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The Queen of Back Bay

A lighthearted coming-of-age action-adventure mystery set in Boston's Back Bay and the MIT Campus.

[REVISED FORMATTING ON DIALOGUE FOR EASIER READING.] This plot is loosely inspired by William Martin's Back Bay and my own life and commute through Boston to MIT. This is a work in progress, and many of the names and details are changing as I write. This is my first piece of fiction, having spent the majority of my writing career on newspaper articles, feature writing, and poetry. I'm eager to hear feedback from this community.

Henry Walker Wainscot stood leaning against the stone wall in the foyer of his new dorm while waiting for his mom. They were going to have lunch in the cafeteria, then explore the city. Henry had never really been to Boston, having grown up in Western Massachusetts. In cow country, he liked to think, although the three cows were more of an agricultural front for a toxic waste dump.

It was exciting for him to be in the city. He remembered his mom talking about going to Springfield or Holyoke as “going into the city.” This is a real city, he thought, before quickly imagining New York City, and a long list of cities much larger than Boston, and finally realizing he was actually across the river in Cambridge.

“I still can’t believe THAT’S the Charles River. It’s a puddle even compared to the Connecticut River!” he thought, still embarrassed that he asked his new roommate where the Charles was while in a subway car over the Charles, having expected something as grand as the Hudson.

His mom called from the road. She took the wrong exit and ended up in the tunnel and was in Chinatown, or something, she said. She would be a few more minutes. Annie Wainscot, originally Couture, wasn’t from the city. Her family were farmers for generations, while Henry grew up in suburbs placed on top of old farms. His dad was born in Boston, but that’s most of what Henry knew about his dad’s past.

Henry went outside to feel the sun, and absorb the sounds of the city. The skyline opened before him, the fog from the cool morning still shrouding the tops of the tallest buildings. His eyes focused on the rooflines of the buildings along the river. Amazing, he thought, taking in all of the details like a connoisseur sniffing a fine wine. It’s like that whole street is frozen in time!

When she arrived, they sat in the cafeteria with a view of Boston.

“So how are you liking life in the big city?” she teased.

“It’s amazing! I haven’t gotten used to it yet.”

“Well, you’ve only been here a week. When do classes start?”

“In a few days. I have orientation events until then.”

“What’s today?” she blurted. “Are you supposed to be somewhere?”

“Don’t worry, mom, I’m not missing anything...important.”

“I sure hope not. I’m not going to see you for a couple of months, so I thought this would give us a chance to spend some time together, and see Boston, considering you’ll be here a while.”

During a lull, in the conversation, they both stared out the window toward the same skyline Henry was absorbing earlier. “Aren’t those roofs fascinating?” he asked, rhetorically, not giving time for a response. “Every little chimney, the undulating repetition of the peaks, and the little doorways on top of the stairs!” he said excitedly.

“Undulating?” she replied.

“I think I read that in something over the summer. But look at it!”

“I just see a bunch of messy old buildings,” she said, with a bias. “Like your uncle’s building. A dilapidated wreck that should have been torn down decades ago. He’s not doing well, you know. You really should visit before you get too busy. He’s paying your tuition, after all.”

“Wait... you never told me that.”

“There’s a lot we haven’t told you. About your uncle, I mean. It’s not like I have the money! He always said he wanted to make sure you were taken care of...”

“Is this going to be one of your stories that begins many years ago and never seems to end?”

“Yes. Deal with it,” she winked. “What do you remember about your uncle? We only went there a few times when you were younger. You can’t remember that much.”

“Not really,” said Henry. “For starters,” she began, “he’s not really your uncle. He’s not even really Henry Walker Wainscot the third.”

“So I’m not the fourth?” he nearly shouted.

“You were never the fourth, honey,” she said while patting his hand sarcastically. “He is really the son of your Aunt Eloise. She had Henry when she wasn’t ready to marry, and your great grandparents adopted him, and named him after his grandfather so it would appear he was their son. So no, you’re not the fourth, and he’s not really the third.”

