Under the Weight
Monica’s daises in the wood chips that lead to the front door of the house had previously been, even to the casual passerby, a visual snare. Stunningly beautiful, near literally. The petals burst open in shades of gold that appeared proud to be alive, while the dignity of the purples would command a solemn restriction at the back of your throat. She was so happy with them, she was considering, on Cheryl’s recommendation, to display them at the county fair.
Of course, they are all dead now. The second story of the house fell on them.
It happened in stages. The first collapse happened six hours ago, at 12:08 p.m., about fifteen minutes after the crew working on the swimming pool in the backyard headed to McDonald’s for lunch. That’s when the soil finally lost its integrity and the foundation at the back of the house gave way into the gaping hole in the backyard, which had been totally cleaned of dirt just the night before. The back end of the would-be-rectangular swimming pool stretched from a few feet off the back patio out to within ten feet of Lake Meredith, the man-made lake at the heart of Meredith Estates in unincorporated Oswego, Illinois. Being that close to the lake and displacing three hundred tons of soggy soil robbed the already-cracked foundation of all its leverage, and the soil eventually caved, taking two back decks, a ten-person hot tub, and a 52” stainless steel grill all with it.
The gradual pace with which the back of the mocha-hued plaster house spilled into the backyard surprised the onlookers. With a tall arching kitchen window next to a pair of wide bay windows where the family room overlooked the lake, the whole back wall was glass, making it appear to those filming from their decks or boats as though a twisted glass face was slowly ripped off like a rubber Halloween mask. As the debris tumbled into the yard, the floor within snapped somewhere from the weight, also dumping two bedrooms and the weight room upstairs out onto the backyard and into the swimming pool.
When writing his report a month later, the waste disposal manager would have to resist the urge to make a joke about the weight room being exceptionally heavy. After Dennis’s last major promotion four years ago, he told Monica it was time to work the gut off, which is one of those things that people say every five years anyway, but this time it had $16,000 worth of exercise equipment attached to it. Thirty years of beer, since his sophomore year at St. Ignatius, had made his midsection a beach ball, and he’d never wind up at the gym on his own. If he went out of the house it was to watch a game at a bar.
So he installed his own fitness center a floor above the kitchen. They had two treadmills, an elliptical, a stationary bike, and a 40-exercise home gym that was a quarter of a ton itself. Not to mention the old 60” projection big screen that was in the family room for nearly a decade until Dennis finally badgered Monica into letting him spend $5,500 on the flat screen. The new TV’s 65” LCD panel put the hulking old projection TV to shame, which was sad considering how the now-ancient thing blew the kids away when they first bought it. And it was still fine to watch when Dennis was exercising, when he did exercise, which is to say when he’d get home from work early enough to not feel like cracking a beer and sinking into the Lay-Z-Boy right away.
Two years later, after they purchased all the equipment, he was on one machine or another once or twice a week, but everything below his chest was still big and soft. At this point Monica knew she could never argue, or otherwise coerce, Dennis into exercising, but she could at least take solace in the fact that Michael still used the equipment upstairs to train for football, and Claire would be on the treadmill training for softball, especially when Monica would tell her that she would buy her the dress she wanted if she worked herself down to a lower size.
Though with one of them in college and the other there soon, their time in the weight room was growing shorter. Michael had been at Michigan State for the last two years, where he tried out but didn’t make the team, and after Claire graduates this May she’ll be headed off to Notre Dame in the fall, hopefully to play ball. Following the fallout from the house, there are emotional points over the summer when they’re unsure if she’ll go, but of course she will. Though when they finally figure it out financially, she will be up for a week worrying about the future debt she now cannot escape.
