CONJUNCTIONS:68, Inside Out (Spring 2017)

The House That Jack Built
John Madera


This is the house that Jack built, an “existential reflection,” as she’d have it, its frame and foundation made of earth-packed rubber tires, the driveway itself made of rubberized asphalt, the crumb rubber and concrete amalgam a noise reducer, the jalopy, whenever it left the garage, which was rare, making nary a sound as it rolled along the long driveway, Jack preferring to walk whenever she went somewhere, which wasn’t often, not if she could help it, she’d say, or think—she wasn’t sure anymore—and what did it matter, since there wasn’t anyone to overhear, the days when students came over long over, Jack hating the university’s classrooms, those “claustrophobia-causing boxes” with their “sullen walls,” thin photovoltaic panels set within her house’s load-bearing walls, which she considered dermal, bark-like, the house rarely receiving visitors of any kind nowadays, the busybody next door occasionally “popping in,” notwithstanding, he, former rat racer, actually enjoying Jack’s delivering lecture snippets about building and dwelling, about how the body “inscribes space,” she referencing Mali’s Dogon society’s houses and settlements’ esoteric anthropomorphisms; Carlo Mollino’s guêpière-garbed voluptuary’s torso-inspired Teatro Regio in Turin; Santiago Calatrava’s L’Hemisfèric, that “ever-discerning eyeball”; Frank Gehry’s Dancing House—“Fred and Ginger’s swerve, elegance, and élan rendered in steel and glass”—said minilectures invariably landing on the doorstep of Womanhouse, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s famed feminist installation and performance space, Jack sometimes tangentially referring to “Edith’s House,” a 108-year-old farmhouse, its eponymous owner a real estate holdout, who’d famously rejected hundreds of thousands of dollars to allow her house to be torn down to make room for a five-story commercial monstrosity—“But what about the red house over yonder?” the neighbor would ask. “Way back yonder ’cross the hill?” Jack would respond.


This is the desert surrounding the sustainable house that Jack built, no grim wasteland but a smeary palette of raw and burnt umber, whimsically shaped cacti standing in clumps, their arms prayerfully upraised, mountains in the distance jutting out from the sandy expanse, she having moved there decades ago, away from “the megalopolis and its sky-pricking phalluses,” its concession-cart hot dogs marinating in tepid water, its rock pigeon shit smearing down windshields, etcetera, etcetera, the comparative silence of the sandy surroundings conducive to her work, the house a sanctum sanctorum, a space where Jack could design zones free of binaries, essentialisms, fixed taxonomies, and “all those other hang-ups,” where Jack would work, work, work, her skin tinctured pink by the sun, her granitic hands sweeping across toothy vellum, drawing lines, erasing lines, Jack shifting her head, squinting, drawing again, erasing again, her graphite-blackened palm brushing away gray eraser fibers, Jack drawing again, her marks a crosshatched nest, a net capturing volume, light, and space, Jack always wanting something beyond marks on a page, beyond art—“the map isn’t the landscape,” she’d say—but there was something missing, always some thing missing, thus always this obsessive searching, where lines situated forms in space, thus these explorations, delineations of the “where” where every thing is related to everything else, thus these lines, through lines, searching lines—a line a dot out for a walk, as Klee said—lines and lines and lines, relentless whorls, linear “excavations,” like Rodin’s turbulent surfaces—where, as Rilke said, “nothing necessary was lacking”—Jack drawing and erasing until she ripped a hole in the paper, whereupon she’d laugh, a “queer divine dissatisfaction,” as Martha Graham would say, settling upon her.


