Friday, December 1, 2017

Tradition, Fred W. Feldman

By Frederick W. Feldman

I was offered a job based on my performance at university. They sent me a letter, and fortune was against me since my father got to it before I could. He had a bottle uncorked for me that night when I got home. But I said “no, no, I can’t take that.” He was aghast, and disappointed––as is his wont. But I was firm. “No, I can’t accept.” “Why on earth would you refuse?” he bellowed at me. “You know why. I’m quite set on it.” And I am. “I’m going to build a wonder. The first real wonder of the modern world.” After the ensuing row blew itself out, I began making arrangements that night. (Journals of M. W. M. Leheg, entry 67)

Norm had only one real question he wanted answered, and that was why M. W. Malcolm Leheg hadn’t finished his towers.
To answer this, he had taken a plane out to New Holland, Pennsylvania to look at the ruins. His wife and son were back in California, and he worried about them every time he thought of them on the drive, which was often. At any given moment, his mind was either on his current work and university career, or his family.
Norm had visited the first ruin, and was en route to the next one. He was extremely jealous of the photographs he had taken and was thrilled to have them, even though there hadn’t been much to photograph. They could be hardly be called ruins at all: Leheg had only completed the base of his tower. Still, there was a glaring absence of Leheg’s work on the internet––or anywhere else. If all went well, Norm would be able to put his name to a drop of new knowledge. The world would have to decide whether or not it was worth remembering.

I say that the modern era hasn’t produced anything rivalling the wonders of the ancient world. Old Karl Marx can prattle all he wants, however reluctant he may be, about how capitalism’s skyscrapers and bridges and so forth surpass all the achievements that came before it, but he is wrong. There is nothing wondrous about a skyscraper or a bridge, big ungainly things that they are. Neither are they modern, not in the sense that I believe modern ought to be. They are modern in the sense of manufactured. But I will create a thing of beauty, something that is a triumph of the individual, not of the economy. (Leheg, entry 69)

Norm had expected it to be quieter than it was out here. It was quiet, but there was the rush of the wind and the growling of his engine. He hadn’t seen a real highway in hours. Out here, even the highways looked like back roads. The landscape was dotted, when it was dotted with anything, with homey buildings––churches, some patched-up stores, and gatherings of homes. He wasn’t used to it, as PhD. student struggling to survive in the cramped city. Out here, the town planning looked like it was done very casually. Mostly it was acres of farmland, though.
When he made it to the second location, he called Leticia. He had cheekily set her entry in his phone as simply “The Wife.” Whenever she called him, he told his coworkers that, oh, it’s The Wife. He had only been gone a couple days, but he missed her. He was glad when she picked up.
“Hey, babe,” he said. “”How are you? How’s Jon?”
“We’re good,” she said. “Jon took a few steps yesterday.”
“Good for him!”
“He’s here with me now. What’s up?”
“I’m at the next tower.”
“Yeah? What’s it look like?”
“Same as the last one. Not much to see.”
“Just the base?”
“That right,” he said. “It’s big. It was obviously meant to be big, but it’s...well, it’s pretty flat for a tower.”
She didn’t say anything, but Norm could feel her nodding.
“I’m worried,” he said, “that that’s all this is going to end up being. And then no conference paper, no article...”
“You could still write a paper about it.”
“Yeah, but...”
“You said he was out there for a year, right? He must have been doing something out there. Did you get his journals?”
“I did. They got the pdfs to me a couple days ago. I’ve been reading them nonstop. And, yeah, he was busy. I’m just worried.”
“Don’t be. It’s not about you. You’re just reporting on what you find. If it’s interesting, then cool. You get the credit for it. If it’s not, it wasn’t because you did anything wrong.”
“Well, we’ll see what the last one looks like. I’m going to drive out there now.”
“They’re all close together?”
“Close-ish. I’m not sure what he was up to with the distance. Maybe he had some reason. I don’t know how tall he wanted to make them, so I don’t know if they would all be visible from a certain point. Or maybe there’s no reason. I’ve been reading the journals whenever I have a spare moment, but I haven’t seen anything about that. I’ll flip through it some more tonight.”
The motel looked like it had been built on a sandbox. Everywhere there was grass, except for the several meters surrounding the plot upon which the motel had been plunked down. There were few cars, and the only other visitors he saw were the members of a noisy german family who had all somehow smeared melted klondike bars over their faces and clothing. They paid him little notice.
The sun had set by the time he settled in. He was tired from his flight. He was tired from his adventures, and from worrying. He propped himself up on the creaky mattress and powered up his e-reader. The moon glowed outside, and the night lamp bulb wheezed heavily at his side.

