Dan DeWeese


The Problem of the House


The problem of the house is a problem of the epoch. The equilibrium of society to-day depends upon it. Architecture has for its first duty, in this period of renewal, that of bringing about a revision of values, a revision of the constituent elements of the house.
—Le Corbusier,
Towards a New Architecture

When my older brother Greg and I were small--I had just started school, which means Greg must have been in fourth grade--my father introduced us to what he called a “magic word.” I remember it distinctly because he actually knelt down and looked us in the eye as he told us about it. My father was tall and thin, and his gray hair coupled with the perfectly round lenses of his Corbu glasses left no doubt that he was older than the fathers of my friends. I had never seen him kneel before that, and I never saw him kneel again after it. When he bent down to speak to us that day, I heard his knees creak and pop and watched him sway a bit, and I realized for the first time that there was a fragility to my father, that he was not, perhaps, physically invincible. I suppose his kneeling even frightened me a bit.

After steadying himself, my father explained that there would be times when, for our own safety, he would need both Greg and me to stop what we were doing immediately, remain in place, and listen to him for instructions. If we were in a crowd, for instance, and we became separated, my father said he would loudly say this magic word and we should stay exactly where we were until he could gather us together again. If we were becoming too “rowdy”--a word he used often, to describe anything from obnoxious children to poorly designed buildings--or were wandering toward some unseen danger, he would say the word and then tell us to return to him and we would be safe.

I told him I knew what the magic word should be. I said the magic word should be “freeze.”

I’m sure my father had a more original word in mind than “freeze.” He was extremely intelligent, with a large vocabulary that he didn’t hesitate to use. He tried always to encourage us, however, and I remember him looking at me and saying, “Well, Sam, that’s very practical of you. ‘Freeze’ is easy to say and easy to understand. I think it’s a good idea: our magic word will be ‘freeze.’” And so it was.

My father used the magic word twice that day to make sure we understood--once in the park and once in the grocery store. I remember that my brother and I interpreted the command in its strictest sense--we didn’t just stop what we were doing, but actually froze like statues, our bowl cuts falling perfectly in place as I rested my hand on a box of sugar cereal and my brother’s hand stayed twisted in my shirt, restraining me from grabbing a treat he knew we weren’t allowed.

“Very good,” my father said. “That’s exactly it. Now leave the cereal and let’s go--your mother’s waiting.”

After that first day, however, my father’s invocations of the magic word were few and far between. He made his living as an architect, designing buildings for a firm that spent the entirety of my youth attaching pristine, green-belted office parks to the freeway that raced through the empty brown plains outside of town. On the few occasions that I did become separated from my family in a crowd, it was actually Greg who managed to keep track of me. I can remember a specific trip to a Broncos game in which I lost track of my father and brother in the sea of orange shirts and jackets shuffling along the concourse in Mile High Stadium. I couldn’t see anything but swinging arms and scissoring legs that forced me farther and farther off course, and I was about to panic and yell when I felt a hand grab the collar of my jacket in a vise grip. It was Greg, and he half-guided/half-dragged me back to my father in time for him to look down from his inspection of the steel girders overhead and say, “Looks like they made a real rat’s nest of the upper-deck support here, boys. You couldn’t make it rowdier with your eyes closed!”

That kind of distraction on my father’s part wasn’t an isolated incident. He was fascinated by what he did for a living, and maintained an admiration for Le Corbusier that bordered on the unnatural. We lived in one of those suburban housing developments in which, save for minor cosmetic concerns or differences in fixtures, each house was the same. Yet my father would often wander slowly through the rooms as if he had never been there before, examining doors or pieces of furniture or even our left-behind shoes on the floor.

“Dad, what are you doing?” Greg asked him once. “You’re freaking me out.”

“I’m thinking about the problem of the house,” my father said.

Greg and I fell silent. I wondered which of us was the problem.

“I’m thinking about how our windows work,” my father said. “Do you like the television in front of the window there? Wouldn’t it be better in the other corner?”

