This Is Salvaged, This Is Salvaged
by Vauhini Vara
Marlon had reached the point in life—the midpoint—at which time starts to run out. He had grown up poor and foregone art school less because he couldn’t afford it, though he couldn’t, than because he didn’t know such a school existed. But he’d come up in life. He wasn’t unsuccessful. He had won grants over the years, had been exhibited, had been invited to give lectures to pale, serious, twig-armed students on midwestern college campuses. The problem was that he made installations, which were difficult to sell in general, and on top of that, his particular installations were meant to be impermanent: He made them out of feathers, sand, leaves, human hair—his medium was the fragile and perishable—and, rather than binding them together or preserving them with the usual substances, glue or shellac, he arranged a room with his materials, in as elegant a formation as he could imagine, and then let them be. He envisioned the art degrading as people interacted with it, until it was transformed into something else altogether. Often, though, the pieces would stay intact for weeks because no one had wit enough to touch them. He wasn’t well-known enough for people to know the deal up front.
During the summer of the midpoint—the midpoint’s midpoint—it all came to a head. He filled a large, white-walled room with a giant sand castle that went nearly to the ceiling, impressed with intricately arranged strands of black hair that he’d dustpanned up from the bathroom floor after his wife’s blowdrying sessions. People were supposed to step on the castle! They were supposed to tug at the hairs! But no one did, until finally a pair of tourists wandered in with their toddler, who nudged a bridge with his little sneaker and collapsed it. The parents cried out in mortification, blamed each other, and finally went to find the gallerist, who explained, with some relief, that this was the point of it all. The point being that in the future none of this would exist in any recognizable form, all its component parts scattered into somepresently unknowable configuration. Marlon didn’t mean just the art. Or the room or the people in it. He was referring to the extinction of all terrestrial life and the fact that the universe would continue on even after we’ve all been atomized and cast to the winds.
It wasn’t supposed to be pretentious. It was supposed to be comical. An anxious and rageful sort of comical, but comical nonetheless. People were supposed to laugh! Instead they marveled at the delicate craftsmanship, made grave little muttering sounds. The problem was that art patrons were rich, which twisted up their sensibilities. They had lost so little, so seldom, that they were inexperienced at handling it; they stood stiff-backed and solemn before loss, believing, from movies, he guessed, that this must be the right pose. Normal people, the poor and poorish masses who had lost much and lost it often, knew the truth, which was that you had to laugh. But normal people, by and large, didn’t care for art. It wasn’t that he didn’t know this. It was that he hadn’t spent enough time with rich people, before he started showing his art, to know about this particular strangeness of theirs, and by then it was too late.
He and Yara had been living in Palo Alto. Yara had married him because she had found him charming at first, and he had married her for the same bad reason as with his first wife, which was that he loved people precisely to the extent to which they found him charming. She had once been as footloose as him but had gone to nursing school and emerged a more careful person. She was obsessed with living within their means. They used to have a game, in which Marlon would ask, “Are you mad at me?” and Yara would run over and cover him with kisses—she wasn’t mad at him, she’d never be mad at him! But after a while, she changed the rules. He would ask, “Are you mad at me?” and she would clench her face at him and sing, “You’re fine!” and he would have a grim feeling that she was gathering the courage to leave him. Yara tried to convince him to get a more gainful kind of employment, and when he refused, she suggested that they sell their house and move to Modesto, where several of her nurse friends lived well. She brought it up often, and each time she mentioned the town, it sounded to him like she was screaming it. Modesto! Modesto! Even its name proclaimed its meagerness. He felt murderous. Less at her than at Palo Alto itself, for attempting, through Yara, to expel him. But one couldn’t murder a town. One could murder a person. So as to avoid that fate, he decided to leave. One afternoon, he took his little handful of savings out of the bank, in cash, and packed his car full of his sketches, notebooks, clothes. Yara was sleeping because she worked odd hours at the hospital; she would come home at noon after a twelve-hour shift, and she wouldn’t wake till dinnertime. So he could do all this unnoticed. He wrote a note and put it next to her phone: I couldn’t take it anymore, which isn’t to say I’ve killed myself, he wrote. For a wild surprise, look outside! Then he laid all his cash on the front lawn and got in the car. As he drove, he imagined her out on the lawn in her cerulean nightgown, clutching armfuls of bills against her chest and realizing she missed him.
