ANGELS IN THE ARCHITECTURE
by Dawn Davies
It’s twilight on the fifth floor of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and a weak light seeps from the underside of the plastic-lined blackout curtains. It is growing dark against his wishes, yet Jacob Silbergeld no longer has the voice to catch the attention of a passing nurse who could adjust the transitioning of light he has hated for most of his life. Twilight is when slippery things happen, when one can be led by the hand to unwanted places. Twilight is when buildings surge in the skyline and become otherworldly, a time when one can lose control. Jacob had fought against its demons for years with distractions of all sorts: films, friends, or when all else failed, a good book and a single malt scotch, but he is no longer in control of his environment, and the coming of night frightens him. He brushes his left hand over the blanket in search of the call button.
It had been a regular day at the Southampton cottage. Jacob had built the place by hand after retirement, indulging his architectural whims with ornate, paneled cornices, wild like curls of hair, rounded oak doorways, and a meandering granite walk lined with lily of the valley. He’d sat in the garden watching a colony of red-winged blackbirds getting ready to pull up stakes for the season. It was near dark when he finally stood and his right leg, which hadn’t worked well in years, buckled and caused him to lose his balance. He fell over the sundial onto a weed-covered stump. He heard the thick snap in his right hip socket, which led to an ambulance ride back to Manhattan, then surgery and rehab, and then, two months later—a week before he was scheduled to go home—a left-side stroke with hemiparesis and aphasia.
Breaking a hip was like the corruption of a bearing wall and floor joist, without which any structure, from the simplest barn to the loftiest cathedral, would crumble. Like any floor joist, a hip could be repaired. But the stroke took his freedom, his speech, the right side of his body. Benjamin, his old friend, was out of options. He’d begun the steps to close up the Southampton place and get Jacob permanently back to the city where his doctors were. He was nearly ninety, after all.
“Don’t sell the cottage,” Jacob had said, but Benjamin didn’t understand the marble tongue, the bee-stung muscles of the mouth, the frantic, dog-like look in Jacob’s eyes.
Back in the dark, his hand hits plastic. He fumbles for the call button and presses it. Someone needs to come quickly. Turn on a light. Do something. A panic swells within him at the dimming of the light.
He sees a shadow in the corner, but before it has time to rise, a nurse appears, the short, quick-talking one with the purple clogs, white cardigan, and red, curler-set hair. Jacob knows her because she smells like cinnamon Chiclets. He remembers her name is Penny.
“What do you need, sweetie? We’re busy tonight.” Penny leans in, hand on the doorframe, without committing to the room. He tries to tell her, but his mouth turns sideways in a grimace, and he releases a groan.
“We’ll be back in to get you ready for bed in a little while. You have to potty? You didn’t wet yourself again, did you?” Penny walks over and peeks under his sheet at his withered legs. She pats a hand near his bottom.
“No. You’re dry, praise the Lord. Here, let me turn on your TV.” She leans over his bed, her breasts near his face, a gold cross dangling in front of his eyes, then swings the arm of the small box television towards the bed and aims it at Jacob’s face. Wheel of Fortune announces itself, with its clicking roulette wheel and its stupid sampling of humanity guessing letters to simple riddles. The laughter of strangers calls him into sadness. He had always disdained television, but this set injects a grainy, rainbow-speckled light into the darkening room, for which he is grateful.
“We’ll be back in a little while to turn you, sweetie,” Penny says, and she’s gone, her compact, solid frame and rounded little arms and elbows reminding him of a Degas sculpture he’d once seen of a dancer looking at the bottom of her foot. If this nurse could stop for just a moment and stand in the doorway again, he would see it, he was certain of it—a hint of one thing sitting very still inside another.
The corner opposite him scribbles with moving shadow. He refuses to look there, yet his heart beats hard, like it always does when shadows assert themselves in the night. He looks instead at the television: a silly man in a suit holding a microphone, a contestant jumping up and down and clapping her hands, while her enormous breasts sway two directions at once and nearly pull her down into the pronged wheel. The wasting of time. What they don’t know of waste and of time. What you can never get back, he thinks. Things can change like that.
