No Change Orders

Janet contemplated finding Phil to remind him yet one more time that the construction workers had to watch out for the paneling on the staircase. Tearing things apart was not the reason I wanted to be an architect, she thought while surveying the chaos. She wanted to build things, not tear them down. And her career was one of the things she was trying to build. The Phoenix was the first big job the partners assigned to her, and demolition was part of the package. Ordinarily, she would not have had to be on site for the demolition phase, but they were trying – well, at least she was trying – to save some of the original woodwork and other historic features, something requiring more finesse than anyone on this job seemed to be capable of.

Phil came around the corner. When the baseball-hatted construction manager saw her, the look on his face made it clear that he wished he had taken another route to the third floor.

Here goes, she thought and put out a hand to stop him. “They’re banging up the woodwork again. I knew we shouldn’t have let them use the stairway. We should have built exterior steps alongside the chute.”

“Would’ve added to the job. Aren’t you the ‘no change order lady’?” As he spoke, Phil gazed steadily over her head at the cavity in the ceiling where a light fixture had been removed.

When the job started, the managing partner had given Janet a button with the circle and slash over the words “CHANGE ORDER.” The client was absolutely adamant that the budget be adhered to. Any extra costs up front would, in the end, come out of the costly architectural features and details that meant so much to her. Janet suspected that the button was not so much a joke as a sign of concern that she couldn’t stand up to the contractors.

“We won’t save money if we have to replace the staircase in the end. In any case, it’s all needless – just tell them to be careful.” Janet immediately realized that this was not strong enough. She tried again. “We documented what that staircase looked like. Rehabilitation will come out of your boss’s budget.”

“Not bloody likely, I would say.” Phil dodged her when he could and tried to keep her in her place when he couldn’t avoid her. He treated her like a nagging wife.

That hole in the ceiling must be endlessly fascinating, Janet thought, following the direction of Phil’s continuing gaze. “Just tell them,” she said intending for the tenor of her voice to drop, but instead it went up a miserable half an octave. How did one do this?

Phil pointed down the hall. “I want to show you something the guys have been finding in the bathroom walls.” This was his favorite ploy – change the topic.

They picked their way past debris in the halls – old light fixtures waiting for dealers to pick them up, piles of carpeting to be sent down the chute. Nothing about the walls would have surprised her. The Phoenix was built at the end of the nineteenth century. The walls were lattice and plaster and whatever else they felt like throwing in. In addition, when private baths were added to every room, new walls were constructed in haphazard ways. Many of the walls were being demolished, but there were some weight-bearing walls that had to stay, yet another thing Janet had to keep an eye on.

They walked into a room that was already half open to the hall. It could be identified as a bathroom only because the cast iron tub was still in place.

Phil peered steadily at half-demolished wall as he talked to her. “Look at this. You know those slots in the wall you see in hotels for razor blades? Well, in this hotel, they just led to the space between the walls. So we have these piles of rusty blades left over from God knows when that we have to clean out. The guys are asking for someone else to do it – claiming it’s hazardous waste.”

Sure enough, there within a half-demolished wall was a pile of rust and metal. Nothing looked like it had been deposited there for many years, probably not since the advent of disposable razors, thought Janet. All those men, all those beards. Did women use razor blades in those days? She kicked the pile with her work boot and rusty dust sifted onto the floor. She noticed a flash of color in the malignant-looking mound.

“Let me call the office and see if anyone has ever dealt with this before. Meanwhile, just leave it be when you run across it. I’ll get you an answer later today.”

Phil grunted, and left. She peered into the wall again, went out to the hall and came back with a rag. Wrapping the rag around her fist, she reached in and brought out a slate blue paper folded and refolded to make about a two-inch square. Small enough to fit through the razor slot, she thought. She put it in the back pocket of her khakis.

The morning was going as every previous morning for the past two months had gone. Janet used up all her energy in confronting the various contractors and their subs. It was not just that she found it difficult – draining – to exert authority; she did not even like being around people that much. She had gone into architecture because she liked the long hours at the computer and the drawing board; she loved working out problems, creating something new, refining concepts. She hated this. Professors told her in architecture school that when you got good, they turn you into a manager; it was the only way she would ever have a crack at becoming a partner.

