Eichler in the Sand
We’re excited to share the second story for Works Progress, “Eichler in the Sand,” in which the 56th wealthiest person in the United States struggles to build the amusement park his beloved son would have wanted. The story’s author, Ross Barkan, a journalist and fiction writer, drops us into a world of emirs and helicoptering to the Hamptons.
Happy reading. You can find our full archive here.
Eichler hated the heat. He was told it was dry, not humid, not heavy, but it did not matter—it was like sandpaper wrapped around his throat. Sweat pooled in continental shapes under his stomach fat and out of his armpits. He was sure, at this point, his sunglasses would melt into his skin.
“When will they be done?” he asked Nia, his loyal Nia.
“They’re ahead of schedule, sir. By November, there can be an opening.”
He did not look at her. Rage purpled inside of him. Since he was a boy, he was told this was a problem, despite how otherwise, in a vast number of situations, he was pleasingly polite, trained in discretion. At a restaurant, on the tennis court, even with Lily—desperate, wrathful Lily, his current wife—he could exert control. He had played men who shattered tennis racquets and beat their wives; well, he had done neither.
He simply opened his mouth and spewed out the filthiest of curse words.
Poor Nia did not deserve it. But they were here, on the observation platform, courtesy of the Emir, and Eichler could plainly see the men were not working hard enough. Deep into the foundation, the equipment humming, he could detect a malaise. It was almost lunchtime. The men were starting to dream about food.
“November is a long time away,” he said quietly. “They must go faster.”
“I will speak to Rafa.”
Rafa was the Emir as much as the Emir was the Emir. This Eichler had learned rather quickly. Eichler may have been the fifty-sixth wealthiest person in the United States, but the Emir could meet the other fifty-five anytime he wanted to—or, at least, when there was a deal to be had. Eichler was used to money wielded as a kind of unseen force, a glorious dark matter that compelled all those in his wake to do whatever it was he implicitly willed them to do. Unlike several of the men he regularly played golf with, he could remember a time when he was not like this, when he was just an ordinary stockbroker slumped in a studio on East 53rd Street, his dress shirt rumpled open, cigarette ash ruining the Formica. He had been mortal, too mortal, all the way until his thirty-fifth birthday. All those years ago. And then the world, thankfully, began to bend toward him.
But Rafa. He remembered when they had first spoken on the phone, Nia connecting them. Eichler was in his Midtown office, a half hour or so away from helicoptering to the Hamptons. Rafa could only speak on a Friday, trending toward five o’clock. It was another day where he was, a more hospitable hour.
“You are interested in the island, yes?” Rafa had asked softly.
“Yes, I am. And I will pay whatever price the Emir sets.”
“Whatever the price.”
Rafa breathed gently, like he was asleep. He was a man of cosmopolitan restraint, educated in London, his nails meticulously filed. Eichler did not know his real name—either his full first name or last name. He was only sure he was speaking with a man who knew the Emir because Oswald Kess, the owner of an oil conglomerate and his occasional doubles partner, had told him, quite confidently, this was the only way to get to the Emir. Kess had dealt extensively in the nation where Eichler had first spotted the island, on a trip there with his son Sammy, who always wanted to go to amusement parks.
He knew it was perfect.
“Like I said, anything.”
The deal was closed quickly. Eichler was in a hurry, and Rafa sensed that. He understood Americans with money very well. The Emir, Rafa explained, was looking to sell because the island no longer had a military usage, its docks defunct. He was seeking cash infusions to shore up the nation’s reserves. “The Emir cares greatly for his people,” Rafa said. “He wants to ensure every schoolboy is educated in a gleaming building. Like your boy’s experience in America.”
“The buildings don’t gleam here.”
“To us, they do. They are of great magnificence.”
By the time the deal was done, Sammy could not go home from the hospital. It was in all the newspapers, and this made Eichler very sick. His son was a public curiosity. Since Sammy wanted views of bustle and water, Eichler had secured a wing facing the East River, the Queensborough Bridge glittering like an old-world chalice below. The tubes carried liquids into and out of Sammy’s arms. He belonged to the machines now, day and night, the spectral nurses hovering. They assured him, always, Sammy was doing the best that he could. Resiliency, they stressed. That is a fact of life of the human body.