Once, not long ago, on a cold fall day eight years into his career, he saved a child’s life. He’d been limping across the Upper West Side on his way to the Automat on Broadway. His right fist stung with cold as it gripped the top of his cane. It was hard going on a windy day. Red and gold leaves floated like fires down to the ground, and he was so lost in thought that he almost missed it: the little boy darting after a rubber ball into the street, the woman on the stoop screaming “Stop!” Without thinking, Jacob dropped his cane and grabbed the boy by the back of the coat, swinging him around over the sidewalk just in time to keep a laundry truck from running him over.
He righted the child on the sidewalk and ran his hands quickly over the curly black hair, while the child stifled a sob and cried “Auntie!” Jacob looked sharply at the woman as she rushed from the steps to hug them both. He leaned into them for a moment, then pulled back to look at the boy, his cheeks so red and his eyes so bright and black that he almost swore he saw an echo of his old girl, Alice, in this boy’s face, the small assertion of one thing nested so still inside another, a shading, really. It had unsettled him.
Jacob knelt and hugged the child to him hard, sniffed his hair—it smelled dusky, like fire on a fall day—then peeled himself away, picked up his cane, and continued on his way, limping past buildings he knew like friends, eyes focused on angles and arches and designs across the skyline. He did this to distract his mind. The child would have been about the same age as Alice’s child, he thinks, and that’s when the shadow rose up from behind a row of ash cans in an alley, massive arms bulging, battle-scarred. It stood like a marble sculpture. He panicked and moved toward the street, then held his chest for a moment while his breathing returned to normal. When he looked back, the umbric figure was gone. That evening the darkness pressed against him like a problem, hot and oppressive and he couldn’t wait to get home. Later, he found himself near tears thinking about the child he had saved. About Alice and her child. About the life they didn’t have. He turned on all the lights in his house and stayed awake until the sun came up and relieved him of his fear.
He sees a movement in the recess next to his closet that lifts and surges like a gestural drawing in a nightmare, a boogie man, shoulders the size of a tank, roaring up then settling back down, angling back into the dark, and his heart jumps weakly in his chest. Damn it. He presses the call button again. Nothing, nothing, except wheels of fortune clacking in the dark. Now an orange juice ad, a blonde Nazi child sipping cold juice through a striped straw. The darkness swells, and the shape stirs. He feels a wet sting on his left side. He presses the call button.
It takes an eon for Nurse Penny to come, this time sailing through the door, rushed, annoyed, leaning quickly to turn down the volume of that stupid show.
“What is it, sweetie? Mein Gott!” he thinks he hears her say, like his mother would have.
“You’re sweating. I’ll be right back.” His left hand grips her rounded forearm, and he pulls and says, “Don’t go. Don’t leave me in the dark. Something is in the room! In the corner!”
But the nurse hears a gurgled slur in his throat and peels his speckled claw away from her. She doesn’t like the patients touching her skin. She peers under the sheet again and says, “Uh-oh, I see what you’ve been up to, Mr. Silbergeld. You’re all wet. I’ll be right back with someone. We’ll change you.”
She turns quickly and leaves again, and the shadow lifts and begins to surge and press toward him. Jacob sees a helmet on a molten head, nose like a bull. He calls out for help, but there is no one.
“I will not look at you,” Jacob says to the figure. “You cannot get to me here. Get away!” Its shape is clearer now. It rises up out of the corner, dappled in television light, like the winged warrior on the Mohawk Niagara building.
“Help!” he cries out again. “Mein Gott!” though he hasn’t spoken German since coming to America in ’32 after his mother’s funeral. Jacob had come home from school and found her on the floor, purple in the face, her hands still white with the flour she’d been using to knead bread. He and his uncle set out for the States two weeks later, leaving Jacob’s father behind in the institution from which he would never be released.
