[At one time, I wondered if the first book of the Furnass Towers Trilogy, The Building
, needed something to tie it in more closely with the other two books. The result was the following Prelude
to The Building,
introducing the character of Reverend Bryce Orr, and more importantly, Julian Lyle, whose actions formed the ground and set into motion all the other actions of the three books. Once it was done, however, I decided it was far too explicit and heavy-handed in its setting of the moral stage, especially as the opening of the book—some of it appears in a later rondo. But after reading the book in its final form, you may find the scene of interest in regard to the intentions and concerns of the characters, as well as those of the author.]
In which the wheels of our story begin to mesh and grind forward….
Inside the outer lobby of what was once the Alhambra Theater, Bryce Orr walked along the row of leather and brass studded doors, the leather cracked and peeling, the studs the color of old mustard, peering in each small dusty diamond-shaped window—he could see a few lights burning in the grand foyer, down the corridors beyond, he was sure someone was there—trying each door in turn and finding each door in turn locked. Until, as he might have predicted, the last one.
What’re you doing, Lord, he thought, playing with me, jerking me around? Of course it would be the last door. Why would I expect anything else in this best of all possible worlds? Wouldn’t have it any other way.
Through the door, the Reverend Orr, the Downright Reverend as Bryce thought of himself—an Avenging Angel, no, that’s too harsh, I’m more an Angel of Accountability, yep, that’s me, flexing my wings—chugged across the empty grand foyer, in his too-short raincoat and tweed walking hat pulled down over his ears, following the trail of occasional work lights, bare bulbs in broken sconces. The pretend-Moorish décor of the old theater was as he remembered from when he came here as a teenager, though it had seen better days—whole sections of the tile floor were missing, the plaster on the crenelated arches was crumbling, the decorative screens were vandalized. Beyond the lobby the interior had been ripped out in Julian’s attempt to convert the place into what he called the Alhambra Shopper’s Bazaar, several corridors of false storefronts painted to look like a Moorish marketplace in Marrakesh or Granada—what Julian supposed a marketplace looked like in Marrakesh or Granada—all of the windows empty, blacked out or covered over, the few shops that had been occupied abandoned now, the rest of the spaces never rented. Julian, Julian, Julian, Bryce thought, what were you thinking? Obviously you weren’t thinking. You never did have the sense the Good Lord gave a goose, did he Lord? Beyond the storefronts was an office door; he tried it but it was locked. In the dim light he could see where the word MANAGER had been scratched off the frosted glass and stenciled over with:
Julian A. Lyle, Esq.
Esquire? You got to be kidding me. Julian calls himself Esquire? Well, I guess that’s in keeping with the guy. As if Julian Augustus wasn’t bad enough. The Lyles always did have pretentions about themselves. The Jule of Jewels, as we called him when we were kids. On the other hand, they used to call me Dicey-Brycey. Nope, don’t want to go there. What can I tell you, Lord? Fascinating rhythm….
Bryce retraced his steps to the foyer, beginning to feel a little uneasy in the large empty building, starting to see things out of the corner of his eye—spooky ol’ me, heh heh, the Lord is my shepherd and all that—pretending to imagine things, trying to kid himself out of the uneasiness, Arabs wielding scimitars in the shadows, axe murders around the next bend in the corridor, Julian’s bloody mutilated body lying in a heap in one of the abandoned shops—you know I mean it, don’t you Lord? The Good Shepherd thing?
Back in the main lobby, feeling more comfortable within easy running of the street, he noticed there were lights up the grand staircase to the mezzanine, lights showing beyond the railing on the upper level. He stepped over the frayed red velvet and followed the trail of lights up the threadbare carpet on the steps, across the stained threadbare carpet in the mezzanine lobby, and up another narrower set of stairs and through another set of doors to the top of the balcony. The rows of seats were still in place in the balcony but the space in the main auditorium below was taken up by the ceiling framework of the various shops of the Shoppers Bazaar, the trusses and channels of the suspended ceilings, heating and ventilation ducts, the tops of lighting fixtures and junction boxes. Overhead only a few of the flame-shaped bulbs burned in the once grand chandeliers; on the stage a single bulb glowed on a light stand, in keeping with theater tradition, in front of the old movie screen that was wrinkled and cracked and hanging cattywampus. Julian sat in the center section a few rows from the railing, his arm draped over the back of the seat beside him as if around the shoulders of an imaginary companion, the collar of his old tweed sport coat pulled up against the chill in the building, the heavily padded shoulders, a style long-gone-by, making him appear as if he had shrunk inside the garment, a wool scarf wrapped around his neck. As Bryce made his way down the steep steps—he had to keep his feet canted to fit on the narrow treads, he remembered he had the same fear when he came here as a kid, that he was going to trip and roll down the aisle right off the end of the balcony—Julian turned to look over his shoulder at him, a non-committal expression on his face as if not in the least surprised to see him.
