A Timestamped Record of a Falling House
By Danny Jacobs
Orange highway pylons appear—the tall kind, cinched at the top for caution tape. Barricades stenciled with the village name. We’d read in the local weekly that today would be the day—a Thursday in November—but we’d forgotten. Now small signs of impending action or emergency materialize while we dress for work, run errands, while we walk dogs, while we look out windows during breakfast, during dishes, during a dull stretch of the morning news.
We come out in hoodies and jack shirts. We come in PJs, suits. Our hair corkscrewed from pillows, our hair pomaded, teased. We’re groggy, heavy with nightmare. We had dreamless, medicated sleeps, a void out of which we just climbed. We’ve been up since four, wrestling with sheets, checking Twitter, worrying over our bullied kids.
A few of us are unnerved, a few elated.
All of us will admit, years later, that what we saw was beautiful.
Nothing yet. There’s pleasure in waiting. For some of us, we’ll remember it as the best part. Stomping our feet in the cold autumn air, we bask in the anticipatory lull—its own deeper warmth.
The house doesn’t resist the excavator’s slow advances. The excavator and the house seem of a piece. When the arm of the excavator reaches, we don’t see an inevitable gutting but a careful caress, a possible union. As bucket and brick connect, the house and excavator are one species. A lock and a key. A dance. We don’t know from where the rumble comes, the excavator’s grinding gears or the house’s shearing. We stare, rapt, convinced there’s grace here.
When the first wall staves in, the house resists, defiant. Now isn’t the excavator—that hydraulic twitchiness— crude, grasping, predatory? A few boards fall, sure; but the house will continue to stand, won’t it? Hollowed but substantial. We’d been brutish to think there was acquiescence—love between destroyer and destroyed.
But as the excavator sheds the house’s outer walls, scraping off siding and plywood, it occurs to us that the demolition underway is not destruction, but the house’s true shining moment, the only time it has telescoped to the forefront of our distracted lives. Before today it was periphery manifest, abandoned non-space we passed on our way to more important locales. Now, we catalogue the details— the eave’s filigree; a glint of pot-bellied stove; a spindle-backed chair sliding down a tilted floor without upending. We notice an exposed stairwell snaking between the first and second floors. We notice all the broken windows, all except the dormer’s top left pane.
A sheet—maybe a summer dress—hangs from a tooth in the excavator’s bucket, flowing like poured water on the breeze.
At this moment in the demolition, the house becomes strange, noncategorical. We search our meager architectural knowledge for house styles: saltbox, cape cod. Georgian revival. Split-level. It's unnerving to some, this collapse of stable geometries—a house, but not. We’re taxonomists of the house, phenomenologists of its form. Its bare lathe and inner walls do not diminish the house, but enhance it, if only for this resplendent moment.
And yet, all falling houses hang onto their banal house-ness. Minutes before collapse, it keeps up appearances, the denial of the dying: the spotless glimpse of floral wallpaper, shingle riding the roof ridge like the part in a combed head. The siding laid true while nothing but rubble remains below.
Chart the attic’s teeter—one long minute.
Then it happens: Studs and timbers cant one way, the brick of the flue shimmies like a Jenga tower. A shift in the fundament, and rotted insulation rains like pollen from empty rooms.
At the sweet moment when structure cedes itself to gravity, the village clerk, on morning break, remembers her dead mother play-fainting during a stint with the community theatre; a municipal crewman remembers shoving his father flat on his ass, finally refusing the backyard switch he was made to cut; our local lawyer—small town boy made good—remembers his youth, cold-cocking bigger men at Chandler’s Tavern, the way they folded like push puppets; and little Eric Grayson thinks, blocks! blocks!
We, all of us, watch the house go down, and we smile, remembering.
The house fallen is no longer a house. Obvious, perhaps. But for those watching—amazing, too.
Circling the wreckage, we make small talk, coffee plans. We check our phones and say that we really need to get back to work, check on the kids. Yet we continue to look. We linger, loiter, still surprised. At how it could change so fast. At how this sturdy collection of rooms could become a loose pile of planar objects—a bag of dumped envelopes. And to whom, we ask, are these missives being sent?
We note a brief outline after collapse—a house-shaped smoke against the sky.
Later—at church, at the tavern—we’ll all agree it’s nothing special, this happens when anything old falls down. Over our pew, our third beer, we’ll make assurances—a fleeting puff of rust, cement particulate, the wavering dust of decades. That’s all.
What we will not say: that perhaps this is the house’s lingering essence, its momentary refusal to leave. We will not say that we thought of souls, ghosts. That some of us hoped, out of this evanescence, a new house might appear.
We run outside, shoeless, haunted, dragging the ragged end of our sleep like wedding trains. We gather, us congregants, at the demolition site, our bare feet dimpled with stone. We bless this absence with the light of our phones. Our days have been busy and prosaic. And we are bereft, for our lucid dreams have deceived us—nothing has reconstituted. Nothing will be seen again.
Danny Jacobs’s latest book, Sourcebooks for Our Drawings: Essays and Remnants (Gordon Hill Press, 2019) won the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick Book Award for Nonfiction. Danny works as the librarian in the village of Petitcodiac, NB.