The Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace

Now the Millers’ living room was white with smoke. A dark plume gathered quickly at the ceiling. My lungs burned, my eyes stung. Before that, though, I dreamed: the fire in the fireplace cracked and snapped happily. I was still watching TV, the show about the Crystal Palace. Caleb hadn’t left yet. He sat there next to me on the couch and our dad was still on speakerphone. We talked and laughed about something, but I couldn’t say exactly what. Now I rolled off the couch onto the carpet and crawled on my hands and knees toward the front door. I opened it and a wall of freezing, winter air pushed against my face. I got up and ran to the edge of the yard. Dry white snow fell from the dark sky and it looked like ash. Sirens wailed in the distance, coming closer. Now black smoke billowed out of the front door, out the windows of the house. And now orange flames stabbed high into the dark. The house would be lost, I thought to myself, but I was too fuzzy to care. The fire was magnificent; if I moved any closer it would scald my face, my entire body. In the minutes before the fire engines arrived, I dared myself to run back inside.


I didn’t hear from my younger brother much after he married Michelle, but last fall he called me more and more in the middle of the week after work. Just checking in, he’d say, chipper, as if we’d been talking every day for the past three years.

I’d ask him how Michelle was doing.

“Oh fine,” Caleb would say.

“What have you guys been up to?”

“Oh, you know.”

Or, on Sundays, he texted me aggressive messages during Vikings’ games.

Shitcan that fuckin douchebag!

I wondered what was going on, but I responded anyway. Yeah! I wrote. The Vikings suck! It was a little like how we used to joke around all the time in high school after our parents got divorced, the way we were tight when we were younger.

So, last week when Caleb called to tell me Michelle wanted to call it quits, I was a little hurt that his being in touch was more about Michelle leaving him, and not necessarily about me.

“She asked me if I ever wanted something more,” he said. “Like to move to California.”

“California?” I asked. “Where did that come from?”

“Oh, she said she was thinking about New York, working out there.”

It might as well have been outer space, out there. But she was ambitious like that, had been ever since Caleb met her. She was blonde and had steely blue eyes. She worked out. When Caleb said she was a real catch for someone like him, I didn’t disagree.

“What did you say?”

He laughed. “Nothing.”

“You didn’t say anything?”

“I said that I wanted to be with her and to start a family.”

They hadn’t even been married for three years.

I had already separated from Gabby before he got married. The divorce was finalized shortly after his wedding. It took a year for everything to settle. I had been married for seven years, so what was one more. When it was all said and done, the marriage, the separation, the divorce, it felt like many, many more.

Now it was my younger brother’s turn.


I dropped out of college with one year left for my degree. When the summer before my senior year drew to an end, I just kept painting houses. I knew what I was doing when I quit, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t think of school, just Gabby and how lonely I’d be if she left me. But, when it ended, I was the one who had wanted it. My mom was the one who left my dad. He couldn’t hold down a job. He bounced from gig to gig: carpentry, grocery store, substitute teaching. In the end, she’d had it. Things had gone on too long. The marriage was dead. It was sort of like that with me and Gabby, but at least I worked. It had gone on too long though. We barely communicated; we fought in front of our son. It wasn’t a good environment for him to grow up in and we knew it. So, we both moved into smaller places. She got custody and I was okay with that.

When my parents divorced. I was thirteen, and Caleb was eleven. My mom got custody, and we moved into a smaller house. My dad lived in one apartment after another. Each time he got a new place, he moved farther and farther into the country. He bottled up his feelings as much as he could every other weekend when he took us. Every once in a while, though, something would slip out.

Like one Saturday in the dead of winter, he took us to the Burger King where he worked on his day off. When we came in, the air was warm and thick with the smell of fryer oil and hamburger grease. We could hear the whirring of the fans that kept the air moving in the kitchen behind the counter.

The cashier greeted my dad. She had a round, chubby face. Her cheeks were red. She wore a visor and her hair tied into a ponytail behind it. He introduced us.

“Hi,” we said.

My dad studied the menu, but we just stared at the back of the cash register.

“Can you guys look up,” my dad said.

When he realized we weren’t going to say what we wanted, he ordered for us Whoppers, French fries, two small pops.


Caleb wanted to come over and hang out, and I said sure. It was after work on Friday, the night before Christmas Eve. I was watching a two-part series on The Crystal Palace. It was built of steel and plate glass, and I imagined it shined and reflected light like crystals do. It must have been beautiful, delicate, a place that housed the hopes and dreams of the men and women of the time. The narrator talked about the majesty of it, how it was built in 1850, right in Hyde Park. It riveted me; the old black and white photos, the soothing voice of the narrator. There was one photo in particular that captured my attention—of a couple, a man and a woman elegantly dressed, ghostly, entering the glass palace, arm in arm. Their imaginations must have been whirling from what they expected to find inside. I was pulled out of my present life into a past that existed before I was born.

