AN INTRODUCTION BY CALLIE COLLINS
It’s been hard to talk about fiction this past week, but I’ve been finding some solace in music. Leonard Cohen, of course, but also Howlin’ Wolf and Cloves’ “Frail Love.” Songs seem smaller and sharper somehow, able to sliver in through the darkness of this American moment.
“Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” is one of the centerpieces of the collection, a nod to Modest Mouse’s stomper and a story that deals with family and the ways we depict our childhoods. It’s the story of Eddie, who watches his hard-worked and hardworking father descend into mental illness, and who finds a friend named Trevor, a strange boy who endeavors for years to reconstruct their town of Elverton and manages to enthrall and disappoint Eddie in myriad ways. It’s a subtle portrait of a family stuck and struggling, of suburban malaise, of the triumphs and indignities of boyhood.
But “Tiny Cities” is also about the project of representing reality. In the story, Trevor’s remarkable model of his town — however beautifully observed and meticulously scaled — can’t approach the complexity of the real thing. It’s impossible to account for the nuance of days, of relationships, of beauty. As a new reality shifts around us now, this seems a crucial lesson, a reminder of the dangers of reduction and of the things we cannot depict in black and white or in zero-sum games: wonder and awe, empathy and our struggle with its limits, art itself.
It’s a subtle portrait of a family stuck and struggling, of suburban malaise, of the triumphs and indignities of boyhood.
It’s not much of a consolation to say that we’re about to produce some fucking thrilling art in this country. (Who among us wouldn’t sacrifice protest songs, stories for basic human safety and decency?) It’s easy to talk about what fiction can do for us when we don’t really need fiction to do it. It’s easy to talk about empathy in the abstract, and much harder right now to find it for the half of America that doesn’t have any for us. But there’s a George Saunders interview that ran at Full Stop in 2011 I go back to often. The interviewer asks what the writer’s responsibility is in the midst of unending war, and in his reply Saunders says, “What fiction can do is inspire tenderness. That’s a good thing in any weather.” This is the worst weather some of us have ever seen. Let’s fight and donate, protest and protect each other, and let’s also go to language and the melody of it. Let’s read and tell stories; let’s look to words for the tenderness we’ll desperately need.
Here’s “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” from The Great American Songbook, a book that investigates the making of art and the power it holds over our lives. I hope it provides respite and warmth and that you love it as much as I do.
Codirector, A Strange Object
Tiny Cities Made of Ashes by Sam Allingham
I remember the Ullman boys: the six-man army, bristling with sticks, that colonized our narrow strip of Craydon Street. Every afternoon from half past three ’til dark, they filled the air with shouts of C-A-R, game on, and pass the puck, burly brothers who ranged in age from nine to seventeen but shared one face — flattened nose and eyes sunk back in their sockets. They were pug-ugly, built for hockey, grunting and hurling each other against the goals. They made the rest of us their audience.
One afternoon in September the rest of us was me and a kid named Trevor Hendricks. He sat on the grass in front of his house, skinny arms around his knees. We were in the same grade at school, along with ten other kids, and although I’d only been in town a month, I knew his name and face. From the worn green picnic bench outside the Elverton Mail Bag General Store, washing down my Sour Patch Kids with Coke, I watched Trevor watch the street. I sized him up. He looked lonely, or at least alone, and I thought: Here is someone you could convince to be your friend.
I went over to him. “You gonna watch this game all day?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” Trevor shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Hey, fags,” the Ullman boys yelled. “Get a room.”
His shoulder blades shifted beneath his shirt, shaking off the insult.
“We could go to my house,” he said. “If you want.”
Nobody in Elverton had ever invited me over before. I hadn’t invited anyone to my house either; my father didn’t like visitors.
I followed Trevor quickly across the lawn, not wanting to give him time to change his mind, while the Ullman boys made kissing sounds behind us.
Trevor’s mother sat on a torn couch in their living room, flipping through National Geographic and smoking furiously. She was a short and stubby woman. A housedress hid her hips. Clusters of teacups and dirty ashtrays covered the coffee table, and in the far corner, on top of a scarred upright piano, two stuffed muskrats stood frozen in midfight, fur spangled with ash.
“Nice to see a new face,” she said.
“Let’s go downstairs,” Trevor said, tugging my arm. “Let’s build something.”
The basement floor was smooth concrete. Two small windows on the far side let in just enough light to see the metal shelves lining the walls, filled with screws and bolts. Trevor brought out a wooden crate of plastic building blocks, and we worked without speaking, fitting squares.