It was during the rough, storm-sieged ocean crossing that the beast-like shadow first appeared to Jacob, the night Jacob thought that he, and everyone else on the ship, would surely die in the storm. He believed its apparition was the first indication that he might be taken by dementia praecox the way his father had been. He didn’t tell his uncle. Instead, he quietly braced himself for the beginning of what he expected to be a terminal state of deterioration. Insanity. Institutionalization. But no other sign manifested. Only the dark form that haunted him and appeared when he was most vulnerable, the one he never dared to look at. The one that showed itself during that dangerous boat ride and never went away. Over time, he grew to believe it was the way his mind processed fear, but it didn’t help him feel less afraid.
Nurse Penny returns with another nurse, the big one Jacob doesn’t like, the one with the red nose and rough hands. Their arms are full of sheets, blankets, cloth bed-liners, a nightgown, and towels. The form in the corner softens but stays. Folds inward. Don’t they see it? Jacob, thinks. Why do they not trip over its big feet?
“We’re here to get you ready for bed, Mr. Silbergeld,” the big nurse says in the voice she used for old patients: loud, flat, and condescending. When she pulls the light cord, the room floods with a cold fluorescence and, to Jacob’s relief, the shape briefly disappears.
But after his eyes adjust, the umbra begins to swell and fill the corner once again. There is no getting away from it. There never is. It has eyes and they look at him. For the first time in his life, Jacob looks back, briefly, before turning away. Nothing happens. He has not become a pillar of salt. He has not spontaneously combusted. He hasn’t melted or been possessed by shedim—the demon spirits his mother had once warned him of.
The nurses flank him on either side and begin the choreographed moves they practiced several times per day, first stripping back his blanket and sheet, leaving him bare and wet and branchy on the bed, a hint of his former self, the meat of his muscles eaten by time, his bones picked clean.
“He’s wet,” Penny says.
“Must be 7:30,” says the big nurse, who looks at her watch. “Yep. Every night, like clockwork. Here, roll him toward me. Look at that scar on his leg. Wonder what happened there.” They turn him like a piece of timber onto his numb side, and he thinks he is falling. He calls out, fumbling with his left hand for the bed rail and hitting Penny in the chest.
“Look out! It’s right behind you,” Jacob tells her. A warning, but she doesn’t understand.
“I think you’re getting fresh with me, Mr. Silbergeld,” Penny says.
“Those days are long gone,” the big nurse says, as she swabs his bottom and rolls the urine-soaked pad under his left hip, then rolls him back on top of it.
But they aren’t gone, he thinks. It was just a moment ago, a week, really, that he took Alice to see the Manhattan Municipal Arts Building the day before he left for basic training. He had suspended architecture school to join the Army after Pearl Harbor and had wanted to show her the magical quality of Beaux-Arts before he left, so he could experience his two loves in one place, one essentially nestled inside the other.
He kissed her under the Gustavino ceiling tiles in the South Arcade, something he had longed to do since he first saw the sweeping curves of tile that rode the building like a wave. He leaned down, smoothed her black curls back from her forehead, and pressed his lips hard onto hers, wanting to brand her with his kisses, leave his mark on her before he left. She laughed when she pulled away to catch her breath, her teeth flashing like small pearls, and this was when he knew loved her. He asked her to wait for him, and she said yes. Later that night they made love for the first time in a cheap motel they rented by the hour. Separating from her to report for basic training was like peeling his skin away from his bones.
Jacob loved Alice through the European theater, writing weekly declarations of his love home to her, and of his promise to marry her as soon as he got back. When the ‘Dear John’ came without warning, telling him she had married another, the shadow returned, looming large, skulking behind every tree, following him into his foxhole, disappearing during battle, but reappearing soon after the gunfire ceased, and his breathing returned to normal. He had gotten himself shot in Bastogne, and during recovery, which took place at a military hospital set up inside an old church, the shadow was so ominously present that Jacob thought he was truly going insane. He confessed to his nurse that he was seeing visions, and she told him not to worry about it, that it was due to fever brought on by infection. He wasn’t crazy, she said. He was just in the middle of a war. But how could he not worry? The beast never seemed to go away.
