Though the name of Henry VIII’s favored architect is lost, we know that his work redefined shipbuilding: each archway, handrail, and gunport carved by artisan woodworkers; every cannon’s iron and bronze flourished with New World metals; each gilt sail’s crest alight with South Sea pigments. Everything (in short) loved, for a time. Despite the Isles’ lack of forests, the Mary Rose claimed six hundred oaks; the Henry almost twice that. In 1536, England brought its navy into port, where the Mary Rose acquired another two hundred tons of cannons, armor, and ammunition.
Here afterward the records are unclear. The Henry is last mentioned in 1553, her fate unknown; the Peter, 1558. In 1545, the Mary Rose, harbored in the straits west of Portsmouth, engaged a fleet of French galleys. Gunports at the ready, the ship was vulnerable to her own weight, and after a sudden heel to starboard took on a fatal amount of water. One of the architect’s favored additions was a net covering the whole of the main deck, to prevent boarding. As she sank, the net trapped all but thirty of the ship’s four hundred crewmen, the rest dragged down with the guns, the reliefs, and the gold leaf insignia.
Recreational divers rediscovered the Mary Rose in the late twentieth century — or at least the forty percent of her the ocean hadn’t chewed away. Looking at photographs of the salvage, one can imagine walking from one end of the ship to the other. You can almost see Henry VIII’s architect still pointing at the overstressed crossbeams, marveling at what four hundred and forty years of silt and clay have left intact. You can imagine his pride at the sight of the Tudor rose carved into each mast, itself some forgotten woodworker’s masterpiece.
I know that pride. I first felt it as a teenager, drafting floor plans for the mansions I thought I’d come to own. It’s possible that this shipbuilder too pored over crude schematics and technical drawings as a child, equally but maybe not so uselessly imaginative.
“Architecture,” wrote the Roman emperor Hadrian, “is rich in possibilities.” To build, he says in his memoirs, “is to collaborate with earth, to put a human mark upon a landscape, modifying it forever thereby.” You can blame nothing but mortality for this, our brief lives in which “we are always referring to centuries which precede or follow our own as if they were totally alien to us.” It’s a grab at eternity, however impossible.
Sometime in college I gave up the childhood fantasy of wealth. It was too much to hold onto. You’d think a writer, conversely, would have no reason to fear destruction. But what of Sappho, whose work is now nothing but fragments? What of Phrynichus, a playwright only because history labels him so? In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus considers our push toward eternal recognition and accomplishment, powerless against the natural world’s indifference: “From the point of view of Sirius, Goethe’s works in ten thousand years will be dust and his name forgotten. Perhaps a handful of archeologists will look for ‘evidence’ as to our era.” Even Hadrian, writing in the second century, had already witnessed the loss of art and the decay of the manmade — fragments of civilization erased from history — and so he set about expanding the empire’s mark upon the landscape. Cities were his art: “The more I have meditated upon my death, the more I have tried to add to our lives these virtually indestructible extensions. At Rome I preferred to use our enduring brick; it returns but slowly to the earth, from which it comes, and its imperceptible settling and crumbling leave a mountainous mass even when the edifice has ceased to be visibly what it was built for.” We know, today, of Hadrian, of Phrynichus, of Camus and Goethe, but it’s still possible that even their crumbling mass will someday slip into the landscape and cease not just visibly but altogether.
Film producer Michael Bay has made a living exploiting our fear of annihilation. Through decades of his summer blockbusters, we’ve witnessed the destruction of the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, Shanghai, Alcatraz Island, and New York City (multiple times). Of course it’s not real — every explosion takes place inside the most expensive computer processors available. Even if Bay had been born forty years earlier and his crew had labored over a miniature Manhattan, carving out every detail before they let their meteors — flaming tennis balls? rocks covered in kerosene? — punch it full of holes, moviegoers would’ve known it was an illusion. The real loss would’ve been for Bay’s engineers and designers, the people who would’ve built those models, mumbling to each other, “We we spent two weeks on the Chrysler Building,” or “He told us to redo Madison Avenue again,” because they knew, as they laid each plaster foundation or papier-mâché spire, that they’d raze the whole thing to the concrete in only a few hours, and that whatever wouldn’t burn would be broken up and tossed into the dumpster with the rest of the studio’s garbage. From the engineer’s point of view, Bay’s endeavor is a waste of time — not unlike the fake towns my grandfather used to slap together out in the desert, just after Hiroshima, only to blow them apart with the newest and most expensive atomic bombs.
