A Brief History
Shortly before their baby was born, Wallace and Jean reluctantly decided they needed a bigger place. For the two years of their marriage, they had lived in a second-floor apartment near the college where they had met. Small and crowded as the apartment was, it had been home, even if recently there had been a vague, stagnant quality in its air.
They found a house less than half a mile away, still on the fringes of the college and acceptably modest. It had a fireplace, a large oak close to the house and a high hedge of azalea concealing it from their neighbors close on either side.
The little house swallowed up their furniture and for the first few days they had a sense of bareness and space and it echoed slightly. But this was all a matter of perspective and soon it was as crowded as their apartment had been.
Evenings in the late summer, Jean would look out over the sink into the backyard and see skinny Wallace standing almost dead center, beer in hand, looking contentedly around at the darkening greenery. She would smile and look at her hands wet from the washing after dinner and at her swollen belly. At least that was what Wallace imagined her doing.
Wallace, Jr. was born in October and, during the fall and early winter, Wallace kept a fire going. Sometimes he would lay out blankets and pillows and the three of them would sleep in front of it.
Wallace worked in one of the two tall buildings downtown. From his office on the sixteenth floor, where he shared a secretary with the three brokers, he could look out on the western view of the town which was, in fact, no longer a town but a small city. There was little to break the rolling suburban landscape except the red and white television tower and here and there a steeple. In the summer the hills were uniformly green but now he could see rows of pale neighborhoods for some distance before they disappeared into a mist of bare branches.
Winter was mild and spring came early. During the summer, from his office, he would watch the storm clouds build over the hills every afternoon and the silent lightning and, when the muffled rain began against the windows, a pleasant sense of the ominous settled over him. The steaming coffee on his desk and the steady fluorescent light silhouetting him on the window against the dark outside still held some of the fake drama he had enjoyed as a child.
One evening, he arrived home to find a large, refinished roll top desk flanking the fireplace. The late afternoon sun gave the desk an orange glow and the brass inlays had the smudged look of dignified age. He slid the top back and saw the small drawers and pigeonholes. On the blotter there was a stack of clean white paper. Jean hugged him as he looked at it.
“We don’t have enough room for a study,” she said. “But this closes and locks. It’s all yours. I didn’t forget.”
He had not forgotten either and had known what she was thinking the first moment he saw the desk. He had taken a few English courses in college and had confessed to her that one day he wanted to write a great novel. But now the idea made him flinch and the desk seemed to be mocking him. It sat there with an inscrutable seriousness, weighty and independent.
“It’s perfect,” he said, hugging her and looking around at the rest of the room now fallen into sleepy twilight.
She smiled up at him, patted his shoulder and went off toward the bedrooms. As he watched her, he felt for the first time an objectivity about her: a married woman, a mother, crossing in the evening through the space of the house where she lives with her husband and son.
The next day at work he felt objective about himself, too. The white of his shirt and the white of the paper all around him seemed to glare and run together; he watched his hands move as if of their own accord among the inter-leavings, the pale green printouts. He felt the papery dryness of his fingertips from their continual washing in documents. His life seemed small and contained, as if embedded in a glass paperweight, a presence without a name and separate from him.
The leaves had just begun to turn on the year when he was first unfaithful to Jean. He had stopped at a bar near the college and was sitting by himself, tie loosened, watching the girls and drunken boys. Like the stormy afternoons at the office, he felt a deep but not unpleasant consciousness of irretrievable time.
A girl came up to him and asked if he were a professor and he said no, he worked downtown, he had been a student a few years back.
“Why,” she asked, “do you look so sad?”
“Should I pretend not to be?”
“You shouldn’t pretend anything.”
Later, in his parked car, she was pretty and young and willing. But he could not overcome saying that to himself: She is pretty and young and willing and I am being unfaithful in a gusty fall night.
On his way home, he wondered what the girl had felt when his lips first touched hers, what she thought of him and why the night streets of the little city looked no different. He tried to worry, but it was more like reflecting on a character in a book, not himself.
On their son’s first birthday, Wallace and Jean sat in the kitchen and chatted idly, laughing at the funny things that had happened, the unexpected things, although Wallace thought to himself that maybe it was a little premature for nostalgia.
Jean sat silently for a time and then said abruptly, “We need to find a bigger place.”