That night, as he slept in his car in a playground parking lot, he dreamt that the world had flooded over. When he woke up, he felt afraid. He went to the library and applied for several grants to build an ark.
It would be a real ark, based on the specifications of the King James Bible. He would employ homeless Seattle residents for the construction, and, upon completion, it would be moored at the beach and host rotating exhibits on climate change. The morning Marlon arrived in Seattle—the grant he had won, of the eight he had applied for, happened to be based there and required a local angle—two older men sat on the crumbling curb in front of the shelter that had agreed to partner with him. Marlon was on his bike and wondered how he must look to them, stubble-faced and flop-haired and hunched over the bike handles like a child. The men toed the root-broken road, with two cups of orange juice between them, and didn’t glance up at him until he stopped. Then, one of them, who was heavier-set and bearded and had an authoritative air, called out, “Good-looking bike,” as Marlon bent his head and fussed with the lock. “You hardly ever see a bike with fenders like that.”
“Don’t I know it,” Marlon said, standing to face the men.
“You’re the artist?” the man asked.
“Indeed,” Marlon said.
“I’m your foreman,” the man said. “Manny. And this,” he said, gesturing at the other man, who was thin and scowl-faced, “is my best friend. Buck, introduce yourself.”
Buck muttered, looking at his feet, “You already introduced me.”
Then a small, young woman slipped out of the shelter, her hands on her hips. She was the sort of woman you can’t help but think of as a girl. She wore a linen dress and had her thin white-blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. “Is he the artist?” she asked Manny and Buck, in a soft voice.
Marlon stepped past them and thrust his hand at her. “I’m the artist,” he said.
“Marlon?” she said. “I’m Glenda.”
“Glenda!” he said. They had been in touch over email—she seemed to run the place—and he had expected someone different: older, fatter, and more authoritative. He was pleased that she was like this instead.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” she said. “Is this the kind of thing they do?” “Who?”
“Artists,” she said.
On the first morning at the shipyard, Marlon overturned a crate and stepped up onto it. He meant to introduce himself to the rest of them and say a couple of words about what he proposed. He immediately felt awkward and fraudulent, as if he were trying to place himself above them. He hunched and kept the speech simple—unpretentious, he hoped. He told them who he was, and what he was there for, and he listed the specifications. “The King James Bible calls for gopher wood and pitch,” Marlon said. Historians disagreed about what gopher wood was, he told them, but a common guess was cedar, so that’s what they would use. A great mound of cedar planks was piled against the back wall of the warehouse. “The pitch is from a Swedish supplier,” he said, gesturing at a dozen steel vats in the corner of the warehouse. He’d made one modern concession: a steel frame. In the days of Noah, the ark would have been built plank-first, without a frame at all—the cedar set down board by board and hand-joined with pins of iron or wood. “The plan is,” he concluded, “we finish by wintertime, when the rainy season starts.” They’d moor the ark just as the first grey clouds settled in.
After the speech, Marlon asked Manny and Buck if they’d walk with him to pick up sandwiches for everyone. He had come to understand, from Glenda, that Manny and Buck had been best friends nearly their entire adult lives. They had been coming to the shelter, off and on, all that time. Now they were pushing seventy, and everyone knew who they were—Manny and Buck, never just Manny or just Buck. Marlon envied their companionship. He and Yara had fallen out of love a long time ago, but she’d been his best friend—sort of his only friend—and he missed her. Of course that wasn’t the only reason he sought them out. “Glenda’s nice,” he remarked as they walked. “She been working here long?”
Buck flashed him a silent glance, a tense, man-to-man expression that he recognized well and that ignited his competitive spirit, but Manny answered him. Glenda and her parents used to come to the shelter cafeteria every Sunday, with their church group, and ladle chili into their bowls. She had been a tiny, quiet girl. Nowadays, she knew how to sass them when she needed to. But most of the time, she still acted fourteen. She didn’t speak much, and she wore the same delicate little cross around her neck that she had always owned. Glenda’s parents had died within months of each other when Glenda was in high school. Marlon wondered if she’d been stunted then. Maybe that was why she still worked at the shelter, even though she could have gotten work anywhere, with her college degree. Maybe she couldn’t stand to leave the life her parents had known.
