Grant Ginder is the author the novels This Is How It Starts and Driver's Education: A Novel.

He received his MFA from New York University, where he currently teaches expository writing. Find out more about Grant at www.grantginder.com.

How To Build A House
(excerpt from Driver's Education: A Novel)

posted Jan 15, 2013

Finn

The road is relentless, but so are we. After we leave the garage on East Broadway, Randal and I press on valiantly, skidding out of New York and past New Jersey's grey industrial fields, its bucket-sized lakes that pool at the base of its warehouses. There's U.S. Route 22 and U.S. Route 9 and U.S. Route 1 and New Jersey Route 21 and exits 57 and 58 and 52 and the Garden State Parkway. There are sixteen-wheel semis that, despite their size, seem to spawn, then vanish, then be next to us again, running in herds like buffalo. Hay trucks that I think are driving faster than they should be—faster than we are, at least—that'll disappear into the black space of the encroaching night.

"Maybe she's dead," Randal says. Since hitting the road, Mrs. Dalloway has been corpse quiet. No scratching, no gasped meows. Just the gentle shifting of her loose skin and bones whenever we hit a bump.

"Stop that," I tell him.

"New Jersey could kill anything." He sets his ear against his pack, which is shoved between his feet. "No luck. She just hacked."

Next—Pennsylvania. We merge onto I-81 and the highway stretches in front of us, cutting through the land's fat. Lucy's headlights illuminate the sides of the road in wide arcs, projecting images of the uneven grass and the dead split trees and the truck bays that make up the state's jumbled insides. There's that airy sense you get when you're driving that maybe you're flying; that you're floating on nothing toward a vanishing point, out where the road gets swallowed up by the sky, or maybe the sky funnels down to the road.

Everything is black by the time we reach Blue Mountain. We're beginning the slow, gradual climb through the foothills, barreling through the countless tunnels, when Randal asks, finally, what my granddad did in Pittsburgh.

I say: "He saved this guy from getting crushed into a million bits."

"Really," he said. "Really."

"True story."

My eyes are tired from staring at the same four colors that make up the western stretches of Pennsylvania. I stretch my arm out the window and I make a wing with my hand, diving it up and down into the wind, feeling the current push my palm skyward, then—with just a tiny shift—my knuckles down.

A minute later: "How did he do that?"

"You're not going to believe me. It's the honest-to-God truth, but you're not going to believe me."

"Try me."

So I tell him.

*

The first time my granddad went to Pittsburgh, it was for the bridges.

He designed them for a living, great reaching things that spanned rivers and abysses and all other species of bottomless chasms. You've seen his work, undoubtedly. You've driven across it, or strolled on its footpaths, or spit from its slick railings into the infinity below, and each time, the whole time, you've never known it's his. No one's known, prob-ably, unless No One was the sort of person who researched these things. Because while my granddad was a great man, he was also greatly humble. He was always content to let other folks take the credit, to let them slap their names onto square bronze plaques while from a distance he observed his work, connecting two worlds for the first time.

He told me that in 1963, when he and Lucy slipped into Allegheny County, Pittsburgh was laced with more than four hundred bridges, more than any city in the entire world. He'd been driving through the night and when he entered the city, it was from the south. In the waning dark he slipped through Dormont and Green Tree and so many other sleepy, leafy suburbs. It was as he climbed the back side of Mount Washington to overlook the city center, its steely innards, that dawn—pink and miraculous and explosive—broke.

It tossed its eastern light onto the Liberty Bridge's curved spine and across the Smithfield Street Bridge's famed trusses; it weaved between the Three Sisters and tickled their matching backsides; it bent the Fort Pitt Bridge's bowstring arch till the whole thing glowed red; it hit the West End Bridge last, naturally, plucking its suspensions like guitar stings till the hum of it all finally woke the city.

Or at least that's what he'd expected to see. The Pittsburgh he'd dreamt he'd see; the Pittsburgh that, twenty years earlier, during the height of World War II, had been the nation's number one producer of steel. The Pittsburgh that cranked out the materials necessary to make the tanks and the planes and the guns that'd squash Hitler and zee Ger-mans. A million tons of it in one year alone, my granddad would say. Try to imagine that, Finn. I'd tell him I couldn't imagine seeing a million tons of much of anything. Oh, he'd say. Oh, sure you can.