In those months, Eichler began bargaining with God. Since his youth, he had been a committed atheist, eye-rolling through three years of Hebrew school and a wasted day at the reform synagogue where he was mercilessly bar mitzvahed. The cantor, during one of their study sessions, had slapped him across the face for dozing in his office. Eichler still remembered the texture of the cantor’s fleshy hand, how it was almost wet against his skin. This was God, he figured, and he wanted no part in that. Not even the rapid accumulation of enormous sums of money could shake his faith in faithlessness.
Yet he had his limits. All people did, when up against the maw. There was his son, atrophying in place, his skin yellowed. He had access to every conceivable medical advancement made possible in the twenty-first century, whatever it was that Eichler could deploy. Experts were flown in. Drugs, not yet to market, were strongly considered and then wielded, streaming into his son’s bloodstream. There were lucid days, easy days, when he sat up and ate his ice cream. The television looped SportsCenter.
On the island, the past assaulted Eichler. It was better when he took the yacht back to the mainland, where a waterfront restaurant had a private table waiting for him. He ordered broiled lamb and prepared to eat alone. The heat still choked, even though it was nightfall, and he took little solace in the manufactured air pumping against his face. Ice cubes disappeared into his water glass and all he tasted was backwash. The other diners, most of them wealthy locals or contractors, did not seem so bothered. They ate their dishes with ease, sweat hardly bubbling on their foreheads at all. To Eichler, they all seemed make-believe.
As he was biting his lamb, Rafa appeared. He did this. He could be on the island and off the island, his feet barely touching the ground at all. He dressed like his British education, in a cream-colored suit, a pale blue tie in a half-Windsor. He paused for a moment, surveying the scene like a narrator would, and naturally took the seat across from Eichler. It was as if the whole meal had been a pretext for Rafa to arrive and begin talking.
“We are entering the heat,” Rafa said.
“The heat is here already.”
“No, no. This is a prelude.”
“A prelude? Then I need to wear lighter suits.”
“Indeed. And the men will need to go slower.”
Eichler lowered his fork.
“That’s not possible.”
“You were watching them today.”
“To see how they work.”
“They are financed by you, Mr. Eichler. They belong to you like the kingdom belongs to the Emir. The island is yours, too. I can only offer, at this juncture, the advice of a man who has been where you are.”
“No one has been where I am.”
“This amusement park—I have to say, Mr. Eichler, I did always love the name. Even if I question the process.”
“Tell me what you’re questioning.”
“I don’t need to tell you. You already know.”
Eichler took another bite of his lamb. His hand was shaking.
“We’ve hired enough men to get the job done by the end of summer.”
“Your goal is quite ambitious.”
Eichler was chewing now, slowly and in heat. He had the urge to spit a chunk into Rafa’s cool, clear face.
“I know ambition.”
“Very well then.”
That night, Eichler dreamed. He was with his first wife, Nicola, and their German shepherd, Yancy. The dog vanished into a tree trunk and Eichler went after him, digging his fingernails into the bark. His ex-wife was laughing at him. Everyone was: the birds, the leaves, the sky. He could hear the laughter, feel it. The very world, turned up at him in mockery. He continued to pound at the tree.
Sammy told him he had to build.
And then he woke up.
The next day, he took a boat back to the island. It was beyond one hundred degrees again, or thirty-eight degrees Celsius, which was all that mattered here. In another two days, it was forecasted to be near fifty. Nia came with him, passing along a canteen of frozen water. His energy, finance, and real estate conglomerate had offices throughout the world, including an outpost in Abu Dhabi, but this was the kind of project he did not want too many employees to know about. He did not want or need staff here. There were the men he hired, the architects and the foremen, and Nia to coordinate. Nia had worked for him for fifteen years, beginning right out of Stanford. He paid her enormously to be discreet and to show up where she was needed.
“I spoke to Rafa last night,” he told her, gazing out onto the sea.
“I like him and I don’t. I see him outside from time to time, walking deep into the streets of the city. Sometimes I think he wants to walk into oncoming traffic.”
“He was telling me what you’ve begun to tell me.”
