national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

Where We Built Our House

Max Seifert  • 
University of Iowa

The contractor came and told us the house was sinking.

See, where we live used to be an ocean and where we built our house was on top of a bed of limestone, which is, essentially, the crushed up and calcified bones of the all the things that ever lived in that ocean. Limestone has a tendency to crumble and collapse and just generally move around a lot, as if all the fish skeletons were still alive and swimming through the clay beneath our floorboards.

At first, it sank slowly. There was a spot in the living room where it was all sinking towards: I used to put my ear there and listen for the sounds of the earth swallowing the house. I could drop a marble on one side of the house and crawl along with it as it made its way steadily to the center. When it got there I would look up, giggling, at my parents. My mom would watch the marble wobble on the hardwood, and then she’d turn around and head back to the kitchen to scale the salmon. My dad would pop the tab on a Budweiser.

If you lost something on Thursday, your best bet at finding it was to wait until Sunday and then search near the lowest dip in the living room. The remote, usually, would turn up there. That’s where my two front teeth reappeared. Black-gray balls of Mom’s hair collected there, which she quickly swept into the trash bin. My dad had a habit of letting go of his wedding ring, and sometimes at night, when the house was quiet, I could hear it rolling slowly along the floorboards, headed for the living room. The more the house went on sinking, the more stuff wound up finding its way to the living room floor.

The contractor came around every once in a while and he would have long talks with my parents across the dining room table. Mom would say, “If we just put in an addition, it’ll balance the whole thing out. Root it in the earth.” Dad would get up to grab another bottle from the fridge, saying, “No, no, that’ll only add more weight.” And the contractor would say, “Hey, it’s not my house.” At night, after the contractor had left, I listened for Dad’s rolling ring, only I could hardly hear it over them arguing about what to do with the house.

As always, Mom won out and we added a bedroom and a bathroom with seashell wallpaper to the back of the house.

When Jonah came, he had a problem with the sinking right away. From the time he was born, the house had only ever been sinking, and by the time he learned to walk, the floors sloped like roller derby rinks. He would stagger and slam angrily into the floorboards or the furniture and Mom would come running from the kitchen, her hands maroon with trout guts, and press Jonah’s head against her chest as he bawled. Dad would stand across the room with his gin and tonic pressed against his lips and try his best not to laugh.

But eventually, Jonah got the hang of walking and he could get around the house better than any of us. On Christmas, he would be the first one down the stairs: he’d hop the banister and slide along the curve of the kitchen floor right up to the tree. We kept it in the living room so the presents would stay put.

Outside the house, Jonah wasn’t as graceful. He had grown up sinking, and for him sinking was kind of normal. On flat land he had to limp to make up for the slope not being there.

The contractor came and Jonah and he made a brace together.

The older kids at school had a lot of fun with this—“Run, Forrest, run” and all that. Since Jonah was used to getting smashed against the floor of our the house, he didn’t mind fighting back. He figured out how to make the brace into a weapon. At night he’d watch kung fu movies and attach leftover fish bones and sticks to his brace. Most days I’d have to pull him out from under Brian Freebeck or Danny Lesky and drag him away from the playground. The blood from his face would trickle down the floorboards, forming little pools in the living room.

The contractor had to come and nail down all the furniture. According to the contractor, if the house didn’t stop sinking, its weight would split the depression in the living room and the fish-rock would break through the hardwood floor. Nobody knew exactly when that would happen.


In the meantime, we got along all right, considering. That is, until Grandfather visited. Grandfather was Dad’s dad. He used to be a pastor and we weren’t allowed to call him Gramps or Papa or even Grandpa, out of respect.

Dad gave me a thick rug and told me to put it in the living room to make it seem level. We took crosses from the attic and hung them in the dining room, the kitchen, and the downstairs bathroom.

