Kingdom Lost

The wall was vast and freshly cream-white, bordered by oak runners. There was only the blemish, a spot where the paint chipped away, digging a shallow groove lost among shadows. But Lydia Parfitt found it.

“Here,” she said, tapping the spot with a buffed red nail. “I knew I saw it. It’s a chip in the paint. Can you fix this?” She turned expectantly to Oakley, her figure stooped and her manner parsimonious. She drew gingerly from her brown cigarette, long with ash.

“Lydia, it’s no problem,” he said. “Are you sure there’s a chip there? Maybe it’s just a blemish in the paint.” Oakley was a strapping man with a wide jaw and shocks of white hair that escaped the lip of his black cap like wisps of smoke.

“A chip is a blemish in the paint,” Lydia said plaintively.

“It’s easy to fix. Are you ready to sign the papers?” Oakley asked.

Lydia Parfitt shook her head. “Fix the chip.”

From: (Paul Oakley)
To: (Emily Oakley)
Subj:  Re: Don’t ignore me
Date:  03 Aug 2000 12:54:05 CDT


I get back to the office and suddenly there are six emails and four phone messages from you. I have two walk thrus and meeting with Bill Powell at six. Judy wrote that your upset about a note or letter or something like that. Can’t this wait until I get home?


“This chip,” Andy Klaus said, “ain’t a chip.” He and Oakley stood the next day in the master bedroom, both observing the blemish.

“What is it, then?” Oakley asked.

“It’s a nail pop. You know, one of the nails from the framer? Or maybe your drywaller is using nails instead of screws.” Andy’s face had the hard curves and surface of sand-blown granite and he held his eyes squinted as he dug into the chip in the wall with a crusted paint spatula. Plaster crumbed and there was a weak glint of dull metal. “See. It’s somebody’s nail.”

“You don’t have a hammer, do you?” Oakley asked Andy, who shook his head. “Otherwise we could just knock it in ourselves.”

“I wouldn’t,” Andy said, “until I knew what’s behind it. You know that. We’ve had Oswald signing the inspection forms blind again. God only knows what’s in that wall.”

“Oswald?” Oakley asked. Oswald was a city inspector noted for both his endless reservoir of laziness and highly-placed connections in city hall. He was a favorite among general contractors because he was an easy touch. He’d sign anything as long as it gave him the rest of the afternoon off.  Oakley thought him dangerous.

“. . . the drywaller,” Klaus was saying.

“Come again?”

“Get the drywaller, whoever, Argus. His truck’s still on the lot.”

The two men left the bedroom and began descending the stairway leading out.

“Argus did this?” Oakley asked, annoyed. Argus Tuck was a notorious drunk who seemed to turn up every third job. If the insurance companies ever got wind of his presence on a worksite they would grab their bond and run. Once a framer of good repute, Argus developed a tight relationship over the years with charcoal filtered whiskey, served by the quart in milled glass hidden inside brown paper bags. “Wasn’t he the guy who strung up the sheet wall over in Evanston with a nail gun?” Both men smiled. Many of the nails had been fired completely through the drywall; legend had it that one nail had deflated a child’s wading pool all the way across the street.

Andy laughed. “I heard he put together a bunk bed at Western with a rivet gun.”

“Yes! Yes, I heard that too.”

“The first kid who jumped into the top rack — “

“ — the whole thing came down — “

“ — hell of a thing,” Andy said, shaking his head ruefully. “There were lawyers all over the place. Dan Fiedler had to sell his truck to satisfy a bond.”

Oakley shook his head in grim sympathy. The two men emerged from the house just as the sun broke from the clouds. Husks of houses stood against the sky like new teeth between vast gums of raw, wounded earth.  All of the houses were framed with new sheets of fresh plywood; most had been foiled for insulation in preparation to be “jacketed.”

“There’s Argus now,” Andy said, squinting again.

From: (Paul Oakley)
To: (Emily Oakley)
Subj:  Re: I’ve had enough
Date:  04 Aug 2000 11:22:41 CDT

Dear Emily,

You have things all wrong. I swear to god. I would never cheat on you you know I love you. Always have.  You cant lock me out of your life, you must answer when I call so we can TALK. Jeff told me you found some note well that doesn’t mean anything.  We must have TRUST. I love you.

