Monday, September 30, 2013

“You promised, Carl.” Jordan seemed very close, despite the little sound of her disembodied voice on the phone.

Carl looked to the ceiling, as if to discern some answer from the speckled tiles. “Yeah, well—” he began, but bit his tongue as he heard his flippancy. “I’m sorry,” he said, softening, “but things got busy.”

“You promised.

Carl leaned on his desk, pinching the bridge of his nose as he squeezed his eyes shut. He hated this, the squirming, the hot flush in his chest and cheeks, the flutter in his stomach: he was a horrible liar. He knew it, and he could feel that ironic truth whenever the lies, big or small, pressed out between his lips. The phone, fortunately, made it a little easier.

“Carl? Are you still there?”

He forced himself to swallow. “Yes, yes, I’m still here. Distracted, that’s all.” He cleared his throat and licked his lips. “It’s real busy here. Hemphill again.”

“I thought the plans were done?”

“I know, I know. Look, I got called into the office, I was told Hemphill decided over lunch he didn’t like the atrium we designed. Wants it open, bigger. It’s complicated.”

“So how late—”

“Late. I know tonight was important with the wedding plans and tasting the food at the caterer but I just can’t get away. Not tonight.”

Jordan let out a long, tired sigh, her breath rushing across the phone. With his eyes closed Carl could imagine her standing in their darkened kitchen, arms crossed, eyes on the clock, phone pinned between ear and shoulder, surrounded by the rhythmic, echoing tap of her designer Italian shoe on the glossy tile floor. “So I guess I’ll call and cancel,” she said at last, her voice heavy.

He pressed on his eyes, feeling the sudden seep of sweat on his back. “No, don’t do that. You go. I trust your judgment.”

“It’s our wedding,” she said in protest, her exasperation welling up. “Why am I always making the decisions?”

He rubbed his forehead. She was on the phone, just a little voice in his ear, but he felt as if she towered over him. “It’s just been a bad time for me. You know how busy I’ve been.”


“I can’t,” he interrupted, a blatant signal that the exchange was over.

After some hesitation she consented. “Fine. I’ll go. How about I bring you some samples? I’m sure they’ll understand. I’ll pass you on the way home, anyway.”

His throat tightened. “You don’t have to do that.”

“What? Did you hold back the whole group?”

His eyes popped open to gaze across the empty, darkened office. “Most of them,” he said, his skin tingling with the lie. “You know how they are when they work late. Pack of wolves. Wouldn’t go over well if in the middle of all this you brought in a plate of food.”

She said nothing.

He clenched his teeth. She knows.

“Fine. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

“Right, Tom—”

The dial tone pierced his ear.

“Everything okay?”

The handset popped from Carl’s hand. He looked up. “Damn it Dan, you scared the hell out of me.”

Dan shrugged. He was a slight man, his outline even more delicate when framed in the light of the conference room. “The emptiness can be eerie,” he said in his even, little voice. “Is everything okay?”

Carl glanced at the phone. He pushed himself up to stand, relieved that his pants hid his wobbling knees. “Yes, everything’s fine. Wedding details, that’s all.”

Dan nodded, watching Carl walk to him. “Commitment jitters?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Carl growled, rubbing the back of his neck. He brushed by Dan as he paced into the conference room to stare at the plans and drawings scattered over the table and tacked on easels. “Let’s get to work.”

Dan raised an eyebrow as he walked to the table. “I’d be nervous, if I was you. Jordan is a lovely woman. Dynamic. Attractive. A lot of men will envy you.”

“Me?” Carl blew out a breath as he glared at the plans. “That’s ridiculous.”

“What was that?”

He shook his head and leaned over to plant his hands on the table. “Never mind. So where were we?”

A crooked grin seized Dan as he stepped beside Carl, looking by Carl’s shoulder to the plans. “You said you wanted the atrium more open. More space. More ‘free,’ I believe was your exact word.”

Carl blinked, taking effort to let the jibe float by. “We ran the glass all the way up the front,” he thought aloud, scratching his chin. He tapped a finger on the plans. “We could move this beam over, and beef up the supports. That should clear any obstruction to the outside.”

Dan reached across Carl’s view to point at another detail. “Might run into some problems. Open the atrium, you get rid of the obstructions for sure, but structurally, you get secondary stresses radiating over the rest of the framework.”

Carl frowned. “That’s what I have you for. You can take care of that.”

“No, I can’t,” Dan replied with his metered engineer’s calm. “You have to tailor your ideas to certain constraints. The overall design is already set. There’s no time to refigure the plans this late in the game. You can only change things so much.”

“But Hemphill will love it open.”

“Hemphill loved it the way it was before,” Dan reminded him. “You were the one who sold him this idea over lunch.”

Carl opened his hands, his eyes widening. “This could win us an award.”

