Susanna Salk



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Dashing Decay
Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Today I brought my son to the deserted, tumbled down stone “palace” along the side of the road he’d been eyeing to use in a dream sequence for his film. As we approached we noticed that the owner was there, his old Chevy pulled alongside the building as it often was on Sundays. My son had been hoping he’d sneak a few shots of his actor outside the property and then we’d move on, but now that seemed impossible. “Actually,it’s a good thing he’s here,” I said, pulling right over, although where he was, though, I couldn’t yet see: the place was crammed with building materials, there was a roof, yet no walls. Instead it was a grand skeleton of columns and immense stone columns which still managed to be impressive, striking an impossible balance between decay and life. A thread of smoke curled into the sky. “He’ll feel complimented we want to use the house in a movie. Trust me.” My son and his actor sat hesitantly in the car while I approached a kind of cave-like entrance. It was dark, everywhere was rubble but rubble with a potential use to create: bags of cement, wood planks, tools, mounds of newspaper, wheelbarrows filled with dirt. A fire glowed in a kind of makeshift fireplace. A stout old man in knit hat and a long sleeved t-shirt fed wood into it sitting on a stool and fed it with small bits of wood. I explained we wanted to film a shot or two for a student film, motioning for my son and his friend to come out of the car. The man sized us up and gave us his approval but first asking how much money the school’s tuition cost a year and if the young actor hoped to make as much money as Clark Gable. As they went off to film, I stayed, feeling as much compelled by manners as curiosity to let the man talk. He came here each Sunday he said, “Because it’s my thing. You know, you have your thing, to have your kids and your husband and this house, it is my thing. You see I used to run a wrecking company and all the stuff we’d cart away, it was invaluable: so I brought it here, to build what I hoped would be a summer house for my siblings but they all died before me.” He eschewed creating his own family because most women “were only interested in lipstick and fancy cars. They wouldn’t understand why I’d want to spend time building this.” It was hard to argue with him- he was both content with his fate (as if he was poised in a villa over-looking Lake Cuomo) and in a time warp my fiery feminism couldn’t begin to mess with. He talked about money fiercely and stubbornly, rubbing over its topic like the round, old stones that lay on the arched ceiling above us, trying to impress upon me how so many people were out to take from him- he had chandeliers, pocketwatches, cars- all in spades at his other house but he trusted no one to pay him what he expected for them.
I walked outside to the garden pagoda he had referenced, built to house picnics with his family one summer day. He didn’t express regret that he never finished it (never once did he explain why he had stopped building the house) but he was happy its half-built structure was there. The white columns stood tall and Scarlett O’Hara-worthy yet they were covered by planks whose purpose was/is I was not sure. I thought of what an apt metaphor for his life this all was: the simultaneous invitation and distrust. The desire to dream and the stubbon realziation that often accompanies it. I wondered how much worrying about his possessions, money and this house had ultimately cost him in his life. He was a loner, apparently with no regrets and yet, the house he had built to entertain others was no more a shelter than a mirage. He had been born with imagination, creative muscles that matched his boldily ones yet at one point, deep distrust had taken over and paralyzed whatever lay in its path. “I can’t decide whether to finish the house or sell it as it is,” he told me, as if in only a few weeks he could get the whole thing in tip top shape. “But if I sold it, I’d worry people would want to change it.” As we left he mentioned that he’d get the garden in shape next weeked and he pointed to an area with two high stone circles, their centers crowded with junk but, their parameters carved out and filled with ridges of dirt. Do you mean, all along here, flowers?” I asked. He nodded with certainty. It seemed as preposteorus as Salvador Dali hiring Martha Stewart. He would then attach that stone table top over there, to the base over there to sit inside the circle and admire his flowers. Far away in a heap of scrap metal, I saw the curved of a stone table top. The base lay god knows where. “You’ll be able to bring that over here, by yourself?…”
“I did all this didn’t I?” he said more factually than proud, as though this house all just risen from the earth, thanks to him, just a few days ago, instead of decades. As if, by attaching the top to that base and adding some flowers, it would be the finishing touch on a orderly, cheerful weekend retreat.
We thanked him and headed to our car. As I passed his Chevy I looked in: it was crammed high with newspapers and boxes. On the front seat sat an enormous plastic salad bowl, with a fork at its bottom and the remains of a salad scattered along its rim. I looked back at the man, who was busily collecting more wood. As I drove away, I couldn’t help to look over at the stone garden circle and wonder where the base to the table was.