Geoff Wyss’s book of stories, How, won the Ohio State University Prize in Short Fiction. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Image, Ecotone, Tin House, and others and has been reprinted in New Stories from the South and the Bedford Introduction to Literature. He teaches and lives in New Orleans.
The Fields of Phlegethon
Jacob’s grandfather was supposed to be some kind of great writer, but a lot of good it had ever done anyone. The only thing the old man had left behind was the brokeback shotgun house Jacob had been living in for the last month, this junk house in its junk neighborhood. But if you said that out loud, his mom got upset. Grandpa wasn’t that kind of writer. Grandpa wrote literature. That meant books for English teachers. Jacob’s teachers had always looked up from their rosters on the first day of school and asked, through their nervous, hot smiles: Are you related to John-Karl Flowers? If anybody besides English teachers had read John-Karl Flowers’s books, the old man could’ve made the mortgage on the mansion he bought after the award instead of being six months behind when he fell down the stairs and broke his neck. There would have at least been enough money to fix up this shotgun. It was in such disrepair that his mom hadn’t even been renting it out anymore. Still, she probably wouldn’t be thrilled to know that Jacob was knocking holes in the walls with a hammer.
Some swings went straight through the drywall with a dark little pop, but most crushed up against something hard behind. The rooms the old man had not redone were a renter’s brown Jacob thought of as sewer foam; the ones he had, like this one, were painted gaudy, clashing colors like an old lady’s make-up. Here in the bedroom, the walls were midnight blue, sky blue above the picture molding. The molding was metallic silver. The living room was Pepto Bismol pink, the kitchen bright orange. The old man had made himself a clown house and then abandoned it for black people to mistreat. You could still catch the smell of black hair products clinging to the walls. But now you could also smell the smell behind the walls, a dusty, sweet wood smell where possibly Jacob’s grandfather had hidden the rough drafts of The Fields of Phlegethon.
O’Day was outside on the corner.
What’s behind these walls, O’Day?
O’Day squinted up the steps and came in to look at the hammer holes.
Oh, that’s your bargeboard, Jacob.
O’Day’s voice filled the corners of the room. There were no r’s in the way he pronounced bargeboard.
It’s not studs?
Oh, no, you not going to have studs. Studs behind. These houses all bargeboard.
Jacob couldn’t imagine what that meant.
How do you get the drywall off?
You need a crowbar.
O’Day went to his house to get one. The hammer was O’Day’s too.
O’Day had come to the door three days ago asking to cut the grass. When Jacob finally convinced him that he had no money, O’Day had sat on the stoop and told Jacob about the neighborhood: so-and-so lives there, he’s a postman; so-and-so used to live in that house until she got Alzheimer’s. Behind that green fence there, fellow’s got four boats. O’Day’s nose was a shiny bulb attached to his face. Each white whisker looked individually inserted into the oilblack of his jaw. O’Day was maybe how you spelled his name, or maybe it was something more African.
O’Day came back with two crowbars and a canvas tarp he tucked against the baseboards to protect the floor.
If you want to work for a while, I can owe you, Jacob said.
An hour in, with three of the walls gone and his mind dumbed down into the sounds and sensations, Jacob realized there was nothing hidden inside the walls. The bargeboards were long dark planks as wide as his forearm nailed along the length of the room with ancient black nails, more massive than any piece of wood Jacob had imagined could be inside a house. Even if an old writer living alone could have pried one loose, there was only the most narrow space behind, no room to stash the draft of a five-hundred-page novel. The places where Jacob’s hammer had punched through were the gaps between the bargeboards. On the wall where O’Day was working, you could look straight through those gaps to the weatherboards, sunlight leaking through the warps. Jacob laid down the crowbar. There was the visible part of houses that got trimmed and painted and pretended it had nothing to do with these big, rough bones, and then there was—the real part, he wanted to call it, the part that touched dirt and air and admitted what it was, two pieces of tree fastened together to keep the rain out. It felt like an important idea revealing itself to him. He would have O’Day come back with a ladder for the upper parts of the wall; for now, they tossed drywall shards out onto the sidewalk, the noon light filling everything and spilling back out, the air more with a weight than a temperature. Jacob showered and changed his shirt for the drive out to his mom’s. It was Christmas Day.
