The Giant of Abilene, Texas

The house, a simple box nailed to a concrete slab on the flat surface of West Texas, had fallen into disrepair in the years since he was a boy. A window on the side was punched out and the jagged center was patched with cardboard; the masking tape had released its hold long ago. The window had once been the window to his bedroom. He got out of his rented red Ford and went to look. The houses on the left and right were close; the rock fights had been in earnest. The cheap siding, a dirty white vinyl, was cracked in places, probably from the hailstorms that came every summer. There were broken children’s toys in the yard. No one was home.

This is what he had flown here to see. It had been his home in the middle part of the last century, when the blue skies and the lit-up face of the moon and all the future belonged to America, and blonde, burr-headed boys like him were meant to command it all. Sonic booms from the nearby Air Force base shook the windows back then. His father drove off downtown every morning to his job as a newspaper reporter and came home at the end of the day in time for supper, stomping into the house and saying, “Fee Fi Fo Fum.” He said “I’ll grind your bones to make my bread!” and chased his sons, and when he caught them they shrieked in fear and delight.

The house was only a few years old then. The wood siding was bright and the imitation-parquet flooring still possessed the last particles of its factory sheen. Like all children, he’d had an intimate knowledge of the floors in his life. As an adult he kept a photograph taken by his father, him and his younger brother sprawled belly-down on the living room floor amid a spray of crayons, their legs bent upright at the knees. A long slash of paper cuts diagonally across the floor before them, spooled from one of the newsprint rolls their father sometimes brought home from work.

He remembered nothing about the bedroom behind the now-broken window: where the beds were, if there was a bookshelf, what was on the walls during the five years they lived here. Instead he remembered the observation hive his father had built onto the outside of the house up against the window. The observation hive was a cross-section of a beehive sandwiched between two pieces of glass, the same way the red plastic ant farm in the living room was a cross-section of an ant colony. The private inner workings of bee civilization were visible through the glass. The bees could be seen all day long as they busied themselves with their many regimented tasks. The slab of honeycomb they attended to blocked out the daylight, and since the window could no longer be opened the bedroom was always dark and hot. The bees were always there, up against the glass, exposed as if in the commission of secret things. They only became still at night, and even then there was movement as a special squad circulated among the sleeping bees, fanning their wings to cool the hive, and a low hum came through the window like a murmuring sleep long after the boy had gone to bed.

His father had stocked the observation hive with bees from one of his hives in the backyard. There were six hives in total, six stacks of low white boxes three tiers high. They were built according to the diagrams in the big bee book his father studied under a cloud of cigarette smoke and yellow lamplight for several hours every night, The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture. The first summer he had built a single white box and released into it a queen and a small packet of bees purchased by mail order, and since then the descendants of the original colony had multiplied many times over. From the hives came a warm wind and a low roaring noise that sounded like the motor of the world underneath everything. His father tried to teach him how to handle the bees and not be afraid of them. He made him put his hands into the hives and hold them there as clumps of hot, dry honeybees dripped from his fingers and climbed up his wrists. Dusted in yellow pollen, the bees felt like the feathery, liquid body of a thousand-eyed creature. When the boy froze in place with his hands in the hive, afraid to cry, his father asked him over and over again if he was a girl.

His father showed him how he robbed the hives—that’s what he called it. He took the honey from the bees wearing a makeshift suit that covered him from head to toe and protected him from being stung. The boy wore a makeshift suit too. The cuffs of a Sunday school shirt were connected at his narrow wrists with yellow masking tape to cotton gloves. Netting was placed over his head and tucked into the neck of the shirt. His father made a small paper fire in a can, and blew the smoke into the hives to force out the bees. He took the tops from the hives and lifted out the wooden frames that held the honeycomb, and used a special heated knife to cut off the yellow wax caps that held in the honey. He fitted the wood frames into a contraption that looked like the arms of a windmill and spun them in a kind of washtub to force out the honey. There was spigot at the bottom that released thick ropes of amber honey into a strainer to catch any bits of wax and dirt and dead bee, and at the end of the day’s work there were different sized jars of honey lined in rows that magnified the color of the sun, each with a label rubberstamped with his father’s name, that he was sent out into the neighborhood to sell door to door.

He took his little brother. They wore trays their father had fashioned with neck straps, and went up and down the streets in the summer heat knocking on the doors of strangers. Alongside the honey they also peddled vegetables from their father’s garden. They hated it, his brother and he, even though they got a few pennies for each item they sold. Every house felt like a different kind of strangeness, every person who opened the door (and most of them didn’t) felt like a different kind of stranger. When they came home their father took stock of what was sold, wrote it down in pencil in a small notebook he kept in his hip pocket, and tallied what he owed them.

There was the day they dropped a jar of honey. They were almost finished for the afternoon and had been laughing about something as they walked away from another unopened door, when his younger brother, who was five, let his tray tip and everything went over. Okra, a small basket of tomatoes, a large jar of honey. For a long moment there was silence, and then tears began to roll from his younger brother’s eyes, and a low moan arose. He stared down at the broken glass and the shiny honey on the bright cement of the driveway. They would be in trouble now.

The street around them was quiet. There was no movement anywhere—not even a dog barked. It was almost as if time had stopped; he could almost pretend it hadn’t happened. He carefully picked up the okra and gathered the tomatoes that had rolled, assessing the jagged mound of honey and glass and thinking what to do. There was nothing to do. They didn’t have enough money between them to pay for it. He looked around once and put his arm around his younger brother and led him away quickly, before anyone saw the honey, turning toward home. They would have to tell what they had done.

