Here’s this week’s episode of The Port City Chronicle, the continuing serial novel of Gretchen, a 46-year-old criminal defense lawyer, and her family and friends, seeking love and happiness in Portland the hard way:
“I’ll be dead but you’ll have to deal with the massive hole in the ozone layer,” my 80-year-old father said, sitting across from Ethan and me at The Snug. “Not to mention global warming and terrorism.”
I’d never seen anyone face death with such spiteful relish.
The way he saw it, he was smart to be getting out at the top of the market, while we’d be stuck trying to sell our shares during the crash. Maybe we thought we were lucky to be younger, but actually we were worse off staying past the earth’s prime.
In the meantime, since he planned to live right up to the last moment before the ozone layer finally tore open and we were fried like ants under a magnifying glass, he was building a big new house for himself with the piles of gold he’d made from his other smart sales in the market.
“Look at this,” he said, pushing his phone at us with the pictures. “It’s built entirely of steel, with massive beams on all sides. I had three welders here for a week sealing the sides together in a giant cage. You couldn’t take this house down with antiaircraft fire.”
In addition to carbon dioxide, he’d been obsessed with the war in Syria but apparently he thought Syria was a little closer than it is.
In any event, maybe all that steel made the house safer against threats from the outside but it didn’t help much against the much realer ones from the inside. I looked for the escape routes in the photos.
“The doors are 450 pounds each,” he said. “And the windows are three quarters of an inch thick. The lead has been pumped out and they’re solid as a rock. You couldn’t break them if you threw a baseball at them at 100 miles an hour. Plus they’re tinted black so nobody can see in. The only way you can see into this place is through the skylight in the roof.”
That seemed like a mistake to me in case a higher power looked down at him through the skylight and was not very impressed.
But he’d been too busy decorating to think much about his soul.
“The floors are all leather, in different shades of brown and gray.” he said. It worked out well if anyone wanted to wear the house as a purse.
“Except the kitchen floor,” he continued, “which is handmade tiles that weigh 30 pounds each.”
“How much do tiles usually weigh?” I asked, not having spent much of my time weighing tiles due to the other distractions of life. “Say, the tiles in my bathroom.”
He waved his hand at me dismissively.
“Yours weigh nothing,” he said. Off-the-rack tiles, like every other aspect of an off-the-rack middle class life really weren’t worth mentioning. This is why the wealthy do all the talking while the middle class is silent and forgotten.
He moved on to photos of the master bedroom, including a large concrete balcony. I craned my neck to get a closer look.
“It’s covered with dead birds,” I said, finally identifying the floor covering. At first I thought he’d gone with feather flooring to contrast with the leather in the bedroom. “They must be breaking their necks on the picture windows.”
My eyes welled up with tears, but he didn’t notice.
“Yeah, I don’t know why the cleaning lady didn’t throw those out.”
I snuck a peak at Ethan, who was too close to his beer to see the pictures. Only a few days ago he’d buried a fledgling whose heart had broken on seeing the world outside his nest.
“I believe you have to recycle them,” Ethan said.
But Dad didn’t get the sarcasm. Anyway, he certainly wasn’t going to bother recycling since he wouldn’t even be around to reap the benefits. Apres-moi le garbage.
“Look at the marble in the bathroom,” he said, zooming in on the walls.
“Is it from Italy?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yes, India.”
It’s that kind of carelessness that caused the population of an entire continent to be called the wrong name by the conquistadors of an earlier era. Same as Dad, they went looking for gold, found it, took it and laid waste to anything in their path.
“Supposedly this land was undevelopable due to a wetland,” he said. “I had to pay a small fortune to drive pilings and screws down to bedrock to lay the foundation. Now there’s 6,500 square feet of house and you could never tell that six months ago this was nothing but a swamp.”
It’s not hard to see how we’ve ended up with global warming and a hole in the ozone layer.
“He’s sure got a Henry Ford/Robert Moses complex,” Ethan said, when Dad got up to go to the bathroom. “He basically thinks, ‘Whatever you tell me I can’t do, I’m going to destroy civilization to do it.’”
And there were many victims in his path.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Dad continued when he got back. “I had to fire two contractors before I got a decent one. When I first bought the property, I told my contractor to get all the leaves off and clean it up. I came back a week later and the whole site was bare dirt with big holes in it; it turned out there was no grass under the leaves. I told him to get my leaves back and put them down again, but I could tell the ones he brought weren’t mine.”
You could think of it as the parable of the leaves and the contractor.
At any rate, seeing the tiles in the bathroom must have reminded him I was there because for the first time all evening he asked me a question about myself.
“So what have you been doing for the past year?” he asked. “Are you still an attorney at a fancy law firm?”
He needed to feel like he hadn’t completely wasted his sperm. But I was too upset about the birds to help him out.
“No, you know what? I’m actually not doing that anymore,” I said. “I’ve become a stewardess.”
Then I interrupted his stunned silence.
“Doesn’t it bother you to hear the birds breaking their necks on the windows in your bedroom?” I asked.
He didn’t even take it as an attack. “No, you can’t hear anything in the house; it’s completely insulated for sound control. Outside to inside, room to room, floor to floor, it’s silent as a tomb.”
At first it seemed a strange word to use to describe a house, but I suddenly realized it all made sense. He was building himself a mausoleum as a testament to his existence on earth.
“So when are you guys coming out to see it?” he asked. “You better do it soon. Who knows whether I’ll still be around in five to ten years.”
I thought about the hole in the ozone layer and global warming and the dead birds on the balcony, and I wanted to say no. But I couldn’t do it. I had to pay my respects.