The Building of Quality

C. M. Mayo

The average citizen—who went to school in a building modeled on a shoe factory, who works in a suburban office park, who lives in a raised ranch house, who vacations in Las Vegas—would not recognize a building of quality if a tornado dropped it in his yard.

James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere

The deadness in the air. The obscene smell of torn earth. In the Smiths’ front yard the oak had heaved over, its roots, like hag’s hair, scraggled across the sidewalk. The lamp post had been snapped in half, like a pencil. Glass sparkled on the asphalt of the driveway and a green tricycle had launched itself into what was left of the elm and the lid of

— was that a washing machine?

“Shit,” John said. “Shit. Shit.” He clenched shut his eyes, and when he opened them again he said, “Shit.”

His wife Jane clutched at her bathrobe. She felt sick—exactly the way she had that ghastly day, eleven years ago, when she was fired as the hostess at the Red Lobster out by the Wal-Mart, and not for anything she’d done or not done or said or even dared to consider—it had come smack out of the blue: the wrath of Bob Haskins. Jane bit her lip so hard it bled. And then she swallowed.

“You check the backyard,” she said to John because she’d grabbed the phone which, unlike their wide-screen Sony TV, was still in the wall. 9-1-1, she punched the numbers with her thumb, then, on hold, she drummed her fingernails against the Formica just as lickety-split as she could type in data (patient records for the ABC Medical Group).

John, who—strange is fate—had Bob Haskins’ job managing what was now a Pizza Hut, and no matter how he might yell at the kids who sloppily slapped the dough around and forgot to mop up the men’s room, always, numbly did as he was told, pushed open the screen door. It flew off its hinge and into—klelk-k—the Parkers’ legless Ping-Pong table.

Jane slammed down the phone and came running. What she saw from the back door was their $3,659 deck smashed into matchsticks, scattered all down the hill to the highway. The hedge had been blown away and now they could see the cars speeding by, tiny and bright as pellets of chewing gum, zoom, zoom, as if the terror they had been through had never happened, zoom, or ever would happen again, ever.

Zoom.

Under the razor-sharp sky was this: Shining, droning indifference.

Jane slapped herself on the cheek—“What in thundernation?” She gasped because there—at the bottom of their backyard where the gas grill they’d bought at Home Depot for $499 had been parked—was a building!

“Could that maybe be some class of toolshed?” She wondered.

John said, “Looks kinda like a kids’ playhouse.”

Jane said, “Or a muffin.” (Because of its dome).

It had an egg-shaped window over its door and a window on either side so that the front seemed a face staring back at them with a most peculiarly perplexing question.

John scratched at the back of his neck and said, “Dunno.” (He had a kind of creepy feeling about it.) He said to Jane, as if she were privy to some secret and undoubtedly feminine knowledge that he was not: “Anybody in there?”

Making her hands into a bullhorn Jane called out, “Yoo hoooo!”

In the far distance (past the Parkers’ house) there came back the tinny sound—woven in with the highway’s—of the Delanos’ Rottweiler frantically barking.

Jane marched down the slope, and rapped the door with her knuckle.

“Solid,” she said. “You go in first.”

John did as he was told.

The interior was the white of pastry cream. On its floor it had tiles laid out in checkerboard; the black ones shone like onyx mirrors. Above rose the dome, dove-gray and suffused with a mysterious and delicate light. The floor space was too small to dance in, but large enough for a sofa-bed, Jane thought—not that it had one.

Standing in the middle of it, John clapped and it echoed: (clap)

Clap! (clap)

Clap! (clap)

“Cut it out, will you?” Jane said, and then, touching the door’s hinge: “The fixtures, they’re kind of old-timey.”

Its walls were bare but for a drawer built into one side. The knob was shaped like a frog and Jane wondered, could it be solid brass? John tried to unscrew it, but it was stuck.

Inside the drawer—Jane leaned down and felt around—there was only a stain shaped like a pig that looked like a spill of Coca-Cola.

Then John noticed the mahogany moldings, all carved with acanthus leaves and roses. He said, “Wiggy,” which was something he’d picked up from the kids at Pizza Hut.

Other than a little dust, a few acorns and leaves and a spider curled up dead in the corner, the whole of it was as clean as a baby’s soul.

“Shit,” John said and he pointed out the window at their own house. The vinyl siding—the vinyl siding that had cost them $1,850 and that they’d been paying for at $69.99 a month since last January—had been shorn clean off.

Jane, she couldn’t help it, she burst into tears. “Hold me,” she said.

John held her.

