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Excerpted from "Blueprints for St. Louis"
It was winter, which meant that a pelvic frost had fallen across the land. Or maybe just across Roy and Helen’s apartment. And, in truth, the frost had long since matured into a kind of bodily aloofness, just shy of visible flinching when they passed each other in the halls, or when they co-slept in the intimacy-free bed they’d splurged on. Why not have the best sleep of your life next to the dried-out sack of daddy you’ve long taken for granted, whose wand no longer glows and quivers for you and for whom you no longer quietly melt? You had to track the erotic cooling back into summer, or the prior spring, and, well, didn’t the seasons and the years just dog-pile one another when you tried to solve math like that?
Helen wasn’t particularly concerned, because, whatever, there was a clarity to the coldness, right? And screw Roy if he’d fallen down a brightly-colored porn hole, pummeling himself to images of animated youngsters slithering around nude, in grownup crotch, gear in a cartoon fairyland. Internet histories weren’t her favorite literary genre, but she knew how to read them. Anyway, if her husband’s use-case viability on the marital graph had taken a nose-dive, then so, too, had her own burden. She had her friends, she had her work on the memorial, and she had the shower head. When she and Roy first got married, whenever ago, Helen’s mother had told her that, if people don’t visit, you don’t have to host. Period, full stop. And even though Helen’s take on this advice now was off-label, it applied just fine to her touchless union. The body unloved, the body unhandled and unseen. The body as a ghost in training for whatever soiled world came next. Anyway, wasn’t left-alone the best place to wind up?
Maybe old age and the cold blue death of the groin would solve that. Maybe Helen would inherit a sweet and useless Roy, post-pornography, sitting politely behind a drool cloth, swaddled in food-stained sweaters. She’d feed him until he cooed and maybe sometimes they would run out of gruel and she would watch his hunger grow, watch his eyes turn small and sad. Would it be so terrible? The sexual urge would be merely an embarrassing spasm of the past. They’d been friends once, before they’d got into designing memorials for unspeakable catastrophes. Intense and respectful partners in their architectural firm. Mutually committed cattle prodders of each other’s darker, stranger brains, torturing out each other’s best ideas, before the chemical repulsion and bed-death had struck. Maybe by old age they’d return to form, be ideal dance partners again, if only they could stay alive long enough.
The problem was today and tomorrow and the next fucking huge bunch of days, the entirety of their middle age, really, which shouldn’t be just a rotten footbridge you had to navigate, with a creepy old troll beating off underneath it. Roy was technically handsome, but he preened, and he moped, and he fished for so many compliments that Helen was fished out, empty, unable to smear any favorable speech over his prim, needy body. Lately he’d been taking himself to the gym with more ambition and lust than he showed for their collaborative design work, and he was all cut up now, a strange, photoshopped musculature slipped over his bones like a bronzed wetsuit. She should have wanted to handle the new body he’d built, use it to snuff out her baser urges, not that Roy offered it to her, but she asked that he keep it covered. In loose-fitting layers, please. It stank of his not-so-hidden effort to attract a mammal outside the home. To sport with it and lick its fur, no doubt. Plus, she had tolerated her husband better when he wasn’t such a vain custodian of the ephemeral—one mustn’t fawn over that which will rot, someone important must have once said.
What consumed them both right now was the situation in St. Louis, for which their firm had been ceremoniously commissioned to design the memorial. Months after the bombing, the city was still digging out. Thirty dead souls, the news had said when it happened. But everyone knew that number wasn’t real. It was low by a couple of decimal points. For days, the toll did not breach a hundred, which seemed impossible. Where did these cautious estimates come from? Maybe from actual bodies. Maybe this meant that the other, more plentiful dead were simply nowhere to be found, in the same way that wind can’t be found. What you did was you factored in the missing, and privately you did not call them “missing.” Thousands of people had not suddenly left their homes that morning and vanished to the mountains. When you watched the footage of the bombing, the dark slab of glass folding over itself like a blanket, then erupting into a pale-brown flower of smoke, and you calculated the typical occupancy, not just of the office tower but of the surrounding plaza, with its underground restaurants and shops, its perimeter of cafes, along with the time of day, the number thirty was a violent piece of wishful thinking, heavy, heavy, heavy on the wish.
