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IT JUST SLIPPED IN.

I don’t know how it happened. I can’t pinpoint a specific time or place
or incident that started us on this path. I’ve never seen him as an object of
desire. If someone had told me I ever would, I’d have recoiled in horror.
What I do know was that after a very long and tiring day spent building a back deck, we sat on the couch to relax.
Somehow, we ended up in bed.
It just slipped in.
Twice.

AUGUST 2016
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI

1:
BLYTHELY BLUNDERING
BLYTHE

“I’m going to build a deck.”
I make this pronouncement at dinner one night over the noise of four kids,
two parents, and a father-in-law. My parents and kids stop talking. So does my
father-in-law.
My parents begin protesting immediately, as I knew they would.
“Blythe, that’s too much, even for you.”
“Oh, please. You can’t possibly tackle that project on your own.”
“Honey, your focus is frugality. A deck is too extravagant for your audience.”
My mother and father go on and on about why this is a bad idea.
My father-in-law heaves a longsuffering sigh.
The kids are excited.
Apparently, “back deck” is some sort of magical gateway to “swimming
pool.” I might have considered it if I intended to stay in this house, but I don’t.
We don’t have the room anyway, but our next-door neighbor has a pool. I see
how much of a money-and-time sink it is. The house across the street from us,
which has been up for sale for three years, has a pool. It has bigger problems and
it’s overpriced, but the pool doesn’t help.
Here in the middle of half-gentrified Hyde Park, a pool is not a selling
point.
The kids understand this and have had enough DIY lectures to know what
“too much for the neighborhood” and “overimproved” means, and what kind of
neighborhood we live in, right off Armour Boulevard, where there are still
boarded-up apartment buildings, drug dealers, and vandals.
That doesn’t keep them from dreaming out loud.

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MORIAH JOVAN

It takes a while, but finally the excited chatter, the “I want”s, the flood of
ideas, and the protestations fade away when I continue to eat my—admittedly
delicious—dinner. Of course it’s delicious. I made it.
I look down the table at Finn, my father-in-law, where he sits in his usual
spot at the foot of the table. “No comment?”
“You’ve almost got this house done,” he says, a now-familiar edge to his voice.
“Why don’t you do your bedroom and finish the speakeasy and call it a day?”
“I meant about the deck.”
Finn’s jaw grinds, but he answers calmly. “Winnie—” My mother. “—is
right. Free labor is a massive savings, but that doesn’t make it a frugal project, even
if you can get scrap wood. I’m not sure how you can sell that expense to your audience. Jerry—” My dad. “—is also right.” Now my dad preens. It’s not often
Finn praises him. “You can’t do that one alone unless you’re willing to rig up more
complex pulley systems and even your audience would balk at that. That’s why
God invented BFFs who have strong husbands and lots of strong friends.”
Gwen, my sixteen-year-old, thinks that’s hilarious, but she thinks her
grandfather walks on water and would laugh if she thought he meant Would you
bring me a glass of water? as a joke.
“It’ll double as a carport.”
His eyelids shutter.
“What. Car to kitchen without getting wet.” That’s a pretty good plan, especially for being off the cuff.
He’s glaring at me without glaring at me.
“As to labor,” I continue, “I was planning it as a community project, something different. Like … a barn raising.”
Finn’s eyebrow rises.
My mother deflates with relief.
“Mm, well, not community, as in we ask the neighbors for help—” Hyde
Park’s big, and half of it’s filled with childless professional couples who make a
lot of money and fiddle in their yards on Sunday mornings. They dabble in
DIY so they can brag about it at work, but don’t have the skills or interest to
delve into it, especially if it takes away from their other hobbies. Besides, they’ll
know why I’m building a deck and they don’t want to be exploited for the sake
of my advertising revenue. I don’t blame them for that. I wouldn’t do it, either.
“Us. Family. Friends. Our community. The ones who get the bigger picture.
Not this community.”

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“Uh … ” says my fourteen-year-old son warily, “does this mean we have to
help?”
I snort.
My parents snort.
Finn snorts.
The children look scared. Maybe just annoyed.
“Who do you have in mind?” Finn asks, his tone now just resigned.
“Well, your bestie,” I say immediately, at which he nods wearily. Finn’s
bestie is a hobby stonemason who happens to own one of the most prestigious
civil litigation firms in the Midwest. Finn, who has a construction background,
is the owner of the other one.
Finn’s friend did the major structural masonry around my house himself,
but he taught me how to do the less heavy structural work and the decorative
work, which I did. He also does simple video tutorials for my blog. I wouldn’t
volunteer him for my project if I didn’t know he enjoys it.
“Also, Scott.”
Gwen’s boyfriend. “Drumline!” she trills. “Football!”
“I’ll schedule it so it won’t interrupt practice. I’ll need you to keep Calvin
out of the way.”
“Mom,” Calvin and Gwen whine at the same time, for different reasons.
They aren’t often on the same page.
“I don’t trust you,” I tell Calvin matter-of-factly. “You say you’ll stay out of
things, but you never do.”
“But I will! I promise!”
Finn snorts. We do a lot of that around here.
“Grampa!”
“Don’t look at me,” he says.
I look at Ryan, my fourteen-year-old. “Your friends can help.” He groans
because his friends can be seduced by the possibility of using power tools. Fat
chance.
“Are you going to try to get materials donated?” Finn asks.
I’m affronted. “Of course not.”
No, my DIY blog is aimed at young single urban and rural women, who are
usually poor.
I don’t make a secret of the fact that my late husband had provided for us
so well I don’t have to work another day in my life if I’m careful. They also

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know I moved out of the mcmansion we bought new so long ago because it was
riddled with problems new construction shouldn’t have. Therefore, one can’t
assume that upscale suburban tract housing is any better than an older house.
They don’t seem to mind that I have a good-sized nest egg, as long as they
know all my revenue comes from my own two hands, that I spend the money
my blog makes to fund my projects, that my saw and drill pay my living expenses. It’s why we don’t have a maid. It’s why we live in the house while I’m renovating it. It’s why we have thrift-store furniture.
My audience doesn’t seem to mind my ginormous Dodge Ram. Diesel.
Manual. The biggest non-dually I could buy. They also don’t seem to mind my
plethora of power tools. I do far more construction than most of my audience
ever will, but they do need to know I understand what they might have to do to
accomplish the most insignificant things.
It’s why I do many things with hand tools, explaining that it will take longer
and more effort to do a task, what the task is and which tools can best accomplish it, however slowly.
It’s why sometimes I take the bus to Home Depot, buy the few things I can
carry alone, haul them back to my house, and repeat that until I have everything
I need for a project.
It’s why sometimes I do simple things like clean: hot water, Dawn, baking
soda, vinegar, bleach, ammonia, and a scrubby pad can go a long way toward
turning something you thought you’d have to fix immediately into something
you can live with until you can get around to it. I talk about how to wash and
dye crappy curtains you thought were a lost cause, heavy duty tub scrubbing,
cheap cleaning chemicals. I sew things by hand and do simple upholstery. I go
to thrift stores and dollar stores, and talk about practical alternate uses for
common things.
It’s why I installed a complex pulley system, to demonstrate that simple
machines like pulleys and levers make it possible for one person to do the work
of many people.
It comforts them to know that they aren’t doing it wrong when it takes a
week to cut a sheet of plywood with a hand saw, that it’s okay if it takes three
days to get all the materials home from the store by bus, that it’s okay if they can
only afford vinegar and baking soda and a scrub brush to clean. It’s just going to
take a lot longer than they thought it would and it might be physically painful.
That’s okay, too.

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What they don’t know—and won’t—is that my children go to the most expensive private school in town. There are a lot of things I’m willing to make my
children suffer through for my personal fulfillment, depending on the definition
of “suffer,” but being in the Kansas City School District is not one of them.
I do feel bad that few in my audience can do anything to better their lives
significantly, but that’s what politics is for. Talking to people, agitating for
change, is free.
This is one reason why my announcement is such a big deal. I never do
these things, things you see on the DIY channels. I salvage good, sturdy things
and rework them so they look brand new and very expensive. I don’t do upcycle
chic. If it’s trash, it’s trash. I’m not going to rework trash and call it chic when
it’s still trash with a coat of Krylon.
Occasionally I have to kludge, which I don’t mind because it’s what my target audience has to do. So brand new decks—even if they do double as carports—aren’t in keeping with my mission or the house.
There’s a reason I want a deck, and I’m going to get my deck.
“A deck with a carport and covering from car to kitchen,” I conclude, “will
add actual value to the house. The back porch is worse than useless, it pulls value
from the house, and rehabbing it a third time isn’t going to make it any better.”
Finn capitulates because that’s inarguable, and my parents take their cue
from him.
Conversation resumes around me. Finn and my mother chat about what
they always chat about: money and law. My father tries to put in a point or two
here or there, but neither my mother nor father-in-law find them particularly
helpful.
My boys, fourteen-year-old Ryan and nine-year-old Calvin, are squabbling
over whose glass is whose. Kaia, eleven, is once again begging Gwen to let her
move into her bedroom with the argument that I could make their rooms one
(um, no), but what sixteen-year-old wants to share a bedroom with a little sister
if she doesn’t have to?
I space out.
Darren and I had spent the ten years of our marriage gradually moving
from a one-bedroom apartment to a starter ranch in a nice neighborhood in
Liberty up to a nearby mcmansion in a newer, standard upscale middle-class
tract development. The mcmansion was beautiful, customized to us. We lived
there for four years before he was T-boned by a drunk driver.

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Now I live in a wood-and-stone foursquare officially called a Kansas City
Shirtwaist that I’ve renovated mostly by myself, much of it with hand tools.
My parents think I’m nuts.
My father-in-law loves that I’m renovating a house. What he doesn’t love is
my insistence on living in it while I do it, which is one reason why he’s pissy and
getting pissier. My bedroom, the cellar, and the yard are the last big things I
have to do and he wants us out of here. This isn’t a simple flip, but he can’t
stand the house. He calls it the DIY Shithole.
That doesn’t keep him from family dinner every night.
He’s never taken digs at me for anything I wanted to do—until the last year
or so. I know he keeps most of it to himself and we continue on as we have for
the last six years. He doesn’t hound me too much and makes sure the house is
well secured and I can protect myself and the kids. The gun was intimidating,
but I needed one. Fortunately, he insisted before I had to risk asking, which
would have generated a whole lot of questions I wouldn’t have wanted to answer.
It has been a long, hard road from mcmansion to moneypit, but my blog is
thriving.
Blythely Blundering.
That’s my blog. I started out not knowing anything, not having to know anything because I lived in new construction. But during that first year of widowhood, late at night when I was missing Darren so badly I ached and I was
jumping at every scratch of a squirrel on a tree outside, I’d stay up all night
binge-watching reruns of every DIY and hoarders show I could.
This idea had taken root in an introductory entrepreneur tech class when I
was assigned a paper.
Mike Holmes I am not, but this is my job. What I do. I live in a house I’ve
taken from shithole to lovely, about half of it by myself, to empower young single women on a shoestring. I document and post all my failures in detail, my
trial-and-error processes, my mulligans, my workarounds and kludges.
I’d picked a house with structural problems for a reason. I didn’t do it so
my audience could shore up foundations on their own. Most of them rent, so
it’s up to their landlords to do that. I did it because the house was dirt cheap
and because I wanted to show them how to spot the problem areas and what
likely needs to be done. Finn writes posts on how to force their landlords to
make the repairs—promptly and properly—and how to follow up if they don’t
get them done right and how to not get evicted while doing it.

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My mom also writes for me, on money matters. Scrooge can teach her
nothing, and she enjoys the massive amounts of approval she gets from struggling families, the victims of the new economy, financial planners, and people
who’d have sneered at her before they’d fallen on hard times somewhere in 2008
and had never gained any ground. She was frugal before frugal was cool. Twice.
Hipster Mom.
My dad, a financial planner, writes articles for those who can or want to
save a little bit each paycheck and grow their meager assets into not-quite-someager assets. He doesn’t really write them. My mom writes them and lets him
think he does.
I have never known want or poverty. Neither had Darren. But all four of
our parents had started out poor and they remembered. That’s one reason my
father-in-law knows so much about construction. He’d had to do it all himself
once upon a time when he was very young—not yet graduated from high
school—and had just married the girl he’d “gotten in trouble.”
It was 1978, but they were still saying it that way.
I will never be poor. I have too much and it’s too well managed. But something about the women who flock to my blog makes me feel like I’m just like
them. My therapist says it’s because I was widowed so young and I’ve got few
options for remarriage. I’ve only been asked out on a few dates so I haven’t had
sex with anybody since Darren died. And anyway, I refuse to have sex with
some guy when what I want is a lifetime relationship, and nobody wants a
woman with four kids—and one of them has some weird combination of
ADHD and Asperger’s.
No, I’m not poor in money, she says, but I’m poor in love. Companionship.
Intellectual and sexual fulfillment. And I can’t buy or fix it myself. So I moved
into a house that displays my lack. She says it’s like cutting, to force the pain in
your body to match or overwhelm the pain in your soul.
DIY Shithole was a physical manifestation of my suffering, to forge a bond
with something that won’t leave me.
I choose to buy that explanation, but now it’s a moot point.
This is my career.
And I like it.
The kids clean up after dessert—strawberry shortcake with homemade
pound cake and sweet biscuits, fresh sugared strawberries and whipped
cream—and go about the business of preparing for the first day of school.

