Louie thinks I’m crazy building a shoe store but I told him, I said, “Louie, you’re not the one stuck at the press conferences and the morning shows. You’re not the one in the all-day meetings with the architects and the goddamned lawyers. It’s not like it used to be, back when we could just build something, have a beer, and go build the next thing. I’m tired and I’m not getting any younger so, yeah, I’m building something simple for once.”
Then he said something about redheads just to piss me off.
“Look,” I said, “this might be the last thing I ever build. And it’d be nice to have one last meeting where the review board doesn’t ask if the Four Horsemen are going to show up, or if we’ve planned enough drainage for all the rivers of blood.”
He had a good, long laugh at that but that’s okay. Louie busted my chops when I told him about the Fountain too, and that worked out all right. Hell, I wouldn’t be building the shoe store if the Fountain hadn’t worked out the way it did. I mean it doesn’t look exactly like I thought it would but that’s always part of the process, to a degree. And we had the usual amount of equipment bursting into flame and structural elements arriving later than expected, but you know those things are going to happen, you have Plan B’s and alternatives for everything and the Fountain was no exception. But it did what I wanted it to do, so, relatively speaking, yeah, the Fountain turned out all right.
I built it in the northwestern corner of the town common, right across from where the video store used to be, and that ice cream stand that sells the 101 flavors with all the chunks of chewy, sweet stuff that make the kids spin like tops—Oscar’s, I think the place is called. Some people complained there isn’t enough parking there and that’s probably true. But we took the soil samples, checked the Farmers’ Almanac and the astrological charts, and, well, that’s where it had to be, parking or no parking.
And, no, I didn’t name it, though the town councillors asked me about that all right.
After I’d pretty much worked out how to build it, I went to a council meeting and told them, I said, “I’d like to build a courtyard on the town common.”
One of the councilmen recognized me right off. He was staring at me through these nerdy Coke-bottle glasses and his mouth was hanging open.
“You built Reversing Falls,” he said, “that river where the water falls up.”
“Yeah,” I said, “that was me.”
He started gesturing wildly to the rest of the council. “He’s the one who built the Aviary of the Sun,” he said, “with all those sunbirds fanned out high in the desert air, hundreds of them, like golden sparks launched from a fire, wisps of crooked flame weaving and soaring against the dark of the night sky.”
“About this courtyard,” I said.
“One of them flew down and buzzed us when we were there on vacation,” said the lone councilwoman. “Almost burned my oldest.”
“Yeah, they’ll do that,” I said. “Fire’s a little tricky to work with.”
Someone said they’d liked Symphony Mountain. Another had a nice meal at the restaurant I built in Bisbee that floats twenty feet over Main Street.
“I’d appreciate a little more focus,” I heard someone say, “on the last thing he built.”
It was the councilman sitting furthest on the right. He was a chunky little guy and he wore one of those dumbass sweater vests and a smarmy little smile. And that’s fine, I’d expected it. You don’t outlive those kinds of mistakes or expect everybody to forget them.
“I think everybody here remembers the Park,” I said. “That didn’t work out the way it was supposed to, I don’t deny it. But this courtyard, well, it’ll be night and day from what the Park was.”
“No zombies this time?” asked sweater vest.
“Well,” I said, “not unless they would make you happy.”
So I told them what I wanted to build—how I’d have a door by itself in the middle of the courtyard. How it would root through you when you walked through it, pull out whatever would make you happiest in this world, give it to you—no questions asked—right there on the town common.
“Like a wishing well,” said the councilwoman. “I assume you’ll have a separate parking lot for all the middle-aged men who want sports cars and bigger penises.”
“No, ma’am,” I said. “I’m not building a wishing well. And this isn’t about what you want. It’s about what would make you happy, as truly, purely happy as you’ve ever been—like getting rid of the cancer that’s killing you, or bringing back that son who died, so you could say goodbye. This courtyard would find that one thing. That’s what it gives you.
“Only temporarily, of course,” I added. “Happiness is a fleeting thing, after all. Even I can’t change that.”
Then they asked about a thousand questions and I answered them as best as I could. It wasn’t like I had all the details worked out at that point, so some of it was just guesswork. I’m not the big-picture architect type—I just get the ideas and build the things. So I told them I’d have someone else draw up actual plans and send them over.
When I got up to leave, the one with glasses asked me, he said, “What do you call it?”
Well, I’d been planning this for the better part of fifteen years but some parts of it, honestly, I hadn’t given much thought. So I mumbled something—I couldn’t tell you what exactly.
“Why, that’s a pretty dumb name for something this miraculous,” said the councilwoman.