The garage followed the house collapse unexpectedly quickly, sending everything in its storage attic crashing down on the Jeep, caving in the roof and blowing out all the windows. Dennis’s tools and the basketball hoop and folded-up ping-pong table were all crushed as well, along with the riding mower and Dennis’s Harley, which was for Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons when football wasn’t on. Of those things above the garage that came down were Monica’s eighteen bins of Christmas decorations, Dennis’s extra two sets of golf clubs, Michael’s golf clubs, which he’d only used four or five times, plus seven bins of clothes that Monica had never thrown or given away, always afraid that she and Claire would put the weight back on and fit back into them, and thirty-five or so boxes of magazines: Dennis’s Sports Illustrateds, her old Good Housekeepings, a few Peoples, a couple stacks of Reader’s Digests (only the best ones), and some plastic bins packed with old copies of Highlights, Nickelodeon magazines, and years and years of Punisher comics. It was always possible someone else would want to read them. A grandchild, perhaps? Perhaps her daughter, once Claire learned to enjoy reading? Who knew when they would be worth something?
Of all the thoughts Monica will have in the next few weeks, thinking of all the magazines she had will, unexpectedly, make her cry the most.
The day they moved in was one of the most exciting days of her life. Knowing the house was all hers made her glow. She had made an excellent choice in Dennis and she was rewarded. The house was one of the first in the subdivision to be built, finished in 1990, and the Bonnerbruck family moved in ten years later, before the kids started middle school where their parents knew they’d make plenty of new friends.
That day, amid all the craziness, was the first time the possibility of a pet was mentioned, and the idea refused to leave the children’s heads. So their first weekend in the house, after they got all the furniture where they wanted it and just had random stacks of boxes to unpack, Dennis’s flares of anger finally abated to Michael and Claire’s constant pleading. The next weekend they went to the animal shelter and came home with Amber, a young golden retriever with wide eyes whose personality was always hanging out of her mouth. In the sun, her long coat shined like clean copper tubing.
Those first two years, Claire and Michael and Amber were all over the backyard chucking the tennis ball around or setting up doggie obstacle courses out of hula hoops and patio furniture. Along with being a buoyant ball of lightning, Amber bounded about with dignity, which for a dog means intelligence and focus. Learning and following commands. Knowing when to stop playing. She could even balance a tennis ball on her nose after just having turned a year old. And the only accident she’d ever had in the house was near her corner of the finished basement, in the room next to the laundry room which housed her cage and bed and trove of toys, and Claire and Michael both agreed to never tell their parents about it. They cleaned the brand new carpet twice with Windex and once with hand soap. You could almost not even tell it had happened.
As Amber matured, the obstacle courses would become increasingly elaborate, though eventually they were prohibited. Too many furniture cushions ripped or chair legs bent out of use before mom called it quits. Each time they’d break something, whether the grill cover or a flower pot, of course they’d all get in trouble. The kids’ sentence would be a floor-to-ceiling scrubbing of everything in the house, which was almost as bad as Monica’s guilt trip. “Clearly you don’t love your mother if you don’t love her things,” was a favorite line. “I buy you things and you can’t even respect mine. Tragic.” Amber’s punishment was to sit on the couch with Monica all day watching soaps. Even if Amber tried to leave, Monica would call her back, and Amber would return, solemnly. She knew she was in trouble. She was on comfort duty.
Not that Amber truly minded. When everyone was gone at work and it was just her and Monica at home during the day, they’d be splayed out together on the huge horseshoe couch in the living room and Amber would follow her around when Monica gardened in the front or back. She’d always be sitting underneath the glass patio table when the ladies from around the block would come over for mid-day mimosas. And then there were those times, maybe the ones where Dennis would get home extra grouchy or the kids would be screaming at each other, when Monica would corner Amber on the couch and be whispering in her ears, or letting her follow her all the way into the master bathroom to lie on the bath rug while she soaked in the Jacuzzi. She’d have the door closed, and maybe the radio would be on, but when Dennis put his ear to the door he could hear her talking as if to her best friend.