Jacob arrived home months later with his limp and his cane and his shattered right thigh, to find that Alice had died in childbirth. The door of hope he had always held open closed for good. He finished architecture school like a puppet on a string, automatically, almost without thought, then left for Albany, where he designed large office buildings without passion, without curve, without bravura or swag, without love.
Some years later, he ran into their old cantor, who spoke of Alice.
“She married so quickly,” the cantor whispered. “She had to. She was already with child and the math didn’t make sense, if you know what I mean. She gave birth four months after the wedding. A son.”
“What? Whom did she marry?” Jacob asked. “I must know.” But the cantor said he couldn’t say any more. He had been asked not to.
Jacob pressed him. “Who was it? Who asked you not to say anything? I must know the family’s name.”
The cantor shook his head and made a gesture of locking his lips with an imaginary key, and Jacob knew he wouldn’t get anything more out of this man whose promises stuck like brick and mortar. When the cantor saw the tears in Jacob’s eyes, he softened, saying only that the boy lived with Alice’s husband’s family on the Upper West Side. Later, Jacob noticed the cantor hadn’t said the boy lived with his father. He said the boy lived with Alice’s husband’s family. What did that mean? Was the cantor implying that the father was dead? Or that Alice’s husband was not the boy’s father? Was he the father? Did he have a son? After limping for weeks up and down the entire Upper West Side and seeing no boy with red cheeks and curly black hair, Jacob decided it was best not to meddle. What would it accomplish anyway? He tried to put the idea of the child out of his mind, lest he be driven crazy in a different way. Still, Jacob never stopped looking for the child who reminded him so much of Alice. He looked in restaurants, on subways and buses, in schoolyards and movie theaters and shops. He couldn’t help himself. This went on so long that he eventually began looking for a young man, then an older man, then finally an old man in his sixties. He never found him, but he never stopped looking.
Jacob’s love for architecture returned, and he devoted himself to his work, to creating useful yet lovely things that would loom high in the sky and assert themselves for generations, leave a little of himself for the future, and a little of Alice, too, for he loved her still. He would put a bit of her in each building he created, a hint of her sitting very still inside something solid, tucking carved masonry angels into friezes on gambrels, or whimsical turrets, or between parapets. He made a name for himself, working long past retirement until he was old and bent, closing each workday late in fear of the dreaded dark, and the shape of night, and the beast that waited in dark joints and junctions to terrify him and take his sleep.
The nurses pass him over the wet, rolled pad, and onto his other side, and from the corner of his eye, Jacob sees the giant form by the closet lunge up to where the ceiling meets the wall. In the light it shines a bright gold and is studded with gems. Jacob groans in terror, his right hand unable to grab for the railing or for the nurse. His bowels release in a pool beneath him, and a foul smell soils the air.
“Christ on a crutch, now he’s done it,” the big nurse says.
“Oh, Mr. Silbergeld,” Penny says, turning her nose away from the bed. “He’s not well.”
“It’s the bloody feeding tube,” the big one says. “It always makes them poo like that. Godawful. Hold him there, now,” and she turns briefly toward the giant form in the corner, which stands gleaming like the Civic Fame statue, golden and frozen, nine feet tall. Why does she not see this creature, Jacob thinks. She’s in its arms.
The big nurse returns with a wet, soapy cloth and cleans his bottom like a baby, and then dries him while Penny holds him stiffly on his side. They lift the corner of the fitted sheet at the bottom, then the top corner of the bed, and roll it under Jacob. Then they place a clean sheet on each corner and tuck it under the soiled, rolled one. They roll him back over the lump, then pull the lump away, fitting the clean sheet over the mattress. They rub lotion into his back, change him into a new hospital gown, and on, “One, two, three,” they hoist him by his elbows to the top of the bed. He is bird bones and air. Nearly nothing. They prop him toward his right side, facing his head toward the corner of the room.