“I smell smoke,” Bryce said, reaching out for the back of the end seat on the row behind Julian to steady himself, then side-stepping along the row and plopping down several seats over so Julian could see him easily enough, slouching down so his knees touched the seatback in front of him, his hands in the pockets of his shorty raincoat, tucking the garment around himself as if in preparation for bad weather.
“I know,” Julian said. “We had a fire during the remodeling for the bazaar and the entire upper half of the theater filled with smoke. There’s not much ventilation up here as you can tell. We had a dickens of a time trying to air it out. An electrician was up on the catwalks a couple months ago and said there’s still a cloud of old smoke hanging around above the stage, you can actually see it.”
“I’ll bet I haven’t been up here since that time in high school when a bunch of us—I think there was you and me, Dickie Sutcliff, maybe the Binder brothers, I know there was somebody else, I don’t think it was Needle-Prick Brown the Insect Fucker, he was older, no reason for him to be along—it was for Senior English Class, we all came to see Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar. Et tu, Bruté. That’s all I can remember, that and Brando’s silly-looking knees in a short toga or something.”
“Didn’t you ever come up here with Rachel to make out?”
“Nah. Rachel wouldn’t let me touch her before we got married. I could barely get a kiss good-night out of her. She was the moral one in those days, the good Christian as it were. I was so frustrated with her I sometimes wonder if I didn’t go into the ministry just to get even with her. Heh heh.” Bryce looked up into the vast cavern of the old theater. Overhead in the darkness he could barely make out the mural high above on the ceiling. A band of angels fluttering through clouds toward heaven. The point of view showing the undersides of plump angelic thighs and cherubic bottoms. He turned his eyes forward again.
“How did you know where to find me?”
“I called your house. Marta said you were here, so I just kept poking around.”
“Sounds like the Reverend Bryce.”
“That be me.”
“Then there’s the question of why. But I can probably guess.”
“Yeah. I heard all about it.”
“Probably not all about it.”
“I heard enough that I thought I better come see you.”
“Who’d you hear about it from?”
“Harvey McMillan,” Bryce said. Adjusting the raincoat about himself, hands still in his pockets. Slouching a little further in the seat, making himself comfortable.
“Were you over at the bank?”
“At the church. He’s in my congregation, remember?”
Julian nodded once, an upturn of his head to show assent.
“He stopped by on the way home. I thought he wanted to talk about our loan for the new furnace. But then he told me about Sycamore Savings and Loan.”
“Is Harvey worried for the bank?”
“Doesn’t seem to be. He said it was only affecting Sycamore. That people had been making a run on it all day, taking their money out.”
“I wouldn’t call it a run at this point,” Julian said, stretching both arms along the tops of the adjacent seats, then resettling himself, his hands in his lap. “More like a brisk trot.”
“Any truth to the rumor that Sycamore won’t open on Monday?”
“I don’t know. I tried to talk to John Bagley—”
“He’s still president?” Bryce interrupted. “Ol’ John?”
Julian looked at him and continued. “—today but he wasn’t taking any calls. He’s certainly not helping matters, not talking to people. The ‘run,’ as it were, will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.”
“But that’s not your real problem,” Bryce said, yawning without really having to.
Julian looked at him again, as if to see what he was up to. “It’s certainly problem enough. If Sycamore closes its doors, they won’t be making any more payments for the construction loan. And without payments on the construction loan, I can’t pay the contractors and sub-contractors on the Furnass Towers.”
“Harvey says you haven’t been paying them anyway.” Bryce raised his eyebrows at him, made a tight-lipped smile as if to say Gotcha.
“So you have heard a great deal.”
“Harvey was certainly concerned. About the far-reaching consequences.”
Julian sighed. He looked ahead at the blank screen over the ceilings of the abandoned and empty shops. “No, the contractor hasn’t been paid for a while, because Sycamore hasn’t been paying us, it seems they’re over-extended and cash is low. And when news of that leaked out, some people began withdrawing their funds, which got more people scared and started withdrawing their funds too. And when Sycamore’s creditors heard all this was going on, they started to call in their loans, sinking Sycamore even further. To say nothing of the fact that the cost of construction is way more than was ever anticipated, or estimated. We were going to have to ask for an additional loan anyway, so that’s now obviously out of the question.”
