The Cathedral Project By Jacob Austin

           The town decided it would benefit from a bit of public space, so we began construction on what could best be described as a cathedral. The proper permits were acquired, the space donated by a local philanthropist, and work was quickly underway. First, the existing structures in the area had to be torn down. They were mostly dining establishments: fast casuals, local links of globe-constricting chains — nothing special, but they did have their devotees.
           Our philanthropist owned all the property, but still had to pay off the various corporations in order to void their leases. This led to the loss of employment of several dozen cooks, bartenders, dishwashers, servers, busboys, hosts, and managers, but they were all offered new positions on the demolition crew. Our philanthropist even provided them with matching uniforms and yellow hard hats. They looked quite professional behind the chain-link perimeter set up around the demolition zone.
           Much of the rest of the town came to watch when we were able, bringing with us lawn chairs, coolers, grills, or pulling our trucks right up to the chain-link and piling in the beds. The crew was mostly left up to their own devices when it came to the demolition of the various structures. Early on, this led to accidents and there were even a few deaths. Any time this happened, work was paused so that we could provide the deceased with a proper farewell. It was unanimously decided that we would bury any who died in the cathedral’s construction on site, immortalizing them as a part of our grand project.
           After a few weeks, the crew worked out a system and deaths became a rare occasion. The restaurants were gutted, dismantled, and their rubble cleared away. Before long, a vast open space stood, leveled as flat and clean as a pre-game hockey rink. For three days, the fencing was removed, and all of the town joined in a Festival in celebration of the cleared space.
           In the beginning of the Festival, the surviving members of the demolition crew were in full uniform, complete with hard hats and tool belts. They moved proudly through the rest of us, more familiar with this level plane than those of us who’d been nothing more than onlookers, but slowly we disrobed them, erasing the differences between us and welcoming them back into our ranks. At some point on the second day, I tried on one of their yellow vests, and I remember on the final night dancing with a woman who wore nothing but one of their tool belts.
           By the next morning, all of the uniforms had disappeared, squirreled away as mementos or lost in the general mayhem of the Festival. A new fence had to be erected around the area, and it was decreed only those on the construction crew would be allowed within. However, as construction was to take far longer than demolition—with some estimates predicting it could take as long as seventeen years—enrollment in the crew would be open to all.
           I signed up to work on Tuesdays from five to seven p.m. and on weekend mornings, but others signed on as full timers. Most of the town, it seemed, was eager to help in any way they could, but the start date kept getting pushed back until it seemed it might take seventeen years just to settle on a design. Several local architects submitted their own bids, and there were things to admire about each.
           Factions began to form, and the original purpose of the project was threatened as the space sat vacant and locked away. It seemed the only thing everyone could agree on was that the compromise design, which took the most admirable features of each proposal and combined them into a single Frankenstein cathedral, was completely wretched, an eyesore, and worse than the backside of any of the former fast casual establishments.
           In the end, it took the philanthropist stepping in and threatening to cut funding if a decision could not be reached by the following morning. Unlike the rest of us, he was a frequent visitor to Europe and knew well the unique pleasure of strolling the long shadows of a cathedral. There were stones at their bases who had not seen the sun since the earliest days of construction, some centuries earlier. Certain mosses grew in only these conditions, he said, and their musk transformed the air into an intoxicating fog. He was eager to inhale it here, in his own hometown. The exact shape that cast the shadow seemed to him far less important than it being completed before his death, for he was an aged man.
           Because he was so respected in the town, we spent all night in debate and finally came to an agreement: Proposal 7 had a third spire which made it stand out against the one and two spired designs, plus it could be constructed using the stone from the local quarry which was also owned by our philanthropist. The road between the project and the quarry was closed to all other traffic, and soon the single destination route was busy with trucks loaded with stone like a line of ants connecting the colony to picnic. Before the stone could be use, there had to be a frame, so the local hardware stores were contracted for the project and little by little the cathedral began to take form.
           To bring anything out of the imagined and into creation takes an immense amount of energy. The town worked without cease for a full year. Only on the first anniversary of the Festival did we dare pause. Once again for three days, we took down the fencing, and welcomed all inside to celebrate our progress.Local bands played free shows, breweries donated keg upon keg, the dispensary brought out a bushel of their highest-grade marijuana (a nug the size of a Christmas tree) and it became the center around which the party orbited.
           For the first time since the last Festival, I found the woman with whom I had danced. We swam together through the vibrating bodies. I took her by the hand, led her into the construction, to the half-finished room where I’d been working on small tasks. It turned out to be the same room where she worked, on Wednesday mornings and weekend nights. We laughed at our near miss and she joked that all she must be doing is correcting my mistakes. At that, we laughed some more.
           When I returned to work, I began leaving little notes in our shared room, hoping she’d find them on her next shift. Her replies came on Sunday mornings and we carried on in this way for several months, subtly brushing palms. This continued until the day I was given a new duty in a different part of the cathedral. I explained in my last letter to her that I was being moved, but that I’d look for her in the Spring, at the next Festival. Then I sealed it with a kiss, put it in our cubby, and hoped she’d find it before she, too, was moved.
           The cathedral went up and up and up and we became more skilled in our labor as we went. This had the effect that some of our earlier work began to appear to us as shoddy and amateurish. Before we could move forward, we first had to go back, undoing what we had earlier done badly, and refining it with our improved touch. Such perfectionism slowed work considerably, but we all decided it was worth it. If something is going to be done, it might as well be done right, we thought, but our philanthropist was aging quickly.
           The financial stress of the project was starting to bear on him physically. He became more stooped in stature. His wrinkles deepened, seeming to take on a sinister demeanor. The quarry, the fast-casual establishments, and the hardware stores were not his only sources of income, but they’d been a hefty portion and his remaining investments were barely enough to prop up the project. He was forced into closed-door meetings and into pulling strings that he’d rather leave un-pulled, not to mention his heirs had always hated their home town and were now watching in horror as their father sunk what was meant to be their inheritance into this insane project. They tried to level a lawsuit against the townspeople, claiming we were taking advantage of their father, going so far as to call him of unsound mind, but the suit was thrown out as soon as the judge met with the philanthropist.
           From then on, all us townspeople had to contend with for the philanthropist’s continued generosity was the whining of his children. Luckily, he was a self-made man and found his children’s selfishness rather off-putting. He came to view his relationship with them in a new light. They seemed to only be waiting for him to die so that they could claim his fortune for themselves. This made his vision steadfast and he poured all he had into it, now offering full time positions to any and all. He even increased wages so that any but the wealthiest of the townspeople could quit their day jobs, take up full time with the cathedral project and not even have to sacrifice their accustomed lifestyle.
           In this way, I was reacquainted with my love two months before the third Festival. Neither of us cared for our jobs and jumped at the chance to leave them. We took up rooms in the man camp that had formed around the construction site, splitting the cost of an Airstream which we both agreed was crazy, we hardly knew each other after all, but such was the atmosphere of those days. The excitement of the cathedral project throbbed at the center of each of our lives to the point that all other decisions, even ones as momentous as moving in with a lover, paled in comparison, became basically inconsequential.
           We lived together in a gleaming silver RV. We ate our meals at a little rickety table beside a cutout window behind a lacy white curtain through which we could see the budding cathedral. After our shifts, we sat out front in our rubber banded lawn chairs and drank ice cold beer out of aluminum cans with our neighbors, with all of whom we shared the Project. At night we made love, throwing each other around the compact space, laughing because we were both made so light and pliable from physical labor, tanned in the oddest of patterns from working under the sun. Each few days the patterns changed depending on our outfits and it was always a delight to peel off our clothes and discover exactly how.
           By the seventh Festival, the cathedral really looked like a cathedral. It even featured one complete spire. The Grand Hall was opened for the duration of Festival, and afterwards locked shut to all but the glass workers who would spend the next year creating and installing the stained-glass windows.
           By then, our first child was old enough to run sandwiches to hungry workers. She loved delivering them to those up on the unfinished spires. I hated for her to do it, and each time watched with knotted guts, waiting to see her tiny form falling from on high. I’d seen it before, workers plummeting as if from the clouds, friends made hardly recognizable in the mess they’d leave below. Only on such days did construction ever stop, and for our seventy-two-hour Festival.
           Our child never fell though. Of course, she didn’t. She took too much after her mother who could climb the outside of the cathedral like a monkey and had done just so when the neighbor’s kid’s kite got stuck in the horns of a gargoyle. She shot right up and untangled it, climbing back down with one hand to deliver the kite unscathed. That was the night our daughter was conceived.
           All of my fear had been spent watching my love make that pointless rescue, so there was none left in me to be transferred to her in my envelope of liquids, and of course there was none native to her, so our daughter was born without knowing fear, wanting to grow up fast so that she could be the one to put the finishing touch on the final spire. She wanted to be the last one down, to drop the final piece in place, and in doing so transform the thing from project to cathedral in an instant. She who was not even born when the project began wanted such an honor! Still, it might be given to her. She was loved enough by the crew, if only she was of appropriate age when the time came.
           The eleventh Festival doubled as the philanthropist’s funeral. He came up short of seeing the cathedral completed, yet he died happy and left his remaining funds to the project. His body was buried among the workers and given a marker no more and no less special than the others, which is what he wanted, but his wake was one to be remembered, and only in part because it lined up with the Festival. He was a goodly man who’d changed the entire way of life for our whole town and changed it so radically that we could hardly remember our lives before. We were all beyond thankful for him and sang his praises deep into the night.

