1989, September 29
It was fortunate that the high window cannot be opened or the occupant of the window seat might just have tumbled out to fall thirty feet to his death.
The large oriel window was cantilevered out from the house over a steep wood-enshrouded meadow. The oversized window was built for humans to enjoy the sweeping vista, which reached from the Apostle Islands on the left to the city of Duluth on the right with Lake Superior and the Wisconsin shoreline in between. If you ever have the privilege of visiting the grandiose house, which is poorly suited to its woodland surrounding, be sure to call it an oriel window. Call it a bay window and you face the ready wrath of the owner of the house.
The occupant of the the seat in the oriel window at that moment, its most frequent occupant, never looked at the expansive scene spread below him. He had no aesthetic taste, even on a day like this with the leaves in their autumn prime. More importantly he was slowly going blind from a common genetic fault of his breed. He looked for what he could see—a bird, a butterfly, or a moth flying, flitting, or fluttering outside the large triple-paned, UV-screening windows. With nothing on the other side of the glass, he scratched at his irritating collar on which was spelled his name in rhinestones—Leslie. Because the collar was buried deep in the thick fur around his neck and because he was never taken for a walk on the meadow or into the woods, the collar was pointless. He had so far scratched into ruin three of the collars, but Leslie’s owner did not get the message. Nor did she notice the progressing blindness. She was oblivious to messages both subtle and direct. She was a human bulldozer who plowed through social, legal, and moral obstructions.
Leslie was a Tibetan spaniel, a Simkhyi, a “house dog.” His small body was hidden beneath the heavy white and tan coat. Chinese dogs were in fashion, but Leslie’s owner Rogena was not going to settle for a common exotic breed, like a Shih Tzu. Her agent, who was told to find her an uncommon Chinese breed, purchased for her this Tibetan spaniel, by which Rogena unconsciously endorsed China’s immoral acquisition of Tibet. She had little awareness and less interest in evils international, national, or local.
Rogena purchased Leslie, an agreeable little dog, as an expensive trinket, as an embodiment of her wealth, and as one-upsmanship over her circle of friends, who would be better described as social rivals and affiliates. In other words, Leslie, like the house, exemplified the abasement of nature under the powerful and indiscriminate hand of post-modern American wealth.
1986, Groundhog Day
Susan Rogene Wisnicki, always called Rogene, had recently divorced her husband of nineteen years, on grounds of his infidelity, meaning he was caught in the act before she was. She took half of the many millions he had amassed with her vigilant support and avaricious encouragement. Wishing to be separated from her husband’s last name, she reverted to her birth name—in facsimile. She saundered into Northeastern Minnesota as Rogena Suzanne Winters. She had spend her early childhood on the Iron Range and her teen years in West Duluth, the opposite path of Northeastern Minnesota’s most famous ex-patriot, Bob Dylan, nee Zimmerman. Rogena had wealth and was about to prove it to Northeastern Minnesota. She hired a realtor, Constance Maki, to find her a spectacular building site on Lake Superior’s North Shore. Constance showed Rogena a dozen sites, none of which met her demanding requirement. It had to be spectacular, befitting ground for the ostentatious house a prestigious architect had designed for Rogena. The architect told her that a house was designed to fit the site, not the other way around. The large fee covered his displeasure. Rogena ignored him then and thereafter, except once
A site by Lake Superior must be found but not just any lake lot, a spectacular lake lot near Duluth. None could be found. In desperation the realtor received permission from Rogena to hire a helicopter and fly the ridge line angling northeast from Duluth. In less than an hour, there it was below them. Constance traced the title for the land to three sisters all in their sixties spread across the United States. Buying land from three siblings could be tricky, sibling rivalries often coming into play. However, because they had made no effort to market the land, perhaps they were ignorant of the land’s value. Constance flew Rogena and the architect over the land. Rogena had found her Shangri-La.
Over the roar of the loud machine, the architect shouted, “The design does not in the least fit the steep site. Well, yes, the view to the south would be spectacular, but those woods on three sides of the site are not attractive. It’s just ugly aspen and scrub pine, except for that one large symmetrical spruce sitting a dozen feet out from woods. We could use that as a focal point for the landscape design.”
Rogena pointed down at the spruce and said, “Right there on that spot, that’s where you build my house. We’ll cut down that tree. On the front I want a large bay window to show off the view.”
The Architect told her that a better term for what would result was a oriel window., which was the only time Rogena listened to him.
Constance set about the tricky task of acquiring the forty acres. She had to deal with three sisters spread across America. If she over-priced, they would become suspicious. If she under-priced, they would be offended. The one-mile road up towards but not quite reaching the forty acres had several new houses on it, some overlooking the lake but with lower and more limited views. Her first letter to the sisters explained the offer of $12,000 and how it had been derived from comparisons to the houses along the road. She did not mention the view nor who was the buyer.
