“The Crooked House,” by Jonathan Lethem

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Audio: Jonathan Lethem reads.

The week he met the man who claimed to have exited the house by falling downward into a desert valley, Mull decided to give up coffee.

Mull had lost regular access to the community cafeteria and its coffee supply. The corridor leading to it had disappeared, in one of the building’s periodic shifts. But he could still see into the cafeteria. The window of his dormitory room opened onto the scene from high above, offering a bird’s-eye view. When Mull cracked the window, he could smell the rising steam of the coffee brewing.

Mull, after laboring through the now elusive corridor, had rarely found others in the cafeteria. Just coffee in the twenty-pot urn. Once or twice the supply had been down to dregs. Those times, Mull had brewed a fresh urn himself, from supplies stacked there. Others probably did the same, though he’d never caught them at it. The scene was hardly scintillating to watch, once one adjusted to the surveillance-camera perspective.

Still, he glanced through the window. Should the woman for whom Mull searched appear in the cafeteria, he could try again to relocate the corridor. He might even risk a plunge through the window, aiming himself at an empty area of floor. Coffee alone, however, wasn’t worth it. Long before, Mull had concluded that accepting the loss of inessential things was an elemental lesson that his present life, his life since entering the tesseractic house, had to teach him. Coffee was just the latest sacrifice.

The last time he’d been in the corridor, it had been almost completely blocked. Occupants of the San Pedro overpass had located a new one-way hatch into the house and begun shoving their possessions through: filthy bedding, shopping bags stuffed with clothing and keepsakes, photograph albums, nonworking electronics, baby strollers full not of children but of children’s toys, and unrecognizable other stuff, bundled with twine or extension cords or jammed into cardboard cartons loosely flapped shut. Mull had picked his way through the debris, fearful of accidentally treading on a sleeping body.

These days, he frequented the atrium. It was there that he met the man who spoke of the desert window. The atrium had food, though no coffee. Some volunteers had dragged a steam table in from the kitchen and most days it was loaded with hot food. If not, piles of sandwiches. No one oversaw the serving, or kept track of what was taken. Meals merely waited for takers. Some might load a shopping cart with sandwiches to distribute elsewhere, but no one had ever carted away the steam table itself. The food continued to be supplied, for now.

The atrium, which in the original plan had voiced both the grandiose and the bureaucratic aspects of the building, was ruined. Its central purpose, as a portal from the outside, had been lost in the first collapse. Little remained of its original splendor. The celebrated “night sky” ceiling, depicting the astrological figures, had fallen, its tiles collected as souvenirs or trodden into grit on the vast floor.

Nevertheless, the atrium’s ruins served as the clearest echo of the architect’s vision. Was this why residents treated it with reverence? No one slept there. Conversation was scarce and hushed. In contrast to the dormitories, the atmosphere was churchlike. Mull also regarded it as a crossroads, where he could scan for familiar faces and perhaps find the woman, Rose Gutiérrez. Mull still remembered, more days than not, that he was here to keep a promise to find her.

“Seen you round,” the man said.

A greeting that strangely mimicked a farewell, it left Mull momentarily speechless. When he managed to say, “Oh, hey,” it came out as a croak. His voice—when had he used it last? He cleared his throat and tried again. “You mean inside?” he asked the man. “Or before?”

Mull had been sitting against a wall in the atrium, slurping at broth with one of the inadequate plastic spoons that were the sole utensil provided. Others nearby, whether eating or only resting, kept their distance. The hippieish drifter, on the other hand, plopped down beside Mull now, even as he made his enigmatic reply: “Oh, I seen you both places.”

At first, Mull had taken the lanky man for eighteen or nineteen, but no. His face was sun-lined, though he was pale, not tanned. He might be in his forties, around Mull’s age. Mull hurriedly calculated: crazy, hostile, or both? A newcomer to the house? Or a longtime resident, perhaps even one of those who had entered before the first collapse?

Mull hedged his own reply. “Have we met?”

“Didn’t say that. I just recognized a fellow wanderer first time I laid eyes on you.”

“Through a window?”

The man laughed. “There’s a lot of those. I been known to look.”

So far as Mull knew, there were no views into his dormitory. “I used to get coffee every day at that cafeteria, that one with the mural of the cruise ship—”

“Sure, yeah, I know it.”

“Maybe you saw me there.”

“Maybe.”