Buck spoke up. One afternoon, he said, not long after Glenda’s parents died, he had accidentally walked in on her while she was in the cafeteria bathroom. Her jeans and panties were around her ankles, and she was sobbing with her face in her hands. When she saw Buck, she asked him to come in. She told him she needed a hug, and he hugged her. Her body heaved in his arms, and he could smell her pee in the toilet. Afterward, she pulled her pants up and washed her face and left. They never spoke of it again, he said, but they’d had a special relationship ever since.
“Oh, come on, Buck,” Manny said. “That’s not a relationship.” He turned to Marlon. “It’s not,” he reassured him.
Buck grew quiet, and they all walked in silence, each man carrying plastic bags full of sandwiches in both hands and thinking his own hard thoughts.
Construction began. They started with the keel, propped up on concrete blocks. Manny was in charge, with Buck as his second-in-command. The third- and fourth-incommand were Davis and Joe, who were young but had construction experience. On four wooden crates arranged in a circle, they all sat with their cigarettes and issued orders. Marlon sometimes wandered around, sometimes sat with them. He didn’t know where he fit. One afternoon, when they were all sitting together, Glenda walked by wearing a sundress with a hem that hovered mid-thigh and smiled at Buck. He called her over, retrieving a sixth crate and popping it down next to himself. “Glenda, I need to know,” Buck said. “Have you ever thought about modeling?”
“Oh, gosh,” Glenda said as she sat, her eyes almost crossing. Then, she softened and said, “No, Buck, I never have.”
“You should think about modeling,” Buck said. “You have straight teeth.”
“Don’t be a pervert,” Manny said to Buck. “You’ve known her since she was fourteen.”
Buck blinked, hard, and cried out, “I didn’t mean anything by it!”
“Easy, Buck,” Glenda said. “I know you didn’t.” She patted him on the arm and stood. “It was so nice of you to say it,” she said. “Nobody ever noticed my teeth before.”
“See?” Buck said, lifting his chin at Manny.
Sometimes Marlon couldn’t believe this was really happening. He felt himself observing the whole scene as if from some distance—from his own disheveled childhood—and admiring the aesthetics of the whole thing. The big men, the little waif. Glenda stood, as if to leave them, and Marlon touched her arm and said, “Hey, sit down.” He was pleased when she sat with a certain mindless obedience. “You’re wearing a dress,” Marlon commented. “You don’t see that on a shipyard too often.”
“So?” Glenda cried. “Can’t I wear a dress without everybody commenting?”
Marlon grinned and said, “Glenda, how old are you?”
“Twenty-three,” said Glenda.
“Same as my daughter!” he said.
“She likes to shout at me, too.” Marlon’s daughter, Sheila, was a recovering addict; last he’d heard from her, she had called to announce that she had forgiven him and would be cutting off contact from then on. When he had asked what he was being forgiven for, she laughed, a bit crazily, and then shouted, “Oh my God! That’s exactly my point!” Since then they hadn’t talked. The whole episode had left him befuddled. He figured her mother had turned her against him. But what could he do? She was a grown woman and could do what she wanted.
“Huh,” Glenda said.
“Do you know the writer Thomas Wolfe?” Marlon said.
“Um, yes,” Glenda said—though she didn’t know him at all.
“When Thomas Wolfe was twenty-three, he said, ‘I don’t know yet what I am capable of doing, but by God, I have genius—I know it too well to blush behind it.’”
“Hmph,” said Manny, casting a skeptical look of kinship at Glenda. “Genius.” Glenda colored and coughed. “OK,” she said, as if Marlon had insulted her. “I don’t know what you’re getting at.”
“I think you do!” Marlon said. “I think you do!”