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My dad and mom go home. Finn reads Kaia the next section in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series before tucking her in, calmly tells Calvin what’ll
happen if either of us gets a phone call from school the next day, gives Ryan a
little pep talk about his crappy summer of football practice, kisses Gwen good
night, gets a second (third?) helping of strawberry shortcake, and settles in at
the dining room table next to me with his laptop open.
“God, this is good, Blythe,” he mutters around a bite. “Thank you.” Strawberry juice is trickling down his chin, then hits his snowy white dress shirt. He
knows. He doesn’t care.
Finn and I do this every night, working in silence together, me on my blog
or lists or bookkeeping, he on whatever trials he’s got going or big deals he’s
wheeling. We work hard. His work is brain-intensive. Mine is labor-intensive.
Between us, we can muster up one functioning human by midnight.
“You’re mad,” I say, feigning disinterest.
“I’m not mad,” he says testily. “I’m annoyed that you’re doing everything
you can to not finish this house. The deck’s a stalling tactic.”
It certainly is.
“Tell me you’re in love with this house and I’ll get off your back.”
I can’t.
Finn knows this, which is why he said it, but this point is also moot. He’d
be even more pissy if he knew why I’m stalling.
This house is my Bestie, but she’s not my One True Love.
My One True Love is a few blocks from here, a crumbling Greek revival
masterpiece nobody’s taken to completion. It’s the worst house in a grand
neighborhood of early twentieth-century mansions, and I’m waiting for the current owner to give up on her.
I’m so in love with her I ache when I pass her on my morning walk. I talk to
the guy who’s working on her, get a good idea of her problems, try to assess his
level of frustration, and never let him know who I am or what I do or what I
want.
He’s put in a new foundation. That’s all. It would be the third new foundation that house has had in twenty years.
It sounds simple enough if you don’t think about it too long and he obviously didn’t think about it too long. Nobody knows what “putting in a new
foundation” really means until they’re down in the muck with a house hanging
over their heads supported by crumbling stone and a couple-three steel beams.

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I know. I’ve done it.
Nobody knows what’ll have to be done and how many things could go
wrong—and things always go wrong. Not even an engineer can predict what’ll
happen.
But after you’ve spent your entire budget on the first item on your list,
well …
I offered to buy it from him once. He said no before I could make an offer.
I offered to buy it from him again. He was going to ask me how much, but
changed his mind and said no.
I offered to buy it from him a third time. He didn’t say anything for a long
time. Then he asked me how much. I told him. He looked so insulted I decided
not to ask again.
That was six months ago.
He’s just about to break. His day job gets in the way, his regular life chips
away at his time, his wife’s getting impatient with his lack of progress, and I
know he doesn’t have any money left: He’s the only one working on it.
If it was ever a labor of love to him, it’s not anymore.
I could finish my bedroom and the cellar in three months, and the yard in
six, accounting for winter, including writing a couple hundred blog posts, three
dozen tutorials, and many well-edited videos of varying lengths. Finn knows
how I work. If it takes me a year, he’s going to be really pissed off.
Hence, the deck.
“Blythe—”
“I really don’t understand why you care since the minute I finish this house,
I’m going to buy DIY Shithole Redux.”
His mouth tightens. “But you don’t have to live in it.”
I scowl but turn to my laptop and dismiss him with a handwave. We go on
about our business silently.
At midnight, he shuts down his laptop, buttons up the house for the night,
and lets himself out the front door with a casual “Ciao.”
He’s still mad.
Now the house is quiet and dark, and my empty bedroom is waiting for
me.
It’s been six years since the cops came to my door to tell me my husband,
who had just left work to catch a quick lunch, had been killed. Instantly, they
said. He didn’t suffer.

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Nice to know.
I’d gone through my five stages of grief in about a year, though somewhere
on the front edge of grief stage four, my father-in-law caught me in the middle
of a This Old House orgy and made me do some of the chores around the
mcmansion that he’d been doing. Fixit things. Nail that down. Put up that
store-bought shelf. Repair the toilet paper holder that fell off the wall. No, not
with a screwdriver, with a drill. Not like that, like this. Here, look.
That sort of thing.
Then he told me to go enroll in a couple of college classes. Depressed, I
balked, but Finn can be tyrannical. So I went.
That was the first day of the rest of my life.
I had to take remedial English and math and I didn’t even know what “remedial” meant. A pretty, pampered prom queen who’s going to marry the budding software engineer son of the richest guy on the block the minute she
graduates from high school doesn’t need to worry about grades. So I didn’t.
After carrying a half load of remedial classes my first semester, it slowly
dawned on me in the middle of my second, during English Comp 101, to be
precise, that I was really, really stupid. I told Finn I was struggling, so he had one
of his tech guys set my blog up and show me how to run it, and told me to
write. He misunderstood what I was struggling with and told me it was an easy
way for him to keep track of the repairs that needed done. I was stupid enough
to fall for that. He wanted me to learn how to write and to keep a record of
what I’d accomplished in both literacy and construction.
The first year into my associate’s degree, I completely redecorated the
mcmansion to get rid of those things that continued to cause me grief and
stress, getting into deeper DIY as I went along, and blogging about it.
And there was so much more to accomplish that it shocked even Finn.
Brand new mcmansions have lots of problems under all that seamless drywall and soothing neutral tones and pristine crown moulding. It’s shameful, is
what it is. On the second anniversary of Darren’s death, I was taking a sledgehammer to an interior wall riddled with mold—a wall separating two of my
kids’ bedrooms. I was so angry about the mold, I didn’t remember what day it
was, much less grieve.
I informed Finn I was selling the house when I found out the source of the
mold was an insidiously leaky roof and the water had run down into all the
walls.

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Finn said, “Okay.”
But then I would have no place to live and my blog would die. I had finished the last thing I could do on the mcmansion without tearing down every
wall in the house and my blog audience (which was sizeable) started to drift
away. Posts about hiring roofers aren’t interesting. I went house hunting, but all
the new construction was awful.
Finn, if I’m going to have to do all this anyway, I might as well get an old house and
make a business out of it while I finish school.
Okay. You and the kids can move in with me while you’re working on it.
I was looking for a house close to the Kansas City campus of the University
of Missouri when I stumbled across this one. But I never had any intention of
moving in with Finn. When I informed him of this, he just rolled his eyes and
said, “Fine. Whatever.”
My grief now consists of rare moments of melancholy and gratitude for the
years I had with Darren. I don’t even think of what-might-have-beens because it
can’t be. I have a life. One I’d built myself with no help from my parents and a
lot from the man who surely must have grieved for his son while he was taking
care of me.
I don’t know how or even if Finn grieved, but he’s a stoic. If he’d broken
down, it would have been in private.
But occasionally at night, when the kids are asleep and Finn has gone for
the night, the house is dark and quiet, I dread going to bed.
Alone.
Except for B.O.B. Battery-operated boyfriend.
Which, I think for the millionth time as I drift to sleep after a quick, unspectacular orgasm, is only a sleeping pill.

2:
ROBBER-BARON
PARADISE
FINN

A deck.
I’m thinking about it while I’m driving home. My quiet home. Where kids
aren’t yelling at each other and calling “Mom!” every ninety seconds and “Grampa!” every fifteen minutes. They yell for me, not for Blythe’s father, who doesn’t
seem to notice all the things the kids demand. Nobody ever yells for “Pop-pop”
because it doesn’t occur to them.
My home, where Jerry doesn’t feel entitled to pick my brain by virtue of the
fact that he’s my in-law and he shows up for dinner every night. My home,
where the foundation and walls are sound, the rooms are impeccably decorated
and cleaned, and almost every square inch is a gentleman’s retreat. Where it
never carried the faintest whiffs of drugs, cat pee, sex, bathtub gin, and mold
wafting from the cellar and thrift-store furniture.
I grew up in a house like that.
And by “grew up,” I mean the only roof I could afford at eighteen with a
pregnant seventeen-year-old girlfriend and a shotgun in my back. One fumbling
in the back seat of a car with a girl to whom I whined, “But, baby, I love you!”
and I’d completely fucked up my life.
Or so I thought.
I turn my vintage Alfa-Romeo Spider into the long driveway of my Ward
Parkway estate, the wrought-iron gates closing behind me. My father-in-law
still hasn’t forgiven me for making good. He’d wanted Miriam to languish in
poverty as punishment for being “easy.” That’s what they called it then.

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She wasn’t easy. I was a douchebag.
I see my father-in-law regularly. He’s a (very) junior attorney at my law
firm. Mine. The one I built. He’s a senile old bastard, but not senile enough to
forget me and every move I ever made. Not senile enough to forget his anger
with me generally, much less the fact that he had to come beg me for a job when
he was downsized in 2008 and the only job he could get was as a Walmart
greeter.
I wouldn’t have hired him at all but my head paralegal begged me to. He
has his uses, the biggest one being that he’s got obscure case history packed so
tightly in his mind my staff doesn’t have to waste time looking for what I need.
They just ask him.
They call him Google. He hates it, but he answers to it. It makes me
chuckle.
A deck.
I sigh.
Blythe’s been working up to that for a while. I’ve seen her lustful glances at
pressure-treated six-by-sixes and two-by-twelves at Home Depot, her delicate
sighs at the round disposable concrete forms, her longing caresses of wooden
stair stringers.
I also see all the men standing around watching her drool over this stuff like
it’s an Olympic gymnast or whatever turns her on, wanting her to caress their
wood. I don’t know if she notices this, but if she does she probably doesn’t care.
She’s pretty, I suppose, because my son would never have married a not-pretty
woman. But what she is is happy. She always has been. I think that might be
part of her attraction, but I’m used to her so I only notice this when we go to
the lumberyard and everyone else notices.
The house is structurally sound now. The back yard is big enough to accommodate both her workshed-slash-practice room and the deck-carport. I will
admit, that was a helluva save. She didn’t have the carport in mind until I questioned her sanity. The deck alone would be too much for the neighborhood and
she would’ve never gotten a good return on it. But make it a carport and voilà …
Yeah, it’s a good idea but I wish she’d just get the fucking house done. I
don’t like the neighborhood she lives in. I don’t like that she lives like a pauper
when she doesn’t have to because there is no glory or honor in it; it doesn’t make
anybody else’s life better to do it. I don’t like that I have a mansion that houses
me and my support staff of twelve, but she won’t move in with me.

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It’s been harder and harder to keep my mouth shut as she comes up with
excuse after excuse to delay. I have no idea why she doesn’t want to get out of
that house. She likes it because it’s her work product, but she doesn’t seem to be
attached to it, the way people get, the way I’m attached to my house and office
downtown.
She has a reason, though. It wouldn’t be the first time she’s kept her end
game to herself, but I decided long ago to go with it because she makes good
decisions most of the time. I advise her here and there. Even if she doesn’t take
my advice, it’s usually a choice between good and better.
She doesn’t need me anymore. She hasn’t needed me for anything past the
first two years after Darren’s death, when she stopped asking me what she
should do, started telling me what she was going to do, and giving me orders to
that effect.
Finn, get me that builder’s head on a platter.
Sorry. Somebody else got it first. You might be able to dig a fingernail out of his remains.
Oh, poop.
Hell, I don’t need her either, but she’s the mother of my son’s children. I
vowed I would never treat my grandchildren the way my father-in-law treated
mine. Miriam took the kids to see him a couple times, but he hated them on
sight. They knew it. They wanted nothing to do with him.
My grandchildren—all of them, not just Darren’s kids—give me something.
Darren’s kids give me an extra something because the youngest two don’t remember their daddy and the oldest two are losing their memories as time goes on. I am
the father figure in their lives because I’m widowed and can spend time with them.
Although I have a thriving law practice, my time in the trenches of the hundredhour work week is long past and I have no marriage to make my priority.
Even before Darren died, Blythe’s parents were indifferent to the kids. They
were cruising around the world, spending the money they’d worked and scrimped
so hard for. I didn’t blame them for that at all, but I was pissed when they took off
on another cruise two months after Darren died, then again at Christmas. Your
twenty-eight-year-old daughter’s husband dies, leaving her alone with four young
children and you sail off to the Caribbean? Who does this?
I expected better from Winnie, but quite frankly, if it doesn’t have anything
to do with money, Blythe’s father is as useless as tits on a boar hog. Sometimes I
can’t figure out if he’s oblivious or if he’s selfish, but he manages to get in the

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way quite a bit. I can tell the kids to clean the kitchen and they will, even if they
gripe and drag their feet. Jerry can look at the kitchen and not only not see it
needs to be cleaned, but will use clean dishes to eat more while the kids are
cleaning. They’ve come to me more than once, angry and frustrated because he
won’t respect their polite requests to get out and stop making more work for
them. They’re just kids, right? They’ve gone to their mother, but Jerry doesn’t
respect Blythe any more than he respects the kids, so it’s left to me.
The same way it was left to me to take care of Blythe and the kids after
Darren died. If I didn’t do it, who would?
Jerry and Winnie Hemming have been having dinner with us every night for
the last year and he still doesn’t know the nightly routine. Or he doesn’t care.
I can barely bring myself to be civil, but for Blythe’s and Winnie’s sake I do.
I don’t take any of my nine grandchildren for granted. When my colleagues bitch and moan about the state of their offspring and their offspring’s
offspring—divorces, steps, mistresses, lovers, comings-out, jail, drugs, sex
changes, fraud, theft—I quietly preen. Sometimes I’m not that quiet about it.
For all my son died at thirty, my family is straight-up. No-nonsense. Dare
I say, perfect. Leave it to Beaver incarnate. Father Knows Best.
Miriam and I did very well. The only thing I do have to bitch and moan
about is Blythe’s insistence on living in that shithole while she’s renovating it.
My colleagues and employees who read her blog (because they like seeing me
up to my eyeballs in drywall dust) think it’s cute. Stupid, but cute. Grief therapy taken too far.
Which is exactly what it is.
But I was there when Blythe fell apart at the news of Darren’s death, so I
humor her. Still. It’s a habit.
I was stoic all through the first weeks and months after Darren’s death,
taking care of things, propping Blythe up, forcing a beloved, pampered wife
and stay-at-home mom who barely managed to graduate from high school to
make something of herself.
Not because she needed to to survive. Darren was a good man, thoroughly in love with Blythe, and she him. He left her well provided for. So did his
killer’s insurance company after I got through with them.
But then all the post-death business was finished. Blythe and the kids
were stumbling into their new normal and I tried to settle back into my old
normal.