For a long time, I thought the Nevada Test Site was just a rumor of pop culture. Months after my grandfather died, however, my grandmother asked me if I’d sort his papers. She proposed four hours of work every Sunday. She’d make lunch, she said, and put on a record. That’s how I found out about my grandfather’s work. Not by talking to her — she never even glanced through the door of his old office — but by sifting through the notebooks stacked in his desk drawers. Right away his diaries indicate his frustration — the pointlessness of crafting with such care a structure fated to be nothing but toxic dust. Years into his task, however, as the Department of Energy vaporized one cinderblock village after another, it no longer seemed to bother him. He even came to appreciate it, as though nothing, since the time of shipwrights, had changed.
Henry VIII’s architect put the same passion into his art. He sought to make not only the world’s most powerful warship but also its most magisterial, at the sight of which a French sailor wouldn’t know whether to tremble from fear or awe. You can imagine him, the architect, looking over a blacksmith’s shoulder, pointing out the king’s cheekbones in a gun’s bronze relief. “This is not right,” he would’ve said, maybe furious, maybe weary. It’s possible he did everything he could to not picture the Mary Rose riding the wind with all the fervor of her youth. Maybe he tried not to picture her crew, climbing over the masts’ woodcarvings and wrought iron, dragged into the sea by his own innovation. Maybe he was long dead when she sank. Maybe he didn’t have to picture her rocking on the seabed, blanketed with silt, his ambition home to crustaceans and algae. But I’m sure, now, he knew that was how it would end all along.
For years I thought the town my grandfather described was just where he’d grown up. When introducing him to friends or neighbors, my parents used words for him like government and contractual, and by the time they got to engineer they’d tightened their circle and shut him out of the conversation. For most of my life he was a collage of unlike pieces: the chain smoker; the Greek historian; the engineer who crouched on the floor and watched as I played with Legos; and the despondent old man who — if he really loved the street where the elms looked brave, he wrote, against their backdrop of dust-veiled mountains — should’ve just gone
I mention Phrynichus only out of fascination: a playwright whose work is referenced only in letters, historical accounts, and criticism. In the Varia Historia — itself only extant in abridged form — Claudius Aelianus notes that, “for Phrynichus the Tragick Poet acting the taking of Miletus, the Athenians weeping made him quit the Stage, afraid and daunted.” Aelianus refers here to Phrynichus’s masterpiece, The Capture of Miletus, composed for the City Dionysus after the enslavement of Ionia. You have to pity Phrynichus for the care that went into a work so powerful that the entire theatre, according to Herodotus, “burst into tears; and the people sentenced him to pay a fine of a thousand drachms, for recalling to them their own misfortunes.” Miletus, banned in Athens, was never performed again.
At first, my grandfather slapped together clusters of concrete and aluminum that looked like refugee settlements. Occasionally he’d use dummies, posed near the windows like they couldn’t quite identify the sky’s new hum before their vision bleached out. Often he thought back to the Department of Energy’s private presentation on the future, on national security. In his words, there was nothing you could learn about the Soviets from irradiated, blackened plastic, but the Department had built a ranch for him just outside of Tonopah, Nevada, and when he thought back to his basement apartment in Chicago he was grateful.
It wasn’t until his third year in the desert that the idea came to him. My grandmother, sick for a week, had driven out to the worksite to share her news. You can see them holed up in one of the almost-empty shacks, struggling to keep straight faces as they propose names to each other like Algonquin or Erasmus, Lucifer, Euripides. He took a long lunch, and she left the shack holding her belly like she could already feel its life. If it hadn’t been for that image, he wrote in his notes — her shadow in the door’s white light — he would’ve missed everything. If a bomb had fallen, he wrote. Even though it took another five years to begin construction, the entire test site came to life right then, with that image.
