He left the presidential mansion so gripped with excitement that he had to sit in a lovely park afterward, hands shaking on his knees, while children splashed in a water fountain and he smiled at the limitless possibilities ahead. Back at his hotel, he hunched over the desk while the orange sun burned its arc and dipped behind the government buildings. He scribbled on the pale stationery, on the back of napkins, on pages torn from the expensive hotel binder that listed room service and pool hours. While he slept, his fingers twitched in search of a pencil to draw more.
During the train trip home he sketched in the margins of newspapers and on the back of security announcements. Through dirty plastic windows he watched soldiers on platforms, their green uniforms crisp despite the heat. When a tired businessman sat beside him, the man showed him a very preliminary diagram. The hotel, he said. The fabulous hotel by the sea. The president had agreed.
The businessman ignored him. The porter who took the man's ticket nodded and moved on. At home, neighbors placated him with smiles, glanced at the plans without comment, and returned to their air-conditioned living rooms to watch the state-controlled news channels. The man continued his plans on grid paper and poster boards and butcher paper. His fingers developed blisters and calluses from legions of colored pencils and permanent markers. His refrigerator shelves went bare. His armpits and clothing stank. Outside, the school buses stopped coming and the trash piled up but none of it meant anything as long as he could continue his rectangles and arcs and thick solid lines.
Every lesson from school reasserted itself in the grand design. The guestrooms, luxurious but simple in blue and gold, with door frames and bathrooms wide enough for wheelchairs. Every room had a balcony overlooking the sea. Soundproof walls everywhere, to keep private any nightmares or crying. An army of sleek elevators would service the hotel wings both vertically and horizontally, carrying gurneys and room-service carts. Pneumatic tubes would deliver guest and medical information. In the dining room, under great crystal chandeliers, there would be no barrier of rank or service. The hotel bars and lounges would stay open day and night, to raise a toast or trade a story or sit in silence, remembering. A wraparound porch of white rocking chairs overlooked the lush rose gardens and marble memorials; inside, assorted wings held indoor pools for recreation and therapy, gymnasiums where the paralyzed would learn to walk again, suites where the finest engineers would design and fit prosthetics to replace arms and legs and eyes and penises.
The movie theater of red velvet seats would be Art Deco design, with gold cherubs smiling down on a constant rotation of comedies. Laughter was the best medicine. The casino would offer poker, blackjack, and slot machines, but no other games of chance. Roulette was too cruel.
As the plans neared completion he realized that the president surely expected him to propose a suitable location. He locked up his home with its withered lawn, climbed into his car with its stuttering engine, and drove off with supplies and mementos--a high school trophy, an army medal, a photo of a family broken. The pitted and cracked roads took him past closed stores and chained lots. Smoke drifted over neighborhoods of blackened buildings. The amusement park at the seashore was barricaded, the public beach full of tents and lean-tos and hungry faces. He drove past them all, and farther past the fortified homes of the rich, and even farther past the nuclear plant leaking into the ocean. He slept in the back seat and ate from tin cans and searched, constantly searched, until a winter sunrise found him standing on a grassy dune with perfect views of the sea.
He'd found his site, but he'd also been a fool. A damn incompetent fool! He had totally ignored the power plant design. Hunched in the sands, his blanket and beard flapping in the wind, he invented systems to capture the ceaseless wind and crashing waves, to recirculate and recapture atoms that had been zooming through the universe since before the invention of pistols and bombs. Hydroponic gardens of desalinated water would flourish with tomatoes, kale, carrots, every fruit and vegetable imaginable. Sunshine would heat the enormous bakery ovens to produce fresh bread, lush pies, sweet cakes with bright frosting. Sewage would be disposed of unseen; no burning shit-cans, no putrid fires of burning waste.
The new plans took months. In the meantime he ate fish and turtles that washed ashore, and any birds that died face-down in the grass. Each night he dreamed he was on the front porch of the hotel, watching a slowly approaching parade of men and women, the warm air filled with marching band music and the smell of pink cotton candy. Flags snapped in the wind and a pretty girl who might have once been his wife slipped her hand into his and said you did it. You brought him home.
One day a gaunt ranger in a worn uniform hiked across the summer dune and said please move on, no camping here. The man said, this is the future site of the fabulous hotel, here is where the chapel of all faiths and denominations will stand. The ranger nodded. Please move on.
The car engine was dead. He walked to the nearest city and tried to call the president from the last working payphone in the metropolis. The operator declined to connect him. The trains still ran, erratic and unreliable, but he had no money for a ticket. Instead he jammed the plans and drawings and sketches into a stolen duffel bag, hopped a freight train bound north, leaped from its metal edge into the black of night, and hiked his way through the outlying marshes and canals by starlight.
The streets of the capital were paralyzed with abandoned cars. The wrought iron fence of the presidential mansion had been fortified with barbed wire, armored tanks, and men with faces beneath shatterproof masks. The president was dead, they said. There is a new regime now. They have better things to build than a hotel.
His duffel bag sagged to the ground.
Failure was impossible, he whispered. Not now. He could hear the parade growing closer, the bright ring of the trumpets, the solid footsteps of his son carrying the lead flag. The guests assembled on the porch murmured their excitement. The staff watched proudly from every open window. These soldiers before him, with their hard eyes and bored sneers, didn't understand the debts and honors owed.
"Go away, old man," one of them said, pushing him away from the barricades. "There's nothing for you here."
A hot thrill of fury made him clench his fists. He could swing out in anger, throw everything he had into one good punch, and wouldn't that feel good? To let loose his fear and frustration, to satisfy the urge to make someone else bleed, someone else feel that same bright pain.
The parade stopped. The guests became silent. The flags hanging along the hotel driveway fell motionless and the smell of candy turned as acrid as gun smoke.
"Go," the soldier repeated.
The man grabbed the duffel bag, hoisted it, and turned away on boots that had worn thin.
He'd come this far already. He'd build his own damn hotel.