Dan shook his head. “Personally, I don’t care for awards. I don’t like drawing attention to myself. You, on the other hand, you have an office full of awards. You don’t have to prove anything. Everyone here sees you as the golden boy of the firm. Besides, you already have something that everyone is happy with.”

Carl’s eyes glazed over as he scrutinized the plans. “Happiness is just a feeling. Emotions are fickle and fleeting. Awards are permanent.”

Dan looked over, studying Carl’s profile. He drew in a breath and opened his mouth, but when Carl glanced at him he hesitated, reconsidered what he was going to say, and lowered his head. After several moments of Carl’s increasing scrutiny he shrugged and gave a little shake of his head. “It’s too late, Carl.”

Carl stared at him.

Dan shifted on his feet, his gaze falling to the table. “The plans are at the county office. The permits are done. Materials are on order. We can’t change things at this point.”

Carl ground his teeth, annoyed that moment with Dan’s presence, with Dan’s very existence. He cleared his throat as his stomach began to knot. His thoughts came back to him, and he blinked, the amorphous strands of the conversation returning to him. “The atrium is the first thing you see of a building,” he said, “the first inner view, and yet you can glimpse it from the outside. It’s a statement to the subconscious eye of the observer. Hemphill agrees with me. He wants a statement. He wants people to look and get an impression. It’s a certain brand of sales work. It doesn’t matter what Hemphill’s people do, but how their customers feel when they walk up those steps and in those front doors, into an illusion promising openness, honesty, and integrity. Structures making statements, facades as delusions. Impressions are subjective by nature and have nothing to do with reality. That’s art. There’s a place for art in architecture. We just have to make it work.”

Dan was quiet for a moment as he continued to stare at Carl. “That was a nice little speech,” he complimented, but his dry tone said otherwise. “Reminds me of something I heard in school. ‘Art is found when we pursue the boundaries between tolerance and curiosity.’ You should think about that next time you get a great idea. And next time use it a little earlier,” he added, meeting Carl’s gaze when it came to him. Dan opened his hands, blameless. “After all this time, you say nothing until the last minutes are ticking away, and expect me to just go along with you? What were you thinking?”

Carl tipped his head and looked to the plans. “I thought we could work something through.” He looked up with a shrug. “Keep it between you and me. See what happens. You know. If it works, so be it, if not, drop it. Nobody needs to know.”

Dan stood silent, his face expressionless, his eyes fixed on Carl. A phone rang outside, the front desk extension blinking on the conference room phone. A second ring. Then a third. At the fourth Dan’s hand shot out to snatch the phone. He listened, gave a quick “Yes,” and hung up, his gaze never wavering. “The lobby guard. Jordan’s coming up.”

Carl faded back a step, then two, before finding himself beating a hasty retreat to the bathroom. Alone, surrounded by his distorted reflection on expensive imported tile, he paced about, hands clamped on his head to constrain his spinning thoughts. When it was too much to bear he turned to the sink and washed his face with cold water. His chest tightened, his breath fading to a shallow pant. He shut the faucet, bracing himself on the countertop as he felt water bead and drip from the ball of his nose. Think fast! Think fast, you can do it, just think fast.

He raised his head and stared in the mirror.

Look at yourself. What the hell is your problem? Dan knows. He knows! And he’s right. Look at Jordan. She’s dynamic. She’s beautiful. She’s the woman every other corporate brat would die for, the perfect urban career wife. I’ll have my life and she’ll have hers. We’ll make a lot of money. Buy a big house and drive big imported cars. And she’ll never ask a question too deep, never press too much, just as I won’t press her, because neither of us will really want to know anything that might disrupt the façade, the outside envy of our lives. When I slip that ring on her finger it’ll be the icing on the cake of my grocery list life and a noose around my neck. If everything I’ve achieved is supposed to be right and good, why do I feel this way?

He considered his wall of glass awards, his architectural successes, hanging over the desk in his office.

He pondered his wall of translucent faces, the likenesses of his successful affairs, hanging over the desk of his mind.

The thoughts rushed by in a heartbeat amid a flurry of doubt and denial. He stared at himself as he turned the faucet to let the cold water run. When the sink was full he took a breath, braced himself, and dunked his face. Beneath the water he opened his eyes, waiting until his lungs labored for breath, until his head began to pound. The drain was before him, its metal disk so clear, so distinct—crystalline, almost—that it seemed there was no water after all, and focusing on that, the anxiety to breathe abated. It was a splendid delusion amid the clarity of the airless water, and he held there, marveling at what his mind could summon to cloak his will.

He closed his eyes and straightened his arms to lift his face from the water. His eyes opened to find his reflection in the mirror, his nostrils flaring as he drew in a long breath and held it in his chest.

He wiped his face. He rolled his shoulders. He straightened his tie. You know what? I think I can lie after all. Maybe I’ve been lying all along, so well I didn’t even know it.