Say you were lost in the desert, shuffling away from your overheated car on Route 6 or 95. Say you’d been walking for hours and you’d missed, exhausted, all the signs that warned you. Say you clambered up a wall of boulders to find yourself in a back yard so green you felt its moisture. You’d have knocked on the back door looking for help, or at least for a phone. In the front yard you would’ve seen the sprinkler going, its arc evaporating into mist. You would’ve followed the sidewalk to the next house, reading, in the concrete, the inscriptions under little handprints and smiley faces. It wouldn’t have taken much longer. You would’ve looked into one of the windows and seen a woman frozen at her ironing board, or down the street at a man mowing his lawn, stuck in midstride. That’s when you’d realize how quiet it was, how even in this town there was nothing but the wind and whatever detritus it disturbed.
My grandfather was in high school when the war started, kept home by a fawning admissions letter from the University of Chicago. He didn’t meet my grandmother until he was halfway through graduate school. By the time they’d married, nobody mentioned the war anymore — just the new one, which everyone (according to his notes) called imminent.
After the initial construction, my grandfather drove to Los Angeles and handpicked five artists who’d made names for themselves in the Hollywood wax industry. “They have to be lifelike,” he told them over lunch at the Tonopah ranch. “We want to be confused when they don’t speak to us.” Afterward, he walked them past houses and flowerbeds, frustrated, you can imagine, at the lack of bent-over gardeners in their Levi’s. He’d point at some driveway’s Cadillac or Caprice, incomplete without its proud owner. They’ve never been more excited, he wrote of the artists, of their scattering throughout the town. The opportunity, he wrote. He never told them about the bomb.
Children have a strange way of listening. My grandfather must’ve said, “It’s all in how you do the eyes,” a hundred times when I was growing up. But it wasn’t until I was sixteen that the whole thing clicked for me. He was so proud: of the black cassocked mannequin that never stopped sweeping the church’s third step; of the permanent birthday party on Magnolia Street. For so long it was just stories to me, all fake. Even after I found his notes it was hard to believe. My grandmother used the word unrepentant when I said he’d had quite the imagination.
The notebooks have no photographs or newspaper clippings. Half the entries aren’t even dated. But you can match it all up — my father’s birth, Stalin’s death, Hurricane Diane — to the plaza full of taxidermy pigeons and squirrels, to the shop that sold nothing but violins, to the library big enough for a town three times its size and full of books no one ever read. That the library itched deep in my memory, and the pigeons, proved I was always listening. But I’m certain he never mentioned the house on the edge of town, nor the mannequin on its front steps resting its head against its fist. What he was most proud of, he’d kept secret.
Even though Harold is described with his own drawer of notebooks, the name did nothing for me. All my grandfather had known was that a man would be sitting on his front steps looking sullen. But it was the way Harold sat there that drew you to him, or to the idea of him — how you kept expecting him to look up and snap out of his melancholy, to raise his eyes to yours, to say something innocuous or charming because that’s who he was. You could tell by the way his mouth turned up at the corners. He had a family (the notes say), his wife at the sink where she never stopped watching their sons, kneeling in the back yard’s oversized sandbox. You could tell Harold loved them. It’s all in the eyes.
Though the answer terrified him, my grandfather sent a letter to the Department regarding his budget. For a month he couldn’t sleep. But when he received his superior’s short, impersonal reply, he realized he’d always known that funding would never be an issue. Not in a time of such prosperity.