“It lacks the proper gravitas for a monument of such sublime transcendence,” said glasses, “especially one with a water feature.”
And from the far wings of the room, somebody else asked, “Who the hell is Jack?”
“Fine,” I said, “that’s fine. I’m just going to build the goddamned thing, you name it whatever you want.”
So they had a town-wide contest to see who could come up with the best name for it. There were inserts in the local paper, flyers in the shop windows on Main Street—all the usual stuff. They even went to the schools and had all the kids send in their ideas as a special project. A month later the Name Selection Subcommittee announced the winning entry on the local cable channel but when the townspeople found out it had come from a sixth grader named Jimmy MacInness, Jesus Christ, the mess that caused. Everybody complained. They forced the council to call a public meeting to discuss it, and all the usual types made all the usual arguments about how this project was going to bring fame and great fortune to the town, etc. etc. and therefore should a sixth grader—no offence, Jimmy—a sixth grader name it? Shouldn’t we hire some marketing types to review the building plans and the site models in order to develop something a little more professional that captured the spirit, the extraordinary nature of the project?
So they put the whole kettle of fish up to a ballot and, well, six months and three hundred grand later the marketing egghead they’d hired told them to name it The Fountain of Pure Joy.
Everybody hated it.
But the three hundred grand was spent so that’s what they named it, done and done. And that’s why I stay out of the naming part of things.
The funny thing is, it’s not even a fountain. I mean, people say the word “fountain” and I picture a half-naked cherub spitting out water like some goddamned holy porpoise. No, the thing I built has lots of shoulder-high concrete walls set at angles to each other around a central tiled courtyard, almost like a building left unfinished. There’s water sheeting down the walls of the courtyard that gets channeled into the narrow troughs that line the walkways, but there isn’t any fountain. And there sure as hell isn’t any fat little angel with a garden hose stuck up its ass.
The archway, I have to admit, worked out better than I’d hoped. It isn’t the simple granite doorway that I’d originally planned, because, well, once the courtyard walls were all up, we realized it was going to be too plain. It would have looked like someone started to build a post office, quit, and left the water running. So I turned the doorway into a large arch with some nice gothic elements and, damn if that didn’t do the trick. Louie tried to talk me into using a pit instead of an archway but I told him, after what happened in Carson, no more pits.
“But,” he said, “this time we just need to—”
And I said, “No. No more pits. No holes, no hollows, no craters, no chasms.” Some things you just shouldn’t do, even if you can.
Honestly, the garden part was an afterthought. Someone—I think it was Maurice—figured there should be some landscaping around the courtyard to soften the look of the whole thing and make it blend in with the rest of the common. So we asked Molly to see what she could do and, Jesus Christ, two weeks later we had a half-acre covered with azaleas, peonies, lilacs of every goddamned shade of purple, and more roses than you could fill a fairy tale with. Now don’t get me wrong—putting the climbing hydrangeas against the walls of the courtyard was, well, quite frankly it was perfect. But the rock garden and the animal topiaries made me wish we’d put in a parking lot instead.
And don’t get me started about the fucking duck pond.
After it was all done I had them put in a park bench for me under the willow tree that overlooks the courtyard. Nothing fancy, just your standard black park bench with cast iron sides and stained wood slats on the back and bottom. But it gives me a place I can just sit and watch everybody enjoy what I built. Most days I bring a thermos, buy a sandwich for lunch, and make an afternoon of it. The only downside is, people know exactly where to find me and I really don’t like being found. Hell, the day after the whole thing opened I came back from Ralph’s Deli with a smoked turkey and bacon on a nice baguette and there was one of the PR guys, just waiting for me.
“We need to have a press conference,” he said. “A little Q & A session with you and some of the national media—do it a couple weeks from now, keep the place fresh in the news cycle.”
“Pete,” I said, “you don’t want me talking to the media.”
“No no, you’ll be fine,” he said. “Just don’t do what you did after the Carson thing.”
So I asked him, I said, “You mean when I told that morning show host to go shit himself a rope?”
He just laughed.
“This place can take away any disease out there for an hour at a time,” I said. “People are going to keep coming, press conference or no press conference.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “There’s a county fair over in Moretown right now that’s got a seven-headed cow.”
“Can their seven-headed cow bring back the dead?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “but can your archway moo all the parts of the Ninth Symphony?”
So Pete set up a press conference and it went pretty much the way I thought it would. Pete started with his little dog and pony show on the Fountain, introduced me, and then all those reporters shot up their grubby little hands and wanted to know the same thing—how does it work?