There would be the granite face and the rising metallic voice when they got home. “We’re not done until I tell you we’re done,” it would say when they started to whimper. There would be the belittlement that would last all afternoon, the angry interrogation, the retracing of every step, the repeated confirmation of their fecklessness, the scorn, the barely contained disgust. The judgment was as ever: they were disappointments. “You’re not my boys,” he would say, followed by the verdict and the punishment, pitiless and by the book. He delivered heavy, incomprehensible blows to their bare bottoms, an implacable giant with an appetite for the ground bones of boys.


It was longing that had drawn him back to the small house in West Texas. There was something he had lost there, but whatever it was he had left behind, now it was gone. He walked across the broken driveway to his red rented Ford, climbed inside, and drove away from the old house. He headed downtown next, to see the building at which his father had once worked. On the way he passed the house where they had dropped the jar of honey—one block over and two blocks down.

He remembered the Abilene Reporter-News building from the occasional visits he had made there as a boy when, on the days she had needed the family car for shopping or errands, he and his mother drove downtown to pick his father up after work. It was a modern-looking horizontal mass in keeping with the booming sensibility of the time, a block long and a block wide: bold planes of glass, yellow brick and sandstone. It had seemed to him like the centerpiece of downtown, his father’s workplace, situated adjacent to the busy train depot and between the two big hotels —twelve and fourteen stories, respectively—for business travelers, oilmen and cattlemen who strode the sidewalks in Stetson hats and hand-tooled boots.

Their drive downtown in those days would take ten minutes. His mother would angle the car into a parking place in the afternoon shade, putting the wheel against the curb in front of the plate glass window that looked into the lobby of the newspaper building, and check her hair in the mirror. He would watch the activity on the other side of the glass: men and women moving with purpose, passing in and out of the lobby through the spinning glass door. Sometimes to get out of the heat he and his mother would pass through the door themselves and suddenly find themselves inside the air-conditioned lobby. There the cool terrazzo floor rang with the sharp, determined footsteps of men in white shirts and ties and women in high-heeled shoes and wool skirts, the men’s secretaries and typists. Every day the newspaper published three morning editions and an evening final. When his father finished his work for the day he would come down the stairs—never the elevator—and they would go home. He had last seen the newspaper building when he was eight, then his father took the family away to a new town and a new job, and left the newspaper and the bees and Abilene, Texas, behind.

On the morning of his return to Abilene he had seen checked Google Maps Street View and seen the newspaper building again. On his computer screen the large slash of glass that looked into the lobby and the bold, modern lettering that stood off the sandstone wall spelling out Abilene Reporter-News were unchanged.

The drive downtown still took ten minutes. Nothing had changed. The afternoon sun was behind him, the way it had been when he and his mother used to follow the same route. When he got to the coordinates that Google Maps displayed, he slowly spun the rental car twice around an empty block, as the realization took hold that the building was gone. He parked and stood on the sidewalk where the lobby entrance had been. The streets were deserted. Downtown was empty. Several blocks away a sign beneath the neon-lit outline of a martini glass blinked repetitively: LOUNGE.

He scrolled his phone and found an article from three months earlier. The demolition had proceeded in an orderly way, according to the newspaper accounts, at least until the end, when a supporting wall gave out and sent mountains of rubble into the street and a great plume of gray smoke into the sky. Onlookers commented that it had sounded like a bomb. Or a sonic boom. A news photo of cars covered in thick gray pelts might have been from a war-ravaged city anywhere in the world. After the cleanup all that had been left was an empty square block in a dying Texas city, wrapped in a black fence, under a thin skin of dust.

He wasn’t prepared for the loss of the building. He wasn’t sure what to do with himself. He started walking, and unreasonably, tears came to his eyes. It was as if his father, that figure he had for so long been content to love and fear, had been taken away from him a second time. All those years ago it had been impossible to cry at the funeral, but he cried now. As he walked at each intersection he turned right, until he came back to the spot he had begun.

The plate glass window of the lobby, now gone, had once contained the reflection of his father’s face. His footsteps had once echoed on the terrazzo floor as he crossed it every morning and every evening. The air inside the lobby had once contained his father, a cigarette dangling from his lip, striding like a giant in his young son’s imagination, trailing a cloud of smoke. The lobby of the newspaper building was where he had put everything good about his father for safekeeping—the father he felt proud of, his father the newspaperman, his father who was part of the workings of the world, the father of whom he felt proud to be the son. The other parts of his father he had put somewhere else.

Why hold on to any of it any longer? The building his father had worked in was gone—let the small white house with the broken window go too. Let it all go. His father was gone, his mother was gone, his brother was gone. He was tired of being owned by the past, tired of being its servant.

In the gathering dusk he could do nothing but stare at the empty place the building had once occupied. All that was left was a concrete floor slab the size of a city block, pressed into the West Texas soil and covered in terrazzo. It rose and fell in places where walls had been removed. The steel columns that had supported the floors above had been cut away with welders’ torches. The stumps of iron were like a burned forest.

In places the wind moved the dust in eddies, and he could see that the terrazzo floor still had some of its shine, he could see that in the fading light. The lobby floor was the last tangible piece that remained of the memory of his father the newspaperman, a giant, a man in the world. He thought of his father, his bones ground to dust by the heart attack that killed him before he turned fifty. He thought of the dust of his father, and how he would never see him again, and he thought of how without knowing it he had believed that the steel and the glass and the concrete and the sandstone of memory could protect some speck of the dust of his father from the West Texas wind, and he thought of how he would never believe it again.


Kent Shell’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Jimson Weed, MoMA PS1, Artforum and other places. He was born in Altus, Oklahoma, and has a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. He lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York and the Hudson Valley.