The wonderful thing about this peculiar little muffin of a building—and already, in the three days it had sat in their backyard, the Smiths had come to think of it as “theirs”—was that it made them forget every now and then for a few minutes the heartbreak of all they had lost:

$3,659 hardwood deck
$999 wide-screen Sony TV
$399 a month Chevy SUV
$299 Ping-Pong table (completely blown away; that legless one in the backyard belonged to the Parkers)
$499 gas grill (nowhere to be seen)
$1,859 vinyl siding
screen door busted off its hinges
the hedges
the elm
that leafy old oak the squirrels used to make their nests in

The insurance-claim list (Jane had typed it) went on for three pages, single-spaced.

“You forgot the lawn stuff—the deer and the light-up elf,” John said when he read it, and at that, Jane dropped her head in her hands.

When the insurance man put everything back into his briefcase, he said, “Our Lord was looking out for you two. The way it’s constructed, you’re lucky as spit your house is still on its foundation.” His crew-cut was like brush-bristles. He clipped his pen into the pocket of his shirt and turned to the door to go—but Jane wanted to know:

“Who’s going to pay to have that building in the backyard hauled outta here?”

The insurance man, keeping his hand on the doorknob, twisted his mouth. “That’s the oh, ten-thousand-dollar question, I’d say. First someone’s got to claim it, don’t they?”

John chuckled. “Here, little building,” he said. “Here, little building.”

The insurance man kept a straight face. “I’ve seen stranger,” he said. “Parkers down your block? There’s a Safeway shopping cart in their swimming pool.”

“Wiggy,” John said, because the Safeway was six miles clear on the other side of the highway.

Jane said nothing because she knew Patty Parker had swiped that Safeway cart six months ago and kept it in her side yard by the trash cans.

“Well,” said the insurance man already a foot down the front steps, “It’s like Our Lord puts His world in the blender and every once in a while, He lets Satan push the button.”

“Whatever,” Jane said rudely. (She hated it when people started up with this fire and brimstone stuff.) “I want that building off of our property and I don’t want to pay one red cent for it.”

Just thinking about it, her throat felt tight.

Just thinking about it, John felt a clenched fist in his gut.

They watched the insurance man’s red Honda disappear down the street.

Then they microwaved some White Castle hamburgers and, because the TV was busted, they drove out to the mall to see a movie starring Julia Roberts.

The next day, the neighbors came to see the little building in the backyard. They had their own troubles; mostly they talked about those. Patty Parker, for instance, got the insurance company to pay for a tow-truck to pull the Safeway cart out of her swimming pool. Shelly Farmer—not a shingle had been loosened on her roof—allowed that the building was kind of pretty. Rudy Delano (he was one of those who left his dog chained up in the sun and just let it bark all day) crossed his arms and said, “Seriously weird. It’s a tomb or something. Didya check that drawer for ashes?” He left muddy boot prints all crisscrossed in a mess.

The day after that Jane faxed a press release, but there was no spot on local TV. They put flyers up all along Route 3. Weeks went by. Jane called the insurance man; his secretary said he was on vacation in Las Vegas.

Patty Parker came by to borrow a cup of Crisco. She said, “Why doncha try selling it to that miniature golf course out on the highway? And by the way, you know it was your screen door that laid that scratch into our Ping-Pong table. We got the legs back on, but whenever the ball hits that scratch it bounces funny—” she flapped her hand—“like, bling!”

Ah feel ya pain,” John said, in his best Bill Clinton drawl, and then he laughed and went on channel surfing on his new wide-screen Panasonic TV.

When the insurance man came back from vacation, he did not return Jane’s calls.

Out of spite, she considered telling John to just tear it down. But would that even be possible? she wondered. The little building seemed to be made of something as solid and sober as the moon: it looked bluish in the dawn, and then with the early sun, tinged gold, as if it might be warm to the touch. Zoom, the sun seemed to rise with the sounds of the cars racing by on the highway, zoom, zoom, higher into the sky, and just before Jane had to leave for work, from the back door, she could see the little building’s big-shouldered shadow begin to pull into itself.

(Inside of it, with the door shut, you could hear nothing but your own breathing and the rush of your own heart.)

As for their own two-story split-level ranch-style tract house, nails went into the walls easy as thumbtacks. The doors swung out light as feathers, pm-m-m into their Home Depot rubber stoppers. The plasterboard walls were so thin that in the den, you could hear whatever embarrassing thing was going on in the bathroom, and in the bathroom, you could hear someone talking on the phone in the kitchen. The kitchen counters were the ones the builder put in, a yucky avocado-green, already streaked and pocked with burn marks. The air conditioning unit hung out of the front bedroom like the back end of a jackass, said Doug.

