The Dream House of Archie Katz
Archie Katz came up the canyon from the highway in a jeep, following one of the almost invisible roads the Riddles had cut. Is this a road or isn't it? he must have thought. He parked under an oak tree, and looked at his map and looked out over the Pacific ocean. Butterflies sailed over his head. At the base of the yellow field, marked with a cyclone fence, was such a cliff as the one in King Lear, which the Earl of Gloucester was led to believe he had walked over.
Archie could not see any signs of human beings except, a long way down, some parts of the road. He searched around to see if there were any people living up there. After a while, over a ridge and to the south he found the Riddles, Harrison, Charity, and their two growing-up sons. In fact they sometimes grazed some thinnish cattle in the field he was interested in. They didn't own it, however. They themselves were tenants of a landlord from Los Angeles, the Riddle family having lost title to the land to a bank a generation ago.
What would you want to do with the field? Harrison asked.
I would build the house of my dreams, said Archie.
A week later he returned to the field in a van, with a geologist. A few cows who were there at the time gathered in around them, out of curiosity. Those cows had a quiet life, and to them Archie and the geologist and the geologist's testing apparatus were like the Folies Bergère of Paris.
Apparently the geologist could not come to any conclusion. It was not true to say, the geologist affirmed, that the field was on a fault line. Not exactly. If you had to say there was a line -- hmmm -- you had to say this line was miles away. The way to think of it, said the geologist, was to recall the cracked glaze on an old plate, or the cracks in a sheet of mud thats dried in the sun. That of course didn't really contain the complexity of it. There are lots and lots of little cracks going up, down, north, south, east, west, sideways.
OK, can I build here is what I want to know? Archie asked.
But he couldn't get a straight answer from this cowardly geologist, who had a brain like a corkscrew. He couldn't get yes and he couldn't get no. There was an element of risk: that was as far as the scientist was willing to stick his neck out.
Archie bought the meadow. And the ridge above it. Little crooked skittery trails went up through the manzanita and sticky monkey flower, snake territory, to a region of granite.
Earth moving machines appeared, busy, limber things, with yellow, rusty extensible arms and claws and draggers. Harrison saw smoke and went up to explain how dangerous fire was up there, in case they didn't know already. Archie was living in a tent and had a shower rigged up by the stream on a tree. Harrison invited him to supper.
The Riddles made Archie welcome, this time and all the later times. They would take the stuff off a chair so he could sit down and shove over one of the dogs. He was curious about the Riddle house. He had never seen a place, he said, with so many things in it. Some of the things he couldn't tell, he said, if they were decorations, or someone had just put them down and forgot them, possibly a generation or two ago. The Riddle place was rambling, and had a lot of outbuildings and sheds, and it seemed that nothing at all had ever been thrown away. Archie found an old telephone on a shelf in the kitchen, the kind you have to crank. But he wasn't just interested or curious about the clutter. He liked the Riddles and they liked him. He looked up to Harrison and appreciated Charity's restless curiosity.
They built a road first at Archie Katz's place. Archie had a yellow tin hat. Harrison was an artist with an earth mover, and knew about the rains up there and could have told them all a thing or two about their road, but he refrained.
Archie would have a shower at the end of a day and put on clean clothes and drive over to visit with the Riddles in the evening. They all ate a lot. Charity cooked meat loaf with mashed potatoes and green beans, and spaghetti and meat balls. One time there was a steelhead Charity had caught more or less by accident in the creek, and they had charcoal grilled fish steaks.
They drank red wine and talked about the U.S.A. Going to Hell in a handbasket, according to Harrison.
Archie talked about his business life, but not much about his personal life. He had a wife, named Titania, he didn't talk about, and he had two children who were in a boarding school back east.
He was a man who made a lot of money and, while he was doing it, he said he would get out someday and no one believed him. He often said what he thought in business, and, according to him, even said what he was going to do next to his competitors, and was not believed. Why he made so much money is a mystery. He said it was just a game to him. What he found almost unbelievable was that the less he cared about the result the better he played.
Are you bullshitting us? Harrison asked. All his working life, Harrison had struggled to meet payments on bank loans. He could not believe that the men who held the reins got rich by not caring about it.
