Monday, August 21, 2017. She wanted to be discreet. Allison’s first attempt at contacting her new neighbor was searching online for a name and phone number associated with a street address, which produced zero results. Next, she browsed the Harris County Appraisal District’s website, but the public database still listed Earl as owner, so that was a bust. The fear of living next door to a kitsch mini estate blinged with plastic Greek columns was soul-crushing, so Allison needed a Plan B. Plan B was Earl. When two voice messages went unanswered, Allison left him a third. There was no Plan C.
Patience, said the voice. Wait and see.
You’re right, she thought. Don’t get distracted. Focus on designing a new plinth house for Gloria and Otto. Allison had visited her new clients, a professional dancer married to a computer programmer, on their Brays Bayou property when she interviewed for the commission. Now that she was under contract, she needed a topographic survey and a soils test. Before engaging engineers and getting buried in numbers, though, Allison wanted to walk the site with her camera, maybe freehand sketch a little. She threw a tablet and soft pencil into a satchel, loaded her folding stool and Nikon in the Volvo’s trunk, and backed down the driveway. At the curb, she stopped.
Allison studied the skeleton rising above the construction fence. Sometime yesterday while she was reading in Rice University’s library about an architect who’d designed several homes near Gloria and Otto’s parcel, a steel structure went up next store to Maison de Mom. She hadn’t noticed it arriving home after dark. Allison got out of her car and trotted across the grass. Peering through the gap between gate and fence, she saw a forest of shiny columns standing taller than her single-story house, a silver cage glinting like tinsel in the morning sun. Bright galvanized steel, she thought. Unlike Maison de Mom’s primed and painted metal exoskeleton, these bones would no doubt be buried inside peel-and-stick brick veneer, or synthetic stucco, or some other God-knows-what fake skin. This was not a good sign.
Oh, shit—and there were three rows of beams. One was only a few feet off the ground. Industrial-strength wind bracing crisscrossed on all sides. Jeez, a heavy-handed monster was in the making, and it could grow into a behemoth if the contractor framed past the top beam in wood. Allison imagined the beast crowned with a comic mansard roof encrusted with cutesy dormers.
Her chest tightened. Her pulse quickened, and she was short of breath. Allison’s worst-case scenario was staring her in the face. It was a McMansion, and it was under construction fifty feet from Maison de Mom.
“Wait and see, my ass,” she told no one. “Yesterday there wasn’t a slab on the site. Today, there’s a frikken erector set.” She revised her completion estimate down from nine months to six, then dumped her satchel’s contents onto the passenger seat and fished for her phone. After the beep: “Earl, where the hell are you? Pul-leese call me.”
Allison drove to Brays Bayou with the radio loud, drowning out thoughts of an expensive-but-cheaply-built Greco-Roman-Tudor temple of doom spoiling her view and triggering a heart attack. Hip-hop wasn’t doing it for her, so she reached for another station.
…for the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico: A large area of disturbed weather associated with the remnants of Harvey is not expected to strengthen until the disturbance moves into the Bay of Campeche on Wednesday. Conditions are then expected to turn favorable for—
She punched a button playing Vivaldi.
Tuesday, August 22, 2017. Earl phoned, apologizing for missing her calls. He was happy to hear that Allison had a great time in the Galápagos. “Did you like Baltra? Ruthie thought the pelicans there were damn flying dinosaurs, they was so big. Much bigger than the puny birds they have on Pelican Island.”
“Yup, we—I mean, I—took a lot of pictures. Hey, listen, Earl, about the guy you sold—”
“And did ya get to Floreana? I still remember the lagoon and all them flamingos. Did you see the flamingos?”
“Yes, yes. Lots of flamingos. Look, I want to ask you—”
“And Santiago with them fur seals?”
“Earl, I am trying to find—”
“I think it was Isabella where they have them big-ass tortoises. Am I right? Did you see them? Ruthie thought they were the size of Volkswagens.”
Allison let out a sigh. “Yes, Earl, I saw them. They weren’t as big as compact cars, but they were amazing.” The man was reliving forty-year-old memories, so she decided the phone number could wait. “What else did you and Aunt Ruth do on the islands when you were there? It’s such a romantic place, don’t you think?” Earl went on for twenty minutes. Toward the end, he asked her about the weather, the food on the boat, if she had met anyone interesting on the trip.
“We had perfect weather. The food was impeccable, and the crew was phenomenal. I got to know a few folks on the boat; no one interesting, though.”
Eventually, Earl ran out of steam. “Just out of curiosity, Earl, what was the name of the oilman you sold your property to? You don’t happen to have his phone number, do you?”
Earl said he couldn’t remember the man’s name from Adam and didn’t have the number. His files were in a self-storage locker the other side of town. He said he was still living in boxes after the move. He wanted to be helpful, though. Earl promised he’d have his lawyer call her in a day or so with the name of the buyer’s real estate agent.
