“The Façade Renovation That’s Going Well”

This is the seventh story in this summer’s online Flash Fiction series. You can read the entire series, and our Flash Fiction stories from previous years, here.

Between the exterior wall and the Sheetrock, a waterproofing layer was missing. The builders, in their defense, said that the layer had simply been forgotten about, not left out in an intentional move to save money. The building was faculty housing, occupied only by professors and their families. All but one professor were untenured. Half had kids under ten.

The layer had been found to be missing during a city inspection a decade ago. Repairs were put off for nine years. The school, as both employer and landlord, cited extreme busyness, and pointed out that, despite the missing barrier, no actual apartment floods had occurred. Year ten there was a global pandemic, but year ten was also the end of the remediation period, so construction had to start. The contractor hosted a virtual meeting to explain the many phases of the process. The slide show had several typos. “Demolition” became “demonition”; no apartment number was listed correctly. How disruptive would all this be, the dance professor asked, and the cherub-faced blond contractor’s spokesman answered politely, “Very much so, ma’am.” Then the chemistry professor chimed in about particulates. If the entire brick façade was being torn off, what was being done about air-quality control? The chemistry professor had small children. Small children had small lungs. The blond man said that they would tape over everyone’s windows. They would tape over the vents of everyone’s A.C.s. “So, no A.C.s or windows?” another professor asked. “All through summer, no opening windows or running A.C.s?” This professor, who taught biology and kept on the building’s rooftop a colony of honeybees, was not known to repeat himself. The blond man said that that was correct. And that the rooftop would be closed to accommodate the rigging, so the bee colony would have to be moved.

To better address the concerns of the tenants, a second virtual meeting was called, and predictably it went much worse.

The third virtual meeting was cancelled, and, a day later, scaffolding went up. Spaghetti-like ropes encased the building, and men in orange vests carrying hammer drills appeared on skinny platform lifts. Windows were covered with a neon-blue film that turned every room into an aquarium and gave tenants headaches. “No one’s complained about the blue film before,” the contractor said, though he then admitted to never having worked on an occupied building before. Clear film was procured four days later, the windows retaped.

The contractor did boast about having an on-site hygienist, a woman who was copied on e-mails but whom no one had met.

For three weeks, the noise level was terrible, from nine to five, Monday through Friday, with no pause. The new writing professor was trying to finish a novel but could only write things like “So this is what it must feel like to live inside a tooth that a dentist is trying to drill.” The tooth occupied her thoughts nightly. She hadn’t gone to the dentist in years. Red dust coated the window film; plumes of smoke were seen. The religion professor brought up the plumes, how, from her red-tinted window, they seemed cloudlike even. The contractor replied immediately, copying the hygienist, to clarify that what the professor saw was not a plume or anything close to a cloud but a puff of smoke being aggrandized by the wind.

Each morning, there was an e-mail update explaining which units would be most directly affected that day, though the apartment numbers were still incorrect. So, to figure out if you were truly going to be affected, you had to watch for where the huge mechanical pulley on the roof was dropping lifts. Glancing up at the building from the outside, the ceramics professor was reminded of his childhood, and that unwinnable arcade game with a bin of plush toys and a slippery claw. He was on the corner waiting for Mister Softee. He was waiting for Mister Softee because his three boys, who were inside, had told him to text them when the truck was in sight.

The technical term for what was missing was flashing—an embedded sheet of metal that prevents moisture from penetrating a building’s walls. Flashing is particularly important at junctions, around windows, vent pipes, etc. No one thought anymore of the word’s other meanings—committing indecent exposure, for example, running buck naked across a green field in a Superman cape, as the six-year-old son of the dance professor had done during his first soccer game.

Inclement weather set in one weekend, a hurricane muscling through from the south. Rain fell for three days and nights, and the history professor, whose apartment was right below the pulley, said it sounded as if it were raining within the walls. Could there be a leak? He sent the company an audio clip. The company responded a minute later. Leaks were impossible. They had sealed all the leaks because that was what they were here to do. Below the history professor lived a math professor, who all weekend had been collecting the water that had funnelled into her office through the ceiling. She used a one-gallon bucket, and she’d emptied the bucket into the bathtub five times. The math professor was married to the East Asian Studies professor. Not that ironically, the former was Asian and the latter white. Between gallons three and four, the former had drafted an angry e-mail to the school, but then stared at her unnuanced message. She worried about being the squeaky wheel, when she and her husband had upcoming third-year reviews. Still, she asked if he could rewrite and send the e-mail, given both his nuance skills and the fact that the administration might take him more seriously. That would be taking advantage of his privilege, he thought, and shook his head, but encouraged her to send the e-mail, since she should feel empowered to and he was never going to stand in her way. A quarrel about feminism followed. No e-mail was sent.

Over text, some tenants hatched a plan. They would implore the one tenured resident—an economics professor—to declare war by sending the e-mail and hiring a lawyer who would then launch the war by suing the school. But the economics professor was away. He’d left for Crete at the start of the construction, on a private jet owned by one of his friends.

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