I told them, I said, “You just follow that walkway through the courtyard and then step through the archway. Simple as that. Kids usually run through it but you don’t need to—that’s just kids being kids.”
“We knew that,” they said. “But you’ve got kids running into one side of the archway empty-handed and they come out the other side in the middle of a blizzard with sleds and snowboards.”
“Well,” I said, “sledding is what makes them happiest.” Actually it’s what makes a lot of people happiest. We had to build a sledding hill next to the courtyard after the first week. Everybody had been sledding into the pink azaleas and, Jesus Christ, Molly gave me an earful about that.
“But how?” they asked. “The sleds and snowboards. The blizzard. All those puppies leaping out of the archway and looking for tennis balls to fetch when little kids go through. How?”
“Look,” I told them, “try thinking about it this way—it’s kind of like an escalator. Do you know how an escalator works?”
“Well, sure,” they said, “you just get on and whoosh right on up to the next floor.”
“Right,” I said, “but do you know technically how it works? Could you build one?”
“Well, no,” they said.
“So why don’t you think those are magic? Why aren’t you hounding the guy that invented them?” I said.
“But the Fountain does the impossible,” they said. “People who are paralyzed or missing arms—they walk through that archway and their arms come back, their legs work. They’re dancing with their wives on the courtyard. They’re walking their daughters down the aisle in an old, country church that popped up out of nowhere. How does the Fountain do that?”
“Well,” I said, “there’s an awful lot of ball bearings. And the biggest conveyor belt you’ve ever seen. I ordered it myself from Big Earl’s Hardware over on Mechanic Street.”
They didn’t laugh.
“People with Alzheimer’s,” they said, “they—”
“Only for an hour,” I said. “One hour and seven minutes, to be precise. I could have gotten it up to an hour and thirty-five minutes, but I would’ve had to have built it outside Houston. And it’s too damn hot in Houston.”
So of course they started asking if it was the town common itself that had miraculous properties and at that point I sighed and just about gave up. I’m not good at explaining what I do, I’m just good at doing it. And some people just aren’t happy unless every little mystery is explained. There’s even people that want to know just so as they can go to the hardware store and build their own little version of it in their backyard, maybe so the kids can play with it while they’re grilling burgers on the deck, or while the neighbors are over. I don’t know.
“Look,” I said, “how do you get someone to fall in love with you? How do you do that?”
Nobody said anything.
They all kind of looked at each other like they weren’t sure if it was a rhetorical question or not. Finally one of the male reporters said, “Well, there’s usually flowers involved. And some cooking.”
“But the cooking and the flowers don’t make them fall in love with you, right? Well,” I said, “this is kind of like that.”
“But getting a girl to fall in love with you,” one of them said, “just isn’t as hard as bringing back the dead.”
“Well,” I said, “we’ll have to agree to disagree on that.”
There were only a couple more questions before we started to wrap up the press conference, and I hadn’t really told anybody off so I considered it a success. I was just about to pull the little microphone off my shirt when one of them finally asked the question I knew I’d get. She cleared her throat and asked me, she said, “So do you think this makes up for the last thing you built?”
I said, “You mean the Park at the End of the World?”
And she said, “Yes, the Park, but more specifically the ever-expanding sulfur pit that ate the entire city of Carson. Also the escaped demons and the seventy-four people those zombies put in the hospital. And the boy the hellhounds caught and—”
“Yes,” I said, “I remember. And, no, it probably doesn’t make up for that.”
And it doesn’t.
I see that kid almost every day now. Well, I see the Jack his mother remembers, all in one piece and not so much as a scratch on him. Makes me forget about the Park for a little while, the sulfur pit, and those hellhounds. Seeing him come bounding out of the archway when his mom walks through it, well, it’s like having the last fifteen years pack their bags and go bother somebody else for a while.
After Mary—that’s Jack’s mom—after she went through the archway and brought him back for the first time, she went and bought him a dog. Apparently he’d always wanted one. She can’t bring the dog to work with her during the week so she only brings it on weekends. Almost every weekday they go off and get some ice cream or Jack goes sledding for a couple runs while Mary just takes it all in, smiling. But every weekend that kid gets to see his dog for the first time all over again and every time he names the damned thing Billy. Stupid name for a dog but what are you going to do—you can’t tell an eight-year-old boy what to name his dog.
When that hour’s up, though, when he goes away like he ran around a corner that isn’t there, I see what it does to Mary all over again, every day, and there’s no making up for that.
At the press conference, one of the reporters asked, “Are they real—the things that come out of the archway—or is it just a trick?”
I told him, I said, “See that guy near the begonias scooping up all the puppy crap? Go ask him.”