With a strange calm flowing through him he strolled across the office and into the conference room to find Jordan and Dan conversing beside the table. They both turned to him as they noticed him, Jordan’s gaze tracking him as he walked to her and gave her a peck on the lips.

Her face fell at the chill of his lips, but she blinked it away. “What happened to the wolf pack?”

He shrugged. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I know I’ve been difficult lately. But after we talked on the phone I realized what I was doing and decided to change. So, I sent everyone else home. Dan was good enough to stay a few minutes and help me clean up. You must have missed them before you got here.” He rested his hand on the small of her back, the material of her business suit very smooth against his skin, smooth as the words flowing with such ease off his lips. He swallowed. “What about you? I thought you were going alone.”

She hesitated, her lips pressing to a pale line before she spoke. “I have to admit I came here with one thing in mind, and that was to drag you out of here, no matter what you were doing. No offense, Dan,” she added, glancing at Dan.

Arms crossed on his chest, Dan flipped up a hand. “None taken.”

Carl’s gaze darted between them. “So. I hope you two weren’t talking about me behind my back,” he said in jest.

Jordan gave him a crooked grin. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Not about the boss,” Dan said with a tip of his head. “As a matter of fact, Jordan was telling me about the houses you two are looking at. Just outside the city? Very nice.”

“Well, not too far,” Jordan explained. “Art curators don’t do so well in suburbia. You have to be where the creative crowd lives.”

Dan bowed his head. “Of course. Listen, Carl, when you move, you let me have first dibs on that Prospect Hill condo you two have. Simon and I would love to live up there. Besides, you owe me for tonight.”

“He owes all of us,” Jordan said with a roll of her eyes. “Sometimes I think he’d rather sleep on blueprints than sheets.”

“No fair,” Carl protested with a little laugh. A nervous fit washed over him, and he had to fight to keep his hands from shaking, but it passed with ease. For a moment the crystalline sight of the drain flashed through his mind, but he let it go, and hooking a hand through Jordan’s arm, nodded to her. “All this humor at my expense,” he said with mock offense, “as if you’re so different. Sometimes I think you’d sleep on canvases instead of sheets.”

Dan pointed at Carl. “You be kind to that fair lady. Simon is indebted to her for getting his first show. That’s the only way we can afford to move up to Prospect Hill. Now, if only I was compensated properly for the demands heaped upon me,” he said with a sigh, rolling his eyes in the wake of his none-too-subtle insinuation.

Carl frowned. “You’re not getting a raise, Dan.” His feet pulled him and Jordan to the door. At the last moment Jordan turned to Dan, the glint of a forgotten thought coming to her eyes. “Dan, is Simon working on anything new? I have a buyer from the last show who’s interested in his work. Looking for something special.”

Dan nodded. “Funny you should ask. He’s been obsessed with a new idea of late. He’s only let me get a peek at it.” He raised his hands, gesturing as he spoke. “A starry sky, clouds, and three muses, strings from their hands down to people beneath them, like marionettes. I keep asking him about it but he only says the same thing about the project— work, I mean work, he hates when I use that word project. The differing sensibilities of our differing professions, I guess.” He paused a moment, rubbing his chin in thought. Then he smiled, looking between Carl and Jordan. “That’s it, now I remember what he’s been saying: ‘With a wayward glance and a wayward thought we lead a wayward life.’” He fell silent, crossing his arms on his chest again. “A whole painting, just from that.” His eyebrows rose in thought before he waved a hand. “You two have a good night. I’ll see you tomorrow, Carl.”

Carl faded with Jordan into the shadows of the office. She was talking, but her words washed over him with little purchase. His forehead sank, but then he shrugged, and despite feeling suddenly and impossibly satisfied with himself, he nevertheless heard a distant thought whispering through his mind. They walked out of the building, and he looked to the night sky.

Art, he scoffed to the lonesome, crystalline twinkle of the stars. He thought of those images lurking within him, the images that had flashed through his mind, his own gallery of impressionist delusions, and heard their whispers once again. But there was another thought there, and when he heard its voice, he found it to be the sweetest delusion, the sweetest denial, he had yet conceived for himself, and understood the sudden ease of his lying words.

Ah yes, artistry indeed, he proclaimed as he tipped his head back, resplendent in his new deduction. Art is the solace of deception.

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Roland Allnach

Roland Allnach has been writing since his teens, but did not actively seek publication until 2007. He has numerous published short stories to his credit, one of which was a 2010 Pushcart Prize nominee, as well as two multi-award winning books, ‘Remnant’ (2010) and ‘Oddities & Entities’ (2012). His literary inspirations arise from classic literature, history, and mythology, and his aim is to invest his stories and characters with a complexity and depth that continue to reward upon repeated readings. Writing aside, his joy in life is the time he spends with his family. For more on Roland Allnach and his writing, visit www.rolandallnach.com.


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In memory of Kurt Brown

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