“Wow,” said Henry, a bit shocked. He had always liked to think of himself as the fourth in the lineage, even though he skips a couple of generations, and isn’t even in the same branch of the family. But, with the same name, he always imagined being the one to inherit the family fortune after of his uncle.

But, the fortune was gone now, anyway. Or was supposed to be, he thought. How was his uncle paying his tuition? Why? All that was left was a crumbling building with a “bunch of crazies” living in it, according to his dad, his mom, and anyone who ever spoke of his uncle. Henry liked the “crazies,” a colorful collection of personalities renting from his uncle. He remembered visits were like Halloween, even when it wasn’t Halloween, and everyone always seemed to be in some sort of costume and handing out treats.

“I just remember exploring that cool building! So many apartments, and all the people were so nice- and so WEIRD!”

“They are a bit special. I don’t even know who is still there, or who is alive I should say. As if anyone would leave. They’re like a circus family. All dependent on each other, and yet together they still lack the function of one normal person. I’d visit him today if he wasn’t such a curmudgeon,” she fumed.

“Weren’t you trying to get him to sell the building?” he asked. “What’s it called again?”

“The Canterbury Inn,” she said wryly. “It was The Canterbury, until Henry changed it, and I think Canterbury Hall at first, when your great, great grandfather built it. It was a single-family home then. A great mansion, really.”

“I think I knew that,” Henry said questioningly. “It’s so hard to imagine it that way after it was all chopped up. Where did he get his money?” asked Henry.

“Shipping?...Trade?” she guessed. “I think he was a ship captain, or owned ships. I never really knew. Your dad would have known. Or your uncle. The number of times I wish I could ask your dad something...”

“Yeah, me too,” pined Henry.

_

Chapter 2

The Canterbury Inn

Henry and his dad drove off the exit from Storrow onto Beacon Street, just as his dad yelled out, “Damnit! Get out of my way! You can’t DO that!” Henry closed his eyes and held the door handle tightly. “Missed my turn! My god, how does anyone drive here?”

“Dangerously,” Henry uttered under his breath.

“Whatever, I’m banging a uey at the next light whether I can or not!” Henry noticed an empty spot across the road.

“There’s a spot!”

“It will be gone before we get there,” his dad fumed.

Henry and his dad, Walker Henry Wainscot, who went by his middle name, or rather the variant, Hank, to differentiate him from his uncle, walked a couple of blocks in the rain to get to the Canterbury Inn. At the door, Henry and Hank hid under a too-small umbrella, barely keeping them from being soaked by the broken gutter above them, and opened the thick, heavy wooden door. Inside, Henry was overwhelmed with the smell of eucalyptus from a wilted and dusty display of flowers in a wall planter.

His dad, squinting and wrinkling his nose, looked at a panel on the wall pressing a button that made a buzzing sound. Henry stood there with his dad, not sure what to expect, looking with astonishment at the carved wooden details and creatures protruding from the dark corners. In the center, the prow of a ship hung with a now-brown wreath covering the top of the inner door. Suddenly, another buzzer rang, and his dad opened the inner door.

Henry stood transfixed by the sight of a small round pond with a fountain surrounded by a grand stone staircase rising from both sides, and meeting above the pond. Around the pond were bunches of fake flowers, stuffed together with some ribbon into planters, and faded despite the lack of light. “Oh god,” Henry thought. “Where are we?”

“Uch, I hate this place,” his dad muttered. “It smells like a funeral in a pool store!” Just as Henry’s nose began to burn from the chlorine fumes.

Beside the stairs and to the right rose a small antique elevator. “Over here,” said his dad, sliding the door aside, then opening the metal screened door within it. They entered, leaving no room for anyone else. With the outer door closed, his dad slid the screen into place. “Watch your fingers. Do NOT put them through the screen.” Holding up a slightly twisted middle finger.

“Is that what happened?”

“Watch your fingers,” he said, pushing a button. “Top floor, haberdashery, linens, and circus animals!”