“Any chance of a loan from First City?”
“They didn’t want the financing for the project at the beginning, they certainly wouldn’t want it now. That’s why we had to go with the Savings and Loan in the first place. First City only handles the accounts for the Development Corporation.”
“Whew!” Bryce said. “What a mess.”
“ ‘Whew!’ would be an understatement.”
Bryce sat there shaking his head. Then he laughed a little, aware that it wasn’t funny, but still struck by the irony, the absurdity of the world’s affairs. “So. What are you going to do? What can you do? I guess that’s the end of the Furnass Towers.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Julian said.
“Well, you owe money for past work, and there’s no more money for future work. Seems to me you’re out of work.”
“I’m not going to pull the plug on it just yet, if that’s what you’re thinking. Something could still….”
“But can’t let the contractor keep going, can you?
Julian smiled a little, looked at Bryce, and then looked away again. “You really don’t know how the world operates, do you, Reverend?”
“I know what the moral thing to do is.”
Julian shook his head, regretful, though Bryce wasn’t sure about what.
“You’ve got a responsibility to other people, that’s what morality is all about,” Bryce went on, sitting up, warming to one of his favorite topics. “You can’t let the work go any further, if the contractor isn’t going to get paid for it. The moral thing to do is to tell them so they—”
“Why did you come here this evening, Bryce?”
Bryce looked away, into the shadows of the old theater. “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about angels lately. I think I’ll do a sermon on them. What they are, what they do. We tend to think of them as these great glowing bigger-than-life figures all in white, wings sprouting out of their shoulders, but maybe they aren’t like that at all, at least most of them. Maybe they’re just normal-looking everyday guys but with a kind of charisma about them, you know? Something that draws you toward them so you find yourself listening to their message—”
Julian stood up, raised his arms above his head, knuckles locked, stretching his spindly runner’s body—of which Julian was always proud though in these later years reminded Bryce increasingly of Ichabod Crane—stepped out in the aisle, took one more look at the scene below, then turned to Bryce.
“Well, old friend, I can tell you you’re no angel, if that’s what you’re trying to get at. I have no doubt that in your mind you came here with all good intentions, but what it amounts to is your telling me all the things you think I’m doing wrong. It’s no different than when we were growing up on Orchard Hill, though then you didn’t cached it in some grand religious, metaphysical context. It was just Bryce being Bryce. So thanks, but no thanks. I’m glad you came here tonight, because it really helped me see what I’m going to do. No, I’m not going to say anything to the contractor, I’m going to wait to see how things play out before I make any more moves. And if that makes me one of the fallen in your book of righteousness, so be it. Free will’s a bitch.”
Julian raised his eyebrows at him as if to say So there and headed on up the steps. Bryce listened to the Whoosh of the doors at the top closing behind him, the click of Julian’s boot heels across the tile floor growing faint. He squirmed a bit in his seat, worked his shoulder blades against the curved wooden back. This theater never was that comfortable, even when we were kids. Julian’s right, I’m no angel and I wouldn’t want to be. Those wings would be hell trying to fit into a little seat like this. Always getting in your way. Knocking over little old ladies, scaring the cat. Heh heh. Crazy, man, crazy. Far out. He looked up once more into the darkness at the plump under-thighs and bottoms of the cherubs ascending overhead in the mural, then stood up, shaky at first, steadied himself on the center railing, and made his way up the carpeted steps and out the door, back the way he’d come. Thinking, Well, that didn’t go well, did it Lord? Is he really going to let the work continue on his Tower just because I told him he shouldn’t? Yeah, probably so. Crazy stuff. I get it that ol’ Julian doesn’t believe in moral absolutes, religious certitudes. Funny position to take for a confirmed Covenanter but I never did get all that praying to the God of Love and then go slaughter the English cavalry stuck in a bog. Anyway, the Lyles always were full of hubris, along with bullshit. But if he thinks the rules of conduct don’t apply to him, how does he make it through the everyday? How do you live in a world if you don’t believe in anything? Ol’ Julian the Jewel. Fascinating rhythm….