Please answer when I call tonight, I LOVE YOU.


The sky was wide and deep blue and the autumn wind was cool and smelled of hibiscus and juniper flowers. From the north, across the manufactured pond and along the lean Oak trees of Portillo Road, came the ragged roar of graders peeling level upon level of sedimentary clay. Each charge sent a great cloud of bluish-gray diesel exhaust drifting in its wake as though it were a vast tribal war signal.

Argus Tuck was tipped improbably on his stomach as he leaned into the rusted bed of his mud and gray pickup truck. For an awkward moment he seemed stuck, see-sawing over the bed of the truck with his feet in the air. With a grunt, he began lowering himself back to the ground. His blue, frayed overalls were floured with powdered plaster and his eyes were red-rimmed and fixed with dull resentment. Oakley hung back for a moment until Argus had both feet replanted firmly in the dirt before he approached.

“Good day, Argus,” he said.

Argus nodded twice. Off to the south, a luncheon whistle wailed. One by one, the great orange graders along Portillo Road shuddered and fell silent.

“It seems,” Oakley said, “that we’ve got a nail pop on the east wall of the main bedroom.”

“Ain’t framin’ no more,” Argus said slowly.

“I know that.” Oakley fished a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and, lighting it, surveyed the grounds. The yard was not landscaped, but topsoil had arrived and had already been sculpted in eye-pleasing peaks and gently rendered valleys. The driveway contractors had come and gone, and the driveway was still curing. He heard Argus spit behind him. “Maybe you’ve been nailing up the sheeting again.”

“The bedroom?” Argus asked. “Upstairs.”

Oakley nodded. The wind quietly stole the smoke from the tip of his cigarette.

“I saw that nail. East wall. That was the framer’s nail.”

“Not your nail.”

Argus spit again. “Nope.”

“You’ve just been using screws, like code.”

Argus’s lips pulled back to reveal uneven, nicotine-stained teeth as he smiled.

Oakley turned to leave. “I’ll talk to the framer. If it’s your nail, Argus, it’s your ass.”

“My ass,” Argus said, “was plankin’ when you was an itch in your daddy’s pants.” Argus spit again and turned to the flat gray of his weathered truck. He paused suddenly. “Let me tell you somewhat more,” he said, turning to wave his yellow, calloused middle finger into deepening blue of the afternoon sky.

From: (Paul Oakley)
To: (Emily Oakley)
Subj:  Re: Lies
Date:  22 Aug 2000 23:22:41 CDT


God, I don’t really know what to do. Yes, I admit, its true, but jesus you must believe honey that its OVER.  Its been over for two years and it was a mistake believe me I know.

But, do you want to throw away everything we worked and sacrificed for just because of an anchent mistake? In the long run did I run away with her, no I stayed with you. That must mean SOMETHING!!! I know that if it were the other way I would understand. I would be mad sure but in the end I would know that you love me and I love you and we are meant to be together. You say why did I keep the note honey I didnt know it existed. I know that its easy when your mad not to believe in somebody but its a mistake don’t throw us away. Just think about it. I love you, Emily Ann.

Love you, Paulie

“That is my nail,” Rich Hungren said, hunkering down near the wall. Using the claw end of a hammer, he broke the drywall in dusty chunks and dropped them down to the floor. “See that Y joint?” he asked, indicating with the blunt end of the hammer.

Oakley, wincing at the truncated pieces of drywall, voiced agreement.

“That joint is structurally needed. It’s part of the A frame. So the nail has to go there. But.”

“. . . But.”

“Yeah, but.” Hungren took a deep drag from his cigarette. “If you’ll notice, the electrician has his junction box way up here.” He pointed to an olive metal box. “If I drive that nail in any further, I could pierce the box and boom! Fire.”

“Shorter nail,” Oakley suggested.

“This is a Y joint in the A frame,” Hungren said, laying a comradely arm over Oakley’s wide shoulders. “How many nails you think are rated for the stress?”

“No shorter nails,” Oakley said.

“Look,” Hungren said, “you gotta get your electrician to move these boxes. Cal O’Brien would shit if he came to re-inspect.” O’Brien was a city electrical inspector, widely feared.