“Dad! Is this a store?”

“No, it’s the family mansion, only now it’s a glorified flophouse for the insane.” Just as the elevator lurched to a stop.

The door opened to reveal a room of doors, most of which were piled high with boxes and newspapers, and nearly an inch of dust. They both sneezed.

“Who’s there?” shouted a voice from the one door not completely blocked.

“Uncle Henry, it’s Hank and little Henry,” he said louder than necessary.

“You’ll wake the dead!” he said, opening deadbolts then hobbling into the hall on a cane. “Actually keep it up, some of these deadbeats need to wake up and pay the rent!” he yelled into a stairway next to the elevator that went one flight down, and pounded his cane on the floor, laughing at his own joke.

“Come in, come in, how was the drive?” he said, pointing his cane toward the open door.

“Just traffic on the Pike, as usual, oh and the typical homicidal Boston drivers,” Hank responded.

“It’s terrible. That’s why I don’t drive. Tea?”

“Yes, please. Two sugars.”

“Little Henry! Tea for you?”

“Sure,” Henry yelled from the other room after wandering through spaces cluttered with furniture, antiques, and boxes. And dust. Tea was good. Tea meant tea cakes. Henry climbed onto a seat under a window, and pulled himself up to look out at the view of the river.

“Careful!” barked his uncle. “That window isn’t stable. You’ll fall to your death.”

“Uncle Henry, that’s why I’m here,” his dad said.

“For the windows? That’s specific. I haven’t opened the windows in years. They killed that river. Smells like an open cesspool!“

“Not the windows, Uncle Henry, the whole place.”

“Well, you better get started. There’s a lot to do.”

“I wish you’d consider selling, Henry.”

“I’m your uncle, please address me properly.”

“Yes, Uncle Henry. I wish you’d consider selling.”

“For what, money? I don’t need money.”

“If you don’t need money, why don’t you fix this place up?” Hank pressed.

“What do I need of fancy things?”

“Henry, the insurance company is canceling the policy. The roof is leaking and it’s only a matter of time before it all burns down. Someone is going to get hurt. You could lose everything.”

“It’s not that bad. Not that bad at all. Everyone wants me out. Same as always. If that’s why you’re here, you can leave now,” said Uncle Henry, like the end of most visits.

_

 

Chapter 3

A Tour of Boston

Henry and his mom finished eating and emptied their trays. “Will you look at this?” he said, pointing at the woodwork. “It’s fake!”

“What are you talking about?”

“The wood. They renovated this building recently, and used particle board! Doesn’t even match the original wood. It’s a historic building!”

“You always have to look for the negative,” shaking her head

“It’s not negative,” he said. “You do realize architecture is all about criticism, don’t you?”

“Well, you’ll definitely excel at that, then!”

“Where should we go first?” she asked.

“I need to see the library.”

“The library?” She said surprised. “Won’t you be spending the next four years in the library?”

“I mean the Boston library. The public library. We’re supposed to explore significant architecture in the city.”

“What’s significant about it?” “I don’t know. It’s got big carved lions and murals, and arched halls. It was part of the City Beautiful Movement. Beaux-Arts and all.”

“Oh, well you know better than me.”

At the library, they entered on Boylston St. and immediately looked up and around and at each other. “This can’t be it,” they said in unison.

“Are you looking for something,” said a voice behind them. “This is the Boston library, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Boston Public Library.”

“Where are the lions, and the courtyard?” said Henry.

“Oh, you want the old library. That’s through there,” he said pointing through another room. “Through that door and past the courtyard. This is the Johnson building. You want the McKim building.”

They passed through the courtyard and paused to take in the fountain, when a door opened and a tour group began to surround them. Henry and his mom looked at each other, shrugged, and smiled wryly.

“Here we have Frederick MacMonnies’ Bacchante and Infant Faun, originally gifted to the BPL by McKim for this space, but it wasn’t accepted by Boston’s puritanical society at the time...” the guide continued. Annie winked at Henry, and they slipped away to the rest of the library.