Another reporter asked, “Have you gone through it?”
“Of course,” I said. “A couple times.”
“And what happened?” he wanted to know.
“I walked right into a press conference,” I said, “and I was telling you to go shit a rope.”
That got a good laugh.
The first time I tested it—after I walked through—I was just sitting on a park bench, watching Mary walk through the archway, seeing Jack appear for the first time. Then a week ago—after that dumbass teenager spray-painted it—I needed to make sure it was still calibrated properly, so I went through again and I was building a shoe store on Main Street, right where the video store used to be. I told everybody, yeah, it might be nice to just build something simple for once. Everybody knows how shoe stores work so, hell, maybe I’d finally be able to eat an entire sandwich on that bench of mine without everybody bothering me.
A couple weeks after that press conference, Earl from Big Earl’s Hardware came by while I was eating a real nice Reuben. He isn’t called “Big” as a joke. The man blots out the sun.
“I’ve had six hundred and forty-seven orders in the last month for the largest conveyor belt I can get my hands on,” he said.
“Well that sounds like a good month,” I told him.
“Knock it off,” he said. “Those things weigh a ton and they don’t unload themselves.”
So after that, whenever anyone asked me how it worked I just told them the whole thing ran on plutonium.
That’s not to say that everybody who comes by gives me a hassle. There’s a kid who comes by a couple days a week—looks like he’s maybe sixteen. Blind. Every damned time he goes through the archway he comes out the other side with a peanut butter and something sandwich. I know he’s coming when I hear the tip-tap-tip-tap of his cane on the stone walkway as he makes his way up the little hill to my bench.
I asked him one day, I said, “Are you completely blind?”
“Sure am,” he said.
“I would have thought you’d be happier, you know, seeing,” I said.
He just shrugged his shoulders and kept on eating his sandwich.
“How old are you?” I asked.
He held up some fingers but with him also holding his sandwich and a juice box I couldn’t make out the number he was trying for.
“Why don’t you just tell me?” I said.
He swallowed the bite of sandwich he was working on and he asked me, “Didn’t your momma ever tell you not to talk with your mouth full?”
“Still does,” I had to admit.
“I’m allergic to peanuts,” he said, and he licked his fingers after he said it. “I could eat peanut butter all day, though. English muffins with peanut butter on top. Peanut butter and fluff sandwiches. Maybe even some of those peanut butter cookies for dessert, the ones with the little chocolate candy dropped right in the middle.”
He showed me the special pen he jams into his thigh if he has a reaction and the carrying case he keeps it in, strapped around his waist. He told me he has to wear it all the time.
“I’m not too crazy about shots,” I said.
“Well I’m not too crazy about dying,” he replied.
He pointed his cane back down the walkway in the direction of the courtyard. “So how’s it work?” he asked.
“Plutonium,” I said.
“You know,” he said, “people’s voices change a little when they lie. Also I’m not stupid.”
“Well, then, how do you think it works,” I asked.
So he told me.
He started by listing all the different parts we’d need—which ones would have to be custom made, where we’d have to get them. Next he moved on to the site evaluation and the prep work we’d need to do. Then he waved his cane like a conductor as he detailed every step in the construction of the thing. He even stood up and did this soft, slow dance when he got to the part about how to “calibrate the archway so it would sift through the seeds of your dreams, pull your deepest joy out of you like a river, ceaseless and cleansing.” He finished by highlighting some of the additional technical considerations—the wake overbalance remediation, supply chain logistics, all of it.
“I’ll be goddamned,” I said. He got almost the whole thing exactly right.
“There wasn’t any dancing involved, though,” I said as I started eating my gyro again.
“That was merely for illustration,” he replied.
We talk a lot now, him and me. He’s even helping me with the problems I’m having with the foundation for the shoe store, the cracks that show up every time we pour it. He’s getting pessimistic about it but I’m not ready to move on. I told him, I said, “Sometimes you just need to get another sandwich and try again.”
He’s going to do things someday I can’t even imagine. He’s got this idea to make a building out of nothing but music, got it pretty much all worked out too. I helped him with some of the more problematic aspects stemming from entropy and material densities, but everything else he’d figured out by himself. He even has a name for it all picked out and, I have to admit, it’s a good one.
“Just don’t get a big head,” I said. “Some things you just shouldn’t do, even if you can.”
“So I shouldn’t build an apocalyptic amusement park,” he said, “just because my crew chief told people there’s no way I could?”
“Yeah,” I said, watching the wind making waves on the surface of the duck pond. “Yeah.”
