By the time the World’s End job came to him, the architect was twenty-six but no longer considered himself young, if he ever had. He felt his professional life had begun. He shaped land, not buildings; he was a builder of landscapes, one of the first of his kind in New York, though this was the 1880’s and Olmsted had already carved out Central Park, strange hole in time and space, in the middle of the skyward-straining city.
These were the days when wealthy people were just coming to realize what their commerce had paved and grimed over, and to miss that green in the pure religious way they missed the childhood of their earliest memories. The architect had a knack for making the lost thing feel less lost…
World’s End is a real place in Hingham, MA; though some details have been fictionalized, it served as the inspiration for this piece. In reality it was designed by Olmstead, not the young architect of this story. At various points in its history, it might have become a housing development, the site of UN headquarters in 1945, or of a nuclear power plant in the 60s if not for the efforts of those who saw value in its gentle drumlins and loping paths – who wanted (and still want) to feel less lost. I think the fiction does honor to the facts. The story isn’t about a piece of land at all, of course: it’s about two men who have more in common than they realize, despite their differences.
The architect remains unnamed throughout. He travels from New York to Boston to meet with one Robert Cale, a wealthy businessman who owns 200 acres of land and would like to build houses for sale. The architect is aware of the gulf between them; he grew up in a crowded NYC tenement where as a child he lost three siblings to measles in one week; he’s very young, and a bit insecure: “He was studying the way money looked up here….he had the feeling now that they were judging him as he went by and finding him lacking.” He’s never done a job of this magnitude before; he got the job through a recommendation of a client pleased with his garden.
The contrast between these two men, detailed at the beginning like this, works very well to set the scene and give an idea of what’s at stake for the architect. But after a brief look, he sees the completed project in his head –
Here his success would be judged by how invisible he could be. The blessing he provided must seem to have come from the hand of nature itself: each hedge, each tree must appear to have grown by its own easy wisdom.
– and can’t wait to get started. He’ll stay at Cale’s house while planning, and later while the work is proceeding.
He meets Cale’s daughter Becca that first night. To me, she was the symbol of shallowness, a spoiled rich girl with little to do but rag on her friends and enjoy her effect on men. At dinner, the architect tries to explain his vision, and when she doesn’t follow, he rephrases: “Find the land’s curves and settle in, bring them out. The way a dress fits a woman.” She seems to view him with a slight increase in respect, but he’s terribly embarrassed; she’s wearing a green dress and it melds in his mind with the green of the land that’s his canvas. It’s a lovely scene.
I was completely drawn in to the architect’s plight: his fear that he’ll fail in his work, his longing for this woman who, though pretty, isn’t able to appreciate him but perhaps represents a certain kind of acceptance, of status. In this, I think he is perhaps as shallow as she, in fact. Other than her attractiveness, he doesn’t see her for what she is at all. Beams plays off this wonderfully at the end.
The climax of the story comes when the architect realizes the roads are laid (an involved process), the landscaping substantially completed, and it’s time to build the houses, but Cale isn’t showing any interest in hiring builders. He finds out Cale has changed his mind, and wants to leave it undeveloped, for a specific reason: Cale was in his Boston office during the Great Fire years earlier (another historical event) and watched the flames jumping across the roofs crowded so close to each other, coming for him.
In spite of himself the architect found that he could see this. The fire sprung up readily in his own mind….
The architect watched the red-orange line of flame flying from roof to roof, so little space between. He had watched in the same way that terrible week when first his youngest brother and then his sister and then finally his older brother had caught the measles; he had seen the sickness leap from one to the next, agile as fire, and flush his siblings with rash and fever….In his mind, he’d flattened that building, the one next to it, the one next to that, and spread a lavish dream-canopy of distance all around himself.
It’s really wonderful what Beams does here with the architect’s ability to visualize, and with colors. For Cale, the green of the land, now become a lovely park necklaced with roads, soothes the red of the fire; just as it (and Becca’s green dress) quenches the architect’s pain. But these two are never totally on the same path; the architect is acutely aware he’s being dismissed: “You didn’t honestly believe any of it could be yours, did you?”
There’s a final scene with Becca that echoes that refrain: he grabs her arm to convince her to look at what he’s created, shocking her.
This was the moment to which the architect would return, again and again, in the years that followed. It would come to seem to him that there were things he might have done next. He might have lifted her and run up the hill. He might have tightened his grip enough to bruise, to show her that he could. While she was right there in front of him, while his hand was on her, he might have found some way of testing his idea that her behavior was only a shell of the truth of her – that if her veins were opened loamy earth might spill out in clumps, that if he sniffed deeply enough at the roots of her hair he might smell the sea.
Instead his grip loosened.
He doesn’t realize that, not only is she not seeing the land, he hasn’t been seeing her at all. It’s lovely symmetry.
I’m always interested in character names, and especially, as here, in unnamed characters. In her One Story Q&A, Beams explains a little about her decision to not name the architect:
Honestly, at first it was just because that was how I started to hear the story when I began work on it. But over time it came to seem to me a fitting way to refer to this character at this point in his life, when he’s trying to paste his new profession over every other aspect of himself. I also liked the way that Becca and Cale are named and the architect isn’t. I think (or hope) that the difference helps show his separation from them—a separation he spends a lot of the story dreaming he can undo.
I also enjoyed the narrative voice: restrained, and a little old fashioned; appropriate for the setting. When the architect blurts things out in the throes of a creative impulse, it echoes against that background field of primness.
I discovered Clare Beams earlier this year via her story “We Show What We Have Learned” reprinted from Hayden’s Ferry Review #45 in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2011. I’ve read some of her other online work, and I’m delighted to see her in One Story.