Upstairs in one of the galleries, Annie stopped and put her hand on the stone railing, then looked up to the dark, foreboding figure painted in a large mural. “This place gives me the creeps. Reminds me of your uncle’s heap of stones. Paintings and all.”

“Are these the Sargent murals?” Henry asked the otherwise empty room. His mom shook her head and looked for a signature.

“Is it signed?”

“I think the paintings are his signature, mom.”

Before leaving they stopped at the restroom on the lower level. While waiting for Henry, Annie wandered into a side room where a display was set up demonstrating the construction of the library vaults. Henry poked his head in. “Mom?”

“Oh, Henry, you might like this.”

Immediately Henry blurted, “Guastavino! I almost forgot!”

“I think you did forget,” she laughed.

“This is one of the reasons I was supposed to come here. These vaults are amazing! Tiny little wafers holding up a ton of weight.”

“Well, it’s a good thing I found it for you,” Annie joked.

_

Chapter 4

Roofs and Tunnels

The next evening, Henry sat on the grass with his roommate, George, eating cold pasta salad at a picnic on Killian Court, outside MIT’s Great Dome. A couple of older students dressed in black came over to them and said something to George, handed him a small orange slip of paper, and walked away. “What was that?” Henry asked.

“Secret society?” George guessed, laughing.

 

Meet in the East Campus courtyard tonight at midnight to glimpse MIT from a slightly different view,” George read.

 

“Cryptic,” Henry said. “I’m in.”

“Me too,” George smirked and stuck the note in his pocket. “Let’s get out of here.”

At midnight, George and Henry, in their best black outfits to get in the spirit, stood in the East Campus courtyard. Soon they were approached by the same two guys as before. Henry noticed one of their shirts had a Jack Daniels whiskey logo, altered to say “Jack Florey’s Old No. 5 East Quality Massachusetts Roof and Tunnel Hackers.

“Ohh," said Henry. "That’s what this is.” The guy wearing the shirt pulled on the shirt to show it.

“Jack can get you one!” he said laughing. They went to a lecture hall and met with several others, also dressed in black, some in tattered versions of the same shirt. After a brief lecture about safety, and stories about the history of hacking at MIT, they began the tour.

It started in a stairwell, then through a tiny little door to a steam tunnel. They went through places Henry definitely knew they shouldn’t be. But it was fun. At one point, near the roof of the Great Dome, in an attic space where they were climbing an old wooden ladder, George called down the ladder to Henry. “Hey, you’ve already been here! Why are you pretending this is all new?”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Henry said incredulously. “I don’t even know where this is!”

“Well, your sign-in is right here: Henry Walker Wainscot. I don’t imagine there’s more than one of you!”

Henry: “Yeah, there’s four,” almost under his breath. “But that doesn’t explain it!”

“Well, either you’re sleepwalking in attics, or one of them was a hacker. This does look like it’s been here awhile.”

Henry, examining the signature, said, “Yeah, that’s gotta be one of them. But which? How old is this building?”

“I don’t know, architecture major, you tell me!” George said, poking Henry. I don’t know that any of them came here. Maybe they were just poking around?

“If they weren’t a student, why would they be in Boston?” George questioned.

“Oh, they lived, live, across the river,” Henry answered.

They continued, out a small window, and onto the base of the Great Dome. George went up the slope first, in reverse, sliding on his backside. Henry, turning to see the surrounding buildings, and realizing how high he was, decided to crawl. On the top of the dome, the rooftops of Boston once again sprawled before Henry. He eyed the long string of narrow buildings lining the river. “Righhhhht about there,” he said, pointing toward the middle. Three over from that taller building. I think. It’s been awhile.”

“So what are you, Henry Walker Wainscot the fourth?” asked George.

“No, I’m not. My uncle is the third, but I’m not a junior. My dad is Walker Henry. You know, to really confuse everyone. And he goes by Hank!”

“I think I’ve learned enough about your family for one night,” said George.