Janet decided she needed a more immediate reward than the far-off partnership and left the hotel, got a coffee and cruller from the street vendor outside the construction site, and brought her treats back to her make-shift office in back of the hotel’s dusty reception desk. She leaned back, lifted her behind in the air, fished the blue paper out of her rear pocket and unfolded it carefully. It was ancient. The paper wanted to separate at the creases, and even without any sunlight, the ink had faded so that it was barely legible. It had been written with a fountain pen of some sort in the extravagant but controlled scrawl that you never saw anymore. She pulled the gooseneck lamp down and was able to read:

I did it. I just wanted someone, someday, to know that I did it.
Mary Bertram

Well, now someone knew she did “it” – but what was “it”? Had Mary Bertram murdered someone and used the hotel bathroom as her confessional? Had she just lost her virginity in the hotel bed, and was recording the fact for future generations because she couldn’t tell anyone else? Had she run away from home, and on her first night in the big city was she just documenting her bravery as she tried to figure out what to do next? Had she done a good thing or a bad thing? Janet went out and got one of the small plastic bags that they were using for spare pieces of electrical fixtures, slipped the note inside, and put it into her portfolio. Then she took a last swig of coffee, wished it was spiked with brandy, and went off to complain to Phil about the handling of some of the ceiling cornices that they were hoping to reuse.

Over the next few days, Mary Bertram’s note was unfolded and refolded many times as Janet’s curiosity waxed. Her firm had compiled a history of the hotel when the project started, and she went through those files and then graduated to the library, then to the genealogy room of the city historical society, and finally to the local police precinct to see if anyone knew anything about murders at the Phoenix. There had been a few killings in the vicinity, and even one drunken husband who dispatched the alleged lover of his wife (named Hazel and not Mary) in the hotel lobby in 1912, but nothing that seemed a likely connection. She searched for Mary Bertram in old city directories and census lists; there were and had been hundreds of Bertrams in the city, and many were named Mary. None of these appeared to have been well known for anything. But if Mary lived in the city, why would she be in a hotel bathroom? Meeting a lover? Escaping a husband? If she was from somewhere else, there would be little hope of tracking her down. And, of course, whatever she had done was a secret. That was the whole idea. Had she kept the secret to her death? Given the ink and the writing, Janet guessed that the very latest that the note could have been written would have been the 1930’s. It was doubtful that Mary was still alive.

For reasons that she could not explain, Janet found herself keeping Mary Bertram’s note a secret. She thought about sharing it with the nice captain at the precinct house. Instead, she just told him that her firm was still working on the history of the hotel and looking for some sensational events involving the Phoenix. At the genealogy room, she had created a tale about old letters from a Mary Bertram found in a trunk in her grandmother’s attic. She often wondered if Mary’s secret would have been something totally acceptable in the current day. So many things were out in the open now. Mary’s sin was probably that she did something that she was not supposed to do, some variety of moral infraction in those days of blue laws and truly white weddings. Compared to Mary Bertram’s time, there was little left to be ashamed of; so many things were no longer forbidden to women. One might more likely be ashamed at what one didn’t do; maybe these days thirty-year-old virgins were more secretive about what they didn’t do than eighteen-year-old non-virgins were about what they did.

In any case, Mary’s confession was a pleasant and harmless secret to keep, alongside the festering secret of how inadequate and unhappy she felt about doing the job at hand. Not that the latter was really a secret – she was quite sure that Phil was well aware of (and delighted by) her misery. What was more worrisome was that he was learning how to press her buttons. Telling him she needed to call the office about the razor blades was a bad idea; “calling the office” had become a standing joke.

“We’re having a problem with rotten floors on the ninth floor. You’d better call the office.” As Phil said it, he was looking out the window behind her and toying with a pack of cigarettes. Their last discussion had been about the crews smoking on the job. He was playing with her and enjoying the game.