“10k+,” Roy had texted Helen from wherever he was the day it happened.
He wasn’t wrong. It emerged that explosives had been buried in the foundation of the tower when it was being built, two years before, by some slithering motherfuckers on the construction crew. Stashed down there the night before the footings were poured, apparently, and then triggered when the building was finished and stuffed to the gills with people. In burning daylight, a time of high commerce, maximum human traffic. Not a government building, so far as anyone knew. Just as dense a cluster of people as any in the Midwest, excepting one or two zones in downtown Chicago. And so, and so. They had the perpetrators on video, brutes in hard hats. Except that they were skinny and they laughed a lot and were often seen hugging one another. Four of them had walked off the job on the same day, before the building had even started to rise up out of the concrete. How that very act—quitting in a group, never to be seen again—hadn’t been some sort of security trigger was beyond Helen, but whatever, hindsight was a foul drug. And now everyone was asking, Who were these men and where had they gone? Oh, please, Helen thought, whenever this particular investigation blistered onto the screen. The St. Louis Four. The villains of Missouri. Can we please not believe that finding these men will matter at all? Please?
“Terrorism” wasn’t really the term anymore. Helen found that it soured in her mouth, like a German word for some obscure feeling. “Tax” seemed to be a finer way to put it. A tax had been levied in St. Louis. In New Orleans last year, in Tucson three years back. Etcetera. A tax on comfort, safety. A price paid for being alive, for waking up. Occasionally the tax collector came. Not just occasionally. Quite a lot these days. You could run out of breath trying to name all the cities that had been hit in this country. The collector came, and people were subtracted from space. Buildings withered into rubble. One’s imagination needed to frequently dilate in order to accommodate the ways and means, and otherwise smart men and women were busy with their scuffed crystal balls trying to figure out what was next, and how, and how. As if this forecasting ever… oh forget it. Soon you knew not to be surprised, and this awareness was chilling. A low hum could be heard during the day, the night, at all times. You walked in a space that might not really be there. There was no longer anything proverbial when it came to danger, nothing to invent, no more fiction of dark days to come. The dark days were here. They were now.
In light of this, it was somehow Roy and Helen’s calling to honor the site with a memorial. Or to try to, to actually compete for this kind of work, squirming through town halls and public debates, spinning a story about their vision, which was only ever a humble story to the effect that nothing anyone did could ever be enough. Their track record so far wasn’t the worst, which was not much of a feel-good fact for either of them, even if a sort of undertaker’s renown had attached itself to their firm over the years. They made their mark by designing large public graves where people could gather and where maybe really cool food trucks would also park. There was money for this, and money for this, and money for this. Hooray. Except that now Helen found it hard to view any other kind of design commission—for a vanilla-white office building in their own downtown Chicago, for example—as anything other than a future headstone, a kind of sarcophagus that would briefly house living, glistening people before they were lowered into the earth or scattered out over the lake in a burst of powder. If you were an architect, you designed tombs, for before or for after. What was the difference?
Helen kept a map pinned above her desk because she thought she might see something in the pattern of fallen cities: a story. Detectives did this to solve crimes. She thought it might tell her what to build. But sometimes, when she and Roy marveled at it, it seemed to them like a coloring book that hadn’t been filled in all the way yet. Sure, there were some spaces still to shade, whole cities left strangely untouched, but not that many. And there was always tomorrow.
St. Louis should not have been high on the list of targets, maybe not on the list at all, but that seemed to be the point these days, in the year of our sorrow. The years and years of it. A new and unspoken list of vulnerable sites had emerged: sweet zones, soft parts of the American body that could be knifed open and spilled out by the most skilled urban surgeons the world had ever seen.
Six months after the St. Louis attack, Roy and Helen had been invited to submit a proposal, and they’d gone through their usual tangled brainstorm, smoothing over the sharper ideas of their junior staff, whiteboarding a design that would appear sufficiently nonthreatening in the space, a kind of tranquilizing maze of low walls and open rooms for visitors to throw themselves around in and grieve. Roy called it the sanatorium aesthetic, and he wasn’t that far off.
