At The End, There Will Be Strangers

Tom Zoellner

My grandmother lived for 61 years in a hand-built ranch house on Mockingbird Lane in Paradise Valley, Arizona. I had known it all my life: playing there as an infant, staying there for long periods of time between jobs, coming over for dinner on Monday nights.

Grandmother had died at the age of 96 from a swarm of maladies that prey on the elderly – congestive heart failure, diabetes, complications from a broken hip — and after we buried her ashes, we went about selling the house in our usual dilatory way.

This took four years. Eventually, a buyer stepped forward: a wealthy Canadian family who would, of course, tear down the house and erect a mansion more congruent with what the neighborhood had become.

Though grandmother died almost penniless, the land beneath the house was now far too valuable to be anything other than a platform for another rambling faux-Florentine palace common to the eastern margins of metropolitan Phoenix where the money had come to settle. Her grandfather acquired the land under the Homestead Act before Arizona was even admitted as a state in 1912 and had tried to farm the brittle soil without luck.

I had rather enjoyed the fact that our adobe and tarpaper house was now among the lowest-assessed properties within the richest ZIP code in Arizona, looking like a chunk of defiant Appalachian poverty had been bivouacked in the midst of private tennis courts, infinity pools, and emerald lawns. Now our house faced its invariable destiny: it was to be erased.

I had called up the buying family to see if I might be told the date of destruction. They complied, though without enthusiasm. And here was a dilemma: what good would it do to watch this destruction? It would be the opposite of pleasure, so what did I hope to gain? The end-of-life is nearly always bad for objects and people alike; the romance of the deathbed is a famous lie of literature.

Guilt drove me toward a decision. My grandmother, with whom I had been close, broke her hip getting out of the car when she was coming to watch me at a public event. That fracture was the beginning of her decline, as it is for most nonagenarians who break a hip – the bones there have deteriorated to thin glass. At last confined to her bed, in the same room where her second husband had put a gun to his head one night in 1962, she lived only about eight more months, sleeping longer and longer, fed and changed by my Aunt Diane.

Most of us will end like this, broken and helpless. I had waited there three days through a period of non-responsiveness and then decided to slip out for a few hours to go on a hike with a friend. Her breath quickened, shortened and stopped while I was away, an absence that has haunted me since. Perhaps it was also the morbidity of knowing that if I missed the destruction of the house, there could never be a repeat. I would never have a second chance. It is hard not to anthropomorphize a well-loved house – especially a little one – and I didn’t want its death to be unattended.

So on the night of April 25, 2017, I taught a graduate course until 9 p.m. and then got into my car for the six-hour night drive across the Mojave Desert and into Arizona. On the way, I stopped at a sad little convenience store off the highway for a six-pack. I would have gotten Coors, my grandmother’s favorite beer, but they stocked only Bud Light. I stole into town shortly after 3 a.m. and turned off Mockingbird Lane into the driveway to see that every piece of vegetation had been scraped away from the lot. The pepper tree I had climbed as a boy. The larrea tridentate plants known as greasewood that lives for centuries and releases fragrant wafts of creosote after rainstorms. The orange tree with the white-painted truck in the backyard. All gone, as though they had never existed.

Three powerful sprinklers were set out like howitzers in strategic places around the property, sending out curtains of water to keep the dust down. The sight was post-apocalyptic, looking like nothing so much as a federal reclamation of a uranium mine. The spiky palm trees of the much-wealthier neighbors next door peered down onto a lunar surface. In the middle of all of it was the house, or what was left of it. This was its last night on earth.

The front door had been torn off.  I went into the entryway, and there was the slightly sloped corridor and the venue of one of my earliest memories: riding a Playskool toy car. On the wall, there had been a cherished object: a certificate signed by the governor of Arizona congratulating my grandmother on 35 years of service. To the left was the rock-walled indoor planter that had once been full of lantana flowers, anchoring an empty living room stripped of carpet. This was the only part still mostly intact. It was in this room that my father had come to pick up my mother on their very first date. He had stumbled on the four-inch step that separated the living room from the hallway, a gesture that had weirdly charmed my mother. I was then eight years away from conception, though neither of them could have foreseen it that night.