“The power cord for the Atari doesn’t reach from the other corner,” Greg said.

“Why do we have these folding doors on this room? This is a public space,” my father continued, “Shouldn’t we just leave this doorway open?”

“I want those doors there!” my mother called from somewhere down the hall. She was frighteningly adept at monitoring conversations taking place in other rooms. “The video game noise gives me a headache!”

My father thought for a moment. “We should establish standards,” he said, and then he wandered off to inspect other rooms. He was given to non sequiturs like that, especially on occasions when it was clear his mind was far more occupied with theories of architecture and design than with making conversation about Space Invaders.

The magic word lay fallow for years, unused. I didn’t forget about it, though, and Greg didn’t, either. It was frozen within us, waiting.

When I was in seventh grade I began to study French. This excited my father greatly--he felt it would be a wonderful exercise for me to begin reading Le Corbusier in its original form, so he ordered me a French copy of Towards a New Architecture. My father assured me that it was written in very simple, straightforward language, and I would have no problem with it. The day it arrived in the mail he eagerly opened the box and handed the book to me, asking me to read some of it out loud.

I took one look at it and told him no way.

Three months later, however, I managed to write out a translation of one of the simpler sections:

0000Mass production is based on analysis and experiment.

0000Industry on the grand scale must occupy itself with building and establish
0000the elements of the house on a mass-production basis.

0000We must create the mass-production spirit.

0000The spirit of constructing mass-production houses.

0000The spirit of living in mass-production houses.

0000The spirit of conceiving mass-production houses.

I brought my translation to my father. He spent most of his evenings perched in front of an immense white drafting board in his small study, painstakingly designing increasingly large office buildings and their attendant parking structures. He took a look at my translation and proudly told me it was perfect. I remember asking him why, if he liked this stuff and it was all about houses, my father didn’t design houses instead of office buildings.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “And a fair one. I think, Sam, that the reason might be that I’m attracted to the cut-and-dried utility of commercial projects.” He went on to discuss the concept of blank slates versus found or impacted environments, the problematic multiplication of vision in serially owned structures, and other things that I had absolutely no understanding of and which, quite frankly, bored me. It wouldn’t be until years after his death that my mother would explain to me that my father’s flights into architectural theory were usually nothing more than his method of avoiding answering questions.

Though I decided I wouldn’t show my father any more translations, I continued reading the Le Corbusier book. “If we eliminate from our hearts and minds all dead concepts in regard to the houses and look at the question from a critical and objective point of view,” Le Corbusier wrote, “we shall arrive at the ‘House-Machine,’ the mass-production house, healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same way that the working tools and instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful.” There was an earnestness to Le Corbusier’s pursuit of perfection that I found appealing, and I started carrying the book around in my backpack with me, opening it to random pages whenever I had some time to kill, which was fairly often in those days of confusing, rapidly-changing junior-high cliques and fads. It seemed that Greg was similarly ill at ease with the high school social scene, and I often reminded myself that whatever happened in the halls at school, I would have Greg to talk to and hang out with at home, to throw darts and drink Pepsi with, to play ping-pong or Pac-Man against.

Around the same time that I was studying French and reading Le Corbusier, however, Greg began to change. All teenagers go through difficulties--and if Greg was anything then, he was a teenager, with the acne and breaking voice to prove it--but Greg’s difficulties seemed more dramatic. He was angry, really--far angrier than any of the other kids I knew, so angry that I think even my parents were a bit scared of him. He withdrew almost completely from our family life, no longer going on errands with us, refusing to attend any of my seventh-grade basketball games (for which I can hardly blame him--I was allowed to play only during meaningless final minutes of blowouts), often disappearing for hours at a time. When he was home, he was in his locked room, unresponsive to all but the most urgent and authoritative knocks. He let his hair get long and curly on top, and then one day he came home with it dyed black and straightened so that it hung in his face. I knew things between us had seriously changed for the worse when I found his room empty one day and wandered in to look at his music collection, mostly a bunch of tapes by The Smiths and The Cure and New Order and The Dead Kennedys. When he returned and found me looking at his stuff, his face got bright red and he pinned me to the floor, punching me over and over again on the arm while spitting out a demand that I tell him exactly what I’d looked at while he was gone. After he was satisfied that I’d seen nothing more than a few tapes with unusual cover art, he let me go. I quit the basketball team rather than let anyone see the resulting massive blue-and-purple bruise on my shoulder, and though Greg apologized a few days later, I started keeping my distance.