“You couldn’t just bend this one?”

“These don’t bend,” Hungren replied. “They’re titanium coated. They shatter.”

Oakley closed his eyes and massaged his temples. “Do you ever wish,” he said as he walked to the window, “that you could take the best moments of your life and just loop them like a video tape? Live them over and over again?”

The light was fading from the sky, with coils of heat lightning springing skyward towards the saw grass fields in the flatlands north. Oakley watched the lightning with fascination.

“The weeks surrounding my first marriage,” he said. “The birth of my daughter. Maybe my first lay in high school. These are the moments I’d choose.”


“Yes,” Oakley said wistfully.

Hungren nodded. “I never really thought about it,” he said.

Oakley, walking among the flickering strobes of lightning, didn’t reply.

From: (Paul Oakley)
To: (Emily Oakley)
Subj:  Re: Last note
Date:  06 Sept 2000 08:17:56 CDT


I dont believe that this is the last time we will talk together. Your wrong about that. The reason I did not want to tell you about it is because it would hurt you not me. I was protecting you. But I will tell you now so you dont walk away from me.

Your right, it was with Nancy, but she came on to me like a puppy in heat and I have a mans weakness. But I can tell you that we never did it more than once or a couple of times at the most, not like the letter said. And she’s a liar if she said anything different. Please let me see the note so at least I know what it says I did.

Also, please if I cant come in to the house give me some of my clothes because I only have these. And they are dirty. We will get through this.

Love, Paul

“It don’t look good,” Nevis Adams said. The two were seated at Nevis’ picnic table beneath a flowering Chinaberry tree. Behind Oakley, a smoker composed of sloppily mortared brick offered up wispy tendrils of white smoke filled with rich layers of salmon and marinated cedar. The two were served tortillas and a rich fajita stew by Roberta, Nevis’ young housekeeper. Nevis tipped the sunglasses from his nose and regarded Oakley with a mock air of sad benevolence. “I’d say you’re going to take a bath on this one.”

“She won’t return my phone calls,” Oakley said. The reddening sun poked through leaves here and there and danced on the table. “She said that I’ve just let things get worse and worse.”

“What it comes down to,” Nevis said, “is whether or not she signs the papers.”

“I know.”

The two men ate in silence.  Afterwards, Roberta cleared away the plates.  Her body was lithe and graceful and her smooth curves imprinted wonderfully under the soft fabric of her blue dress.  Oakley caught himself watching and pulled his eyes away, burning momentarily with shame.

Nevis, who saw it too, said, “She’s a real piece, isn’t she?” Oakley nodded. “I can’t touch her, though. Her dad’s a client. Practices mojo with international clients. He’d crush me.” Nevis twisted open another bottle of ale and handed it off to Roberta, who carefully poured the amber beer into Nevis’ chiseled mug.

Oakley contemplated the edge of his own glass. His tongue felt thick and swollen. “What should I do?” he asked.

Nevis lit a gold tipped cigarette with a spark from his slim, electronic lighter. He drew into it and closed his eyes expectantly, and then slowly released the smoke. The air was spiced with the smell of expensive tobacco. When Nevis opened his eyes, he radiated satisfied tranquility. “Fix the problem, Paul,” he said.

From: (Paul Oakley)
To: (Emily Oakley)
Subj:  Re: Legal advice
Date   17 Sept 2000 08:03:18 CDT

Dear Emily,

Theres still time to stop this nonsense. You know what this is going to cost, think about Cindy. She will say, wheres daddy going, what are you going to say? And we dont have the money for lawyers—well, Nevis will defend me for free but what will you do? So stop talking nonsense.

Anyway I do love you and want to work this out. You have my room number and the phone is just Fairfax Inn, with my room number as the extension. I am here from 8pm on just like home so call.

Paul –If I have to I will fight you Emily Ann.  You know that.

“Yes, I know I wired up into the walls,” Lisa Hendrickson called to Oakley as she pulled her truck into the lot. Clouds of dust kicked up at the wheels were torn away by the wind in rags. She was union, a veteran electrician with blond hair tightly tied behind her neck and an AFL-CIO patch loosely stitched to the left arm of her green coveralls with great sweeps of yellow thread. She wore a yellow blouse that poked here and there through the green coveralls. “It’s still code.”

