Sisyphia

Shaking ground makes our houses matchsticks. We live in stacked sugar packets, dioramas, dollhouses.

The destruction is easier to clean if we think of our homes as something transient—we simply take to the streets, brooms in hand, and wait for them to fall. It’s gotten so that we can sense the earthquakes coming. Always overcast days, always a few degrees colder than the day before, never in spring. A certain clarity to the horned peaks that tower over the town. The air thins out on those days, we think. We live tense as taut strings, tuned to the tectonic plates beneath us.

We’ve made a contest of it, whose house can last the longest. We’re creative with building materials. Rubber siding, trampoline roofs. One year someone made a ranch-style split-level entirely of PVC piping. It went down first, tumbling through the streets. We had a sort of logrolling competition on it until the earth went still and we thought okay, enough fun, time to rebuild.

Each year there are fewer houses. Before the earthquakes started there were four churches, all different denominations. We had a minor league baseball team and Sisyphia University. It was a safety school, but we wore the tee shirts, even if we didn’t go there. We even had a shopping mall, but it was mostly glass—that went down quickly.

We all worship at the same church now, which, for safety, is located on the twisted tract of asphalt that used to have basketball hoops.

Reporters come, every time. We call them the “aftershockers.” Why don’t we leave? they always ask. Some of us do. Whole neighborhoods have crumbled then disappeared overnight. The way it works is each of us is responsible for his or her own home, with the understanding that we’ll help one another when we can. But if you don’t want to gather your home into a neat pile and get it upright again, we’re not going to do it for you.

Some of us stay because we like the challenge. The more optimistic among us believe the perfect house is still out there, the exact combination of flexible materials and architectural ingenuity is waiting to be discovered. Those that mourn the destruction never last. They move to the most still places they can think of, like Cleveland, or Plano. Others stay because we want to see things through to the end.

What will the last family do? Will they declare themselves winners of the yearly contest? And if they do win, and when their house does fall—what do they do then? Try again, maybe. See if they can last longer next year than they did the last. And they can wait, patiently, until the morning they wake up and know that today is the day.


Sean Hammer was born in Washington, DC and raised in nearby Silver Spring, MD. He is a graduate of Boston University, The Johns Hopkins University, and the MFA program at Hunter College. His work has been featured in, among others, Mid-American Review, The Penn Review, and Kindle Singles, where his story "Cornbread" was awarded Top Ten Kindle Single of the Year and his story "Happy Birthday, Cumberland Bixby" was produced into an audiobook by Audible. He lives in Manhattan's East Village, where he spends much of his time dodging rats.