“I’ll give you more. Even my uncle Henry Walker Wainscot the third isn’t the third. He’s not even my uncle!” Henry exclaimed.

“Again, I’m done!” George laughed.

They descended from the roof and met again as a group on the lawn to discuss the next Hackers’ meeting, and dispersed. “It’s time for bed,” George said. “We have to get up for crew practice early in the morning.”

“It IS early in the morning. The sun is already coming up,” Henry said.

“Crud. The river will be cold and brutal! At least we’re close to the dorm. Where’s the tunnel to there?” George joked.

_

 

Chapter 5

A Riverboat Ride

After crew practice, Henry and George were sitting on the dock. George took off his shoes and put his feet in the water. “Ew,” said Henry.

“Ew?” George asked. “I still can’t get over this water. My family is disgusted that I’m in the crew. At least the water doesn’t stink like it used to.”

“It’s fine, but I heard you shouldn’t touch the bottom!” as George kicked some water at Henry.

“Let’s explore!” Henry blurted out unexpectedly.

“Explore what? The river?” asked George. “The river... the buildings. I want to see my uncle’s place.”

“I thought he wasn’t your uncle.”

“Uncle, cousin, whatever!” Henry laughed.

“That sounds like a personal problem!” George joked.

“When was the last time you were there?”

“When I was 12? 13?” Henry guessed. “He’s the last in that line of the family. Except me, sort of. Still lives there.”

“You could visit, you know.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I will. When the time comes. I’m a little afraid, actually.”

“Okay...” George said, suspiciously. “... so... let’s slink down the river and spy on him from the back alley. That’s normal.”

“Stop!” yelled Henry. “Let’s do it!”

“Sure, why not. It’s not like I’m missing my group study session. Let’s go spy on you uncle-cousin!” punching Henry in the arm.

They got into a small skiff used for training, and rowed across the river, letting the current bring them downstream the half mile or so they needed to go. Under the bridge over Massachusetts Avenue, Henry looked up and marveled at the long spans of steel that arched from one stone piling to the next. “Something is off,” Henry said instinctively.

“What do you mean?” asked George.

“See the pilings? On top? The stones holding up the girders don’t match the ones below. They’re newer. I bet the top of the bridge was replaced and they reused the pilings.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Just you wait. Bet you ten bucks!”

“You’re on!”

Further down the river, they came closer to shore, slowed, and watched people in the park cycling past. “Through here,” motioned Henry. “In the lagoon, we can get a better look,” as they passed under an arched footbridge. From their angle low in the water they couldn’t see much of the buildings, but for their upper floors. “It’s that one, on the end,” said Henry. “With the three gables.”

“What’s a gable, architecture major?”

“The peaked windows on top. You don’t know what a gable is? Mr. Doesn’t-have-a-major?”

“I guess I do. Like the House of the Seven Gables? Hey! There’s your uncle! Cousin. Uncle-cousin.” Pointing toward the windows.

“Shut up!” yelled Henry, kicking him in the back, and rocking the boat.

“Don’t get wet!” George yelled. “It’s poison!”

They rowed back through the lagoon, and into the open water of the river. Henry looked back toward the Canterbury Inn. “The Canterbury Inn,” he stated out of nowhere.

“What? Your uncle’s place? He lives in an inn?”

“Yeah, that’s what it’s called. Long story,” said Henry.

“It’s a pretty cool building. Looks like a church or museum or something,” mused George.

“It was the family mansion. Once. My great, great grandfather built it.”

“Is he the one who went to MIT?”

“I still don’t know. Haven’t talked to my mom yet. If she even knows,” said Henry.

_

Chapter 6

A Call from Mom

A week into classes, Henry sat in a large auditorium next to a tall expanse of windows with a view of Boston. The professor walked back and forth across a 20-foot board covered with equations. “Your first P-sets will be due a week from today in the bin outside my door...” Henry’s eyes blurred as he turned toward the window and was immediately drawn to the Canterbury Inn. It was almost like a haunted castle on a hill, looking over him, having some unseen control over his life. He shook it off.