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MORIAH JOVAN

I walk into my quiet, clean, orange-smelling house with a sigh of relief.
I’m still tasting strawberry shortcake and wishing I’d had another helping.
God, that woman can cook.
I have a chef, but I stopped having her make freezer meals for me because
Blythe’s spoiled me. Blythe stocks my freezer for snacks and dinner on the
nights I’m preparing for court the next day.
I grab the mail off the front table salver. A formal invitation from Knox
and Justice Hilliard around Christmas for a political fundraiser. I check the
date. The fundraiser is a week before Bryce and Giselle Kenard’s ten-year renewal of vows.
Mr Phineas W Marston & Guest
I have no & Guest.
I’ll go to both, of course, the renewal of vows being the more prestigious
one.
The bride’s family is collectively known as the Dunhams. Her grandfather was some kind of bigwig in Kansas City during Prohibition, and it’s
simply easier for everyone to keep track of who’s connected to whom by ending any introduction with “he/she’s a Dunham.” Sometimes “a Dunham” isn’t
related by blood at all, but is bound to the family by history and loyalty. That
family’s antics are one long soap opera and a third of the country’s moneyed
can’t wait for the next episode.
The other invitation is a standard political fundraiser to start filling the
war chest of incumbent Governor Eric Cipriani for his second term in office.
Eric’s a libertarian masquerading as an independent, but I don’t really care
about D’s and R’s, et al until a politician gets in my way or gets others out of
my way. Eric gets others out of my way. He won the governorship on a fluke,
but his staying there won’t be a fluke if I have anything to say about it. I want
him in the White House as badly as he wants to be there. Incidentally, both
he and the first lady tumbled into the Dunham family when they were teenagers.
There’s a second fundraising invitation, from the challenger’s camp. I
laugh. “I know Eric Cipriani,” I mutter. “Eric Cipriani is a friend of mine.
You, sir, are no Eric Cipriani.”
I look again. Oh. That invitation’s for the previous residents of my house.
Mr and Mrs J Fenimore Hilliard
Dunhams.

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Dead ones. Somebody in that camp didn’t get the memo those two died
tragically almost eight years ago.
I still get mail for the Hilliards occasionally because I bought this house and
the Alfa for a song from Knox, the wife’s son, about a year after they died. I’d
coveted both for as long as I could remember and Fen Hilliard wasn’t entertaining offers from anyone. At the time, I couldn’t have ponied up enough cash to
buy it, anyway.
But by the time Fen was killed and the missus killed herself, Knox and I
had history, and we’d made a gentleman’s agreement: When he got control of
the estate on his fortieth birthday, he’d sell it to me lock, stock, and barrel. Not
only did he sell it to me, he hated the place so much he practically shoved the
keys in my hand for pennies on the dollar.
That was six years ago, and I was persona non grata around town for a
while because I got the jump on everybody who wanted it.
The universe has to have its little in-jokes, I suppose, and this joke still has
legs at cocktail parties: I, Finn Marston, live in Fen Hilliard’s house. Occasionally, if I’m introduced by my nickname, I have to explain: Me, Phineas, alive.
Him, Fenimore, dead. I hate that, but I’ll be damned if I go by Phineas.
I toss the invitation for the Hilliards in the trash and head up the stairs.
So there I was five years ago, trying to settle back into normal life after I’d
wrapped up all Darren’s business, when I ran into a former employee, a rainmaking attorney who’d left me high and dry when he bailed on me to start his
own practice.
I’d never forgiven him for that. I hadn’t known anything about his life until,
a couple of years after he’d left me, I saw in the papers his wife and four children
had died in a house fire. He was in a coma with burns and smoke inhalation
that should have killed him, and when, if, he came out of it, he was going to be
charged with arson and five counts of homicide.
As angry as I was, I knew he would never do that. I also knew he had no
one to protect his interests. Yeah, I was pissed off at him and normally I’d have
felt a warm trickle of schadenfreude, but not that time. I wasn’t going to let him
languish in a hospital bed for God only knew how long while vultures picked
over his assets. He left me in a fix, true, but to be fair, he’d made me a lot of
money before he did.
With the appropriate subtle threats dropped in all the right ears to discourage would-be vultures, I started to take care of his life while he was

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comatose. I knew, once he healed, he’d take his own revenge, but at that moment in time, he was utterly helpless, at the mercy of fate.
And that was where Knox—a prosecutor up north with a dirty reputation—and I collided. I wanted nothing to do with that corrupt bastard, and he
wanted nothing to do with a guy who’d fixed fights and rigged bets.
So I was shocked when I found out that Knox and my guy had been best
buds for years. They met as freshmen at UCLA, thrown together by the dorm
lottery, became best pals, and went to law school together. That relationship
disintegrated as bitterly as mine did, but that wasn’t relevant. Neither was our
mutual disdain.
We knew this man.
Unbeknownst to me, Knox had been working on taking care of him from
the other end. We met in the middle, pooled our terror-inducing reputations
without tipping our hands, handled the disposition of what remained of his
dead family, and kept our guy out of trouble.
Knox and I bonded that year. Nobody knows we’re friends—and that’s the
way we want to keep it.
Our guy never knew. He still doesn’t. He’s completely mystified by who’d
kept him solvent, his estate from draining away under his medical care costs. He
doesn’t know who put the arson squad’s feet to the fire so he wouldn’t go to
prison for five counts of murder. He also doesn’t know Knox and I were the
only visitors he had that year. No family. No friends. Here, a millionaire, with
no one to look after him. He might as well have been a hobo.
For years after that, I’d see him at society parties. Ignored him because I
was still angry. He had left me in one huge fucking bind. He ignored me, too,
probably because he knew I was pissed. I was shocked when he got married
again. So was everybody else in town. He was hideous from the fire, and his
scars hadn’t improved much by then, but he’s rich. I didn’t think he’d ever find a
woman who wasn’t feeling up his back pocket, but he did.
For all that, the day I ran into him at the courthouse, I was too griefstricken and tired to be angry. Hell, I was too grief-stricken and tired to recognize the bastard.
My son was dead.
Nothing else matters when your beloveds die. It all seems so petty.
I said hi without thinking. He was someone I knew, a face I recognized.
Didn’t matter who. He stopped cold, grasped my arm and swung me around,

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looked at me as if I were tripping on acid and said, “Finn, you all right?”
I laughed. It was more of a croak. “Ah, just finishing up some business with
my son.”
That was a nothing statement. It could mean anything. So something in
the way I said it must have caught his ear. “What’s up with your son?” he asked
carefully.
I told him as matter-of-factly as I could, and when his expression turned
pained, I finally realized who I was talking to. It had been so many years by that
time and I had my own pain to deal with, I’d forgotten about him, much less
that he’d lost four children. Horrifically. I started to wonder if my pain would
ever go away.
“You got a minute?” he asked me.
I shrugged. “Nothing going on at my place, no.”
He called his wife, told her he’d be late getting home, cocked his head toward the elevators, and said, “C’mon.”
Oh, hell, what else did I have to do?
We ended up at Gates in Midtown, in a private little booth at the back.
When we were settled in with food and drink, he said, “Talk.”
I still wince when I remember that moment. Someone cared. More than
that, someone who knew.
I broke down. I swear to God I have never sobbed like that in my life, in a
public place yet. Not even over Miriam’s death. It took me until closing time
and then beyond that. We sat in his truck. I continued pouring it all out. It’s a
haze now. I have no idea what I said.
I never had friends past the moment I said “I do.” Didn’t have time for
friends. I had my mother, my seventeen-year-old wife, my newborn son, and a
life to get sorted out because I’d be goddamned if I stayed in that shithole and
made my family stay in that shithole because I’d coerced a girl into sex. Miriam
deserved better, and I needed to shove her father’s head farther up his asshole
than it already was.
So I sat crying in the car of an attorney I’d hired straight out of law school
and trained. One I’d trusted, one who’d betrayed me by leaving me, one I’d carried a grudge against for years for leaving me.
I had no pride. He understood, more than anyone else could, what it was
like to lose a child. For the first time in my adult life, I felt like I had a friend. A
good one. A real one.

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He listened to me all night, then dropped me off at my house at eight
o’clock the next morning when I’d finally run out of words. I don’t know any
woman who’d accept My former boss who hates me cried on my shoulder for eighteen
hours as the truth, but his wife did. That night, he repaid every second and every
penny I spent keeping the wolves at bay while he fought for his life in a burn
unit.
That night was five years ago.
Now, I take out my phone and text him.
b wants 2 build deck

Bryce Kenard answers almost immediately.
lol

Yeah. Ha. Ha. Ha.
fuck u

3:
PARIS OF THE PLAINS
BLYTHE

My plan to build a deck doesn’t go over well on the blog. The majority of the
comments are along the lines of “Why should I care about this? You’re the
one with the money. Do something I can afford to do.”
Why should they care about this project?
I sigh. I don’t know.
On the other hand, I have blog posts scheduled six months ahead of all the
things they can do, so I’m not sure why they’d be upset about an extra post every
week.
I’m in the cellar, otherwise known as the speakeasy because that was what it
had been for most of Prohibition. There used to be an enameled cast-iron bathtub over in the corner. If anybody had ever bathed in it before I winched it up to
the third-floor bathroom, I’d be shocked.
The hard-packed dirt still smelled like gin when I began pouring the concrete floor. I didn’t do it with a truck pumping cement through a pipe in my
coal chute, with me in waders wielding a concrete float. I did it piecemeal whenever I had an extra half hour, by hand, with five-gallon buckets of Quikrete in
sections about the size one sixty-pound bag of cement can cover.
It’s the way my audience would have to do it.
I’m putting the final coat of Kilz on the exposed stone walls. It’s the fourth
coat of the industrial oil-based stuff. It stinks. Oh my God, it stinks. I’m about
to die, even with the coal chute and all the cellar doors open and a mask over my
face. I did power-wash the walls after the concrete cured, but there was still a
hundred years’ worth of tobacco gunk, alcohol, and blood covering them that I
had to scrub by hand.

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For sale: Prohibition-era bullets. Used once.
I’d like to use a sandblaster, but I can’t do that in here and besides, my audience wouldn’t have access to that.
So I Kilz.
The stone foundation is solid. There are now steel beams holding the
house up. The windows, which I restored and weatherproofed, are tight. The
mechanicals are new. It’s got new duct work with heat vents and good lighting. I
put in a bona fide laundry room and full-sized bathroom, where Finn keeps
some clothes and showers occasionally. There’s a Futon I haven’t decided what
to do with yet, so it sits there in case we need an extra bed.
It’s quiet except for the squishing of the paint roller. The kids are at school.
I don’t play music when I work alone because I want silence. Not silence. My
job isn’t silent. I crave being away from my children’s demands and the voices of
others, crave the time I can stay in my head and think. This is one reason I love
my job so much.
But then my email dings and I pull my phone out of its pocket in my cargo
shorts in case it’s the school.
Hi. Follow you’re blog. Male 20. Dropped out of high school.
Reading comments, but dont agree. I come to library to read
you’re blog. I watch all your vids. Saving to buy my own tools and
have a chance to earn some money from nieghbor whos planning
a deck next spring. Knew you were doing this and told him I could
help. Plz build deck & post real time. Need this job.

Lurkers. I never know who really benefits from what I do. Men don’t
comment on my blog, or if they do, I don’t know they’re men.
I forward this to Finn.
construction starts 3 wks
FINN: ur a touch
what are you doing?
FINN: court zzzzz u?

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speakeasy kilz
FINN: bdrm next wk?
ignoring you now

I can hear his sigh all the way from downtown Kansas City to the depths of
the speakeasy in the middle of Hyde Park.
On a Saturday morning in early September, I stand in my back yard with my
father-in-law, my kids, my daughter’s boyfriend, my son’s two friends, Finn’s
bestie and his kid, my parents, and my film girl Posey.
Posey’s filming a truck backing down my driveway with a Dumpster headed for the back corner of my lot. It drops it with a thunk and pulls up and out of
the driveway. Rumbling toward us now is the backhoe that’ll demolish the back
porch.
The back porch is a late addition, likely in the ’40s and more like a lean-to.
That’s about the time the door in my bedroom wall was put in and the nowrickety, blocked-off staircase clinging to the side of the house was built to accommodate a boarder.
I’ve rehabbed the back porch twice now. I still hate it. It’s unwieldy, it
doesn’t fit the house, and it doesn’t even overhang the cellar door so the groceries don’t get wet. I’ve been dithering about doing it a third time, even though it’d
make good blog fodder.
I intended for the deck to be a fill-in project while I wait for my One True
Love, but with the destruction of the back porch I didn’t know what to do with
and the carport I didn’t know I needed, it became a legitimate, if not necessary,
project.
Not even Finn argues that now.
It’s been four years and I still haven’t decided whether to tear down the side
staircase and wall up the door to my room. With a new staircase and a little
kitchenette where my office is now, it could still be a rental unit.
Will build to suit.
Bryce Kenard, Finn’s friend, is the stonemason, so he’ll be the foreman on
the concrete phases of the project. Right now he’s talking to the backhoe

