Forest Pike parked his car behind the Senior Center at the south end of Main Street. Across from the house being renovated.
He’d been watching the impeachment hearings on CNN. They were droning on, men and women in suits, standing up and buttoning their neat jackets and saying mostly what they’d been saying all day, all week, all year, with charts and quotes, and apologies for their repetition. Though what new could they say. Nothing had changed. Nothing was going to.
He turned the set off when someone was earnestly in mid-sentence. No disrespect, he thought. He didn’t want to hear what Blitzer or Toobin or Maddow would say. He didn’t want to hear what that fool Dershowitz would say. Nor what Susan Collins or Mitt had to say. He’d heard enough from them all.
So, he just laced up his sneakers, put on his jacket and headed over to work out on the treadmill the town had put in for retirees. He’d sweat for 30 minutes and go home for lunch.
He thought he’d just seen about everything there was to see in this town. A town with a plangent dearth of novelty. Less predilection or openness to change. A town from which, when the weather was right, and you squinted your eyes a little, you could see, across the water, the thin grey line of the coast of Maine. A town without a stoplight that attracted busloads of tourists, whose cash paid for parking and lobster rolls and whose jaywalking, selfies and an inability to parallel park incensed the locals. Tourists who paid a high price to see a place that did not change.
So, the house across from the Senior Center got people talking. Like the houses down by the water, the word was that someone from the city bought it as a teardown. One they’d raze and, in its stead, put up a house much like the old one except that it would be more house than anyone might need, for more money than most people had, and which would cut off the view of the neighbors across the way who’d paid good money for their view forty years before.
No, they’d not liked change. But some change was tolerated; others not. Tax money from the big houses paid for a lot of pothole repair and new police cruisers and raised property values. Affordable housing was too much change. It brought questions of appropriateness or need, overburdening on the sewer system, or preserving wetland.
There was complaining at town meeting when the dry laws were threatened or when the liberals started carping about sanctuary cities, and the conservatives raised specters of brown-skinned illegals carrying drugs and malice, amassed at the town line.
The house on Main had not gotten torn down. Most likely the zoning board or maybe it was the historical commission that had their say. And so, when Forest parked his car, he saw that the old house, stripped bare of its clapboard siding, revealing hundred-year-old boards, was up on ten-foot wooden stilts so you could see clear through underneath it with the whole of the old place up in the air with only those stilts holding it up. He figured they would be building the new part of the house right there under the old one and make it look like nothing had changed except that over the weekend when most folks were eating corn chips waiting for the Superbowl to start, the house got a little taller with a new paint job.
That’s the way it was in the town.
There was a sign up in front of the house up on stilts. A hand lettered sign on a square of brown cardboard. It said Keep Out.
The sign put him in mind of a sign he saw some years back in a painting in a friend’s place, back when he lived in Brooklyn. In the painting, was a man whose age you couldn’t be sure of, sitting on a sidewalk, like you’d see all over the city, his back up against a brick wall, with some graffiti scrawled on it. His face was creased with woe and dark with urban grime. The brown cardboard sign he held in his lap said, “Keep your coins… I want change.”
You and me both, Buddy, he thought. It was himself he saw in the painting. He had always been waiting for change. Waiting for a semblance of justice, compassion, regard.
The things he had seen. Internment, relocation, Auschwitz, McCarthy, Selma, Tuskegee, Viet Nam, Nixon, the Kennedys, King, Evers, Nukes, Iran-Contra, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Trayvon. Truth bleeding out in the middle of the streets. The succession of them. It seemed never to stop. The same cold blue bodies dressed in new clothes. The migrants, the jails filled with tossed-off souls and ruined lives. My god he thought, would he ever live to see change?
Why did the house up on stilts set him off like this?
It was not the house, or the town. It was the totality of it all. The constancy of breaking news that was breaking him.
The raised-up house on wooden stilts was the wooden desk above his head in the grade school atomic bomb drills. The crass, lying, bald-faced futility of it. To keep you from thinking about why there were bombs falling from the skies at all. The crass, bald-faced lying just to keep it all the same, looking the same. Raising alarms at something to make it seem new rather than the old story that it was.
The thing is, Forest thought, nobody with the power to make change wants things to change. We, he thought, are destined, as Plato might have said, to be forever ruled by evil men or fools, or both.
He removed the key from the ignition and got out of the car, walked across the street, in the fine drizzle that had started, slipped under the strip of curled yellow tape and stepped down. He stood on the freshly-turned russet-colored earth, in the bare, excavated vault under the old house and imagined how, if the wind blew hard enough, or if, by a well-placed blow to the weakest strut, the old house might shift just enough to wrest it off of its tired stilts and cause it to fall like a slow whining bomb upon his bent and worried gray head.