“Barely,” Oakley observed, opening the cab door. “And it’s partially blocking a Y joint.”

“Is that what you called me out here for?” Hendrickson asked. “A nail pop?”

The wind was chill and sharp in Oakley’s nostrils. The sky was the flat gray of gun metal. In the lot across the street, a backhoe was shifting mulch, dark and rich.

“Can you move the junction box?” Oakley asked. “Just a drop of three or four inches, and then we can seal it up.”

Hendrickson shook her head. “Nope. No way.”

“Why not?”

She reached into the bed of her truck and grabbed a crowbar. “Let me show you.”

The two approached the house, which was multileveled.  The second and third stories were buttressed with iron-shaved pine, sealed with a thick lacquer.  The light, bone-colored wood seemed to float above the baked bricks, laid in orderly rows, which lent the base of the house the color of spent blood.   Entering, they ascended the stairs.

“Here we are,” Hendrickson said. She pointed to the junction box, revealed under jagged holes in the wall. “The box is way up here. So what’s underneath it?”

Oakley closed his eyes as she began ripping into the fabric of the drywall with the crowbar. Fine white powder made paste of the spit in Oakley’s mouth. The drywall crumbled, revealing snaking lengths of copper pipe.


“The plumber put his pipes in my walls,” Hendrickson said. “If you want me to lower that box, you have to have the plumber move his pipes to the floor, where they belong.”

Oakley squatted and ran his fingers absently along the cool lengths of pipe. “Why aren’t these in the crawl space?” he asked.

Hendrickson laughed and leaned against the wall. “You’d have to talk to Roberts about the plumbing.  But I’ll betcha he’ll tell you to talk to the foundation contractor.”

“Alan Brice? What’s he got to do with this?”

“This house has no crawlspace,” she replied. “That’s why the plumber had to put his pipes in the wall, and why I had to raise that junction box. Talk to Brice.”

“Which blocked the nail.”

“Which caused the pop,” she agreed.

“Which looks like a chip,” Oakley said, and closed his eyes.

From: (Paul Oakley)
To: (Emily Oakley)
Subj:  Re: Way way too late
Date:  02 Oct 2000 14:41:23 CDT

Dear Emily,

I dont know why you are determined to rip this family apart. Nevis called and said that your reviewing divorce filings. DONT SIGN ANYTHING. These lawyers are crooks believe me I know. I have to go, a client just called, dont SIGN ANYTHING. Lets talk first.  –P

“Paul, I asked you repair that wall weeks ago,” Mrs. Parfitt said. Her voice didn’t suffer the transition to a digital signal well. Oakley could barely hear her voice, although he could clearly hear the vacillation of a fan in the background, which cut effortlessly through the static. It rose and fell with dead, monotonous rhythm. “You haven’t returned my calls. Is the blemish fixed?”

“We’re all over it,” Oakley shouted into the telephone. “Can you come in and sign the quit-claim deed?”

“Stop shouting at me,” Mrs. Parfitt said. “I can hear you just fine.”

“Sorry,” Oakley said. “Are you free this afternoon? I can swing by with the papers.”

“No, that won’t do,” Mrs. Parfitt said insistently. “Is the blemish repaired?”

The fan moaned twice. “No, not yet,” Oakley admitted sheepishly.

“Then no. Hasn’t the painter been?”

Oakley sighed. “He’s been called away for a family thing.  It’s hard to find replacement painters in the fall.  That’s when apartments are getting painted.”

“Will he return?”

“Yes. Soon. In the meantime, for your patience, I’m throwing in a birdbath. Free of charge.” He felt sticky, like a low-rent salesman. Liar, the fan seemed to moan.

“A birdbath?  A bath for birds?” Mrs. Parfitt asked. “Why would I want dirty birds hanging around my house? Fix the chip, Mr. Oakley.” There was muted click in Oakley’s ear as she placed the phone on its cradle.

From: (Paul Oakley)
To: (Emily Parker)
Subj:  Re: No Subject
Date:  12 Oct 2000 13:41:52 CDT

Dear Ms. Parker,

I guess thats what you want to be called now. I got your notice from that no neck lawyer of yours. You want me to list our assets well you do it. I dont have the time, I have a business to run, remember that. Maybe Nevis will ride with me to make sure your following the law.


