Once a House is Built

by by Nick Gomez-Hall

illustration by by Adriana Gallo

Once a house is built, the idea is that it’s finished. Most houses get lived in for a while and then just sit there getting more and more run down until eventually everyone just gives up and moves to Arizona.

I am a married man now, but before, I used to be a carpenter. I built small houses for people who said their houses were too big, and big houses for people who said their houses were too small. Sometimes people with medium houses would come to my workshop to talk to me, but before they could say anything I would say, “No, your house is the right size.”

The housing business is a hard one. You can be a fine carpenter but things still might not work out. That was the case for me.

The wind was always just so much stronger than my work.

I spent hours and hours on roofs that were blown away by chance gusts, tiles that cracked under a few heavy steps, pipes that burst under just a little too much pressure.

I dealt with the inevitable death of my houses in different ways. At first, I tried to take control. I decided that every time I completed a new portion of a house, from the smallest cabinet to the most elaborate staircase, I would engrave on it, in small lower case letters, a short note about the way that it would eventually fall apart. On the inside left wall of a brick mantle, a tornado, after just eighteen months of infrequent use. The ornate wall moldings of a master bedroom, scratched by cats, and then a fire; what a shame. French doors connecting the living room to the formal dining room, windows broken by children, wood splintered and fallen into neglect.

I continued this for some time, hoping that predicting my work’s eventual death, accurately or not, would help me let go, would allow me to build without inhibition or anxiety. I thought that knowing how my houses would fall apart would make that one moment when I finished the last bit of paint trim and stepped back to take it all in, to gaze upon a completed house in all its glory, perfectly intact, would make that one moment that much better. But it never did.

I found myself doing poor work on purpose, cutting corners on construction, ignoring glaring stylistic flaws. I reasoned that if it wasn’t going to last forever then there was little point in trying.

Eventually, I stopped building houses altogether. As I mentioned before, I met a girl and we got married. I thought having someone else around would keep my mind off of houses, and it did for a while. But lately, I’ve started to sneak out at nighttime and revisit the sites of all my old houses. The stately Victorians, the simple cottages, the narrow Brownstones. They’re all dilapidated and empty, abandoned by sad families who’ve moved on to Arizona.

I walk through my old houses with the coldest feeling in my throat, noticing every scuff, every rupture, every hole, every crack, and every burn, until I just can’t take it anymore. I gather all the broken appliances and worn pieces of furniture that have been left behind and take them out to the backyard. I find toaster ovens, couches, toilets, mirrors, rugs, televisions, desks, and refrigerators, and I pile them up in the dirt yard as high as they’ll go. When there is absolutely nothing left inside the house, I strike a small match and I light the pile on fire.

Sometimes I stay through the night and into the early morning, watching the flames climb high into the sky and then sink slowly back to the ground.