…as downstairs in the old theater, in the defunct Shopper’s Bazaar, Julian stands in the darkness of an empty storefront that for a brief time—a very brief time—housed Annatello’s Studio of Dance, standing off to the side but with a view of the front windows, waiting until he sees Bryce wander down the corridor toward the main lobby, thinking Dicey-Brycey, I suppose you mean well, you’re too flakey to have a malicious bone in your body, minister as hipster, a bebop pastor as he likes to bill himself, but it’s the last thing I need right now, one more person telling me how wrong I’ve been, what a fool I am, as if I didn’t know already, as if I needed to be reminded of all my failings, of all my failures, waiting in the darkness to give Bryce time to reach the front of the building then goes to the door and cracks it slightly, listening for the Swish! of the outer lobby door closing, then makes his way, still being cautious in case Bryce is pulling a stunt, to the main lobby, looks out the small diamond-shaped windows in the padded doors to see if the coast is clear, then goes through to the outer lobby and locks the doors to the sidewalk before returning and locking the inner lobby door, returns through the theater past the bazaar to his office, unlocks the door and goes through his secretary’s office in the dark and into his own office, thinking he’ll take one more look at the books, maybe he missed something, maybe he read something wrong, maybe things aren’t as bad as he thinks they are, turns on the library-style lamp with its green glass shade and sits at his desk and opens up the ledger books one more time, but within minutes his eyes begin to glaze over—more than that, begin to tear up, but he won’t stand for that, won’t allow himself that indulgence, he shakes his head violently to clear his thoughts, his mind—closes the ledger and turns off his desk lamp again and makes his way back through the dark offices to the corridor again, locks the door behind him and makes his way down the corridor to the master light panel, throwing the switch that plunges the building into darkness and then feels his way to the back door, hits the panic bar and bursts out into the lighter darkness of the night, the chill air against his face refreshing as a moist washcloth on his skin, takes a deep breath of the night air, grateful despite everything that is happening to him to be alive, to have the chance to still make things right, hurries down the fire escape, his footfalls ringing dully on the metal treads, to his car parked in the lone spot behind the building, backs out into the alley and heads down the side street and turns onto the main drag, heading up through the town that’s all but deserted now at ten-thirty at night, only an occasional car on the street (where the street used to be jammed at this hour with the cars of mill workers heading for the graveyard shift), only an occasional figure on the sidewalks (where the sidewalks at this hour would be busy with guys heading for the bars after work for a shot-and-a-beer before going home), past the dark skeleton of a building under construction, what was to be the Furnass Towers Office and Apartment Building, the ten-story concrete framework behind the construction fence dominating the little town, the narrow main street and the two- and three-story buildings around it, Julian’s attempt to revitalize the town now that the mills have closed, this town that he calls home, that his family more or less founded close to two hundred years earlier and that he feels is his responsibility or duty or at least legacy—maybe fate; maybe doom—to try to do everything he can to save from dying like the other mill towns in the river valleys around Pittsburgh, but he can’t think of any of that now either, though he knows all too well that he thinks of little else these days, passes the offices of Sutcliff Realty, Dickie Sutcliff’s office, another kid he grew up with in town who now leaves something to be desired in the friend category, another person interested in trying to revitalize the town but on his own terms, those terms apparently based on doing Julian out of every source of available financing, a guy to whom all through his life, whether in games of three-feet-across-the-street or backyard baseball or pick-up basketball games in the alley behind Sonny Rourke’s, that Julian seems fated—maybe doomed—to be second-best (if he’s lucky: it seems more like third- or fourth-best, at best), wonders aloud, God damn it, what the hell do I have to do? What the hell did I do wrong? with a touch of self-pity perhaps but mainly with a genuine bewilderment not only at his lack of success in all his ventures but what appears to be abject failure at everything he attempts, a genuine curiosity why it is in this world that some people seem destined to rise and others to fall, and how ethics and morality function in such a world, how the Bagleys and the Sutcliffs who don’t give a hoot about other people can flourish while others who genuinely try to do the right thing fall by the wayside, a genuine puzzle, Julian thinking again of what Bryce said this evening, You’ve got a responsibility to other people, that’s what morality is all about, and wishes he was so certain as to what morality is all about, wondering where in all this the responsibility to himself fits in, turns at 24th Street and heads up the long winding hill out of the valley, up Downie Hill Road, heading to Furnass Heights and home where he knows already he’ll spend another sleepless night, not afraid to close his eyes but constitutionally unable to let go of consciousness and allow sleep to overtake him, the ability to sleep beyond him because of the dreams he knows on some level of his consciousness or subconsciousness are there waiting for him, the dreams of endless hallways and dark corridors and something in the darkness around the next corner that is waiting to stir, turning slowly on its giant web, feelers waving testing the air, the multi-faceted thousand fractured eyes just beginning to focus on him…and the long night continues….