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operator and pointing at the marks I made. I would have done the demolition
by myself but I’m not going to be able to do some of the concrete demolition
myself, even with a jackhammer, so why not hire a backhoe to do all of it? It’s
not like my blog denizens aren’t already upset with me.
Backhoe cost: 40 grand. Kidding! $400 per day.
Four hundred dollars is some of these people’s grocery budgets for two or
three months.
I catch Gwen ogling Bryce, who is skimpy with the clothes when he works
outside: ratty Levi’s shorts, socks and steel-toed boots, gloves, and nothing else
except a wide braid tattoo around his massive right biceps. I want to think she’s
gaping at the burn and skin graft scars all over his left half, but no amount of
scars in the world could hide that body.
The man’s built like a Greek god and looks like he could push a man into
the ground like a thumbtack. Seriously, I don’t mind his dress code at all and the
longer I look, the more attractive he gets.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Finn mutters, half irritated, half amused. “Put your
tongue in your mouth.”
I cast him a wicked glance. “Yum,” I purr.
Finn sighs.
Bryce doesn’t notice.
Gwen’s drooling too and her boyfriend is glaring at her. No, the apple
didn’t fall far from that tree. I catch Scott’s attention and wink. Then I walk
over to Gwen and whisper, “I’d tap that.”
“Mom!” she screams, jumping away from me and looking at me in horror.
“Oh my God!”
I grin.
“You’re married!” she hisses. “What about Daddy?”
“I’m a widow. I didn’t die when Daddy did.”
“What about Grampa? He’s right there!”
“I don’t know what Grampa has to do with who I drool over. Nom nom
nom.”
She claps her hands over her ears and squeezes her eyes tight. “I don’t want
to know this I don’t want to know this I dont want to know this Idontwanttoknowthis.”
Scott grins and gives me a thumb’s up.
If Gwen so much as peeks at Bryce again, all Scott has to do is mention I

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have dibs when the wife dies.
I join Finn again to watch as the backhoe goes to work. “What was that
about?” he asks.
We put our heads together while I talk, but try not to be too obvious about
it because Gwen’s sensitive to teasing and we adults try to respect that.
Try.
She makes it too easy sometimes.
“Would you?” Finn asks with a slight chuckle.
“If he weren’t married and came on to me? Oh, yeah.”
He looks at me funny, his smile fading. “Really?”
I huff. “Finn, cripes! Do you want me to pine away for Darren the rest of
my life?”
He blinks and looks away, his expression confused.
That hurts a little and my humor fades. “Well, do you?”
He shakes his head. “No,” he says absently, as if I should know. “It didn’t
occur to me.” Then he looks at me again and says solemnly, “I would never ask
you to do that. You’re too young to be alone.”
Surprised by this, I blink and my mouth is open a little. “Um … okay,
thanks. Nice to know. But I don’t have any plans or anything.”
We fall silent. It’s an awkward silence, a disconcerting one because while
we’ve had loud arguments that led to angry silences, we haven’t had an awkward
silence since Darren died.
To my relief, he finally ambles off, yelling at all five boys to help him start
picking up debris where they can.
I watch him as he goes.
That was the most bizarre conversation Finn and I have ever had.
But I shake it off and turn to greet neighbors as they drift into the back
yard to watch my latest project unfold.
My mother’s in my kitchen making sandwiches for the crew while the younger kids keep the fresh sweet tea, lemonade, pop, Gatorade, and water flowing.
My dad sits in a lawn chair in the shade to “supervise.” He’s got his Pepsi
and a good view, so he’s happy as a clam. I’ve asked him to help Finn direct the
cleanup, but he loses himself talking to this neighbor or that, hollering dumb
old-man jokes every once in a while (“Workin’ hard or hardly workin’?! Yuk yuk
yuk!”), yelling for my mom to bring him another Pepsi.
It’s a really good thing Finn’s too preoccupied to have heard that. “Go get it

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yourself, Dad,” I say, trying to keep my voice light. He gives me an unamused
side-eye then yells at Kaia to go get it. “Kaia’s working, Dad,” I say, my voice less
light. If he can’t contribute to the work, why can’t he at least go get his own
damned pop? “You’re the only one here who’s not.”
He glares at me and charges up out his chair in a huff. Or tries. He trips over
a clod of dirt and nearly plants his face in the grass. He’s a lot taller than I am but
he’s skinny as a rail for all he eats like a horse. I, however, have been doing heavy
construction for the last few years, so I catch him easily, with an arm across his
chest. He rights himself, jerks out of my grasp, then stalks off with a glare.
My neighbors watch this exchange warily and give me a look of wry commiseration. More neighbors wander down the driveway, beers in hands, and get
a little closer to the machinery than is comfortable.
More than once, Finn has to bellow at them to keep alcohol off the job site.
“READ THE GODDAMNED SIGN!” he roars so loudly the entire neighborhood can hear. The neighbors with the beer drift away grumbling.
It takes an hour to pull the back porch down without damaging anything,
but there’s nothing more any of us can do except wait for the backhoe to do the
heavy cleanup. After that, it’ll break up the crappy concrete pad that’s already
there, clean that up, then dig and grade the space for the new parking pad,
driveway extension, and turnout. It takes a while, which we spend sitting on
blankets and sheets, eating, laughing, and talking.
Bryce and Finn are talking legal shop, catching each other up on whatever
cases they’ve got going on. Bryce is a medical malpractice attorney. Finn takes
on big corporations. Sometimes they end up having a defendant in common.
I don’t see Finn as an attorney of any type, although I’ve been to his office
and watched him in court. He’ll bring home champagne to celebrate his wins,
and he’ll talk about his cases if he’s had a particularly good day, but his delivery
is low key. I know he’s a bold and ruthless lawyer—he wouldn’t have built what
he did if he weren’t—but that’s not who he is.
Finn is, first and foremost, a family man. He needs to have family around
him like he needs air.
When I was almost fifteen, Darren’s family moved into my relatively affluent neighborhood, four doors down and across the street from us. Darren
had a job at a little comic book and video game store, and did something with
computers so I hardly ever saw him out of school. Jessica, Darren’s sister, was
into soccer, whereas I was into cheer and dance. Ken, his little brother, was

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too young to bother with. Finn was mostly around in the evenings and on
weekends, working in the yard, packing up their SUV for Jessica’s games.
Darren’s mother would be out tending her roses and I’d see Finn bring her
a bottle of water or move her umbrella over her if she strayed out into the sun
because she was prone to burning quickly. She would smile up at him and he’d
pet her hair. If she needed a hole dug, he’d do it for her.
I remember watching this from my bedroom window and vaguely wishing
my father treated my mother that way, hoping to one day have a husband who
treated me that way.
And then I did, and I didn’t take it for granted.
Now Finn lives alone in a grand estate that takes twelve people to keep up,
but he doesn’t spend much time there. He comes here straight after work, takes
off his suit jacket and tie as quickly as possible, rolls up his sleeves, and either
works on his laptop or pitches in with the kids or dinner or both. If he doesn’t
have a big case going, he comes over on the weekends and helps me with my
bigger projects.
But now, with Finn and Bryce looking like fly-by-night contractors, watching a backhoe tear up concrete, eating ham sandwiches and swilling Gatorade,
they’re throwing around numbers like two billion. They’re speaking casually of
taking down this person or propping up that person, and how and why. There
are names I recognize from the news, mostly politicians and businessmen, occasionally celebrities, spoken of as if they’re dire enemies or good friends.
Oh, I realize belatedly. They are.
It’s surreal.
This man beside me is not the Finn I know. We live in a Midwestern city
where nothing really important happens and is far away from the centers of
power. He comes home almost every night for family dinner and bedtime rituals. He writes posts for my blog. He chats with my mother and when she’s feeling insecure about her role on Blundering, reassures her that what she has to say
is valuable. He’s civil to my dad, even though he’s never liked him. He doesn’t
brag, doesn’t consider himself better than we are, doesn’t drop these names he
and Bryce are discussing between themselves.
My dad drops names to impress Finn. It doesn’t. Now my dad’s moved into my periphery and I glance over at him. He’s scooting his camp chair closer to
Finn and Bryce to listen. I can’t tell what he’s thinking by his expression, but I
really don’t know him very well.

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It’s an odd admission to make. I’m thirty-four. He was always around until
I got married, and then the last year or so. How can I not know my dad?
Then Finn asks if Bryce’s wife is ready to go to work for him. Bryce laughs
and replies that’ll never happen.
I’ve seen Bryce’s wife around school, because their kid goes there, too, but
she doesn’t do PTA, doesn’t hang out with anybody, doesn’t talk to anybody.
She doesn’t even get out of her car in the pickup lane, and she sits there with her
head down, reading on her tablet. I see the Kenards at the school activities when
their kid’s participating, but even then she’s aloof and Bryce does the schmoozing. Some of my pals know her. They think she’s a stone-cold bitch. Every time
the subject comes up, I mention that she lends me her husband for my projects.
There are lots of weird rumors about her, but I don’t put much stock in
those, so I know very little about her. One thing I didn’t know was that she’s a
lawyer. That’s shocking enough, but to find out Finn wants to hire her is, well,
humbling, if not mortifying. Finn only hires lawyers he thinks might be able to
beat him in court and he’s especially partial to “stone-cold bitches” who have or
have the potential to beat him.
I could never do that. I’m not smart enough to get through law school. Getting a liberal arts degree with a B average was difficult enough, and I was embarrassed all the way through at what I didn’t know. I was thirty years old and
listening to my study groups packed with twenty-year-olds talking gravely about
“gerta” and “proof rock” and “neetchee” and “youth in Asia,” never knowing
what Asian kids had to do with anything, unable to figure it out from context,
and not daring to ask how to spell those to look them up later. Trying to fake
my way through iambic pentameter was torture.
Finn had to explain so very many things, including “Goethe,” “Prufrock,”
“Nietzsche,” and “euthanasia,” but he never laughed at me, never once made me
feel stupid while he was doing it. There was nothing about my schooling he
didn’t take seriously.
Twenty-year-olds sit and discuss these things as if they know what they’re talking
about. They don’t. It’s an educational pissing contest based on what their professors told
them, a way to make themselves feel smart and educated and special.
How do you know?
I sat through all that bullshit, too. I was the same age they were, but I was working, I
had a family already, and I had a rock-solid goal that didn’t include lofty poetry and social
justice. Take what you need from your classes and study groups and move on. The rest will

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come as your knowledge expands and you start getting curious.
I.T. was my academic refuge because, while it was difficult, it didn’t require
me to read things I didn’t understand, then try to glean themes and symbols and
metaphors from life experience I didn’t have. I was almost giddy when I realized
I had a little knack for computers, because I finally understood what my husband had done to support us all those years. I felt closer to him, closer to his
work, to his thought processes. It was a level of intimacy I could never have with
him unless I went to college.
He wanted me to.
I flat refused.
He believed I was smart enough.
I thought he was just saying that to make me feel better, and told him I
didn’t want to hear another word.
I regret that so much now.
But when I finally did get there, I took a lot of math and drafting because it
was relevant to my job. I took some accounting and graphics classes I knew
would come in handy. I also took classes that interested me whether or not they
had anything to do with anything at all. Now I scan the offerings at any number
of colleges around town and continuing education classes and learn more interesting things.
My gorgeously framed diploma hangs in a prominent spot in my living room.
It was hard-won, and one of very few real accomplishments I have to my name.
I have very rarely envied anyone. I wasn’t aware enough of my own lack or
others’ superiority to be envious. My parents had money. I was pretty. I married
an awesome guy. I have good kids. Few of the moms I hang out with have degrees or if they do, they don’t use them at all. Because I’m self-employed, I’m the
master of my own fate. Because I’m a widow and not a divorcée, I’m not accountable to anyone.
I have lived my life being the object of envy.
So listening to Finn extol the intellectual and legal prowess of Bryce’s wife is
a slap in the face. I haven’t felt like such a loser since English 101.
“I finally got her to think about opening up her bookstore again,” Bryce says.
“Oh yeah? I thought you weren’t going to push.”
He clucks. “When mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. She was coming
home in a bad mood and going to work the same way. Dunc thought he’d done
something to make her mad at him, so that’s when we had a little come-to-Jesus

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meeting.”
“She didn’t balk?”
He pauses. “She made a show of protesting, but she didn’t waste too much
time turning the reins over to her protégée. That said, she’ll never open up again.”
“I thought you just said—”
“All I wanted was for her to quit her job because she hated it and would rather work on her journals. The bookstore was bait. She’ll dither around, look
for retail space, draw up some plans, but it’ll never happen. Being married to a
retail store is one thing. Being married to a man and a retail store is an entirely
different thing. But for now she’s happy again. Dunc’s happy. I’m happy. So …
mission accomplished. I don’t know what she was trying to prove to whom, but
the hell of it is, neither does she.”
“Somebody else seems to have something to prove,” Finn says dryly, sliding
a glance at me. “I wish I knew what it is.”
“Stop pushing,” I say lightly, wanting only to get away from this conversation and the insecurity hitting me. But why, I wonder, would a lawyer who can
impress Finn want to open a bookstore? “What kind of bookstore?” I ask.
“Romance,” Bryce answers without a hint of a sneer.
Oh. Huh. I owe a couple of decent grades to romance novels. I couldn’t
have gotten through my history classes without those really old bodice rippers,
showing me where I was on the timeline in my textbooks, giving me points of
reference, bringing to life the dry textbook history. It was another struggling
student’s suggestion. “Everything from inspirational and religious to erotica. She
needs her happy endings and Prince Charmings.”
Wait, wut? The woman married to this guy—a “stone-cold bitch”—needs
romance novels? Srsly? And he’s okay with that? I don’t know any woman with
her head in the clouds like that, much less a lawyer. A lawyer Finn wants to hire.
I have to know, so I try to keep the envy and insecurity out of my voice.
“Why would she do that if she’s good at being a lawyer?”
“She hates law,” Bryce replies with alacrity. “It was something to kill time
and make money because she didn’t know what else to do and she didn’t have a
penny to her name and she didn’t want to float around from dead-end job to
dead-end job just to survive. She told herself she liked it and she even believed
that for a while, but it beat her down.”
“No,” Finn corrects, “she beat me straight out of law school and the fire in
her belly went out.”