More than any other of the tales I had to sit through in Sunday School, I have always remembered the story of Babel tower. A group of people building all the way to heaven itself, foiled by the confounding of their language. But it was the people by whom I was awed, not by the divine retribution. The only place in the Biblical texts where God felt threatened! By a group of mere mortals, working together. And now they build their skyscrapers and suspension bridges––but this is the age of the individual. Or it should be. Could be. And with my own two hands, I will build my own tower of Babel. (Leheg, entry 154)

The following morning, Norm got into his rental and followed the GPS’ directions. He would call Leticia again as soon as he made it to the last tower. He worried too much. He knew he shouldn’t, but his son was less than a year old and having the boy out of his sight terrified him. The road fled past. She would want to know what he saw. It was her field, too, after all. They had met during their Master’s. She had foregone the academic career in favor of motherhood, but hadn’t lost her scholarly interest.
The field where the GPS took him was a distance away from any residential area. He felt his heart swell when his destination came into view. Norm could see the ruins of the tower jutting above the horizon like the edges of broken glass. There was an RV rusting in the field. That was where Leheg had stayed while he worked. Where the other two had been mere proof-of-concepts, this one was where Leheg had actually labored at realizing his wonder. Norm hadn’t been sure what to expect, but what the man had managed to complete impressed him. The ruins stood perhaps three hundred feet high, and the base was––like the others––a hundred feet in diameter. It was clearly meant to reach far into the sky. It was made of stone.
He dialed The Wife.
“I’m at the last tower,” he said.
He let out a long sigh, of relief and pleasure. “It’s an actual tower.”
He described it to her.
“I’m going to get a closer look. I’ll tell you what I see.”
His boots crunched over the grass, grown tall and wild. He walked into the long shadow of the tower.
“I see a few bricks here and there, but the building materials have been moved. He really must have laid each stone himself, though.”
“How did he pay for it?” asked Leticia.
“I’m not entirely sure. He might have taken out some loans. I know he had an allowance that he often complained about in his journals. That, I’m pretty sure, came from investments and other passive income that his father had secured for him. He was rich. There might have been some loans, too, which would explain if he took the materials away to pawn them off once he decided to leave.”
He reached the entrance.
“The door is a work of art in itself,” Norm told Leticia. “It’s engraved with ironwork that’s very delicate, very ornate. There’s something written on reads ‘Homo Ascendit.’ It’s been emblazoned about two feet above my eye-level.
The inside was bare and dark. Norm switched on a flashlight.
“It looks like he was going to save decoration for later,” he continued. “Even so, it’s got some neat arches and he even added some caryatids. Nice touch.”
His footsteps clicked on the floor. He happened to glance down, and what he saw caused him to take a second glance with his flashlight.
“Ah, this is amazing.”
“What?” asked his wife.
“The floor. It’s a giant reproduction of The Vitruvian Man. DaVinci. Wow.”
“”He stuck to his theme,” said Leticia, dryly.
Norm went up the staircase, passing several floors much less impressive than the first, until he reached the top.
“Not much up here,” he said. “Just some wall and the sun coming down.”
“Sounds like an experience,” she said.
“It sure is. Oh!” he smacked his forehead. “I need to get pictures. I’ll get lots of pictures.”
“Sounds like you have your discovery,” his wife smiled.
“I really do.”
“I wonder why he didn’t finish it,” she mused.
“I figured that out, too, I think. His entries at the end are a little vague, but I think I know...”
“What?” she asked. “Disease? Did the government stop him?”
“Boredom,” Norm replied.

I finished another floor today. How many more do I have to go? Sixty? Eighty? One hundred? I don’t remember, honestly. I look at the plans every day, but I don’t look at them. I count every foot I gain, and groan at how many more are left. And I wonder, what am I doing this for? What God am I trying to dethrone, anyway? Like as not, no one will care what I build. After all, they have their skyscrapers and their bridges. My towers...would be beautiful. If I completed them, they would be beautiful. But who will care, other than me, and will I even care?
I have never been one for routine, and now every day is routine. I see routine behind me, and routine ahead of me...well, in all honesty, the last few days I’ve mostly spent poking around town and writing up some new sketches in the bars. It’s funny, at first the locals acted like I was some sort of devil; now I barely draw a second look... (Leheg, entry 323).

Norm caught a flight that night, and flew home to his family.


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