But this wasn't twenty years ago—this was 1963—and Pittsburgh had turned into a stinking shithole. The industry that had once bellied the city was now shriveled; the government contracts long expired, Big Steel was now racked with labor strikes and infighting. And there were other problems, too. For starters, the region was in the throes of one of its worst droughts on record. The waters of the Allegheny, of the Monongahela and the Ohio—they all ran uncertain and anemic. The currents would mill in shallow puddles around the pilings of the bridges, they'd cling to the grooves in the concrete and rusted steel, collecting dust, waiting to dry up. My granddad told me that the streets were so baked and dry that the asphalt would crack if you managed to stand in one place for too long. (And he would know—it happened to him. Right there on top of Mount Washington. There was a snapping sound, then a plume of black dust—and bam, his left foot was four feet under.) He told me how there were ladies who had no water for their gardens, so they fed their roses milk; how there was a man who'd trained his dog to lick dirt off his car, because there wasn't any water to wash it.

And also, he said, there were the fires. They'd started in January, when twenty five-alarm blazes leveled seven city blocks on Pittsburgh's Northside. Then, in April, when my granddad arrived and the embers in the sad empty lots were just beginning to cool, there was a new batch, set by a never-to-be-found arsonist. New rooms bubbling with ash, new flames licking singed shingles. Ignited roofs that, from where my granddad stood on Mount Washington, looked like torches in a mob.

The fire department did what it could, of course. It erected its ladders against the buildings' half-burnt walls; it pulled folks out of burning doorways. But remember, there was this drought—there was only so much water the rivers could afford to give—so the men didn't have enough juice to run their hoses. Instead, they used squirt guns. Honest to God. The colored plastic sort you'd find at a five-and-dime store. They had a whole arsenal of them, I swear. My granddad saw the whole thing go down.

From where he parked Lucy he watched the smoke as it wafted upward, bleeding into a sky that was already blanketed with a mix of smog and soot. Fires or not, the pollution in Pittsburgh was some of the worst in the country, my granddad said. While the steel industry was on the outs, its factories still managed to cough up toxic clouds daily. The city's residents did what they could: insisting that the street lights be turned on at noon; stumbling to the grocery store with a flashlight; smoking cigarettes for a reprieve of fresh air. Still, not much of it worked. It was for this reason, I think, that the old man wasn't able to see the bridges. He wasn't able to see a goddamned thing at all.

It was midmorning when he finally decided to leave his perch at the top of the incline. My granddad began winding down Mount Washington's north face toward the city, flicking on Lucy's headlights to see the road in front of him, to cut a path through the smog and soot. More than once he had to stop in order to wipe her clean; he used a white handkerchief to clear peepholes in her windshield. He told me it was a ghost town on that day: a city with four hundred bridges that led into it, which—then—were only being used as escape routes out.

He didn't know where he was going. I guess that's something I should get across now. He'd come to see the bridges, of course, to admire their mechanical beauty, but my granddad was the kind of guy who felt that beauty was only allowed to be beautiful if it was found accidentally. His plan was to traverse the city streets fortuitously, to hike through the buildings' ashy canyons that snaked between the rivers until he stumbled upon the next way out, the next way in.

It was in this way that he and Lucy wound through downtown Pittsburgh, past the squat headquarters of the Post-Gazette and the skyscrapers on Grant Street. He drove straight when he could see, and when he couldn't he'd turn. Through the Strip District and East Allegheny, Bloomfield and Oakwood and Friendship and Shadyside. His blind traipsing took him over the Ohio at Sixteenth Street, at Thirty-First Street, at Fortieth Street. And then, over the Monongahela at Tenth, at the Birmingham, at the Hot Metal. My granddad managed to cross 273 of the city's bridges before he stumbled—awfully and serendipitously—upon the Hill District.

It was a pocket of the city due east of downtown, on the other side of Crosstown Boulevard. He told me how it was spectacularly bad over there, in the Hill, how if Pittsburgh was hell and its residents were sinners, then this must've been the place they were sent when they'd done something incredibly atrocious. Eighth circle bad. Malebolge bad. But it hadn't always been like this, he'd learn days later, when he was back in Westchester researching the places he'd just seen. (He was like this, my granddad. A great humble genius, but also a constant learner. A real polymath. Each time a new encyclopedia was issued, he'd read the latest edition from A to Z. He'd highlight the fresh entries. That's a true story. The man's mind didn't just remember things—facts, stories, myths—it took them apart and reconstructed them again; it built newer, better versions of things he already knew.)