Trevor had long, nimble fingers. He could make a lifelike roof out of slanted blocks, a credible window. All I could build was a one-story shack, but Trevor made something like a church: peaked gables and a high-tipped steeple.
“That’s good,” I said.
“It’s okay. Wanna see something?” He pulled a model out from beneath the shelves.
On a large green square of pegged plastic, large as a foldout road map, buildings stood in two clean lines, an invisible street between them. Two structures broke the symmetry: a broad white box with three tall doors and a long red building, crowned by a cracker-flat roof.
It looked like the view from a low-flying plane: square and lonely.
“We’re here.” Trevor pointed at a smaller house with more detail than the others. Through its front windows I could see a living room, and beyond that a smaller room with a half wall: a dining room and kitchenette. The walls were uniform gray. Only by looking hard could I see the tiny seams between the plastic blocks.
“What do you mean, here?”
“We’re here,” Trevor repeated, touching the roof.
Then I saw. The tiny house was Trevor’s. The model was Craydon Street. The broad white building with three doors was the Elverton Volunteer Fire Department, and the little red building was our school, Elverton Elementary and Junior High, population ninety-six, stinking of milk and chalk.
“You can touch it, if you want.”
I started at school and walked my fingers down the empty road, ticking off houses: one, two, three. I got to eleven, and there it was on the right: my house in miniature, white walls, two thin columns supporting a porch, a wide yard on the north side my mother filled with flowers.
Trevor’s mother called, voice thick with tar. “Trevor! Come help me with dinner.”
“Come back tomorrow,” Trevor said.
“Have you shown this to anybody else?”
“No.” He put the model back.
By the time I left, the late September sun was almost gone. The Ullman boys were packing up their goals, pulling PVC pipes from their hinges. The oldest one waved his stick at me. It looked tiny inside his thick hand.
“What’d you two do together?” he yelled. “Suck each other’s dicks?”
I looked left and right down Craydon Street, the houses laid out just like Trevor’s model. That was when I realized Trevor wasn’t watching the Ullman boys at all. He was measuring the buildings.
The next day I stood by the rusted geodesic dome — which teachers warned us never to climb, for fear of tetanus — and watched kids kick Trevor around the playground. They choked his head inside their armpits and stripped his shoes off. I wanted to help him, but there was nothing I could do, small and solitary myself. I felt sorry for Trevor but envious too. Nobody touched me like that.
We walked home together afterward. Soybean chaff flickered in the fields. Bulbous squash grew wild in kitchen gardens.
“Nobody talks to me,” I said.
“You’re lucky,” Trevor said.
That afternoon we spanned the town — Craydon, Bacon’s Run, Market, and Ridgeway — measuring houses. Trevor ran his hands over the walls and window frames, fingers learning the shapes, while I stood by the edge of the road and took photographs with a camera my mother had bought to encourage my interests.
“We’re historians,” Trevor said. “They’ll want to know what this town was like in a hundred years.”
“We could give our model to the Historical Society,” I suggested.
I liked the Historical Society, a low brick building with a red door that was once a bank. The old women who volunteered gave me candy, and I liked running my fingers over the old maps of Elverton, as if history were my personal possession.
“I don’t like those people,” Trevor said.
Trevor didn’t like anybody, definitely not Mrs. Waddell, who ran the counter at the Mail Bag. She didn’t let him go inside the store alone, and when he came in with me, she still wouldn’t let him use the bathroom.
Maybe what we had wasn’t quite a friendship — it was just two boys taking measurements. I didn’t have much to compare it to. My family followed my father from job to job, one nuclear plant after another: Calvert Cliffs, Peach Bottom, Indian Point. Not that we lived in any of these places — my father never used that verb. He was supervising at Peach Bottom; he was an adviser at Indian Point.
These kinds of linguistic distinctions were important to my father. He only recommended termination; he never actually fired anyone. He was not responsible. After the fat was trimmed and the streamlined plant passed inspection, he would be off again, faithful family following behind.
Only Elverton felt less temporary to me now, after months in Trevor’s company. I knew the houses: paint peeling like birch bark in the sun, gabled roofs and gutters. I had pictures as proof. I put them in an envelope labeled Evidence and tucked them on his basement shelf beside our little city.