I heard Caleb knocking on the door, turned down the volume, and went to answer it.

“Hey man,” I said. The temperature hovered around zero, dry snow flurries whipped and darted through the air—it was late January-cold even though it was the end of December. The freezing air gathered at my feet, the dry snow swirled around Caleb, and there he was, smiling. The boy that he used to be came through. Even when our dad grilled us about our mom, there was cheerful Caleb. He never let on what was going on inside. If he was going through a separation, he didn’t show it at the moment.


The farther he moved out into the country, the more my dad became a stranger to me. The three of us sat in the far corner of the empty restaurant, our winter jackets and stocking hats still on.

“How’s school?” He asked me.

“Fine,” I said, and continued eating without looking up.

“Does she feed you, your mother?”

Then I looked up at him, slowed my chewing. I didn’t know how to answer this.

“Or is she taking the money I send her when she goes out with her little boyfriends?”

They were always plural, always little. Caleb slouched back into the booth behind me, a french fry sticking out of his mouth. We weren’t supposed to answer him. We were supposed to relay his questions to her. He may have lost custody, but he was watching.


Caleb came in and we sat down on the couch in front of the flat screen. The show about the Crystal Palace was almost over. It felt good sitting in the same room as him, like old times. We used to watch TV after school while our mom was at work. No homework, just TV. In winter when the sun set early, we’d sit there in the flashing bluish light of it, not bothering to turn on the lamps. Outside the wash of light, the living room sat dark and still. This was how it was tonight with the two of us. The flat screen flickered like some strange candle. We were a darker mirror image of ourselves seventeen years ago. I became acutely aware of that seventeen years, how things like separation and divorce bring out that painful awareness of the passage of time in a way that celebration doesn’t. Like the day I was married, I didn’t think to myself how young I once was.

“How was it for you, Caleb?”

“Huh?” he said.

I realized I hadn’t been talking out loud, that these were all thoughts and feelings passing through me. “When you got married, how was it?”

“You were there,” he said. “You tell me.”

“Ha ha, yeah. That was stupid of me.”

I looked at the time on my phone. Eight o’clock. The show about The Crystal Palace had ended. I pulled the remote from underneath my leg and channel surfed until I came to the Discovery Channel.

“Check out this series,” I said, and then sat quiet so he could figure it out himself. It was a show about giant freshwater fish that lived and fed in rivers. The host used giant lures and poles like the kind you see for deep-sea fishing to pull them out of the river like prehistoric monsters from another time. He told stories about how the fish could and had dragged unsuspecting humans down into the muddy bottoms of the rivers. “Lost,”—he warned—“Their bodies never recovered”—while the camera held its gaze on a swiftly moving river. It made my skin crawl.

“Can you imagine that? Getting dragged down by one of those things?” I shook my head. “Repulsive.”

“It’s bullshit,” Caleb said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Seems possible to me. Look at the size of that thing.”

A monstrous fish slapped and writhed in the shallows where the water met the shore.

“We haven’t eaten anything,” I said. “Are you hungry?”

He didn’t answer right away. “Not really.”

“We could go out somewhere, get fast food like, you know, old times.” I laughed a little at the thought of it.

“It’s fucking cold out there.”

“You’re right,” I said, so we sat there. After a while, I got up, threw a frozen pizza in the oven. We ate that, and I went up to bed without saying anything. I wasn’t sure if he slept on the couch or if he drove home. Whatever it was, he wasn’t there when I came down the next morning.


Outside Burger King, our dad’s maroon Corolla sat alone in the empty, dirty parking lot. The hood had a dent in it from when he hit a deer one night driving me back to Mom’s from Nick Uetz’s house. We were on county road H, heading into town when the claw of antlers, the brown bulk of it, its white tail, appeared in the headlights. He hit the brakes, tried to steer out of the way, but it wasn’t soon enough. We slammed into the buck with a resounding thud that shook the entire car.

We skidded to a halt in the middle of the road. “Are you okay?” he asked me.

I was shaken, but fine. I was wearing my seat belt.

We both got out of the car and peered over the ditch, but it had already disappeared. He walked around to the front of the car, stood in the headlights examining the hood, shaking his head.

“Unbelievable,” he said, looking at me, then looking at the hood. “Un-fucking-believable.” He seemed stunned, as if the deer had hit his car and not the other way around.

Mom was waiting outside for us when we pulled up.

“We hit a deer,” I yelled, climbing out of the car.