Worst of all, there seemed to be no one to talk to. Her colleagues from architectural school had envied her position at a big city firm and the fact that she had this great opportunity with the Phoenix. They were not going to sympathize. Janet’s best friend Heidi was a fervent feminist and would accuse Janet of capitulating to the macho likes of Phil and the managing partners. And her mother thought she could do anything. “You can do it,” she would say. “We know our girl can do it.” If her father were still alive, she thought he would have been sympathetic. He had been as proud as anyone when she got her architectural license, but had himself worked all his life at that job in City Hall that he hated because the pay and benefits were good. He had never even gotten to take advantage of those pension benefits, as his heart stopped two days after his fifty-ninth birthday.

Janet had to admit that, surrounded as she was by people, there really was no one to talk to. Certainly, she could not afford to share her concerns with anyone at the office. Like Mary Bertram, she had a secret. But, while Mary apparently did something about her problem, Janet’s feelings were just bringing her to despair. She thought about secrets and time. After all these years, Mary’s secret did not matter to anyone but Janet. Years from now, Janet’s own current angst would mean nothing. She would either do something about it or not. Either way, the years would go by for her as they had for Mary. What had Mary done with her years? What would Janet do with hers? What to do about Phil?

But here was the crux of the problem. She did not want to do anything. She did not want to force Phil into submission. She did not want to deal with the local OSHA office over razor blades. She did not want to take on a crusade against smoking in the workplace. She just wanted to get back to her computer, to her cozy office, to her drawing board. Janet wanted to think about how to structure living spaces, not how to restructure the budget of a project that was quickly becoming a nightmare. She took out the fragile note again and unfolded it carefully. She stared down and it and waited for it to give her some answers. How do you decide what you really want? Progress may never be in a straight line, but giving up an opportunity like the Phoenix shift her career into reverse. People would think she was crazy. She would never get another chance – it was what she had worked so hard for. But why did she want it? To get out of her three-room apartment and out in the suburbs where she could finally have a dog? Was it her pride? Was it so she could face her mother and Heidi, her old classmates and her colleagues at the office? How did a golden retriever and a dose of egotism measure up to spending your days with the likes of Phil? Mary Bertram had been proud that she did something – Janet was feeling miserable because of something she did not want to do.

Five minutes into her reverie, the quiet exploded as something metallic crashed on an upper floor.

Janet walked out of the Phoenix and marched to the corner to get a soda. She opened her soda and headed down the steps to the subway and rode across town to the firm’s main office. She asked Marjorie if her managing partner was available, but then corrected herself and told Marjorie she had to talk to Stephen now. He was there. He would see her. He started to ask about ground floor windows at the Phoenix and Janet stopped him.

“I can’t do this.”

“I wondered when you would ask for help. This is a big project and your first one. We’ll send someone over to help. Contractors giving you the runaround? You’ll harden up. Just take some time. Some seasoning.”

“I don’t want to get hard. That kind of seasoning pickles you. I don’t want to run projects. I don’t care if I never make partner.”

“Janet, this is a big decision. Take a couple of weeks and think about it. You may never get another chance like this. Don’t let the bad boys get the best of you.”

“I hope I never have another temptation like this. I know it’s probably my last chance to really make it, but it might also be my last chance to get out. It’s not me. The bad boys can play with someone else. If I can’t stay here as just an architect, just do design, I will go elsewhere.” She was starting to shake. Not waiting for a reply, Janet walked out of the office, out of the building, and down to the bus stop. She sat on the bench and put her head between her legs.

After several city buses had stopped, honked angrily, and gone on their way, Janet lifted her head up to see a concerned-looking old woman sitting next to her and staring at her intently. Clean, powdered, and at least eighty, the woman had on a red and white striped shirtwaist and gripped the strap of a red patent leather purse in her lap. She continued to peer directly into Janet’s wet eyes, and the late afternoon October sun lit up the white wisps of hair that had been forced to a circular fringe by the downward pressure of her red felt hat. She seemed to be waiting.

Janet stared back into her cloudy blue eyes and said, “I did it.”