Photograph by Alex Farnum
I've been thinking a lot about the Apocalypse. I’m not a pessimist by nature, but disaster scenarios have been forced on me by the culture’s obsession with them. I read The Road; I saw The Book of Eli. Along with millions I have been recently introduced to some lithe and colorful creatures called the Na’vi, who apparently represent our best hope for salvation in the face of civilization’s maniacal drive toward self-destruction. If that were not enough, the real world has complied as well. Stores keep closing on the boulevards, and people continue to lose jobs. A malaise of uncertainty has settled over us all. Add to this the horrifying situations in Haiti and Chile, and it’s hard not to imagine what might, with a little help from our carbon footprint, lie in store.
But apocalypses can be writ large and small, which is why a certain basement in Silver Lake has captured my attention. It’s in a Spanish bungalow rented by Lynne Oropeza, a friend of mine. One day she casually tells me that she lives above an ancient bomb shelter. I’m so intrigued, I jump into my car and drive to Silver Lake. As Lynne leads me to the basement entrance, she tells me the provenance of the house. It was built in 1926 by John and Phyllis Fliegauf, who lived there until 2004. When the couple died, the bungalow had to be dug out of the impenetrable tangle of trees that had been allowed to grow around it. The backyard was a junk heap of pipes and huge slabs of stone, random materials John had culled (for reasons obscure) from his years working for the DWP. Inside, the house was layered with clutter, a thick jumble of saved and found objects that begged logic. The windows were covered with aluminum foil, as if the Fliegaufs had wanted the home to double as a giant tanning box.
Lynne takes me down a flight of stairs softened by the house’s original faded carpeting. I enter a warren of dark, cramped, and unfinished rooms. Each space leads to a smaller one, which gives onto a smaller space still, until I realize that the basement was built with a nod to some sort of architecture. The light is dim, the air teeming with dancing dust particles. The weather in this basement is chilly. It’s a cold one suspects greets the buried, suggestive of a suspension of time during which things neither grow nor completely decay. Makeshift shelves hold what at first appears to be the kind of detritus we all have packed away into a garage or a closet: old tools, jars of nails, musty books whose pages are yellowed and brittle. A pile of records fills one shelf, those heavy-as-lead 78s that might have spun on an early Victrola. Dishes and glasses are stacked next to cloudy bottles of various shapes and sizes. Everywhere, it seems, there are lamps. It looks like a massive yard sale waiting to happen.
As I walk from room to room, the objects become a little stranger. Rusted meat hooks hang menacingly from the ceiling beams. Nailed to the walls are sharp-tooth saws and heavy mallets. A hoe and a rake dangle from the beams, their wooden handles like vines. Large cans of caviar are stored next to some rather disconcerting bottles of boric acid. I pause and ask myself, Is this really a bomb shelter? If so, where are the cans of beans and peaches? Where’s the Spam? Where are the flashlights and emergency kits? We’ve all been briefed on what to have on hand in case of a disaster. But there’s not a blanket or an extra pair of sneakers in sight. Exploring further, I pry off the lid from an industrial garbage can and discover that it is packed with at least a hundred bars of soap, their wrappers dating them from the ’50s and ’60s. Another canister overflows with lightbulbs. I unscrew a large Ball jar containing what look like fist-size shards of concrete, but with the release of the trapped air comes the smell of chocolate. Why did the Fliegaufs save chunks of chocolate? A collection of ceramic dogs and cats sits on one shelf; on another, a wooden box holds a set of filigreed silver. A cardboard box, falling apart at the seams, is full of maps from every state. Then there is the wine. There are boxes of the stuff and intriguing bottles of home-brewed brandy. A narrative is taking shape that makes me reconsider the bomb shelter theory. When I open a metal file case and discover the couple’s personal papers, the story ratchets into focus. There beneath a Bible lies a letter written on crisp, translucent bond stating that Mrs. Phyllis Fliegauf wishes to withdraw her membership in the Eastern Star, because this fraternal organization is part of “Babylon the Great that will soon be destroyed by Jehovah. Revelations 18:4.” Ah, I think, this was not simply a bomb shelter. This was a safe house where the Fliegaufs, true believers, intended to live through the End of Days.
“They sandblasted their house and didn’t paint it because the world was coming to an end,” Janet Weber tells me. She grew up on the street and knew the Fliegaufs well. Seven years later, when the End didn’t materialize, they finally painted the house. Another neighbor, whose backyard looks out onto the Fliegaufs’, noted the mounting collection of odds and ends and suspected that the couple was saving things to take with them to the next world. Joanie Petralia, a spry and witty neighbor who lives across the street, remembers that when another resident set about building an addition to his house, John warned against it, claiming that there was no point, since the streets would soon be swept into the Pacific. What about those tin foil-covered windows? I ask. “They were to keep the radiation out,” Patricia Yaplee, a retired teacher and longtime resident, tells me, supposing that John and Phyllis believed the End of Days would be signaled by falling bombs. “It was really a weird situation,” she muses. I listen to these stories, products of a neighborhood game of telephone that has gone on for decades. I question what information is factual and what is fanciful, and if there is a difference.