Next to him sat his studio partner, Julia. “Wake up!” she texted to his phone. Just then his phone started vibrating. It was his mom. He pushed ignore and saw Julia’s text.

“Ready?” he asked her, as the professor ended class. They gathered their things and filed into the hall. “Actually, I’ll catch you later, Julia. Gotta call my mom back,” he said.

“Hey, mom. You called?” he said while walking down the hallway.

“Yes, it wasn’t like you were going to call me anytime soon,” she answered. Blushing, he began to give excuses. “Nevermind, I know you’re busy with classes. But, have you had a chance to see your uncle? I’m worried about him. He hasn’t answered my calls for a week.”

“No, I haven’t, yet,” Henry explained. “I have tomorrow morning free. I’ll head over there after breakfast. I promise.”

“Is that why you called?” he asked.

“No... there’s something else. About your uncle.”

“Okay, what?” he asked.

“I think he might be in trouble. When I left after seeing you, I drove by the Inn. I don’t know why. I was feeling nostalgic. There was a space, so I pulled over. When I did, two men in suits got out of an older car and went inside. I don’t know why, but I waited a couple of minutes, then got out of the car. I pulled my hood on and walked past their car. It had a radio. I think they were detectives.”

“That’s weird,” said Henry. “But what makes you think they wanted him? Did you see anything else?”

“I walked past and saw them coming back out, so I went around the corner. I could hear them talking about finding Madame Wainscot, and I think they called her... him... a thief. Then they walked around the building looking up at the roof...”

“Mom, hold up, you’re not making sense!” Henry interjected, “Madame who? What are you talking about?!”

“Your uncle is a pervert, Henry!” Annie blurted out. “He dresses in women’s clothes and strips! Henry, he’s a female impersonator stripper!” she cried out.

“I really didn’t need to know that,” replied Henry, admittedly.

“Whether he dresses like a man or a woman, he’s still your uncle. Or cousin. Go visit him and see if you can figure out what is going on, will you?”

“Sure mom,” he said, perplexed. “I’ll see what I can do.” He shoved his phone in his pocket and turned the corner to his dorm. Julia was returning from the student center and saw him.

“Hey, how’s your mom?”

“Don’t ask,” Henry groaned.

_

Chapter 7

Visiting Uncle Henry

“What’s up for today?” George asked as he put his tray of eggs and hash browns next to Henry, and across the table from Julia.

“Heading into Boston,” said Henry, trailing off.

“You say that like it’s not possible to literally throw a stone and hit it from this table,” said George, deadpan. “Why the long face?”

“I need to go see my uncle,” Henry responded.

“Yeah, that must be awkward,” said George.

“Why, who’s your uncle?” Julia asked.

“Hoo-boy,” chuckled, George.

“What?” said Julia, nervous that she crossed a boundary.

“So,” Henry began, “my uncle-who-is-really-my-cousin is the last of a long line of Wainscots, an old Boston shipping dynasty. Henry Walker Wainscot the third, or rather the first, since he was the bastard son of his sister... mother... I need a drink.”

“They don’t have mimosas in the cafeteria,” Julia said, dryly. “But I’ll ask. I need one too after that!”

“Oh, and apparently he’s a drag queen stripper,” Henry continued matter-of-factly. Julia and George looked at each other and simultaneously dropped their foreheads to the table feigning death. “You both got maple syrup in your hair,” Henry stated, flatly.

“Alright, I better get going,” Henry said to them both.

“You sure you don’t want company? You know I like old buildings, and especially awkward family moments!” Julia offered.

“Naw, I better do this alone. Maybe next time. I’ll see you later this afternoon. If you don’t hear from me by 5, send a search party!”

Henry decided to walk across the bridge to Boston. It will be too cold soon to walk anywhere, he thought, so better to be outside while it was still nice. Along the way, he pondered the bridge and his bet with George.