That night Mom cooked a whole fish and made sure to pick out all the tiniest bones. Dad wore a button-down shirt and a tie and drank iced tea. Jonah was elsewhere. Dad told Grandfather one of his friends had taken him fishing. At dinner Mom and Dad mostly told stories from their pasts, about times before the house was sinking. Even though he wasn’t supposed to, Grandfather told them about all the sins people had brought to him. Men who loved their dogs more than their wives, housewives who had taken to witchcraft, the choirboy who became terrified of the lake, certain the leviathan was swimming below the water.

It seemed almost as if they were going to forget about the sinking altogether, but then a pitcher would spill over and crack on the table or someone would have to snatch a fork out of the air before it went tumbling into the next room. I stayed quiet, mostly. My memories had pretty much started with that marble rolling down the floor.

We all left the table and got ready for bed. Grandfather asked whether Jonah would be coming in later and Dad said, “Oh no, he’s camping out by the lake, a real wilderness experience.”

That night I dreamed that the ocean had returned—and that instead of sinking, our house was floating. Jonah really was out fishing in my dream, standing at the edge of the front yard, casting into the endless waves beyond. As I watched, his line grew taut and the rod bent, but Jonah balanced all his weight on his bad leg and willed the thing to shore. On our front lawn my father flopped about and tried to loosen the hook from his upper lip. Mom cleaned and cooked him, laid him out on the dinner table. He was massive. His legs dangled off the far end of the table. We sat down to eat and I could feel the floor start to give. Another minute, and the salt water had soaked the soles of my shoes.

When I woke, someone was yelling. I slid downstairs on my hands and knees. Mom was leaning against the slanted dining room doorway, looking into the living room. I joined her and saw what she was watching: Dad on his knees in the living room depression, holding Grandfather’s head to his chest. Like my baby teeth and Mom’s hair, Grandfather had gotten lost the night before and tumbled down the floors to the living room sinkhole where he lay, dead.

Dad wouldn’t leave him. Mom whispered things in his ear, away from me, but he wouldn’t even nod or blink his eyes. She brought him the leftover fish on a platter, but he refused to eat. That night, she pressed herself against him to sleep as he cradled his father’s body in his arms. Jonah came back briefly and pointing at Grandfather, said, “At least you won’t have to bury him.”

Dad and Grandfather’s added weight in the low spot made the house sink faster. I could almost feel the floorboards slide under my feet. In a matter of weeks, the floors were nearly vertical. Jonah, with his born aptitude for navigating our sinking house, was the only one who could move in and out of it.

I slept in the living room with Mom and Dad and Grandfather. It started to smell. That was the only way you could tell which one of us was really dead. I hardly got any sleep at all. Whenever I put my head to the floor I could only hear the ocean ready to reclaim our house—skeletal fishes swimming hungrily down below.

One night, I was awakened by the sound of metal against metal. Looking up, I saw Jonah slowly descending the last rungs of a long ladder. He sat down next to me.

“All these years and they never thought to get a ladder,” he said.

I laughed, but not because I found anything particularly funny about it. “You build this?” I smacked my hand against a rung.

Jonah nodded. “I’ve been watching what the contractor does.” I looked up the ladder to the moonlight above, streaming through the open front door.

“Think it’ll hold our weight?”

Mom’s sleeping figure was barely discernible in the shadows. She was jammed beneath Dad’s motionless mass. Jonah watched them sleep for a while before answering.

“Ours,” he said.

The floor began breaking then. Little sections at first, then whole rooms groaned and splintered along their creases. The pale gray-green limestone beneath started to show through the wood.

“Come on,” Jonah said. I grabbed his hand and he hoisted me onto the rickety ladder as the floors crumbled beneath us. Jonah and I reached the front door as the whole thing gave in. The living room collapsed first, bringing the dining room and kitchen with it. The upper floor, left without support, toppled down after them, sending up in its place a thick billow of limestone powder.

Only the doorframe remained. Jonah and I stood in it as the limestone fell like snow onto our clothing, covering us until we were all white.