But what did Doug know? Doug was Jane’s little brother, a Fed Ex truck driver who lived in Florida in a sweaty little condo that looked like a shoe factory. Doug called their house a McMansion. Obviously, he was just jealous.

Somehow her little building—the way it was so different?—reminded Jane of England, where her Grandma Tuttle had taken her the summer after high school. Though it was not at all like the buildings she took pictures of there. Such as Shakespeare’s thatch-roofed house. From behind the rope she had peered into his dim little bedroom and marveled at how low its ceiling was, the timbered walls so primitive. In the gift shop Grandma Tuttle bought her a T-shirt with a swan on it and four postcards she forgot to send. They’d been herded through Blenheim, too, beneath its soaring ceilings, crisp ice-pale blues and baby pinks, everything huger than a dream and NO TOUCHING fine. A few years ago in People magazine, she’d read that Sylvester Stallone got married there. Jane admired Sylvester because her own secret daydream was to be a screenwriter.

Years ago, when she was working as the hostess at Red Lobster, she had gotten this idea for a screenplay. It was based on a true story (and aren’t those the ones that always sell?). Just three days after New Year’s, at four in the morning, a meteor had landed on their neighbor’s toolshed. It sounded like a truck had slammed into a brick wall. The dogs began to bark—Davy Frank’s cocker spaniel, Mr. Murphy’s poodle, the Lemmons’ arthritic and half-deaf dachshund (though not her own cockapoodle, Spot, who had cowered moaning and trembling like Jell-O beneath the blankets).

What had happened to everyone afterwards? That was her idea. Where did Mr. Lemmon go after he bought that power boat and—just as Mom predicted—dumped his wife, Thelma, for Mrs. Murphy?

Arizona? Oregon?

Davy Frank died in the ’68 Tet Offensive when both his legs got blown off at the hips. It was true he had teased poor Spot with his Hula-Hoop and once he tried to make Doug (who was eleven) shoplift an Eskimo Pie. Still (secretly) Jane had a crush on Davy.

She’d never written her screenplay. But these many years later, married to John Smith, who was fading to gray at the temples, getting a gut as the manager of the Pizza Hut, Jane often found herself thinking of Davy, his James Dean hair, his slack, nasty smile that even then seemed to know the evil that would be his fate. And now, in the half hour after work and before sundown (when she used to watch TV), she would go into her little building alone to sit on the floor, to just think, do some breathing exercises. It seemed to her sometimes that his spirit, a vague coldness, was hovering behind her shoulder whispering something—something she tried to, but could not quite, understand.

After three months had passed and no one had claimed their building, John continued to mow around it. Jane said they might consider putting up trellises on its sides for tiny roses, wouldn’t that look nice? John thought he might use the building for an art studio, but what he said was, they should use it to store all that crap they had in the garage. Make more room for the cars. Let him set up a couple of sawhorses and a plank. Work with his power tools.

Jane said, “But it could be a guest room for Doug.”

“Nah,” John said. “We’ve got that fold-out couch. Doug’ll just hafta be a fancy pants and sleep in our McMansion.”

That made Jane chuckle.

He used his electric drill to nail up the trellises. And then one Sunday when Jane was out at the mall, he hauled in from the garage those boxes of old clothes and textbooks and broken answering machines and dead radios, and that Veg-O-Matic gizmo Doug gave them for their wedding that never worked, and some of the rusted lawn furniture, too, which scratched hell into the tiles on the floor. Seeing it all piled in there, John wiped his brow on his sleeve and laughed at himself.

Art studio?

Whatever had made him think he was artistically inclined?

True, he used to be able to play “The House of the Rising Sun” on the electric guitar. But there was something wrong with its wiring and one day—he was in Davy Frank’s garage practicing chords—it gave him such a ghastly shock, it singed the pads of his fingers. He didn’t feel right after that for about three days.

“Heavy,” was what Davy said. Had he been alive today he would have said, “You suck.”

When John was little, his Mom liked to ask him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

His brother Joe wanted to be a pilot (and ended up in jail for dealing dope). His sister Jill said she would be the “bestest” nurse (and ended up an anesthesiologist who drives a Lexus).

John said—because he was only five and he really liked playing with his Play-Doh—he wanted to be a sculptor!

“Hah,” Mom said. “Being an artist, that’s no way to feed a family.”

From the depths of his La-Z-Boy Dad said, “What, is my son some kind of poof?”

“OK, fireman,” John said. “I wanna be a fireman!”

“That’s nice,” Mom said.

