Regular readers of NJ Spotlight know that August is our time for kicking back and taking advantage of the lull in the news cycle. To tide you over during our summer hiatus, we’re posting excerpts from books by New Jersey authors or with Garden State hooks. We’ll be back tanned and ready on September 3.
Barbara Kingsolver’s “Unsheltered” weaves together the stories of two families from different centuries living in Vineland — an intended utopian community. Kingsolver flips between the 21st and 19th centuries to reveal that each family’s political, economic, and social struggles are more entwined than they know.
The simplest thing would be to tear it down,” the man said. “The house is a shambles.”
She took this news as a blood-rush to the ears: a roar of peasant ancestors with rocks in their fists, facing the evictor. But this man was a contractor. Willa had called him here and she could send him away. She waited out her panic while he stood looking at her shambles, appearing to nurse some satisfaction from his diagnosis.
She picked out words.
“It’s not a living thing. You don’t just pronounce it dead. Anything that goes wrong with a structure can be replaced with another structure. Am I right?”
“Correct. What I am saying is that the structure needing to be replaced is all of it. I’m sorry. Your foundation is nonexistent.”
Again the roar on her eardrums. She stared at the man’s black coveralls, netted with cobwebs he’d collected in the crawl space. Petrofaccio was his name. Pete.
“How could a house this old have a nonexistent foundation?”
“Not the entire house. You see where they put on this addition? Those walls have nothing substantial to rest on. And the addition entails your kitchen, your bathrooms, everything you basically need in a functional house.”
Includes, she thought. Entails is the wrong word.
One of the neighbor kids slid out his back door. His glance hit Willa and bounced off quickly as he cut through the maze of cars in his yard and headed out to the alley. He and his brother worked on the vehicles mostly at night, sliding tools back and forth under portable utility lights. Their quiet banter and intermittent Spanish expletives of frustration or success drifted through Willa’s bedroom windows as the night music of a new town. She had no hard feelings toward the vehicle boneyard, or these handsome boys and their friends, who all wore athletic shorts and plastic bath shoes as if life began in a locker room. The wrong here was a death sentence falling on her house while that one stood by, nonchalant, with its swaybacked roofline and vinyl siding peeling off in leprous shreds. Willa’s house was brick. Not straw or sticks, not a thing to get blown away in a puff.
The silence had extended beyond her turn to speak. Mr. Petrofaccio courteously examined the two mammoth trees that shaded this yard and half the block. Willa had admired the pair of giants out her kitchen window and assumed they were as old as the house, but hadn’t credited them with a better life expectancy.
“I have no idea why someone would do that,” he finally offered. “Put up an addition with no foundation. No reputable contractor would do that.”
It did seem to be sitting directly on the ground, now that she looked, with the bottom courses of bricks relaxing out of rank into wobbly rows. A carapace of rusted tin roofing stretched over the gabled third floor and the two-story addition cobbled on the back, apparently in haste. Two tall chimneys leaned in opposite directions. Cracks zigzagged lightningwise down the brick walls. How had she not seen all this? Willa was the one who raised her anxiety shield against every family medical checkup or late-night ring of the phone, expecting the worst so life couldn’t blindside them. But she’d looked up contractors that morning with no real foreboding. Probably assuming her family had already used up its quota of misfortune.
“I can’t hire you to tear down my house and start over.” Willa ran her hands through her hair at the temples, and felt idiotic. Both-hands-on-the-temples was a nervous habit she’d been trying to break for about twenty years, since her kids told her it made her look like The Scream. She shoved her fists into the pockets of her khaki shorts. “We were thinking we’d fix it up, sell it, and get something closer to Philadelphia. We don’t need this much room. Nobody needs this much room.”
On the moral side of things, Mr. Petrofaccio gave no opinion. “But you’re saying we would have to repair it first to put it on the market. And I’ve noticed about every fourth house in this town has a For Sale sign. They’re all in better shape than this one, is that what you’re telling me?”
“Twenty five percent, that would be a high estimate. Ten percent is about right.”
“And are they selling?”
“They are not.”
“So that’s also a reason not to tear down the house.” She realized her logic in this moment was not watertight. “Okay, you know what? The main thing is we live here. We’ve got my husband’s disabled father with us right now. And our daughter.”
“Also a baby in the picture, am I right? I saw baby items, a crib and all. When I was inspecting the ruptures in the ductwork on the third floor.” Her jaw dropped, a little.
“Sorry,” he said. “I had to get behind the crib to look at the ductwork. You said you are looking to downsize, so I just wondered. Seems like a lot of family.”
She didn’t respond. Pete extracted a handkerchief from his pocket, mopped his face, blew his nose, and put it away. He must have been braising inside those coveralls.
“That is a blessed event, ma’am,” he suggested. “A baby.”
“Thank you. It’s my son’s child, just born. We’re driving up to Boston this weekend to meet the baby and bring them the crib.”
Pete nodded thoughtfully. “Due respect, ma’am, people usually ask for an inspection before they purchase a house.”
“We didn’t buy it!” She wrestled her tone into neutral. “We inherited. We were in Virginia wondering what to do with some old mansion in New Jersey after my aunt died, and then out of the blue my husband got a job offer from Chancel. A half-hour commute, that’s too good to be true, right?”
“Your husband is a professor up there?” Pete’s nostrils flared, sniffing for money maybe, engaging the common misconception that academics have it.
“On a one-year contract that may not be renewed,” she said, taking care of that. “My aunt had this place rented for quite a while. She was in a facility out in Ocean City.”
“Sorry for your loss.”