This is the window overlooking the desert surrounding the house—a meditation on wall and floor and roof—that Jack built, a massive circle of glass overlaying a massive square of glass, or vice versa, who could say, inspired by da Vinci’s Le proporzioni del corpo umano secondo Vitruvio, which realized the Roman architect’s claim about proportion and, by extension, the assertion of “man” as microcosm, as measure of all things, ideas Jack—who often stood there before the window, her quick brown eyes scanning the arid stretch—flatly rejected, the image nevertheless still serving as inspiration, Jack still revering the so-called triad of virtues: firmitas, utilitas, venustas; and wasn’t this house solid, useful, and beautiful?, its rammed-earth-encased-in-steel-belted-rubber walls making it virtually indestructible, its heavy, dense mass making it a battery to store heat, these structural aspects making it durable and sustainable, yes, a house that took care of itself, yes, but also making it beautiful, its wide-open spaces, odd-shaped windows, curvaceous columns, and arabesqueing walls, not to mention the textiles hanging from walls, draped over furniture, twisting around banisters and handrails, further individuating its beauty, the house, a museum too, filled with paintings and sculptures they’d purchased over the years, like Jack’s beloved “rusts,” metallic entanglings made of discarded steelworks, the organized whole making it beautiful, the house not just warmly lived-in but so seemingly alive in its own right you could almost hear it breathe, hear its heart beat, Mní, her long-dead partner, still somehow present, not as some ghastly apparition or even friendly phantasm, but imbued within the house’s materials, its substance, its elemental composition, memories somehow actually taking form, Jack sensing this presence, feeling it as something real but still always just out of grasp, Jack also mixed within those selfsame walls, for hadn’t she been inspired by hornets, paper wasps, and yellow jackets, who mix masticated wood bits and their own saliva to make their nests, and by Formosan termites, who build their nests with wood, dirt, and their own feces, forming a “scatological force field,” to mix her own spit and shit and menses within the walls of the house she’d built so many years ago?


This is the cat who gazed out the window overlooking the desert surrounding the house, a “smarter house” Jack had called it after the cyber attacks that wreaked havoc on residential artificial intelligence systems a few years ago, millions of people not only unable to use their houses’ tactile displays—interconnected appliances, entertainment centers, etc., left to their “own devices,” ha ha—but unable even to enter or exit their houses, the house that Jack built, where “time had stopped,” as many had insultingly claimed, left unharmed, the house where the cat sat as always, his eyes seemingly vacant, every blink a judgment, who seemed asleep even when awake and vice versa, Jack, her once angular nose, slit-like mouth, and chiseled chin a bit limp these days, still taking care of him despite never really caring for him, Hopper, the cat, having belonged to Mní, who’d claimed that according to myth cats were the moon’s progeny, Mní devotedly following the lunar phases, cats, for her, also representing fertility and eternity, the intuitive and the unconscious—“Look at the way Hopper wraps his tail around himself,” she’d said, “incarnating the yin and yang,” said symbol annoying Jack, who rejected dichotomous formulations of any kind, such formulations, which Womanhouse at best complicated and interrogated, Jack’s own structures completely dismantled—the cat’s name certainly not endearing him to Jack either, since she’d never cared for his namesake painter, whose spaces and motifs—offices, diners, movie theaters, etc.—those “domains emblematic of American dread and decay,” bored her, his paintings of women in bedrooms, and Morning Sun (where a strangely proportioned woman gazes out a square-shaped window, the width of which oddly equaling that of the bed upon which she sat), particularly, making her angry.


This is the dog afraid of the mask-and-mantle cat, who gazed, orange eyed, out the window overlooking the desert surrounding the house that Jack built, the dog a whippet–border collie mix, all genius and velocity, in other words, the evening he arrived finding him gathering all the shoes in the house, from underneath beds, chairs, and tables, by all the entrances, subsequently lining up the flats, heels, sneakers, and boots in neat rows, Jack finally calling him Maddox, the dog always sitting at her feet at meals, the kitchen and dining room—where windows also overlooked the desert—far too spacious for two, the cabinet and table and floor’s reflective surfaces electrifying the space, Jack remembering the last meal she and Mní had eaten together, a meal set off with a butter-poached lobster soup, followed by crème fraîche agnolotti (a succulent, exceedingly soft ravioli of sorts), and a turkey-fig concoction that was both ambrosia and aphrodisiac, these appetizers followed by Chilean sea bass surrounded by smoked eggplant puree, wilted arugula, and garlic confit, and marinated cherry tomatoes, one of the orbs of which squirting juice on Jack’s neck when she’d forked into it, the meal punctuated by a trio of sorbets: scoops of strawberry, raspberry, and peach on pebbly beds of walnut nougatine, all of which had made her want to sing, and she had, silently, the song reverberating in her chest, the way Monk’s music would, particularly the pieces from Misterioso, an album Jack listened to repeatedly, the maestro’s disjunctive compositions, melodic angularities, and his singular approach to soloing, with its various delays and knowing dissonance, its humor too, largely deadpan, with the occasional pratfall—Monk sounding, at times, as if he were falling up the stairs, “accidentally on purpose,” of course, but unexpected all the same—all working together to itself create space, “a sonic architecture,” Jack thought, The Seer, one of Giorgio de Chirico’s pittura metafisica, used for the original album cover, the image, with its contradictory orthogonals and vanishing points, a source of continual inspiration to Jack, who also loved, and was sometimes even unnerved by, the painting’s eerie, and seemingly armless, manikin, an L-shaped hinge scale nevertheless held by it, its egg-shaped head turning away from a chalkboard drawing, a solitary, encircled star for an eye on its forehead, a third eye—the first and second presumably blind—a locus of insight and power bathed in light.