She looked at me, then at Dad. “What happened?”

“Just what Matthew said. We were out on H and—boom!—hit a deer.”

She came close to him, sniffed the air around his mouth.

“Give me a break, Lizzie.” He tried to smile.

“We hit a deer,” I said. They stood in the headlights, facing off.

My mom didn’t say anything.

He looked at her, stunned. “All right Matthew. We’ll see you in a couple weeks.”

I waved and said goodbye.

When we got inside I looked at my mom—she seemed exhausted and wide-awake at the same time. She looked like she wanted to cry.

“It’s okay, Mom,” I said. “I had my seatbelt on.”


And then, on Saturday night—Christmas Eve—Caleb came over again, this time unannounced.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. “You forget something last night?”

He had a surprised look on his face, like something important had gone missing.

“I brought this.” He pulled out a joint that looked like a small, white baseball bat from his jacket and we went inside.

“I don’t really do that anymore,” I said, but he had already sparked the thing up. It cracked and popped to life, a red ember at the fat end of it end started to glow. He took a drag and handed it over to me. “Well, at least let’s sit down on the couch.”

He blew out a cloud of smoke into my face. “Okay.” He smiled like he did when he was a boy and our dad asked us about our mom.

We sat on the couch and I took the spliff and toked at it. It had been a long time, but the motions came back. It was a familiar feeling in my lungs, warm. It spread throughout my body.

“Good, isn’t it?”

He laughed. “I’ll take that as a yes.”


I don’t know how long we were sitting there in the silence and the waning light, when it occurred to me that I had the keys to the home I was painting. The owner’s had left town to be with her family for a few days, said I could come and go to work if I wanted to. I had an overwhelming urge to go over there, you know, the way you become obsessed with something when you’re stoned. I was sitting there imagining their clean house, the fireplace in the living room. They even had a Christmas tree set up.

“Hey,” I said. “Caleb.”

He cleared his throat. “What?”

“You want to go somewhere? I have the keys to the house I’m painting. It’s pretty nice. You want to go over there?”

“Sure,” he said.

So we bundled up and headed over to the Miller’s house. Outside it was dark now, cold. The flurries that had been falling on and off since yesterday had started to fall again.

“Watch out for cops,” I said as we got in his car. He put the keys in the ignition, turned the engine over, and revved it with a growl. He flipped the heat on high. The vents blasted out cold air that slowly got warmer and warmer.

Caleb drove slow and easy. Trees draped in Christmas lights—white and red and green—floated by. There were houses, too, decorated for the holidays. Illuminated nativity scenes, candy canes, reindeer.

“It’s good to see you,” I said after a while.

“Thanks. It’s good to see you too.”

As if he had heard me back when we were getting in the car, a cop pulled out behind us.

My heart fluttered. “Great,” I said.

“Just relax.”

We made our way on Marshall toward the river. From there we took a left onto River Road. The cop turned right.

“That was close.”

“When was the last time you smoked?” he laughed.

“It’s been a while.”

He laughed. Then, after a few moments. “I feel just like dad. Like I’m just as much of a loser as he is. Can’t make it work. Never could. Never will.”

I watched Caleb drive, my heart sinking for him. He turned to me, taking his eyes off the road for a moment. He was still smiling but his face looked painfully contorted. We passed beneath a streetlamp, and I could see his bloodshot eyes.

“Man,” I said. “You’re eyes are red.”

He laughed again. “Michelle never wanted to do stuff like this. Just get stoned and drive around. She said you have to grow up Caleb. You can’t just be a pothead your whole life.

“She’s kind of right,” I said.


There was the old sarcasm. That sting. It was our dad. It was wrapped around something deeper, sadder, lonelier, emptier.


The Millers were a young couple that had recently bought their home. They were starting a family, expecting a boy, they said. We went in through the back door, where the kitchen was. Everything was quiet and shadowy. They had turned the heat down, so while it was warmer inside, we still couldn’t take off our jackets.

“Take off your shoes,” I said.

We walked through the kitchen to the living room. I imagined we were two ghosts floating through a house we had once inhabited—we were two brothers who had died in our adolescence, and this was our sentence. We stopped in the living room, looked around, looked for something to do.

“You wanna paint the baby’s room?”

“Why not,” Caleb said.

I led him through the house. I turned on the light in the baby’s room. The crib sat in the center with a white sheet draped over it. Everything was prepped and ready to go. Yesterday I had worked late, taping off the floorboards, the windows, the doors with blue tape. I had taped clean transparent plastic down to the carpets, laid drop cloths down. The buckets of paint—flat robin’s egg blue—and the brushes and the roller were all in the far corner.