The shadow form makes eye-contact, takes a knee, then bends as if in thought, or as if it is waiting for them to leave so it can finally do something terrible to him. On the television, the sparkling wheel spins in circles. Jacob is nearly insane with fear, but he cannot figure out how to convey this to the nurses. He begins to cry.
“There, Mr. Silbergeld,” Penny says. “You’re all tucked in for the night.”
“He’s very clammy. He’s grayer than usual. He looks like stone,” says the big one.
“No fever, though. I’ll note it in his chart.”
“Don’t leave me,” Jacob says. “There is a beast in the corner. I don’t feel well. There is a fluttering in my chest. There is something about to break in there,” but all the nurses hear is a wheezing of air through his vocal chords, a chewing of his tongue, the babbling of a very old man.
“Sleep tight, sweetie,” Penny says as she reaches over him for the light cord. He smells cinnamon Chiclets. She turns out the light, and the anemic blue of the television washes the room. At least there’s that.
“I’m afraid,” Jacob says. “Don’t turn off the TV.” But Penny pushes the Off switch, and the room goes dark.
“You done?” the big nurse asks from the doorway.
“Yes,” she says. “I’ll meet you in 516 after I wash up. The smell in here. I think it’s in my hair.” She turns and walks out, leaving the door open just a crack, light from the hall slicing into the room like an upended knife. It isn’t enough.
Jacob screams and rattles the side rail. They forgot to give him the call button. They left him alone in the dark. They left him alone with something in the room. Something is wrong inside him. Something is about to break.
The form grows, golden and blue ice, shoulders like a thunderbird, and the face of the bull has shaped to form something oddly human, battle-scarred, clothed in solid, heavy, studded armor. It expands to fill the area near the foot of the bed, growing past the corner, past the height of the ceiling.
Jacob feels a warmth that floods his feet and an explosion in his belly. The blood fades from his head, and the wings unfold from behind the beast for the first time, sharp and solid, like cutlery, and when he sees the wings, his fear fades. It is not a demon. It never has been. How could Jacob not have noticed all these years? Fear had possessed him so thoroughly he had been unable to see that the looming beast had never meant to harm him, but had simply been watching him, or perhaps watching over him.
The darkness wanes, and the room brims with a golden light. Jacob’s eyes overflow with tears, and he rises up to meet this beast, this warrior angel that has always presented itself in times of battle, the one that asserted its form into every structure he built, the one that came in the night, the one that was with him when he crossed the ocean during the storm, the one that was with him the night he saw the Manhattan light push from behind the General Electric building like a nimbus and told his uncle, “I’m going to make buildings like that when I grow up,” the one that was with him the time he turned impulsively into a bookstore instead of going home and had seen Alice for the first time, wearing a gauzy spring dress, her curly black hair pinned with combs behind her ears, the silk seams climbing up the pillars of her legs, her red lipstick like a neon sign, this angel that was with him in his foxhole, and with him on the day he saved his own son in the street—the angel he had feared was a demon his whole life, the one he need not have ever feared.
A song fills the room. Perhaps it is German or Yiddish he hears, or perhaps Hebrew from his childhood days in synagogue, Hebrew sung in verse by fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers, nations of fathers filling a portico, a hall, a prayer service chanted through a tiled sanctuary, the sound swelling in his ears, the corners of the room disappearing, the walls dropping low, joists and struts and columns falling away like folded cloth, rafters turning into dark birds and flying, windows melting like sugar tears, and they lift together, past the fifth floor window, and walk toward the plane of the horizon, up, up to where Alice awaits, her soft curls washed in mist, the golden guardian at his side, wings spread, sword at the ready.
Dawn Davies has an MFA from Florida International University. She’s the author of Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces, which was published by Flatiron Books in 2018. Her essays and stories have been Pushcart Special Mentions and finalists for The Best American Essays. Her work can be found in The Missouri Review, Arts & Letters, Narrative, Fourth Genre, Brain, Child, Chautauqua, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, as well as in various anthologies. She lives in weird Florida.
Image credit: Conor Sexton on Unsplash