Read an Excerpt
By Mark Swartz
Soft Skull PressCopyright © 2006 Mark Swartz
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAs the sun slid behind a huddle of naked towers, the hotel's photosensitive curtain-wall system responded with a well-stocked bar of color transformations: from stout to port, from cabernet to scotch whisky, from gold rum to champagne, then the color of just-poured seltzer. The temperature dropped below freezing without dispersing the static electricity that Chicago accumulates in winter.
At the front desk I tried to charm my way into a room upgrade, but the plastic-complexioned woman withdrew behind a chilled smile. "Name?"
Unfortunately, she said, the Executive Suites were all booked, but would I like her to put me down for a table in the Pepper Mill? After this evening, reservations would be hard to come by. She looked like she'd be cool to the touch: even the hair was frosted. When I asked what was good in the restaurant, she laughed courteously and started to turn away, but then, asking my name again, remembered there was a message for me. Would I wait there just a minute?
The Brahms lobby smelled like spent fireworks. Plumes of smoke rose up through the light fixtures toward the distant glassy heights of the atrium, where slanted gills failed to stir the air.
The way the smoke softened the light made everybodylook slightly debauched. Young executives were swinging hand-tooled leather bags and fetching each other frothy cocktails. I noticed high-end sport coats and Italian shoes, rows of even white teeth set in glowing bronze faces, bodies engineered like aerodynamic instruments. A silk banner billowed from the top of the atrium: Zodia Welcomes the Northeast Tax Action.
I took a seat at the bar, alternately chewing cashews and lighting them on fire. Beside me two Zodiacs conversed, a prelude to something sordid. "I heard," said one, "the architect was a blind man from Brazil."
"Argentina, actually," said the other. (She was the type who used the word actually quite often.) "Desvio-Jardin."
"I could die here in this lobby. Happily."
"This atrium. Legally blind, but his buildings are works of art. An engineering feat without precedent, anchoring the building into the riverbed. The current supplies half the hotel's electricity and maintains a steady temperature in the rooms summer and winter."
"You wouldn't believe the water pressure in my room. It's like being massaged by bullets."
"The Brahms is also a destination for a special kind of pilgrimage, each spring. Every year around this time, the sick and the blind register at the hotel and order a predawn wakeup call. When the hour comes, they take the elevator down to the lobby and, on their own or perhaps with some assistance, drag their seats to the atrium. The first half hour or forty minutes of daylight have a particular quality."
"Something quite spiritual."
"It's incredibly physical, actually."
"Yes, I think I'm feeling it. Or maybe that's the vodka lemon!"
"And the thing about it is. The thing is that this architectural effect, if that's what you call it, cannot be reproduced. Other architects have attempted to remake the building in different cities, using the same designs, the same materials." "Nothing."
"Yes, some things happen only once."
All nuts burn, but some kinds burn better than others. The cashews burnt blue and very slowly, leaving smudges and piles of ash in a foil ashtray. The viability of nuts as an alternative energy source was occupying my mind when the desk attendant beckoned with a small square card.
Same logo as mine-a crystal trident-same raised lettering, same card stock, and yet an unfamiliar sensation shot up my arm to my heart. I knew myself to be capable of falling painfully in love with a dimple in the street or a well-turned ankle on a staircase, but this was my first time with a business card.
Partly it was the name, of course, that me-you-me promise of complex mattress gymnastics, but much deadlier was the moist oval, still warm, from the bearer's thumb pad. You could almost make out the whorls, and they didn't belong to the chilly hand on the other side of the desk.
I reclaimed my barstool and requested a lemonade. Sometimes it doesn't help to have advance notice before making a first impression, and when she approached I was in the process of attempting not to rehearse what to say first. Her hair swayed, her skin glowed. Her waist joined her hips obscenely beneath all that wool. Her eyes never stopped monitoring the lobby. She asked what I was drinking.
"Assuming the glass holds eight ounces," I responded, "that would be seven ounces water, the rest comprising sodium fluoride, sodium hydroxide, potassium permanganate ..." After another sip, I added, "phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and petroleum-based lemon flavoring. Plus other trace elements too numerous to mention. Would you like one?"
There were three big public-private ventures in town. Zodia brought newspapers, garbage collection, and law enforcement under one umbrella, and the former think tank that still went by the name Committee of Lifelong Access oversaw universities, real estate, and beverages other than water. Drixa did water, utilities, and the post.
With the scarf at her throat, cameo on her collar, gold bracelet on one perfumed wrist, analog watch on the other, Miyumi had the air of a more graceful time, though her outlook was thoroughly contemporary. She emphasized Drixa's policy of fielding an extremely wide range of candidates for top positions. The appointment of a Chief Engineer would help to chart the company's course for the next several years, and she had the freedom to interview anybody she had even the slightest hunch about, regardless of background and experience. "That's why I'm with Drixa," she said, "because they let me experiment. Science made this company great, so why should experimentation stop at the lab?"
