Space is the Final Frontier
When I.V. Pila showed up at my house one morning to build a second floor, I was sure I knew him. His outfit, a crumpled linen ensemble, was a familiar shade of green. His plump, unrelenting handshake suggested a kinship beyond words.
We shook hands for nearly a minute, at which point I realized I didn't know I.V. Pila. Had never met him before. I'd only read the name off the side of his truck. It had sounded familiar.
"I have a very familiar face," Pila said.
"I didn't order a second floor," I said.
We watched together as a crane rolled off the bed of Pila's truck. The first bags of cement were lifted into the air. Men began to smoke. I went back inside and had cold cereal for breakfast. I watched the men unload the truck for the rest of the morning.
* * *
At work, I called my wife Marilyn. She didn't answer. I went to the cubicle next-door where Garrity was talking to a prospective client about a new concept called "personalized dividend refurbishment". Garrity put the phone down on his chest, a brittle, far-away voice tickling his shirt buttons.
"We're building an addition," I said.
"A sunroom?" Garrity said. "You were always talking about that."
I couldn't recall ever having talked about a sunroom with Garrity.
"A second floor," I said.
"Interesting," Garrity said, and he put the phone back to his ear and picked up his conversation.
That night dinner was tense. Around us and above us the silent, swaying machines slept on their feet in the shadows, a macabre feeling. Saw dust and brick dust hung in the moist spring air like pollen.
Marilyn sipped her wine, sucking and releasing her cheeks. Marilyn tended towards pessimism if left unchecked. I felt it was my duty to champion our decision, as vague as it appeared at the moment.
"It may be a good idea in the end," I said.
"What is a good idea, Aaron? To let a man build a second house on top of our house? I can't believe you just let him."
"He seems to be conscientious."
"There is no I.V. Pila on the Internet. Rose and I checked. Aaron, do you even know what it is he's building?"
The fact was, Pila had been very busy that morning and we'd spoken only briefly. He'd spoken of "entrance and exit polarities" and the "redundancy of forms". He was a philosopher, he said, of unrevealed space.
But I understood why Marilyn was upset and the next morning after breakfast I asked Pila what, in fact, he planned to do with the second floor of our house. I'd taken the morning off to supervise. Made coffee for the crew. I was confident that after a quick chat we would all be on better footing.
But again Pila was too busy to explain his plans in any detail that satisfied him. The first few days, he said, were typically like this. Running back and forth choreographing ladders, cement mixes, crane drops, unprocessed orders, managing delays. Once he smiled at me from the rose garden, cigarette in hand, and then he was gone. A heavy-set man, he disappeared like smoke on a breeze. For the time being all further questions were to be addressed to a man named Jennings, a subcontractor.
I found Jennings eating a sausage roll on the back of the now mostly empty truck bed. He invited me up.
"Beautiful morning," Jennings said. "Do you shoot stray cats in this neighborhood?" He was pointing at the Jeffers' orange tabby mix, Oliver, hunting in the honeysuckle.
"Excuse me?" I said.
"In some towns you're allowed. I just wanted to check before I blew its ass out its mouth."
"It's not a stray," I said.
"Oh," Jennings said.
"I noticed cement mixers on the roof," I said.
"Our house is made of wood."
Jennings' face was red and his teeth were yellow, but not coffee yellow. Jennings' yellow teeth looked like they'd been dyed yellow. "Do you think Mr. Pila would be using this expensive cement if he didn't have a reason? If it hadn't been drawn up in the plans? He's no ordinary builder, sir. Mr. Pila has a medallion from the Society of the Silver Eagle Builders of Romania. Do you know what that means?"
On the roof a stand of shiny, pale, floss-like columns rose up into the air like stiff white hairs. Pila was directing the installation from the cabin of the crane.
"Could you show me the plans?" I asked Jennings.
"Talk to Rouse," Jennings said, hobbling to his feet. "I don't know anything about plans."
Marilyn came home early from work because I told her I was cooking again. Calf liver medallions in a fig and sage reduction over angel hair pasta. I was hoping we might have some alone time tonight, but Marilyn had brought her work friend Rose. She took Rose for a tour of the new second floor. There was no staircase yet, so they stood in the front yard.
"Those white hairs appear to be free-form insulation," I said, joining them. "The hive of triple-glazed rhombuses above the kitchen is a modular entertainment space. Jennings gave me some pamphlets. Look at the way it extends off the roof and sneaks back on again. Its use of negative space is remarkable, I think."
"What is that circular room above the bathroom?" Marilyn ignored me. "It's too small."
