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One Day the Wind Changed

BOOK: One Day the Wind Changed
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One Day the Wind Changed

Tracy Daugherty

 

Dzanc Books

Dzanc Books
1334 Woodbourne Street
Westland, MI 48186
www.dzancbooks.org

Copyright © 2010 Tracy Daugherty

All rights reserved, except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher.

Published 2013 by Dzanc Books
A Dzanc Books r
E
print Series Selection

eBooks ISBN-13: 978-1-938604-70-6
eBook Cover designed by Steven Seighman

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author
.

 

For Margie, and Hannah, and Joey

 

The desert is in the heart of your brother.
—T. S. ELIOT, “THE ROCK”

Contents

PURGATORY, NEVADA …

VERY LARGE ARRAY …

VALLEY WINTER …

MAGNITUDE …

ONE SOUND

THE SAILOR WHO DROWNED IN THE DESERT …

TEMPTATION …

SHANTY IRISH

SHOPPING WITH GIRLS

THE SAINT

CLOSED MONDAYS

THE LEAPER …

THE REPUBLIC OF TEXAS …

THE INHALATORIUM

OBSERVATIONS OF BUMBLEBEE ACTIVITY DURING THE SOLAR ECLIPSE, JUNE 30, 1954 …

BERN

Ackonowledgments

I
t has been one of the privileges of my life to have a long and steady working relationship with Kathryn Lang, Keith Gregory, and George Ann Ratchford of SMU Press.

I am grateful to Marjorie Sandor, Ted Leeson, Ehud Havazelet, and Glenn Blake for their careful reading of some of these stories, and to Bob Fullilove's keen eye during the copyediting.

Some of the stories in this collection first appeared in the following journals: “Purgatory, Nevada” in
Southwest Review
, “Very Large Array” and “Temptation” in
The Hopkins Review
, “Magnitude” and “Bern” in
The Georgia Review
, “The Sailor Who Drowned in the Desert” in
Fairy Tale Review
, “Shopping with Girls” in
Northwest Review
, “The Saint” in
Prairie Schooner
, “Closed Mondays” in
Boulevard
, “The Leaper” in
Triquarterly
, “The Republic of Texas” in
Green Mountains Review
, and “The Inhalatorium” in
The Texas Review
. I am grateful to each of the editors. “The Inhalatorium” was reprinted in
Best of the West 2009
, edited by James Thomas and D. Seth Horton.

“Observations of Bumblebee Activity during the Solar Eclipse, June 30, 1954” is a variation, with additions, on a scientific treatise by Astrid Loken from
Publications from the Biological Station
, edited by Hans Brattstrom, University of Bergen, 1954.

Purgatory, Nevada

I
t was Stephen's last night in the Doom Town. Final check. Crickets chirred in the brittle yellow brush beside the streets. He thought of that Lorca poem—how did it go?—
The boy was looking for his lost voice. / The King of the Crickets had it
.

Stephen inspected the sidewalks, the storefronts, and the awnings. He glanced up Main Street. The bank. The public school. Wouldn't Sherrie love this place? It was paradise.

But Sherrie was back in Texas. It was clear from that first day, as soon as the men showed up, that she wouldn't come with him.

Stephen walked over to the school, made sure the main door was locked, and remembered the building he'd been working on when the black sedan pulled up, the men got out and asked for him. It was an elementary school in Brazoria County, south of Houston, on the edge of a large rice paddy—crowded beyond its capacity with the kids of low-wage workers. The school district had hired Stephen to design a few new classrooms, a more usable space. They'd given him a budget of twenty thousand dollars.

To cut costs, he had doubled the functional role of almost every structural element. The light diffusers also diffused the heat; he built the corridors to a larger-than-usual scale to make play areas for students. He clad the exterior in a glass and marble curtain wall. Cheap. Efficient. Just what he'd been hired to provide. And he'd come in on time.

All of which had favorably impressed the federal government, according to the men from the car. The government had been looking for an innovative architect: how would he like to design an entire small town in the Nevada desert?

They knew their man. Despite Stephen's exemplary work habits, and his fiscal responsibility, his practice was stymied because he had developed a reputation among contractors as a son of a bitch. On every job, he insisted that builders test each weld. Time-consuming, yes. But you couldn't risk being sloppy and having a roof fall on kids. If someone failed to meet Stephen's window specifications, Stephen made him rip out all the frames. Only reasonable, he thought, good and careful work. But word got around. Demanding. Obsessive. Next thing he knew, he couldn't get a steel bid anywhere in East Texas (and steel was
already
scarce, because of the war).

The men from the car were well aware of the economic maelstrom about to engulf Stephen. They knew he needed a break, a change. More importantly, they understood how much he wanted to be appreciated for his exacting eye to detail.

“Detail is what we seek,” said one of the men. They both wore gray suits and black patent leather shoes. Friendly and calm. “Right down to the door locks and the window latches.
Exquisite
detail.”

The catch was, no one would live in Stephen's town. It would exist to be destroyed. A military test.

“We want to see what happens to certain woods, emulsions, bricks, glass, and paint,” said one of the men, “to locks and latches, when …”

“When what?” Stephen asked.

“Various possible scenarios,” he answered.

“How can you even consider it?” Sherrie asked Stephen that evening at home. “You've been trained to
create
buildings. To make humane, livable spaces for people.”

“It's just a job. And a fascinating challenge,” Stephen said.