I checked my watch. “It shouldn’t take us too long.”

I opened the buckets with a five-in-one, stirred the paint with a stir stick, and filled two trays, one for Caleb and one for me. We started in the same place, each of us working in opposite directions. We used our brushes to cut sharp lines around the baseboards, closet door, the windows. We didn’t talk. It was strange, this feeling. We were connected and yet completely in our own worlds, concentrating.

“Now I’ll roll out the walls. This is tricky, so you can just watch.”

He sat down in the middle of the room, and as I rolled out the walls, my thoughts wandered in and out of Caleb as a boy, then as an adult, and back to a boy.

It was just after nine when we finished painting and cleaning up after ourselves. In the process, we had warmed up, taken off our jackets. We went out to the dark living room. There was the fireplace, a giant flat screen above it, the Christmas tree. I plugged in the lights and it began to glow. Next to the fireplace was a stack of wood, a pile of kindling newspaper. Caleb carefully put three logs in the fireplace, then filled the empty spaces with newspaper. He opened the flume. He pulled the lighter he used to light the joint out from his pocket and lit the newspaper. It crackled and smoked to life. Soon the living room was lit by it and became warm.

“Wait here.” Caleb disappeared down the dark hall and came back. He had another joint.

“Oh no,” I protested. “I can’t.”

“Come over here,” he said.

I went over and sat next to him in front of the fireplace. We passed it back and forth until it was a roach. My mouth felt sticky. The room expanded.

“I’m stoned,” I announced.

“Me too,” Caleb said, laughing.

We stared into the dancing fire. The room smelled of weed.

“When will they be back?”

“Not for another couple of days.” I didn’t really care, but I got up anyway and cracked open a window. The outside blew in a puff of cold air. “Just in case.”

There wasn’t much to say anymore, but I felt as though our lives had been set right—like we had fallen into our predetermined trajectories.

“You wanna watch TV?”

“Sure do.”

I turned the flatscreen above the fireplace on and sat down on the couch next to Caleb. I took the remote on the arm of the couch and flipped the TV to public television. There was the documentary on about The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. We were mesmerized. The camera panned across old black and white photos of the structure; it was made from 4,000 tons of cast iron and plate glass. It was supposed to be the pinnacle of the industrial revolution.

I didn’t notice my phone vibrating in my pocket at first. I pulled it out and looked at the face. It was Dad. It was almost 11:30. Caleb had just re-stoked the fire.


“Matthew? It’s your father.”

I could tell he had been drinking. I put him on speakerphone so that all three of us could talk, so that it was like he was right here in the room with us. “Caleb’s here Dad. We’re just watching TV.”

He said hi to Caleb. “How’s your mother?”

“Fine,” we said. I told him she had spent the day singing in church. She liked to sing in church around the holidays, but he already knew that.

“Watcha watching?” he asked.

Caleb told him it was a documentary about The Crystal Palace. We were just getting to the part where it burned down. “Did you know that Dad? He said.

“Thass inneressing,” he answered.

“It burned down in 1936—you could see it all throughout London.” He explained how it only took a few hours, how Churchill said it was the end of an age.

When our dad called like this he moved seamlessly from anger to sorrow. He bounced from topic to topic, but always arrived at the same place before he signed off.

“You know I ‘preshiate you boys. I love you so much. I have regrets, mistakes—” He trailed off.

“We love you too, Dad.”

It had been years since we had been together like this. There was our dad telling us he loved us, and what a loser he was, how sorry he was, how our mom should’ve stuck it out, and then Caleb telling him about the Crystal Palace burning down, and me watching the flat screen and listening to them both and then my thoughts skipping ahead to tomorrow morning, but first we were here, stoned, him drunk. We were here in a stranger’s home, all together. We had become exactly what we were supposed to become and we were together in it and tomorrow would arrive, Christmas Day.

When I woke, the fire still burned in the fireplace, the screen open wide. Caleb was no longer there. There was a twenty and a joint sitting on the coffee table in front of me. Before I nodded back off to sleep I thought that if a cinder popped and jumped out onto the carpet, then it would be just like the Crystal Palace. I was fascinated by the possibility, smiled to myself at the thought of it.



About the Author

Joel Tomfohr has an MA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and an MFA from Mills College in Oakland, CA. He has held residencies at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont (2013), The Cultural Center in New York Mills, Minnesota (2014), and the Headlands Center for the Arts (2014-2015). Most recently, he was the Emerging Writer in Residence at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods in Soquel, CA. His fiction has appeared in 580 Split, sPARKLE & bLINK, The Blackstone ReviewYour Impossible Voice, and Hobart. He lives in Oakland, CA.