The “Mass. Ave. Bridge,” he thought. “I wonder how old it is? The pilings look pretty old in style. The railings, too. But everything else seems either modern or a modern reproduction.” This is the sort of thing that kept Henry’s mind occupied. He loved to spot in architecture the areas of change, of reconstruction, renovation, and restoration. “I know there’s a thesis in there somewhere,” he told his advisor.

He took the turn off Mass Ave onto Beacon Street, then made his way toward the Canterbury Inn. His heart raced a bit. “Why am I so nervous? I feel like I’m going to my first high school dance or something,” he scolded himself and focused on his breathing.

He couldn’t remember the address, but didn’t need to. The building rose higher than its neighbors, capping the end of the street of brownstones like a giant headstone, adorned with gables, ornate chimneys, and delicate, rusted ironwork. The door looked exactly as he remembered. Above, a twisted chunk of copper held a tuft of roots clinging to a drip of water. Henry swallowed, took a breath, and opened the door.

Inside, a twisted florescent bulb sat in an exposed light fixture in a stone recess in the ceiling, flickering. Henry peered over the panel of buttons, a bit rusty for something electrical, Henry thought, as he pushed the top button. “I hope top means top floor!” he said to himself, if only to hear someone familiar talking. A full minute later, just before Henry gave up, the door buzzer rang out.

He pushed open the door to the inner hall, bracing himself, briefly imagining a coffin between the two flights of stairs, remembering his dad’s words. Inside, an acrid floral damp hung in the air. The pond empty and stained green, but with the same bunches of faded flowers he remembered, some on the tiled floor as if they had jumped to their deaths. Henry opened the elevator doors and stepped inside.

He pushed the button marked 5 and immediately heard a distant clanging noise high above him. “I should have taken the stairs,” he sung to himself, half in hymn and half in prayer. As the elevator rose, he noticed there were numbers painted on the wall of the elevator shaft, visible through the diamond-shaped holes of the inner screen door while the elevator was moving past them.

The numbers were painted below the doorway of each floor on otherwise blank slabs of stone. The numbers were hard to see, and Henry wondered if he hadn’t noticed them when he was younger because they were so faded, or because he usually closed his eyes whenever riding the elevator, hands jammed firmly in his pockets to prevent them from being mutilated by the rough mortar of the shaft wall.

The number he first noticed looked like a one, or a maybe two. He couldn’t tell. “It must be a two,” he thought. “It’s the second floor. Only it looks more like a one.” Then came a clear two, followed by a very decorative, but also clear three. Then a four and a five. Must be British floor numbers, he guessed, wondering why the elevator didn’t follow the same format. When the elevator stopped, he quickly realized the clanging wasn’t the elevator when he opened the doors.

Before him, sprawled on the ground was his uncle, pale, white, and motionless. He was wearing a once-white dress, and a blond wig that was now beside his head looking more like an angora rabbit. Kneeling over him was a frail woman dressed in a floral overcoat, leaning toward the stairs and ringing a large musical triangle like she was calling the cows upstairs to dinner. From Uncle Henry’s rooms came the refrain: “Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it queer? Losing my timing this late in my career...”

“Are you the paramedics?” she implored him while reaching for his jacket. Henry tried to take in the scene before knowing how to respond.

The music continued, “And where are the clowns? Quick, send in the clowns. Don’t bother, they’re here.” Next to his uncle’s lifeless body was another older man, sitting in a heap on the floor, dressed in a kimono, and sobbing uncontrollably.

“No,” said Henry, suddenly hearing the buzzer ringing from the front door. “That must be them.”

_

 

Chapter 8

Xanadu

The phone vibrated on the nightstand waking Henry to a cold and drizzly day. “Henry, they moved your uncle out of the ICU,” she began. “I can’t believe it. Are they trying to kill him?”

“What did they say? Was he injured from the fall?” Henry

“They don’t know anything. I thought this was the best hospital in the state!” she half asked, frustrated.