The next fall, on one of the few family outings Greg joined during those years, my father finally used the magic word again. After a picnic lunch of ham sandwiches, potato chips, pickles, and soda, the four of us set out on a hike. As usual, Greg stayed apart from us, clomping ahead in his long jeans and black boots and moving out of sight on the thin dry path that wound steeply up the side of the hill.

“Someone’s definitely in a hurry,” my mom said.

“God forbid he actually talk to us,” my father added, and I felt proud to be by their side, the good son that walked and talked with them and wasn’t angry at the world.

After a short period of hiking, we moved around a twist in the trail and started up a long rise when we saw Greg about fifty yards ahead, heading back down toward us. “That’s it,” he yelled. “I’m done.”

“You already got to the lake?” my father asked. It was a dumb question, because the lake was still fifteen minutes away.

“I’m not going,” Greg called. “This is boring and stupid. I twisted my ankle.”

“It’ll be worth it,” my father said. “Stay with us.”

“Did you not hear what I said? I fucking twisted my ankle!” Greg yelled. It was the equivalent of a slap in the face--nobody in our family cursed, and I’d never heard anyone, anywhere, speak to my father that way.

“Greg!” my father yelled. “Freeze!”

“I’m not fucking freezing!” Greg yelled back. He was stomping toward us, only about twenty yards away.

“Goddammit Gregory freeze right now!” my father yelled--my father’s curse was another first, and enough of a shock to stop Greg in his tracks.

It was then that I saw something wavering at the edge of the shadows on the path in front of Greg. At first I thought it was either a stick or a piece of trash tumbling in the breeze. Then I realized it was a snake.

Though our science teachers dutifully informed us every year that there were rattlesnakes in Colorado, the only place I’d ever seen one had been safely behind glass at the zoo. This one lay in the path, separating my brother from the rest of us. The snake displayed none of the threatening behaviors favored by movie and nightmare snakes--it didn’t rear up like a cobra, didn’t bare its fangs, didn’t slither rapidly toward its victim. It just lay there, piled in a flaccid coil. It rattled its tail nervously.

Greg stared at the snake. Even from a distance, I could see his hands shaking.

“Don’t move,” my father said.

Nobody moved.

“Do something!” my mother whispered, but I’m not sure who she was talking to--my father, Greg, or the snake.

“Don’t move, Greg,” my father repeated. “Just stay still.”

“I want to run,” Greg said.

“Don’t run,” my father said. “Just wait.”

The snake sat there. It was probably three feet from Greg’s ankle. It rattled again.

“Very slowly, Greg, just step back,” my father said. “Slowly.”

Greg lifted one foot and moved it slowly backward, keeping his eyes on the snake. He shifted his weight to the back foot and half turned, leaning away.

The strike was so quick that I didn’t see it. I saw a puff of dust and heard both Greg and my mother scream and then I saw Greg lift his foot and the snake was hanging from his boot. My father ran toward him and Greg kicked his foot but the snake’s fangs were caught and it writhed in the air and whipped its bottom half in the dust and my mother screamed again. Then the snake fell and by the time my father got to Greg the snake was gone off the side of the path, and as my father leaned over to grab Greg’s foot, Greg hit him with an open hand behind his ear and knocked him down, sending his glasses flying into the dirt. Greg tore his boot right off his foot without even unlacing it and threw it away from him and started yelling, “Motherfucker motherfucker!” over and over. My mother got to him and grabbed him and he fell, pulling her down on top of him, but she got to her knees and grabbed his foot and pulled off his sock and started looking at his foot and ankle. I ran to them and didn’t even realize I had Greg’s boot until my father ripped it out of my hand and looked first at the outside of it and then at the inside and then said, “No it didn’t, NO IT DIDN’T!”