Before he could respond, she rose from the table, lifted Wallace, Jr. from his high chair and went out. Wallace didn’t move, mystified not only by her sudden exit but by what he heard as an accusation in her voice. He looked around at the kitchen and it suddenly felt depressing and shabby. The old sink with the knobbed spigots, which he was used to thinking of as quaintly functional, probably should have been thrown out; he had seen many like it on scrap heaps. The single light fixture against the yellowed lathe ceiling glared and was filled with dead insects.
Had she seen this already or was she insinuating something else? He felt he had to protect himself, even if he was not sure from what.
She was already in bed in the darkness when he came in.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Everything was so nice I just kind of choked up. I meant to say...”
He put his hand on her belly, glad that it was dark. She took his hand gently away.
“It’s too soon,” she said.
“I’m not ready for another one.”
“It’s all right.”
After the abortion, they went about life quietly. But just when it seemed to Wallace that things might go on like that indefinitely, Jean told him that living in this house was intolerable. She wanted more space, somewhere else. Wallace did not press for an explanation; he thought he understood. And how could he disagree?
They borrowed the down payment from her parents. Just before the move, Wallace sat down at the big desk, now filled with bills and receipts, clusters of pens rubber-banded together, rolls of stamps, and wrote out a check to the realtor. For some reason, as he finished signing it, the thought came to him that he might, after all, have a story to tell.
The new house was long and low with aluminum window frames and broad empty stretches of drywall. Their furniture looked dark and uncomfortable in it, but Jean continued to buy more, trying to fill the space.
One evening, Wallace arrived home to find a grandfather clock against the wall between the front door and the picture window. It had beveled glass sides and he stared at the dull swing of the pendulum and the glittering whir of a gear behind the face. As with the desk, he felt uneasy. He had been unfaithful to her twice more and he wondered if there was a connection.
During dinner, he waited for Jean to mention the clock. But she did not, instead busying herself with keeping Wallace, Jr.’s food off the floor and rising periodically to peer in through the smoked glass oven door at the baking dessert. He steeled himself.
“The big clock,” he said.
“You don’t like it?” she said.
“I do like it.”
“Good,” she said.
She drew in a deep breath and then gave him a look he had never seen before, a wandering and at the same time explicit expression in her eyes.
That night in bed they made love intensely and Jean, who was usually silent, whispered “God,” and afterward Wallace lay awake wondering.
After far too long a time, both of them understood that they did not like the house at all. Their furniture was out of place and pointed up the house’s inherent coldness. They began looking for an older place with wooden floors, they hoped, and some interesting detailing.
They began taking realty tours. On one, there was a stop at the Morefield House to give them a sense of historical perspective on the neighborhood. The huge house had not been occupied in many years. It had been built at the end of the nineteenth century, intended as the governor’s mansion, until the capitol had been moved.
The tour group wandered under the wide front portico circled with columns. A large fan window topped the front door and the driveway disappeared under another, smaller portico around the side. Most of the windows on the top floor were intact, their lead content giving them a watery-like darkness, but all the windows on the first floor and some on the second were broken out.
The weather of the years had ruined most of the interior: old mattresses, empty bottles lay here and there; in one corner there was a galvanized tub of full of charred wood. Derelicts regularly sheltered there.
Behind the house, through a thin screen of willows, a ravine slanted down to abandoned railroad tracks. Two winos were walking the overgrown crossties. Wallace watched them for a time and then looked up at the steep back face of the house. Fast loose clouds made the siding brighten and then blanch suddenly.
That evening, as he sat drinking in the hushed expanse of his living room, he reflected on the high, wistful rooms of the Morefield House. It had given him a sense of compromised history—no, not that exactly—a sense of history confined, already played out.
He thought of Wallace, Jr. and said aloud, “There is nothing for him.”
The words seemed to stand in the air. It was as if he had quoted from the book he’d never written.
Six months later, they found what Wallace thought of as the house they would live their days out in. It was white clapboard, two stories with a finished attic. The furniture fit perfectly and there was a study for the desk. The yard was carefully hedged and islanded with shrubbery. In the middle of the back lawn there was an open space which, from the kitchen window, through the oaks close to the house, looked like the yellow lost heart of summer. Birds’ wings gleamed and insects left sudden spins of light like flourishes under noble signatures.
In the evenings, the men of the neighborhood would arrive home almost simultaneously, get out of their cars and walk to their common curb for a little relaxed conversation before the TVs went on. Wallace, Jr. had developed a problem with his speech and was slow-witted and easily frightened. For the first few months in the new house he stayed upstairs in his room whenever he wasn’t in kindergarten. Out of his room he stayed close to Jean, although she rarely spoke to him. Wallace decided that they had a closeness of understanding, an essential maternal bond, that needed no words. He began to view them as figures whose lives continually registered on time and became fixed, their faces staring out at him like pictures in an album.