“It’s been a year, all right. She and my mother died a week apart, same kind of rare cancer, and they were twins. Seventy-nine.”
“Now that is something. Sad, I mean, but that is like a magazine story. Some of that crazy crap they make up and nobody believes.”
She let out an unhappy laugh. “I’m a magazine editor.”
“Oh yeah? Newsweek, National Geographic, like that?”
“Yeah, like that. Glossy, award winning. Mine went broke.”
Pete clucked his tongue. “You hate to hear it.”
“Sorry to keep you standing out here. Can I offer you some iced tea?”
“Thanks, no. Gotta go check a termite damage on Elmer.”
“Right.” Despite her wish to forget everything he’d told her, Willa found his accent intriguing. Before this move she’d dreaded having to listen to New Jerseyans walking out the doo-ah, driving to the shoo-ah, but South Jersey was full of linguistic surprises. This Pete was the homegrown deal, part long-voweled Philly lowball, part Pennsylvania Amish or something. She watched him scrutinize the garage on the property line: two stories, antique glass windows, thick pelt of English ivy. “You think that building goes with this house?” she asked. “The deed isn’t very clear.”
“That is not yours. That would be the stip house to the property next door.”
“The stip house.”
“Yes ma’am. When they sold these lots back in the day, they had stipulations. Improve the property in one year’s time, show intent to reside, plant trees, and all like that. Folks put up these structures while they got it together to build their real house.”
“You look around this town you’ll see a few, all built on the same plan. Trusses like a barn, fast and cheap. Some guy was doing well in the stip house business I figure.”
“What era are we talking about?”
“Landis,” he replied. “You don’t know about Landis?”
“He’s what, some real estate developer?”
“A king more like, back in the day. This is just a bunch of wild wilderness when he buys it, right? Thirty thousand acres and nobody but Indians and runaway slaves. So he makes this big plan to get people to come. Heaven-on-earth kind of thing.”
“One of those utopian communities? You’re kidding me.”
“I am not. Farms like a picture book. You notice the streets are Plum Peach Apple and all like that? Almond?” He pronounced it owl-mond. She also noted his resistance to contractions, and the recurrent back inna day. She wished for her pocket tape recorder.
“Yeah, I noticed. My daughter goes out to walk the dog and comes home wanting a snack.”
Pete laughed. “Sounds like some healthy kid. All my girls want are those Sour Patch things and the diet pop. I am gonna tell you, it drives the wife crazy.”
Willa had no intention of trying to explain Tig. “So he named it Vineland thinking people would swarm around like fruit flies?”
“Captain Landis was all about the fruit, is what I know. And who knows how to grow grapes but the Italians? So he starts up his own newspaper in the Italian language for attracting the right element. The Petrofaccios came from Palermo, Italy. My nonnie kept a scrapbook of that stuff.”
Willa smiled. “Landis was a wino.”
“No ma’am, that is the crazy thing, there was no drinking alcohol in Vineland whatsoever. That was a very significant rule, back in the day.”
Willa saw holes in this story but still might look into it for a feature: Nineteenth-Century Utopias Gone to Hell. “You’re sure the garage is theirs? Not that I need it.” She laughed. “Unless you think we’ll need a new place to live.”
Unnervingly, he didn’t laugh. “It’s theirs. I can tell by the angle and the setback.”
She assumed the neighbors didn’t know this, or it would be crammed with collateral debris from their garden of broken cars. Pete gave their peeling ranch house a once-over. “Original structure came and went. That is a shame. Those originals were some beautiful old girls in their day. Like yours.”
“Except for her weak foundation. The ruin of many a girl, I guess.”
Pete looked at her, evidently finding this unsuitable material for a joke.
“If it’s such a shame to lose them, shouldn’t ours be saved? Isn’t there grant money for this kind of thing? Historic preservation?”
He shrugged. “Our fair city has got real empty pockets at this moment in time.”
“They must have been loaded at some point. It sounds like this place was built on an immigrant work ethic and old money coming out of the woodwork.”
“Money,” Mr. Petrofaccio said, staring over the dead Fords and Chevys at two girls pushing babies in strollers down the gravel alley, conversing in a musical Asian language. “Where does it all go?”
Willa had been asking the same question. In her family, in her profession and her husband’s, in strained European economies and the whole damned world, where is the cash that once there was? Her husband had a PhD in global politics, her son was an economist, and neither of them seemed all that interested in this mystery that plagued her. Not as it specifically applied.
“That would be the thing here, government money,” Pete offered. “Because no ordinary residential person is going to have what it takes here. There is a time for propping things up, and then there is past time.”
Willa exhaled. “Okay. This isn’t the straightforward consultation I expected. I think you’re saying if we don’t choose to demolish our home, our only other options would be stopgap measures, and none of them looks very good. I guess we’d better schedule another meeting when my husband can be here.”
“Right.” Pete offered her a business card and a condolent handshake. She already knew her gregarious husband would collect this man as a pal. All their married life she’d watched Iano swap phone numbers with plumbers and oil changers, the born Facebook friender, long before Facebook.
“We’ll call you about the next step after I break the bad news. But I’ll warn you, my husband is also going to give you a bunch of reasons why we can’t tear down the house. And they’re not all the same as mine. Between us we can filibuster you.”
Mr. Petrofaccio nodded. “All due respect? I hear that kind of thing all the time. It does not ever get the house fixed.”
Author photograph courtesy of Steven L. Hopp
Excerpt from Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Copyright © 2018 by Barbara Kingsolver. Published by HarperCollins. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.
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