Clearing by Jacob Silverman


My ex-husband, Michael, was one of the first to go. He visited in early March. I wished him well — we had been on good terms for some time, but actually, we had never quite been on bad terms, and maybe that was the problem: we could never get excited enough to argue or, even briefly, to hate each other.
     He had sold most of his things, and the rest lay in boxes in the bed of his truck, which looked as if packed for a delivery: well arranged and closely grouped cardboard cubes, with blue vinyl straps arcing across to keep them, like a mental patient, bound to the bed. I knew he had money problems, that a man had come by and made a decent offer on his house. Michael was wearing one of his work shirts, a stretched piece of fabric marked by a kaleidoscope of paint spatters and a few holes revealing tanned skin. Periodically he rubbed one hand across another, kneaded it — an old gesture, part of the body’s autonomous self. His hands still looked thick and dry, the knuckle-skin scraped down.
     He asked if we could make love. We stood on my front porch. He looked at me with skepticism and sadness, then through me, beyond, in silent appraisal of my own house. Finally he sighed, from somewhere low, near his hips. I gave him a long hug and felt his stubble scrape my cheek; his skin had the tang of sweat. I told him to email me when he settled somewhere. He said he was looking at northern Colorado, where his brother lived.
     The next day I walked by Michael’s house, a two-bedroom with windows facing the road. Not something to treasure, but a home. There was no sign of the house’s sale, but it did seem different. A piece of siding near the front door had come loose and hanged mournfully. The facade was pale green, but I had remembered it as blue-grey. I walked around the place a few times, I’m not sure why; maybe I expected something to happen, to find a reason for his departure. I rapped my knuckles on a window and for a frozen moment worried that the glass would break.
     Across the street, a neighbor stared at me, his arms folded across his chest. I waved. He didn’t wave back; instead he seemed to settle deeper into his position, challenging himself to stand there and project a kind of statued anger. He seemed somber, weak: he didn’t have Michael’s thick, corded arms, and from here I could see a gentle hump around his shoulders. I waved again, got nothing in return. He threw up his hands and went inside, the screen door disturbing the air with a clattering wake.
     It wasn’t until my walk home when I remembered that I had, ten or twelve years earlier, hit the man’s dog, a wise-looking border collie, mangling her leg but not killing her, which to the owner — his name was Vaughn, I think — was a worse offense. It was an accident and people were always doing these kinds of things around here, hitting dogs or wives or shooting deer out of season, all of it always accidental, a slip of the senses or of common sense, but he never forgave me. From then on he kept the dog, always whimpering and now half-dumb, that look gone from its eyes, chained to a post near the front door. I don’t think he ever allowed her back inside. One day he knocked on our door to tell us he was putting her down; he said he needed a hundred dollars. I gave it to him. There was no fight in me.

***

     Within a few days Michael’s house was gone. Bulldozed to the ground, the foundation exhumed and cleared, the whole plot made into a barren mound that showed sprigs of weeds. By the end of April, two-dozen homes had undergone the same. They sold without warning. Demolition crews arrived, riding canary yellow earthmovers. The noise was tremendous.
     One day, waiting to pay at a coffee-shop counter, I found myself a spectator of a debate about who was responsible. It started with a man and a woman who could’ve been married, so heartily did they disagree with each other.
     It was Ellen Regan, a middle-aged miser known for this sort of attitude. She carried herself with the inflated righteousness of a small-town school board member, which she happened to be.
     The man spoke again. He stabbed a finger at the air.
     A redhead kid laughed and nodded. He brushed the hair from his eyes, nodded at the man again, and reached once more to swat a strand of hair away (it seemed like he could repeat this loop of gestures for hours, and we would sit there helplessly watching; since the demolitions had started, we had all become voyeurs, watching everyone for signs — none inconsequential — of who was next).
     I felt no allegiance to any of the arguments, about how the world around us was disintegrating. For years a kind of exodus had been in progress. Everywhere houses were being foreclosed on, the town was collapsing upon itself, becoming a place where people lived in their cars or took loans just to move into a trailer a county away. It no longer felt like a place for anybody, much less us.
     Ellen Regan looked beside herself, and I began to wonder if she would break down right there, crying, and we’d have to take back everything and tell her a few comforting lies. Unable or unwilling to say anything, her mouth opened and closed several times, a series of prelingual gestures. Her head shook and her body slumped into a C, before moving itself to the door, where, obeisant, it passed through, reaching out a hand to brace itself.

