We stood in an open field, Pa and I, with a barley crop waving before us in the light spring breeze. There was silence in the vastness of this wide-open place.
“This used to be all condos,” Pa said, as he pointed and moved his arm along the horizon.
That’s the first time I first realized Pa had done something really great. He had taken down the condos, the land healed, and the animals once again roamed free. He had countered the advancement of civilization in his own small way.
Pride swelled in his face when he spoke. It seemed to push from under his skin, erasing the crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes. The canine-white of his teeth gleamed through his smile. For those few seconds, he looked young again.
I think, to some degree, that’s why he did it. That’s why he took them down. Sure, he believed he was doing the right thing, for people, animals, and the environment. But it also made him feel young, almost as if he was rejuvenated along with the land he saved. I know because that’s how I felt when I did the same thing.
* * *
I was eight years old when Pa bought me an Erector Set for Christmas. I wanted a Millennium Falcon, but Pa said I wouldn’t learn anything from a toy like that. He said they were plastic pieces of junk that had no application in the real world. They just caused young boys’ minds to wander. I could learn something useful from the Erector Set, he told me.
He had me build the first project in the booklet that came with the set. “Now tear it down,” he said when I finished. At that age—or any age for that matter—the fun part was breaking things down. As I tore into it, he grabbed my arm, gently, and said, “Take your time, son, you’ll learn as much by taking it apart as you did by putting it together.”
He repeated that many times during my upbringing. When he lectured me on the taking-apart stage, he always used the same example about how he and his high school buddies took apart a Chevy Big Block engine one summer.
“The way we learned to fix engines was by taking that Big Block apart, piece by piece, and then putting it back together.” It was the same lecture every time. He had that youthful look on his face when he told it, and he always smiled when he got to the part where he said, “We had quite a few pieces left over when we finished, but it still fired up!”
Those were some of my first memories, building the Erector Set structures and then taking them apart. I built and took apart each one in the booklet, and then I started building and disassembling structures that I came up with on my own.
Pa was always happy when I finished another project, and even more pleased when I took my time taking it apart. I didn’t always heed his advice, however. I was young, and sometimes I just ripped them down as quickly as I could when he wasn’t looking
* * *
Mom passed away the summer after seventh grade. She had acquired a rare, untreatable bone disorder. It was quick, and Pa was never the same after that. Neither was I, but I was too young to process it the way Pa did. He became depressed and turned to liquor. If there was a takeaway from Mom’s untimely death, however, it was that Pa realized life moves fast, and it was time for him to do more of the things he wanted to do.
Shortly after Mom’s death, Pa sold our house on Front Street. It was the only home I’d ever known. We moved to an apartment complex on Comstock Avenue. The complex was an ugly grey color, built in the boxy, unimaginative architectural style of the 1970s. There was absolutely nothing appealing about it on the outside. Sometimes I think maybe that’s why Pa chose it.
Despite the drab looks outside, it was cozy inside. It was perfect for us. Our unit was on the main floor, so we weren’t up-and-down stairs all the time. We also had a decent view of the basalt bluffs and a portion of the pine barrens.
I’m not certain, but I think the first time he started to take it apart was when we were sitting in the kitchen one day after school. He had made me a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and we were talking about our day. I had added barbecue potato chips to my sandwich, and we were joking about my odd culinary addition to the iconic PB&J. As we chatted, I noticed he was staring at the wall just behind the metal napkin dispenser on the table. He kept staring as I talked, and finally, I glanced over and saw that there was a small tear in the wallpaper.
The wallpaper had a silver metallic background with a gold felt pattern over the top of it. There was a small separation where the wallpaper butted up against itself. Pa kept staring and eventually stuck out his hand, almost in slow-motion, and touched it with this finger. He scratched at it with his fingernail, causing the wallpaper to tear a bit more. He tore it further, leaving an exposed area about the size of a half dollar. He scratched the underlying drywall, and a few crumbs of it fell to the table.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said as he jerked his hand away, almost if I had snapped him out of a daze. “We’ve got water pipes coming down this wall from the units above. I hope this spot isn’t water damage from a leaky pipe or something.”
There didn’t seem to be any moisture in the crumbs of drywall that had accumulated on the table like specks of course sea salt. I reached up and touched the spot. It was dry. I rarely questioned Pa though, especially when he was drinking. I just let it go and took his word for it. Must be a leak from the pipes upstairs, I thought.