My grandmother had always said she was leaving the house “feet first,” by which she meant she’d never go to a nursing home, which she dreaded. The night she died, two young men had shown up from the mortuary in a white van without windows. They wore white shirts, dark pants, cheap ties. They bagged up my grandmother’s body in a zippered bag. “I have an odd request,” I told them, and they agreed to carry her out the door leading with the feet, which put me in mind of the Wallace Stevens poem about a lonely woman’s funeral wake, “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” If her horny feet protrude, they come/To show how cold she is, and dumb/Let the lamp affix its beam/The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

The two young men looked no older than college age; one was Filipino, the other white. They were grim and clumsily efficient. I could smell cigarettes on one of them as I held the door for them so they could accomplish grandmother’s small victory of place and longevity.

When the body had been loaded into the white van, the doors closed, they shook my hand as if in conclusion of a transaction. At every end, there will be strangers like this. They will handle the details. They will clean up the mess. Not only will they not know your story, they will barely know your name. They disappeared into the van and I never saw them again.

I peered into the wreckage of the bedroom. The roof had been knocked in by one of the backhoes, and the internal beams lay exposed for the first time since they had been nailed in place and covered with plaster when Harry Truman was president. They spread open diagonally like the spines of an insane fan. The bathroom wall had been completely collapsed; the submerged pink bathtub had been pulled out like a tooth, bits of wallboard and wood and insulation lay everywhere. Vertical blinds fluttered in the space where a sliding patio door used to be. I felt as though this room was blaming me for its mortal wound; I felt it was not wrong.

The family room was even worse; the roof totally ripped away, the scene dominated by a mound of mud that had once been adobe bricks made by my step-grandfather, a surreal pattering of rain coming from the open sky every thirty seconds or so. It took a few passings of this for me to realize it was coming from the outside construction sprinklers. The room that had been the scene of hundreds of thousands of dinner conversations and a long series of annual Christmas mornings looked like it had been bombed in an air raid. The chimney, the kitchen counter, the pantry with the door that had felt like corduroy: all of it appeared in 4 a.m. shades of dark gray, a state of neither being or not being. I had always loved the view out the back window of the McDowell Mountains; now I could not even see it because a pile of debris blocked it.

Another dousing of water from the sprinkler drove me from the ruins of the living room, back out the front door to the antiseptic plain of what used to be seventy years worth of desert vegetation, which lay bulldozed and squared off in a tidy heap at the corner of the lot. I went over the bald place where the vanished carport used to be, and to the half-broken south wall of the bedroom where my uncle Fred had spent nearly all his life. He had been a brilliant ne’er do well; a college dropout and a charming loner who never found a job up to his talents and whiled away his time tinkering with obsolete electronics and watching great gluts of network television. Growing up on the edge of the sixties upheavals turned him into an admirer of Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut, though I never saw him read anything other than the newspaper. He had been a strict atheist with an aversion for talking about death or larger meanings, and he succumbed to a sudden onset of acute leukemia one year after marrying for the first time at the age of 62 and bringing my new aunt Diane here. This space had been his cell for almost all his life. The closet had been stuffed with ancient motherboards; the workbench had drawers with a hundred varieties of alligator clips and screws.

He didn’t perish in here like grandmother – that happened in the IC unit at nearby Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center –but the broke-open state of his room reminded me of the death-ritual of the Navajo. Their traditional homes made of mud and branches are called hogans, and nobody is supposed to die inside one because their spirit, or chindi, will be trapped in the structure. The sick are taken outside to perish in the open air. If somebody accidentally perishes inside, the family had to punch a hole in the north wall to let the chindi escape and then never live in the house again. I collected a mud brick as a souvenir and put it in the trunk of the car. Then I sat in the driver’s seat and drank a lukewarm beer, toasting my vanished relatives.

In the last hour before dawn, I went back twice more inside the vacant living room, not wanting to leave the house just yet, not wanting it to be the final time. I touched the cold stones on the planter, peered into the wreckage of my grandmother’s bedroom, unable to really see the spindly fan of what used to be the roof. Within a few hours, even that would be gone. Dumpsters lay outside to receive the scattered materials of what the house had been. The particles would exist, but the essence would be forever destroyed. What made it whole – the thing I remembered — could never be replaced.

