Keep on the Sunnyside

I duck into the flower shop to pick out a bouquet for her before trudging up to the plot, and the usual bout of indecision nails my feet to the floorboards worn down by the shuffling shoes of the elderly and the bereft.

Molly and I had only been going out for a couple weeks when she shared her only guideline when it came to picking out flowers: no roses and no carnations.

“Too clichéd,” she sighed, crinkling her nose at the scent of the dozen red roses. “But thank you for the gift of dead plants.”

“‘Dead plants’?” I asked.

“Well, it is kind of an odd gesture when you think about it,” Molly said. “Wouldn’t a seedling be a more appropriate emblem of budding romance?”

‘Budding romance’? The next day, I gave her a packet of gerber daisy seeds – just so she didn’t get ahead of herself.

But, wait. I’m the one getting ahead of myself now, aren’t I?

Where was I? Oh, yeah. In the Sunnyside Cemetery flower shop, trying to decide between the blue irises and the pink stargazer lilies. The first few times after … well, you know … anyhow, the first few times, I brought her calla lilies, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? I thought Molly, of all people, would appreciate the ironic intent behind the cliché.

But that got old fast.

This evening, I cut my internal debate short with a compromise. The irises and the lilies would actually look good together, I decide, grabbing a couple stems of each and carrying them up to the register. The stoop-shouldered clerk sees me most every day, but he always says the exact same thing as he wraps the flowers in green tissue paper and cinches the bouquet with a few strands of rafetta.

“I’m sure she’ll love them,” he says, in a reverent tone implying that Molly is lounging on a cloud somewhere up in heaven, gazing down.

She’s not, of course.

***

As I meander my way up the hill, looking every bit the premature widower in my rumpled black suit, I soak up the sadness of all the spouses – spice, we used to joke the plural should be, like mice is the plural of mouse – who died so many years apart, the dates that don’t match when the headstones do.

Maybe I should have seen this coming all along. Maybe I should have divined some ill omen in our mutual affinity for marble countertops, some indication that we’d both be resting our heads against smooth slabs by the age of 27.

I’m mentally cataloguing the offerings left on the graves along the path, my eyes momentarily lingering on an upended beer stein, when I trip over the low-lying wooden sign.

“All flowers are removed on Thursdays,” I read while slapping the dust from the knees of my trousers. “No exceptions.”

I count the withered bouquets piled up amongst the flakes of whitewash at the base of our mausoleum. Yep, six already.

“Good news, babe,” I call out softly, fitting my key into the padlock. “Garbage day tomorrow. I know how you hate clutter.”

“Oh, good,” Molly answers from inside. “Be a dear and carry some of these spent candles out, too, won’t you?”

***

Molly and I had moved to Long Beach for the architecture, but we couldn’t afford to live in any of the buildings we admired.

We had met in the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA, where we had both distinguished ourselves with an unlikely brilliance for financing expensive graduate degrees in something defiantly impractical: the “critical studies of architectural culture and technology.” Not the most cost-efficient investment either of us had ever made, certainly, but we had always been fascinated by architecture. Unfortunately, neither of us could draw so much as a straight line, so we had to settle for seats at library carrels instead of drafting tables.

We had exchanged some furtive glances from the opposite ends of lecture halls now and then, but didn’t actually meet until one of our professors assigned a paper on the Case Study House Program. Predictably, most of our classmates gravitated toward the most famous architects who had taken part in the seminal experiment that helped lay the foundations of Modernism – Eames, Koenig, Neutra – but Molly and I shared an ambition to set our papers apart by focusing on a lesser known participant, Edward A. Killingsworth.

Soon, ambition wasn’t all that we were sharing. First, it was possession of the only book in the library that analyzed Killingsworth’s six Case Study homes in any great depth; second, it was the cost of gas money to drive around the Long Beach area to visit all the private residences the then-recently deceased architect had designed in his hometown. Finally, it was a realization that there were at least a couple of volumes worth of architectural criticism and history to be written about the port city long overlooked as Los Angeles’ ugly stepsister.

“I saw it first,” Molly said as we leaned against the railing at the edge of Bluff Park, scribbling our respective notes on the Marina Tower Model Apartment – a slightly Jetsons-esque exercise in steel-and-concrete simplicity near the intersection of Ocean and Paloma.

“Saw what first?”

“Long Beach.”