His own life seemed increasingly arbitrary and ephemeral. He watched Wallace, Jr. in the sunny clearing and imagined him to be himself in his own sixth summer and for long minutes it was as if the past had reopened momentarily.
Away from the house, however, contemplation had become simple distraction, empty moments driving or sitting at his desk or eating lunch alone, staring at the formica surface of the counter in the sandwich shop.
One night, sitting alone once more at the college bar, he found himself unable to break out of the melancholy that he had once indulged but which now was smothering him. No one approached him and he had nothing to say anyway.
He began driving around the familiar streets of the town. Along these streets, under these trees, his life was taking place. But to know this was only like rubbing a smooth, featureless stone. He could not think beyond the simple fact.
It was late when he let himself into the house and hesitated in the pink light of the lamp Jean had left on in the living room. He stared at the big clock and the sofa and the shadow on the wall behind it.
Then he went upstairs and knelt beside Jean’s bed, feeling for her under the blankets, and began to cry. She turned over, her side hot from sleep, and put her hand tentatively on his head.
He waited for her to say something, to question him or console him, but she did not. Her hand remained motionless and began to feel heavy. He stopped crying and opened his eyes against the blanket.
She thinks I’m trying to confess, he thought.
That thought, because in it she was so wrong, brought him to himself. He waited a decent interval before withdrawing so that it would seem to her that she had given him whatever absolution she thought he had needed.
Downstairs, he poured himself a scotch and this time as he gazed around at the room, the clock, the sofa, it all looked comical. He took his shoes off and crossed the thick beige carpet to the bookshelf. He ran his hand along the spines until he came to a book of engravings illustrating the history of the town. The melancholy had lifted and, as he sat on the sofa, under the reading light, in the dark silent house, leafing through the oversized pages faced with onionskin, he felt as precise and detached as the lines detailing the streets, the disappeared houses, the furrowed hills, the awkward wagons and horses.
Near morning, when he closed the book, he kept it in his lap, hand on cover, as if considering a great lesson.
Less than a month later, Jean’s mother died and within six months her father, too. They left her enough money so that, if she and Wallace were not extravagant, they would not have to really worry.
After her mother’s death, Jean had been distraught, despite telling Wallace how much she had resented her. After her father’s death, she had begun changing her hair and makeup, wearing loose dresses one week and fitted suits the next. For a time she had a frosted streak put into her hair. She began to affect a wistful condescension and was increasingly meticulous with Wallace, Jr.’s clothes and training. To Wallace, she seemed taller.
He began to think about their first days together, trying to recall what they had started out as. He could not remember when they had met but he could remember the day she had become special to him. They were standing in a group of fellow students on a muddy brown lawn that sloped down to the intramural fields. Her breath was feathering against the low sun as she shifted from foot to foot against the cold. And suddenly she seemed to stand out from the rest, a figure resolving in a pictorial field: her short black hair, her soft if unexceptional features, her clear, guileless smile. A girl of common grace, he remembered thinking.
He tried to remember more, a further emotion, but it only came as a thin, fleeting suggestiveness: her red ringless hands around her books, her downy profile haloed in a white flutter of breath—no more than herself.
Beyond that picture of her, his memories of them together took on an ironic quality that he did not quite understand. It was not enough to say simply that neither he nor she were what they once were or what they had expected to be. Something else was threaded through his memory, something that felt increasingly like an intention in the world beyond the two of them, of which he was the object, but which remained obscure.
He came to feel that the only way he could know it was not to expect anything, not analyze or interpret his past, not try to see into his future, but simply to lay himself open to it with a kind of rigorous thoughtlessness.
So he allowed his days to pass and the clouds swept up the building and darkened the papers on his desk and he thought nothing of it. He stopped considering the consequences of what he said or how, did not know if he gratified or offended, or even if he were audible. He was, in fact, neither gratifying nor offending and he could be heard plainly. Unbidden, the years had tempered him.
For several months he had an affair with a plain, blondish girl who lived in an old brick apartment building near his office. Sometimes they had lunch at the apartment, sometimes dinner with a juice glass of wine, but they almost never spoke to one another. The most dramatic thing she did was break off with him, speaking fearfully behind her chained door as he stood in his overcoat, tired from work, in the fading light falling in from an open fire escape door.
“I’m sorry,” she said, almost invisible in the twilight of her apartment, “Please leave.”