In any event, the Hill District. At one point—particularly during the 1930s and '40s—the neighborhood had been a cultural cornerstone for not only Pittsburgh, but the entire country. People called it "the crossroads of the world," or sometimes "Fun City"—it was, as my granddad explained it to me, the most happening spot for music and nightlife between Chicago and New York.

At the center of it all was Wylie Avenue—and at the center of Wylie Avenue was jazz. Great jazz. Soul-lifting, spirit-crushing, boozy and bone-wrenching jazz. Famous musicians—people like Lena Horne and Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane and Duke Ellington; names that exist in my mind, that existed in his, as these smoky cocktails of riffs and sighs—they all played the Hill. They packed places like Crawford Grill and the Flamingo Club and the Granada Theater. People who were there to live through it said that each night the velvet notes from the players' horns would slip softly, seductively through the neighborhood's side streets, down alleys, and past cracks of open windows.

But then, as the city slumped during the postwar era, its mayor—a man named Lawrence—instituted this massive urban renewal plan. Phase three of the project focused on the Hill—which, like the rest of the city, had fallen into soggy disrepair. The projections were hubristic: ninety-five acres of commercial and residential property were to be razed to make room for new office spaces, a public arena, and additional housing. At the end of the day, none of these developments ever materialized. The music stopped: the clubs' windows were boarded up before being demolished by wrecking balls; upward of eight thousand Hill residents were displaced with only crumbs of assistance from the city. There was only one new structure that was ever built, some tenement with a roof that leaked in a drizzle.

So, that was the scene when my granddad passed from Watt onto Wylie in April of 1963. A real bonfire of the vanities, he said. Dried-up lawns that served as graveyards for half-remembered houses; chained-up bikes with no tires; deflated tires with no bikes; countless vestiges of lives forgotten.

He eased Lucy slowly, cautiously down the avenue. So few of the streetlamps were illuminated, and her faint headlights flickered with exhaustion. There hadn't been a soul in sight, he told me, until he passed Soho Street and then there was—quite suddenly—a crowd. A mob of onlookers that spilled from the empty lots, from the weeded sidewalks into the road. Their million arms were linked together in solidarity, forming an infinite chain that barricaded his path. Their gazes were turned away from him, their eyes set westward. He told me how from where he parked Lucy, on the corner of Wylie and Soho, he watched as members of the mob would throw their heads skyward at unspecified intervals, how they'd wail and shout their grievances to the clouds, how he'd cringe as their words got tangled in the smoke.

No one turned when he closed Lucy's door, or as he approached the tail end of the mob, which he now saw stretched onward, in increasing density, toward Lawson Street. He still couldn't see what was causing the commotion—the grey air was thick, he said, and the few times a gust parted it enough for him to get a visual, his view would be blocked by one of the onlookers' heads, a crown in mid-mourn, neck tilted back, skin bunched in thick rows atop two shoulders.

On more than one occasion, he tried to push through the crowd. He'd give a slight Excuse me, ma'am, or maybe a Sir, if you could just . . .But the strangers were impervious to his attempts. Their arms remained linked as they stood in their inflexible ranks. So he did the only thing he could do—or, the only thing a bridge maker could imagine doing: he climbed over them.

Their half-pitched heads would work as the bridge's towers, he figured, while the line formed by their sloping shoulders would stand in for the main cable. The linked arms, the suspension cables; their fisted hands, the structure's deck. He found his balance and then pardoned himself as he went. When he came across a face that was twisted in mid-wail, he'd offer up his handkerchief; he'd clean the tears and soot from a pair of dirtied cheeks.

Like I said, the front of the throng was at Wylie and Lawson, and when he got there, when he finally emerged from between a set of knobby elbows, this is what he saw: a record store—a place called The Rev's—with a rusted tin roof and ash-streaked walls. It was the only structure still standing on the block, though its windows were boarded and poised above it was a wrecking ball, swaying happily, dumbly.

"You're animals!" a man standing next to my granddad on the front line shouted. "Doing this while he's still in there! Animals!"