His brothers started ostracizing him as soon as he walked in. They didn’t care about being obvious about it because they thought it was their job to keep Jacob away from their kids. The kids always ran off somewhere with their phones anyway.
Peter retold his sons’ soccer season in all the inch-by-inch details. Jacob made himself pay attention for a while, then he gave up and turned on the TV.
No, Jacob, his mom said. Please? We’re talking.
Jacob killed the TV and tossed the remote.
Are you still living in Grandad’s house? Peter said, looking at Jacob for the first time in an hour. Peter was the oldest of the three brothers. Taking on the duty of being the one to talk to Jacob.
The rat hole, Jacob said.
This kind of was, kind of wasn’t how Jacob felt—the house was a hole, but he didn’t mind that it was. Mostly he wanted to take a swipe at that Grandad.
A great deal of artistic endeavor took place in that house, Jacob, Peter said. One of America’s great authors walked the floors you are now walking.
Peter was twelve years older than Jacob and had been the president of his class at Bevolo Jesuit and still wore his school ring, and you were never going to get past him in a conversation because he could say things like artistic endeavor and believe them, or make everyone believe that he believed them. Peter had a different father than Jacob and a different idea of himself, which you could see in everything from his haircut to the clothes his kids wore. The only enjoyment Jacob ever got around him was from being a dick to cause him that distress.
Yeah, and he got out as soon as he fucking could.
Always so disrespectful, Peter said to the room.
When was the last time you were in that house? Jacob said. He could feel his face getting warm.
What could that possibly matter, Jacob.
You’ve never been in that house, Jacob said, knowing it was true as he said it.
Certainly I have.
The certainly told you he was lying. The old man had divorced Jacob’s grandmother and bought the house and lived in it alone and gotten weird about leaving it or letting anyone in; the reason Jacob called John-Karl Flowers old man instead of Grandpa was that Jacob had only ever seen him a few times and could not remember speaking to him. At Jacob’s eighth-grade graduation party, the old man had sat in the corner—in this very room—making everyone uncomfortable with his bald silence and then snuck away to his car when they thought he had gone to the bathroom.
Bullshit, Peter. You wouldn’t even drive through that neighborhood.
Merry Christmas, everyone, Peter said. Jacob and his holiday cheer.
Jacob was putting his glass in the sink when his mother found and hugged him. She was where his fat came from.
Are you staying for food? she said, knowing he wasn’t.
I’ve got to get back.
Peter didn’t mean anything by it.
Jacob didn’t mind who he was, but he would have liked to give his mom something better in return for her hope. She was the only person he ever felt like explaining himself to.
When he got back to the house and saw what he had done that morning, it scared him—the mound of drywall on the sidewalk, the stripped wreck of the bedroom. He felt sorry, sorry for himself and sorry for the house. That first hammer-swing had doomed him to this and to all the time it would take to put things back together. But the having-done was his. The definiteness of the act belonged to him. He lined the tools up on the tarp and stood in the center of the room. The room was his now.
He was at Lowe’s when it opened the next morning. Christmas had fallen on Sunday, and he had Mondays and Tuesdays off, so he had two full days to work. He wanted to see the bedroom stripped to its clean beginning. He climbed the ladder with his new gloves and crowbar. Then he did find something. In a high corner, written onto the dark of the bargeboard with the shinier dark of a carpenter’s pencil, was a measurement, 27½, and beneath that a phrase: the river’s distant klaxon. The ladder stopped its creaking beneath him. The old man, the writer, had written that. John-Karl Flowers had stood in this spot on his own ladder and written in lowercase print a phrase that came to him. Jacob looked up klaxon on his phone and then glowed the phone’s light around the bargeboard, but there was only the one phrase. The idea that words could find a person on a ladder and demand to be written. How, if you were that person, the way to live was to stay in the quiet of your house and wait for the words.