"For what?" I said. "We can't really say, can we, until we know what it's going to be used for."
Marilyn took a sip of wine and cut a glance at Rose.
"So what did he say?"
"I spoke to a man named Jennings," I said. "Mr. Pila was too busy."
"I can't fucking believe this." Marilyn actually looked close to tears. I wanted to get rid of Rose, but couldn't think of a way to do it politely. I'd never much cared for Rose, frankly. Her sharp, twitching nose, her little pixie face and spiked hair. She was silently negative.
"We located the plans though," I said.
This, I believe, had been the single biggest bone of contention between Marilyn and me, the lack of a signed contract being a close second. Neither of us had seen either yet.
They both waited.
I said, "A man named Rouse has them. He should be here tomorrow."
* * *
The work continued at the pace I.V. Pila had set for himself. Not an hour behind schedule, Jennings said. Though we hadn't seen the schedule yet either.
"Would you say two weeks?" I asked Jennings one day.
"If that's what the schedule says," Jennings said.
"Is Rouse in charge of the schedule too then?"
Rouse was "on campus", as Mr. Pila liked to say, but he was a small, energetic Englishman with a passion for efficient communication. He wouldn't allow you to waste a second of his time on idle or badly phrased messages. I hadn't yet honed a communiqué down to Rouse's specifications, and so hadn't managed to draw any information about the blueprints or working schedule out of him. It was a shame because I still had plenty of questions.
The latex funnels connecting the rooms, for instance, all seemed to be placed at a downward slant, ideal for sliding from a higher room to a lower. But what if you wanted to reverse directions? Or didn't want to slide at all? Room-to-room communication would be impossible. Similarly, I admired Pila's Hall of Light and Hall of Darkness, on opposite sides of the house, and his domestic use of side and rearview mirrors, and the fact that every space was completely spherical from within but a perfect cube or rhombus from without. It all left me brimming with excitement for the future. I just thought some of this should have gotten my approval first.
It also seemed Pila had built well over the height of a three or four-story structure. I wasn't familiar enough with zoning laws to say just how high he could build. Jennings assured me there wouldn't be the slightest infraction of civic code, however. In fact, he thought it was strange, if not ungrateful, that I would even bring this up.
Otherwise, everything was going well. Through my daily encouragement and positive reinforcement, Marilyn had grown more accepting of the notion of the second floor. In the mornings before work, we looked up in wonderment as the next spire or cube or funnel was put in place. We began to plan uses for some of the more oddly conceived spaces. Of course, this also made us realize how small, and frankly unlivable, our single-story house had been. We even began to laugh about it.
In the evenings, the side of the street where Pila's truck was parked throughout the day was a melancholy absence. To survive the long hours of inactivity, we strolled the neighborhood remarking on the plainness and unoriginality of all the other houses.
After our walks we typically had a glass of wine and made love, Marilyn flushing easily with ecstasy. I couldn't remember when in the twelve years we'd been together we'd been happier in each other's arms.
Then the first bill arrived.
It was sitting on the kitchen table in the morning when I went to make breakfast. A pale orange envelope stuffed to bursting with I.V. Pila Construction in the plastic window. I left it where it was.
Marilyn came down a few minutes later in her work clothes.
"Pila must have left it last night," I said. "It's probably the schedule or the contract. I believe it's the contract."
"It looks like a bill."
To be honest, I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me that Pila wouldn't be building our second story for free. I suppose it was his sudden, uninvited appearance and the fact that we hadn't signed a contract or seen the blueprints that had led me to ignore the likelihood of payment. Pila and his entire crew were more like relatives home for an extended stay than employees.
I opened the envelope with a small bread knife.
The bill was for $44,000. A pittance, Jennings would argue later, considering the size of Pila's crew, the quality of the materials, the advanced thinking that had gone into the design. That morning, however, without any contract to show and a fee that was more than our yearly mortgage payment for work we hadn't ordered, Marilyn wasn't having it.
"This is a scam," she said. "Why didn't I see that?"
It was painful for me to see all our nights of wonderment and planning for the future distorted by Marilyn's tempestuous negativity. At the same time, I recognized that this was a critical phase in our relationship, a test of our love and devotion, and I was optimistic. Every couple rides out a storm or two, most of them the result of infidelities or terminal incompatibilities or even mutual disgust. Had any couple ever divorced over the construction of a second floor?
"I think the simplest solution would be to ask Rouse for an itemized invoice," I said.
