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Authors: Tracy Daugherty

The Empire of the Dead

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THE EMPIRE OF THE DEAD

Johns Hopkins: Poetry and Fiction
John T. Irwin, General Editor

The Empire of the Dead

Stories by
Tracy Daugherty

This book has been brought to publication with the generous assistance of the Albert Dowling Trust and the Writing Seminars Publication Fund.

© 2014 Johns Hopkins University Press

All rights reserved. Published 2014

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Johns Hopkins University Press

2715 North Charles Street

Baltimore, Maryland 21218-4363

www.press.jhu.edu

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Daugherty, Tracy.

[Short stories. Selections]

The empire of the dead : stories / by Tracy Daugherty.

pages  cm.— (Johns Hopkins: Poetry and Fiction)

ISBN
978-1-4214-1580-2 (pbk. : acid-free paper)—
ISBN
978-1-4214-1581-9 (electronic)—
ISBN
1-4214-1580-1 (pbk. : acid-free paper)—
ISBN
1-4214-1581-X (electronic)

I. Title.

PS
3554.
A
85
A
6 2014

813'.54—dc23             2014012498

A catalog record for this book is available from the British Library.

Special discounts are available for bulk purchases of this book. For more information, please contact Special Sales at 410-516-6936 or
[email protected]
.

Johns Hopkins University Press uses environmentally friendly book materials, including recycled text paper that is composed of at least 30 percent post-consumer waste, whenever possible.

For Margie and Hannah

CONTENTS

I

I Have the Room Above Her

Suitor

The Empire of the Dead

Art and Architecture

II

Signs

The Magnitudes

III

Basement and Roof

Acknowledgments

I
I Have the Room Above Her

Every evening at 5:30, Bern walked from the storefront office of the small architectural firm he worked for on West Eighth Street to Glasco's, a bar one block north of the Cedar Tavern on University Place. There he had a sandwich and a beer. After dining alone in the melancholy comfort of noisy anonymity, he strolled along West Eleventh in the direction of the river, taking in the mild midwinter night. The steel gratings in the walls of the old brownstones emitted blasts of hot air smelling oddly of hair oil. Through the street-level basement windows of the First Presbyterian Church (sooty Gothic Revival), he glimpsed women sweating over an industrial stove.

A few paces later, Bern prickled at the bland modern façade facing the street where anarchists had blown up their 1840s-era townhouse in the 1970s. These days, the front window of the first floor showcased a teddy bear dressed in a yellow slicker, holding a black umbrella—the occupant's wink (Bern assumed) to the Weathermen, the group that had built the bomb.

A young man marched past Bern, hoisting a boy onto his shoulders. “Mommy's
stressed
,” the man warned the boy. Mommy was nowhere in sight.

The sidewalk, a mix of new and old concrete squares, sloped and dipped. In the bare little garden of PS 41, a black and broken umbrella lay on the ground. A bearded man in a heavy coat and a Mets cap climbed over a rail fence onto the school property, gripping a plastic trash bag, and began searching for scraps among the garden's twigs.

Usually, Bern stopped at the end of the block to contemplate the Wall of Hope and Remembrance on the south side of St. Vincent's Hospital. Hundreds of notes and photos commemorated people never found after the attack on the World Trade Center. On the sidewalk, someone had left a child's light blue sweater and a pair of baby shoes. Pigeons cooed in the building's concrete eaves.

Bern was startled to find the brick wall blank, emptied of its elegiac icons. A siren shrieked. An ambulance pulled up to the curb. From its rear, two paramedics unloaded a man on a stretcher.

Still dazed by the hard, cold wall, Bern turned from the hospital's emergency entrance. Across the street, in the front window of a shop called Fantasy World, faceless mannequins lounged, wearing sheer pink lingerie. Down the block, wind ruffled the red canvas awning of the Village Vanguard. Bern shuffled up the street to the White Horse, where he stopped for another beer.

At a table next to him, two women conversed:

“How's her father?”


Which
father?”

“I know, I know …”

Someone had left part of the
Times
, wet and rumpled, on a chair. Distractedly, Bern raced through the paper. Why did the hospital's cleared wall disturb him? He had not known anyone who died in the attack. From the beginning, he had resisted the media call to public mourning and the government's shameless fear-mongering.

Here, now, was a headline declaring that Governor Spitzer had signed off on the Freedom Tower. A mistake, Bern thought. Who would occupy the thing? It was terribly designed.

He finished his beer and paid. His agitation—over what?—was too great for sleep, so he walked some more, retracing his steps. He ducked into the Strand.

“Was Ishmael the whale,” he heard someone say, “or the guy that tried to kill the whale, or—?”

On the table of New York titles, Bern found a reprint of E. B. White's
Here Is New York
, a volume he had loved twenty years ago as
a fresh arrival on the island, not long out of college … though even then the book had had a musty air about it. White's New York was that of the Beaux Arts urban canyons of the 1920s and '30s, full of brick buildings with cozy window ledges and niches sheltering restless doves: a city long vanished. Since 9/11, White's book was spoiled for Bern because its prophetic conclusion—“A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy”—had been quoted so often in the press and on the blogosphere.