From a long-ago college course on Renaissance poetry, I could remember a line from John Donne: “And to your scattered bodies go.” He had been talking about the last judgment and the old Christian folk belief that the resurrection of the dead would be a pell-mell dash of spirits around the globe, looking for the dust and bone fragments that had once been the suit of flesh that they had worn when they were alive.

Two months before this night, I had been on a hiking trip to the Grand Canyon with a friend I had known since I was nine years old. I could see the wrinkles fanning in his eyes; the years on his face, the same way he probably saw the age creeping on my own. We had a spare two hours before he dropped me off at the Phoenix airport and – thinking it might be the last time I would see it – I asked him to drive me past the Mockingbird house, which had looked then slightly less vulnerable and pathetic, though it had been marked for destruction. The electrical wiring had been stripped from it already; it was being dressed like a corpse. In a sardonic mood, I mentioned this comparison to him, and he told me about how, during his work as a U.S. diplomatic officer in Morocco, he had been responsible for supervising the repatriation of the bodies of Americans who died overseas. Eventually, he got used to it. “They are the shells,” he told me. “You can’t think of them as people. The life has gone.”

Arizona isn’t big on monuments. Since the 1950s, the economy has relied on perpetual homebuilding and newness. There is not a lot of room for the unbeautiful residue of a different time. My grandmother was the daughter of a minor courthouse official who made extra money delivering laundry. She worked as a civil servant all her life – for the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Depression, then for the county, then for the State Highway Department. She suffered two flawed husbands, her father’s early death, a life of thankless work, watching eastern Phoenix shift from the end of its agricultural frontier into a sprawling blanket of semi-urban prosperity and absentee ownership. I never heard her complain about anything. Once I asked her if she ever resented all the outside wealth that had spring up around her tiny square of earth, and she answered with an emphatic no. “Because I was here first,” she said.

As the sky began to lighten, I went back to my car and drank one more beer, staring at the rectangular form of my grandmother’s house. Eventually, I fell into a thin soup of unconsciousness and came back to awareness of sun beating down into the car’s interior and a guy who had come onto the property. I got out, blearily, and said hello. His name was Laswavian, a temp laborer who had gotten to the job site early, and we made conversation. He had worked as a motel manager for the last decade, gotten divorced, and arrived here on the bus for this temp gig that paid $11 per hour. Then the guy who would be doing the destruction drove up. His name was Matt, and he shook my hand and looked away. The neighbors had complained the other day when they started to strip the vegetation away in the early morning, he told me, and they agreed not to destroy the house until 11 a.m. The wreckage would be loaded into the large dumpsters and taken to two separate landfills.

Despite the circumstances, I wanted to be friendly and told him: “Take it down gently.” He only said: “uh-huh.”

A car slowed down as it passed by, the driver gawking, and I wondered if it might be one of the neighbors. Perhaps one who had not liked the sight of my grandmother’s modest house in the midst of such a posh enclave. So that unsightly thing is finally coming down, they might have thought. Good. My eyes burned with lack of sleep.

At 10:30, Matt began removing the yellow caution tape from around the house. A black BMW came into the driveway and out stepped a burly man of about 60 years old. He was wearing Birkenstock sandals with no socks who I took to be the scion of the Canadian family. He regarded me suspiciously and I went to introduce myself. We had spoken on the phone, I reminded him. I was the representative of the family who had owned the property and he had given me permission to be here. “Great, great,” he said. They would be building their own house soon, and though he didn’t describe it, I imagined the same rambling Arizona mansions that had gone up all around the valley, with wine cellars, spiral staircases, and turrets fashioned after the castles of 18th-century Italian strongmen.

“We want to get closer to the amenities you guy’s have enjoyed all these years,” he said.

Amenities, I thought. A luxury real-estate term. Grandmother had worked as a civil servant for 35 years, keeping her two children fed and clothed while hovering just above the poverty line. Her first husband had deserted her; her second husband had shot himself in the bedroom. Who did he think we were? I suddenly felt bright vermillion hate for this person on the land that was no longer ours. I wanted to punch him in his smug mouth. But it was now his property, this holy ground of my childhood, and I was only an invited guest who could be asked to leave at a moment’s notice.

As it happened, this family had made their money through a chain of nursing homes designed for Alzheimer’s patients. The concept was called “Memory Care.”  As the resident loses their ability to recall basic details of how to brush their teeth, go to the bathroom or recognize their relatives, the staff is supposed to be on hand with brain-fitness exercises and social activities to make their recollection last as long as possible.