“See, Earl, here’s the thing. I can’t wait that long. Something big and ugly is going up where your house used to be, and it’s driving me batty. Mind if I call your lawyer direct?”
Earl suggested email because the attorney took forever to return calls. “My address book is somewhere in this mess. Gimme a moment.” After a minute of silence, “Nope. Can’t find it.”
“Just give me your lawyer’s name. I’ll look him up.”
“His first name is Derick, but don’t ask me to spell his last name. Dang. You’d think I could remember his phone number, though. I called him near every day before the closing.” Another long pause. “I think it was 713-832…no, shoot, that ain’t right. Maybe it was 832-713…” Earl stopped talking.
“Go on; I’m writing it down.”
“Shush, Allie.” Television noises grew in the background. “Seems like there’s something brewing in the Gulf. You all stocked up with hurricane supplies and such?”
“Of course,” Allison said before thanking Earl and hanging up. “Not,” she finished switching off her phone. No need to panic, she wanted to tell him. The storm wasn’t heading their way.
Wednesday, August 23, 2017. Earl wasn’t always this anxious about Houston’s weather. Growing up, she remembered him stubborn and tough, the kind of guy who’d stand outside in a deluge and dare lightning to show up. Allison’s mom once told her Earl was like her dad, cut from the same West Texas denim. But at sixty-five, Earl was playing it safe. Mother Nature had washed the man out of his house three times since 2001. He came back twice, but Pachamama ultimately won.
Too bad Earl didn’t have a plinth house. Allison sat at her drafting table working charcoal over trace. Thoughts played like the classical music from the FM radio station website on her laptop. If only he’d let me design him a new place, she thought. After all, Maison de Mom rode high and dry all these years. Rising water never touched it, or any plinth home she’d created. You could not beat Mother Nature, Allison knew, but you could disarm her. Allison had proven it.
In retrospect, Dave was another paranoid. He’d been a fair companion, she belatedly granted—the word comfortable came to mind—but hindsight revealed a man with alarmist tendencies. Even six feet above ground wasn’t enough to keep bayou buildings dry, he said. Jesus, Dave, what would you have us do? Build Houston homes like beach houses on ten-foot stilts? Ludicrous. Keep calm and carry on, she told him in her mind. Four-foot plinths accessed by subtle inclines were reasonable solutions to keep the ocean at bay for the next fifty years. After that, the “grandkids” would have things figured out. You gotta have hope.
Mozart broke for the news.
The National Hurricane Center reports Harvey has moved little and is expected to remain in its current position overnight, owing to a stalled clear-air front.
My point exactly, Allison thought, noting it took clear air to have a clear mind. Perhaps one day, Dave, whilst playing with his bellybutton at high altitude, will realize the mistake he made befouling the planet, not to mention me.
Allison needed clarity of her own, but in a city where the air was thick enough to cut with a barbecue knife, what to do? She looked at her Fitbit: ten a.m. The weather widget showed it had already reached eighty-eight degrees and seventy percent humidity. Time to hit the trail before it broke a hundred on both scales. She put her pencil down and put her running shorts on.
Exiting her Corbusier-inspired ramp, Allison was confronted by a big rig idling in her neighbor’s driveway. Hitched to the truck was an empty flatbed. Cab door open, motor belching diesel, the driver was sliding the construction gate closed when Allison approached. In her best Texas twang, she said, “Howdy.”
“Yes, ma’am. Can I help you?”
“Um, mind if I take a peek? I’m an architect, and I live next store.” Allison stepped inside the fence and scrutinized the structure: Aha! Bolted connections, not welds. That’s why it went up so fast. And are those joists attached to the first row of beams? If so, where’s the concrete deck? She could make out several rusting construction trailers at the back of the site and asked herself Why so many? And what the hell is that? A massive round tank was planted in the middle of the yard. An aboveground swimming pool? No, it’s got a metal top. Weird.
“Sorry, missus architect.” The driver pulled the gate closed, forcing Allison out. “Company rules. Liability, you know.” He snapped on a padlock, got into his truck, and drove away.
Thursday, August 24, 2017. Allison’s passion for jogging and kayaking Houston’s bayous began when she discovered nightmares were not fleet of foot. She found the memory of losing her father to the ocean dissolved in water. Years of watching Ospreys pull fish out of the canals or hawks pluck pigeons out of the sky taught her that Nature’s brutal logic was cold, but it wasn’t vicious. Allison learned you just needed to stay out of Pachamama’s way. Ergo, the plinth.
Yesterday’s bayou run was a journey in meditation, a Zen time to think. She parked the Volvo on Gloria and Otto’s lot, photographed the site, and made a few sketches. Then, Allison jogged along Brays Bayou toward Hermann Park, all the while with imaginary conversations playing in her head. What would she say to her neighbor’s real estate agent when they connected? How should she put her concern? Excuse me, sir or madam, but I believe your client is building a piece of crap next to me. As an architect, I can save him from an embarrassing mistake. May I have his phone number? Not bad, Allison thought rounding Almeda Road. She refined her speech along MacGregor Drive and perfected the pitch on South Braeswood.