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She beat Finn?!
“She never had the fire in her belly,” Bryce corrects back, “and I knew she’d
do that. It just so happened that she was pissed at me when she gave her closing.
She gets amazingly eloquent when she’s pissed off.”
Finn starts. “Oh. Huh.”
“She might have gone another round, but all she really needed was to know
she could do it. It’s like everything else she’s done since we’ve been married, stuff
she liked to begin with but started to resent as soon as she succeeded at it.
Nothing she’s done has made her happy over the long haul.”
“Her first bookstore burned down,” Finn explains to me. “She’s still grieving.”
I look at my house again. No, this bold red beauty isn’t my One True Love,
but she is my Bestie. I would certainly grieve if she burned down after I’ve built
my life with her.
I love what I do, and I can’t imagine spending that much time going into an
entire profession I didn’t really want in the first place. I fell into my job while I
was going to school to make me semi-functional for the real world and ended up
loving it.
Then again, I don’t have to work at all. I have no idea what it’s like to struggle to survive, much less when a dream’s been stolen and there is nothing left to
look forward to. At one time, Bryce’s wife was the same as the people in my
audience. There are a whole lot of very well-educated dirt-poor people who follow my blog so I wouldn’t have envied her education because I would have seen
it as worthless if she couldn’t make a living with it.
Now I do envy it because the playing field has been leveled. I’m the only
woman in my social circle who works at all, much less has her own business. If I
didn’t, I’d be expected to be on the society and volunteer and charity fundraising
and alumnus circuits like the rest of them. I can barely manage my PTA duties,
which, I will admit, are quite a lot.
I can’t shut up. “Shouldn’t she be … I don’t know. In the Junior League or
something?”
“She built our charity from the ground up,” Bryce tells me.
Yes, the Kenard Burn Victim Foundation. My PTA pals don’t bother raising funds for that one because they don’t like Giselle. They excuse themselves
by saying it’s already very well funded, which is true. It bothers me they don’t
even try to pretend it’s not about Giselle.
“Then she ran it because she thought I wanted her to, but I never said that.

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Too many people needed too much from her and she was completely drained.
Reading and talking about books charges her up, makes her happy, but that’s
what book clubs are for.”
I sigh. No wonder she doesn’t bother with our little PTA. Our rinky-dink
fundraisers can’t hope to compete. And she’d rather read romance novels anyway.
“Yeah, it’s too late for the bookstore now because she has me and Dunc,
but she has her life’s work staring her in the face. I want her to dig into that because it makes her happy, so I gave her an excuse to quit the job she hated. She’ll
be able to spend more time on herself and work the bookstore nostalgia out of
her system at the same time.”
“You can’t go home again,” Finn says.
Bryce snorts. “Says the guy who’s nostalgic for what he never had.”
I wince because it’s true, but Finn just laughs.
“Well, what is her life’s work?” I ask, totally invested in this train wreck like
a looky-loo.
“Giselle’s several-greats-grandparents,” Finn tells me, “were pirates.”
Make it stop. Please God make it stop.
“Her grandmother,” Bryce says, “was a prolific journalist. Fen Hilliard
spent some time in Holland when he was young, found one of her journals in a
rare book shop, and an obsession was born. He spent his life searching the
world for them all and left them to Giselle in his will. As rare books, they’re
worth millions. As a piece of history, they’re priceless. Giselle’s transcribing the
ones written in English and coordinating getting the others transcribed. There
are a lot of them. It’ll take her the rest of her life to do that and get them preserved. We had a bit of a problem finding someone who could read eighteenthcentury Arabic written in eighteenth-century penmanship.”
I can hear the pride in Bryce’s voice when he talks about her. He wants to
talk about her, show her off, as if getting bored and moving from one major
thing to another is itself something to be proud of. To me, it’s a waste, being
good at a thing and not doing it. People in my audience would kill to be pretty
good at any one of those things, and to just walk away …
I think it’s— Well, my mom would say it’s shameful.
That’s not the only reason I’m miserable. I wish I had an adoring husband
who wanted to brag on me. I did, once upon a time, if I’d had anything to brag
about, but breastfeeding and keeping an immaculate house are hardly bragworthy. No amount of approving comments on my blog or YouTube channel

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or Instagram accounts can make up for that.
And now here I am watching my porch get demolished by a Bobcat I
should be operating. Why didn’t I do this myself? Bragging rights.
If I had anyone to brag on me.
I’m about to cry.
“Still don’t know if we got ’em all,” Bryce continues absently after a swig of
Gatorade. “There are some missing dates.”
“Hey, I’ll look in my attic,” Finn says.
My heart immediately begins ramming my ribcage, my intellect or lack
thereof suddenly not my biggest problem. “Why would they be there?” I ask
lightly.
“I find a lot of weird things up in his attic,” Finn tells me. “He was a prolific
journalist, too.”
“You read ’em?” Bryce asked.
Finn nods. “A peek into a marginally schizophrenic mind. He was a tortured soul, poor bastard. Thing is, half of everybody in town suspected he
wasn’t quite right in the head, but he presented as sane. He was a brilliant businessman and manager. He had lots of philanthropic projects. He was just a little off, you know?”
“He wasn’t always like that,” Bryce says. “He started getting worse toward
the end. Not thinking things through. His chess game went to pot.”
“Is Knox like that?”
Bryce hesitates. “He’s had psychotic breaks, yeah. But they were traumainduced. He hasn’t had one since Fen shot him and he’s not on medication, so … ”
I have no idea what this conversation is about, nor do I care. Now the only thing I care about is that Finn goes up into his attic, apparently quite frequently, and rummages around. My boxes aren’t marked, but I know exactly
where I put them and what each item is in them. God, I hope he doesn’t start
opening my boxes.
Yet they’re safest where they are. I’m going to have to think about whether
to roll the dice with Finn’s explorations or get a storage unit. Hell, I have a storage unit for scrap lumber, so I could—
The problem is suddenly asking Finn if I can fetch them. He knows me too
well. He’ll know I have an ulterior motive because I don’t have anywhere to put
them in my house and I don’t care to have my stuff in a place where, if I forget
to pay a bill (God forbid), my most precious material possession would be at

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someone else’s mercy.
If he thinks I have an ulterior motive, it wouldn’t be above him to open
them to find out what’s in them. On the other hand, he might anyway because
he doesn’t know they’re mine.
Thankfully, the conversation dwindles to nothing as the backhoe starts
picking up slabs of concrete and dumping them. My Bestie is now bare from the
top of the first floor to the top of the eight-foot stone foundation, from corner
to the center of the house, and with the thrill of seeing her history, thoughts of
my history fade. There’s rotting hundred-year-old wood hiding behind that
back porch addition, which I expected, because that’s what the rest of the house
had. I’ll re-sheathe, put up the housewrap and flashing before the ledger boards
get attached.
Once the deck floor is laid, I’ll put French doors smack in the middle of the
house, then weave in the red fiber cement siding to match the rest of the house.
Finn casts me a glance and I raise my eyebrow at him. He didn’t have to be
told what else this deck entails. He knew before I showed him my plans.
He sighs.
The backhoe’s finished for the moment and the dump truck with the gravel
backs down into my driveway with high-pitched reverse beeps. The younger
males gather around to watch this giant truck dump tons of gravel on my lawn.
They’re entranced.
“That looks like a lot more than you need,” Finn says dubiously.
“Are you questioning my calculations?” I ask archly, turning a scathing
glance on him because I’m still feeling insecure and stupid.
He drops his face in his palm and massages his temple. “No,” he says wearily.
He knows I’m angry, but not why. He’ll ask me later, and I’ll tell him, and
he’ll say— Well, I don’t know what he’ll say.
The backhoe clears the area for the pad and driveway extension-slashturnout, digs trenches in which we’ll pour the footings then back fill, then deposits the gravel. He’s done.
We put in the concrete forms for the footings and start leveling the gravel.
Old heavy metal is pounding and we stop talking while we work to the rhythm
of Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC, and Iron Maiden. I’m not paying attention to
anything until Finn says,
“Knock off. We’re done for the day.”
I’m shocked, but then I look at the sun, then at my helpers.

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Yeah, they’re done and, I realize, so am I.
We’re eating the pizza I ordered when Ryan’s friends’ parents, worried
when they didn’t come home (and angry because not one of them answered
their phones or texts), trickle down into the back yard. They’re clearly shocked
that their kids are exactly where they said they’d be. They look at their sons in
amazement when Finn and I tell them what they’ve done today. Quickly.
Without complaint.
I can empathize.
Tragically, Bryce’s wife also shows up. I really don’t need to have her in my
space.
I’ve never seen her this close up. I know she’s quite a bit older than I am, but
she doesn’t look it. She’s pretty, with pale blonde hair streaked an impossible auburn that falls smoothly to the middle of her back. She’s in great shape, somehow
making a simple white tank, olive cargos, and white Birks look haute couture.
Maybe I’m projecting.
Duncan sees her and runs to her with a squealed, “Mommy!” She grins,
cries, “There’s my baby!” and swings him up in her arms. Bryce approaches her
and bends to kiss her. Lewdly.
I don’t need to see that.
“Hey, Finn!” she calls with a smile and a wave.
“Hey back. When are you going to come work for me?”
He’s still on that?
“Never! I like kicking your ass too much to work for you.”
He laughs. “I let you win.”
“Whatever helps you sleep at night.”
I was trying to forget that, and I turn away, my eyes stinging, only to find
Finn watching me speculatively. There are a lot of things I don’t need right now,
and that look is one of them.
It’s nine by the time everyone leaves. Gwen’s boyfriend drags himself off
with an incoherent grunt. My parents drive away with a jaunty wave. Gwen,
Ryan, and Kaia go take showers and drop into bed. Only Calvin is still awake
but he’s dragging too.
I’m hot, sticky, tired, and sore, but it’s the good kind. The kind where you
aren’t so bad off you can’t take a hot shower before you fall into bed.
Finn and I sit on my couch after we’ve showered. We’re yawning, our feet
are up on the coffee table, and each of us has a beer.

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“Talk to me,” Finn says gruffly.
I pour it out. Why not? There are very few things this man doesn’t know
about me and those are all connected to what he doesn’t know about Darren
(and never will). Then I’m done and by the time I’m done, my voice has risen
and I … I don’t recognize myself.
He sits quietly throughout, listening to me as he’s always done. In the silence, I blurt out a few more things, things I’ve already said but am compelled to
say a different way.
Finally, in one of my longer silences between outbursts, he takes a breath
and says, “Blythe, there are a lot of things I respect about Giselle Kenard, but
the collection of letters behind her name is definitely not one of them.”
“What collection? J and D?”
“And PhD.”
My nose starts to sting and I look away to cry.
“Eighteenth-centchry Brtsh litrachah,” he says in a lofty faux British accent.
But I hear something in his voice, something subtle, something he occasionally directs at my children. I turn my head back to listen but I keep my eyes
on the floor. It’s not dark enough to hide my tears.
“Do you remember,” he muses, “when you were taking all those unrelated
classes just because they intrigued you? I told you not to become a perpetual
student.”
“Yes,” I say low.
“I have no use for that. Yes, she’s brilliant. Yes, she beat me in court once.
But you heard that conversation. She’s spent most of the last fifteen years floating around in an existential haze.”
He really doesn’t respect that. “She had a bookstore.”
“Fifteen years ago,” he says dryly. “Now, there was a period of about five
years or so her family needed her to pull them through a crisis, which she
couldn’t have done if she’d still had her bookstore. So I can’t really hold that one
against her. But instead of accepting that that phase of her life is over, instead of
grieving and moving on, she does stuff to keep herself from having her memories tainted. She’s protecting something that doesn’t need to be protected if
she’d just move on. Why? Because she’s afraid.
“You, on the other hand,” he goes on, oblivious to the fact that my spirit’s
lightening up a little. I think I’ve identified his tone. “Are fearless. You have clarity, goals, purpose, and happiness. You have the fire in your belly, and there is

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nothing that can put it out. You would never walk away from Blundering if this
house burnt down. Yes, I hate that you live in your job site, but living in it is an
act of courage.”
I wouldn’t go that far, but he is speaking from experience. He was nineteen
when he’d begun rehabbing the house he’d taken from his father, all the while
living in it with his eighteen-year-old wife, his newborn son, and his mother.
He’d done it alone, and it took him seven years. His goal was to have it done by
the time he graduated from law school.
Finn has never missed a goal or deadline.
“You got through school in a reasonable amount of time.” He’d kept talking
while I was spacing out. “And you had a good time doing it. Everything you’ve
done, everything you’ve achieved since Darren died, you’ve found joy in. You
grieve. You move on. You don’t even have to look for happiness. It finds you,
and you make everyone around you happy. That is a rare quality, and I respect
you for it. There is nothing about you I don’t respect.”
God, I’m going to cry again.
Finn isn’t demonstrative nor does he express his feelings much. He chugs
along, mostly relaxed and amused, occasionally frustrated or discouraged, rarely
angry, often charged up with excitement at a challenge or a win. He can express
these things easily when necessary; it just doesn’t occur to him to do so.
I don’t know what to say to all these things he tells me about me, matter-offactly, as if he doesn’t intend to flatter me or express approval. It just is.
“You’re disappointed in her?” I ask carefully because I need confirmation of
what I’m hearing in his voice.
He looks down and fiddles with the label of his beer. “No,” he says. My
stomach sinks. “I’m fucking pissed as hell at her.”
My mouth drops open.
“Wasting her talent as a litigator on romance novels,” he sneers, “and fairy tales.”
Oh. “But … if that’s her joy … ”
He waves a hand and sits up a little. “I know, I know. I just contradicted
myself. She’s had a hard life and she deserves to be happy, the same way you
do. But you can’t make a living reading novels and you can’t chain yourself to a
retail business if the only thing you want to do is read all day. She’ll resent it
and then her memories will crash and burn. She has two competing goals and
she’s afraid of both.
“I’d respect her more if she just said, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to read all day,’ but I

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know her and she’d start resenting that, too. She has one passion, but she feels
guilty about it because she sees it as an indulgence. But so what if it is? People
get paid a lot of money to do what she’s doing with those journals, and just because she’s not getting paid doesn’t make it less valuable. But getting paid for it
would take the magic away.”
Suddenly, I feel like I have something in common with her. My house is
my job and I’m fortunate to be able to make a living wage with a job I love.
But I wouldn’t want to be paid for my calligraphy; it’s a tiny indulgence I treat
myself with.
I totally get that. I’m even empathetic. If I put all her other things in that
context, I can mostly understand it.
“Trust me, you have nothing to be envious of. You aren’t in any way inferior
to her. So stop it.”
I know that’s his final word on the subject, but I don’t have any more words
either, and he clicks on the TV and scrolls through until he gets to a commercial I think is funny. He pauses so I can watch it, but when it’s over and he starts
flipping channels again, I say, “Wait. Go back.”
It takes me a minute. “Oh, Dracula.”
“Which one?”
“Francis Ford Coppola. Have you seen it?”
“Naw,” he grunts. He sits back and turns the side table light off.
It’s starting at the part where Keanu Reeves is riding in the black coach
that’s heading around the cliffs toward Dracula’s castle, and somehow we get
caught up in it.
We’re silent, not touching, beers forgotten as we watch. I’d seen this movie
but it’s now over twenty years old and I don’t remember anything about it except Gary Oldman’s Romanian accent and gray silk top hat.
I certainly don’t remember it being so … erotic.
If I’d been alone, I’d have enjoyed it, enjoyed being aroused, because I am,
almost unbearably.
But now, sitting beside my father-in-law, I’ve gone from being embarrassed
at my relative lack of education to embarrassed about being aroused— My father-in-law! Good Lord. I fake a yawn and mutter, “Hate to kick you out, but I
can’t keep my eyes open anymore.”
“Yeah,” he says, standing, pointing the remote and clicking it off. “I’m
bored. See you tomorrow.”