Harold moved to Nevada in 1957, just after his second son was born. Chicago was changing, my grandfather wrote, the words suburban exodus underlined in his notes. For Harold, it was the shuttered storefronts. On his walk to the El in the morning, each had begun to feel like an empty room in a house he was too tired to clean. As his eyes glossed over the Tribune he daydreamed of his sons, David and Greg, on that very train, riding south of the loop like he’d done in his youth, but stenciling the two thoughts on top of one another made him anxious, his bright fresh-combed boys in that car that every day grew emptier, quieter, and — he could’ve sworn — less well lit, like the light bulbs themselves were covered in grime. He applied for a transfer that day, and only after his approval did he ask Rita, at home with their youngest, what she thought of the desert.
He’d seen enough of all that, he said as they drove, and she kept asking what — what had he seen enough of? All he’d been able to describe was how cities in France were full of holes, the dislodged stones scattered in the stone streets like crumbs. It was all too old for him. Too broken apart and beyond repair. She could only shake her head: “You’re not making any sense.” On the third day of traveling they descended from Colorado into Utah, and everywhere they looked she said how she’d seen this valley on a postcard, that mesa on a calendar at Walgreen’s, that massive backbone of rock in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Shielding her eyes from the flats west of Salt Lake City she kept giggling — “We’re on the moon, I swear!” — and Greg, in his car seat, let out a shriek that tightened Harold’s grip on the wheel and beckoned his heart from its hiding place. When they arrived in their new city he pointed at the bank, trying to explain the marvel of its hedge-lined sidewalk. “It’s such a harsh environment,” he kept saying, but it didn’t mean what he wanted it to mean.
For Christmas and for two weeks out of the summer they drove back to Illinois to see each set of grandparents, Rita’s in Kewanee, Harold’s in Oak Park. “She’s nice,” Harold’s mother said every time they were alone. “You did well.” It was the same voice she’d used sixteen years earlier, after they’d listened to Roosevelt’s speech on the radio. You knew it was coming, she’d said then, and saved for him, in its not-yet-stamped manila envelope, his application to the University of Wisconsin. During the war, she had re-read it every time she received one of his transatlantic letters, just to remind herself that he was capable of more than Things are fine, a little boring, marching near Alsace, mostly just miss home. It was impossible for Harold to think of that self, that boy who’d written a whole essay on the theme of nature in Wordsworth’s poems. The threat of her showing it to him some Christmas dinner — of having to know he’d once written it — made him feel like he’d drunk too much coffee before breakfast.
Rita was nice, and the way his mother said it made him think he wasn’t holding on hard enough. Every time they came back from Illinois, he woke up that first Monday morning in a sweat, as though there was something he was supposed to have learned. He watched her make breakfast as he held his newspaper like a shield, and when she brought his eggs to the table he kissed not just her hand but every knuckle and nail, circling his finger around the ring he’d bought seven years earlier at D. Lampert’s on Michigan Avenue. At work he could compose himself and push Rita out of his mind, talking each new client through the bank’s menu of mortgage options. But at home his blood would cool again, and the way Greg clung to his waist and David to his knee almost made him throw up. But nothing had changed. He would give Rita roses he’d bought on the walk home, smile as she brought them to her face, and, after the boys were in bed and she was nearing the end of the dishes, he’d come up behind her and do that thing she loved, one hand under the apron, the other untying the bowknot resting on her thighs. He remembered that his wife loved him and that his sons would grow up right. He remembered that coming out west was the best decision he’d made since buying that ring.
If she didn’t love him, she wouldn’t grin when he loosened his tie, nor would she bite into his shoulder when he managed twice in one night. It made his love seem legitimate, especially when he spoke to the Finance Manager, who liked to tell customers that the last time he’d seen his wife in her birthday suit was when she’d forgotten to lock the door before her bath. Harold tried to picture their marriage: their body language, what his boss felt when his wife stood at the sink or pressed herself against the kitchen’s doorframe. The Finance Manager, he reasoned, must be lonely, and full of hurt. But when Harold took Rita to the Italian restaurant my grandfather had just built, they ran into the Finance Manager, and the woman curled up next to him in their booth across the aisle was not his wife.