It was not just not caring, Archie allowed. The difference between me and most people in business, said Archie, is that most people worry about things and I think about them. I look ahead and see what the possible outcomes of something might be, and I decide what to do in each case. A lot of people, it seems to me, just hope that what they want to happen will happen. And as soon as it doesn't, they panic.
And they would come to him in a sweat and say: what do I do now? It was hard for him to understand why they hadn't thought about it until that moment.
According to his way of explaining it, he was not particularly dishonest, although he might have cut a few corners in an ordinary way.
One weekend after they started laying the foundation, Archie's wife Titania came to visit the house. There was a shocking scene of discord. It seems the minute she arrived they started shouting at each other. She didn't like it there, she said, and she never would. He replied that she never never liked anything that meant anything to him. They leaned forward and cupped out their lips and got red and shouted right in front of everybody.
Archie calmed her down, and then they started again.
She said the grass was full of ticks and you could get blood poisoning from being bitten. Also it was crawling with rattle snakes and surrounded with poison oak. All these remarks were fairly true.
They heated up. She told Archie off about the whole project, and said many other things. I'm allergic to pollen, she said. I already have a rash coming up. No I could never live here, she said. This is not my place. My place is in the city with my friends.
We could get air conditioning, Archie said. There aren't many rattle snakes. I love it here, he insisted.
It does not mean anything to me, can't you get that through your thick head? she replied in a rage. There is nothing for me here.
The men in the hard hats and Harrison scuffed their feet and acted like they weren't listening at all.
You feel important here, she continued. It is all organised around you. But as usual I am not consulted. As usual you expect to wipe me out and walk all over me, she yelled. I am sick and tired of being ignored and abused and insulted by you, was her final public statement.
Archie took her off into the shade, down by the babbling creek, where, incidentally, he had placed a bottle of champagne. There was a lot more telling off, her to him. Then she went back to the city.
Naturally, she had cause to be annoyed if he hadn't discussed the plans of the house with her. And she may have had other reasons, but even taking that into account, Harrison considered that she had been unnecessarily rude.
Archie was shaken by her visit. His face got dark and wizened for a while. Harrison felt sorry for him.
You ought to tell her to get her ass up here and help out, he advised. You ought to stand up to her and make her respect you. Use your backbone.
There's no hope of backbone, said Archie, looking woebegone. I'm a lunatic. I'm in love with my wife. Did you ever hear of anything like that?
Harrison was taken aback. Well I don't know about a thing like that, he said. What kind of love are we talking about here?
It's sex, said Archie, sex. She's the only one for me.
Doesn't she love you?
I don't know whether she does or she doesn't, said Archie. It would be almost too much to hope for if she did, wouldn't it?
Harrison and Archie walked all up and down the ridges and back up the creek and they sat on a rock and dangled their feet and puzzled about love, and the nature of women. But they never solved anything.
Charity thought it was mostly just that old story: you treat a man bad and he loves you for it.
Meanwhile, construction of the house continued.
Archie decided that what he wanted to do about Titania was to woo her. She needed poetry, he said. He followed her to the city. Presumably, he took her dancing and gave her flowers and bought her jewelry. And he could be charming.
Is there something wrong with him, from a female viewpoint? Harrison asked. Not a thing wrong, said Charity. I like him a lot.
Why does that woman act that way? Harrison wondered. Archie had told him that she was usually like that. If it wasn't one thing, it was another.
She is a rich woman, Charity said, so she can choose what she wants to do. She intends to make her own choices.
He ought to put his foot down, said Harrison.
A lot of the idea we have about marriage, Charity averred, is just due to not having any choice. I might have left you long ago if I thought I had the option.
Then a crack appeared in the foundation at the Katz building site. It seemed there might be something seriously wrong in the structure of the rock under the meadow. Work was delayed. Experts were called in. A steady stream of trucks came and went. Cement was poured night and day. Archie came and went, claiming he was making progress, and keeping his nerve.
The house neared completion.