The wrecking ball swung in wider arcs, tracing smiles in the smoke.

"While who's in there?" my granddad asked.

"The Rev!" The man unlinked his arms from the two women who flanked him and he brought his hands to his face. "Oh, the Rev!"

"How long has he been in there?"

"Days!" the man shouted. One of the two women followed up with "Weeks! Ever since they went and told him they'd be taking his shop! Hasn't seen the light of day since!" She added, "Animals!"

My granddad looked up at the wrecking ball; he made a visor with his hand even though there was no sun. And because my granddad was coolheaded and direct—or, great and humble and a polymath and cool-headed and direct—he said, "Well then, somebody better get him out."

*

We exit a fourth tunnel and Lucy's headlights burn parallelograms along the road's shoulders. Blue beams come toward us, blinding us. The car passes and we see a million little stars that move and fade. The interstate begins a shallow decline, and ahead of us one of the foothills is capped with an electric halo of Pittsburgh's grey light.

"You'll stop me if you've heard this before," I say.

"Keep going," Randal says. "You're on a roll."

*

He found a way in around the back side of the shop: a place where the boards on the windows were moist and rotted and could be easily pried off. He shimmied in through the gap he'd made and fumbled while he found his footing. Because even though it was daytime, the store's interior was dark, with smoke from outside trailing along the ceiling. He told me it smelled like dirty towels—that's exactly what he said. Not dirty clothes, or dirty shoes, but dirty towels. My granddad stumbled more as he made his way through the blackness, tripping over a desk, a cash register. He called out hello four times but no one answered him.

He ran his hand along the wall until he found a light switch. He flipped it, but nothing happened. So he walked farther, his fingers still trailing the wall, until he found another switch. This one worked. The fluorescents took a while as they warmed up, but eventually the shop illuminated well enough for him to see the Rev, sitting alone and despondent, atop a pile of records.

The man was only about ten years my granddad's senior, but he looked older, fossilized, the dust from the decaying shop settling on his mustache and eyebrows. His skin sagged from his jowls and ears—the two lobes, my granddad said, grazed his shoulders—and his face had the look of a man who'd been unlucky enough to see the end and drive right on past it. The ground around him was littered with all sorts of things—vinyl, old posters advertising shows at the Flamingo Club, a half-finished chicken leg beset by flies. In his left hand he held a cup that was filled with gin because there wasn't any water to drink.

My granddad took the sight in quietly and respectfully; he allowed the man's eyes to adjust to the light. But then, from outside, there was the whispered creak of the chain and the mewing wails of the onlookers, the subtle whoosh of a wrecking ball in motion, and he said, "Friend, it's time to get you out of here."

"I ain't moving," the Rev said back.

"They're going to tear this place down, whether you're in it or not."

The Rev wiped soot from the corners of his eyes. "So go ahead and let them whether I'm in it or not."

Whenever my granddad recounted this story for me—which was often, very often—he'd always say how he wished the Rev's response, this man's desire to die, puzzled him.

"I even waited for it to, Finn," he'd say. "But the cold truth is I had no questions to ask; I understood."

I suppose my granddad learned the hard way that when someone, something made the irrevocable decision to go, there wasn't a damned thing you could do to change its mind. He'd say, "I've seen it happen everywhere. From dogs who dig their own graves to your own blessed grandmother. Only thing to be done in a situation like that is to protect the person from himself. To build up walls high enough to keep out whatever's eating him in hopes that when the sun starts shining again, he'll be there to take a better look around."

Which I'll say is precisely what he did.

While the whoosh from the wrecking ball grew louder, my granddad zigzagged through the store's racks, emptying them of their records, creating stacks that were three, four, five feet high on the linoleum floor. Seven separate times the Rev demanded to know what he was doing, but my granddad kept his plans hushed; he knew that if he let on in the slightest, the old man would object. He'd press himself up against one of the store's walls until that dull steel globe came crashing into his gut. And my granddad—who was above all things heroic—wasn't about to let that happen.

He knew that he'd need something with girth to start: a bass that could resonate along a scale's deepest notes, while still having a bit of flexibility. He went with Louis Armstrong. He stacked his arms with Struttin', with LPs of Black and Blue and All of Me and Basin Street Blues. He arranged them around the Rev as he would if he were setting down the foundations for a house: great thick beams of vinyl, set squarely atop the dusty floor.