* * *
I spent that weekend at my friend Pete’s house. He lived on the other end of town in a ranch-style home that his parents had built themselves. They were always nice to me, and even more so after Mom died. They were almost too nice, sometimes. I think they believed I would cave if they broached any remotely sensitive topic.
Pete’s mother finally garnered the courage to ask me a question—not quite enough to inquire about Mom—but about the apartment. All my friends’ parents were curious about that, considering we had such a charming single-family home before the apartment.
“So…” Pete’s mom started, hesitantly, “how are you adjusting to apartment life?”
I didn’t know what to say. Things were fine, and I didn’t really mind it at all. But I had a hard time conveying my thoughts because all I could think of was Pa picking at the tear in the wallpaper. I wasn’t going to tell Pete’s parents about that. There are a lot of little things that can bother a person that aren’t worth a mention—a hangnail on your finger, a scuff in the car door, or perhaps a creaky step that you avoid while climbing the stairs. The tear in the wallpaper seemed to be that sort of thing for Pa. I could tell it bothered him, and for that reason, it bothered me.
“Everything’s fine,” was all I could muster in response. “Things haven’t changed that much, and I’m gone most the time for school and football practice. Don’t really miss the old house like I thought I would.”
The last part was true, except the old house never had anything that bothered Pa quite like that tear in the wall.
* * *
When I returned home Sunday night, I found Pa sleeping in his reading chair with a few empty cans of Keystone Ice on the table next to him. I went to the kitchen for something to drink, and that’s when I confirmed my hunches about Pa and the wall. He had torn out a large area of the drywall between the two studs. Pieces of drywall and wallpaper were all over the floor. The copper pipes in the wall glowed from the refrigerator light when I opened the door. I poured myself a glass of milk, drank it, and approached the hole. I grabbed the pipes with my hands, thinking they’d be moist. They weren’t. They were cold, without even a drop of condensation.
Pa was now rustling in the other room. I took a few steps back, but when he came around the corner, he could tell what I was doing.
“We’ve got a problem here,” he said. “Seems water is escaping the pipes and saturating the drywall. Just a matter of time before we get mold. And you have asthma from pollution in these damn cities. I’m not having you get sick because they can’t build places right.”
“But the pipes are dry,” I said.
“Don’t second guess me, son. There’s moisture in the wall, and I’m going to keep taking it apart until I find the source.”
* * *
It took off from there. I’d come home from school each day, and the hole would be bigger. After a week, Pa had torn out all the drywall between the two studs from the ceiling to the floor. At that point, I could get a better look at the pipes. As I suspected—still no water.
It wasn’t much later when he started taking down the crown molding on the ceiling, and then the molding around the doors, closets, rooms, and hallway. It was a gradual process, only a piece or two a day. We didn’t have much on the walls because most of our stuff was still packed from the move, so Pa started making new holes throughout the apartment about chest-level. The holes were bigger each day I returned from school. He’d keep picking at them until he reached the ceiling and the floor, and then he’d move to a new hole between another two studs.
Without that layer of drywall, the apartment became much colder. Pa brought me a big pile of blankets one evening and dumped them in my room.
“This place is getting chilly as we approach winter,” he said. He was serious, even though it was July.
* * *
By fall, Pa started taking me to look at other apartment complexes. I felt he’d gone crazy but I also understood. I loved taking things apart when I was younger. I never helped him with the apartment, except to clear out debris occasionally so we could function, but I felt there was something behind his madness.
We looked at a few complexes on the other end of town, and then he started taking me to some nicer condos. He had saved up quite a bit of money living in the apartment, so he figured it was time to buy. We found a neat place with an exercise room and a pool in the middle of the community area.
After the snow melted that spring, our apartment had dwindled to a skeletal structure on the inside. Pa had torn out all the drywall and molding, took down most of the fixtures, and he had started ripping up the carpet. He left pieces of the multi-colored foam underpad on the floor, like stepping stones. The apartment echoed inside when we talked. It was becoming unlivable, and I’m pretty sure that’s what he intended. He started moving things to a self-storage facility near the condo we both liked.
By summer, we were in the condo. Pa appeared happy there. He calmed down for the most part. He focused on his job and, most noticeably, he wasn’t trying to take the place apart. Everything was quite normal, for a while.
