Free Souls, Chapter 3

Free Souls

by KAH

(Produced ca. 1983, revised 2013, all rights reserved)

Chapter 3

“Do you mind if I let you off at the corner? I’ve got to make an appointment at the Felders’ by 6:00.”

“No, not at all. What time do you think you’ll be in in the morning?”

“Oh, around 10:30 or so. See you tomorrow!”

Sandy gazed after the retreating hulk of the battered Ford as it drove off and was lost among the traffic of busy Placer Street. Amused affection strove with admiration as she noted that the rear bumper was about to lose hold–again–and reflected on the qualities of the man who so incongruously drove such a heap.

“Damn!” she said to herself somewhat inappropriately.  “Damn, but he’s beautiful!”

She broke off her now-futile staring and started to traverse the few remaining blocks to her apartment.  The walk was no hardship: this district of the city of Wapatomekie was particularly attractive.  The streets were lined with tall, healthy shade trees, now turning red and gold with the incipient fall, here and there a stretch of the old brick sidewalk pavement remained, and, before the rows of apartment buildings began in earnest, she would pass a row of small, bustling shops: a grocery, a stationer’s, a cleaner’s, and, best of all, a little variety store, a curiosity shop, almost, with a window full of antique jewelry and hilariously useless toys.  There was a little metal dog in the window that when wound up leapt about, wagged its tail, and yelped in a high-pitched, mechanical tone.  Sandy had joked before that she was going to buy it for Eric, since he wanted a dog but his landlord wouldn’t allow the conventional model.

She wondered idly what the Felders wanted, since their house was long since complete. Nothing had gone wrong, she hoped. No, how could it? They had Eric Baumann for an architect!

And she had him for an employer. Sandy recalled how they had first met, a year and a half ago. The short-notice date of a sometime boyfriend, she had been dragged along to a party given by a Leah Matthews, another girl the ex-boyfriend knew.  He’d dived into a pitcher of daiquiris immediately upon arrival, leaving her marooned, washed up on an island of self-recrimination– how could she have forgotten why she’d broken up with him in the first place! She’d been standing there debating which would make her feel less foolish, muddling her way home without her date or sticking it out, when from some point above her head she’d heard a baritone voice asking, “Excuse me, but what do you think of the new library over on Commerce Avenue? Architecturally, I mean.”

Too startled to be clever, she had told the truth. “Well, the entry’s rather striking, but the window arrangement detracts from the overall effect. I mean . . . ” And there for the first time she had looked up to place her questioner. He was a tall Don Glovanniesque young man in his early thirties, with a head of dark hair shot through here and there with silver (“Like stars in the firmament,” she thought now, pleasurably) and sincere brown eyes whose look had turned to discomfiture when he’d noticed her imminent confusion.

He’d laughed apologetically. “I’m sorry. That was a hell of a way to make an introduction. It’s just that I saw you standing there unoccupied,” and he had faltered, realizing his lapse of tact. “And, um, thought you’d be an ideal respondent for a survey I’m taking. My name’s Eric Baumann. Would you like a drink?”  He’d proffered one of two glasses he held in his hands. “It’s just 7-Up. I didn’t know what you drink–or if you drink.”

“Oh, I do, somewhat.  Not like some people I could mention.” And she’d speared a glance at her date, who was by then sloshing happily in the bottom of his third daiquiri, having added extra rum on the way down. “I’ll have a bit of Seagram’s, if there is any. And my name’s Sandy Beichten.”

Her drink duly mixed, the young man had led her to some unoccupied seats.  “Sandy, is it?  Sandra?”

“No, Alexandra.  Nicely overblown, I’ve always thought.”

“Well, Alexandra, I’m an architect and I’ve decided this party would be a perfect chance to gather non-architects’ opinions on the new library. So, you were saying–?”

“I’m afraid I don’t qualify.  I’m an architect, too.”

“You are!” He’d seemed pleased, rather than surprised.

“Yes, a real one,” she’d told him with a glint of pride. “Just got my registration in December.”

“Congratulations!” Eric Baumann had responded with heartfelt empathy.  “That must have been a relief.  And a great boost for your career, too.”

“Well, funny, it wasn’t the cure-all I thought it’d be.”

“Oh?”

“He really does seem interested,” Sandy had thought.  So she’d forged ahead.  “I was trying to make it in Boston, and I took the Massachusetts test. Passed the first time, too. But it didn’t open the doors I thought it would. And then I got laid off the job I did have. I mean, it was boring as beans, but you’d rather give them the chuck, you know? And the competition was so fierce that, well,” and she’d given an uncertain laugh, “I cut and ran.”

“Ran?”

“Yeah.  Back to home and mother. Except that Mother moved to Florida a few years ago. I have been noticing the changes since I got back, though, and did see the new Commerce Avenue library. What do you think of it?”

“Basically the same as you. Too bad, too: it showed more promise as a rendering. But you lived in Boston? Tell me, did you ever get over to Cambridge? Did you see . . . ?”

And except for occasional trips to the buffet and the bathroom they had absorbed themselves in a discussion of architecture, ancient and modern, until Sandy had felt quite lightheaded and Eric’s eyes had sparkled as her ideas and experience seemed to strike fire with his own.

That is, until Leah, the hostess, had came over and harrumphed in a questioning, proprietary tone, “Eric, would you please come out to the kitchen and help me with this? You know I can’t handle that big pan by myself!”