By Amber’s second year, Dennis’s mood had been coated with a sour film due to his family’s gradual shift in admiration from their father to their dog. To him, Claire was less interested in softball practice, Michael less interested in talking cars, Monica less interested in, well, him. He would take it out on Amber, come through the door after work nearly screaming about how she’d gotten his slipper before or chewed on this kitchen chair or the edge of the sofa. “Excuse me, the four-thousand-god-damn-dollar sofa.”
Amber’s lone flaw was that the adoration she could freely give and receive made her stir-crazy when they’d leave her at home, and this nervousness would lead to chewing: fruit on the counter, toilet paper, a pillow, a book, a rug. Everyone lost at least one object, and every time they’d come home to find stitching and stuffing strewn about Dennis would scream so much that Claire would run up to her room weeping, slamming her door. Even the time Amber got at the leather purse Claire was saving for months to buy. At Dennis’s rage, Michael would get red-faced but could never speak against his father. He and Monica wouldn’t talk for a day or two, after the screaming match, of course, in which sometimes the clanging of pots could be heard up in the weight room even with Michael pumping on the treadmill and the volume turned up on SportsCenter.
This all culminated one night not long after Amber’s third birthday, in which she sat on one of the kitchen chairs (“Oooh, like a big girl!” Monica and Claire both had said), and, on cue, barked out the candles herself. A few days later, Dennis got home from work, not wanting to talk, casting eyes on everyone before trudging up the stairs. Monica was cursing herself later for not finding Dennis’s running shoe before he got home, lying in the middle of the walk-in closet with the stitching all gnawed through and bits of laces littered about. It had been specially tailored to his size ten-and-a-half wide foot and the overpronation of his stride, but now it looked like a busted rib cage.
Monica knew how Dennis’s father had been, but somewhere inside her she’d locked up the hidden hope that her own husband could never do something like that to any of them. Money had been tight lately, her mother had a couple fainting scares that sent her to the hospital, they were all a little stressed. That made her follow Dennis closer, pleading to no avail when he charged out of the bedroom, down the stairs into the foyer, down the hallway and through the kitchen to the basement, down the stairs, through the game room, and past the washer and dryer to shove the shoe in the dog’s face as it turned away and Claire cried behind him. His screams echoed off the clean white drywall. “Is this how you have fun when I’m not home? Huh? Is this how you have fun?!” The veins bulged from his forehead, now grapefruit red, and his wife and daughter shrieked noises they’d never made before as he smacked Amber on the snout with the shoe. Three times he hit her, four, five, backhanding her in the face. “Is that fun? Huh? You having fun now?” Amber yelped and howled but otherwise sat and took it with dignity.
Claire grabbed her father’s arm and cried for him to stop but he switched hands and smacked the dog on the rump over and over, ripping into her until he was out of breath. Then he threw the shoe down and Amber yelped again even though it didn’t hit her. He stormed out of the room, incensed, his eyes lancing with fury, and as Claire and Monica were consoling the dog, he stormed back in again, picked up the implement of his assault, and unleashed a final blistering bellow. “This is MY shoe! And I’m going to keep it!”
Dennis never would lay a finger on either of his children, but he knew what was in him as well as Monica did, and this wasn't one of his children, it was a dog. That was justice for a dog. Dennis’s own father wouldn't have thought twice.
He charged upstairs and took off in the Porsche. None of them saw him for a few days, though Michael was staying up late enough to know he got in before midnight and left at six in the morning. But after a few sleepless nights of comparing himself to his father, Dennis showed up to dinner, surprising them despite their unspoken anticipation. In a rehearsed yet genuine speech he demonstrated an honorable self-awareness in his lengthy apology about his temper. They listened in silence. When he was finished he declared that he had made up with Amber, and Amber’s eventual friendliness towards him validated the fact, the novelty of which startled the other three members of the family. He realized this was sudden and possibly shocking, but he knew he would also earn their trust over time.