We finished the main square in November. A cold rain fell as Trevor made his final calculations. I stood at the corner of Market and Ridgeway and aimed my camera at our last house, an ugly two-story with vinyl siding and pale green sills. Just before I released the shutter, Trevor turned from his measurements, looked straight at the lens, smiled, and gave me a thumbs-up — a goblin with peaked ears and dry, yellow skin. There was no one home in the house behind him, but still I worried. How weird would we look to the people who lived inside?
The rain fell heavy as we walked back to Craydon. Even the Ullman boys had taken momentary shelter. Their silent goalposts dripped.
“What are we gonna do now?” I asked.
“More houses, I guess,” Trevor said, but he seemed shifty about it, and I worried — not for the first time — that his future plans didn’t include me and that for the rest of my time in Elverton I’d be left friendless, listening to my twin brothers argue over toys while my father paced the living room, rehearsing speeches.
“Can I come over for a bit?” Trevor asked.
This was a shock. Normally, I would have said no — my parents had specific rules about visitors — but the friendly gesture overwhelmed my defenses.
“Sure,” I said. “Of course.”
When we came through the door, my mother was at the kitchen table, paying bills. “Who’s this?” she asked, harried.
The twins were at the table too, working on a jigsaw puzzle, but as soon as they saw Trevor, they lost interest and trained their eyes on the outsider. Hard to remember how small they were in those days, thin little children.
“This is Trevor,” I said. “We’ll just play Sega. We won’t bother anybody.”
“All right,” my mother said, squinting. “But stay on the porch.”
Our screened-in porch was empty, except for the former tenants’ patio furniture and a blurry television with the Genesis attached. Trevor and I took turns playing Sonic. There was only one controller; my mother disliked competition. Trevor was no good. The buttons stuck beneath his clumsy thumbs.
“We can play something different,” I said. “If you want.”
“Where’s your bathroom?” Trevor asked.
“Past the kitchen,” I said, and turned back to the screen.
I was so busy maneuvering through a world of flashing lights that I didn’t realize how long he’d been gone. I was about to face the boss of Pinball Palace when my mother appeared, holding Trevor by the shoulder. Her face was red. “Next time tell your friend the right way to the bathroom.”
“I did tell him,” I said, focused on the screen.
“I don’t like people sneaking around my bedroom!”
I paused the game. What was Trevor doing in my parents’ bedroom, all the way on the second floor?
“I’ve got my hands full with dinner,” my mother said. “Tell your friend it’s time to go home.” She walked away, letting the door slam.
Trevor was shaking, but his lips curled up into a guilty smile beneath his beaked nose. His eyes looked tiny. I remembered how Mrs. Waddell watched him when he walked into the Mail Bag and didn’t let him use the bathroom.
“You better go.”
Trevor slipped out the porch door and onto the rainy street, leaving me alone.
I stared at the frozen television. Pinball Palace seemed meaningless. My first Elverton friend, and I’d picked a weirdo, someone even my mother knew was defective. Maybe my parents were right, and I should be suspicious of outsiders.
After a while my mother came back. “Sorry for being short. That boy has a history.”
“Some women were talking at the Mail Bag,” she said. “A teacher found him in the girls’ bathroom at your school, hiding in the stalls. Not just once — several times.”
I imagined Trevor in the girls’ bathroom, arms crossed, sizing up its dimensions. What did this say about our project? After dark, when I was safe in bed, did Trevor sneak from house to house, opening windows?
“I know things are hard,” my mother said. “This is your dad’s tough year. He’ll get a long-term position soon. Buckle down, buddy!” She mock-punched me in the arm. “We’ll get through it.”
That was my mother: the kind voice and the firm hand, good cop and bad. My father worked long hours, and when he was home, he spent most of his time in the office upstairs. Even before the trouble started, my mother was the only parent I had. At the end of that night’s dinner, as we cleaned the last carrots from our plates, my father rolled up his sleeves and cleared his throat. He looked tense, as he often did those days — wiry, electric with nerves. The dark circles under his eyes gave his words extra gravity.
The three of us had it pretty good, he began. We were allowed to do the usual things kids did: soccer leagues, summer camps, spelling bees. We had all the opportunities. There was no reason for us to be unhappy — didn’t we agree? He only asked one thing, that we keep our socializing out of the house. He had nothing against kids — in fact he liked some of them very much — but let one in and more would follow. Not just kids but their parents too, plant employees, wanting to talk and socialize and ask questions, and even if their parents weren’t plant employees, then their uncles were, their aunts or their cousins, all of them with questions, all of them curious, and once you started talking, answering questions, they’d never stop asking, and how was he expected to do his job with people always asking him questions, as if he had answers, as if he could help them?
