The Apotropaic School of Architecture
IN A BUDGET MEETING called by the board, Johnny had justified the stainless steel mirror-finished elevator doors in this way—your target market (executives, of course) would have the opportunity to find out who else would be on board, thus allowing them, if need be, to plot an impromptu escape to the loo or back to the office, rather than be cloistered with Señor Bore con Halitosis, or sad-sack, soon-to-be-fired Kathy. A desk job was abundant enough with stress; every temporary haven life could offer would be welcome, even if enclosed in only 30 square feet. Agreed, the board members clinked stemmed glasses—they were already anyway sold on the dream that their building would be the glassiest glass tower this side of the Pacific.
Johnny smiled when he saw Dessa follow him out of their office (relocated there within days after the opening of the tower), and draw near to join him in wait for the lift. He frowned as she stood beside him and her hand found its way to his crotch. He slapped at her fingers fiddling at the zipper of his pants. The cameras, Mrs. Dessa, he said insistently. Ha ha, I’m just fooling with you, she said.
Johnny knew that the security tapes were erased and reused every 48 hours. By that time, he and Dessa would be at her CCTV-less condo, possibly having sex, possibly watching American Idol on Star World, possibly watching American Idol on Star World after having sex.
Let’s go out of town, said Dessa. Now, she added. They were now inside the elevator. Every side inside was mirrored as well, so Johnny was able to inspect her face without looking at her. He deduced that she was not serious, and he did not have to respond. If not for the camera inside the elevator, he would have kissed her, for insurance.
We will have fun tonight, he said instead. The doors opened, previewing the eleventh floor. A man got in. It was him.
Dessa grimaced, then turned around, as if Perseus avoiding the gaze. Johnny stared ahead; he thought himself brave like a martyr. He did not know that man’s name, but he saw him often enough to brand him as the worst accouterment of his building. That man, Johnny had declared to his partners, executive assistants, and even to his wife, was the ugliest man in the world. That man diminished the property’s value by as much as 10 percent, Johnny was prepared to argue. That man, Johnny illustrated, was barely five feet tall, weighed maybe 250 pounds, and had his skin toasted as he escaped the fires of hell. His jet-black hair was impossibly curly, as if he had been the Bizarro result of an attempt to clone the guy from Blue Lagoon. Johnny did realize that had that man been of better means, he would have had surgery to wipe away his sun-yellow bucked teeth. That man could have as well implored medical researchers to uncover why each of his facial hairs did not grow in unison speed.
In fairness, Johnny sometimes would concede, that man did always wear a crucifix around his neck, the better to provoke the consciences of the unkind. And you are being very unchristian, Johnny’s wife once replied, to no effect.
Dessa too ignited many dry office conversations with her descriptions of that man. Quite often, she employed similes and metaphors involving animals, and not always relying on mammals. Johnny took quiet pride in never going that far. He scares me, he truly scares me, Dessa said today, as soon as that man had exited at the 6th floor commissary. Johnny laughed, just as he did back when he had tugged a near-sobbing Dessa along the moving line to ride the Battlestar Galactica roller coaster in Universal Studios Singapore. He seems harmless, Johnny said, despite being unsure himself.
What kind of people would hire that? said Dessa.
I don’t know.
Can’t you do anything about it?
Don’t be stupid, luv. Nobody could be fired for being ugly.
Nobody should be hired if they’re that ugly.
Her reflection revealed that she was pouting. Seriously? he did not say aloud.
He’s gone now, Johnny said. They had arrived at the lobby. He had not planned anything special for them that night. Drive-thru for dinner, maybe. Make me forget that face, Dessa demanded. That man, Johnny very well knew, was the fecal smell that ruined sangria in the park. He could even torpedo boners. Okay, we’ll go somewhere special, he promised.
SOME DAYS LATER, Johnny was having dinner at home, and received a call. As he listened to what had to be said, his heart beat furiously. You look pale, what happened? his wife asked.
I have to go to the office, he said, as he dashed away from the dining room.
In this rain? I hope it is nothing serious. He did not answer.