On the shelves Bern found a pristine paperback entitled
A Hut of One's Own
by a woman named Ann Cline. On impulse he decided to buy it. He liked the cover illustration: a black and white photo of a simple square table, a kerosene lantern, a pitcher and a pan, all in a small wooden room. Like most old-school (i.e., middle-aged) architects he knew, Bern was fond of huts—of the
idea
of the hut.

He hiked to Seventh and caught the subway, then darted over to West Twenty-third Street. His apartment was on the fourth floor of a building with wide glass doors, next to a new thrift shop called McGee's, whose sign was painted to appear beat-up, old, and faded. In the lobby of his building, a worn blue carpet once plush—ten, fifteen years ago—kinked like popcorn beneath his shoes as he moved toward the elevator. A dull, gassy odor filled the lobby, rising from the sofa squeezed against the far wall between two potted ficus plants with cobwebs stretched among their leaves. The smell came from old leather that had been too much in contact with soiled clothing over the years—the sweaty dresses and slightly damp bottoms of long-forgotten visitors to the building.

A hand-drawn map of Paterson, New Jersey, now mostly faded, was framed on the wall above the sofa, next to a chipped mirror whose smoky, yellowed glass flattered even a weary Bern after a trying day. Its smudged spots smoothed the lines under his eyes and seemed to straighten his mildly crooked nose. On the sofa slept Mrs. Mehl, about whom Bern knew little. Widow. Third floor. Light snorer, often asleep here in the evening. Tonight there were two bags of groceries—cat food and chocolate cookies sticking out—on
the floor at her feet, as if she had made it just this far, surviving the bustle on the streets, and could walk no more.

Gently, Bern nudged her shoulder, nearly lost in the padding of a purple coat. “Mrs. Mehl. Dear,” he said. “You'll want to go up now. It's getting late.”

“Oh yes, yes. Certainly,” she said, primping her sparse white hair as if she hadn't been napping but was prepping backstage, somewhere, for her moment in the klieg lights.

“Can I help you with your bags?”

“No, no. Well, just the one, perhaps. Thank you,” said Mrs. Mehl, and they rode the lift together in mute dignity. When the doors, heavy wood with copper trim, sighed apart, Mrs. Mehl wrestled the bag from Bern's arms, thanked him again, and swiftly turned the corner in the dim, greenly lighted hallway. Bern smelled leaden fried foods—perhaps pork chops and onions? And he also detected … some rare Asian leaf? Was it kaffir lime?

In his apartment, he added water to a blue vase on his kitchen counter holding a single moss rose—a reminder of his East Texas childhood, just outside of Houston, where moss roses grew in abundance. He switched on his bedside radio. Another car bomb in Baghdad. Another condemnation by the vice president of war critics, whom he implied were traitors to our brave and steadfast republic.

Before turning off his light, Bern flipped through Ann Cline. “St. Anthony in a hut, immobile in the face of worldly temptations,” he read. The hut, he read, was the “taproot of inhabiting.”

Bern closed the book and lay in the humid dark. Cline's remarks reminded him of Carlo Lodoli, an eighteenth-century Venetian architect he had learned about in grad school. Apparently, Lodoli had much to say about wood, stone, and bone, and their uses in construction. Bern remembered that, in addition to promoting radical building designs, Lodoli was suspected by the inquisitors of the republic of spreading seditious ideas. Upon his death, officials confiscated his papers, including his architectural jottings, and locked them away
under a leaky roof in the Piombi, where they rotted. Only through the subsequent, and much embellished, writings of his students, Algarotti and Memmo, did Lodoli's thoughts survive, as rumor, hint, and innuendo.

Back in school, Bern had deduced that the master's teachings, if they could ever be known, said the point of architecture was to understand the nature of the materials it employed. Perhaps this is what disturbed me earlier, Bern thought now. Isn't the aim of all human activity—violence, remembrance—to plumb human activity? Taproots. First principles. So damnably hard to trace.

2.

He had not visited the WTC site in five years. Early this morning, before heading to work, he felt a desire to see the area again. On the subway he stared at the cover of the Ann Cline book. The table, the pitcher, the pan.

Of course, there was not much to see at the site. A vast construction zone, with little construction in progress. Pataki's Pit, everyone called it, deriding the former governor's politics, which had kept the hole a hole longer than it needed to be.

Bern was not as pleased as he thought he would be by the new structure—knife-edged and opaque—on the pit's north lip: 7 World Trade Center, the newspaper reviews of which had been mostly positive. To Bern, the building's blocky base screamed
fear
. The first ten floors housed an electrical substation powering most of Lower Manhattan. But did it have to
look
like an electrical substation? Bern thought. The Jenny Holzer installation—a series of ghostly words marching across the front glass wall, including lines from
Here Is New York
and celebrations of the city from the poems of Walt Whitman—charmed him but left him feeling irritated that he couldn't stay all morning to read it.

Bern made his way past Vietnamese street vendors hawking New York sweatshirts and woolen caps, as well as pamphlets with
TRAGEDY
printed in red across the top.

Bern's office on West Eighth was small and drab, outfitted only with a desk, a rarely used computer, a few chairs, and a smattering of file cabinets overflowing with paperwork. The dirty windows overlooked a secondhand clothing store. Usually at lunchtime, Bern left the building, passed through the dreary lobby—almost always empty—caught a subway, and strolled up to Madison Square Park. There, under the pleasant shadows of curling oak trees, he'd eat a sandwich he'd packed at home.

BOOK: The Empire of the Dead
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