Though John did not want to be a fireman. He thought they looked dumb in that stupid bucket of a helmet. Who would want to have to lug around a hose that looks like a python? And risk getting burned or killed. Or wet. Always tired. And so after graduating from the local state college with a perfect C average, he ended up managing the Pizza Hut that used to be the Red Lobster, married to the girl—so beautiful she was then— who got fired by Bob Haskins.

For their fifteenth anniversary, John wanted to go to Las Vegas. The travel agency had a package: four days, three nights, $599. They could see the Cirque du Soleil and those two German dudes with their albino tiger. But Jane had decided that since they’d had their honeymoon in Disneyland, they would visit the other coast: Washington, D. C.

John liked the Air & Space Museum best. He didn’t want to go to the Vietnam Memorial but Jane insisted. It was hot enough to melt plastic, and muggy. He had a blister on his heel. Compared to the heft of the Lincoln Monument, the cool spear of the Washington Monument, and there in the hazy distance, the imperial dome of the Capitol, the Vietnam Memorial was—John said what he’d read somewhere—a gash of shame.

It was bug-ugly, Jane agreed. But curious the way the black stone shone like a mirror.

She watched herself walking down the path, drawn along as if into the belly of the earth itself and John behind her, a silhouette of a baseball cap. When she started to read all the names she began to cry. (How would she ever find Davy Frank’s?)

She didn’t have the words for what she felt, only a blunt sense of dread and loss. She remembered how Mrs. Frank’s face looked on the day after she got her telegram. The Beatles on the radio so obscenely sunny, bopping, yeah yeah yeah. The insects’ sneering rattle, unseen in the trees.

She wanted to ask someone for help; there were so many people, all round-bottomed and round-bellied, drinking bottled water. It was like at Disneyland, but here no one was smiling and it was as quiet—other than the presidential helicopter that whoozzzed overhead—as a church.

Afterwards they walked along the reflecting pond and then through trees to another pond that mirrored an unusually solid-looking muffin-shaped cloud, and suddenly Jane thought of the gardens at Blenheim, the reflecting pools like these, so grand and pea-green delicate, the willow tree, the geese, a sound—where was it coming from?—of trickling water.

Five years later, Bob Haskins, who had been in jail for assaulting his ex-wife with a claw hammer, was back in town. He sauntered into Pizza Hut and ordered a LARGE with onions and bell peppers and three meats, and when he took out his wallet to pay, he sank to the floor, dead of a massive heart attack.

There was a strangely satisfying kind of closure in this, Jane told Doug when she phoned him in Florida. And it was a good example for John because he started to watch his weight, jog, eat more broccoli and fish.

She called Salvation Army, and from the building out back, had them haul away the boxes of old clothes and textbooks, all that rusted lawn furniture. (The leg of the chaise left a gouge in the door that Jane fixed with a brown Magic Marker.)

Jane had grown so fond of their little building, the way it was bloomed over with climbing peppermint-pink roses every spring. And now that it was cleared out again, and she’d mopped the scratched and stained floor so she could sit on it, she sat on it, Indian-style with her hands palm-up on each knee. She raised her face to the light of its little dome, closed her eyes, and filled her lungs as she heard in her mind the voice of Julia Roberts: “It’s been twenty-seven years since our toolshed was hit by a meteor...”

She had an urge to rush to the computer and start typing, but instead she smiled, and stayed doing her breathing exercises.

They were both sixty-five when they decided to take their pensions and move to Florida to be near Doug and his kids. There was no one else left. When they put their house on the market, the real estate agent breezed through each room until, throwing open the back screen door, she said:

“What in thundernation— ?”

She had not known about the tornado (she’d moved here from Chicago only six years ago). Her name was Leeza Linsey and she featured herself prominently in her ads.

Leeza Linsey’s words came at them like punches: “Zoning doesn’t allow this. Violation of building codes. I can’t sell this property if you don’t remove it.”

Their insurance company had been merged with another insurance company which had been taken over in a leveraged buyout by a German venture capital fund and then merged with an offshore subsidiary of a financial conglomerate based in Japan (or maybe it was the Netherlands). Its name was something completely different now, the records were all in a warehouse in deepest New Jersey. And so, in the end, the Smiths had to pay to have it hauled away.

Jane paid the bill, and when she ripped the check out of her checkbook she said: “There goes our Las Vegas vacation.”

“Shit,” John said. “Shit, shit.” He clenched shut his eyes, and when he opened them again he said, “Shit.”

The demolition company sent a couple of Mexicans in hard hats. They had to use a wrecking ball and a jackhammer to break up the floor. All day long the dogs barked—the poodle next door, the three-legged spaniel, Patty Parker’s arthritic and mange-addled afghan, rufruf rrrruf! Neither Jane nor John knew the dogs’ names anymore.

