After they won the bid, with a forty-eighth-iteration proposal that was mildly tolerated by all—a black granite labyrinth, inset with dark transparencies, as if panels of the stone itself were made of glass, which, however badass that would have been, they weren’t—Roy went out to St. Louis. Roy was the face, the body, the organism. Maybe he had sweet young people he fucked; Ida couldn’t be sure. He caught the temperature of the place and tried to decode the deeper desires of the city, which could then be met or thwarted so that the appropriate tension might infuse the final project. He photo-documented and did flyovers and he stuck his finger into the client’s collective rotten body to determine where the hard command center was. These kinds of projects often blew up in your face. You were fired while you slept. So Roy, with his temper and his charm and his perfect little body, stayed out there and fought like a mongrel to keep them in the game.
Ida spent that time at the drafting table, sketching mostly, working from the gut, ignoring what she knew in order to make way for what interested her far more—what she didn’t know. For instance, she knew that she felt tremendous sorrow for the dead and thought about them often, if vaguely. What she didn’t know was why she wasn’t crippled with grief, stupefied at the scale of the atrocity, unable to move or speak. This was a mystery.
She wanted to draw a purely empty space, which wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Heavy lines were required, of all things, and not just for framing the so-called void, as people in her profession loved to say, but for actual fucking substance. She had to ready the space for haunting. Purity was called for. This was a tombstone for a city, a funeral for a feeling of safety that was now gone. Leaving a blank page was not the same thing. That was a cop-out, and, anyway, you couldn’t shit on the client that way. Partly because she herself was the client, and Roy was the client, and so was everyone they knew, and everyone they didn’t. Now you had to view the world, the air itself, as something that could be torn away to reveal an eerier sort of place. Maybe that sounded like bullshit, but sometimes, sometimes, this process—if followed strictly and without concern for hovering meddlers—led to a wild, unstable kind of vacuum that you were not always prepared to be sucked into, Ida thought, even if you were curious, even if you felt you couldn’t be shocked.
That was what she tried to draw, and that was ideally what she and Roy tried to build, even though “build” was a strange word, and you sounded like a punk if you said “erase,” or something pretentious like that. Like, in my work, I erase the landscape in order to reveal the true terrain of the world. Yeah, uh, no. Maybe it didn’t make sense, none of it, but it didn’t have to. Sometimes it just had to sort of look pretty and make you sad and thoughtful. That was Memorial Theory 101. In the end, no one cared what you thought, or said, about a memorial you made. That sort of verbal posturing was for students and the simperingly boneless teachers who floated over them, gushing endless praise out of their open necks.
Roy phoned from St. Louis, early in the process, and even though a working design had been approved, the understanding—Ida’s understanding, anyway—was that certain, uh, changes could still be made, and these changes could, caveat, significantly alter and enhance and improve the original, shit-sucking plan, which she suddenly thought might belong, in miniature, on the wall of a Starbucks.
What Ida envisioned, she told Roy, was a series of soft columns swelling out of the plaza, but almost imperceptibly. You almost wouldn’t even know they were there.
“You know how there are some people who think that if they could only sharpen their vision they would see ghosts?” Ida asked.
“I didn’t know that,” Roy said. “Interesting.”
The plaza itself, Ida went on, would be poured from a spongy material, so that visitors might feel as though they were sinking as they walked along. Playground rubber, maybe? The columns would be slablike but ephemeral—Ida emphasized this word: “You know, very nearly not there,” she told him—fabricated out of a kind of stable, nearly elastic, she didn’t know how else to put it, smoke.
“You can admire them as sculpture—they will be beautiful, and up close the smoke will reveal a texture, sort of like porcelain, with streaks and veins and imperfections in the surface. But, from farther away, they may just look like clouds. Rogue clouds that have fallen or just got too low to the ground.”
Roy was quiet for a while. She thought she could hear him typing. “That sounds nice,” he finally said. “Aside from wondering how this remotely relates to the approved plan, am I supposed to be asking how you’ll achieve this?”
“Other than the obvious way?”
Roy was rummaging at the other end of the line. Talking to someone or watching TV. Ida listened into the room and listened and listened, on the verge of hearing something clear. Maybe he was falling from an airplane. She wasn’t even kidding. There was so much wind around him.