It wasn’t the case (the notes say) that the fictional creature Harold hadn’t heard of adultery. It was just something that’d never occurred to him. When other women stepped into the bank and glanced over at his desk he never failed to smile, but the thought of taking their hands as he’d taken his wife’s, kissing their necks, shuddering into their shoulders like he’d shuddered so many years’ worth of nights into his wife’s — it seemed absurd or erroneous, like longing for those days he’d loved as a kid on that porch in Chicago, nothing but rain and somewhere a groggy murmur of thunder. But after that day at the restaurant he did think of it. He did imagine it. He listened carefully as each wife and schoolgirl and spinster spoke to the teller, just so he could calculate how she’d sound beneath him.
My grandfather’s first instinct, after that Hollywood artist had posed Harold on the steps, was to ask him if everything was okay. That Harold was nothing but wax and wood, he’d forgotten. That’s how my grandfather knew what he’d done was important. Harold couldn’t answer. So my grandfather had to answer for him, sitting for hours looking for the truth in Harold’s melancholy.
After a few years my grandfather stopped telling my grandmother about his work, having tired of what he called her placation. In the beginning he’d talked about his masterpiece with all the fervor and gesticulation of a boy who hunted butterflies or played with trains, and it didn’t take him long to figure out that her smile and her one-dimensional questions equaled nothing but patience. She hoped he’d come to his senses, and maybe — if he knew what was best for their future — transfer to the space program. But he never let it contaminate their marriage. In fact, he often seemed to go out of his way to remind her he loved her. Made her breakfast in bed, he’d write at the top of a new page, as if that summarized the day’s work. Never mind the silicone koi he’d suspended in a pond outside the mayor’s mansion, or the lumpy rows of green fiberglass spaced three feet apart on each lawn, glued down so the basin’s wind wouldn’t take them.
The bank was the only place Harold could’ve met a woman. So that’s where he met her. She’d come to refinance, only three years into her mortgage and newly widowed. It wasn’t like she flaunted herself or wore a low-cut dress or even asked him to light her cigarette. If there was anything Harold couldn’t stand it was artificial women, how they’d laugh at every joke, even if it wasn’t funny; how they’d wear the reddest lipstick they could get from the Avon lady, as though a color like blood or poisonous plants was supposed to make you lose control. What threw him was a woman without artifice, whose hair and make-up didn’t ask you to look at her, whose laughter came in little chortles from her nose instead of someplace deep in her throat. She seemed real, even though my grandfather never gave her a name. She was real
He tried to mention Rita, his sons — anything about his family — but asked instead if she’d tried the new Italian place across from the violin shop. He asked for permission to leave early and tried not to asphyxiate when the Finance Manager answered with a wink. With this woman on his arm as they walked from the bank to the plaza, Harold realized, his heart climbing the bars of its cage, that he didn’t care about Rita, about David or Greg, about how well his mother said he’d done. He only cared about the woman next to him, the way she smelled, and the little, ugly laughter coming out of her.
That changed in my senior year of high school. We were in our second week, in my first period Spanish class. Nobody paid much attention when the phone rang. Even when Señora Thorson put her hand to her forehead and whispered “Oh God” in a way everyone could hear, we thought maybe someone’s relative had died. I pictured my grandfather, who’d been sick for months, grey in a nest of my grandmother’s tear-dampened tissues. But he wasn’t to die for another five years. Instead, our teacher simply hung up the phone and switched on the corner-mounted television, where we saw the towers of the World Trade Center wreathed in smoke. When the camera managed to still itself you saw holes like infected wounds, each hemorrhaging a sick orange-flecked black blood, and if you looked closely you could see debris flaking off the upper floors. “Those are people,” Señora Thorson said, slipping into an empty desk. She was crying and it made us uncomfortable. What I thought, at the time, was that they’d put out the fire and repair the building. They’d arrest the mastermind and sentence him to life in prison, or better yet (I thought) death. Just before the bell rang for the next class, the first tower slipped into a cloud of dust like something had reached up and pulled it down. There was no explosion. There was no tremor to be felt. You couldn’t hear the screaming. The image itself was grainy and hard to make out. There was only white noise and a reporter calling out for God.