Archie planned to marry Titania a second time and simultaneously hold a housewarming party. First the whole meadow was sprayed with DDT. There were cooks and gardeners. Lemon trees were planted. A string quartet was carted in.
Archie's father came. He had yellowing white hair, and looked like a frail ex convict, and had always run a diner in Chicago. He still ran the diner, had to close it down for a week to come to the wedding. He believed in hard work. Work is its own reward, he said, and criticised Archie for having got his money too easy, and by sideways methods. The mother had just wandered off some time long ago. If anyone came to visit his father, Archie said, he made them work in the diner. Get out the mop, he would say. Get your back into it.
The other guests included old friends; and the only neighbours, the Riddles; and a mob of assorted city people, politicians, professors, a priest, a Buddhist monk, a rabbi. There was champagne to drink, and many of the guests were accommodated in a hotel twenty miles down the coast. The whole night resounded with some kind of bass note, which came from Archibald Katz, or from somewhere in his vicinity. Like the sound which comes from the male grasshopper, or a whole field full, when it is time to mate. The wedding took place in the patio, which was lit with paper lanterns. Archibald gently held Titania and lightly kissed her. He was centred on her, and his imagination of her. To her wedding she wore red lipstick and red painted fingernails, and a peach coloured linen suit, and a jade necklace.
The Riddles danced and stayed late, were almost the last to leave. As they departed Archie and Titania waved to them from their doorway. There is a man, said Charity, won't take no for an answer.
Harrison stopped at the gate. Looking back at the lighted house, it's almost enough to make you feel lonely, he said. They hadn't ever had neighbours before.
That night in bed Harrison and Charity considered it. Are they alone now? Charity said. What are they doing now? The giant lust of him... she said. It hardly bears thinking about, said Harrison.
Soon after this another crack appeared in the foundation of the Katz house. It ran along the floor and up one of the walls.
More trucks came and went, and a series of engineers and consultants. They tried to hold it together with cement, they tried steel ties. Whatever they did would look OK for a while and then break.
Titania went back to Philadelphia. The gardeners were sent away. The whole meadow was filled with cement mixers. The rain came and washed the road away. Still, parts of the house looked good from the inside. The bedroom was very comfortable. All the plumbing worked and almost any room in the house had a good view. There was no indication of further slippage. More cracks were filled.
You can pour all the blue circle cement in Pittsburgh in there and it will never work, Harrison told Archie, don't be stupid. Look at the size of the mountain and look at the size of your little cement trucks. You can not change geology with a little stickum. Archie sadly agreed, and went back to the city. Anyone can see it's the wrong place to build a house, said Harrison, irritably. Archie came to see it that way also. Not only did it not happen to work, but it was a rich person's idea to put a house in such a place, an unattractive fantasy. A house up here should be unobtrusive, out of the way, like the Riddle house.
Almost everything in and around the house was left, since it cost more than it was worth to move away. Harrison bought some marble bathtubs cheap. Charity got one of them, and another the cows got to drink out of.
There had always been fires up there in the summers. You had to think of them as natural, although violent. They furnace down through the canyons and the pines explode with the heat and the creek boils. One of these fires crossed the meadow and burned the Katz place. Some of the roof fell in; and the cracks opened a little bit more, in their own time. The rains erased the road the engineers had built. The original Riddle road occasionally washed out too, but the Riddles maintained that one.
Archie sometimes came back and had a talk and a drink with Harrison and Charity. I tried it, he said. I got stung. And I got out. I count myself lucky.
He almost seemed pleased with himself.
The wind blew through the blackened collapsed shell of the Archie Katz house. Birds nested in it, or used it to perch on.
Another thing he said: I don't regret doing it. Not at all.
After several return visits, and a lot of red wine, when it seemed they would always know each other, Harrison dared to ask the question he had always wanted to ask.
Did you get her into bed that wedding night?
Yes, said Archie.
I don't mean to ask you something that's none of my business, said Harrison. You are doing that, said Charity. I'm not going to tell you anything anyway, said Archie, except that we got on fine, as far as I could tell, that first night. I was really pleased with the first night. And no one can tell me that one thing isn't what matters, even if I'm the only one remembers it.