That night, Glenda took Marlon to the shelter’s rooftop, from which they could see the shipyard below, all the ark’s scattered parts looking like wood chips and toothpicks from up there. Then they went to her room on the women’s floor of the shelter and opened a bottle of wine. “I thought wine wasn’t allowed,” Marlon said.
“For staff, it’s OK,” she said. When they sat on her couch, Glenda arranged herself so that her toes touched the crook of Marlon’s knee. She had never had this kind of attention from men. Maybe I’ve changed, she thought. Marlon pointed out that that Glenda didn’t have a bed. They talked about furniture. They talked about whether Buck had a crush on Glenda or not—Marlon thought he did, Glenda disagreed. Glenda said she felt drunk. Marlon said he did, too. His daughter thought he was an alcoholic, he told her, but he wasn’t. Alcoholics loved calling other people alcoholics, he said, because it made them feel better about themselves. They talked about the ark—what they had accomplished so far, what they had yet to accomplish, how they would feel when it was finished. “It’s an amazing feeling,” Marlon said, “to feel like your work is being driven by a power greater than you. Like it’s coming together with no effort at all, like it was meant to be.” They talked about Glenda’s parents and Marlon’s daughter.
“How Freudian,” Glenda said. “All of this.” Marlon laughed and punched her lightly on the knee then kept his knuckles resting there. They grew silent. His fingers stretched and spidered. He pressed the pads of his fingers to the sweaty crook of her knee.
“Um,” he said, looking around. “Where do you sleep?”
They stood, and Marlon helped Glenda unfold the couch into a bed. It was the first time anyone had ever helped her with it, and she thought, happily, This is why people get married. The shared bathroom was a few doors down, and they took turns sitting alone on the thin springy bed as the other wore Glenda’s pink flip-flops and padded down the hallway to pee. When they were both back in the room, he pulled off her pants and folded them with a neat reverence, placing them at the foot of the bed. Then he pulled off his own pants. Their T-shirts stayed on as they kissed and put their hands in each other’s hair, then between each other’s thighs. If he took off her T-shirt, Marlon figured, he would also have to take off his own, and he was self-conscious about his girth. He had once been handsome, or so he’d been told, but he wasn’t sure if he was anymore. In any case, he wasn’t told anymore. They pawed at each other. Glenda, too, felt glad to keep her T-shirt on. She didn’t like the way her breasts flopped to the side when she lay on her back, nor did she like the way they hung, pendulous, when she was on top. When Marlon tried to move on top of her, she said, “I’m a virgin.”
Marlon paused, mid-air. He felt as if he were doing a push-up on top of her. His mind whitened. Seconds passed. “Is there anything you want me to say?” he said.
By the end of the second month, they had the frame—a great jutting ribcage of black, like that of some long-forgotten sea creature, four-hundred-and-fifty feet long, seventy-five feet wide and forty-five feet high. They began laying the cedar planking for the outer hull, leaving room for a single door, low on the center of the port side. The decking went up—three levels, equally sized. When the hull was complete, the men put up scaffolding and began coating it with pitch. Manny stood down below and boomed up at them with his megaphone. “Keep it even. Get in there, Ted—to the left, to the left—there.” From down below, the men looked small, crawling around on their scaffolding. They kept the pitch in buckets by their side, a bucket to three men.
A faint tarry smell hung in the air.
Marlon and Glenda had woodworked the helm themselves, after hours, and when the time came to mount it, Marlon wanted them to do it themselves. They climbed up a ladder to the top, and Marlon upheld the helm while Glenda crouched and tightened the screws. A couple of men stood around and watched. It took the two of them an hour where it would have taken a couple of the other men no more than ten minutes. By the time they were done, the men who had been watching had gotten bored and left them alone.
Glenda stood and wiped the dirt from her knees and took hold of the steering helm. She spun it to the right, and it went around a couple of times, then stopped. Marlon stood back with his hands crossed in front of his chest, watching. Then he spun the helm, too. This time, it spun for a longer time before stopping.
“Look at that,” Glenda said.