While he talked, our mother stroked his knuckles, trying to keep his hands still.
I grew six inches that year. I proved my toughness on the kickball field, wrestling the rubber sphere out of the air and pegging the speeding runner’s head. I won a grueling forty-foot race across the double monkey bars, linking my legs around another boy’s hips and hurling him to the sand. When a tall kid told me his father said my father was a fag, I shoved his face into an anthill until he screamed.
One afternoon in April, a scuffle broke out by the geodesic dome. Boys crowded around in a tight ring, yelling, fight, fight, fight. I shoved into the circle. I was no shy kid anymore. People gave me room.
Trevor was lying in the middle, holding his stomach. The kid who’d been beating him was already turning away.
I took over. I put my foot on Trevor’s neck.
“Long time no see,” he wheezed.
Although I saw Trevor every day, I always looked past him. I didn’t want people to remember we’d been friends.
The other kids chuckled. “Shut up,” I told them. “Get out of here.”
The teacher blew his whistle, and the crowd trickled away. Recess was over, but still I kept my foot on Trevor’s throat, like he was a snake I couldn’t risk letting go.
“You still sneaking around town?” I asked. “Looking in people’s windows?”
Trevor smirked but didn’t say anything.
“How’s that model we built?”
“You didn’t build anything,” Trevor said, twisting up his mouth. “You’re not a builder.”
I took my foot off his neck and kicked him once in the ribs. The teacher didn’t intervene. Nobody ever intervened when Trevor was involved.
“Get out of here,” I said. I watched Trevor’s back as he slunk away.
What did Trevor know about being a builder? I was building my own city now — a city of experience. Trevor wasn’t invited to Alex Edward’s fourteenth birthday party that May, but I was. As soon as I got in the front door, my hands ran over the banisters, measuring. The inside was clean and fresh, plush carpet and goldenrod walls. Trevor may have run his hands across those windowsills when the family wasn’t looking, but he’d never been invited inside.
After the boys ate cake, we tramped out to the backyard to play touch. Their lawn was as immaculate as their carpets, brushed clean of sticks and leaves. A sudden snap, and Stephen Ambrose, backup quarterback, flung the football at the back of my head. Maybe it was a mistake, but I didn’t care. I turned and charged, hurling my body into his and pummeling away. It took six of them to pull me off.
While Alex’s mother called my house with news of the fight, I sat on a solitary chair in that golden living room and listened to the adults whisper about my violent ways. I knew they’d never let me come back.
When I came home, I found my father had already called a meeting to discuss what I’d done. He had my mother and the twins around the kitchen table, their faces full of concern, but not for me. They were watching him as he paced erratically around the room, occasionally bumping against the handle of the refrigerator and the hard corners of the countertops, as if he couldn’t be troubled by the details of the physical world.
He didn’t blame me for what I’d done. If anything, he blamed himself — for introducing us to this sort of environment, in which survival of the fittest was the law of the land, in which brute force was the only language anyone understood. Didn’t we see, then, how crucial it was that we not let ourselves be unduly influenced by this environment? Didn’t we recognize the sensitivity of the situation? Hadn’t he done his absolute best to protect us? And yet here I was, acting like a hooligan, fraternizing with the enemy!
We were used to these sorts of speeches, by that point. There was the Pitch In Together speech, the Trust No One speech, the Sports Are a Distraction from the Reality of Life speech. There was nothing odd about my father giving speeches. His work was speeches: motivational speeches, procedural speeches, disciplinary speeches. But as the pressure grew — as it became clear that there was organized resistance to his safety regime, as the year mark passed and he failed to meet deadline after deadline — the hand gestures that accompanied these speeches became increasingly wild, like a loose piece of machinery, deformed by stress. He was moving too quickly around the room, pulling so aggressively on the piece of scalp directly above his forehead that large clumps of hair came off in his hands.
This time my mother made no move, either to comfort or to stop him. Maybe she felt she couldn’t, trapped in a script she was powerless to alter. She only looked at me sadly, as if this was all my responsibility, as if I’d set the stage and started the scene in motion.
I got my first girlfriend that June: Amber Elwell. She lived at the edge of town, where Bacon’s Run met Ridgeway, past soybean fields and stands of oak, past Wiskasset Creek, lined with stunted beech trees. I could only see her for an hour at a time, after school ended and before my mother got home from work; now that my father had taken a leave of absence from his job, my mother had gotten a position as a dentist’s bookkeeper — “to keep our options open,” she told us. But just because he wasn’t allowed to go to the plant didn’t mean my father’s working days were over; he still spent much of his time in the attic, going over security procedures. He had no time for the twins, which meant that after school they were my responsibility.