“What?!” my mother screamed. There was dirt in her long brown hair and her flushed cheeks were wet with tears.

“It didn’t go through the boot, the bite didn’t go through the leather,” my father said. My mother turned back to Greg’s foot and started kneading the skin with her thumbs, working them across the surface of his skin. She and Greg spent five frantic seconds examining every inch of his foot and ankle until they were sure my father was right, and then my mother hugged Greg while he cried, and the crying turned to sobbing, and my mother sat there in the dirt with him, holding him while he sobbed, while my father held his broken glasses in one hand and Greg’s boot in the other and I stood there shaking and wanting to throw up.

That was it for the magic word.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t it for Greg’s problems. The snake may have failed to poison Greg, but something about the event remained unsettling. I don’t know if Greg blamed my father for making him stand still when he’d wanted to run, or if my father felt that Greg would have avoided trouble if he’d simply stayed with us, but the snake’s strike was never really brought up again after that day. The fact that it wasn’t spoken of injected an odd silence into our home, as if we had all decided it would be best not to risk too much conversation, lest some taboo subject arise. So we all went about our business, negotiating that silence as if it were simply an unnecessary wall or dead-end hall built into the house, an inconvenience we avoided or stepped around because to do so was far easier than undertaking a serious remodeling project.

Then my Le Corbusier book disappeared. Because I carried it with me so often, there were any number of possible places I could have left it, but I felt fairly certain that it had been taken from my room. I remember going to talk to my mother about it and finding her in the kitchen, her hair pulled back into a ponytail to keep it out of her face while she chopped vegetables for soup. She was an excellent cook, and I watched her work for a bit, mesmerized by the confidence of her movements with the knife as she took only a minute to reduce two tomatoes and an onion to bits. She began chopping a red bell pepper next, the blade striking the cutting board over and over again with the same rapid, precise rhythm that never ceased to amaze me, no matter how many times I’d seen her do it before. Before I could mention my stolen book, though, she stopped chopping, and frowned at the cutting board. “That’s funny,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“I just sliced a tiny bit off the tip of my finger,” she said. “But I don’t feel a thing.”

Sure enough, a small moon-shaped crimson stain was spreading from where my mother’s middle finger rested on the yellowed wooden cutting board, and a thin white piece of neatly sliced flesh lay next to the last bit of red pepper. I ran to get her a bandage, then cleaned the board and finished chopping the pepper myself. I didn’t mention my missing book.

Steeling myself, I followed Greg into his room a few days later and asked him about it directly. “Oh, is this the book you mean?” he responded, pulling my book out from under a stack of music magazines he kept by his bed. “This little French faggot architecture book?”

“Yes,” I said.

“What’s the deal with this book?” he asked. “Why do you carry this thing around with you everywhere? Trying to rack up brownie points with the old man?”


“What’s this say?” he asked, opening the book to one of the pages I’d marked and holding it up toward me.

“Everybody dreams of sheltering himself in a sure and permanent home of his own,
” I read. “This dream, because it is impossible in the existing state of things, is incapable of realization and provokes an actual state of sentimental hysteria.”

“Well aren’t you a little prodigy,” he said. Then he tore out the page I’d been reading, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it toward the trashcan in the corner of his room. “What’s this one say?” he asked, indicating the next page.

“We are dealing with an urgent problem of our epoch,”
I read. “No, with the problem of our epoch.”

He tore that page out, too, crumpled it, and threw it where he’d thrown the first one. “This one,” he demanded, holding up the next page. “What does that say?”

I felt strangely serene. “It says, ‘Architecture or Revolution,’ ” I told him.