This is the door that let out the always fidgety dog, who was especially afraid of Hopper, an indoor-outdoor cat, who’d already established himself as hunter par excellence by placing mice and birds in conspicuous areas of the house: at either end of the various serpentine hallways, in the center of the living room, where light pouring from the massive circular ceiling window would brilliantly enframe the “gifts,” the cat, who gazed out the window overlooking the desert surrounding the house that Jack built, the house with four doors, one for each cardinal direction, a door without locks, a door always an “energetic possibility,” Jack would say, the stresses within itself, that is, exit and entrance, opening and closure, etc., adding up to the same thing, that is, possibility, Jack’s parents, who’d once been held at gun-point in their home in the Deep South by desperate meth heads, always worrying over whether she and Mní were actually ever safe in their unlocked house, her parents equating locks with safety, implying that an unlocked house could never be a home, a notion that Jack, who created inclusive spaces, could never support, but they too had long since passed, her mother of breast cancer, her father, always the weaker of the two, dying of a kind of willful withering away, Mní, in any case, always ready to move house if they had to, her having been born in a military-issue tent pitched near an endangered riverbank perhaps having something to do with it, her having stayed in one place for decades surprising her more than anyone else.


This is the neighbor who opened the door that let out the dog who was afraid of the cat who gazed out the window overlooking the desert surrounding the house that Jack built, the neighbor—whose sixty years found expression in an overall concavity of form, in his skin’s constellation of flat black and brown spots—once again fulfilling his promise to Mní to periodically check in on Jack, the neighbor surprised by Maddox’s mad rush to leave the house, his commands to the dog meeting with failure, his subsequent calls to Jack met with silence as he stamped his sandy boots on the entrance mat, the neighbor shouting for Jack as he walked through the foyer, the floor’s fibrous appearance calling up a hot spring’s calcareous deposits, Maddox still standing outside the door, barking his refusals—or were they warnings?—the neighbor, two dark buttons for eyes, fearing the worst as he entered the living room, the massive circumference of it shushing him, the walls’ aggregated structure resembling the quincuncial pattern of a cluster of pomegranate seeds, the neighbor climbing up one of the house’s spiraling stairs, and arriving at the landing, where he called out to Jack, who, he imagined, would be in her work space, the neighbor picturing Jack slumped over her desk, imagining tapping Jack’s shoulder, touching her face, the skin feeling like a hairless cat’s, or something even creepier, his forearms tingling, his knees wobbling, his stomach a cold stone, the neighbor imagining Jack’s face looking like oven-fresh pizza, her slack nose and chin and cheeks chewed off by the dog and cat, the neighbor, a veteran of this country’s perpetual war, recalling his first tour of duty, months into which he’d found a child dead—bloody lines radiating calligraphically beneath the body—the child naked, his or her skin dark brown like a wet paper bag, the body bloated, as if he or she had swallowed a watermelon whole, the child’s face drawn into a fierce rictus, teeth flashing a maniacal smile, which mocked his silent repulsion, itself a kind of reverie, viscous liquid flowing from the child’s rectum: a chasm of darkness, like death itself, a wormhole sucking him in, disintegrating his body, balling it up as pure energy, sucking it through a long tunnel, his body finally reemerging whole again on the other side, the other side of what he hadn’t cared to find out, the neighbor finally entering Jack’s work space but finding nothing, nothing save walls lined with books, piles of magazines here and there, various ergonomic chairs, rulers and tape measures and engineering scales, rolls of onionskin paper, and long white tables—lamps craned over them—and long, lateral file cabinets, the neighbor, realizing the house was empty, retracing his steps, leaving the house, wondering where the dog had gone, where Jack, who’d built this house, had gone, the neighbor finally thinking, “She’s taking a walk,” the thought subsumed by a succession of images, movements, sensations: lemon-yellow sun; Jack waking up from an uneasy, dreamless slumber; Jack, static; a spiraling stair; a door opening; the desert, vast, quiet, full of daybreak; Jack walking and walking; Jack disappearing; footsteps dotting the sand as far as the eye could see; wind eventually blowing the perforation away.



John Madera’s work has appeared in Conjunctions, Bookforum, American Book Review, The Believer, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.