Alan Brice was seated on a stool at the mahogany veneer bar of Bristy’s with a Heineken and a shot sitting in front of him, untouched. The air was layered with cigarette smoke and the cloying smell of sweat. During the day Bristy’s served as a hub of the clandestine community, where city officials and occasional judges ate greasy sandwiches from cracked dishes and were passed plump envelopes from patrons. At night Bristy’s was mostly deserted, and it was Brice’s favorite hiding place.

Oakley grabbed a beer from the bar and joined him. At the bar, a young woman wearing a yellow shift-print with green sandals cried quietly.

“Argus,” Brice said. “I suppose you heard.”

“I already talked to him,” Oakley said.

“He’s dead.” Brice fished a beer nut from a wooden bowl and turned it over in his fingers, contemplating the shape of it. He was a short, neatly-appointed man with a pinched nose and a shock of black hair and short, tidy fingers. He wore a torn Purdue sweatshirt which was too large and severely overlapped his acid-washed jeans.


“Yeah, this morning,” Brice replied. “They found him in his trailer, empty bottles of Jax by his head; put two and two together.”

“Christ,” Oakley said. “I just talked to him.”

“You know what they found in his trailer? A nail gun.”

Oakley shook his head. Two men walked in, arguing football.

“You can bet your ass they didn’t find a screwdriver,” Brice said, laughing, and drank the shot. “That son of a bitch used nails every time he thought nobody was looking. Problem was, everybody always was.”

“I know.  I wished it would have been Argus’ nail pop. Say, Alan, is there any particular reason you left the crawlspace out of the foundation?”

Brice took a long draw from the green bottle, which foamed in reply. “Well,” he said, “I suppose it was because you didn’t include it in your time constraints.”

Oakley lit a cigarette. “I didn’t give you time? To dig a crawlspace?”

“To blow a crawlspace. This lot’s on limestone, remember?”

“How did you get past the inspection?”

Brice studied the neck of his bottle. “I filed for the permit. They sent Oswald to the site seven days later.”

Oakley groaned and closed his eyes. Only Oswald would be too lazy to look at a hole. The Parfitt lot rested partially on a bed of sedimentary limestone that had to be blown with demolition charge.  Oakley’s temples began to pound to the rhythm of his heart. “So we have to blow it?”

“We needed to blow it, yes,” Brice agreed. “Which would have added at least a day and a half to the time you allotted. You didn’t give me the money for that.”


“Screwed up the plumbing, didn’t it? I sent you an e-mail about it, but you never replied.”

“Shit.” Oakley’s mind reeled. Suddenly he sat bolt upright. “Alan, can we still do it?”

“Still do what?”

“Can we still blow a crawlspace? Do you still have the permit? The demolition pack?”

Brice laughed. “Sure. How many pieces do you want the house to be in?”

“Seriously.” Oakley signaled the bartender for another round.

“Let me get this straight,” Brice said. “You propose we direct an explosion on the ground level of a house, into limestone, as we sit within a dozen feet of four major load-bearing members?”

“Yes. If we direct the force we minimize the percussion.”

“And you’re serious?”


Brice sat back and stared at Oakley with open disbelief. “Paul, fuck this Parfitt lady. Find another buyer and leave the nail pop.”

“No, I have to do the right thing,” Oakley heard himself say.

“Paul, are you all right?”

“I have to do the right thing,” Oakley said, and found himself vaguely wondering why.

* * * * * *

“This,” Brice said, holding up a khaki-colored tube, “is one hundred and twenty five grams of m/46 plastic, which is very similar to C4.” He unwrapped the tube and began pushing the malleable plastic into shape.  It smelled of mineral oil. “The advantage of this material is that it explodes at a speed of 7800 millimeters per second, which allows us to direct the force with greater accuracy.” The two men were squatting in the cellar of the house along the east wall, constructed of rough, semi-finished concrete, toweled with wide, sloppy sweeps. Outside, in the cloak of late evening, the neighborhood air was absolutely still. Brice strung the detonation cord and eased the plastic explosive into the prepared hole, which was drilled into the limestone earlier that evening by Oakley. The first floor windows were taped as a precaution.