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“Thanks for the pep talk.”
“Anytime.”
He locks up the house and lets himself out.
When I’m sure he’s gone, I pick up the movie where the hot stuff starts
happening. I moan when Mina does, almost come when she does, and generally
make an ass of myself—and I’m the only witness to it.
Sunday morning I wake up on the couch with my hand between my legs.
This is my life. Getting off to twenty-five-year-old soft-core porn masquerading as cinema art.
I sigh and slap my hand over my face in resigned mortification, embarrassed
for myself enough to cluck in disdain. If I had pearls on, I’d clutch them.
I sure as hell hope Finn didn’t suspect I was hot and bothered, especially after I’d admitted I wouldn’t kick his bestie out of bed and I’m envious of the wife.
But if Finn did notice or suspect, I hope he’s too much of a gentleman to say
anything.
God, I hope Finn didn’t notice.

4:
BRIDES OF DRACULA
FINN

Francis Ford Coppola needs to die.
I haven’t had sex in two years. That was during my last attempt at a relationship, before I found out Angie didn’t live in St. Louis, wasn’t relocating to
Kansas City, and was married. She let that last one slip while I was mid-thrust. I
dumped her ass out of bed. Literally. Then she told me her husband was the
managing partner of a firm that represents a company I sue on a regular basis.
Like that would make it okay!
I was so pissed off I stalked across my bedroom, grabbed my money clip,
and stuffed a couple hundred bucks in her hand. She threw it back in my face,
then slapped me. I slapped her back and made her call her own cab while I
stood over her.
Look, I never make a mistake twice, and the fact that Miriam always resented me for taking her innocence, her youth, her life, is always with me. I deserved it.
So I don’t fuck around with married women. Angie knew that, but she lied
to me because she was going to get what she wanted. I tell every woman I’m
interested in right up front that I don’t do married women and I’m not coy
about it. I can deal with most of the baggage a woman brings to the table because I’ve got enough of my own.
But there are some things I refuse to put up with. Lying, cheating. Addiction. Idiocy. I can pick out the last two fairly quickly, but sometimes I’m not as
discerning as I should be with the first two.
Honestly, I stop trying to discern anything about the time I’m so horny I’d
bang a hole in a tree just to get some relief.

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Miriam and I may not have had the happy-happy-joy-joy marriage our kids
do, and our sex life was … dutiful. Sparse. Relatively speaking. But we were
content even under the shadow of our history and later in our marriage, when
the kids were older and off doing their thing, we did manage to have spectacular
sex a couple of times. It shocked us both.
She stuck with me in spite of what I’d done. She made a home for me. She
was kind to my mother. She gave me three awesome kids and instilled in them
good values. She warmly welcomed our children-in-law into our family and
made their landings as smooth as possible. No, we weren’t in love. We did grow
to love each other, but that was a gift of time. It was a quiet love and we were
content with each other. It was more than I deserved.
I truly grieved when she died and I missed her. I missed her quiet presence
in the house, filling it with warmth and light and cozy little touches.
I never cheated on her. I was tempted. Boy, was I tempted. But I never so
much as let on to anyone that I was thinking about it.
That’s not how it’s done in my social circles.
But Miriam taught our kids to be straight arrows and she put the fear of
God into our sons if they ever took advantage of a girl, pressed one into sex, did
anything to a girl that was anything shy of perfect respect, even if the girl didn’t
deserve it. She taught my daughter to distrust every word out of a teenage
male’s mouth. Adult males, too.
I didn’t mind the jab, if it was one, but I was never sure. I taught my daughter everything I knew about what a man would say to get in her pants and how
to kill that conversation. I knew a lot about that. I also taught her how to kill a
few other things if he didn’t back off, and held up my dad as a prime example of
what not to get involved with. As for my sons, I was a little uncomfortable (okay,
a lot) with Miriam demanding they be as virtuous as any Catholic schoolgirl, but
who was I to argue?
Keeping your zipper closed and your dick under control is one of those little life lessons many men never learn.
People thought we were religious, but we weren’t. Never had a church, never felt the need for one. I like to think I matured into a fairly moral man without
having the fear of eternal damnation beaten into me, but my old man beat into
me what I didn’t want to be.
So Darren married Blythe the second she turned eighteen. I pitied him for
his sexual ignorance, hers too, but to my mind, it was better than being eighteen

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with a pregnant girlfriend and no life skills. I also objected to his choice of wife,
but there was no way in hell I was going to say a word about it. Whatever I
thought of Blythe back then, Darren must have seen something in her nobody
else did and produced four great kids with her, certainly more than I expected
she or the kids would be.
Jessica was equally wise in her choice of husband and now they have two little ones. Although Seth, an artist, hasn’t been able to get any traction in the fine
art circle, he makes quite a bit of money as a freelance graphic designer while
doing everything a stay-at-home parent does. That’s not good enough for him.
He wants to be in a high-end gallery. A name. I want that for him, too, but not
because he’s my daughter’s husband. He’s that good and I respect his ambition.
I’ve bought a few pieces from him and put them in my office building, but I
can’t be his only fine-art client because at some point, gallery owners will dismiss him as my dilettante son-in-law and nothing I say about the quality of his
work will be considered valid.
Jessie’s not cut out for staying at home with the kids, doing housework,
having some part-time gig, or all three. She got a master’s degree in a field she
loves and she’s the main breadwinner for the family, which includes their health
insurance. Miriam would have been horrified at their role reversal, but I can’t
find fault with an efficient and effective division of labor. The problem is that
she and Seth collectively make so much money, their tax bite is crippling. Their
ramshackle house is paid for so they can’t claim the deduction, but it’s such a
moneypit they can’t afford to fix it properly or sell it and buy something better.
Jessica has declined Blythe’s offers to repair and update it and I have no idea
why, because Blythe will turn it into a blog project and make money on it. She’s
not offering out of the kindness of her art. To her, it would be a fair trade, but
to Jessica it’s charity. Between Jessica and Seth’s piece-of-shit house, their collective student loans, and their car payments, they’re living paycheck to paycheck
like the rest of the country.
I’ve also offered to help her out, and though she declines (because she’s always
had to prove something to me), I insist on paying her kids’ tuition and expenses to
go to the same school my other grandkids attend because I refuse to let them be in
the Kansas City School District. Jessica protests occasionally to assuage her pride,
but I pretend to be an autocrat and she pretends to be forced into it.
Then there’s my youngest, Ken. I chuckle. Good guy. Three children there.
Ken’s an accountant. Quiet. Unassuming. Funny as hell to those who can catch

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his dry humor and obscure references. Goes to work, does his thing, does it well
and honestly, and comes home. He didn’t take his gifts nearly as far as Darren
did, but that’s not his personality and I don’t hold that against him or compare
the two. His wife’s a harried CEO of a small startup here on the silicon prairie
spawned by Google Fiber. Her firm is digging itself out of the red at lightning
speed, but Ken’s job provides the family’s health insurance and pays the bills. Yes,
Christie’s brilliant but she’s a complete airhead. Trying to have a conversation
with her about something she’s not interested in is like trying to nail Jell-O to a
tree, especially when she’s busy ogling Ken. Ken’s adept at nailing Jell-O to a tree.
That’s my boy.
But when Christie’s interested in something, when she’s on—she’s on. She’s
so on, I made her the executor of my estate. That’s how much faith I have in her
devotion to my son and her ability to bully lawyers into doing what she wants
them to do. My colleagues think I’m nuts, putting my daughter-in-law in charge
of my estate, but I’m not a complete idiot. Christie may be in charge of my estate, but Bryce is in charge of Christie.
Yes, Miriam and I did well. Very well. Especially considering how we started out.
Soon after Miriam died, it occurred to me I was free. Free to find a woman
I could fall in love with, and whom I could fuck until my dick broke. Sex, good
sex, lots of it. Yes, I did want to fall in love, something I didn’t have with Miriam, but at that moment, I just craved a woman’s touch, her naked body next to
mine, her hands in my hair and her nails in my back.
So I practically overdosed on beautiful young soulless law school grads
bursting with rapacious greed. I was finally sated enough to think about what I
really wanted for the long haul, which didn’t include the women I’d been fucking.
I didn’t go out and randomly pick up women at cocktail parties. I set my
boundaries, recited them to myself a few times until they were set in stone, and
then picked up women my own age at cocktail parties with laser precision.
I’ve been widowed eight years. I got burned a couple of times, thinking I
was in love, but she wasn’t in love with me. So was I really in love or was I in
love with love? I don’t know. I decided that since my goal was marriage, I needed to hold off on the sex until I’d spent a little time with any given woman. By
the time we did have sex, we were both on DEFCON 5 and exploded.
I had three relationships that could have been permanent had I been willing
to abandon Blythe and the kids. Or at least, not spend as much time with them.

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There is no way in hell I’ll abandon my son’s wife and children for a woman
who’d demand something like that, no matter how good the conversation and
sex are. And they did demand it.
Bye bye, Eva, Jeanne, and Nora.
Angie was budding relationship number four.
I stopped trying after that.
Now here I am in my quiet house, alone, lying in bed watching Dracula,
starting from where Blythe and I left off. I’m fifty-six years old and I’m jacking
off to Coppola’s mess of a film. I had to get away from Blythe because I was
embarrassed as hell, having a hard-on at bad soft porn right next to my daughter-in-law. She’d think I was a pervy old man and never let me near the kids
again.
Which also means I wouldn’t be eating dinner there every night anymore.
I come all over my hand. How does a guy come all over his hand without
noticing he’s about to? I’m halfway through a shit movie, not quite at the part
where Gary Oldman gets Winona Ryder off, and I come without noticing.
I’m thinking about Blythe, for God’s sake.

5:
COOKIE PRESS
BLYTHE

FINN: ur getting hammered
Hello Captain Obvious
FINN: lol

I finally get around to reading the comments on my first deck blog post and
purse my lips. I read more. Sigh. Srsly, these people are vicious.
“What’s wrong?” Finn asks absently where he sits next to me at the dining
room table typing steadily on his laptop. My parents have gone home and the
kids are in bed.
“Entitled brats,” I mutter, unhappy. “I get one email from a guy who begs
me to do the deck because he needs me to, but out of almost five hundred
comments, a good half of them are busting my chops for posting a project they
don’t need and couldn’t afford even if they did.”
“Mmm hmm.”
That’s the only sympathy I’m going to get out of him. He never said I don’t
think that’s a good idea but he never does. He objects to my priorities and where
they overlap his, which is to get us out of this house. But he went along with it
anyway. He goes along with whatever I want to do with little commentary, but
sometimes I wish he’d break out the magic words.
“Say it,” I growl.
“Told you so,” he says vaguely and continues to type.
I accelerated the project in spite of my agenda and its timeline because I felt

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sorry for someone. It’s the same reason Finn makes the children do the dishes: I
can’t be trusted not to fall for the “I’m tired”s and “I have to go to the bathroom”s and “I plucked my eyebrows and I hurt too much”s.
Gwen tried that one once.
Finn roared with laughter and, in tears because he couldn’t stop laughing,
made her do the kitchen by herself.
I push the laptop away and drop my head on my arms. I’m about to cry and
it’s been a while since I did that.
“It’ll blow over,” he grunts. “Kilz and concrete cover a myriad of sins, even a
tiny career miscalculation.”
I want to laugh. It’s funny. But I’m so discouraged.
Then I gasp and sit up.
“The sound of the cogs starting to turn,” he intones.
“Yes!”
“Does this mean I can sleep in Saturday?”
“Nope. The deck goes on.”
I open up Photoshop and start working on my graphic. Then I make another subdirectory in my domain and install WordPress. The rest of the
work—transferring the deck project to a side blog—will have to wait until my
admin days when I edit photos, queue more blog posts, schedule giveaways, and
catch up on paperwork, receipts, bills, and invoices.
“I think,” I murmur absently, “I’m going to train Posey to do some of my
other blog stuff.”
“Good idea. Sharp kid.”
“Uh huh. Halloween’s coming up. You need cookies?”
“Please,” he breathes as if I had just saved his life. “A couple of platters?”
“No problem.”
“Thank you, Blythe. I appreciate it.”
What “a couple of platters” means is enough cookies to feed a skyscraper
full of people. I love baking cookies and mine are the best in town. It’s a fair
trade. You build a deck for me, I bake cookies for you.
That’s not really why I offer.
It’s because he’s so sincerely grateful. It’s amazing what people will do if you
let them know how much you appreciate them and their efforts.
Yes, he’s the owner of the firm, the head dog, the only big name on the
door: Marston PC, with a bunch of little names underneath his. You can barely