“He doesn’t like your timeline, I’ll guess.”
“And what did you tell him?”
“I understood ambition.”
“You really do.”
“But you don’t think it can be done.”
“I think there are realities and contingencies.”
“Talk to me, Nia.”
“The men will die.”
What he could revel in was the site, once sand-blasted rock, coming into form. On an airplane ride years ago, Sammy had pointed out the island from the window. They were visiting the region on business and Eichler had hardly noticed it before. Sammy kept pointing.
“Lookit, lookit,” he said.
Back then, Eichler still worried about being exposed. He traveled, like the other men of his class, with armaments: bodies between bodies, bodymen with guns, tinted windows and bullet-proof glass. Locked gates were always behind him. Beyond close associates, he did not meet with anyone who was not searched and screened first. He believed, for a long time, someone would try to poison him, though no one ever did. He had made it to fifty-six this way. His father, one of the last garment workers of the Lower East Side, died at ninety-eight, and he believed these genes were his destiny if only he could get there. He had been considering cryogenics for himself until Sammy got sick.
He never arranged it for Sammy, so he wouldn’t receive it either.
The next day was hotter than the last, and the next day even hotter. He made it a point to travel to the site and stand in the observation tower erected for its purest purpose: to hold him, in an air-conditioned capsule, as he watched. Cranes reached like outstretched arms into the great blue sky. Steel girders were afloat, then welded together. Skeletons were forming from dust. He watched the machines, with their treads and their ferocity, grind over the rock. Everywhere, concrete was poured.
There would be an indoor water park. They just needed water.
“I’m thirsty,” he said to Nia, and before he had finished the last syllable, she was handing him his canteen. He sat down in a plush chair, his knees suddenly sore.
“Something is going on down there.”
“I can call Faiz and find out.”
Faiz was one of the higher-ranking foremen, a man with impeccable English who Nia would converse with for updates. She took out her smartphone and began to dial. After three rings, he heard Faiz’s voice through Nia’s phone.
In London, Eichler had first noticed Sammy was not well. This was three years ago, in the eighteenth-century house he owned in Chelsea. Sammy kept passing out. He decided, not long after, to sell the home altogether. The realtor was excited to tell the prospective businessmen George Eliot had lived on the same private street. He did not care at all.
“A worker collapsed of heat exhaustion,” Nia said, hanging up.
“That won’t impact the schedule, if it’s one worker.”
“You’re lucky there’s no media here. The Emir forbids it.”
“The workers know what they are signing up for. I’m paying better wages than what can be had on the mainland, or in their old countries.”
“No one is saying you aren’t.”
In the distance, beyond the glass paneling, Eichler could see the gathering of men, pinpricks of shadow against the white-hot sandstone. They seemed to move like they were underwater. He placed a finger to the glass and waited.
“By September, I want it done.”
“Faiz does think it’s possible.”
Each day, Eichler perceived progress, and Faiz confirmed it. He remained in his observation tower. The heat would threaten to break fifty degrees Celsius, always verging close enough. In a hushed voice, Nia accepted the news of another collapse. A man, barely twenty—a boy, really—had fallen head-first into the dust, his tongue as dry as clay.
Eichler wondered, sometimes, what they made of this project in the kingdom. Rafa had told him the people would be excited for an island amusement park. “Their standard of living has increased. They can afford more than ever before,” Rafa said. He was a font of good news for the kingdom, from the Emir. If women still could not drive, they could at least, in theory, come to the amusement park too.
Rafa, many months ago, had seen the renderings. The roller coasters undulated in sparkling reds and blues, wrapping around the park. They were serpentine, like the spines of mystical dragons plunging from the clouds. The Ferris wheel would be the largest for a thousand kilometers. To enter the park, attendees would cross enormous drawbridges hung over a churning moat. The park would be surrounded this way. It was what Sammy would have wanted.
He loved the water.
“Sammy’s World,” Rafa said, repeating the name of the park. “That is where we will be.”