Marilyn put her hands up to her head in migraine position. "I don't even know who that is. I know you mentioned him, but why would I know who that is? Did you answer any strange emails in the past month, Aaron? Wait. You said Pila was from Romania."
"I never said he was from Romania, I said he had a medallion from a respected Romanian building society."
"Is this guy a fucking gypsy?"
I could just see Marilyn asking Jennings these questions, confronting him with such outlandish scenarios. With just one chuckle and his mouth of yellow teeth he would put her in her place. I laid my hands on my wife's shoulders and squeezed gently.
"Let me take care of it."
"No, Aaron. You said that last week, and the week before. When was the last time you even went to work?"
A good question. It had been at least three weeks. Garrity had called regularly the first week or so. Then the floor manager, then the floor manager's manager. For the past few days the phone had been eerily silent.
"Maybe I should."
"Yes, maybe you should."
Marilyn met my eyes. She seemed unfathomably sad.
"I'm sorry, Aaron."
That evening, just as the last fibrous refractory tiles were being laid over the insulation blankets, Marilyn called to say she would be staying with Rose for the night. She said she'd come for a bag of her things the next morning when I was at work.
We'd decided I should go to work that morning. I'd gone. My cubicle was now inhabited by a young man called Clancy, a stock optionist. Clancy shrugged. Garrity also shrugged and pointed at the phone plugged to his ear, a wicked grin lifting his diamond-shaped ears. He made the universal sign of the yammer mouth. Pinned to the wall above Garrity's computer was a piece of unlined white A4 paper that said: REVITILAZED ANTIDIVIDENDS ARE THE UNSEEN MOVERS OF TOMORROW'S STOCK MARKET.
I left the office and went to the bank and wrote out a $44,000 cashier's check to I.V. Pila Construction.
* * *
"Thank you," Jennings said, pocketing my final payment and the last of my life savings, a $12,000 check. "We moved all your stuff upstairs yesterday, by the way. You've got a lot of shit, Mr. Burch."
Jennings gestured upstairs, his thick ginger hand testing the stair railing. "When you're ready."
I looked up at Pila's work, my head nearly vertical. It was so much more than a second floor or even an architectural phenomenon. It was—How could I even begin to describe it in words? But it was getting late. I started for my bags.
Jennings shook his head.
"It's all upstairs, Mr. Burch."
I shook Jennings' hand.
"I never got a chance to thank you," I said.
Jennings nodded. He moved his sweaty face closer to mine and said, "Mr. Burch, may I tell you something, even if it hurts?"
"They all say that. Now up you go. Hold onto the railing. Don't look back. There's plenty of food up there. Enough to last you for sure."
But for how long? I wondered.
Yes, that seemed a more than reasonable question.
For how long?
* * *
We set off late the next evening according to Rouse's schedule, which I'd found on my bed with the itemized invoice I'd asked for. I watched the neighborhood recede from the Hall of Darkness, yet another of I.V. Pila's architectural profundities in so far as it was a completely light-filled space when looking out but a bottomless void when looking in.
At a point it seemed we'd stopped moving. I tried once or twice to pick out Rose's apartment complex, wondering what my wife was doing at that very moment. But soon we'd merged with the firmament, piercing bank upon bank of clouds and sinking little by little into the ever-deepening blue of the evening sky. Then we crossed a lip of arced white light and we were sucked with a shudder into outer space.
The upper story had so much negative space I could walk for days without seeing the same view twice if I wanted, but I really couldn't distinguish one quilt of stars from the next. It soon became tedious.
I climbed back up to the Hall of Darkness with a plate of toaster waffles and syrup and a glass of cold milk. I sat in a cozy chair, listened for the sounds outer space made.
All I could detect was a gentle but unpleasant chattering and it was coming from within the house, echoing from funnel to funnel, closet to closet. I looked out at the vastness of the universe.
If you took away all your points of reference, all the buildings and signs and cars and distinguishing topography, the Earth might appear flat, to an Earthling. Here, suspended in undending emptiness, the Earth had a definite shape, a blueness not even I.V. Pila, who had made this possible, would believe.
Marilyn had often hinted that our relationship hadn't lived up to its potential. She'd accused me of settling and not reaching for what was mine. Of not selling enough or wanting enough or making love like I'd sold or wanted enough. We'd put down a mortgage on a house with no second floor after all.
If only she could see me now.
Max Sheridan lives and writes in Nicosia, Cyprus. His short fiction is available online and in print from select, degenerate publishers. His novel Dillo is due out in December 2017 from Shotgun Honey. When he isn't writing, Max is the director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based platform for creative writing and community storytelling.