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read them they’re so tiny. But he’s also a decent boss, particularly for a law firm.
He does random nice things for his employees and surprising them with my
cookies is one of them.
Nothing he does for me is random, from the moment he’d taken over the
business of burying my husband.
Dozens of faceless, nameless people swam by me at Darren’s visitation, saying things I’d never remember in sad tones, not knowing I’d never remember
them. My mother buzzed around my bedroom telling me what to do, what to
wear because I couldn’t stop staring at the wall. Food piled up on the kitchen
counters, so she told my father to direct traffic in and out of my house. Solicitous men in black suits asked me questions I couldn’t answer.
Finn took care of them for me while my mother herded and comforted the
children after she dressed me. Grief wasn’t my only problem and it wasn’t
strong enough to crowd out the stress and fear Darren and I had been living
with for four years.
But people have lives and they drift away after the initial mourning is over.
Even my parents did, to go back to their lives of cruising and going down to the
Lake of the Ozarks a few times a summer.
Finn never left me. When nothing strange happened to me or my kids, my
fear gradually went away.
So baking a couple-three hundred dozen cookies for three or four office
parties a year is the least I can do.
“Your mom and dad gonna be here for Christmas?”
“I think they’re going down to Branson.”
“Of course they are,” Finn mutters. “I’m shutting my office down the last
two weeks of the year.”
“Everybody? With pay?”
“Yep.”
“Aw, that’s sweet.”
“So why don’t you and the kids come over when school’s out and stay?”
I’m torn. I’d love two weeks at Finn’s house. It’s almost like a vacation. On
the other hand, I put a lot of effort into decorating for Christmas and to spend
Christmas somewhere else seems anticlimactic.
“I dunno. We have our traditions. New jammies and Christmas movies on
Christmas Eve. Why don’t you come over here and then we can go to your
house for Christmas dinner? I mean, I know the Futon sucks, but—”

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“There is no way in hell I’m going to spend Christmas Eve and morning
here. Especially if I have to sleep on that fucking Futon. Blythe—”
I groan. “Finn, don’t start. There is nothing wrong with this house except
for my bedroom, which nobody sees.”
He ignores me, dropping his hands on the table and looking at me with
those intense blue eyes that had me completely cowed until Darren died, after
which I was too numb to notice and had more important things to fear than my
scary father-in-law. “Move in with me.”
I open my mouth but he raises his voice to talk right over me, as he does.
“Since I’m not allowing any of this shit furniture in my house, your audience would never know you’re not living here while you’re working on it. It’s a
fucking pigsty and I don’t know how you can stand to live this way.”
I’m furious for, oh, so many reasons and the adrenalin surges. “First, it’s not
a pigsty, fucking or otherwise,” I say low in my throat. “But it’s nice to know
what you really think about my work.”
“Arrrghh!” His frustration’s been bubbling up faster and more often lately,
but so has mine and I hurt deep in my chest. “That’s not what I meant!”
“And I’m not going to lie to my audience,” I continue to growl. “Thank you
for the offer. Again. And thank you for tolerating my eccentricity—”
“Blythe!”
“—but if I want to live somewhere else, I’ll buy my own house and maybe I’ll
send you a change of address card. And you can take Christmas and shove it up
your butt.” I clap my laptop shut and storm across the living room, then storm
up two flights of stairs and into my bedroom. I slam the door a little harder
than I meant to, but this is the last straw.
All the blog comments and then Finn jumping down my throat over the
same thing, just from a different end. I lean back against my door and look up at
the ceiling. I start to cry and then I bend over to tuck my face in my hands.
I don’t expect the soft tap on my door. I didn’t hear the stairs creak.
“Blythe.”
I don’t answer. But since my butt’s against the door, it doesn’t budge.
“I’m sorry.”
“If you don’t like it here, don’t come over,” I snarl, expecting some quip
about only coming by for the food.
“I come over because I love you.”
My heart stops. Then restarts immediately. God, how stupid can I be, think-

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ing he meant— Of course he loves me. I’m his son’s wife. His grandchildren
are here and he adores them. We’re family. If he didn’t love us, he wouldn’t have
stuck with me all these years.
It’s just … The last time a man said that to me was the day Darren walked
out the door to go to work and never came home again.
He sighs and then I hear the squeaky stair treads. I’d fix all those squeaks
and creaks, but I like knowing which child is where.
After a while I hear the click of locks, the front door opening and closing,
the click of that lock, and the roar of his expensive engine.
FINN: hows ur day?
I’m cleaning my fucking pigsty.
FINN: I apologized. What do you want?

No one notices the tension at dinner the next night. Gwen’s texting. Ryan’s
reading some jock’s biography. Calvin’s twirling … something … in the air and
watching it as if mesmerized, humming something about raining tacos. Kaia’s
telling my mom all about her day. My dad’s chowing down as usual and trying
to get Finn’s attention, but Finn’s spaced out and toying with his food. I’m toying with the idea of telling him to take his cookies and shove ’em up there with
Christmas, and maybe adding his deck-building skills for good measure.
I don’t dare bring up the fact that I’m getting hate email over the deck. I’m
trying to do something good here and make a living at the same time. Why can’t
they just go with the flow? Or stop reading? Not only that, but today’s post had
been on how to deal with stubborn under-sink cabinet stains. It involved peeland-stick vinyl tile. Cheap, easy, good-looking. I made a groaner of a joke about
prostitutes, which now has my defenders from the deck project berating me for
making an off-color joke on a family blog.
My admin day’s tomorrow, though, and I am going to get the deck project
broken off onto its own blog before I go to bed tomorrow night.
Finn’s mad at me for not accepting his apology and he will be for a few days,
but I’m really mad. My house was a pigsty. It had to be. That was the entire point.
It’s not now, except for my bedroom and the yard, and I resent him for continuing to see this house the way it looked when we first moved in.

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Finn and I argue occasionally. Once or twice this past year the arguments
have been so bad we didn’t speak to each other for a few days. Not in person,
anyway. Texting is habit.
pick ryan up from school plz
FINN: fine

Even when the only thing we have to say is busy or whatever or fine.
FINN: going home after work
whatevs

There are never apologies. He thinks he’s right. I think I’m right. Neither
one of us is budging. There is only truce and after a few days of being mad at
each other, the anger fades away.
Except … he apologized last night. And again in text. In normal English,
not text shorthand. Why?
I come over because I love you.
Well, I love him, too, but our arguments are getting more frequent. They’re
always about the same things. I don’t know what’s happening because we’ve
never been this contentious. God help me if I let it slip why I’m delaying getting
the house done. He’ll go ballistic when I tell him my next project involves a
crumbling mansion whose owner is suffocating under its weight but won’t cut
his losses.
I talked to the poor guy yesterday. He’s trying to rebuild the chimney by
himself and he doesn’t have a clue.
You’ll have to come up with more than that. I spent a quarter of that on the foundation alone.
And that’s one thing I wanted to know.
Okay, well, if you change your mind, let me know.
I could have sworn he was about to give me a higher number to start the
negotiations, but he didn’t.
He will eventually.
“Blythe.”

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I look up at Finn. He looks tired. His face is slightly tanned, a bit craggy.
His eyes are still as intensely blue. His hair is blond—dyed, but his original color. It’s for court because I’d told him he was definitely no silver fox. If I noticed
and hated it enough to say something, juries definitely wouldn’t like it. His jury
consultant confirmed it. So he keeps his hair dyed and nobody really knows or
cares how old he is because he looks … timeless.
But right now, when he looks at me that way, his mouth turned down, his
eyes tired, he looks every year of his fifty-six. I’m sorry, he mouths.
I sigh, roll my eyes, nod slightly, and look down at my plate. This is where
the truce starts.
He offers.
I accept.
Until the next blowup.

6:
POP OF COLOR
FINN
BLYTHE: be late getting home from school
kk

I’m not sure why Blythe and I have been at each other’s throats so much lately, but I don’t like it. There’s something just the slightest bit wrong, but I can’t
put my finger on it.
I let myself into DIY Shithole after work the next evening and I’m still
thinking about how badly I blundered two nights before. It’s quiet. Blythe has
gone to pick up the kids, but she’ll be a while because she likes to chat with the
other moms in her neverending quest to find a BFF.
She really craves some female companionship, a confidante, and playmate
to give back to her what she gives her school chums. She’ll never get one out of
her milieu, though. They take whatever she’s willing to give without a thought
that she needs something in return. Those women don’t commune, even with
women they call BFFs.
I have Bryce. She has no one and she never has, not even when she was in
high school.
Sometimes we get what we want but not what we need.
I hang my suit jacket up in the hall closet and stow my laptop bag there
with it, yank my tie off, roll up my sleeves. It’s what I always do when I walk in
the door.
… it’s nice to know what you really think about my work …
What’s to think about? She’s a professional. It damn well better be good

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work.
I turn around to walk through the living room to the dining room and stop
cold. I don’t remember it like this, which, I must concede, is precisely her point.
The perfectly smooth walls are a rich, dark purple about seven-eighths the
way up the ten-foot walls until the light maple stained moulding interrupts.
Above the moulding it’s white, and the smooth white ceiling is dotted with perfectly positioned can lights. There’s an abstract modernist chandelier in the
middle of the ceiling, the dangly bits of which are made of mother of pearl. The
moulding is all gleaming light maple, as is the floor, accented by a solid red rug.
The mantel, too, is maple and above it hangs a reproduction Picasso on a
stretched canvas that hides the flat screen TV. The drapes are a deep red with
thin white linen underneath.
The sofa facing the fireplace and flanking chairs are midcentury modern in
patchwork purple and red microfiber. The coffee table is Danish modern. The
walls are tastefully littered with family snapshots and children’s art framed in
white. Her college diploma, elaborately matted and framed, hangs in a spot she
can see from her place at the head of the dining room table.
This scheme continues into the dining room, separated by one-foot-deep
quarter-wall curio cabinets capped with maple. The walls in the dining room
are red, the drapes purple. The table is also Danish modern. The buffet snuggled perfectly into the rectangular bay window is light maple, custom made.
Red and purple.
On the wall behind her chair hangs a gigantic piece of art: a poem, four
stanzas long, done in exquisite gold calligraphy and elaborate red-and-purple
metallic illumination on white parchment shot with gold. The poem is matted
in white and framed in an elegant gold moulding. When she hung it, I said
something about it costing a bundle, to which she haughtily replied that she’d
done it herself, with a frame she’d thrifted and rehabbed.

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
Red and purple.
She fell in love with that poem the first time she read it, a rogue hack poem
her then-professor used as an example of what not to do. I thought she meant
she did the mats and frame herself, but no. She’d taken calligraphy classes for

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the express purpose of creating this … art.
I was passingly impressed then.
Now I look at it, see it, think about all those moments I’ve seen her doodling letters, just individual letters, not even wondering why she does that. I sit
here almost every night and look at her calligraphy but I never see it.
I look to my right and remember how she and I took all this down to studs,
the lathe and plaster walls gone, the floor painstakingly stripped of vinyl tile and
linoleum and sanded of years of paint and wax and shellac, the ceiling taken
down.
She and I pulled the moulding off. She and I put the wiring and ductwork
in. She and I put up the sheetrock. She and I sanded the floors. She and I repaired and weatherproofed the windows. She stripped and stained the moulding, milled the new moulding to match, patched and stained and sealed the
floors, re-tiled the hearth, built a mantel and surround, and tuckpointed the
chimney.
And then she hung her art on her craftsmanship.
It’s gorgeous. All of it.
I sniff.
Lime.
When did this happen?
I walk down the maple-floored entry hall, on a purple runner, past the
stairs, into the kitchen on a floor tiled in black-and-white hex.
The countertops are glossy black polished concrete, which she and I built
from scratch. The thrifted cabinets I helped her install after she’d refinished
them are white with black hardware. The appliances are stainless and the
farmer’s sink is white enamel, under an unadorned diamond-mullioned window.
The soffits and ceiling are red. There are the same can lights in the ceiling as
there are everywhere else, but over the narrow island there are three big space-age
pendant lights, white, with graduated concentric circle shades. I think she called
it a Saturn lamp. She searched high and low for those and found some on Etsy,
in bad condition. Now they’re not. The door that used to go to the back porch is
boarded up because Calvin wouldn’t hesitate to open it and jump.
The kitchen is spotless but for a huge ugly red-orange Crockpot on the
counter with delicious smells coming out of it.
God, that woman can cook.
I turn slowly, taking all this in, and walk back into the hallway, then up the

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maple stairs to the first landing, where there’s another diamond-mullioned
window over a picturesque reading nook. Up the next half flight to the second
floor where the kids live there are four smallish bedrooms and a bathroom.
Kaia’s room is immaculate, from crown moulding to baseboards. The other
three rooms are a mess, but not because Blythe hasn’t made them beautiful.
This house was built in 1905, and the closet space was almost nonexistent. She
built closets a professional organizer would envy. She built Murphy beds that,
when put away, turn into long desks. She thrifted and refinished every other
piece of furniture the kids have. She sewed the drapes for their rooms and declared it the most difficult project in the whole place.
She restored the cast iron radiators, but they’re only for decoration because
previous owners had rendered them inoperable when they put in central heat
and air. Blythe railed about that for a couple of months when she was told it
didn’t matter how much money she could spend, they would never become operable. The bathroom is as modern as her kitchen, except for the speakeasy gin
tub, which she re-enameled then retrofitted to be used as a shower.
I continue up to the third floor. Half of it’s done: the common space over
Gwen’s bedroom is Blythe’s office, which has a balcony overlooking the back
yard. The long desks consist of salvaged doors on file cabinets with beveledglass tops. “Lazy chic,” she calls it. There are large rolls of plans scattered here
and there, and papers are stacked everywhere. It’s not a wreck, but it’s a controlled mess.
She’s dithering on building a kitchenette here to make this a rental unit. It’s
right over the kitchen sink, which is right over the laundry room. It’d be easy
enough to run the plumbing up here. I’d shut my yap about her bedroom for a
while if she did that, because that would make this house an investment if she
rents it out, or would halve again its sale price.
Her bathroom is identical to the one below, but it has two doors: one from
the hall and one that connects to her room through a closet.
That’s where things get rough.
The closet is dark, with one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. The carpet
is dog-shit brown—or would be if it weren’t so threadbare the horsehair padding didn’t show through. I go into her bedroom proper and see … what this
house looked like when she started. Crumbling plaster exposing the lathe. Old
faded and friable wallpaper on the plaster that’s still attached to the lathe. The
door to an outside landing and staircase, just next to the chimney, is boarded

