We’re pleased to present the first part of an excerpt from “Acacia Avenue,” one of the stories featured in Dan DeWeese’s collection Disorder, out now on Propeller Books.
We had just finished lunch and Jansen was still drinking a second highball when he looked out the plate glass window across the restaurant and told me he had been moved by buildings. “I know it’s an odd thing to say, moved by buildings,” he said, “and I don’t know that I’ve ever said it out loud before. But through the window across the room I’ve been watching the side of a building I know nearby. I can only see a section of its west side through the branches of that tree, but that section has changed dramatically over the last ten minutes. I mention it as a way of apologizing if I’ve seemed distracted—though I suppose I also think you might understand.”
Lunch that day was the first time I had seen Jansen in over forty years. By understand, then, he referred either to my career in urban planning, in which I’ve evaluated the relative merits of thousands of real and proposed structures while building one of the largest urban planning consulting firms on the east coast over the last few decades, or to the fact that Jansen and I had been roommates and friends while attending a prestigious liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon, in the late 1950s, and that somehow that bond had held, and there we were, eating lunch together in the twenty-first century. I followed Jansen’s gaze out the window to a five-story building a few blocks away that loomed over the smaller one- and two-story structures that filled the rest of the neighborhood. “The brick apartment building?” I asked.
“It’s been raining most of the time we’ve been here,” he said, nodding. “But ten minutes ago the sun broke through and hit the side of the building. See how the brick looks almost impossibly red?”
“Like a stage set.”
“But it’s real. The brick is actually that red. I noticed it while you were talking about your brother. When I see a building like that, especially in the low-angle sunlight we get in the afternoon this time of year, it reminds me of a person facing a sunset, the way that last daylight flatters human features. So while we’ve been talking, I’ve had a sense that four blocks away that building is waking up—as if it’s on the verge of speaking.”
I told him it looked like a nice building. “They don’t make them that way anymore,” I said, and Jansen agreed that no, they didn’t.
I had gone on to further degrees after college, and spent the intervening decades on the East Coast in pursuit of career success in the cities and family life in their suburbs. Jansen, however, had followed a different path. From what I understood, his family had been wealthy, and he had never held what most people would consider a real job. He had never married, never had any children, never, in fact, lived anywhere other than Portland. We had maintained minimal contact over the decades, primarily through Christmas gifts and cards Jansen sent every year, in which he never failed to ask by name about my wife and children. I, on the other hand, relied on my wife to take care of social niceties at the holidays. Jansen was never anything but a name on an envelope to her, so we often forgot to send him a gift at all, and would mail only a friendly but cursory thank you note some time after New Year’s—and some years I forgot to send even that. When the next Christmas came around, though, there would be the card from Jansen again, accompanied by a tasteful gift: one year it was a leather-bound notebook, another a fountain pen, but most often it was simply a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. The champagne’s cheerful orange label now reminds me of my family’s Christmas dinners, in fact, because so many of those dinners ended with a round of champagne poured from the bottle Jansen had sent us.
But my wife divorced me and moved to California with a real estate developer in the late 1990’s, and my children were grown and on their own. So that fall, when I learned that my father was dying of cancer, I took a leave of absence from work and returned to Portland to take care of him with my younger brother, Paul, who still lived and worked in one of Portland’s suburbs. Even with the help of hospice nurses, caring for my father was intense and exhausting. But since a nurse was there during the day and Paul often drove in after work to pass the evening, I also had long, shapeless stretches of free time that soon began to wear on me as heavily as anything else. At first I checked in daily with my secretary, Dorothy, who has been with me for almost two decades now and who could probably run the firm on her own. She said she knew I was concerned that some of the ambitious junior partners might attempt to take control of the projects I was particularly interested in, and that she had already stymied those projects’ progress in my absence by devising several distracting procedural and bureaucratic knots that the staff was too busy untangling to make any further advances. Eventually, after a week of my calls, she asked if I could please stop pestering her with advice. “We miss you,” she assured me, “and we look forward to your return. But I’m sure there are plenty of things for you to deal with where you are right now, so don’t worry about us.” I spent the next two weeks in a state of aimless disconnection, the formless days floating slowly past, until finally I called Jansen and arranged our lunch meeting.
We reminisced about college, of course, but also spoke about our lives in general, especially the ways in which the places we’d lived had changed over the decades. Due to his family’s long history of influence in Portland, Jansen was interested in many of the urban growth issues I’d wrestled with professionally over the years. Though he didn’t have any formal education in urban planning, I was glad to find someone I could talk to about things that touched on what I felt was my other, more successful life back East—a life that had already, in only those few weeks I had been absent from it, begun to seem less real. It was as if the lion’s share of my lifetime—marriage, parenthood, and career—had become nothing but a convincingly vivid dream that had dissolved to traces and shadows as each day I awakened to find myself not just in my family’s old house, but in my parents’ old room, since my bedridden and seemingly ancient father was confined to a first-floor bedroom that had once belonged to Paul and me. It was the same bedroom my mother had died in two decades earlier, amid a saccharine odor of disinfectant and decay that was immediately recognizable when it once again suffused the room all these years later. Neither Paul nor I mentioned the odor, though I’m sure we were equally disturbed by it, as we were by the unavoidable recognition that he and I were both old now too, and drinking too much in the evenings—probably more than was safe before Paul drove home after the late news.
I wasn’t especially eager to return home from my lunch with Jansen, then. We lingered after finishing our meal, and he continued talking about buildings.
“I could tell you about most of the buildings in this neighborhood,” he said after our plates had been cleared. “When they were built, by whom, what they were intended for, what they’ve been used for. I sometimes even catch myself referring to businesses that don’t exist anymore. When giving directions, for instance, I can’t seem to wrap my brain around the idea that Stanley’s Drug is no longer on the corner down the street, to the extent that though I know the place is now one of those horrid Starbucks coffee shops, when I close my eyes and picture the intersection, I see modern SUV’s driving past Stanley’s Drug, and through the windows of the shop I can see Ted Stanley in his white dress shirt and tie, straightening the shelves or helping a customer who has come in looking for a bottle of camphor or maybe some iodine. I can see Ted and the customer and the iodine quite clearly, despite the fact that I know perfectly well that Ted died of a heart attack in the back room of that store over twenty years ago.” Jansen closed his eyes a moment, as if lingering over his impossible image, and then smiled as he opened them. “It’s odd, living your whole life in one place.”
“You see every change,” I said.
“But time passes strangely, so the changes become hazy, almost trivial. That there’s a business called Starbucks down the street is just a dead fact. Stanley’s Drug is so much more vibrant to me, though it predates most of the people who live here now.”
It was odd for me to look across the table at Jansen as he sat there in his starched white dress shirt and checked gold tie, with his Mercury dime cufflinks just visible beyond the sleeves of a navy blue suit that, when I’d complimented him on it, he’d dismissed as “a department store outfit.” I knew perfectly well how old we were, and that time had had its way with us, as it does with everyone. But I had grown old imperceptibly in my mirror over the years: it took twenty years for my hair to complete its process of thinning, receding, and going gray; the deepest wrinkles in my face had started years earlier as innocent sleep lines that faded by the time I finished breakfast; and my nose and ears were only just beginning to grow noticeably oversized in the way they are in the elderly. I had been back to Portland, on the other hand, for only brief visits every few years, and had never called Jansen. He’d never sent any photos with his Christmas cards, so even after decades, I had continued to picture the sender of my Christmas champagne as an awkward twenty-one-year-old student. From my perspective, then, he had aged forty years at once that afternoon.