But I was happy to shirk it, in service of a greater cause. Amber Elwell would change my reputation. I would prove to everyone that I was no vicious bully. I had the gentle hands of a lover.
One afternoon, lying red-faced on her living room couch, I heard Amber’s dog barking outside. My heartbeat rang in my ears: her mother, home!
I crept to the window and looked out onto the lawn. Trevor was at the edge of the road, carrying binoculars. He didn’t bother hiding them, and when he saw me, he smiled that particular half-smile of his, as if he was satisfied I’d been forced to look in his direction, despite all my efforts to ignore him.
Amber joined me at the window. “You creeper,” she yelled. “My brother’s gonna kill you!”
The window was open, and I knew Trevor could hear her shouts, but he didn’t make a sign — just tightened the strap of his binoculars and rode away.
Amber sat on the couch, arms crossed over her chest. “I feel so violated.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I cooed. I crouched in front of her, twining my fingers in hers and pressing her left wrist against the leather. My other hand traced the fine line of her collarbone.
“Don’t.” She pushed back.
“Relax,” I said. “You’re with me.”
She struggled and I struggled back, as if she were some younger kid giving me crap on the playground. I used my legs as leverage. She gripped my hands hard at the knuckles. Red-faced, sweating, she threw me off.
“Get out,” she said through gritted teeth.
I left her house, my penis stiff and painful against my bicycle seat. As I rounded the corner of Craydon, I saw Trevor outside the Mail Bag, drinking a Slice. There was no hockey that afternoon. The Ullman boys were gone, and Trevor ruled the street.
“Stay away from Amber, creep,” I told him. He took a long sip of his Slice. “If you come around again, I’ll beat your ass.”
Trevor pointed a thumb at his house. “You want to see my town?”
I consider this, the bicycle between us. I could have beaten him up without further discussion, but Mrs. Waddell might have seen; so much for my improved reputation. Maybe in his basement I could do what I liked. Besides, I couldn’t lie: I was curious about our town.
I dropped my bike by the dogwood tree and followed him inside.
His house was the same — ashy clutter, stuffed muskrats. His mother was in the kitchen, staring at the flystrip dangling from the ceiling.
“You’re back,” she said. I could hear the eagerness in her voice. She must have thought it sad her son had so few friends.
We went down the basement steps. His city spread across the concrete floor. He must have made a deal with his mother because he no longer had to hide it. Not that he could, even if he’d wanted to. It had grown too large to conceal.
The individual buildings were impressive enough; each had tripled in size, without the model losing any of its symmetry. I could imagine dolls living in their empty rooms. But it was the aerial view from the third step that amazed me. From there I could see the town square laid out like a map, precise in its geometry, but with much more detail than a map could ever hope to accomplish: every hallway, every room, every window. The only thing wrong was the hodge-podge of color: gray walls spoiled by red and yellow blocks. He had to make do with inferior materials.
I leaned back and saw Elverton from a peaceful distance, huddled and serene. Then I leaned forward, peering through the rooms where no one lived — little cells that time passed through. How had he accomplished such detail when no one ever let him inside?
“Go ahead,” Trevor said. “Walk around.”
The shelving was gone from the walls, and there was a small perimeter around the town for visitors to move through. I walked around, glancing into windows. My own house was perfect, but I knew that already. I circled the square, looking for the house where Amber lived. Trevor had it exact, a white farmhouse gone to seed, the porch held up with diagonal beams to keep it stable. But it wasn’t the outside that made me stop and stare; it was the way he’d built the details of the interior: the cut-out wall that linked Amber’s living room and kitchen; the rickety stairs in the main hall that led up to her bedroom; even the bedroom itself, although I couldn’t say for sure whether that room was accurate. I had no intimate knowledge.
I had a strange feeling, watching the model from above, like I was outside time and space, examining a memorial for something that hadn’t yet been destroyed.
“What do you think?”
I imagined Trevor with binoculars, standing on the far edge of the road in the dark, training his eyes on Amber’s bedroom. “You’re sick.”
Trevor chuckled. Maybe this was the response he’d hoped for — the viewer squirming in the palm of his hand. I thought about hitting him but didn’t. I was in his world now. Some kind of curse might fall on me.