“You have to put everything you’ve got into it,” Marlon said. “Whatever it is—put everything in. That’s the only way to be an artist.” Glenda smiled at him in a way that suggested suppressed criticism. He knew the look; it was Yara’s look. At least he thought it was the same look. Or, no, maybe she was just smiling. Maybe this was just how they smiled around here. So he smiled too. She laughed, and he laughed. He backed Glenda up against the helm, and she wrapped her arms around his waist and then, remarkably, her legs around his own. He thought he might fall, but he steadied himself and kissed her.
“This is it, sunshine,” he told her. “It’s happening.”
Marlon had been no one special. Now, he was building an ark. In the fall, the Seattle Times wrote about his project, then, and a few days later, the New York Times followed it. A letter for Marlon arrived at the shelter. It was from the artist Christo, whom Marlon had long admired, and it buoyed his spirits. Marlon read it aloud to Glenda, gripping the divider that set her desk apart from the rest of the room. “Congratulations on the ark. I wish I had thought of it.” His heart was pounding. He was experiencing a paroxysm of confidence.
“We have to put this somewhere,” he shouted, waving it in the air.
“It should maybe go in the ark,” Glenda said, “so that everybody can see it.”
“Come with me!” Marlon said. “Let’s go put it up.”
“But I’m working,” she said.
“Isn’t this part of your work?” he said. “Come on, it is!”
Down at the shipyard, the men were about to start caulking. As with everything else, they were doing it the old-fashioned way. Davis and Jay sat on either end of the ark, each holding one side of a long length of rope, as Manny and Buck untwisted it into oakum, which would be tucked into the seams between the planks of the vessel. The four of them had taken to sleeping on the ark. It felt good to be out there in the open, late-summer air, drinking and smoking cigarettes as they pleased, ruleless and free. They had a feeling of ownership over it that was different from Marlon’s—greater than his, in their minds, though they knew they’d never get the credit. None of them had been named in any of the articles. They and their friends had been identified only as “the homeless.” They all accepted this in stride, except for Buck, who’d learned about Marlon and Glenda and disapproved.
“Look what I got,” Marlon said when he arrived, handing the letter to Buck. Buck lowered his head over the letter for several seconds. Then he said, “Ha-ha. Hey, y’all, check it out—Marlon got a letter about the ark from Jesus Christ.”
“Not Christ. Christo.”
“Who in hell is that?” said Manny.
“A famous artist,” Marlon said. “I don’t think I would have ever dreamt this up—the Ark—if I hadn’t witnessed the enormous scale of Christo’s ambition,” he said. “I mean, do you understand me? This man put six hundred thousand square meters of pink polypropylene fabric out there in the middle of Biscayne Bay!”
“Never heard of polypropylene, never heard of Christo,” Buck announced hotly, holding the letter out for Marlon and looking him square in the eye.
Marlon took the paper and refolded it into thirds. He felt woozy with shame. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Glenda. He sure as hell wasn’t leaving the letter in the ark with them. He would take it home, he decided, and tape it to the wall next to his bed. On those nights that he woke up in a cold sweat, his heart pounding, he could reach out and touch the paper and feel all right with the world.
But the next morning, when he showed up at the shipyard, Buck was gloating. He’d gone online and researched arks. It hadn’t been hard to do. It turned out that other replica arks existed, one in the Netherlands and one in Hong Kong. The one in the Netherlands housed a church, and the one in Hong Kong had an amusement park inside. He presented all this to Marlon with an air of great satisfaction. Marlon pretended not to care, but he cared. In truth, he hadn’t known about the other arks. Back in Palo Alto, when he’d applied for the grant, he hadn’t thought to look up whether other ones existed. Now he marveled at his own recklessness. But he laughed.
“You think I didn’t know about those arks?” he said. “Of course I knew about those arks!” When Manny asked Marlon what this meant for them, he gave a big, aggressive shrug and pointed out that those arks weren’t life-sized. There was one big difference, he said. The other is that theirs would be used for social good. That was the whole point. Then he rushed up the hill to the shelter to tell Glenda about it. “Am I right?” he said.
“Of course,” Glenda said. But there was something in her voice. Already, he could tell, some of the air was going out of their balloon.