I knew Pa was still struggling with things, but it became even more apparent when I came home from a weekend camping trip. We had a cork board in the mudroom where he usually posted things related to me—my school schedule, last quarter’s grades showing I’d made the Dean’s List, a certificate of participation for football. He tacked over all of that a newspaper article with a big picture of our old apartment complex. The title said, “Apartment Complex Near Five-Mile Prairie Torn Down Due to Presence of Noxious Chemicals.”
I read through the article. Apparently, the maintenance man of the complex found a chemical spill in the basement. It was a lead-based chemical that could cause cancer and respiratory ailments. The chemical had seeped through the basement and leached into the soil. After the discovery, the Environmental Protection Agency became involved, condemned the complex, relocated all the residents, declared it a Superfund site, and tore it down. The lot was fenced off, and no-trespassing signs were posted around it. It would take decades, the article said, to extract or neutralize the chemicals in the soil.
When Pa returned home from work, I asked him about the article. He shrugged his shoulders and simply said, “Told you something was wrong with that place.”
He seemed pleased, however, not just because he was right about the complex, but because it was demolished. The last thing he said to me about it was, “Maybe one day they can plant trees there again.”
* * *
Pa never took apart anything in our condo. He had a fascination with other condos and apartment complexes, however, and dense residential areas in general. Most of his free time on the weekends was spent driving around looking at condos, apartment complexes, and even dormitories at the community college. I’d join him on some of his Sunday drives if I had time. He’d pull up, park, and just stare at the buildings. We’d sit there for a few minutes, and then he’d drive to the next one.
I knew something was wrong with him, but in a certain way, I understood. It all seemed so harmless, driving around town looking at buildings. It gave us a chance to talk and see different parts of town. Sometimes we’d bump into my friends, and Pa would pull over to say hi. “Just going on a Sunday drive with my son,” he’d tell them. Looking back, I cherish that time. Most of my friends’ parents were too busy or didn’t want to spend quality time like that with their kids. It was more than just driving around for me—Pa shared stories about his childhood, and imparted to me his beliefs and vision of the world. He’s a big part of who I am today.
* * *
I graduated from high school in June and started at a university on the other side of the state that next fall. It was difficult leaving my hometown and especially Pa. I remember waving at him while he drove away after dropping me off at college. I had a strange feeling as if I’d never see him again.
That next year was one of the busiest periods of my life. With all college had to offer, I didn’t have much time to keep track of the news. I was exhausted from my pre-civil engineering and chemistry classes. I rarely even turned on the little TV I had in my dorm room, and when I did, I usually just drifted off to sleep.
But the stories started coming out of my hometown on a regular basis about the city condemning buildings, lenders foreclosing, or the EPA becoming involved and taking down buildings like had happened to our apartment complex. I had a strong hunch Pa was involved, but what was I supposed to do? Turn in my father?
Ultimately, I did not have to do anything but grieve. Police found Pa’s body near one of the Superfund sites. He’d been murdered, and no arrests had been made yet. I cried when I read the news ticker on TV: “Suspected Eco-Vigilante Killed: Authorities Investigating Possible Foul Play By Building Owners.”
“There were over a thousand people in that high-rise office building you took down,” the first officer said in the interrogation room. “They were good people you killed for no reason. I knew some of them personally. One of the architects they found in the rubble was the father of my daughter’s friend. My neighbor’s wife worked in the corporate headquarters of a construction company in that building. Those innocent people had spouses, kids, families…”
“You wanna come clean on this one,” the second officer said. “We’ve traced the explosives to you. The high-rise was bombed with the same material we found in a storage facility you can access. Plus, you have motive, as we’ve already gone over.”
“I’ve read you your rights, so if you want to talk, talk,” the first officer said.
“Good. Start from the beginning. Tell us how you got involved in this.”
Turning to the officer, I said, “We were standing in an open field, Pa and I, with a barley crop waving before us in the light spring breeze. There was silence in the vastness of that wide-open place until Pa said, ‘This used to be all condos.’ He pointed and moved his arm along the horizon.” As the first officer began to pace behind the second, I continued, “That’s the first time I realized Pa had done something really great.”
Michael Carter is a short fiction and creative nonfiction writer who grew up reading an odd combination of sci-fi and Louis L’Amour westerns. He’s also a ghostwriter in the legal profession, fly fisherman, and Space Camp alum. He’s online at www.michaelcarter.ink and @mcmichaelcarter.
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Photo by Kamil Feczko