“Long Beach? Hate to tell you, Molly, but this city’s more than one hundred years old. I think there are several hundred thousand people – living and dead – who could justifiably claim that they saw it first.”

“Yeah, but none of them are architectural historians, are they, Nolan?”

“Good point,” I conceded. “Tell you what, let’s play cat-tinfoil-microwave for it.”

“Cat-tinfoil-microwave?”

“It’s like paper-rock-scissors,” I said. “Cat bats around tinfoil; tinfoil blows up microwave; microwave nukes cat.”

Needless to say, results were inconclusive due to the near impossibility of actually contorting one’s fingers into a reasonable approximation of any of those three things. In the end, we agreed to share Long Beach, first professionally and later, personally, too.

After grad school, we drove to the end of the freeway, set up housekeeping in a Craftsman-style apartment courtyard, and scored day jobs to support the research for our first book. I bluffed my way into a gig covering real estate and development for the local newspaper, where I summarily appointed myself the “architecture critic” of a dwindling daily that sold for a quarter. Molly lucked into a job doing in-house PR for an architectural firm specializing in upscale urban infill – basically, transforming old brick office buildings and department stores into trendy lofts which sold for more than a half million. She wasn’t just bringing home the bacon; it was more like the whole pig.

Still, with the median home price soaring past $500,000, there was no way we could buy a house. The only advantage I gleaned from reporting on the real estate market was a thorough understanding of exactly why we couldn’t afford anything designed by the patriarchs of the lineage of great Long Beach architects we had traced back to 1905: Killingsworth, Kenneth S. Wing, W. Horace Austin.

Our only ray of hope came from an acquaintance we had struck up with Belle Shaw, a grandmotherly Realtor who specialized in homes by name architects.

“I’ll find you kids a house if it kills me,” she swore.

Two weeks later, Belle was dead. But, in a way, she was true to her word.

***

“Over my dead body,” Molly declared.

“Well, that would lend a certain legitimacy to it,” I mused.

“To what?”

“To living in a mausoleum.”

“I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation, Nolan.”

“But it’s an Austin.”

“Really?”

“Really,” I said, spreading out a sheaf of yellowed clips I had “borrowed” from my newspaper’s morgue for research purposes. “It’s right here in this article. W. Horace Austin designed exactly one mausoleum in his entire career. Look at this photo – it’s the same one we noticed during Belle’s funeral.”

“But you can’t live in a cemetery, Nolan. In fact, by definition, living in a cemetery is antithetical to its purpose.”

“Oh, c’mon, babe. Would it really be so different than what your firm does? I mean, if someone had predicted 30 years ago that, one day, people would be living in the Kress Department Store instead of shopping in it, they would have scoffed, too. ‘By definition,’ the would have said, ‘retail space is not zoned for residential use.’ Just think of this as the next frontier for urban infill.”

“But –,” Molly began.

“Wait,” I interjected. “Just hear me out.”

I took a deep breath and pushed my spectacles – owlish black-rimmed orbs modeled after Le Corbusier’s originals, not Philip Johnson’s knockoffs, thank you – further up the bridge of my nose. I had been rehearsing my sales pitch ahead for days, consciously channeling the hucksterism of all those developers and real estate agents I interview for the paper.

“Good neighborhood?” I asked. “Live next door to some of Long Beach’s oldest, most prominent families. These are the people who’ve left their names on parks and streets and subdivisions – Bixby, Heartwell, Wardlow. Ring any bells?

“Secure?” I asked. “Boy, is it. Gated and padlocked, with a stately wrought-iron fence lining the perimeter –”

“Dead bodies inside?” Molly asked, her brown eyes – magnified by their own set of black-rimmed lenses – daring me to spin that into a selling point, too.

“You’d think so, but no,” I replied with a grin.

***

The mausoleum crowns a ridge along the eastern edge of the cemetery, separated from the traffic on Orange by the black bars of that stately wrought-iron fence. Four concrete steps lead up to a padlocked gate flanked by tapered round columns. Behind the ornate façade, a lower, rectangular section extends back about ten feet.

“It’s awfully small,” Molly said.

“We’ll expand,” I promised with an expansive wave of my hands.

“In which direction?”

“Why, down, of course,” I said. “I’ve already talked to a grave digger who’s willing to work as a subcontractor.”

Molly looked vaguely horrified, but nodded at the logic of it. Of course. Down. Where else?

