireworks were done, the orchestra on the Esplanade began to play, and they began to dance, and some of the dancers saw me standing there up on your terrace, and they raised their glasses to me, and toasted me, and beckoned me to come over. Of course, I wasn’t dressed for the occasion, and I’m not a resident, either. But you are, and perhaps when you’re better, they’ll hold another gala, or a first-year anniversary, and you’ll be invited, too.”

Henry could almost see the dancers in their evening gowns and tuxedos, and the lake sparkling behind them and the sailboats, but before he could raise his head to get a better look, he fell back into the coma from which he never awoke.