One sister wrote back from Milwaukee that she would speak for all three of them. They had a strong emotional tie to the land and had no interest in selling it. If they did sell, they would require at least $25,000, perhaps more. Constance was exited. People who name a price are ready to negotiate. $25,000 was chump change to Rogena, but Constance’s realtor instincts kicked in. A phone call would make Constance look eager. She wrote back a counter-offer of $14,000. The sister wrote back that $24,000 would be acceptable because it was easily divisible by three. Now Constance knew she could negotiate the price down to $20,000. She mailed back a second counter-offer of $15,000.
Three exchanges later, Constance was at $20,000 and the sister at $21,000. The sister said that to accept the $20,000 she would have to discuss it with her two siiblings. Constance called Rogena to announce an impending deal of $20,000. Rogena told her to get it done. Now.
But someone became suspicious. The nearest neighbor to the land, Matt, who had built a new modest home over an abandoned farmstead, kept an eye on the property in exchange for the right to climb up to the spruce tree to scan Lake Superior with his binoculars. He had seen and heard the two helicopter flights and how the loud machine hung over the hill. Constance had twice sneaked up onto the hill, quite easy to do. However, she left her car with its realty sign on the doors parked in sight of the Matt’s house. He called the sister, who told him they were about to settle on a sale at $20,000. Did they have a deal yet? No, they did not. Matt, who knew a bit about negotiations, told the sister to demand ten times the price. The land was worth far more than $20,000, and the buyer was clearly very interested and must have wealth to be hiring helicopters.
When the next letter from the sister arrived, Constance had to face Rogena with her failure. Rogena called her attorney to sue the three sellers. They told her she had no case. Instead Rogena paid the $200,000 to get the project started. She fired Constance and refused to pay her fees, including the rental of the helicopter. Constance spent four years trying recovering her costs and her finder’s fee. She settled for half of the helicopter fees and no more.
The county had only recently begun issuing and enforcing rural construction permits. The county’s faltering steps at enforcement gave fuel to Rogena’s bulldozer personality. Beginning with rebuilding the badly eroded road up to the meadow without a permit, Rogena plowed forward purchasing forgiveness instead of obtaining permission. She paid the fines, but the Duluth construction company bailed out. Without checking the survey, the local company she next hired was willing to build according to the stakes she set a few feet into Matt’s land. Matt was willing to sell land of no use to him, and he knew he had Rogena over her money barrel. She had to pay for the new survey, for the new deeds, and Matt’s $20,000 price, which he chose as a reminder of her agent’s failed offer to the siblings. Rogena missed the irony.
She began house construction without a permit and made several code violations. The penalties were minor. She paid large extra fees to the architect and the construction company for her many design changes. She paid for damages to the county for damages done by the heavy equipment which came up the county road. Her own road had to be rebuilt twice. She tried to build the large septic system without first acquiring the permit, but no contractor would begin without it. She battled unsuccessfully with the county to hide the septic mound in the woods. It was placed on the side of the meadow. She ignored the landscape designer who told her many of the trees and shrubbery she selected were unsuited to the site and the climate. Two years later landscaping had to be redone. She fired her first two interior design companies and paid for many pieces of unused furniture before she was satisfied.
When the town heard of what was happening up on the hill, a man wrote a sad letter of explanation to a childhood friend who had grown up on what was now Matt’s land. “And what about my spruce tree?” the friend wrote back from rural Alaska, where he was a school principal. “I do not know,” came back the answer.
A year after construction began, the house was completed. On his last visit the architect and his two assistants stood at the bottom end of the meadow grateful for the high fees they had earned but staring in shame at the obscenity pointing awkwardly into the sky. Beside them were the ashes of the large spruce tree. The architect had wanted at least to incorporated the spruce wood into the home, such as for the two large mantles. Rogena had ordered it to be burned with the other removed brush and trees at the bottom of the meadow, this time obtaining the permit before having the fire lit. The mantles were made of exotic Brazilian wood.
Rogena threw herself a grand housewarming party. To show off her trophy house to him, she invited her ex-husband . He came to show off his trophy wife. Rogena tried to have the house featured in an architecture magazines. The architect helped deflect any slight interest. The same happened with home design magazines. In a year the appeal of the house began to fade for Rogena. She lived away for four winter months and hired Matt to protect the property, for a substantial fee. He often stood in the bay window and scanned the lake with a telescope, which was placed nearby as a design element.
Soon after Rogena had moved back for the summer, she carried Leslie down the steps into the four-car garage under the house. The dog was to have his fur trimmed. Rogena set him on the front seat, then went back upstairs for the travel mug of coffee she forgot on the kitchen counter. She did not notice Leslie had left the open car. The dog could not see the wheel rolling toward him.
Rogena had a funeral party and then scattered Leslie’s ashes over the faded ashes of the spruce tree. She called the agent who had purchased Leslie and directed him to find her a more exotic breed.
A year later she sold the house at a substantial loss.
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017