He tore it out. Then, with deliberate concentration, he tore the book in half down the spine. “This family,” he said, “has problems. All of you, you all have serious problems.” He picked up the halves and tore each of them again down the spine. “I’m doing this for your own good, Sam. I’m trying to help you.” I said nothing while he continued destroying the book, tearing out chunks of pages and tossing them toward his trashcan. He continued until he had dismantled the entire book, then looked at me and said, “How do you feel?”

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Because I’m not like you,” he said. “I’m not like this family, and I think that book is a bunch of bullshit and I hate that you carry it around like it’s your fucking bible.”

“So what’re you like?” I asked.

“Do me a favor, Sam,” he said. “Don’t ever come back in my room again. You’re a kiss-ass piece of shit and I don’t want you to bother me any more.”

There is something powerful about the idea of preserving a union, I think, and I believe it was that power and that power alone--the desire to preserve our family with all of its members intact, regardless of what that required--that sustained Greg’s continued presence in our home over the next year. He never apologized about destroying my book or even mentioned it again. I would be lying to say that he and I didn’t have any fairly normal interactions after that--we played darts a few more times, and even played a few video games until the Atari finally broke for good and my father threw it away. But Greg was absent more and more often, as well. He had a driver’s license, an after-school job at a music store downtown, and a rusted Chevelle, and it wasn’t odd for him to go out on any night of the week and not come home until some time the next day. I know my parents tried to confront him about his behavior, and I’m pretty sure they even tried seeing a counselor with him--they didn’t necessarily hide the visits, but neither did they invite or inform me--but nothing really changed.

And then one Monday during Greg’s senior year of high school he left for school and didn’t come back for four days.

Those were probably the four worst days of my life. My parents called the music store, but he hadn’t shown up for his shift. They called his friends and his friends’ parents, but none of them had seen him. They called everyone they could think to call, and then they called the police, but still: no Greg. People assured us they would keep their eyes peeled. Two police officers, an older man and a young woman, came to our house and asked a lot of questions, mostly of my parents, and mostly behind the closed folding doors of the family room while I waited upstairs. The only thing I heard was my mother raise her voice once, upset about something having to do with Greg’s age, telling the officers, “Well I couldn’t very well keep him from turning eighteen, could I? Unless you know how to make time stop, and if you do, please let me know.” My father called me down a little while later, and the female officer, in a kind tone and with her head at a solicitous angle, asked, “Is there anything your brother ever told you that he asked you to keep secret? About people he knew or places he went or things he did? Did he share anything with you that might help us find him?” An acute wave of embarrassment washed over me--not because I had deep dark secrets to share about Greg, but because I didn’t have any. Greg hadn’t ever shared any secrets with me. I remember sitting silently in front of the police officers and feeling like a failure, like I wasn’t really Greg’s brother at all.

I went to school on those four days and my parents went to work and we came home and had dinner together. After dinner, I did my homework. We acted as if they were normal evenings. The silence in our house was massive and terrifying, broken only by my father stiffly climbing the stairs at the end of each evening to tell me he and my mother were going to bed, and that they loved me and hoped I knew that. I told him I did.

When I came home from school Friday afternoon, my brother was in his room, frantically shoving clothes from his dresser into black garbage bags. I almost didn’t recognize him at first, because he’d cut his black hair down to short stubble that was dyed blonde, and he was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt.

“Greg,” I said stupidly. “You cut your hair.”

“Yeah, thanks for letting me know,” he said. “Now could you leave me alone?”

“Where have you been?” I asked.

“I don’t have time right now, Sam,” he said. “I’m out of here. For good.”

“What do you mean? What about Mom and Dad?”

“What the fuck about Mom and Dad?” he said. “Do you think they fucking care?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Here,” he said, throwing a book toward me. I picked it up off the floor--it was an English version of Towards a New Architecture. “I’m replacing your book,” he said. I turned to the title page, and there over the title was a stamp informing me that the book belonged to my father.