“Or through a window,” Mull suggested again. “I can see into that cafeteria from above, myself.”

“You like down-facing windows, I got a good one. You like the desert?”

“The desert?”

“Yeah. I’ll show you. I went through it once. Maybe you’ll want to try.”

The window over the cafeteria wasn’t the only high vantage Mull had encountered. Another window he’d discovered appeared to dangle perilously a quarter mile or so above the glamorously tangled intersection of the Santa Monica and San Diego Freeways. This view was vertiginous. Most seemed to shun it, and the room that contained it.

When he peered at the freeways, Mull found the activities below mysteriously reduced, a subject of study to file away for another time. It wasn’t that there were no cars, but there were fewer, and whole intervals of bright daylight in which no cars appeared at all. Once, Mull had seen a group of walkers on the freeway, a cluster of eight or nine, centered in the empty lanes, moving together northward, toward the old post office or beyond, out of sight.

“I don’t know about tides. What about torts? I know about torts.”Cartoon by David Sipress

But these windows were the exception. The preponderance of the house’s windows or doorways looked into different parts of the house. Others appeared to gaze upward from deep wells or pits in the earth. It seemed to Mull that these windows told a truth. Yes, the four-dimensional collapse contained enigmas. Likely the house still unfolded itself spatially with each aftershock. Yet the structure hadn’t been able to defy the simple law of gravity. It had reorganized its geometry downward. Since the start of the earthquakes, Mull and the population of the formerly unsheltered were essentially living underground.

It was only a short distance from the atrium to the drifter’s desert window, which lay hidden behind a maintenance door, at the back of a room full of breaker boxes and wiring panels. The frame wasn’t large, though wide enough to clamber through. The view was panoramic. Yellow scrub to a horizon of sand, sky-petitioning Joshua trees, molten-appearing rock formations. Had Mull never visited the desert east of Los Angeles, he could have mistaken it for Mars.

“You really went through.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“How did you get back?” Mull asked.

“I hitchhiked back, from J-Tree. It ain’t that far.”

“Why did you return?”

The man shrugged. “Nothing else to do.”

“How did you get back inside?” Mull was interested, generally, to know which entrances were in use. The one he’d used had closed. Yet still new faces appeared. The numbers grew.

“I came through the train tunnel, under Union Station.” This reply took a moment. Was the man uninterested? Or unremembering?

“Have the trains quit running?”

“Maybe.”

The drifter’s tale of escape and return tested Mull’s credulity. For one thing, the height of the desert window looked to Mull too dangerous to risk bridging with a leap. And there was no sign of shelter below. No road out of that blasting sunlight. One wouldn’t have to break one’s legs in the fall to die of thirst, such distance from help. Even a turned ankle could be fatal.

The man’s account was too vague. Had he observed nothing during his sojourn outside the house? Mull had yet to meet anyone who’d persuasively gone outside and returned; the matter of the present state of the wider city was, for Mull, an open one. Perhaps there was no city to return to now, not as he’d known it.

In any case, Mull had put aside the question of whether he would be capable of exiting the house if he wished. All windows and doors worked in one direction only. For instance, when Mull had crawled over the debris and tried the hatch in the now disappeared corridor, it had led to another point deep inside the house. This was typical.

Mull had no idea whether he could still transit outside. His own entry point had grown remote as the house unfolded itself through the series of earthquake collapses. Would his car still be parked on the other side of the door through which he’d entered, at the bottom of the public stairs where Reservoir Street descended to Glendale Boulevard? It might have been stripped for parts by now. Even beyond his uncertainty about the condition of the city outside, Mull’s sense of time had been damaged by his residence in the house.

Mull excused himself from the window. The vision of the desert was entrancing but nauseating. So different from the life he’d learned inside. The drifter said nothing. Mull, as he left, attempted to memorize the turns that led to this place, another possible subject of his study.

Environmental analysis. That had been Mull’s field, when the earthquakes began and the house first fell. He could barely recall now what it was supposed to entail. He’d studied the Los Angeles River, the secret system of concrete channels, as often dry as carrying a trickle of moisture, which went ignored by most Angelenos. The fenced zones zigzagging alongside the freeways were home to wildlife—to lizards and frogs, swimming rats, weird herons—and to unsheltered humans, with their tents, their carts, their fires. Mull had liked to think he was “working” on that intractable problem. Though, in comparison with the intervention of the church volunteers, the food banks, and the charity medical clinics, anything Mull had to offer was paltry, theoretical. He reported to no one. No office of the city waited for his results.

