Big Wow

A crust of crumbly debris and pavement was the last bit to give way. His feet plunged through a cloud of dust and disappeared into opaque quicksand gray. Adjusting his goggles and helmet lamp he waited for the air to clear, and when it did he was staring at himself in an intact but darkly soiled pane of glass. Still legible in the bottom left-hand corner were the handsomely etched letters “Strip House.”

“This is it, late twentieth-, early twenty-first century,” archaeologist David Zadok whispered through his respirator and checked his GPS for the coordinates of a lifelong dream.

“You all right?” The voice of his brainy young assistant, Cheryl, far above him. They had tied up their boat at the old Zeckendorf landing, near the rusted remains of some long flooded towers and hiked over the barren landfill to this spot.

“I’m perfect,” Zadok almost shouted. “It’s a Rockwell, mint condition, and we’re the first to see it in four hundred years. Get down here.”

A moment later they were easing open the door of a ground-floor room in a late-nineteenth-century commercial building on a downtown street in old Manhattan back when people actually lived and worked there.

“Hand me that power unit in your bag.” Zadok threw his flashlight beam down along where the walls met the floor. “They’re around here somewhere.” Darkness cloaked everything. The light revealed backs of chairs in strange shapes, reddish leather trimmed with metal, once shiny brass with a dull green patina. A thick carpet with a grayish pattern was on the floor. The wall was deep red. “The simplest detail is always part of a fucking puzzle in a Rockwell,” Zadok said as he finally found a pair of archaic outlets smartly camouflaged by the thickly textured wall-covering.

“What are those?” Cheryl asked, becoming disoriented in the darkness.

“Electric power jacks. If I’m not mistaken, sixty cycle, alternating current, one hundred ten volts.” Zadok moved the dials on the compact but heavy power unit Cheryl had handed him. He scrounged up a plug adapter in the bottom of his bag and tried to match it to the two-prong socket in the wall. “You know, the poor people who lived around here needed an adapter for everything. They were slaves to their adapters.” He chuckled as he rummaged. “I’m living history right now.”

He pulled the matching plug from his bag, attached it to the power unit, and eased the plug into the wall. “If we’re lucky nothing will blow up.” Cheryl observed the red pilot light on the power unit.

“Watch this.” Zadok pointed into the darkness. His flashlight found a spot on the wall.

Cheryl gasped. “A face.” A framed picture of a woman stared back at her, and all of a sudden there were dozens of faces staring from crimson walls in a long, narrow room with neatly arranged, if dusty, tables and chairs. Three front-to-back rows of recessed and now abruptly glowing white lights gave the ceiling the look of a landing strip at night. Circular frosted glass sconces threw more light onto the long walls until they seemed to be foaming with the intense red of the wall-covering.

“I don’t know who these people all were, but this is a Rockwell.” Zadok removed his helmet and respirator, and grabbed the uneasy hand of his assistant. “It’s perfect, and there’s not another one like it in the world.” His voice squeaked with excitement.

Cheryl let go of Zadok’s hand and walked ahead. She had caught her reflection in a mirror behind the bar. Bottles still sat on cut-glass rotating shelves. She twirled one of the shelves. The mechanism was smooth. Colored liquid sloshed in dusty bottles.

“Alcohol,” Zadok called out as he jotted down notes and dates, where visible, from the labels. “To get people to stay.”

“So people could stay here as long as they liked?” Cheryl set her analytical tools down and walked slowly back to a tufted-leather corner banquette. She slid into the seat and stared back through the room. As she relaxed she slowly felt a strange kinship with the faces on the walls.

“They sat around eating and drinking, doing nothing. That’s about all that went on in the old city.” Zadok busily examined every detail on the walls and tables while documenting everything he found on the various recording devices dangling around his neck.

Cheryl leaned back. “What year is it?”

“That’s the central mystery of a Rockwell, layers of time jumbled together. The building is nineteenth century. The pictures are from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. The decorations are early twenty-first century doing early twentieth.”

“I like it.” Cheryl had removed her yellow coat and used it to clean off the tabletop and the seat around her. She stretched out, her eyes wandering, instinctively looking for a waiter.

“You’re experiencing immersion. Rockwell called it the Big Wow. All his spaces had this quality. The writings speak of it. Complete control of time and space. Rockwell once designed a prehistoric village where people came to do nothing but play cards and lose money. One thousand years of time compression in a single room.”

“Like a cathedral.”

“In the church of worshiping your own life.”

“How do you explain the Tower of Terror?”

“A challenge: design something where people linger even in the realm of their own fears. It apparently worked.”

“So none of these designs were for government buildings?”

“Never.”

“Isn’t that the biggest puzzle of all?” Cheryl leaned back in the banquette. Her eyes seemed to be watching people at a nearby table. She motioned for a waiter. “I can’t imagine a designer working for someone besides the government. Did he do it for free?”

Zadok smiled. “Not hardly.”

A glass had appeared at the tall blond assistant’s table. A sealed box of cigarettes was opened. She poured some dark liquid into the glass and inhaled. “Let’s stay here,” Cheryl whispered.

“This is the biggest archaeological event of the past fifty years.”

“I know,” she said. “Let’s stay here.” She had never thought of Zadok as anything other than a colleague. But with his glasses backlit by the heavy fan-shaped sconce he was suddenly transformed. He had become intriguing. “You don’t have to be anywhere, do you?”

“This isn’t anywhere.”

“So we should stay then.” Cheryl’s hair had become a reddish halo. Zadok couldn’t tell if she was smiling. He stood and walked across the room toward her. He seemed to be younger now and simultaneously as ancient as the pictures on the walls.

Above the Manhattan landfill the wind was foul. It whipped up dust and debris. The encroaching waters were crested with foam. The horizon was filled with the dark remains of a civilization—jagged, rusted artifacts of moments that had ended badly. From far away the red glow of the pocket where the Strip House had waited quietly for all these years was the only warmth in a cold city, a moment about to end well.

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