After the door closed, he stood thoughtlessly, as if at the dead center of something. The elongated pyramid of his shadow stretched down the worn purple carpet of the hallway. At the end, his head looked as small as an idiot’s.
On his way home, his hands fell off the wheel and the car drifted to the right until it jumped the curb. It ran down a long hedge and hit a guy wire holding up a telephone pole and flipped onto its roof. He was wearing a seat belt but still, because of the angle, his neck was broken.
He recuperated slowly at home during the fall and the winter. Once the sharp pain of the bruising across his chest and the cuts in his mouth had subsided, he began to feel more “integrated,” as the counselor at the hospital termed it, with the life around him.
When, with the neck brace on and acclimated to the steady discomfort, he could sit up for long periods, he went to the old desk, cleared it of bills and paraphernalia and began to write down dates and their corresponding events as he could remember them. He was thinking of Wallace, Jr. The dates came out at random but he intended to go back later and make them chronological. There seemed no other order he could give them, and beyond recording them, no other point, only a compulsion. And, after a time, even the need for chronological order seemed pointless.
Whenever he saw Jean passing through the angled light of the various rooms, he began to understand how fragile she was, balancing, like himself, at the leading edge of her time on earth. More and more often, as she passed close, he would take her hand and she would stop and tears would come to both of their eyes. From the stairs, Wallace, Jr. would watch moon-eyed.
The three of them began spending long quiet evenings sitting together on the sofa reading. From time to time, Wallace glanced up from his book and saw the peaceful living room and the streetlights outside through the branches of the ancient elms. He knew that, whether or not he needed it, he had been given absolution. There would be no more women. There would be the only thing there could be: this bond of family, not the continuity of generations, but the bond of delimited time and the immediate night.
He saw Jean’s pale hand upon the open page and knew that it rested upon that most final of things: history, the place the world did not continue but doubled back. He knew she couldn’t understand this and knew also that it didn’t matter and that he loved her in a way she would not understand either. Often, these thoughts brought him to tears and, as he grimaced in his neck brace like a frog, he felt at once the constriction and the exaltation of fidelity.
These sentiments grew in him until he came to feel an obligation to tell Jean everything. Late one night, he brought a freshened scotch, his third, up to the darkened bedroom where Jean was already in bed and half-asleep. The only light was from the window, the ambient light of the town which had grown to a certain size so that it was never fully dark.
He pulled a chair up next to the bed and asked Jean if she were awake, he had something to tell her, several things. She rolled over toward him. He bowed his head and began solemnly reciting everything he was sure that she had guessed at already, the infidelities but also how long he had felt unmoored, unsure.
As he talked, he discovered much that he had forgotten. Under the blankets, Jean remained silent and he was aware of the surges in his voice and that it did not echo but took a moment to reach the walls, as if he were speaking in a huge, vaulted space.
When he finished, she was lying on her side, face to the window, the shadow of a branch across her cheek.
“Well,” he said, taking a drink to wash his dry throat. “You must have sensed a good deal of this.”
“No,” she said.
“But you must have felt...”
“No,” she said. “I had no idea.”
Her voice was in such a neutral register that for several moments he thought things were going as he expected. They would be, after her first mild hurt, brought finally and fully together. She would see him for what he was, bared at last, in love with her and only her. But she remained absolutely silent and still.
“Jean?” he said.
He reached over and touched her shoulder. It was cold and seemed dead and foreign under his hand. He sat back and looked around the room and felt cold, too. He considered the tall window, the dim shine on the bedposts and the well of darkness between the two beds and knew that what he had tried to find in so many other ways was in the room now.
For a long time he sat, not even daring to lift his drink to his mouth. Far off downstairs, the big clock chimed the three-quarter hour and then the hour and then the quarter-hour.
Under the blanket, Jean took a long, deep breath.
“I’ve been talking to the historical society,” she said. “They can help us buy the Morefield House.”
For a moment he didn’t remember it and then an image sprang into his mind: cloud shadows racing up the steep rise of whitewashed siding and windowpanes dark as still water in a forest.
“They want it to be lived in,” she said.
Eight months later, with enough of the rooms renovated and enough plumbing and rewiring completed, they were able to move in. It took all of their furniture to make just the south wing look passably livable. Jean dedicated herself to the renovation, ceaselessly consulting with the workmen and researching the original decor. The house was full of drafts and currents; it groaned and cracked. There were dozens of doors and Wallace, Jr. was afraid of all of them. The climb up the broad stairwell was laborious and Wallace often slept on the couch in the sitting room. He would try to be back upstairs before the workmen arrived each morning.