What’s appalling is that it wasn’t all that death that got to me. It was the building. I’d never been to New York, but the World Trade Center was a landmark I’d grown up with — in movies, on album covers, in sitcom backdrops — and I’d just watched it collapse. Even I knew there was nothing you could do to reverse this. From then on it would not exist. Despite a childhood of history classes, this was the first thing to stick. This was Hiroshima, they’d tried to teach us. This was the Tacoma Narrows Bridge — see how she galloped, and so on. This was Miletus, Phrynichus said. Kids twenty years from now will fare no better. These were the towers of the World Trade Center, they’ll learn, brought down in a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. These were the Great Pyramids of Giza, reduced to rubble in the Second Egyptian Uprising. This was the Eiffel Tower, pride of the Parisians, and this was Paris. They say you could fall in love with Paris just by walking along the river. They called it the ville lumière, or the city of lights — are you listening? — because of what they called ‘streetlamps.’ In sixth grade we studied the Aztecs, and Mrs. Sims told us about the most beautiful city on earth. Tenochtitlan, she’d said, was nothing but gold under the sun, the illustrations in your book don’t do it justice. This was life in the 21st Century, historians will say. At least we think so. We can’t really be sure.
“I admitted,” Hadrian says — not even Hadrian, actually, but novelist Marguerite Yourcenar imagining, flawlessly, the voice of Hadrian — “that it was indeed vain to hope for an eternity for Athens and for Rome.” Even someone like my grandfather eventually learns of impermanence. The margins of his later notebooks reveal his true education: Pains me I’ll never come back written beneath the word Groundbreaking with a garland of exclamation marks. Harold’s lover, he wrote on one page, repeating it all the way down the left side. This from the last notebook, which describes Harold’s long walk home from a motel on Highway 95. It lists, in detail, everything Harold tried to remember about Chicago, about his wife, his sons, the decay of someplace beautiful like the Ardennes. But despite the roses he carried all the way down Tangerine Street, the joyful life he conjured in his head wasn’t anything he recognized, and the flowers themselves were nothing but a confession. He threw them behind the Italian restaurant’s dumpster. My grandfather, running out of time, crafted these roses the morning after writing about them (the notes say), and glued them to the asphalt in a splatter of spoiled lasagna, a small masterpiece in and of itself.
The notes stop there, with the roses, but it’s possible that Harold, before he sat on those front steps, came inside and kissed Rita on the cheek, and that he ruffed up Greg’s hair and put his lips to the back of David’s neck as they played in the sand. It’s possible he touched his sons’ bare shoulders and mentioned something about sunburn, because their skin, my grandfather once said, was so milky it hurt to imagine them under the Nevada sun every day, month after month. You can calculate Harold’s nausea as they looked up at him, his sons — as they trusted him. When he walked around to the front of the house, it’s possible that he thought of his lover back at the motel, stretched out on her (or his — my grandfather never made up his mind) rumpled, dampened bed sheets. It’s possible he thought it through from beginning to end — packing his clothes, racing back up the highway, gathering this woman or wrenching this man up into his arms, all night fucking like fucking had just been invented, and after that nothing but driving, motels, cities they’d never seen, every night from then on the unbearable kind of fucking where if, smashing together, you cannot crawl inside one another, the shout muffled by the hand and the teeth sunken into the shoulder and the paralysis of ejaculation are nothing but postponements of the next impossible attempt. Because it is impossible, Harold realized. Not even the air raid siren could stop him from knowing, not even his glance up at the sky for an explanation. Even though everything on Sunflower Street went white right then, Harold’s eyes — melting from their sockets like microwaved butter — lived up to their promise. Even as his skin parted and shrank away from itself he knew, despite everything he’d lost, that losing was the point.
The test, my grandfather wrote, was successful.
Patrick Nathan's writing has appeared in Boulevard, The Los Angeles Review of Books, dislocate, Music & Literature, Revolver, and elsewhere. His first novel, Some Hell, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press. He lives in Minneapolis.
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