Eichler began to take a helicopter over the site. Like everything else on the island, he owned it, and the kindly pilot, on his payroll, was happy to fly him up midday. From above, he saw the mass of metallic beams and concrete foundations lose their formlessness, cohering into a new reality. In each quadrant of the park, men were gathered in packs, their equipment shimmering. For passing moments, he could feel the machinery of the helicopter falling away, leaving his body alone, in a bubble of heat, in midair. He was not afraid. He could float onwards, across the island and toward the sea, landing in a swirling gust of wind.
On one trip, the helicopter began to list. His pilot grimaced, gripping the controls, and the sky of pale blue fell toward them. Eichler saw his hands go white. Somewhere, his dead mother was clicking her tongue, warning about helicopter rides ending in fire.
The black machine righted itself and they took off, toward the northeast moat. In a few days, it would be filled with water.
One month from the deadline, with the temperature hovering a few degrees below forty Celsius, Rafa appeared at dinner. He had arrived, as always, unannounced, and sat directly across from Eichler. The seat was always empty.
“Good evening,” Rafa said, waving over the waiter for his arak.
“You have managed not to burn at all. A remarkable achievement. Your friends who come here, they try to tan and slink away with skin like the flesh of a supermarket animal. You know what I am referencing, yes? In one of your large supermarkets, the prime rib or the steak, how red they are—”
“Yes, I certainly do.”
“It is remarkable what you have done. I saw the park just yesterday. It resembles the great amusement districts of my youth. I close my eyes and hear the screams. Have you done this yet?”
“Not yet, no.”
“Anything is possible, if only you have money. Others bemoan this, but I choose to see it differently—it is like magic. Not everyone can be in possession of magic, otherwise we would all be roguish wizards in the gutter, casting spells on one another, unable to take a bite to eat or relieve ourselves without a dusting from the occult. Some must be wizards, and others must never be. So it is with money. We cannot all be Eichlers. Some of us must work. Some are out there now, in the heat of a construction site, racing against time.”
“We cannot all be the Emir either.”
“Correct. There is but one monarch here.”
“One monarch to tell us all what to do and think.”
“Now, now,” Rafa said, sipping from his wine glass. “The hand is feeding. Let it finish before you begin to bite.”
In moments like these, when his indignation enlarged itself into undiluted fury, he could imagine buying and selling men like Rafa. I can literally pay to destroy your life. He could buy homes and have them demolished, even towns.
But he knew better here. Rafa had the Emir, and the Emir was worth everything too. The Emir had oil and the world-historical superpowers that wanted to buy it. The American appetite might be waning, but China’s was growing. Up against China, what was Eichler? If he lived in China, the government could make him disappear. For all he really knew about the Emir, he could do the same.
“Out here, it’s only natural to think of death,” Rafa said.
“Where we are—all I’m saying is it’s natural, Mr. Eichler, and you should not resist it so much. You think you will be uncomfortable, but it’s just the opposite. The closer you come, the more liberated you may feel.”
Rafa left, smiling, and Eichler ate alone. In the suite, he watched CNN with the sound off, his eyes glazed with images of global catastrophe. A war in Africa, a plane crash in Canada, a building collapse in New Orleans. Another variant discovered of another virus. He shifted in bed, fully-clothed, and shut his eyes, feeling blood accumulate in his skull.
A Christian image entered his head: a length of rope flung around a white clapboard church, a speck of bright red tape on one section. This, a pastor once declared, represents your life in the scope of eternity.
Sammy Eichler, a red speck.
What had surprised him, as much as the ferocity, was the swiftness. The concierge care and the experimental drugs did not matter. Neither did the team of doctors assembled, like superheroes of the comic book golden age, from two coasts and three time zones, summoned for a single task that was supposed to unite their genius against a disease he was told was treatable.
Treatable, one of the doctors said in a hushed voice, does not mean curable. Eichler, by then, knew they were failing.
No one could buy off entropy.
Before there were architects, there were Eichler’s own feverish sketches. In those final days, he began in ballpoint pen, scratching out designs on the torn-out sheets from his moleskin. His boy loved amusement parks. When the disease was not yet a disease, merely a warning, Eichler told him he would have his very own park one day. As soon as the drugs worked, they would build it.
CNN was on and it was one o’clock in the morning. One, then two. He followed a digital clock built into the wall, right below the imitation Matisse someone had installed long ago. Two, then three. He shut his eyes and no dream came but when he opened them again, his body ached and it was six thirty. A thick film of sweat covered his entire body. He was still in his clothes.
