Arcadia Swept Down by Scott Archer Jones

An ageing couple live in a decaying old house in Galveston, and it's not clear who will collapse first; by Scott Archer Jones.

Until today I took care of my younger brother Donnie. Each morning Donnie would ask, Elizabeth, what shall we do today? For sixty years I gave the same answer. Donald, we'll have breakfast, then we'll tend to the past.

Great Grandfather called the house Arcadia. Cotton shipping built it on an elegant Galveston esplanade. Flat-roofed: how I hated that roof - its amalgamation of tin and copper, solder and hot-tar patch. Leak in, cold in, bats in.

I had lived within one of the beautiful bedrooms that opened not only onto the landing that circled the stairs, but that had double doors onto a balcony that overlooked the ballroom floor. After my first fall, we moved downstairs to the Jubilee parlor, a room that flanked the front hall. Donnie and I emptied out the furniture, the books and boxes of family photos, my Barnard degree. We disassembled the breakfronts. He would tug on the area rug we placed under each piece of furniture, and I would shove. Into the ballroom depths, into narrow rows of the past. Twin beds in the Jubilee, where we could keep tabs on our infirmities, his dementia, my heart and eyesight.

On top of Arcadia, rested a beautiful yellow cornice and a widow's walk. The brick facing had been reinforced during the Civil War with Star of Texas cast iron plates painted black. A portico wide enough to hold two carriages side-by-side. All those lead lights allowed the sunshine to stream in across the wide pine planks. During the 2008 hurricane, we brought the deadlights out of the carriage house and covered all the glass. Just too much, installing the old pine battens to protect the glass. We never took them down. Mr. Childapeth painted them white, as he painted Arcadia for two weeks each year. He's been dead for ten years. All slipped away, first the gardener, then the cook and maid, then Childapeth and the nurse.

Donnie maintained the gardens wonderfully, what he could reach from the ground. He loved the physical work, the sheer mindlessness of it. He clipped the grass with the push mower as much as four times a week. The palms, older than us, like shaggy old men who held brown and gray whiskers against the house, dripped fronds down for Donnie to collect. They promised to die each fall, and were yanked each spring into sparse green.

Donnie loved his newspaper - delivered every morning and read through word by word over breakfast. Our time of beignets had come and gone, and for the last couple of decades we cooked grits and boiled eggs - and coffee like mud, as I prefer it. After a while, the paper could have been the same sheaf of newsprint; that identical set of headlines would have been new and novel to him each day. We had abandoned the kitchen, molding away and full of dust, and now we ate in the dining room, with a refrigerator, microwave, a hotplate. A table that seated twenty acted as our pantry. The kitchen - full of rotted lead pipes, old gas jets, cabinets that sagged away from the wall - became a hall that led to the back door. Donnie bundled up his papers and stacked the bales, left a walkway through the room. The papers' weight must have provoked the further collapse of piers and beams under the house, so the floor swam away from us down into the ground.

Just enough money. All bills went downtown, to be paid by the accountant at Great Grandfather's company, and each year the report arrived at Christmas. But the house itself - demands for love, for repair, for devotion. Our lives slid away from us, caught up in the house and its needs. Every room held its stacks of trunks and old hat boxes, the cases and the valises stuffed with family. The toys and thrills, the hot summer afternoons, the bicycles and dolls of our childhood, and of our parents and grandparents. When the carriage house in the rear began to crumble, I asked Donnie to bring all its treasures into the house. We let the garage claim the four old cars there, and my Buick, and Donnie's convertible Lincoln. They huddled under the collapse, kept just as the family would have wanted.

We used taxis for food and doctors. Called one each week for the six mile journey to the grocery store. Each year, a new driver to learn - who had to wait for us while we shopped. Donnie called each one Joseph, even the young woman.

We lived with cobwebs and pizza boxes. Harder now to carry anything out to the curb for the trash men. They never changed, decade after decade, but we did. We lived on packaged food nestled into the refrigerator. Cheese balls, doughnuts, chicken noodle soup, pot pies. What that dining room had witnessed - Christmas dinners for twenty that lasted hours, under candlelight with the silver its own night sky under the burning wicks, the plates gleaming as they were filled, worshipped, removed for the next course. Fifty years later, I ate my microwave popcorn in counterpoint to the grandeur, and Donnie munched Cool Ranch Doritos and bean dip. The old chandeliers shuddered to see what we had become. Or maybe it was the trucks trundling by on the Esplanade. Donnie stacked the food boxes in the ballroom, their own archives.

Tonight I wait. I lie in the kitchen. I sent Donnie for help, sent him out the door. In my near blindness I had crashed my walker into a wall of newspaper. It swept down to pin me under its ephemeral news. I've been here for a while, two days I think. I believe, sooner or later, someone will discover my foggy brother on the street and trace him back to Arcadia. It hardly matters - Arcadia's future is short.


  1. This is a story I will come back to. It is beautifully written with a haunting atmosphere and a captivating poignancy. Highly recommended.
    Mike McC

  2. Beautifully done! I love the details about the house. I can smell all those collected newspapers!

  3. I can picture the house while reading the story. Great writing and descriptions.

  4. Well-written with vivid descriptions. The decaying house provides excellent symbolism of the aging couple and also the end of a way of life.

  5. Great atmosphere and description. A sad and beautiful story of time and place, change and decline. The garden and mansion that the two spent their lives sustaining soon to be no more.

  6. A haunting reminder of mortality. Very nicely done.

  7. Very smart, compact, powerful piece of writing. It seems so simple when you read the piece. But I know the work that went into getting the work this good. The story will stay with me.

  8. Scott Archer Jones’s “Arcadia Swept Down” is a picture postcard of an old couple figuratively on life-support. There is no dialogue, just narrative and it is both wistful and depressing. One can easily picture the almost antebellum couple, enjoying, in their youth, expansive meals at the 20-chair dining table, only to munch on microwave popcorn and Doritos fifty years later. Scott’s story tells us that time changes everything, like it or not. Nice job, Scott.