“I’m sure he’s getting the best care possible, Mom. I have time after class, I’ll go and see how he’s doing. I’ll call after. Probably around 6.”

Henry checked in at the nurses’ station. “Henry Wainscot? You’re looking good for 86!” She tried to joke. Henry chuckled, stifling a bit of a groan. “He’s in 3B,” she said apologetically cheerful. “Down the hall to the left, first door on the right.” Henry thanked her, hesitating. “Oh, he’s awake, dear. Even has a visitor. Go ahead.” Henry started down the hall.

Stopping in the doorway, Henry noticed the same woman who was ringing the triangle was sitting in a chair next to his uncle’s bed. “Hi,” Henry managed to squeak out.

“Little Henry!” his uncle tried to say boisterously, but mostly managed to cough.

“Uncle Henry, it’s good to see you looking better!” Henry said, relieved, more for his mother than for himself.

“Hi Abigail,” he said to the woman.

“Little Henry,” she said. “Good timing. I need a break from this bear!” she joked, standing up slowly and squeezing Uncle Henry’s hand. “I’ll see you in a bit.” She made her way to the door, patting Henry on the shoulder as she passed. “He adores you.”

Henry walked toward an unfamiliar version of the uncle he knew. “It’s been a while!” Henry stated obviously.

“Too long! But you have things going on, don’t you? Your mom tells me school is going well?”

“Yes, it’s amazing! I still can’t get over the feeling that I somehow don’t belong here. At MIT, I mean. Oh yeah!” he began on a new thought. Uncle Henry reached out for “Little” Henry’s hand. “You belong there.”

“Was it you?”

“Yes, I went there, too.”

“It was always my dad’s dream to go, though I always suspected it was his dad who really wanted it. Henry, the first, my grandfather, designed and built Canterbury Hall. He never studied architecture, and always wanted his son to attend MIT. My dad spent his life trying to impress his dad, but he never could. He never got in. Then, when his children were older he tried to go back to school, but I came along to hold him back again.”

“I never knew any of that,” responded Henry.

“Your dad never knew, either. There are a lot of unnecessary secrets in our family,” said his uncle.

“And then you got into MIT?” Henry asked.

“Yes!” he shouted, then coughed, and continued quietly, “and my dad never forgave me.”

“Thank you,” Henry said. “There’s no way we could afford this without you.”

You earned it. You did this on your own. I wish I had strings to pull, but at this age, all my strings broke long ago.”

Henry spent a few more minutes before he was interrupted by nurses coming to treat his uncle. “I’ll see you soon, Uncle Henry,” he said as they drew a curtain around the bed. Henry gathered his jacket and left the ward.

Turning the corner, he saw Abigail sitting on a bench. She nervously looked up at Henry, and reached out her hand. “Henry, please, come sit here a minute.” Henry sat with her and held her hand. He remembered Abigail, when suddenly he blurted out, “Abba!”

“Ha ha, yes dear. Like the band. That’s what you used to call me. Your uncle always got such a kick out of that. For years he called my apartment Xanadu!”

“Xanadu, I remember dancing to that in the Library!” beamed Henry.

“Good times like that I’m not sure I’ll see again,” Abigail lamented.

“Are you going back to the Canterbury?” Henry asked. “It’s on my way. I can walk you from the train.”

“Yes, please dear. I have something to show you there. If you have the time.”

“I’d love to,” he said.

_

 

Chapter 9

Meeting the Crazies

They exited the subway station, and walked the few blocks to the Canterbury Inn. As they approached, Henry focused on the facade, and noticed some unusual features. The house was built of a combination of brick and stone, and Henry saw that there were areas of brick that looked patched, and some of the windows didn’t seem quite proportional.

“Was the Canterbury changed when they converted it to apartments? Did they move windows?”

“It was changed. A lot,” Abigail sighed. “But not when it was divided into apartments. It was Henry Junior, your great grandfather. He was an architect, too, you know. He just didn’t go to MIT like you and your uncle. He took out the whole top floor!”

 

 

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