***

     On my way home from the coffee shop, I saw a house with its door open. It looked abandoned — a few leaflets on the walk, grass too tall, a general sense of decay. The slight windblown movements of the door seemed like an established pattern, weeks old. A thick braid of kudzu had crawled across the lawn and onto the porch, searching for a point of purchase. I noticed that it also had begun to establish a layer of itself around the house’s base. It would be months, but eventually the kudzu, and perhaps some ivy that had tagged along, remora-like, would consume the place.
     A few cars passed, then the metallic jangle-and-whir of someone on a bike. Except for the breeze, there was silence, until I heard footsteps and felt the presence of a man near me. I didn’t look at him but I recognized his breath’s stigmata of whiskey: one of our drunks.
     I turned to him. He stood a step or two back and to my left, but he didn’t seem to be looking at me. His eyes were glassy and bloodshot; he listed to his right, ready to tip over. Before I had a chance to say anything, he walked towards the house and went around the back. I waited for a minute, but he didn’t appear again, so I followed him around, but found nothing except weeds, kudzu, a rusted, wheelless tricycle, and a few pieces of rotten loamy fabric that may have been laundry left too long out to dry.
     There was the feeling of disaster subsuming us — several of my friends had left; more patients were coming in with asthma, complaining about the plumes of dust appearing throughout town, sudden like tumbleweeds — but mostly we ignored these warnings until, by the end of May, one hundred more houses were gone, leveled into nothing.
     Kids searched for scraps of rebar and used them for swordplay. Parents approached the demolition crews and asked who hired them, how could they do this, couldn’t they see that they were destroying our community? The workers said, No, ma’am. We’re doing our jobs. There’s not much more we can say.
     A minister gathered some of his parishioners — I heard that Ellen Regan, recovering her voice, joined them — and went to the mayor. They demanded an injunction against further home sales. This place is being carved up around us, they said. Our neighbors are leaving every day. I saw some wild dogs in the lot next door. They were fighting with each other, violently; their eyes burned. Where can I take my kids now? Do something.
     The mayor shrugged and said there was no crime. They left the office promising to see him trounced in the next election, which, someone swore, only made him laugh.
     The next day, the mayor was gone. He had sold his house and arranged a new job for himself across state lines. His secretary was going with him, said his wife, who was one of my patients. I performed an exam — she was worried that he, or his secretary, had given her something. A week later, I called her saying her bloodwork was clean. She thanked me, but it was a passionless, empty sound and she cut off the call abruptly. The next day she joined the tent city where the workmen lived, in a field beyond the city limits. She wasn’t the first.
     By the end of June, the town looked like a boxer’s mouth: all gaps and broken teeth. Still our mysterious benefactor hadn’t shown himself, but his workers remained and so did whoever arranged the sales — a phantom among us. Because no one ever announced that her house was for sale. Routines remained unbroken until one day a neighbor was loading a van, saying that was it, the offer good enough, can’t you see the way things are going?
     I hadn’t seen the redhead kid again, but I imagined his face in the windows of cars going by, heading towards the highway.
     My own neighbors, Patty and Dominic Coghlan, left in tears. We hugged and made sure we wrote down cell phone numbers and pledged to meet up soon — the surest sign we’d never see each other again. Their son, Luke, was bundled in the car. He waved limply to me; I returned the gesture and thought of the man’s dog I had crippled.
     I had babysat Luke over the years. Once he said that Patty sometimes threw things at Dominic. He said it in a child’s way, as if he didn’t know the meaning of such things, as if it were as common as anything else. A vast and unequal silence began to stretch out between us. His brow squinched, confusion signaling awareness taking hold, or else it had always been there.
     The Coghlans were among the last on our block to leave. After they were gone, I went into their house (this had become a habit) and listened to the echo of its empty rooms. I kicked my foot through balls of hair and dust. In what had been the living room, I found a lamp abandoned, a thin, creased rubbery brown cord still connecting it to the wall socket. I pressed my hand lightly against the lamp until it tipped over; the bulb shattered. I nudged the leavings of glass with my toe, indulging in their rasping sound, and left.
     It felt like no one could ever live there again. The place was ready for demolition.
     The next day, a wrecking crew began laying into the house. From my kitchen I watched an excavator eat into the patio, exposing a colony of opossums, stunned by daylight. The next round crushed them. After, a dump truck carted them away with the rest of the refuse.

***

     It’s August now. The heat ripples up from the open flats that used to be my friends’ homes. The wind carries bitter smoke from the tent city. At night I hear dogs and the occasional cry of something meeting its end. The earth has reclaimed the land, indifferent and greening.
     The businesses are gone, the schools, the roads. It took nine days to gut the gas station, but they did it, carving deep into the ground to get out all the oiled dirt. The storage tanks left on a slow-moving flatbed truck. A few of us stood by the road and found ourselves staring, the closest we got to a funeral procession.
     I’m the last one. I’ve stayed out of some sense of duty; even without patients, a doctor is like a ship’s captain, I guess.
     A letter with an offer came today. I don’t recognize the name, but it doesn’t matter — the money’s enough.

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Jacob Silverman is a freelance writer, book critic, and contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His journalism and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The National, Tablet, and many other publications. His story “Rose Garden” recently appeared in Storychord.