“I’m going home,” I said.
“Fine,” Trevor said. “I’ve got work to do.”
I walked back out into the thick heat of late summer. I missed the sounds of the Ullman boys, their calls of C-A-R, the way they put the street in motion. The oldest one worked in a lumberyard now, and the second oldest had joined the army. They had few options, those violent boys. The rest of the gang spent their afternoons inside, watching television. Other than the buzzing of greenhead flies, Craydon Street was as silent as Trevor’s model.
But inside our house, things were anything but quiet. My mother was home, but there was no dinner being prepared; instead, my father was winding himself up for the final speech, Forward to the Future. I remember the way he climbed up onto the table and the way it rocked beneath his feet. He spoke of the future as if it were a city you could go to, but only if you worked hard and were vigilant, because you couldn’t well expect the future to simply come to you, it had to be continually achieved, conquered, realized — a perspective that frightened me at the time, punctuated by my father’s vehement stomping and the clattering of cutlery, but that now strikes me as strangely optimistic. Conquering the future: what a dream!
Before he could finish, the table wobbled and broke beneath him, one leg splintering beneath his weight. He lost his balance on the sliding tabletop and fell face-first, hands and knees slamming against the linoleum. The twins shouted in excitement, my father moaned, and my mother got down on the floor, holding his head and telling him, be still.
“Idiots,” my father muttered. “Ignorant savages.”
“Quiet now,” my mother said. “You need to rest.”
My father stopped mumbling and started panting instead, a tired bull that had dragged us deep into the countryside and then collapsed.
I got up from my seat and went over to where the two of them were lying. I looked down at my helpless father, my foot pulled back as if to kick him. “Get up,” I yelled. “You’re the one who brought us here, you bastard.”
But he didn’t get up. My father panted, my mother whispered, and I looked out the window at the sleeping street, wondering if Trevor was outside, spying as my family fell apart.
I went to Regional that fall. I was no lover anymore; Amber never spoke to me after Trevor came around with his binoculars. Rumor spread that he and I were in on it together, spying on naked girls in nighttime windows — and after my father became a patient at the Woodbury Psychiatric Hospital, the neighborhood kids passed our house with suspicious glances, whispering and laughing.
I was no bully, either. Too many high school kids could kill me with a punch. I was just a gawky boy with clumsy legs and a temper, and I fell in with the kind of kids who fit in nowhere: skinny kids with long hair and bad acne, worn baseball caps and “Stairway to Heaven” bumper stickers. After school I would sit in the back of one of the older guys’ pickups in the parking lot with a battery-powered radio blasting classic rock, and after we’d passed a covert jay, I’d lie with my back against the ridged bed and look up at the sky.
The weed pacified me. While the rest of the guys compared the asses of girls they’d never have the courage to speak to, I made a map out of clouds: Asia, Europe, the long tip of Patagonia. I thought that maybe I would join the Navy once I graduated — the branch of the military that had the least to do with direct killing. The Navy would take me away.
I sometimes saw Trevor during lunch, sitting on the other side of the massive cafeteria, surrounded by boys who played games with cards and dice. He hadn’t grown much. Except for a faint mustache, he could still have passed for twelve.
How had I ever let such a tiny creature frighten me? He looked lonely, even surrounded by people. His eyes scanned the room like a dog let loose in an unfamiliar house.
One morning during my senior year, an announcement came over the loudspeaker while I was in shop. The teacher had us stop our saws and hammers and lathes; we stood and listened in the silence of the big machines.
Everyone report to the gym for an emergency address.
The entire student body crowded the gym, standing shoulder to shoulder — no time to assemble chairs — while the principal gave a speech.
“There has been a terrible accident in New York City,” he murmured into the microphone — this short man with a comb-over, his voice thin even at the best of times. “You should all go home and be with your families.”
Due to some obscure emergency procedure, we all had to wait for our parents to pick us up from school that day, and my mother was late. Once the rest of the students had filtered out through the main doors of the auditorium, confused in their parents’ arms, my homeroom teacher took pity on me and walked me to the A/V room.
There were only ten or so students there, the television trained to a news program, the video loop of planes crashing, over and over. Trevor was there too, sitting in the front row. I didn’t know anyone else in the room, so I sat down next to him.
Trevor turned to look at me. I could tell from his expression that he was afraid, and that seeing me in the seat next to him was a comfort. I was surprised to see Trevor frightened. I’d heard his father had died the year before — fallen drunk off the observation tower at Oyster Point — but I hadn’t sought him out to offer sympathy. Maybe I’d been wrong all these years, ignoring him, insulting him, kicking him in the ribs. Maybe he had feelings after all.