Jacob opened the window and leaned out into the breeze.
You know a lot about houses, O’Day.
If you wanted to hide something in a house, where would you do it?
No, I mean in the house. Jacob stepped out onto the sidewalk and shook open a contractor’s bag. O’Day pulled a pair of gloves from his back pocket.
This used to be my grandfather’s house, Jacob explained. He was a writer, and we think he might have hidden his writings somewhere.
You been up the attic?
Attic, Jacob said, aware that it existed only as he said it.
He looked at the drywall mound.
How much would be fair for bagging this up? Twenty bucks?
Oh, ten I should say.
Jacob walked the rooms looking at the ceilings and then opened the ladder under a hatch he hadn’t noticed before. He climbed but couldn’t make himself take the last two steps—they would bring his knees above the top of the ladder, where he would have to stand up free to reach the hatch. The air here near the ceiling felt turned upside down. The room below him looked like an exhibit. Then he braved the balance and stood and pushed through the hatch, hooking his arms into the dark, and for a moment this seemed all that was possible and enough. The silence of the attic was long and close and complete, outside the world. To get up into it, he would need to brace against the frame and swing his legs up and through, but how he would get back down wasn’t clear. He retreated down the ladder and went to the kitchen for a flashlight and this time scaled the rungs and stood up into the hatch and kept stepping until his feet lifted away and flew him into the attic’s upperworld.
His idea of attic was all wrong. Not tennis racquets and yearbooks and gold light through a window, but electrical wires tangling away into the dark, discards of snipped metal, copper pipes throwing midair elbows, bottomless-looking drifts of gray insulation. He was frozen on his platform of plywood: How to know what could be touched, what could be stepped on, what was solid and what would crumble beneath him? What did any of it do, and who had put it here? Jacob was afraid. That was true. But that’s all it was, and thinking it allowed him to stand and take hold of a rib of roof. Moving in this world was difficult enough that the moving was the goal. The next footfall was where the foot you put forward found it. Six slow steps brought him up against the cubes of the central heating and its wormwork of ducts. Someone had been on the other side—there were more wires flinging their menace, a fan spinning against a circle of sky—but it might as well have been another continent for all Jacob could see how to get there, as dust-dim and inaccessible as a photograph of another time. In the end, lowering his feet back to the ladder, he saw that he had only traveled a few feet in any direction from the hatch. But he also knew the attic would have him back. He stripped off the wet of his shirt and walked outside into the wind.
There’s nothing up there, he said.
No, I don’t imagine. O’Day’s forearms glistened above the gloves.
There was probably no use ripping into more walls, but Jacob owned a crowbar and gloves, so he set the ladder up in the office and asked, Is that droppy-down part original?
Soffit, O’Day said, looking up doubtfully.
My mom says the old man never threw anything away, Jacob said, stepping up, up, and driving his hammer through the drywall face. The walls in this room were splotched Caribbean colors, aqua blue and flamingo. O’Day knelt below, filling bags as Jacob dropped drywall to the floor of this room into which he had never moved furniture.
All right, O’Day finally said, pairing his gloves and whacking his thigh. O’Day was sixty, sixty-five, and his body was done for the day; his eyes had that faraway sting. Jacob gave him the forty dollars he had taken from the ATM and also tried to give him his ladder back, but O’Day waved it off and said he would come for it tomorrow.
Jacob walked to work for lunch. Walked through his neighborhood. Twice in three blocks, black men of a certain age gave him an All right, delivered with two bumps in it as if he had asked how they were. The women said Good morning or Good afternoon. Below a certain age, they ignored him, male and female. African-American made them sound like another species. Jacob had had black classmates in high school, but so few at Jesuit that they were like pets. Jacob was in his neighborhood but not of it. It saw but didn’t see him. The suburbs saw everything and stuck it on you. This neighborhood had stopped caring what he did before he got here.