"I do like the idea," I said, not certain whether I was being told that I was a candidate for Chief Engineer. "Of running everything like an experiment. Once you set up the conditions, you stick with them and wait to see how things turn out. If you altered them in the middle, you'd never know whether your outcome resulted from the first conditions, the second conditions, or from the switch. Experiments are to learn from." This was a lie. Scientists altered their experiments midstream all the time. Knowing how to fudge data was what separated the good ones from the bad ones. But even I knew better than to tell the truth about the truth during what might be a job interview.
"Exactly," Miyumi said, squeezing my kneecap encouragingly. Her long, elegant hand weighed hardly anything, and the warmth through my pants multiplied in my bloodstream. "As you know, we've run a few experiments of our own this past year, and we've always had Lionel's total support, even when things got crazy with the four-day workweek."
"It was my understanding that the staff overwhelmingly preferred that system. Many of us considered it, if not an outright success, then a valuable experience for the entire company. It's a nice hotel."
"We never said not to go home; we just provided the hotel rooms for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday if you wanted to stay. A lot of people took advantage of our offer, and most of those people thought it worked. I thought it worked. Sure, there were some complications, and we hadn't anticipated the way the Tribune would go after us, but personally? Personally I got to know people in ways that wouldn't have been possible under traditional workplace routines. Those relationships I built during those six weeks are already proving valuable going forward."
"If people get bent out of shape, hallelujah. Who says things can't snap back into shape after you're done stretching them?"
"Egg-ZACT-ly!" Miyumi said. "Who says? And what good is a company where people aren't willing to be wrong once in while? That's how Lionel puts it. If you bet right every time, you're betting too safe."
As with the leaders of all successful companies, Drixa's was invariably referred to by his first name. I knew him only from video but felt a special kinship with him because he, too, had once designed filters.
As Assistant Designer, Filters and Drains, I had never thought of myself as Chief Engineer material. I had the engineering degree from Cal Tech and the Brooks Brothers suit (second-hand, anyway), but the qualities and imponderables that distinguished a leader were nevertheless missing from my posture, which never seemed to find a comfortable notch between slouching and standing at attention; and my gaze, which consistently landed on the far sides of intensity and slackness. Not to mention my handshake, which always seemed to grip too early or too late.
She said, "Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses. Don't skimp on the weaknesses, either. I've heard them all."
"I worry too much about the wrong things and not enough about the right things. I remember all kinds of things better forgotten and vice versa. And ..." Then I remembered how to act during a job interview, if that's what this was. "Strength one, creative. Strength two, focused. Three, total dedication to the Drixa mission." My impression of Drixa Director Lionel Dawson's feathery rumble required no explanation.
"Don't forget snappy dresser." She twiddled a cufflink.
"That's a custom-made twill shirt."
"Custom made for somebody, anyhow," she allowed. Plucking a tiny phone from her bag, Miyumi paused to let the winterlight play a melody on her lips. "Okay, here's your big chance," she said.
"You're Lionel, and the car you sent for your dinner companions is late. Tell them it's not acceptable."
Like much of the staff, I had an impersonation of Lionel Dawson, but mine was recognized as uncanny. I let some gravel into my larynx: "This is Lionel. The car I sent ... Yes, no, it's still not there. This is unacceptable." I asked rhetorically, "How long have they been waiting there? Upwards of twenty minutes?"
"Upwards," she confirmed.
"Upwards," I repeated and hit the off button.
"Onwards," she said, slipping the phone into my inside jacket pocket. She took my arm and walked me to the car at the moment it rolled into the breezeway. We climbed on all fours into the back, giggling like prom dates.
"That's not your buckle, Hayden, it's mine."
"Wait, but. Oh, yeah, sorry."
Sensing my befuddlement, Miyumi said, "Just wait, you'll be right where you belong. An Executive Suite with Jacuzzi, fireplace, fluffy robes, and a lake view." She parted her lips with the confidence of someone who had spent long years listening and could now speak effectively and appropriately: "In 1899 they changed the direction of the Chicago River. Isn't it astonishing? Think about that next time you're struggling to part your hair straight."
I smiled back, wondering if I'd been mistaken for somebody else. Yet I hadn't done anything to give a false impression. True, I hadn't said, "I'm not who you think I am. I'm just staying at the hotel while my wife, my estranged wife, packs my belongings." But she hadn't asked.
If confronted, I was ready to assert that I thought she was somebody else.
"How do you change the direction of a river?" Miyumi asked. It was known that high-level job interviews involved tests of the candidate's creative reasoning.
"First you dam it up, I suppose, and then you alter the inclination of the riverbed. Then you sort of teach the water to flow backwards, and gradually it gets accustomed to the new direction. They'll be in trouble if they ever have to change it back, though."