Trevor leaned in and whispered. “Promise me that if something happens to me, you’ll look out for the town,” he said, as if no time had passed since we last spoke about his tiny city.
“I’ll try,” I said.
Was he manipulating me, the same way he’d manipulated me to get access to my house, back when I was young and vulnerable? I told myself it didn’t matter. Here was my chance to redeem myself and show some kindness.
He grabbed my arm, hard. “Promise, Eddie. You’re the only one I can trust.”
“I still have so much work to do,” he whispered.
My mother arrived to take me home, hurrying me on with a hand against my back. She always moved blindly forward, as if through constant motion you could outrun the fate that was gaining on you. “Hurry up,” she whispered. “The twins are waiting in the car.”
There was no time to consider what Trevor had told me. What did he mean, he had more work to do? How much could his little city grow, trapped in the basement? I’d promised to be the steward of something I didn’t fully understand.
After the national tragedy, my mother decided to run. By this time, my father was out of Woodbury, living with his mother in the northern part of the state. We were told we’d have a chance to visit, once he was feeling like himself again — but by then I’d more or less forgotten what that meant. There was nothing tethering us to Elverton anymore. That March she made plans to sell our house on Craydon Street and move to Pennsylvania. She’d had enough.
“Why now?” I asked her, by which I meant: Why not before?
“The twins’ll be going to high school in September,” she told me. “It’ll be natural. If they stay here, they’ll be feral by Christmas.”
“Who cares about the twins?” I asked, by which I meant: Who cares about me?
I went to the school recruiter in the spirit of revenge. Now that I was eighteen, I didn’t need my mother’s permission. I asked him what I needed to join the Navy, and he helped me fill out all the paperwork. The country was going to war; there was a need.
When I told my mother about my decision — in late May, just before my graduation — she put her face in her hands and wept. The twins were in the living room, watching television and throwing things at the walls. They were the same age as I’d been when we moved to Elverton. What a force of nature they’d become! They tore up shrubs and flowers and dented the side of our family’s shed with baseball bats.
“You too, Eddie?” she asked. “But you’re the good one.”
In the other room the twins were shouting at a cop show: kill him, kill him, kill him. My poor mother’s face was stripped of pride. She’d taken up smoking to relieve her stress, and she had fine lines everywhere. This town had dragged her down.
My mother sold the place quickly; our move-out date was the end of June. I was expected to report for duty the first of July, but I had time to help her clean out the house. For days we labored, clearing out our history. My mother had sold whatever she could spare, but certain things remained: silverware, paintings, beautiful earthenware lamps — a few things kept clean and whole.
By the fourth day, the place was husked. Craydon Street was quieter than ever; all the Ullman boys were grown and had moved away. The nuclear plant was closing down, a casualty of failed inspections. Yet when I went outside to sneak a smoke, I saw that the world was dappled with light, the lawn a riot of magnolia bloom, those full and rotting flowers. The air held the seminal smell of dogwood, and the clovered grass of Trevor’s lawn bristled with green. I knew he was down there, under the earth, fixing us all into position.
My mother joined me. “When’s your bus?” she asked. “The twins want to go to Watertown for Chinese.”
“Eight,” I said. “But I have some business to take care of first.”
My mother nodded, wiping her dusty hands on her jeans. We were long past expecting justification for each other’s behavior.
I crossed Craydon Street and knocked on Trevor’s door. No one answered. I tried the handle, and the door swung open. I hesitated at the threshold, but only for a second. This was my last chance. Even if Trevor wasn’t home, I was going to see what I’d come to see.
I don’t know how Trevor and his mother lived in that empty place. I can only assume they’d sold most of their possessions, whether out of financial pressure or to pay for Trevor’s materials. The coffee table, the piano, even the twin muskrats that used to fight on top of it, were all gone, and in their place, Trevor’s magnificent city.
It was all aboveground now. Most of the houses were as tall as my knee, and some of the larger ones — the school, the fire department engine house — went all the way up to my waist. Each one was built from thousands of tiny bricks pressed together, the thin seams between them invisible to the naked eye. He had copied every windowsill, every balustrade, every piece of cracked and crippled molding, and instead of worrying over the colors of the blocks, he’d simply painted them, like any house, each shade a perfect copy of the source material. He’d even chipped the paint in places and faded it in others, mimicking the sun.