Few students had ever affiliated with Mull, choosing him as an adviser, say, or to supervise their thesis work. His classes were a requirement in the architecture major; otherwise they’d have been empty. The handful of disciples Mull attracted tended to be those with roots in the wider city, sometimes older students. Others were transfers from the community colleges and living alone or with their families rather than in the dorms. Often the type to wander from college, into trades or the military, or off the radar entirely. Mull had felt more than once that if he were faithful to his ambivalence he’d have followed them out of the institution, to set up a life by the river.

Mull had been spending more time there, testing himself for exile, before the earthquakes. He’d leased an in-law house from a friend, ostensibly a “writing studio.” It backed onto a wide embankment, accessible through a rent in the fencing. The river’s concrete was streaked with white trails of bird shit, liquid ejections stretched by velocity into a kind of hieroglyphic language, if only Mull could read it.

At the channel’s edge, where the rain’s surges deposited refuse, one bare tree sheltered a gnarl of sun-bleached junk, stuff pitched through car windows from overpasses. Most days, Mull was alone at this crap oasis, his personal Walden. Few of the tent-dwelling people chose Mull’s embankment. Perhaps that was because of the lack of shade, perhaps because Mull, in his studio, seemed to the tent dwellers to be surveilling the area.

The time leading to Mull’s decision to enter the house had been marked by a series of catastrophic occurrences. The earthquakes, but not merely the earthquakes. In the contemplative vacuum of his present life those events stacked in memory, as if they’d transpired in a matter of days, or hours. In truth, it had been almost five months from the first earthquake to the moment when Mull committed himself to searching for Rose Gutiérrez.

An example: it was at the third press conference on the subject of the collapse, not the first, that the assassination attempt had occurred. The televised presentations were already threatening to become routine, always the same three men on the stage, flanked by policemen and press secretaries: the slim dapper mayor; the beleaguered president of the housing authority; the architect Quintus Burnham, with his shock of white hair teased to the ceiling, his black collarless suit, his red-framed glasses, looking as though he belonged more on the stage of the Cannes Film Festival. Their incomprehensible maps and charts, attempts to track the rescue efforts, to decipher the shape the structure had taken as it settled and settled again.

Who had been the assassin’s target? The architect took the only bullet, in his spine. Just days before Mull entered the house, Burnham had reappeared on television, a glimpsed form in a wheelchair, hair still coiffed. Why had Mull been so glued to the news? In his recollection, he’d been watching live the morning that the L.A.P.D. perp-walked the would-be assassin: Mull’s onetime student James Gutiérrez.

As it happened, Mull had once been at a dinner party with the architect. At a private home, that of an author Mull knew, a glamorous type, who’d married the sister of the mayor. Though the man never spoke aloud any suggestion of access or influence, this association by marriage conveyed an air of civic celebrity that the author plainly relished.

Burnham seemed to style himself a man of action, in some mid-twentieth-century Hemingway or Picasso sense. His only battles, so far as Mull could tell, had been with aggrieved civic institutions, or with neighbors of his proposed incursions upon sunlight or airspace. The money that flowed everywhere around men like Burnham guaranteed that he vanquished all such opponents.

Another thing Burnham vanquished was dinner parties. At least this one. His monologue began lightly enough, with a disquisition on Los Angeles as the site of a contest between flatness and what he called stepped tessellations. “The richer and crazier you are”—here Mull began instantly to hate him, for this romantic conflation—“the likelier you are to occupy a tessellated planar environment. The simplest example is the standard canyon house. Notched into a ravine, turning a buttressed backside to anyone approaching from below. But the spectacular examples are those private homes the studios rent, at great expense, to play the domiciles of villains in science-fiction movies—”

Mull tuned out. He looked to his table companion at his left for a side conversation. A woman he knew, who’d left academia to serve on the city’s planning commission. She, too, gave signs of impatience with Burnham’s preening. She had to explain it to Mull, who was being a little slow. Burnham had sold the city on his solution to the problem of Skid Row. The tens of thousands living unsheltered, the tent cities strung along miles of streets. That explained the confluence of guests here. Burnham’s table talk was a rehearsal for the public unveiling of his plan, the tesseractic shelter.




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