For most of the night, the room had not been pumping any cold air at all.
“Nia,” he groaned into his cellphone. “There’s no air here.”
“The hotel had a power outage late last night. I’m told the back-up generator should be on shortly.”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me?”
“I tried calling. Seven times, to be precise. You never picked up.”
Indeed, she had. His cellphone had just enough power to show him the missed calls. The TV was not on at all and if Nia was correct, it may not have been on when he thought it was. He could have been dreaming CNN. He dumbly tried switches and appliances, listening to their dead clicks. Outside, the sun was rising, high and already bright.
He still memorized phone numbers. He knew Rafa’s, but he would never call Rafa unless he had to. Unless that was all that was left for him. Instead, he decided to call Faiz, who would be headed out to the site soon, or already there.
“Faiz,” he said into the phone when he heard an answer. “It’s Eichler.”
“Mr. Eichler, yes. How are you?”
He heard heavy wind and the crackle of static.
“How close are we?”
“Well, sir, close. But we are in a labor shortage at the moment.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Mr. Rafa was, uh, supposed to communicate this to you. Another fifteen men are out today. They are sick with the heat.”
“Sick.” Eichler felt the word thud in his throat. It was almost precious, the air leaving his lips. “Sick.”
“Yes, Mr. Eichler.”
“Where are these men?”
“In the hospital, sir.”
“Get more men.”
“We are drawing from all available resources.”
Eichler hung up. He wanted it done in two weeks. It would be September then, Sammy’s birthday, and he wanted it done in two weeks.
They would finish it in fucking two weeks.
There was an outdoor pool and an indoor pool. He did not have an estate or an apartment here, so he was doomed to the hotel, the indignity of accommodations shared with others. He would pay for everyone to get out of the pool but that was not how pools worked.
In the hotel without power—in the city without power—he sat on a red-striped chair, poolside, and waited for the sun to cook his skin.
At some point, he fell asleep, and at some point, Nia found him. He did not know what time it was.
“My mouth tastes like cotton in hell,” he told her.
“The power is back.”
“I didn’t do it. You should come back indoors. It’s not safe out here.”
He walked after her, his knees like protoplasm. He could hardly stand.
“Not safe,” he said.
“Safe enough for our men out there, though.”
In the final week, he didn’t go outside at all. Nia came to visit him at the end of each day in his suite, CNN playing silently on the TV. He would be splayed on the bed, shirt unbuttoned. She gave him updates, facts and figures delivered from Faiz. For some reason, she began to list to him the fatalities. It was like she was reading from a box score. Faiz kept a record to pass to her to pass to him.
There were bodies in morgues.
“But we did it,” she said, her voice rising. “We are ready to open.”
“For September,” he said.
“Yes. The Emir wants to have a great ceremony. He wants you to take the first ride.”
“You’ll go with me?”
Nia would follow him into the center of the sun. He sat up, suddenly thirsty. “I need a cold glass of orange juice.”
“It’s on its way.”
Whatever he needed, always on its way. It had been like this for more than twenty years now. The money increased probabilities and possibilities, but it did not alter the bare facts, the mechanics of an existence. He still felt wonder, dread, and sadness. He still got up to shit in the morning.
The days passed and it wasn’t so hot anymore—merely very warm, the sun cooking the sand at an easier clip. He woke early to swim in the indoor pool, his body knifing through the water. He swam hungrily, impatiently, chlorine spraying in his eyes. Unlike the other men who would show up, he did not wear goggles.
“When you’re dried up, we will go over there,” Nia said, greeting him as he left the pool. “I’m so excited.”
They flew in the helicopter, the two of them and the pilot. Eichler was determined not to look out, to surprise himself when he came upon the island, but as they began their descent he peered through the curved window, his heart fluttering as he saw all of it spread before him.
There it was, Sammy’s World. An island-wide spectacle, carousels and wheels and coasters and towers straining into the sky, toward his window. He saw castles and rainbows, moats and dragons. The colors were magnificent. All of it was like a dazzling bauble dropped in a field of white, the only object that ever mattered.