           After its initial fascination, the world forgot us. For a while, there had been camera crews and out-of-town visitors every day. A whole industry arose around us, but the town could not support it for long.As the growing cell of our project rerouted all revenue towards its construction, the rest of the town shriveled up. Those not invested in the project packed up and moved away. The rest of us liquified all we had and fed it to the cathedral. Still, the world got bored with us because the cathedral refused to unfurl at any pace but its own, which was painfully slow by outside standards. Our project remained a roadside attraction, but that was all. Some few passersby became fascinated, found their calling, as one put it, and joined us, but most stayed only long enough to eat their greasy bagged meal, maybe snap a few photos, and then they drove on.
           In the end, we worked quicker than ever before in an attempt to line up the final touch with the beginning of the thirteenth Festival, so that when Festival ended, there’d be no work to return to, and thus no reason to end. We would then live in our cathedral in endless Festival, but it did not quite work out that way. There remained about a month’s worth of work at the end of the thirteenth Festival, and so we put our celebration to bed and continued with our project, admittedly without our previous momentum.
           In that month, other problems arose. That which had been complete for a decade suddenly began to call for repairs. Unforeseen issues cropped up and that final month stretched all the way to the fourteenth and then the fifteenth Festival. In confusion, and a little bit let down, we began to accept there could be no final, triumphant movement of completion.
           There would always be loads of necessary upkeep on such a massive construction, the base of which had been built by our amateurish younger selves, no matter the masters who’d done the latest work, and so gradually the idea of completion was abandoned, and we learned to live in our perpetual cathedral. It humbled us and perhaps dulled the next generation a little, but, as I watched our daughter patching a leak up atop the oldest spire on a particularly windy day, I thought a little dulling might not be the worst thing that could happen to her.

Jacob Austin moves boxes in a supermarket distribution center. His writing has appeared in Elsewhere and Every Day Fiction.


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