“You brought the permit?” Oakley asked. It was unlikely that the explosion would reach inquisitive ears, but he and Brice were bypassing more than a few regulations, and a Class 2 residential demolition permit would forgive a multitude of sins.

“Yeah,” Brice replied. “It’s the original permit.”

“All right,” Oakley agreed. This was tricky business. The explosion had to break apart the limestone in a concentrated area, large enough for a crawl space to be dug out but not so large as to threaten the foundational struts. The explosion would shake the support members and too large a force could cause them to buckle.

“Have you ever blasted around framing like this?” Oakley asked, and Brice merely shook his head. “Well,” Oakley said with a shallow laugh, “I guess this is on-the-job training for both of us.”

“I’m glad you can laugh,” Brice said. “You understand we may damage this structure.”

Oakley closed his eyes. Far off in the distance, a siren split the stillness. Crickets began to chirp. It seemed like a long time passed before Oakley nodded in reply.

“We don’t have to do this. You can sell the house to someone else.”

Oakley shook his head. “I’m not going get beat. Not by Parfitt. Not by Emily. It’s about time things went my way for a change.” There was a beat of silence.

“All right, Paul,” Brice replied. “We’re all strung up. We can go outside.” He stood slowly, his knees popping, his eyes wide in the shadows of the cellar.

“This project,” Oakley said quietly, “has become my white whale.”

Brice rubbed the back of his neck with a rough, calloused hand. “Your what?”

From: (Paul Oakley)
To: (Emily Parker)
Subj:  Re: Judgement
Date:  04 Nov 2000 14:31:55 CDT

Ms. Parker,

Take it all. do I care? Take it all. Ive lost everything anyway. Take it all.


The report of the explosion was a sharp, staccato crack that assaulted Oakley’s ears like the flat slap of a hand. He watched the house from across the street, sitting back against the pitted, rusted bed of his pick-up truck, hands clenched, stomach balled improbably into itself. Brice stood with his finger on the radio switch, leaning into the device as though he could shape the explosion with body English. The sound of the detonation returned again from the echo of the half-finished houses rising from peaks in the bulldozed earth.

The entire house seemed to groan. For a few pregnant seconds, nothing happened. The sound of the charged faded away. Then, almost imperceptively, the framing of one side of the house seemed bend as two of the load-bearing supports gave way. The front porch was the first to sag, dipping inward as though it were bowing to the two men, and then falling inward with a shriek of torn cedar. The east wall bowed, failed, and fell inward with a spray of glass and molding. Lydia Parfit’s bedroom, perched atop the second floor, dropped sixteen feet, landing at a twisted angle in the foyer as siding and planking shot with vertical swiftness onto the freshly landscaped lawn. As plaster and dust rose, the wounded and wilted house seemed to disappear in the haze. Oakley watched in horrified silence, as a man in a dream.

“Well,” Brice observed helpfully, “that takes care of the nail pop.”

* * * * * *

The world spun hard on its axis.

“You’ve spoken to my attorneys,” Mrs. Parfitt said. She lit a long, brown cigarette with the tiny flame of her jeweled lighter.

“Yes, ma’am, I have,” Oakey said.

“Then we have nothing to say to each other.”

“No, ma’am, I suppose we don’t.”

“We’ll see you in court, then,” she said, and turned away to continue picking her way through the bright vegetable section of the supermarket.

“Yes, ma’am,” Oakley said.

* * * * * *

Seasons changed.  Spring gave way to summer, fall, winter, and returned again relentlessly, forcing renewal, spurning any real change.

From: (Paul Oakley)
To:  (Janice Fiber)
Subj:  Re: Thanks for lunch, sweetie
Date:  27 Apr 2002 10:22:38 CDT


I don’t believe Ive ever eaten a finer meal.


“There’s a chip right there, right in the paint,” John Overton said.  He was touring with Oakley through the living room of Overton’s new house.  He pointed to the wall.

Oakley leaned in and observed the nail pop. “Yes, I see it.”

“Can you fix it?” Overton asked, furrowing his small brow.

“Sure I can,” Oakley said.  He pulled a shiny hammer from his back pocket and slammed the nail into place.