“This is Dad’s,” I said.

“It’s the thought that counts,” Greg said, still packing.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”

“But where are you going?”

“Sam!” he yelled loud enough that I flinched. Then, almost apologetically, he explained, “I’m in kind of a hurry here. Okay?” He didn’t say anything more to me, and I stood there and watched him fill up his trash bags and then followed him as he carried them downstairs and out the front door. I ran back up to his room and frantically looked for something I could grab that he couldn’t leave without.

“Sam!” he called from downstairs. “Sam, I’m leaving.” I didn’t respond, because I was too focused on manically pulling random old games and notebooks and clothes out of Greg’s closet, certain that I would find one perfect item that he couldn’t do without. “Sam!” he called again, and then I heard the front door open and close. I kept pulling stuff out of his closet--torn magazines, faded concert T-shirts, stacks of weird fantasy role-playing cards, everything--and throwing it across his room. I wasn’t even looking for anything specific anymore, really. I was just throwing his things, hard, against the band posters on the wall across the room, and I was crying, and repeating, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” over and over. And then I realized that I was tearing up my father’s copy of Towards a New Architecture, but I couldn’t stop myself, and I probably would have kept tearing it until it was only little shredded bits if I hadn’t heard my father’s voice somewhere outside the house.

When I ran out the front door and down the steps, my father was standing in the middle of our front lawn with his briefcase in his hand. Greg was on the sidewalk by his car, probably twenty feet away.

“So I guess that’s just the way it goes,” Greg was saying to my father.

“It doesn’t have to be, Greg,” my father said.

“But it’s the way I want it to be, Dad!” my brother responded. “This is the fucking way I want it to be! You think something horrible’s going to happen? It’s not! I don’t need this shit anymore!”

My father didn’t say anything for a moment. When he did speak, what he said still, to this day, surprises me. He said, “You’ll need to call your mother.”

“I know,” Greg said. Then he walked around the back of his car and opened the driver’s door.

I looked at my father, watching him watch Greg. I felt that all my father had to do was say something, that he had the power to keep Greg from leaving, if only he would say the right words. But he didn’t say anything at all. He just stood there, briefcase in hand, and watched as Greg climbed into his car, slammed the door, and started the engine. We both watched Greg drive down the street, and after his car disappeared around the corner, my father turned and walked right past me. Without saying a thing, he climbed our front steps, went into our house, and closed the door.

I sat on the front lawn for a long time. At first I stared at the point down the street where I’d last seen Greg’s car. Then I stared at the spot along the curb where his car had been parked, the place on the sidewalk where he’d stood and told my father he was leaving. But finally I just stared at the lawn--the grass I was sitting on, the blades beneath my fingers--and I started pulling it out. I grabbed the grass tight in my fists and pulled, tossing the clumps away from me, where they fell in a little brown heap. I stopped only after I realized I’d completely destroyed a whole patch of grass, and the cold bare ground was showing through.

When I stood up and turned to go back inside the house, the color seemed off--our house was green, but in the winter light it looked gray. There seemed to be more steps up to the porch than I remembered, and I didn’t remember the lattices as having been there before. The whole house seemed too far forward, as if it had slid a few feet toward the street. It looked structurally sound, but it didn’t look like my house, and I realized that I couldn’t picture the man that had just walked into it as being my father.

My mother drove up then. She smiled and waved to me as she pulled into the driveway. I couldn’t remember her ever waving to me that way before. It was a forced, self-conscious wave, and both of us knew it. But there was a pleading in her expression, as if she were asking me to forgive her for the fraudulence of the gesture even as she made it. And I did. I waved right back. And I knew that after she parked the car in the garage and got out, she would go into the house, and I would follow her in. I had nowhere else to go. And although our house’s floor plan must have been exactly the same as that of at least twenty other houses in the neighborhood, I knew our house was the only one I could walk through safely with my eyes closed if I wanted, because our house was the only one in which I knew where everything was.