Greeting him at the helipad was Rafa, who could not dampen his spirits. He shook Rafa’s hand vigorously.
“Mr. Eichler, what a wonderful day it became.”
“Yes, very much so.”
“The Emir extends his greatest apologies. He wanted to be here today, but he was detained. There was vital family business he had to attend to.”
Eichler was not offended. He felt his chest expanding, warmth everywhere.
“It happens! It’s a big country, isn’t it?”
They rode in an antique convertible, a vehicle from the 1940s that still pumped cold air from its vents onto their laps. A bodyguard drove them, Rafa riding shotgun. They crossed the moat, aquamarine water glistening beneath them, and entered through the front gates, which borrowed architecture from the Renaissance and Rome. Sammy would have loved all of it.
“The beautiful sacrifices we need to make,” Rafa said, his delicate hand gesturing toward the park.
“There are people here already,” Nia said.
Eichler saw them, thousands on the pavilion, ambling toward an amphitheater. There were boys and girls, mothers and fathers. Red and blue balloons passed over their heads.
“We will have a ceremony here and you can say a few words. Don’t feel any pressure. Speak from the heart,” Rafa said.
“I didn’t prepare—”
“I prepared remarks for you,” Nia said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Eichler didn’t. Nia knew him. She could conjure words that he would say anyway, even if she didn’t exist. When he read from her speech, it would be like reading from the better version of himself.
“You like roller coasters, Mr. Eichler?”
“When I was a younger man, yes. And my son loved them.”
“Let’s ride one of your creations.”
“Before the ceremony?” Nia asked.
“It’s unorthodox, yes, but the people will like it. And won’t you like it, Mr. Eichler?”
Rafa understood. More than anything else, Eichler wanted to do this. He wanted to reach the summit and plunge below. He wanted to scream.
“Yes, I would.”
Sammy’s World had open boulevards for the convertible. They were driving toward the largest roller coaster of all, taller than four hundred feet—the Blue Dragon. With its hydraulic launch, the train could accelerate to one hundred and forty miles per hour in less than four seconds. The drop was four hundred and twenty feet and the ride would extend, in total, for a brilliant thirty-two seconds. These facts careened through him.
An operator was there to greet them. They shook hands and Rafa led them to the very first car. The three of them were locked in together, Eichler sitting in the middle. He noticed that a small crowd had begun to gather, with more on the way.
They had all come to watch.
“We are now on the largest roller coaster in the world,” Rafa said.
Before the ascent and the drop, there was a long, flat stretch where they slowly built momentum. They passed through a darkened tunnel.
“I wasn’t always sure this day would come. But here it is,” Eichler said.
“Desire is sometimes all we need.”
Rafa was now turned toward him.
“That’s what I’ve felt, Rafa, though it’s not always easy to articulate it.”
“Money is nothing if not the manifestation of desire.”
“And hard work. And luck.”
“Luck, yes,” Rafa said. “The luck that we have so many other bodies to give.”
They were rising now, their heads tilting back, a deep and empty sky above. Eichler did not see a single cloud. There was a large crowd, a true crowd, thousands now at the base of the roller coaster, pointing. Eichler was laughing. They had told him this day was not possible and it was, all of it, and tomorrow would be Sammy’s birthday. Next week, when he was back in New York, Eichler would visit the gravesite. He decided he would bring a photograph of Sammy’s World and leave it there, right against the headstone.
“We rise and then we fall, Mr. Eichler. The men in the desert—they did this for you.”
Rafa’s words came to him as the great structure began to shake. This was the ride, the experience, the behemoth Blue Dragon bearing them hundreds of feet. The experience was steel losing its purchase, bolts coming loose, a slippage that was slow until it was not. They were at the very top now.
He was ready.
“It’s okay, Mr. Eichler, if you scream.”
The tracks fell away, the beams below them crumbling. Nia began to cry out. They were shooting downward, on steel and then air, the wind so sharp it began to cut at their skin. He saw Rafa was smiling and then he saw nothing at all.
Ross Barkan is an author and journalist from Brooklyn, NY. His books include Demolition Night and The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York. His new novel, The Night Burns Bright, will be published in 2022.