This Mockingbird house was a chamber of recollections, and like the brain itself, it would not endure forever. Because my mother grew up here and went to the nearby university where she met my father, I came about. And one day I will be gone, along with the last people who recalled the pleasant damp odor of the foyer, the poky straw in the adobe bricks, the refrigerator on the patio with the pull-handle, the smell of oranges, dogs cigarettes and enchiladas. Photographs in albums show the family project that erecting this house had been: the mixed concrete, the trowels and plaster, my uncle Fred as an eight-year-old playing on the rafters of the little structure where he would spend his reclusive life, and which would have such an outsized role in my personal history: a dependable geography. Now it was headed for the landfill; obliteration written in its essence.

The owner walked over to Matt, who was getting ready to fire up the John Deere 554K Wheel Loader.

“It’s starting to look like a building pad, huh?” he said, turning to me with a grin that was, I think, intended to be friendly. “Now you can see what it looks like without all the growth.”

A building pad. He had not asked me anything about the house that was about to be wiped away, or anything about those who had lived there. His face was childlike; delighted even. I decided I didn’t want to talk to him any more, not a single word more, and I walked off to another part of the emptiness that had been the front yard. And then Matt moved in with the Wheel Loader. The claw bucket reached toward the living room window like a grasping hand. The window broke with an audible crash, and the sun-stained ivory blinds fluttered, alarmed, in the new wind, as though they were panicking.

I had been cautioned ahead of time that houses come down fast. In the next sixty seconds, the rock planter was completely broken up, its brown stones tossed to the side on a heap of dead rabbitbrush. Insulation that had not been exposed in six decades spilled out into the sun. The roofbeams made loud clapping sounds as they fell into the cavity of the living room, and the kitchen window that faced the street – out of which my grandmother had looked as she cooked 61 years of meals – collapsed in a barely audible tinkle amid the grumble and whine of the Wheel Loader. Matt used it as a battering ram against everything that stood.

The last intact part to go was the chimney, which had been the first part of to the house to be put up by Fred von Blume, a newly-returned veteran of World War II who had married my grandmother. He carried with him the traumatic stress of combat that would eventually take his life, but this had been a happy and hopeful time for him. Western landscapes had been his passion since he was an orphan growing up in a charity home outside Chicago, and he excitedly had called this two-acre lot “The Lazy B Ranch” and insisted that all the family members answer the phone that way. His home-taught masonry wasn’t perfect and there were little bits of horse and cow dung embedded in some of the bricks he patted into shape, but the chimney had been the visual centerpiece of the house, with a wood mantle inlaid with diamond-shaped apertures backed with copper leaf and a starburst clock fastened to the face. When it collapsed after several hits, it went in a spray and downpour of light brown powder, the bricks atomizing into the soil they had once been.

The entire operation took six minutes. What had been our house lay heaped in an unruly pile that looked shockingly diminutive. With I glanced at the scion standing next to his black BMW and felt the impotent anger that the dead might feel toward the living, the fury of a grieving parent toward a drunk driver who had killed a child, the heartsick impotence that a serf might feel when a royal has exercised droit du seigneur on his wife. I felt sorry that I had shaken his hand.

None of it was logical. Better manners on his part would not have changed the reality even a tiny bit. Possession was the entire law. The strangers at the end are powerless to help or hurt; they are as indifferent and constant as the state of matter itself. He paid me no attention as I walked toward my car.

Memory is as fragile as a dirt brick, solid for years and then demolished in a few seconds. I wondered how long the Canadians’ new mansion would last and what might happen on the day it fell for whatever might replace it, the mute and uncomprehending ground beneath it another building pad. By then, I would likely be gone, too, and there would be nobody who could piece together the layers underneath or who would even remember that a scruffy modernist ranch house had been there in the latter half of the 20th century, and been the gravitational center of our lives.

On my way out of Paradise Valley, I could not help but picture a clawhammer bucket ramming against the side of every elephantine manor house I drove past, even the freshly-built ones, and all of it collapsing in an enveloping cloud of brown dust.

Tom Zoellner is an associate professor of English at Chapman University.

Photography by Kyle Pitocchelli.