“I mean, how serious are you?” he said. “This sounds maybe more speculative? Which is cool. Which is, you know, I know it’s part of your process, but I’m living in reality right now. I’m in an actual hotel room. In the actual real world. I’m talking to the board, or, really, they’re talking to me, very sternly—they are literally holding my hand like I’m a child—and I’m talking to the mayor and the city and the state, and in my downtime I am fucking having elevator sex with the donors, who are huge hairy creatures with indeterminate genitalia, because they get to have whatever little thing they want from me.”
“How nice for you.”
“I don’t have a choice, Ida. Seriously, how possible is this, your sticky smoke? Are we really spitballing this idea right now, at this fucking late date? Am I supposed to be telling people that this is what we are doing?”
“Well, whatever you do, please don’t refer to it as sticky smoke. It sounds like a carnival attraction. With a little bit of work, we can find some seductive language. That’s never so hard.”
She wanted to laugh. Never so hard. It was the hardest thing in the world. There wouldn’t be language for this. Not in her lifetime.
“Jesus, Ida. The tech—and you fucking know this very well—doesn’t allow for what you’re talking about. I mean, right? Suddenly I’m the bad guy because of physics?”
Ida sighed. “That’s not why you’re the bad guy, Roy.”
They covered other topics, because they had a stupid business to run, and so many details to haggle over—zoning and permissions and negotiations with contractors, along with political tensions that Ida couldn’t even fathom—and then, just as they were saying good night, Ida said she needed to ask him a question.
Roy was still distracted; he would always be. Some muscle in his face produced the word “yeah,” but otherwise nobody was home. After finding out what he needed to know from Ida, he’d moved on to gather information from other sources. This was Roy spreading himself so thin that you could see through him. At least in person he knew to tilt his face into postures of interest, taming his little mannequin body. So Ida was silent for a while. She heard the same dull murmur in the background. A voice or a bird or the wind, or just some subvocal turbulence on the phone line. It was almost pretty.
“What?” Roy said, suddenly impatient. “What do you want to ask me?”
“I just wanted to know . . . who’s that with you?”
“Next to you, Roy. Just look. In the bed. Touching you while you talk. What a curious creature. Who is that? I’d really like to know.”
As she said this, she pictured someone, something, crawling over her husband’s body. The most gorgeous living thing.
Roy said nothing. Maybe he turned off the television, or maybe something else caused a rapid drop in room tone, because now the sheer silence was staggering. It was shocking to Ida. Like you’d need a machine to achieve that kind of quiet. The world had been scrubbed of noise, just because she’d said a bunch of words. That was what a spell was, maybe. Had a mere sentence of hers ever had such an effect before? She could hear Roy breathe; she could hear the churn of his body.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ida.”
It wasn’t like she expected a different answer, or particularly cared. Confessions and denials were equally troubling. Answers in general were so often disappointing. Was there any speech at all that didn’t, in the end, cause a little bit of dejection?
“No, I guess you don’t,” she said.
“I mean, if I could show you, I would.”
“Show me, Roy. Switch over to video. Show me the room and the closets and the hallway. That’d be great. Thanks.”
“Uh, O.K. I’ll have to call you back. I’ll call you back.”
She laughed out loud, but it came out a little bit off, like a shout.
“Good night, Roy,” she said. “Sleep well.” And she hung up.
The apartment was cold and she couldn’t wait to crawl under the covers. “Oh, and by the way,” Ida said to no one, as she readied herself for bed. “You can bleed smoke into a clear skin, no problem.” She laughed softly. It was not as strange as it might have been to be talking out loud to herself. “You’d want to use a large-field polymer, of course. Totally transparent and ridiculously thin. I guess it’s a kind of windowpane balloon, in a way, but its contours can be fixed nonspherically, which gives it any shape you want, including tufts and wisps and whatnot, like a cloud. A sort of scientific version of a balloon animal. Low-tech, really. And what you get is a shape made of smoke with the barest hint of skin—a person, a column, a cloud, anything. You could even make a maze, and fill the walls of the maze with dark black smoke.
“So, yeah,” she whispered, turning out the light in her empty apartment. “That’s how you’d do it, if you were to do it. The physics aren’t an issue. But, honestly, I’m not sure anymore that that’s the way to go.”
It was late and she was very tired. She could hardly even hear herself, as she started to fall asleep.
“I just can’t honestly say that it’s the right idea for this particular project.”