He did. Something about him had changed. He was gentler with all of them. And a few months later when all was forgotten, Dennis declared he was putting an addition onto the house by extending the already cavernous foyer ten feet out into the front yard and extending the 7-room second story to include a large office. His office. He spent two weeks drawing the plans and consulting an architect friend at work. Monica wanted to keep the chandelier, but he convinced her it would be better to sell it. He liked the fact that the large wheel window above the foyer could be moved up for him to gaze upon the neighborhood.
Recognizing this was something their father really wanted, the family was on board for the final product, but they didn’t take into account that half the house would be covered in rough plywood floors, plastic sheeting, and white dust for four months. During this time, Amber almost exclusively stayed down in the basement, whether in her corner room or running circles around Michael’s friends while they played pool and pinball.
When it was done, it was beautiful. A throne room. Behind his huge oak desk the wheel window framed his large leather chair. The walls were lined with oaken bookshelves stained a dirty gray filled floor to ceiling with books. There was also a six-foot-long bar, a gun safe, a self-contained entertainment center replete with 5.1 surround sound and the requisite gigantic flat screen TV. Also plush carpeting and a Nerf backboard on the door. In the middle of the room sat two antique chairs, an antique table, and a marble chess set. If he didn’t have a friend from work over, he would play against himself.
No one was allowed in daddy’s room except for daddy. On those rare occasions that Dennis let Michael into the room, like birthdays, Christmas, and his graduation, the boy was overcome with reverential humility. The first time his father placed a crystal glass of Glenlivet in his hand, he was converted. A new view of life dawned within him. Maybe he wouldn’t go into energy like his dad, but he would find his way into something. Some day he would have his own throne room.
Six years later he was halfway to his business degree, eating a lunch of Slim Jims and Mountain Dew while playing Grand Theft Auto 4 in his dorm room when the house he had spent about half his life in cracked in two due to a faulty foundation and poor soil.
There had been a hole beneath the foundation, or, as the geologist later put it, an abscess of crucial sediment just a few hundred yards below. A particularly large deposit of limestone was down just far enough that there hadn’t been any evidence of it when the soil samples were taken. Twenty years of rain and human runoff dissolved it and the soil beneath was falling away until, over time, it ceased to lend its much-needed support to the foundation of the house.
Small cracks had been forming for years. They inched out their branches until, on a warm day in March 2012, at 12:08 p.m., with half of the backyard dug out, the weight of the house finally opened the schism in the foundation wide enough for it to give way.
First the deck and hot tub went into the pool hole, then the weight room and Claire’s room followed after it as the garage caved in and Dennis’s office lurched forward and forward before a blistering crack echoed down the block and the front of the house smashed down on the lawn and walk and front flowers like a sledgehammer of brick and glass and bookcases, annihilating any former semblance of a distinguished family dwelling.
Of course, none of the onlookers had ever seen anything like it. One commented that it looked like a bulldozer fell on the house from the sky. Within hours it was on YouTube. Within weeks, millions will watch the Bonnerbruck home fall apart.
Which brings us to the present moment. Michael is Megabussing his way back home, and he doesn’t know what to feel. Dumbfounded, more than anything, but also an intensified version of his usual shame. It certainly wasn’t anger. He doesn’t yet know how to let himself feel that.
At first, he calmly called Claire a liar. Accused her of a terrible practical joke until she kept pushing it. Then she hung up and texted him the photos. He still didn’t believe her until he saw her bed face down in the backyard.
She and Monica are at her grandmother’s, the three set around the kitchen table, at times awestruck, distraught, bawling. Many cups of tea have been drained and cupcakes eaten—but not too many—though not much talking has been done. They aren’t a family that talks, they are a family that watches television, that nods often, that only needs to know which car you were taking and when you’ll be home. Even now, with their tea spiked with whiskey, their conversation remains about the description of the house. Even Claire is drinking. Monica is audibly shocked that her mother would pour for a 19-year-old. Her mother wanted to say it was appropriate considering “the gravity of the situation,” but decided against it, choosing rather to raise her glass. “Sláinte.”