Mary comes by some days too, which is nice. She works in an insurance office over on Coombs Street during the week and she walks over on her lunch break. It always makes me smile to see her walking through the courtyard—seeing those long red curls of hers and those cotton sundresses she likes to wear. There’s just something about a woman in a sundress—the way it swishes when they walk, you know? It’s like it’s going to be summer forever when you see that.
Anyway, Molly called Mary up right after we got the archway up and running, had her come down and try it out. She was the first person to use it, after me. I tried to introduce myself at the time but she belted me before I could get the words out, almost knocked me out cold. Louie had a good, long laugh at that before he helped me up.
After that I figured I’d just leave Mary alone. But a couple weeks later, she sat down on my bench and, well, that was a surprise. She didn’t say anything, though, just sat there, her eyes all red. I sure as hell didn’t want to get walloped again so I ate my turkey club and kept my mouth shut. After a while, she got up and walked away. A week after that she sat next to me again and apologized for punching me. I told her it was all right, that if anybody had it coming I did.
“Why’d you have to build that goddamned park,” she said. It didn’t seem like a question the way she said it.
I wanted to tell her it was because I was young, stupid, and a showoff all at the same time. Instead I just apologized for building the thing that killed her son. After that she didn’t say anything for a while.
I thought she might leave again so I asked her, “What’s the dog’s name?”
That’s when she told me Jack always names it Billy. She told me all about how he had always wanted a little brother and how he was going to call him Billy. But instead he got a little sister named Emma and he called her Billy anyway. Well that upset Mary and her husband for obvious reasons so they made him stop, even though Emma didn’t mind. Ever since then he had wanted a dog, specifically one he could call Billy.
And she told me how much she hated me. She told me how her husband was able to start moving on with things a couple years after Jack died, so she started hating him too. No one likes being hated, so he left and he took Emma with him. Mary told me how much she hated me for that, too.
I’d already apologized so I didn’t know what to say to her. I just sat on my side of the bench, watching the sleds come in pairs down the hill, and didn’t say anything at all. It was only when she got up to leave that I asked her, I said, “How do you like the Fountain?”
She just shook her head and did this sad little laugh. “It’s all right,” she said. “Stupid name, though.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “I wanted to call it ‘Jack’s Door’ but apparently that was stupid, too.”
She turned and looked at me for a moment, but she she didn’t say anything and I couldn’t read her face. Then the next thing I knew she was gone.
I guess it’s the Park that we have in common, Mary and me. Not what it was supposed to be, not what it was, but what it did. It’s always hanging in the air around us, even when we aren’t talking about Jack, even when we’re just sitting on opposite ends of the bench, not talking at all. I guess that’s why Mary still comes around and why we don’t have to say a lot when she does. I always start by asking, “Did he name him Billy again?” And she usually nods her head and smiles as she’s drying her eyes. She’s got these green eyes, the kind of green you see on apples right before you pick ‘em. I’ve never seen a woman so sad look so pretty as that.
Sometimes we just talk about things going on in town—things being built, things being torn down. Sometimes we talk about the weather. Or she’ll complain about her job. She says the other ladies in the office laugh at her behind her back, laugh at her for buying a dog for a kid who died fifteen years ago. And they complain about the long lunches she takes. And on top of that she’s on her feet all day, which you can get away with when you’re younger. But when you start getting a little older like we are, well . . .
So I told her a couple weeks ago, I said, “You need to get yourself some new shoes, good ones with cushioned inserts and all the proper support, like mine. Good shoes just make everything easier.”
“Oh, I know it,” she said, “but I have to keep wearing these old things because I can’t find anything my size in town.”
She’s got an extra-wide foot, she told me, wide enough that she has to special order the shoes she wears. Apparently you need an actual shoe store to put in the order for you—the big-box store down by the post office won’t do it. She said there’s one out in Morrisville but she doesn’t ever get out that way, and sixty miles is a long trip just for shoes.
“What about online?” I asked.
“I’ve got a trunk of unreturnable shoes that either look or fit different than I thought they would,” she said. “So, no, I like to see the style in person, hold them and feel around the inside before I order them, thank you very much. But the shoe store in town went out of business after they put up those box stores, so I’m stuck until I can get out to Morrisville.”
I was eating a BLT on wheat bread that day. The tomatoes were that kind of sweet you only get when they’re fresh and they used that thick-cut bacon, which makes all the difference.
“Someone ought to do something about that,” I said, and Mary nodded.
Down by the pond Molly had a bagful of bread and she was throwing chunks of it to those ducks of hers, making sure each and every one got their fill. Goddamned things are as big as dogs now.
“Hell,” I said to Mary, “how hard could it be to build a shoe store?”