The model didn’t depict the town as it was now, of course, but as it was at a single moment in the past, when we were thirteen: Market, Bacon’s, Craydon, Ridgeway. A snapshot of the year 1997 — a fall afternoon, soundless and still.
Trevor appeared in the dining room doorway. His thin mustache didn’t make him look any older. He spoke as if he’d been telling the same story, with brief interruptions, for as long as we’d known each other.
“What do you think? I’m almost finished.”
“My mom’s moving away,” I said.
He didn’t seem to have heard me. He gestured to the town. “Do you like it? It’s close, you know. Very close.”
“Where’s your mom, Trevor?” I asked. “Where do you eat?”
“She’s sick,” he spat. “I have to take care of her. I barely have any time to build. If it wasn’t for her, I’d have been done a long time ago.” He motioned to the tiny Craydon Street that split the carpet. “Go ahead. Take a walk.”
I walked the path I had once taken with my fingers, counting off the buildings — one, two, three — until I got to eleven and saw it on the right, my empty house. The kitchen where my father fell from the table and babbled “savages”; the living room where the twins threw sticks at the television; the tiny bedroom where I once pulled on my penis in trembling silence — all the rooms stripped bare.
I’d barely been able to keep myself under control for four days, shuttling boxes. This doesn’t matter, I’d told myself. The minute you’re out of here it’ll begin to fade. Years will go by, and you won’t think about it more than once or twice. Just a few years of your life. Just your childhood. Just the place you come from.
I thought about breaking open the dollhouse with my foot, but instead I started crying.
There it was, all that evidence: my life, without me in it.
Trevor watched me silently until I finished crying. “But what do you think, Eddie?” he asked, urgently. “You’re the only one who can tell me if it’s perfect.”
My eyes were red and raw. “Good-bye, Trevor,” I said, and walked out the door.
It’s been five years since I’ve been back to Elverton. I live with the gray ocean, the choked whine of engines as planes take the tarmac and idle in their own smoke, the prison-quality meat they squeeze from a tube. A life of compression, its meaning squeezed into acronyms: DSG, LPOD, OOD.
The one good thing is the constant motion. It takes hundreds of men, moving in tandem, just to drive this metal carrier forward. Nobody turns his eyes to the wake. So when they asked me to go see my father, my mother, my brothers, I could say: my country needs me. I could face forward, toward the future.
Until this week, when I was back on leave, spending my Friday watching Animal Planet in my half-furnished apartment in Tacoma, and I got a call from a man with an official-sounding voice.
He asked if my name was Edward Monroe, as if it were written on a card.
I said it was.
Now this is going to sound odd, he said.
It was a lawyer, put in charge of the personal effects of one Trevor Harrison, and I can’t say I was completely surprised by what he had to say — that Trevor had hung himself in the kitchen of his house, his mother long dead; that he’d buried her body himself and used her social security checks to buy more materials for building. The last, at least, was a surprise, although I’d always known he’d spare no expense for his masterpiece.
“Why are you telling me all this?” I asked, making my voice hard. “What does it have to do with me?” The man was clearly out of his element. “He wanted you to have that . . .” The man hesitated over the word. “That thing he built. He was very specific.”
I said I’d be down on Monday.
It’s Monday now.
I thought at first I’d make my mother do it. She still lives in Pennsylvania, so she’s closer, and anyway the whole thing was more her fault than mine, how our family was wrecked on the rocks of that little town.
But no. Trevor is my responsibility. I made a promise.
I think I know what to do. I’ll make the trip tonight, once the sun sets. I’ll cross the bay on the bridge past Wilmington, get some gasoline at the Sunoco station near Watertown, and then I’ll rocket through the marshland, windows down, smelling the rotting gingko berries. I’ll park a-ways from Trevor’s, so no one will see my car.
I don’t know what I’ll find when I open up that dusty house. Maybe the town will have grown still higher, buildings tall as my chest, straining against the walls, houses inside houses. It doesn’t matter. The only question is how to put an end to it. I could pour gasoline across the floor, trailing a little bit through the screen door, and drop a match — if not for the neighbors. Who knows? I’m sure the story of Trevor has gotten out by now, and maybe they’re as frightened of that tiny city as I am.
But most likely I’ll do what I’ve always done and use my hands, though it’s hard to imagine myself standing over our town like a movie monster, ripping it apart. Maybe this was always Trevor’s plan for me, his dare. He was right, I’m no builder — but I can break things down.