What else can she say? To a daughter whose husband isn’t picking up his phone? To a granddaughter who doesn’t know where her dog was? Every time Claire’s delicate face scrunches up into wet red blotches she’s there for her granddaughter, her shawl around the girl, “Shhh…shhh…” As she cradles Claire’s sobbing head, her eyes try to comfort Monica’s contorted face. It is an emotion her mother had read off her face her whole life. It is jealousy.
Right now, Dennis is not picking up his phone because Dennis’s phone is off. At 12:13, he returned from the gym, rolled up to the house—or what was left of it—in the Porsche, felt his jaw slowly dropping, lowered his sunglasses, noticed all the onlookers, and pushed them back up. Then he closed his mouth, snapped his head forward, and peeled off down the block.
Three hours he drove. Drove and drove. South, then west, ripping down I-80. Radio blasting rock music, his face stone frozen. FM radio fading in and out. He put on a Bob Seger album and went through it a few times. His mind was oddly clear. He thought of nothing the whole way. Just flew past the cattle and horses, past the fences and corn, staying right between the lines on the two-lane highway.
By half past three he was over the Mississippi, and that’s when he stopped for a beer at a truck stop.
He had one, then a cup of coffee, a plate of eggs and hash browns, another cup of coffee, then a few more beers. Currently he’s halfway through the third. He’s already figured out most of what stock he wants to sell and what he has to keep, what he could get on the housing market right now, what the insurance will be, how difficult the claim will be, what was insured, what wasn’t. In a few minutes he is going to turn his phone back on, tell Monica to stay at her mom’s and that he’ll be there by midnight, talk to Claire, which he isn’t looking forward to, and then call Michael. He doesn’t talk on the phone in the car.
But right now, at 6:06 p.m. Central Standard Time, Dennis is thinking about what clothes, if any, he has in his car. But other than the messy stuff in his gym bag, there is only one other piece of clothing in the car: the shoe their dog Amber ripped up all those years ago. A long time after the incident, Claire would find the ripped-up shoe and hide it in his car, in the glove box, beneath the seat. “For you to remember your temper, Dad!” she’d smile, now growing into a woman. “You’d be the road rage champion!”
Each time he found the shoe he’d throw it in the garage, hurl it in a mock rage, but he never threw it away, and each time he’d find it in his car a few days later. It was one of the few games he and Claire had played in the last few years, a symbol that they had moved on from the past. For many of those years, which she spent, to the scorn of her mother, avoiding her inevitable girly-girl nature by wearing black eyeliner and listening to death metal, she had hardly talked to him. Other than soccer, there was no common ground. They were on different planets. The schism was palpable. It was though they didn’t even live in the same house.
But after the shoe incident, Dennis was right: he and Amber did get along well. He had learned. She’d run beside him on the other treadmill in place of his wife. He’d throw the ball in the yard with her and the kids. He didn’t yell at her when she chewed on his iPad cover.
He would even let her into his office, when no one else was home, of course. But she didn’t like it and wouldn’t stay long. She’d walk far around the chess board, then stand in front of the fireplace, sniffing the air, pondering. Then, head high, she would turn and stroll out casually, as though seeing if he would follow. She preferred to be in her bed in the utility room next to the washer and dryer, to be curled up on her thick red pad that was matted with her golden fur.
That’s where they will find her, eventually, after the sanitation teams pick off the upper layers of wreckage. She’ll be caved in under the initial collapse of the foundation. She never even woke up.
Dennis will find her there, nestled beneath the rubble, a large lump of lifeless copper fur. He’ll find her twelve days from now, when the crew finally leads him in, and right now he doesn’t know it, but he’ll feel more helpless at that moment than he did when Michael was born.
No, he doesn’t know that, is not anticipating that, is not thinking about that, because right now he is thinking about the shoe he’s sure Claire hid under the passenger seat of the Porsche. The only clothing in his car. A ripped-up shoe that somehow became worth keeping, and is now one of the only things he owns.