NEA Literature Fellowships

Clare Beams

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2014 - Prose)

Excert from "World's End"

By the time the World’s End job came to him, the architect was twenty-six but no longer considered himself young, if he ever had. He felt his professional life had begun. He shaped land, not buildings: he was a builder of landscapes, one of the first of his kind in New York, though this was the 1880s and Olmsted had already carved out Central Park, strange hole in time and space, in the middle of the skyward-straining city.

These were the days when wealthy people were just coming to realize what their commerce had paved and grimed over, and to miss that green in the pure religious way they missed the childhood of their earliest memories. The architect had a knack for making the lost thing feel less lost, for sculpting expansiveness into a city courtyard. The clients who had hired him for his five paying jobs so far seemed to consider this a kind of magic. To the architect himself, summoning space felt simple as instinct. In the two-room apartment on the Lower East Side where he had grown up, with six brothers and sisters, he had learned to thirst for it.      

Still, even the architect could see that the World’s End job was one he had no real business having. It was no city courtyard. Robert Cale, the Boston businessman who owned the land, hinted in his letter at vastness. Cale had heard about the architect through a former trading partner, for whom the architect had designed a plot the year before: vines rioting over terraced rock, creating an effect like a shallow green bowl. But Cale seemed not to know that the architect had never had a job of this size and in fact had never even been out of New York. “B. says you’re the best,” the letter read. “Come convince me.” 

So the architect took a train to Boston. He tried to relax into the motion of the car, as the prosperous-looking people around him were doing. He did not like tight spaces, though, had not since the week, in his thirteenth year, when three of his siblings had died of the measles in his family’s cramped apartment. Finally, pinned against the window by his seatmate’s arm, he managed the shallow hemmed-in sleep he remembered from childhood, in which any kick or roll brought contact with flesh.

When the train arrived, a carriage was waiting to take him to Cale’s. The drive took hours, and for that whole time the architect couldn’t stop staring out the windows. He was studying the way money looked up here. The way it showed itself in the stately, expressionless faces of the houses he passed. He had long dreamed he might one day move freely through houses like these, yet he had the feeling now that they were judging him as he went by and finding him lacking.

The Cale house was no different, formidable atop its wide green lawn. It had clearly been built by men who had forgotten how to build anything but ships: its whole bulk yearned forward, and a flagpole jutted from its wide white forehead at the exact angle of a bowsprit. Perhaps those long-ago builders had known water, the architect thought, but they had not understood land. They had flattened most of it and piled the rest beneath the structure, in a stylized bulbous hill that worried at his eyes. The effect was like a cherub’s cheek carved into a living face.

The door of the house opened and a man the architect assumed was Cale walked out onto the front steps to survey the approaching carriage. The architect shifted nervously in his seat. Bennett, his former client, had told him that Cale had tripled his family’s whaling fortune in the manufacturing of hosiery, then left the business. Something about this progression, open seas to delicate fabrics to nothing, had given the architect a vivid picture of Cale’s features: a hawk’s cutting beak swathed in trembly old-man wattles. But Cale in the flesh was broad-chested, his hair still as black as the architect’s own. When the carriage stopped and the architect climbed out, feeling travel-stained and stiff in the hips and knees, Cale offered a strong, perfectly smooth hand for him to shake.

“We walk from here,” Cale said next. With no further greeting, he started down the drive, crunching the gravel underfoot. The architect ran a few paces so he could walk alongside and not behind him.

They turned left down the road. “The land’s a peninsula,” Cale told him. “I’ve bought it all up. Every farmer around here owned his piece, but nobody took much convincing. I know them—go out in the mornings sometimes and look my acreage over, same as they do—so they trust me. And they all decided their cows could eat grass somewhere else once they saw my offer.”  Cale laughed a big showpiece of a laugh. He spoke in hard bursts and had a bandy-legged way of walking, pivoting his shoulders from side to side as if he were trying to take on the elements. His vowels, though, had been pinched flat by fancy schools. “What I want to do is put up houses. Sell them. People said I should talk to somebody before I bring in the builders, so we put everything in the right place.”  Then, with no audible pause, “You’re younger than I thought.” 

“Well,” the architect said, but couldn’t think what to add.

“Course I barely had to shave when I opened my first factory.” 

After some steps in silence—they were coming to the end of the road now, the architect could see it up ahead of them, thick with trees—the architect asked, “How much land is it?  Your letter didn’t say.”

“Just over two hundred acres, ” Cale said.

The architect bit the insides of his lips with wanting.

“There are men I could hire in Boston,” Cale continued. “But Bennett says you’re different. Says he’s never seen anything like the work you did for him.”

("World's End" orginally appeared in One Story)

Clare Beams’s fiction has appeared in One Story, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011, Amazon’s Day One, FiveChapters, Willow Springs, Hayden’s Ferry, online at n+1, and elsewhere. Her stories have received special mention in Best American Short Stories 2013 and the Pushcart Prize XXXV. She held a Graham Fellowship at Columbia, where she received her MFA. After teaching ninth-grade English in Massachusetts for six years, she moved to Pittsburgh with her husband and one-year-old daughter. She recently finished her first novel and is working on her second.

Photo by Finnegan Calabro

Author's Statement

When I filled out my NEA application, I was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant. When I got the phone call telling me I’d won, I was a new mother, living in a new city, in the midst of the slow processes of trying to sell my first novel and trying to get my second off the ground. My daughter, who had yet another cold, had finally gone down for a nap, and I was squeezing in some writing. The ringing of the phone woke her up. Perfect, I thought. Yes, it was.

I wrote my first novel and my first published short stories over eight stop-and-start years, during most of which I was also teaching high-school English—work that I loved and felt lucky to do, but that sometimes seemed as if it would overtake every last corner of my life. Now the miraculous little person who is my daughter has overtaken those corners. The real world has such a beautiful, loud voice. And the part of me that spins stories—the part that started up because of a love for books and words that has been one of the most vital loves of my life—keeps asking for a little quiet. This award brings more stretches of that quiet, in the form of childcare and fewer teaching commitments; it also brings affirmation that the work itself has a place in my life and in the world that’s worth defending. I’m still astonished that my name will now be listed alongside the names of other winners whose writing has meant so much to me. I’m proud to live in a country that nurtures literature and the arts in this way. Most of all I’m grateful, though that seems too small a word.