Most offices, including his, had suspended work early because of the weather. As he entered the lobby, he could see the police milling around, concentrated beside the one open elevator. Dessa lay sprawled inside, and no one was attending to her. The last time he saw her, Dessa had said she would wait in the office. She had plans not to be interrupted by the storm.
Is she dead? Johnny sputtered.
Yes, one of the cops said.
One of the cops, who introduced himself as SPO3 Sakay, led him aside. How do you know her?
I’m her boss.
Do you know how we can reach her family?
They’re in Davao. I have their number at my office. What happened?
We’ve reviewed the CCTV, it all checks out. Natural causes. She was in the elevator, it stalled after the power went out, she had a heart attack, probably. There was a witness who was also in the elevator. SPO3 Sakay pointed across the lobby, and Johnny saw that man, forlorn, seated with other cops hovering just far enough. Shit, said Johnny involuntarily, and SPO3 Sakay heard him. Excuse me?
He killed her.
That is not true sir, we have seen the CCTV. He even tried to save her life by giving her mouth to mouth.
He murdered her! Johnny felt a novel kind of rage surging. He started to stride towards that man, but he was restrained with an arm-twist by SPO3 Sakay.
Sir, Mang Temyong tried to be a hero and has been through a traumatic experience, you must leave him be for now. He only just stopped crying himself.
Temyong, is that what he’s called?
Yes sir, Mang Temyong is his name.
Johnny instead returned to the elevator to be with Dessa. The reflection of still-open eyes impressed on all three mirrored walls. For God’s sake, please cover her face at least, he said as he left her body. Another cop approached him.
You were the architect who designed the building?
Yes. Why? The guards reported that just before the power went out, there was some lightning and the building shook, and maybe the building was hit by lightning.
Glass does not conduct electricity, said Johnny.
Maybe, but what about the steel frames of the building?
Don’t you start blaming me, everything complies with the Building Code.
I’ll show you. Johnny supposed that it was possible that the lightning strike had knocked off a power line, causing the blackout, but he had neither the diploma nor the patience to explain that to this one cop. He instead asked if he could go back home. He was told that they still needed to ask him just a few more questions, and maybe he could wait by the shuttered Starbucks at the front entrance. He asked, and got, two cigarettes and lit up for the first time in five years. The guards, who knew who he was, did not stop him even though smoking indoors was punishable by a fine of five thousand pesos, or prison, or both.
The cigarettes had a calming effect, and so Johnny felt no burst of energy when he saw that man, Temyong, approaching him. What a sad-looking ugly man, Johnny thought. She overreacts, he knew. It’s not your fault, he told Temyong, who was startled over how it could be even presumed that he was to blame, but who said nothing except, I tried to save her.
So they told me. Johnny wondered if a “thank-you” was appropriate. Let her husband and kids do the thank-yous instead.
I’m sorry for your loss, sir.
She was just my secretary, Johnny said.
I know, sir.
How the hell do you know?
When we are in the elevator together, I see you and her. You and her, look very close.?
She was my secretary for nearly ten years, so of course we were close. Close friends. That happens.
I understand, sir. I am sorry you lost one of your close friends. Temyong clasped Johnny’s hand, and Johnny exerted the slightest of muscles to squeeze back.
I will pray for her sir, and for you too. It is the most I can do now.
What exactly happened?
Temyong had already practiced his narration before three different cops. When I got in, she was the only person inside. She looked tense already, and she moved to the corner. The elevator suddenly stopped, the lights went out, and she started to scream. The emergency lights went on, but she still was screaming. I told her to calm down, that we would be rescued soon, and she stopped screaming but started to breathe heavy, then she just collapsed...
Okay. I don’t have to hear any more.
I’m sorry sir. Johnny just nodded.
By the way sir, Temyong said, this might not be the best time to say this, but I know you designed this building, and I just have to thank you because it is a thing of beauty. Whenever I go to work, I am inspired.
Well, Johnny said, just before standing up and walking towards the exit—that was the fucking intention.