Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Three Houses (A Parable)

It was late on a Saturday morning. Three houses stood on a street, one next to the other, in a quiet suburban town. 

One house was perfect. The shingles were tight and new. The bushes were smooth and round. The lawn glowed emerald, like a square carved from a Irish hill. Not a door squeaked, in this house. Not one wall, within, ran even the slightest crack. The tool shed stood in order; the lawnmower enjoyed regular oil changes; rakes hung on racks in the garage, like soldiers in file, eager to claw away the enemies of the sacred grass.

The man of this house kept his metric wrenches in their plastic indentations in a great red, rolling tool cabinet. He washed his car whenever the sun shone, and on this day, he was buffing its glassy hood as he looked toward the next house, shaking his head in disgust.

The next house was deeply in need of paint. The lawn was dead and yellow and riddled with crabgrass. By the curb, trash cans remained, lying around like plastic drunks, though they had been emptied four days prior. Cracks in the sidewalk bristled with weeds. Cracks in the driveway bulged with persistent clumps of grass.

Within this house there sat a man in a dirty living room that was lined with messy bookshelves. The windows were shut, though it was a warm day. The air-conditioning blew a mechanical chill into the room. A layer of dust velveted the furniture.

The man sat on a couch, his feet on the coffee table among used plates and cups. One sock sagged loose at the end of a waggling foot.

The man cared not a jot about the mess; he was reading Kierkegaard, with Hegel waiting on the floor atop a great pile of wisdom. This man didn't know what time of day it was. Lunch would come when his stomach growled, as would dinner, and they would be absently eaten as he read.

He looked up, briefly, in the direction of the next house, from which emanated the intermittent sound of a hammer. The hammer would break the reading man's concentration from time to time. The reading man shook his head. Stupid suburbanites, he thought. Wasters of time.

Behind the third house, another man was driving nails.

He had awakened that day and had coffee with his wife in the sunlight of a big window. He had gone out to have a catch with his children. Then, thinking he should do something "around the house" he had wandered into the garage and stood, hands on hips, thinking.

He considered cleaning it out, but it wasn't very messy. When he saw a forgotten box of nails, it occurred to him that the gates were coming apart. He wandered to a gate and discovered that it would be easy to remove from the hinges, so he did so, and he carried it into his yard to lay it on an old picnic table. He was not good with fixing things, so he considered the gate for some time, thinking it through. Then, he began driving screws and nails and, before long, the gate was as solid as new. Proudly, he called his wife out to show her. She was pleased (though not as proud as he), smiling with her arms folded against the chill. She kissed him on the cheek and went inside.

When she was gone, he admired the fixed gate for a while longer, opening and closing it a few times, enjoying the solid click. He shut it one last time and gazed around, seeing other things that needed to be done. But he decided he'd done enough for one day. It was time to go in to his piano.

He looked across his own lawn (which needed to be cut) and across the next lawn (which was dead and dusty) to the next, which shimmered in jewelish green glory. He smiled and waved pleasantly to the man washing the car.

The man washing the car waved dismissively, shook his head, and continued brushing his chrome hubcaps. He had a long list of things to get done today . . .

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