“What about interior lighting?” she asked. “It’s not as if there’re electric lines running into . . . it.”

“We can use votive candles,” I suggested. “They sell them in the gift shop next to the front gate, and it would lend an appropriate ambience to the décor.”

Molly swallowed hard, nodded again. But then she started shaking her head instead.

“But, Nolan –,” she began.

“It’s all we can afford, babe,” I said. “The only reason somebody else hasn’t snapped it up already is because no one realizes it’s on the market yet. I only knew about it because I happened to notice that news brief buried on A14.”

“Right, right. What happened to the bodies, again?”

“On her deathbed, the last heir to the family fortune offered to donate twenty acres for a new park in one of the most densely populated areas of the city, on the condition that it include a memorial to her forbears’ contributions to Long Beach. She and all her ancestors are going to be interred there.”

“Didn’t they have a park named after them already?”

“Yeah, but the new one’s in a better part of town. Guess the old dowager figured that would be a more fitting legacy.”

“Oh, Nolan,” Molly said, slumping against a neighboring headstone with an air of something resembling exhaustion. “I don’t know about this.”

“Just think of it as a starter home,” I said. “When the neighborhood takes off, we’ll use our equity to move up to a loft downtown.”

We made an offer that afternoon.

***

I duck through the doorway and hand the irises and stargazers to Molly. What would have once been a romantic gesture is gradually becoming an exchange imbued with an offhandedness born of routine. A bouquet is nothing more than cover now, a beard diverting suspicion from my nightly visits to the cemetery.

Before I can inch far enough inside to straighten up to my full height, Molly barks, “Sit down, Nolan, you’re destroying the scale!”

I chuckle. It’s a joke that only a fellow architectural scholar would get. Frank Lloyd Wright – all five feet, eight and one-half inches of him – insisted on using his own average stature as human scale in all of his projects, resulting in some notoriously low ceilings. As legend has it, one of his students, Wes Peters, was six foot four, exactly the same height as all the ceilings at Taliesin. After watching Peters dust the ceiling with his mop day after day, Wright finally bellowed, “Sit down, Wes, you’re destroying the scale!”

Anyhow, where was I? Oh, yeah. In the doorway of “Mausoleum Sweet Mausoleum,” as the tongue-in-cheek needlepoint on the wall reads.

“How was work?” Molly asks. I can see that she’s been experimenting, trying to find a configuration of lit candles that’ll produce an even heating of our cozy little crypt, and she turns back to what she was doing.

“Good,” I say. “I’m almost done with all the reporting for my expose on how it’s cheaper – by the square foot – to be dead in Long Beach than to be alive.”

“Still resisting the temptation to write it in the first person?”

“Barely.”

“So, how did your interview with Gehry go?”

Gehry is Molly’s boss. His parents named him John, but he legally changed his first name in the midst of an undergraduate infatuation with the work of Frank Gehry. That’s all well and good, but the day he changes his name to “Gropius” is the day I force my shapely soul mate to quit her job.

“It went well, I think,” I say. “I asked him if he’d ever heard another developer suggest switching from lots to plots.”

“And?”

“Same answer as everyone else: it’s never come up. But it did lead to an interesting tangent.”

“Oh?”

“He asked me if I want to be buried after I die.”

Molly stops futzing with the candles and sits down beside me on one of the marble slabs.

“And what did you say?” she asks.

“That I want to you to cremate me and mix my ashes into the cement foundation of a stunning structure designed by some promising up-and-comer,” I say. “You know I think that burial is a scandalous waste of space in an urban area as crowded as this.”

Molly lifts her bare feet off the floor and points her toes. They graze the opposite wall of the mausoleum.

“Really?” she asks. “Right now, I wish it took up a little more space.”

***

I’m padlocking the gate of the mausoleum behind me as I leave for work the next morning, when the perfect headline for my article pops into my head with a click every bit as audible as the one produced by the rusted tumblers inside the old lock grinding into place.

“Is the Dream of Homeownership Dead in Southern California?” I whisper.

Squinting into the sunlight sneaking over the top of Signal Hill, I nevertheless spy Gehry standing near the front gate of the cemetery, sweeping over the rolling green hills with an appraising eye.

Not quite yet, I decide.

But soon.

“Keep on the Sunnyside” was originally published in The Southlander in 2006.

 

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