Often during the day, he would sit and read in a folding chair in the backyard amidst the rolls of tarpaper and the scattering of shiny nail discs. At times, the feel of the sun and the smell of fresh wood stacked in measured lengths behind him seemed like a kind of renewal. Still, he had not worked in over a year. Jean did not blame him. Everything between them seemed to have been cancelled out.
Then, during the wet spring, the work on the house became feverish in preparation for the town’s centennial. The second story overhang was buttressed with square wood supports while the hollow wood columns were taken down, treated for rot and worms, caulked, repainted and set up again. The house was filled with workmen and drop cloths and the cacophony of drill bits and circular saws.
One day, Wallace came into the empty main dining room and saw Wallace, Jr., standing before the tall bank of windows. Outside, a gray spring mist drifted through the half-budded branches. The boy’s small, slim figure was lit evenly, the palest pearl on his cheeks and, as he stared up into the mist, his head was slightly cocked as if he were listening for something over the din of the workers.
Wallace stood just inside the door and watched. The tenderness of the light, the stillness made it seem as if this were not his son but the memory of his son.
We are both of us surrounded by history, he thought.
But as soon as he thought it, a sharp, premonitory chill came over him and he turned and went out into the hallway. He walked quickly between the boards laid across sawhorses in the main foyer where workmen were knocking old plaster out of the lathing. White dust ballooned around him, drills whined, saws screamed. The smell of new paint mixed with the smell of fresh sawdust and the acrid smell of sparks struck from bright nailheads. The house shook under the hammering.
He stopped with a hand against a wall and waited until his heart slowed. And with that slowing came a kind of focus. This was his hand upon the wall. This was the wall upon his hand. And then he began to think.
That night, with Jean and Wallace, Jr. asleep somewhere high over his head, he paced among the drop cloths and ladders, his thoughts fast, tripping over each other, veering tangents, quickly disappearing: half-pronouncements, speeding images—everything he had not thought about. But there was no logic and, he began to see, no conclusion.
On a stool, a workman had left a pack of cigarettes topped with a disposable lighter. He stared at the neat small arrangement. He picked up the lighter. It was red plastic. He could see through it.
Behind each lie is simply another lie, he said to himself.
The ease with which such pointless thoughts came to him suddenly made him feel nauseated. Even the manner in which he held the lighter seemed false, a pose waiting to be recorded in history - an illusion of contemplation. A wash of self-contempt came over him at just the smallness of the gesture.
A tin of paint thinner, top replaced with some aluminum foil, sat next to his foot. Immediately he understood the possibilities and that there was nothing stopping him from any of them. He kicked the tin over as a kind of proof.
The spilled thinner darkened the drop cloths and spread across bare floor. The house was silent. He flicked the lighter and stared at the little flame. Then, as if it were only another conjecture, he touched it to the soaked cloth. Sudden white fire struck back up at him like a snake, igniting his shirtsleeve to his shoulder. A blue bloom raced out from him across the soaked drop cloths and burst into the stacked cans of paint.
His arm was swallowed in pain and he tore at his shirt as he tried to cross the fire to the stairwell. But the stairwell was already a chimney, a roaring black and red vortex. Ten steps up, the oxygen was gone and he stumbled to his knees. He began to raise his good arm but there was no gesture he could think of that would help, that would not be false. The fire struck deep into his lungs. His eyes went white. And then even the contempt he had for himself was burned away.
Where the Morefield House had stood so many years ago, there is now a small park surrounded by a wrought iron fence that is padlocked at night. During the day, only a few people will venture inside and walk along its short paths, sit on one of its three benches, read the plaque on the gate:
“Morefield Park is the site of the first homestead in the southeastern part of the state. In 1875, General Stanley Morefield erected the last of five structures on this site. Known locally as the Morefield house, it was originally intended as the state capitol and considered one of the finest examples of post-Civil War Palladian architecture. In 1983, it was destroyed by fire, which also took three lives. The outlines of the foundation can still be seen.”
A boy wandering through the park might look up from the plaque and try to imagine the big house against the sky. But the sky itself will distract him, the yellowing clouds motionless as engravings, the simple monotone of cicadas. And soon his wandering thoughts and the heat shimmer of sun on the gravel path will lead him away. He will be much older before he cares to look into the life and times of General Morefield, whose career had been largely defined by organizational success and who had worn a moustache and a cravat.