The official unveiling approached. The sky’s light was dimming earlier and earlier each evening. Glenda had agreed to draft the invitation list for the ark’s opening and call the invitees herself. Marlon had a thought. Maybe he should invite Sheila to see it. The art he had produced before this had not been the sort of art that seemed fit to share with one’s daughter. The worldview embedded in it, the monstrous delight in ruination, seemed all wrong. One didn’t want one’s daughter to see that. One wanted one’s daughter to absorb a sense of order and security from her father. But, man oh man, if she could see this. Sheila would love it. Sheila, as a girl, had loved the mythic. He had thought she would become an artist herself and had been disappointed when she chose, no doubt under her stepfather’s corrosive influence, to be a lawyer. But she had a bit of him in her. The night before Glenda was planning to make the calls, he slipped Sheila’s name onto the list. The following afternoon, when he asked her how it had gone, she said it had gone fine. Only a couple of people had answered, she said, and they had been flattered to have gotten calls about it. She had left messages for the rest.
“Did you notice any special names?” he said.
“Do you mean Sheila?” she said. At her tone, which was flat, he felt ashamed.
“I didn’t mean anyone in particular,” he said.
“She didn’t pick up,” Glenda said. “I left a message.”
The opening neared. If Sheila returned the call, Glenda didn’t inform him. The night before the opening, Marlon knocked on Glenda’s door. She answered in a oversized T-shirt bearing the name of her church. Her legs were thin and white and hairless. “Come on,” he said, “put on some pants.”
“How come?” she said.
“Let’s go to the roof,” he said. He wanted to get a good look at the ark while it still belonged to him.
Almost as soon as they opened the door to the rooftop and climbed out, they could tell something was wrong. Black smoke was billowing out through the open portholes. “Is that a—” Glenda said.
“—fire?” Marlon said. “Is that a fire?”
By the time they dialed the fire department, they could hear sirens approaching the ark; someone else had already called. When they reached the shipyard at the bottom of the hill, a crowd had gathered. They pushed through to the front and found a firefighter.
“There could be men inside!” Glenda shouted over the noise. The firefighter shook his head, uncomprehending. She stood on her tiptoes and put her mouth to his ear. “Men! Inside!” The firefighter shook his head.
“We tried looking—there’s no one in there!” he shouted. Marlon could see long fingers of flame reaching to the sky, bending, touching each other. The air snapped, and a hiss of sparks flew up and hung briefly in the air like stars. Hunks of wood blackened, cracked and fell flaming to the ground. Marlon could taste the burning in his throat. His face felt seared.
“Someone needs to go in,” Glenda pleaded with him.
“I’m sure they’re not in there,” Marlon said. “If they were, I’m sure they got out.”
Glenda clutched her head. “You can’t be sure!” she shouted. “Marlon! Do something!” Marlon took his phone from his pocket and began recording her. He thought there might be something in this moment. He thought this might be the great masterpiece of his life. “Stand there!” he shouted. “Tell me what’s happening!” The look she gave him reminded him of his daughter. It was as if she’d discovered she hated him.
Later, an investigation would conclude that the men hadn’t been in there. Though they weren’t found alive, neither were they found dead. It seemed a cigarette had been at fault. The cigarette would have had to belong to Manny, Buck, Davis, or Joe, one of the men who’d been sleeping up there. By that time, though, all four of them would be long gone. It’d been Manny who’d made the first phone call. When he’d hung up, he’d told the men to disperse or expect to get thrown in prison. None of the other men knew where they had gone. They all waited for word from Marlon about his clean-up plans, until some time passed, and they realized he had skipped town. Only Glenda stayed behind. When everyone returned home at last, she thought, she would be there waiting.
As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease. The dead ark stood for another month until a contractor hired by the city showed up at the shipyard to haul away the pieces. The nonprofit sold the good material to a lumber yard, where much of it was discovered by a newly married architect couple who were redoing their living room. A piece of the hull is now a coffee table. The helm, against which Glenda and Marlon once leaned and kissed, hangs above the fireplace. The couple wonders aloud about the exact provenance of their furniture. It’s all recycled material, they tell their friends. They go around pointing to the items one by one. This is salvaged, this is salvaged!