One day, as the deadline loomed, they walked along the great lake, which was flat and black, even as the wind pounded them. They started, brokenly, to drill down toward what they might possibly build, what it would look and sound like, what sort of feelings they were trying to create. Usually you had to dance around the stakeholders to determine the emotional bolus of a work, as they called it. But the stakeholders for this project? Only the entire population of the United States of America.
Helen didn’t want to aim high, she started to say, so much as she wanted to aim into a kind of hidden space. “I don’t want you to be able to picture it when I talk about it,” she told Roy. “You shouldn’t be able to photograph it. I mean, like the lake—you wouldn’t even want to photograph it. You shouldn’t be able to draw it. That’s my problem.”
“Gosh, that really is your problem.”
“I don’t know,” she said, gesturing at the sky, which was not particularly pretty or interesting that afternoon. It was not the kind of sky you would ever take a picture of, and Helen found that compelling. “Is there a better memorial than that? The sky?”
“Ha,” Roy said. “It’s good. It’s moody. Maybe it’s a bit obvious, though?”
“Isn’t the sky just a gravestone,” Helen said, “and we’re all buried under it?”
“Oooh. Not bad. I see what you did there. But, no offense, why are we talking about this?”
Helen had to do this, to think too grandly or wrongly in order to maybe get closer to what was called for. “It’s almost like,” she said, “what if you had to design the afterlife exactly as you really think it is. Not something aspirational, some bullshit heaven. Not a religious fantasy. The truth.”
“Yeah?” Roy said. “As in…oblivion? You want to build an oblivion theme park?”
He didn’t care about any of this right now, Helen could tell, and maybe he had a point.
“I assume you don’t believe in, well, anything?” When she thought back to their first conversations in grad school, prickly and intense and flirty, she wasn’t sure if this had ever come up. Was that possible? She had adored and then admired him for so long and now she knew him inside and out, and she felt she understood him to the core. Was it possible that he harbored private, unknowable ideas about his own death and whatever might happen after?
“O.K., let’s assume that you’re agnostic,” Helen said. “We die and there’s nothing.”
“Sometimes there’s nothing before you die,” Roy cut in. ‘Don’t forget that.”
“O.K., let’s say that you want to make an experiential piece that invites people to inhabit that sort of emptiness. How do you do it?”
Roy looked up. “How? As in, how do certain midwestern architects make a credible design of the one, true afterlife? Jesus, Helen. Are we really having this conversation?”
He seemed to give it some thought, but there was something unnatural about how theatrically he pondered, as if he already knew what he was going to say but was pausing for effect. This was the Roy who spouted off at arts panels, who was about to spray fine, floral bullshit across the auditorium.
“I like the question,” he said. “It reveals something important, and I see where you’re going with it. If you make a space like that you connect visitors with the dead, which is a pretty big artistic win.”
Helen winced. Big artistic win.
“In the end,” Roy said, “the question falls apart because the answer is just too easy. It’s too obvious. Why not just kill them? Then they’ll get the real and true afterlife. Who needs to simulate anything when you have the real thing? Someone already designed death. We were beaten to the punch.”
He smiled at her and very nearly seemed to be gloating.
O.K. God. “This isn’t a battle of wits, Roy,” she said. But then she wondered if maybe it was, and that was what was wrong. Partly. When one person thinks it’s not a contest.
They stopped and looked out over the lake.
“I was hoping we could produce work without a body count, though. A modest goal.”
“Oh, you mean because too many people have died already?”
“None of this works if I can’t be honest with you,” he whispered.
“There are other reasons that none of this works,” she said.
“Helen, I was joking. I was trying to be funny.”
But why? She didn’t say. To what end? And aren’t we supposed to be doing this together?
“I don’t know, Roy. Can we think about a tranquil space, not heavy on physical material, not oppressive and thick, that isn’t just a New Age wank space with wind chimes and shit? Can we do that?”
Roy admitted that this sounded good, that this was something they could shoot for.
Excerpted from "Notes from the Fog"
Copyright © 2019 Ben Marcus.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Cold Little Bird 3
Precious Precious 26
Blueprints for St. Louis 53
The Boys 75
The Grow-Light Blues 96
George and Elizabeth 116
A Suicide of Trees 142
Stay Down and Take It 207
The Trees of Sawtooth Park 227
Notes from the Fog 249