He’d shrugged fatalistically at Sandy. “Duty calls!” he’d said gaily. “Leah, I’ll be there in a minute.”

But in that minute he managed to introduce Sandy to a few other people, people interested as she was in the various phases of the arts, and though she’d seen little of Eric Baumann the rest of the evening, she’d found to her surprise that she was having a fine time and really didn’t care if her date drowned himself in daiquiris or flushed himself down the stool or anything else.

She’d been forced to care later when, way after midnight and time to go home, he was discovered snoring away serenely, sprawled among the shoes in Leah’s closet.

“I should’ve known this when I invited the bum! Well, at least he didn’t puke,” Leah had lamented with tenuous good humor. “Here,” she’d said to Sandy, “Do you drive a stick?  No? I’ll call you a cab.”

“No,” volunteered Eric, suddenly materializing, “I’ll drive both of them home.”

Leah had shot him a look that said tons, most of it squarely on his head, but he’d merely looked amused. “Come on, Sandy.  I think one of these other lugs is sober enough to help carry this guy out.”

They’d tumbled the drunk onto his own couch, having fished his keys from his jeans pocket. Sandy hadn’t really seen him since. Good enough for him, too.

But she and Eric had sat in his marvellously beat-up Ford for two hours in front of her building, again discussing architecture, and with it, art, music, and the theatre. She’d felt strangely divided that night, delighted with his decorum and the high plane of their conversation, but heavily conscious of him as a male creature. Why, she wondered, couldn’t they be talking about more personal things and perhaps up in her apartment? But she’d exorcised the thought: in the most basic way, it didn’t seem proper.

She’d seen Eric Baumann a few times after that, mostly at American Institute of Architects meetings, where again their main topic of conversation was architecture. The only time they’d exchanged much of a personal nature was when he’d announced excitedly to her that he was leaving the firm he’d been with for so long and was setting up practice on his own. She’d learned more of his history then, including the fact that his father had been a Lutheran missionary to an Indian reservation in North Dakota. He’d left his wife and two sons in a dark dingy apartment in Bismarck for months on end, hardly deigning to look in from time to time. Though his mother was a steadfast Christian, Sandy’d gathered, and had raised her sons according to their baptismal vows, it was his father’s brand of religion that had made the stronger, the negative impression.

“It did have one good effect on me,” he’d said then. “When I was eleven or so I looked around that apartment and swore that I was going to become an architect so that other people, if I could help it, wouldn’t have to look at crap like that. Simpleminded, wasn’t it? But I hope that with what I was doing at Richardson & Greene, and what I’ll do on my own, I can solve some of that problem!”

It had been a few weeks later that Eric had called her and invited her to lunch, telling her to bring her portfolio. It had seemed rather childish and immodest and she’d said so, but he had insisted. “Never mind that, I’d just like to see it.”

So among the remains of the Polish sausage and potato chips she had showed him her brochure.  He’d studied it intently, with now and again a faint lucid smile playing about his bearded lips.

At one point he had said, “You got your license in Massachusetts.” It was a request for confirmation, not a question.

“Yes.”

“Did you ever get your reciprocity, so you can practice on your own in this state?”

“Yes,” she’d replied, “they had me take care of it right after I was hired on at Phipps & Musgrave.”

“I see,” he had said cryptically, and gone back to his examination of the portfolio.

Finally he’d closed it and declared, “I’m going to ask you a personal question: How much do you make where you are now?”

“Six dollars an hour. Why?”

“Well, I’m afraid I can’t offer you much of a raise, but I want you to give notice and come work for me.”

Sandy had been dumbfounded. It was impossible. But in the aftershock she had realized that this was the very thing she’d been wishing for all along, but had never before known it. Afraid to appear too eager, she’d presented a whole catalog of reasons why she couldn’t possibly do such a thing. He’d answered and destroyed every one, summing up with, “From what you tell me of that dump where you are, they’re wasting you. And I need you. I tried, but I can’t design and draw and meet appointments all at once by myself. I need someone to take over the production end and to assist me with design.”

“But I’m sure there’s–“

“No. You.”

With that her fate had been sealed. She’d handed in her notice that afternoon and within two weeks had been installed as the Lady High Everything Else of the firm of Eric Baumann, Architect.

Standing now before the cluttered shop window, Sandy savored the thought of those initial encounters and of the months since then, working for him.  Hadn’t Frank Lloyd Wright’s associates called him the Master?  Well, Eric Baumann was hers.  “Lord and master,” she declared inwardly, frankly pleased with the conflict of such a sentiment with the spirit of the age.

“Well, let’s buy lord and master a mechanical dog,” she said to herself, decisively entering the shop. “Just what the man needs, a watchdog. Keep out the riffraff. Like . . . “

And suddenly she thought of Nick Hardt.  Why did the idea of him grind her bones? He hadn’t been heard from in days, anyway. Maybe he’d taken his splendiferous schemes elsewhere. She certainly hoped so.

Walking home with her purchase, she considered.  Could they do without the Hardt job? The Weisman house had been a good effort for them, their first structure designed from footing to ridge, and it was rising beautifully. But even the drawings for the interior were nearly complete. There were other projects, true, but costing them as much money as they brought in. Nevertheless, she felt she’d rather Nick Hardt found himself another architect.

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