Again, the Rev shouted, "Boy, what in the hell are you doing!"

The walls were a different matter entirely. With them, he needed range. Materials that were comfortable at the bottom but could also support themselves up top. A baritone, he figured. Or a mezzo-soprano. A low tenor in a pinch. He shuffled through the records he'd emptied onto the linoleum, his feet kicking aside Rose Murphy and Blossom Dearie albums, their high-pitched trills ricocheting off the shop's walls. The shadow of the wrecking ball crept in through the window from which he entered, and it grazed his bristled neck. My granddad made a game-time decision: Mildred Bailey for the north side, Al Bowlly for the east and west faces. And for the south end, where he'd leave room for a door: the big band standards of Cab Calloway.

"I already got a house." The Rev was still sitting as my granddad secured Minnie the Moocher to the top of the south wall.

"You may have a house out there," he said. "But you don't have a house in here."

The Rev thought this over, turning it around on his eyes and his lips as he sipped from his gin. "I never figured you could build a house from records," he said, finally.

"You can build a house from anything."

The biggest problem, as my granddad explained it to me, was the roof. They couldn't use something heavy—your standard bass, for example—due to fear that the weight would cause the whole thing to come crashing down. The other option was something light and airy—a soprano—but then, as the Rev pointed out, what sort of protection would that offer? A third dilemma as they scanned the rummaged aisles: there wasn't much material left. My granddad had emptied the shelves to construct the foundations, the floors, the high walls—and now, the pickings were devastatingly slim. A Bing Crosby here, a Jimmy Rushing there—nothing, though, that contained the heft he knew they needed.

He turned, then, to the Rev. To the pile of records on which he sat. "What about those?"

The Rev paused at this. He bit his lower lip, wiped another clump of soot from a bone-dry eye. As he stood, ash fell from his shoulders, from the slender tips of his fingers, floating down to the floor in airy feathers.

He handed the first of the records to my granddad, who fixed it in place, the first of the countless shingles that would save them.

"'Song for a Lonely Woman' by Art Blakey," the Rev said as he watched my granddad work. "That's the first time I saw my wife. She was sitting alone on a bench on the north side of Bigelow wearing a big old hat that covered her face. Could've been the ugliest woman on earth for all I knew. Only thing I was sure of was that woman would end up mine and this would be the song that'd come to mind each time I thought of her."

The Rev passed my granddad record after record, the pile below him shrinking as the shadow surrounding them grew.

"'Summertime' is the first time I tasted an apricot."

"'Georgia on My Mind' is when I got whacked for falling asleep and snoring in church."

"'The Best Is Yet to Come' is when I realized that if the sky was blue enough you could see the moon on a clear day."

"'Day by Day' is riding the Duquesne Incline with my old man."

"'Stella by Starlight' is kissing girls I shouldn't have been kissing."

"'Mood Indigo' is watching my mother dance as she dries dishes."

"'Tuxedo Junction' is drinking too much and smoking too much and having one hell of a time either way."

"'In a Sentimental Mood' is when I learned that love doesn't last much longer than a spider bite."

The halo over the hills grows wider until it isn't a halo at all, but instead an industrial sunrise, and at four minutes after midnight I-76 drops onto a lower section of the Allegheny Plateau and Randal and I begin to see the first buildings along the city's eastern outskirts.

No one could stand to watch once the onslaught began. Arms no longer linked, they left the place, embarking on a million different death walks to a million different homes.

The thing is, though, my granddad and the Rev didn't even hear the wrecking ball when it took out the shop's north wall. Before my granddad had sealed up the record home's door, he'd dragged in an old phonograph he'd uncovered in one of the store's abandoned corners. As chunks of the shop tumbled off the vinyl roof to the earth around them, they drank from the cup of gin and listened to the last record they had, the only one they didn't use, Stan Getz's Here's That Rainy Day.

When the song stopped and the wrecking ball had ceased its silent banging, the Rev emerged into a vacant lot. He kicked at the broken pieces of everything that used to be, and he looked up at the sun, which through the smoke looked like a cotton ball, all pulled and frayed and roughed up along its edges.

He turned to my granddad and said, "The sky! I haven't seen the sky in weeks."