Streamers and balloons from their New Year's Eve party two nights ago littered the living room. Giant cardboard numbers taped to the dining room wall spelled out the date—1945. The books, Stephen's Christmas gifts from Sherrie, remained on the living room coffee table. Lorca, Kierkegaard—his most cherished authors. They were difficult to find in English. He was touched that Sherrie had gone to such trouble to order the books. She said her efforts earned her the right to tease him. He was an “elitist,” she insisted, a man who read Europeans whose names no one could pronounce. “You're an arrogant son of a bitch,” she added, laughing.

“I like them for the structural exactitude of their sentences,” Stephen said.

Sherrie hit him with a pillow and wrapped him in streamers. They had often talked of traveling to Europe, learning Romance languages so they could read important poets and philosophers in their native tongues (when pressed, Sherrie, a high school English teacher, confessed to elitism too), but Europe was in flames, and it wasn't likely they'd get there any time soon.

Or at all, Stephen thought, strolling down the alleys of the Doom Town. The night she'd pummeled him with the pillow was the last time they'd laughed together. Once he accepted the federal commission—designing a ghost town in advance—she turned away from him, as though families had actually lived in this unrealized community, and he was responsible for their slaughter. “Our country is at war,” he argued over breakfast, his last morning in the house. “This is a patriotic act.”

She shoved the Christmas books into his arms and locked herself in the bedroom. They'd been married less than a year—a whirlwind affair based largely, Stephen feared, on Sherrie's idealized admiration for his work: making the world a finer place by organizing better, more comforting spaces for people (admittedly, he had bragged of this during their courtship).

Well. Her view of him—her ideals—had been shattered. What could he do? A job was a job, and this was a special assignment at a crucial time. Historic. He was certain no architect, anywhere, would have turned it down.

Would she leave him now? Return to him after a period of punishing silence? He couldn't tell, anymore than he could tell how the war would end. Finally, people were unknowable, in public
and
in private. He peered through the windows he'd dreamed into existence, into the dark, empty spaces inside the buildings. What kinds of lives might have played out here, in another time, under different circumstances?

He emerged from the mouth of an alley and glanced proudly up the street at his school. Inside the building, he had showcased the ventilation ducts, placing them in the ceiling, out in the open, rather than hiding them within the walls. This had the effect of breaking up broad surfaces inside the rooms, reducing the sense of mass. He had specified that the walls be painted off-white for reflectivity and airiness. One of his better designs.

Tomorrow morning, it would be obliterated.

A sand castle.

The week he'd arrived in Nevada, a man who described himself as a “low-level official”—they
all
described themselves that way, just as they all wore prim gray suits—let him in on “a little secret” (Stephen had gone drinking with him in a Vegas casino one night): Stephen's town, he said, was a test-run for a scheme cooked up by the Allies. A firebombing. “The idea is to drop bombs of such intensity—say a cluster of four-pound thermites—in areas with high concentrations of structures, so fires will break out rapidly, very close together, superheat the city, and force a rush of hot air upwards-a tornado of flames.”

“So what you're telling me is that, essentially, you'll burn the air?” Stephen said.

The man nodded. He ordered another drink. “We think of it as liberating the city.”

He said plans were in place to target a spot in Germany. Dresden, perhaps. The small scale of Stephen's town wouldn't predict every outcome, but the test would give strategists odds on what they might expect.

Sand castles, burning. “I might as well save you the trouble,” Stephen told his low-level friend. “Design a moonscape. Cut to the chase. Craters. That sort of thing.”

The man said nothing. He didn't smile. A keno runner, collecting cards, hurried past the bar where they sat.

Charred lungs. Flesh. Stephen shut the images out of his mind, and joined his companion in a second drink.

He walked across Main Street, now, to the central park—one of the few open spaces he'd been allowed to design. His clients wanted density, plenty of it. Fuel for the fire. He sat on a bench. A purple and orange dusk. The King of the Crickets sang to him: a faint and cheerful insistence in this land of final reckonings.

Stephen imagined Dresden. With Sherrie, he'd studied photographs of the city in travel books on Europe. Once a medieval marketplace, full of palaces and fortified walls along the River Elbe, now it was a lively
neustadt
of art museums, statues of heroes, glittering monuments.

And after a firestorm? A roar that would never cease. Rubble, smoke, and waste. People running from flaming interiors, unaware that the air itself was scorched.

Stephen closed his eyes and listened to the cricket. His beloved Lorca—a victim of the madness in Europe. Well, perhaps it was a mercy the poet had died so soon.

Sherrie was right, Stephen thought. I
am
an arrogant son of a bitch.

Tomorrow morning, his work would lie in ruins: its finishing touch, a badge of success. He would return to his motel room in the little town of Purgatory, twenty miles away. One of the low-level guys might fetch him for a drink, or suggest they drive into Las Vegas to see the newest additions to the Strip: The Meadows, The Pioneer, The Last Frontier. Ray Anthony and his Orchestra, featuring the singer Kathryn Duffy, played every night now at the El Rancho, with its freshly paved parking lot and the neon-lined Dutch windmill on its roof Plans were afoot for the most glorious casino ever, The Flamingo, reportedly financed by mob money (a rumor that greatly amused the government men).

Vegas was already ruined. The bomb would improve it. “Ah, come on now, you got no sense of humor, no fun?” the officials said whenever Stephen made remarks along these lines.

He had read somewhere that the desert had once flourished underwater. Then, over eons, the marshes receded, the rivers slipped underground, the mastodons vanished.

The cricket went silent. The sun was gone. Up and down the avenues—his sweet little streets—corner lamps began to glow. Soft, ghostly lights. He rose from the bench, pulled from his back pocket the small notebook in which he made sketches, his studies of ideal perspective, and began a letter to Sherrie:

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