Gay Rob was working the deli and gave Jacob an extra wing. Jacob grabbed a Coke at the register and was on his way out when he saw Teresa taking her break outside on the curb. He sat down on the side where her cigarette wasn’t blowing.
Lot of douchebags today?
It’s been all right, she said in her accent. She was from somewhere out in the real South.
Wing? Ol’ Rob gave me an extra.
That’s nice, she said, not moving her hands from where they were crossed on her knees. She had stubby doll’s fingers and a small, flat face and an unbothered way of doing things that was either her DNA or because she was over thirty and done stressing over the little stuff. Jacob wanted to rescue her from something that didn’t exist and that he couldn’t imagine.
What are you doing here on your day off? she said.
Too busy to make lunch. There was dust on his forearms if she cared to look. I’m tearing out some walls.
Now she did look, more or less, through the sun.
You know how to do all that kind of stuff?
When her eyes hazed back out into the generality of the parking lot, he said, I’ve got a guy working for me. We’re taking a couple rooms down to the bargeboard. It’s the house my grandad lived in. You may have heard of him, Jon-Karl Flowers? He won the National Book Award for a novel by the name of The Fields of Phlegethon. Tulane would pay a million bucks for the rough drafts if they could get their hands on them.
Well, how about that, she said to the smoke in her squint.
The problem, Jacob thought as he walked home, was how to make yourself real to other people. How to make yourself real to yourself.
In The Fields of Phlegethon, a woman named Bea—dumb name—went to Colombia and got kidnapped by a cocaine army, a junta or whatever. This was what everyone knew about the book and all Jacob knew because when his senior English teacher had assigned it, Jacob didn’t buy the book, just as he hadn’t bought any of the assigned books that year but also because he knew how delicious the disappointment on his teacher’s face would be. You could say he had wasted an opportunity by not trying at Bevolo or during his one semester at LSU. That was a statement of fact. But Bevolo and LSU were not ideas he had had for himself; they were other people’s ideas he had lived in for a while. Bevolo was good for teaching you how to stand in line and kiss ass. There had been just enough fear left in him to send him off to LSU, but he had quickly seen that wherever it was the other students were headed with their backpacks and laughter wasn’t where he was going. But where he was going with this styrofoam container of bones in his hand, he had no idea.
The next morning, O’Day was sitting on the front steps with a coffee from the corner store. The sun was shining all over his white shirt.
Do you remember anything about my grandpa, O’Day? Bald guy, kind of small?
Can’t say as I do, O’Day said to the sidewalk, not wanting to say whatever he was thinking.
What did you do before you retired, O’Day?
Jacob could feel that retired was the wrong word as he said it, but O’Day lifted his ballcap and ran a hand under it, as if to unwrinkle his thoughts, and said, Went to classes for electric. Done lots of things.
I can probably give you twenty bucks’ more worth of work. Would that be about two hours?
Oh, I should say.
They finished the office, which felt restored to itself without its gobs of color, simplified so you could see what it was. A finished house was a collection of mistakes. Next the living room, the picture molding and the walls behind, the ceiling fans and the ceiling, shafts of uninterrupted air loosed straight up to the rafters. Then the kitchen and bathrooms, the tile and countertops and everything all the way down to the nothing of the plumbing. Jacob unbuilt the house in imagination, opening and erasing its secrets, undoing its doneness. The roofing and roof, opening the attic to a scouring light. The bargeboards, the studs behind them, the floors, whatever held up the floors, and at the end a bulldozer for whatever still stood. But even after the dumpsters had been hauled away, when O’Day was sweeping the last bits into a dustpan, Jacob would still be sitting there in the dirt, locked inside the stupid white-boy name they had given him.