She seemed to think that what I said was cute. I wished I'd shaved a second time. "I actually have a few questions for you," I said, remembering another maneuver expected in a job interview.
"Not so fast!" she replied, on the brink of a giggle. "It's all happening so fast, isn't it?"
"In a way."
"It is pretty funny when you think about it," she said, checking the time on her watch-without, however, permitting me a glimpse-before resting a hand on my knee. "But at least we're keeping our sense of humor."
Our car crawled past the controversial new waterworks, "celebrating the historic partnership of the City of Chicago and the Drixa Corporation." Over an unnerving, ruthless noise from within the gargantuan brick edifice, our driver honked encouragingly to the knot of seven or eight protestors gathered out front. Some of them mistook the honk for criticism and looked angry. It's quite difficult to show encouragement with a honk.
Miyumi told the driver to cross the river, and soon we skirted a particularly elegant lattice system for rainwater and sewage evacuation, and I felt myself nodding with approval; they were my pipes.
"Some people out there seem to have a slight problem with Drixa," I observed.
"ICE-9. Whoever heard of environmentalists protesting clean water? I mean, if they want to drink the poison falling down from the sky, more power to them, but don't tell me to boycott the service we provide and then tell me it's to save the environment."
"Still, give them credit for caring."
"Well, of course," she said. "But they're completely missing the point. I've been with Drixa for nine years, and we've reinvented ourselves five times in response to changing realities, overnight, never forgetting our core mission. You can bet there were plenty of lawsuits."
"Well, lawsuits," I said the word like it was a childish concern. Lawsuits. Cooties.
"Exactly," she confirmed. "Lionel is more than a visionary; he's a visionary with teeth."
"Everyone's excited about the new plant," I ventured. "Safer, cleaner, more efficient."
"It's okay Hayden, he's with us."
I compared the photo on the taxi license to what I could see of the driver's face and was satisfied it was the same man. Pierre Amu Lucluc, a burly uncle with a wide, dark-pink face and a black mustache. Was it the driver himself, or his company, who had ordered the sign posted on the back of the driver's seat?
HOW'M I DRIVING? DO I SOMETIMES FORGET TO SIGNAL BEFORE CHANGING LANES? DO I BRAKE TOO ABRUPTLY OR GIVE HER TOO MUCH GAS WHEN THE LIGHT TURNS GREEN? CAN YOU HEAR ME MUTTERING AT THE OTHER CARS? WHAT GOES THROUGH MY MIND AS I START THIS VEHICLE IN THE MORNING BEFORE A FULL DAY OF BATTLING AN OBSOLETE TRAFFIC PLAN? WHAT WAS LIFE LIKE FOR ME BEFORE I TOOK THIS JOB? WHAT KIND OF PERSON AM I, DEEP DOWN? P.A.LUCLUC 312-2222-LIMO
To Lucluc's credit, the inside of the cab was clean and well ventilated, circulating just the faintest amount of Miyumi's nervous musk past my nostrils. Her nervousness helped me to relax. There was plenty of legroom, and I liked the way the seatback supported my backbone.
"Of course he is."
The closer we got to the restaurant, the heavier the silences between us weighed. Each of us put on like the other was a Drixa favorite and we ourselves replaceable.
"Human Resources must be sizzling these days, with all the growth the company has seen."
"Engineering, that's where the sizzle is. Without innovation, it's all just plumbing."
Looking back toward the slowly receding waterworks, I said,
"Maybe, but you hire the plumbers."
"Come on, Hayden, we wouldn't be here if you weren't some kind of genius."
"Why are we here, Miyumi?"
"No idea!" More laughter.
"But really, I'm not brilliant as a scientist, nor do I have the stamina required of the workhorse, but I do have my tricks. My antennae, very occasionally, pick up a genius signal, and the trick is tuning in."
What would the driver know that I wouldn't? Was the plant a fake? Nobody had told me. As project assistant, I wasn't in on the overall plans for the overhaul of the filtration system but like everyone else had followed the debate surrounding its construction. Like a virus mutating to outsmart a vaccine, pollutants had repeatedly recombined to defeat each successive generation of filter technologies. One public health crisis followed another in devastating succession, with Drixa somehow emerging as the savior each time, rather than the culprit, though that would have been a fair description, too.
The newest purification facility supposedly represented a quantum leap, the only drawback being a terrible rumble that could be heard for miles despite the best acoustic controls. An exemption to noise pollution laws had quickly been ratified over familiar protests from the Independent Council for the Environment, who trotted out psychologists warning of deep citywide distraction that would result from an enveloping hum. Fear propels radical decisions. Now it seemed that the awesome sound amounted to nothing more than a marketing ploy. It was an old trick: in product demonstrations, customers invariably select the louder of two vacuum cleaners of equal power.
Excerpted from H2O by Mark Swartz Copyright © 2006 by Mark Swartz. Excerpted by permission.
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