When it was gone, their lawn had a gigantic bald spot.

“Our very own crop circle,” John said.

Jane elbowed him in the stomach. They both laughed. But then Jane
cried. She cried for her pretty little muffin house, and her friends
at the ABC Medical Group; she cried for Route 3, and the oak—
the new oak, taller than the second story already—the way
it would look in the fall, gold as if covered with coins. In Florida,
she would never see any of them again. “Hold me,” she
said.

John held her.

Then, because Jane told him to, John drove out to the Wal-Mart for
grass seed and a bag of fertilizer. On the way home, even though
he wasn’t hungry, he wolfed down a Whopper with bacon and
cheese. He stopped at the mall to throw out the bag and the balled-up
wrapper, so Jane wouldn’t find them.

In Florida, Doug’s kids told all their friends about Aunt
Jane and Uncle John’s muffin house. And then a few years later
they told their own children, and to prove it, showed them the yellowed
pictures in Aunt Jane’s photo album which she had left in
their house when, because of her Alzheimer’s, John put her
into the nursing home.

A generation later, when one branch of the family told the story,
the little building became the neighbor’s swimming pool cabaña.
In another, more distant branch, a gazebo.

Most couldn’t care less. The past, for them, had been shorn
away. It was moldy old school stuff, facts and dates like bitter
vitamin pills to be swallowed. ’Cuz.

None of them knew—Jane Smith herself did not know—that
they were the direct descendants of the elder brother of Lieutenant
Colonel Jared O’Higgins, a poet of the Appalachians who played
his own ballads on a dulcimer he had made with his own hands. Slender
girlish hands: he held in them a telegram for General William Tecumseh
Sherman, and because it was urgent he came running, his boots kicking
back dust. Ahead of him the General’s tent waited, wedding
white; it billowed and shuddered in the spring breeze. And just
as the General himself came out, his blue coat hanging open, a cigar
in his hand, a cannonball blew Jared O’Higgins’s head
off, clean at the neck. His body—just before it collapsed—
kneeled on the dirt before the General. It was such a sight to see,
so strange. The aide-de-camp, staring down at the boy’s body
(its blood had spurted onto the side of the tent and it was pooling
blackly into the earth), crossed himself violently. The General
clenched his jaw so hard it gave him a headache for the next three
days. But he was a hard-bitten warrior who had already paddled every
inch of war’s river of grisliness, its cruelty and its stupidity,
which are really the same thing. It was an accident: no Rebel was
anywhere nearby. No one told the Washington Star reporter
who was there that day. The General said nothing about it in his
memoirs.

Sharon Uwefu Wallis was the great-great-great-great-great-niece
who ended up with Jane Smith’s peeling and brittle photo album.
She treasured it but when she moved to London, out in the middle
of the calm Atlantic, the container it was packed in was swept overboard
by a freak wave. From the insurance company Sharon received a substantial
settlement: enough to scour London’s antique shops for whatever
she wanted, and decorator upholstery to boot.

“But for my antique photos?” She had aimed her voice
at the SVM (satellite-video monitor).

The insurance agent (whose office was in one of those sprawling
office parks on the moon) kindly reminded her that the contract
did not cover articles of a personal nature that had not been professionally
appraised.

The agent’s name was Richard Haskins, and yes, he was a direct
descendant of Robert “Bob” Haskins the serial killer,
who (it was discovered after his death from a heart attack in a
Pizza Hut) had buried thirteen women, including his neighbor Thelma
Lemmon and her dachshund, in the crawl-space beneath his back porch.

“That was a helluva wave,” Richard Haskins said too
loudly into the SVM. “If you’ll excuse my French. You’re
lucky the whole enchilada didn’t buy the farm.”

“Am I,” Sharon said rudely. (She hated it when people
attempted to manipulate her with fatuous and needlessly clashing
clichés.)

Soon afterwards, one day over tea with scones (and the most delicious
clotted cream), Sharon told her new friends about the freak wave
out in the middle of the perfectly calm Atlantic that had washed
overboard all of her living room furniture and a box that contained
her great-great-great-great-great-aunt’s photograph of a most
eccentric little domed building she’d had in her garden. It
looked like a popover. It had always seemed to her so incongruously
exquisite, a sort of architectural folly, a Masonic pavilion? Or
perhaps a personal library sans shelves. Whatever it was, a tornado
had dropped it into their garden, fully intact.

“Oh, you Americans,” Fiona Witherspoon said, and she
clucked her tongue. “A likely story!”

Work that appears on the KR web site is from The
Kenyon Review
and all applicable copyright restrictions apply.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter