As a boy, Nathan had dreamt of becoming a man who built things, one of the shapers of the cities. He had a gift for seeing the world built up from sums and derivatives, formulae in the spans of bridges, in the flow of water through utility mains: the secret language of the physical world. After he’d finished at college he sent out letters to the big firms of New York and Chicago, seeking work, but in the end, his father had put his name forward at the local firm where he himself had risen to middle management.
With his graduation gift money, he bought a new gray wool suit and began catching the trolley downtown each morning. Hardy & Ross was old and well-reputed. Nathan’s office was on the fourth floor. He’d come in early to watch the broad plain of the Mississippi at daybreak. The city’s economy was recovering from the collapse, firms trying to find a way to rekindle the dampened fire of capitalism. Here and there, buildings were going up, but he wasn’t the one building them. It had been a coup to get a job at Hardy & Ross, but it was an old firm and it did things in the old fashion. There were rungs to the ladder that led upward, and they could not be skipped over. He languished his first year and a half drawing plans created by more senior men. He tried to distinguish himself, of course, but speaking up only got him the wrong sort of attention. He was shunted off into a department run by the chairman’s son, a towering, pink-eyed drunk named Graham. Around the firm, their department was called the junk yard because only the worst was sent their way, projects with no promise, projects with no budget, banal projects with no room to innovate. He spent another six months drawing wiring diagrams for streetlights, tracing out the light duty transmission lines for housing developments.
The Peregrine Park project had seemed small at first, too, another tiny municipal project with no budget in a delta town, but there had been something about it that had drawn Nathan’s interest. Maybe it was that when he spread the firm’s road atlas and searched with a fingernail for the city, he was struck by the size of the blank emptiness that surrounded its designating dot. He spent more time looking over the parameters, made the effort the following week to meet with the committee overseeing the effort for the town. Something in their need snagged his attention, drew his focus. The electrical work for the park had been fairly straightforward, but when he was done with that, he sought other pieces to complete. Graham had been particularly bad all autumn, barely showing up at the office most weeks, and it had been easy for Nathan to expand his role. He drew up the controls for a park carousel. He coordinated between labor and surrounding lumber yards to keep the deliveries arriving when they were needed. He met with the committee at luncheons to discuss parking lot configurations. Once he started, he found he couldn’t stop. Because he knew he was succeeding.
The first of the federal New Deal monies were just starting to flow down to the states that year, and the committee found that with those funds shoring up the other fronts, they were able to redirect more of their own budget into the park. The tiny project that no one at the office wanted suddenly became something mentioned in staff meetings. It garnered good press for the firm in the state papers. The firm assigned a young architect from another department, Lawrence Rydelle, to the effort. Lawrence shared Nathan’s frustration with the old way of doing things, and the two quickly became friends. Nathan set him to work designing a proper bandstand. The project grew into something larger, more significant, a showcase.
Graham began showing up clean-shaven, if not always clear-eyed. On paper, the project was making him look quite good. If he still resented Nathan—and Nathan saw no other way to interpret the hard stares his boss gave him—Graham was clever enough to accept the praise being heaped upon his department.The next week Lawrence invited him for a drink and proposed the incredible: that they open their own firm.
One afternoon Nathan and Lawrence stood over the plans at his desk.
“You’ve got a knack for this,” Lawrence said. “You and I both know you should be the one sitting in there.” He pointed to the glass window of Graham’s office, behind it his unattended desk.
“What do you want me to do about it?” Nathan asked. “Graham can have his office. I don’t care.” And he tried to pretend that he didn’t crave it.
The vice president’s secretary summoned Nathan to her desk to inform him that he was being promoted to Senior Draftsman. Another rung gained. His father took him to lunch, presented him with a new tie that his mother had picked out for him to commemorate the occasion. In a previous life, it would have felt like success, but the park had changed his understanding of what that word meant.
The next week Lawrence invited him for a drink and proposed the incredible: that they open their own firm. After all, the economy seemed to have hit bottom and was showing signs of turning, and weren’t audacious men defined by their very willingness to act when others withdrew? Beyond all else, they believed they had momentum on their side. Nathan’s success had made him a minor name in construction circles. Lawrence had a small inheritance from his grandmother. Captains of Industry, they toasted each other. A young man in Lawrence’s apartment building offered to make introductions around his club.
When Nathan thought back to that time in his life, two events stood out, emblematic in his mind. The first was Lawrence showing up at his desk with champagne and signed papers from the bank. But the second, the one that was burned into his memory, a foreshadowing of what was to come, was the involuntary twinge at the corner of his father’s eye when Nathan explained what they were planning to do. Still, they pressed on, and it had been like a wonderful dream for a while. But a janitor named Larson had ended all of that.
From what Nathan had gathered over the months after the fire, Larson had started working when he was just a kid to help out with rent at the tenement where his family lived. An accident when he was a boy had left him with an unbending left leg, but he was a hard worker and he earned a reputation for reliability. He was promoted to his bosses’ new commercial property downtown, the one that Nathan and Lawrence’s fledgling firm had just completed that spring.Electricity will always seek out the weakest parts.
Nathan had envisioned 20 units in the stout, four-story structure, but the new owners subdivided, squeezing in 32. The offices were cramped, with doors that in some cases couldn’t be opened at the same time without striking each other. Most offices had only a single window, but Larson’s employers sweetened the deal for their tenants by outfitting each office with a state-of-the-art window air conditioner. In the sultry, close heat of the Memphis summer, they were a godsend to the clerks and attorneys who worked there. Likewise to the bankers who had set up in the building’s main lobby. Larson’s bosses had been pleased. They paid him well, and he provided for his mother and sisters. But sometimes, in the mid-afternoon with all of the air conditioning units switched on, the overtaxed circuits, wired for 20 offices, serving 32, would fail. The lights would go out. There would be shouts, complaints, and Larson would take his flashlight and hobble on his bum leg down the stairs to seek out the fuse box in the basement.
Electrons stream down a wire like cars on a busy town road. Try to push too many through, and they pile up on each other, snarl like traffic. Left with nowhere to go, the excess begins to escape as heat, and the wires grow warm. The weak spots in a circuit, an undersized connector, a section of the wire where the copper is a little less pure: these are the places where the heat shows itself. Fuse boxes, by design, contain the weakest link in a safe location. But plug fuses don’t come cheap, and Larson was using the box his bosses had given him at a steady clip. By the end of the first month of summer, he’d run out. That’s when he discovered a penny, turned edgewise, would fit in the fuse socket. The handles of his pliers had a coating of gutta-percha. If he took up the penny with the pliers, he could twist it into the hole.
So much hinged on that moment in the basement. If there hadn’t been change from lunch in his pocket, or if he’d had bare-handled pliers, it might have all been different. But that day, the lights came back on. Those squat, gray air conditioners churned back to life.
Electricity will always seek out the weakest parts. When Larson replaced that first plug fuse with the solid copper of the penny, he shifted the fail point.
By the end of June, he’d replaced nearly two-thirds of the fuses with coins and bits of scrap metal he found around the basement. The fire was July 7th, a muggy Memphis afternoon when every unit in the building was sucking power through the lines. A splice between the second and third floors heated up until it glowed, blackening the joists around it, then sparked white hot. The fire took hold near the stairwell, and 16 people from the upper floors never made it down. Larson was standing across the street, his cap wrung in his hands, when they brought the bodies out.
Nathan’s office had been across town from the fire. He’d just returned from lunch when the office boy came running to find him. His memory of the fire was imperfect. It was as if his mind, quailing before the horror, had shielded itself from the whole of the thing. What remained were brief impressions of arriving late and standing amid the crowd on the street watching the fire crews fight to save the building, seeing that it was already lost.
The smell of smoke had been choking, made worse by the steam from the water the fire crew was spraying. The bystanders surrounded him, pressed close to see despite the thin line of police who were struggling to hold them back. Every few moments the wind would shift and the heat and smoke rolled over them, driving them down the sidewalk, wild-eyed and coughing. With the wind’s change the crowd would press forward again, taking Nathan with them. Later, he learned that Larson had been there and—arriving even later than he had—Lawrence, too, but he remembered neither of them, his vision reduced to the tableau immediately before his eyes.
Above the mob, the afternoon sun had lost its warmth, filtered through the smoke. Everything was left dry and filmed in ashy grit. He vividly remembered the fire chief. The man had been screaming, spittle in the corners of his mouth, the veins standing out in his ruddy neck, and at his command a group of firemen set a ladder against the blackened brick of the building’s front. One tried to climb it to an upper window, but just as he reached the top, something gave way inside the building. There was a rumble and black smoke began to pour with redoubled volume from the openings. The man on the ladder shielded his face, began backing down. The chief threw his helmet, cursing. He turned and met Nathan’s eyes. For a moment, it was as if he knew who he was. The first prick of responsibility for this mess, for the lives of those inside, slipped in under Nathan’s ribs, cold and eviscerating. In the days ahead, he would become more familiar with the sensation.
Later, it was Lawrence who found him sitting on a curb, his head in his hands. Lawrence got them both to his car and took him home, neither of them fully grasping the moment’s portent. Their lives’ courses were changed that afternoon, though it would be weeks before they knew how profound their fall would be.
From Watershed by Mark Barr. Used with the permission of the publisher, Hub City Press. Copyright © 2019 by Mark Barr.