The neighborhoods of Los Angeles serve as hamlets, making manageable what would otherwise be a vast and perplexing city. Like families, streets harbor a collective memory. Truth mixes with fuzzy recollection as homes pass from owner to owner until myths take shape and become as firm as the bedrock the houses are built on. We tell one another about the starlet who once lived down the street or about a famous movie that was filmed on the corner. We exchange tales about the mud slides or fires that have changed the topography of our hillsides forever. We mourn the passing of great trees, pointing out to the uninitiated where they once stood, as if they are slain war heroes. Across the street from where I now live, several folks insist that their houses have been repeatedly visited by ghosts. It’s a story I tell, as if this oddity raises my life a little higher off the plane of everyday reality, conferring on me a borrowed air of enchantment. Like relatives whose stories calcify into legend, we perpetuate the mythology of our familiar places because it gives us a feeling of attachment to a city and a history, and it opens our eyes to the ways even those whose fences we share can be so radically different from us. These stories let us know that we are part of something mysterious and grand. They enlarge us.
According to local lore, John and Phyllis Fliegauf bought up large tracts of undeveloped land in this Silver Lake enclave in the early 1920s. They planted scores of fruit trees across their acreage that yield bounty to this day. They chose one plot of land on which to build their home; the others they sold off over time. At some point they became Jehovah’s Witnesses. There’s disagreement about the kind of people the Fliegaufs were. “He was an ornery old man,” Joanie Petralia says. “They had a dog that rode in the front seat of the car. Phyllis would have to ride in the back!” The neighbor who lived behind the Fliegaufs remembers the couple as thoughtful; when she first moved into her home and was unaware of the garbage schedule, John took it upon himself to drag her cans to the curb so she wouldn’t miss trash day. Janet Weber recalls that her father and John swept the street and kept it clean. The Fliegaufs allowed children to pick the low-hanging fruit from their trees; the adults they shooed away. Documents reveal that their church charged them with ministering in their Silver Lake area. For some the preaching was harmless; others learned how to avoid it. Hans Ziegler, an 82-year-old German immigrant whose accent remains unflattened after a half century in California, remembers that Phyllis was very religious, always trying to convert him. But as I talk to the neighbors, I get a feeling that despite the differences of opinion, the perseverance of their memories and their eagerness to tell me the stories of this strange couple are bound up with a sense of marvel. How amazing, their attitudes suggest, that the Fliegaufs’ beliefs were so bold and passionate that the pair built an actual shelter for surviving the horrors of the Apocalypse. The stories impart a wonder that, as the rest of the denizens of one particular street went about their lives, the Fliegaufs concentrated their energies on that same life’s end.
I try to make sense of the basement. I imagine that when the events of the End of Days began, John and Phyllis, among the saved, would have descended that narrow staircase to wait it out. They would have had ample reading material to keep them busy. They might have taken solace in the music of the great composers and in their menagerie of china animals. They would have feasted on caviar, chocolate, and wine. With all those bars of soap, they would have remained clean. Those meat hooks? Perhaps the resourceful John figured that once things settled down above ground, he could hunt the local deer and coyote and dry out their meat. And if they needed to wait to be taken up to Heaven, they would have been able to rebuild whatever part of their home was destroyed, using those saws and mallets and those thousands of nails. Who knows what world they would have reentered? But if the land was ravaged and landmarks were eradicated, they would have their maps to show them the way.
Twenty years ago I lived around the corner from the Fliegauf house. I never met John or Phyllis, but now I thrill to know that the hidden mystery of their basement and the drama of their cataclysmic vision butted up against my own life. It is easy to look askance at the assortment of their saved objects as evidence of a kind of lunacy. Meat hooks? All that wine? But it is impossible not to be awed by the fervency of their conviction, to respect the bravery it must have taken to stand so far out on the edges of belief and at the same time care enough about the mundane to sweep the street and hand a ripe orange to a child. Given our contemporary situation, it’s not so hard to see why this couple looked around at their postwar world in which annihilation had become a fact of life and figured they ought to be prepared. I understand why the truth or the myth of the Fliegaufs has persisted on the streets of their Silver Lake hillside. Their story touches something beyond the realm of daily reality, something about our own bewilderment in the face of the capriciousness of economies and wars and climates. There is comfort in telling the Fliegaufs’ tale, if only to know that history tells us, again and again, that we are not alone with our anxieties.
Maybe Lynne, my friend who now lives where the Fliegaufs once did, puts it best when I ask why she never cleared out the junk in the basement. “Whoever lives in this house lives over a museum,” she says. “The house has a life of its own. We’re just visitors here, in charge of taking care of what’s been here from the beginning.”
The Fliegaufs died of natural causes; they did not have a chance to find out whether their preparations were enough. As for the rest of us, we will have to learn how to navigate these perilous times. But there is some reassurance in knowing that one couple faced the uncertainty head on. They had a plan. They planted those trees. The neighborhood the Fliegaufs have left is now an Eden of mangoes, guavas, tangerines, oranges, lemons, kumquats, loquats, and figs, a harvest that might help see us through.
Marisa Silver’s new collection of short stories, Alone with You, will be published this month by Simon and Schuster. She is also the author of the novels No Direction Home and The God of War. This is her first feature for the magazine.