Today’s early morning shower washed away a tense night. It also changed her mind. Why be overt with the realtor? Why give him a heads-up? Stealth may be the better part of strategy in such cases. Hi! I’m you’re client’s neighbor and guess what—I’m also an architect! Ha-ha. Hey, listen, I was just wondering, do you think your client has heard that Modernism is in and bad taste is out?
Still not right. Allison sat at her Eero Saarinen kitchen table waiting for a latte to froth in her European wall coffee maker. Perhaps direct and confrontational would be more effective. So listen up, friend. If your frikken client thinks he can frikken—
The doorbell rang. Allison button her housecoat and sock-skated to the foyer. Opening the front door, she found a small brownish box tied with a silver ribbon.
She pulled off her socks and padded down the ramp into the dawn. Nervous, Allison returned inside, switched on the porte-cochere and driveway lights, and walked again onto her lawn. Under a fading Moon, she found no one there. No traffic up or down the street, either. Other than morning birds, she was alone. Or was she? Allison did a one-eighty and thought she saw something moving in the bushes. Suddenly, the wisdom of living in a glass house with only foliage for window treatment was questionable.
Allison put the box into her pocket and scurried up the ramp, promising to lock the door behind her. Just before going in, she took a glance next door.
A dark mass silhouetted behind the rising sun cut shadows across her yard. Looming over the construction fence was a three-story building where yesterday there was a two-story empty frame. The cage held a building the color of rust, as best she could make out in the glare. A baiting, nocturnal predator lurking on her property notwithstanding, she had to check this out. Allison walked barefoot across the grass to the construction fence.
Cool. The house had a corrugated metal panel skin and a flat roof, and there wasn’t a faux Mediterranean tile in sight. Nor were there empty niches for never-to-be-installed art, or fake turrets, or nonfunctional chimneys. The house was modern and more important, honest. The rusty color was actual rust, the patina of a metal alloy designed to oxidize so the building would never need painting. She realized the galvanized frame would not be covered up. It, too, was all-weather.
Hot damn. This was a good-looking building, even svelte. Allison figured the house was two thousand square feet, max. She let her critical eye scan the length of the façade and upon closer inspection, saw the detailing was a little crude. The way the glazing frames met the corrugated panel, for example. Shouldn’t there be a reveal of some kind? And that flashing around the window sill made it appear thicker than the vertical mullions. Problematic, but fixable, she thought. Allison graded the design a solid B, almost a B+. In her mind, she sketched how to clean things up.
In her lectures at architecture schools, Allison would say that the real test of design thoughtfulness is in how a building meets the ground. She stood on tiptoes, but the fence blocked her view of her neighbor’s house below eye level. She stepped back and took a mighty jump. Not helpful. Another step, and then another, until “Umph.” Allison bumped into a tree and then had an idea.
She grabbed a knotted rope hanging from a low branch. Through muscle memory, Allison monkey-climbed arm-over-arm. In thirty seconds she was on the deck of her treehouse, twelve feet above ground and staring into the face of a Green Man door knocker.
The old plywood panel opened with a creak, followed by the clatter of heavy metal on wood. In an instant, forty-one-year-old Allison was six years old. This was the sanctuary her father began building when she was five, and the haven that became a refuge when Earl finished it a year later. For hours every day after her father died, Allison would study the land below and the sky above and wonder in which heaven her father lived.
She squatted and let fingers walk the familiar spaces between two-by-four decking. Time had remodeled her perch with Spanish moss and dry leaves, making a limp and damp carpet. Spine against the trunk, knees against chin, she strained to hear a voice, which soon came.
Y’all come down for breakfast now, her father would say from the base of the tree. That was a cue to dangle her feet over the wooden platform, arms crossed in mock obstinance. The ritual would continue with Your mother’s waiting, Allie. Allison would shake her head until Dad said, feigning anger, Don’t make me come up there after you, squirt. She’d giggle as he made a dramatic move as if to climb, whereupon she would yield. The moment Allison’s feet touched grass, he’d take her hand to walk inside. Looky what I found us, Ma: an eagle what fell from its nest. The last line was always the best: And I’ll bet this girl really could fly if she put your mind to it.
But in this waking life, a different emotion arose in Allison’s head, a recollection that had been so beyond understanding that it finally made sense. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the box left outside her door. Inside was a ticket imprinted with ADMIT ONE.
Allison looked across the yard from her perch. The second floor of her neighbor’s house had a balcony. A man was standing at the railing holding a drink. Allison pulled her housecoat tight and looked again.
Dave waved in the distance.
To be continued…
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Part 4 of the series is here. Allison Rising is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Sojourn: A Novel Theory of Architecture. Copyright 2017-2018 Richard Buday. All Rights Reserved.
Featured image by the author.