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over. There’s a bay window overlooking the street, and her double bed is off in
the darkest corner in the room. It’s neatly made, but the bedspread is worn dingy white chenille and there are bits of plaster from the ceiling on it. I look up.
It’s worse than the walls and there are two bare bulbs hanging from it. She has a
shit dresser and a chair that needs to be junked.
I sigh and head downstairs. It’s too damned depressing, her room. She’s
done with the speakeasy and Calvin’s taken over the space for his toys and projects, which she encouraged. She spent more time on her laundry room than
she’s spent on her bedroom. She argued that she spends more time in the laundry room than in her bedroom, which is probably true.
I go back to the living room, sit in one of the chairs and look around me,
taking in details, remembering. She rehabbed every piece in the house. Everything’s from the thrift store, but you wouldn’t know it because her goal was to
make it look as if she’d bought it new from a high-end store. She was given the
red and purple fabric for the couch because it was in bits and pieces. She sewed
them all together until they were in huge sheets and then used them to reupholster the sofa, chairs, and ottoman. The Danish modern coffee tables and end
tables are made from scrap wood she scavenged from around town and planed
into curves by hand. So are the dining room table and sideboard.
… fucking pigsty …
I am thoroughly ashamed of myself.
I come here almost every night. I eat here and work here. I read interesting
books to Kaia and tuck her in bed. I play catch in the back yard with Ryan and
Minecraft with Calvin. I help Gwen with her homework. I write posts for the
blog. I’ve been doing this for four years.
I helped Blythe do some of this work. I was her forklift and extra pair of
hands.
How can I not remember? How have I not noticed, not seen?
I know exactly what she’s done and how she did it, but I never paid attention to the final result not because she’s a pro, I realize, but because I resent this
house so much.
Why?
I don’t know.
I get up, go outside, and walk around. The large covered front porch
stonework is solid and clean with a fresh coat of whitewash. The concrete floor
is painted decoratively to mimic a rug. The ceiling is white beadboard with a

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ceiling fan and a porch swing hanging from it. Three sides of the first floor, the
foundation, and the chimney are done in stone, as Shirtwaists usually are, but
all the stone on this one is whitewashed. The bright red siding above the first
floor is fresh and the white trim is gleaming. The black-shingled roof is new.
Blythe did all that by herself. Yes, I helped when she asked, but she didn’t
ask much.
The only thing that’s amiss is the rickety staircase that goes to the third
floor. It’s blocked off. If she decides to make the third floor a rental she’ll have to
rehab it. Otherwise, I want her to get rid of it and wall in the door to her bedroom. But that’s part of the bedroom project and she seems not to care if it ever
gets done.
I don’t care what she says or how clean it is, her bedroom is a fucking pigsty.
I amble on down to the driveway to the mess of a back yard. The bottom
right corner of the house where the back porch was attached is now bare and
almost black from mold and wood rot, so I hadn’t noticed how much bigger
and lighter the house looks without it. She wanted a red house, which isn’t a
good way to make a house visually bigger. But without the lean-to, it’s bigger
than it looked when it was a beige that looked filthy even after a thorough
cleaning.
The deck is going to be huge. I imagine it and am impressed with how
much more space it will add, especially when she installs the lateral cable railing
and paints it white, installs the French door, and patches the siding. It’ll be an
outdoor living room.
Huh. I imagine some more and realize she was right all along. Something had
to be done with the back porch other than rehabbing it a third time, so why not
build a huge deck that doubles as a carport? Why not make it a grand outdoor
living space?
No wonder she’s getting—and staying—mad at me. I give her shit about
the house as if it all looks like her bedroom. I give her shit about the deck she
really did need to replace a back porch that leached value from the house. I give
her shit about moving out of a house she almost single-handedly resurrected. I
give her shit because I’ve wanted her and the kids to move in with me since she
sold the mcmansion and she refuses to.
I hear her diesel engine coming around the corner. I get out of the way so
she can pull into the driveway.
“Grampa!” the kids shout as they all tumble out of the truck as if they didn’t

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see me last night, and the night before last, and the night before that. Kaia
throws herself at me. Gwen practically does. Ryan punches my arm as he goes
by and Calvin’s decided he’s a puppy, running and yipping and barking.
“Yo, Cal!” I call. “Go take your medicine.”
He chirps, “I’m a potato!” and dutifully darts into the house.
“That’s his latest,” she says with a smile as she slides out of the truck. She’s
dressed as she usually is, more or less. “What are you doing out here?”
“Thinking you’re right about the deck,” I say easily.
She looks surprised. Then happy. “Why’s that?”
I shrug. “Back porch was a piece of shit.”
Her nose wrinkles when her smile widens.
I smile back. “I’m not proud. When I’m wrong, I say so.”
“I know.” She turns to grab her toolbag out of the bed. “Had to go help one
of the moms,” she explains when I raise my eyebrow in question.
She does that a lot, fixes stuff for the moms in the pickup lane at school,
which is one of the things getting in the way of Blythe acquiring a BFF. I’m not
sure why they need her to do it, though, because anybody who can afford to
send their kids to that school can afford a contractor. So I ask.
“They don’t have to wait,” she answers simply and lets me take her tools.
“Tighten a bolt or put a washer in a faucet. Stuff like that. And they trust me to
do it right the first time.” We walk into the house and again I smell lime underneath that delicious dinner. Nothing remains of the smells that assaulted me
four years ago, the ones I’ve been carrying around in my nose all this time.
“Okay, guys!” she yells as she starts up the staircase. “Get on with dinner!”
The kids set the table while I grab the sourdough and start slicing it, whip
up a salad, and parcel out beer, pop, and milk.
“Hey, hey!” Jerry booms from the entry hall. “What’s for dinner?”
He’s supposed to knock. Blythe’s told him several times he’s not permitted
to just walk in the house. I may have a key and access to the security system and
practically live here myself, but it’s not my house, either, so I don’t say anything.
“Hey, Pop-pop,” somebody says absently. “Hi, Nana.”
“Hello!” Winnie calls.
“Hey there, Finn,” Jerry says as he strolls down the hall toward the kitchen.
“Whatcha doin’ in here, cooking? That’s Blythe’s job.”
I have lots of things to say to that, none of them nice. I settle for “Hard to
screw up a salad,” and get the butter out of the refrigerator.

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“Lord, Finn, the next thing you know, she’ll have you washing her panties.”
I ignore that because the only other appropriate response is a right hook.
“Dad,” Blythe says from the stairwell, “this is a two-butt kitchen. Go sit
down at the table.”
I glance at Jerry to see how he takes Blythe’s order. Not well. If Blythe notices it when she breezes into the kitchen, she gives no indication of it.
I give him the side-eye and he collects himself. “Don’t have to tell me twice!”
he says, faking jocularity.
I say nothing as I toss the bread into a basket, but Blythe sidles up to me.
“Did he ring the doorbell or knock?” she asks low.
“No.”
She sighs and begins dishing up whatever’s in the Crock-pot, yelling for
Ryan to come get it and put it on the table, and says nothing more about it.
The evening goes as it usually does. Jerry and Winnie leave right after dinner, the kids do dishes, then settle in at the dining room table to do their
homework while Blythe and I work right along with them, and then it’s bedtime. Blythe and I work for a few more hours. I leave around midnight, set the
alarm, lock the door, and head out to my quiet, perfect house.

7:
SINGLE WHITE FEMALE
BLYTHE

Everyone from last Saturday shows up this Saturday. Ryan’s friends and Scott
are seduced by the money and, I suspect, hours of being treated like men instead of silly little boys or randy teenagers.
Bryce’s wife and son show up with him. Duncan wants to watch the concrete get poured and Bryce wants him there, but he doesn’t want him to get in
the way, so Giselle decided to accommodate both of them. I greet her with a
smile and a warm but totally fake “Nice to meet you finally!” because regardless
what Finn says, I’m still intimidated by any woman who beat him in court.
She returns the greeting quietly and with a reserved smile. She’s keeping
her distance from me, although not Finn. She’s even more reserved with everyone else, and I watch for a few minutes.
Then I get it. I’ve seen that smile before, heard that tone, read that body
language. From Kaia. Meeting new people. If she’s meeting someone new who
has a shared passion or if she has something to say, she’s as outgoing and chatty
as I am. If she doesn’t, she keeps her mouth shut, not smiling, just wanting people she doesn’t know out of her space. Giselle’s not a stone-cold bitch. She’s shy,
and the only person here she can talk and laugh and joke with is Finn because
she already knows him.
I’ve watched and felt Kaia’s discomfort, and I can see and feel Giselle’s now,
too, because it’s practically flooding me. No, I have no reason to be envious. I
can’t imagine not being able to talk to people, so much as to say hi, without a
reason to do so. Now I wonder if Kaia will grow up being seen as a “stone-cold
bitch,” an outcast and the subject of vicious gossip. Maybe I’m not as nice as I
thought, because I listen to the gossip and do nothing about it.

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My parents are there, mom to feed and water us, and dad to guzzle Pepsi
and hang with the neighbors. He declines Gwen’s invitation to go to Finn’s
house with her, Calvin, and Kaia for the day to keep Calvin out of the way. I
watch her expression go from a tidge hurt to irritated before she turns away.
“Gwen, why isn’t Pop-pop coming?” Calvin asks.
“Does it matter?” she snaps and storms up the driveway. Kaia turns, but not
before I see a sly smile on her face.
Finn and I exchange unamused glances.
Posey sets up her cameras while Finn, Bryce, and I recheck the footing
holes, plumb and level, adjust the concrete forms, and readjust. The real work
begins the minute we all start dragging the rebar from the pile by the fence and
laying it on the gravel, and we have a lot of gravel to cover. Bryce allows Duncan
to help, tells us how to lay it, and shows us how to tie it. Finn and I, Ryan, his
two friends, Scott, and Bryce teaching Duncan, finish just in time for the concrete truck to show up and back down the driveway. Bryce calls the shots for
the whole pour, starting with the deck footings, in which we set the bolts.
The day passes in a blur of gravel and cement, floats and trowels and
brooms, levels and strings, with the neighborhood, Giselle and Duncan, and my
dad looking on. My dad offers suggestion after suggestion that we ignore until
he throws a fit, at which point, Bryce turns, leans on his float’s handle, looks at
my dad, and says calmly, “One more word, and I will bury you in this slab.”
My dad fluffs up like a banty rooster. The neighbors move away a little as if
Bryce is about to squash him like a bug. Finn and I exchange another look, but
this time we have to look away from each other or else we’ll burst out laughing.
My dad marches up the other side of the house, yells for my mom, and leaves.
Finally, finally, we’re finished. We clean up. All six males sprawl out over
the lawn underneath a sprinkler. Duncan’s standing behind Giselle, draped over
her shoulders to watch, but his eyelids keep drifting closed. Posey’s gone home.
I text Ryan’s friends’ parents to tell them they’ve got very worn-out sons who
need to be wheeled into the shower on a dolly. I then flop on the ground by
Finn. Gwen calls out from the top of the driveway, and Finn yells at her not to
let Calvin near the wet concrete.
She yells at Scott about some party they’ve both been invited to.
He pretends not to hear.
The nice thing, I decide, about recruiting Gwen’s boyfriend to help—tall,
strapping quarterback that he is—is that since high school football games are

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on Fridays, he’s too tired to do anything afterward. And if he’s over here helping
on Saturdays because he wants the money, he’s too tired to take Gwen out to
their school friends’ parties.
She yells louder and he gathers up the strength to yell back, “I’m going home!”
This, of course, makes Gwen mad. She screeches at him, herds her siblings
into the house, and proceeds to let out an ear-piercing scream. Because it’s cool
enough to have the windows open, we can hear her every footstep, her door
slam, and another scream.
“Gawd,” he mutters.
I’m looking up at the darkening sky, then look at Finn, who’s looking at me.
“Ten,” we say in unison.
Scott starts. “Wut?”
Finn says, “She won’t be back out until ten o’clock tomorrow morning. You
can tell how long she’s going to sulk by the volume.”
Bryce laughs, groans, and with Giselle’s help, gets slowly to his feet. So does
Scott. Ryan’s friends’ parents show up and exclaim over the progress we’ve
made. Finn and I get up, shake everybody’s hands, say thank you, and call “See
you next week?” as the fathers have to practically drag their ragged sons to the
street. The Kenards and Scott plod off toward their cars, leaving me and Finn
alone in the back yard.
Finn isn’t physically demonstrative. But sometimes, after an argument or
after having family drama or both in this case, he’ll put his arm around me, pull
me close, and press my head to his shoulder.
He does that now, standing with me in my back yard, looking at the concrete. It’s beautiful. By comparison, the driveway looks like crap. I’m going to
have to do it, too. I study the house from primitive stone foundation, up two
floors to the third-floor widow’s walk set into the gabled roof. Finn hates this
house, this house that was once a wreck but isn’t anymore.
I sigh heavily, relaxing into his body, wrapping my arm around his waist.
He’s solid. Warm. My best friend. We fight, yes, but I can’t imagine my life
without him.
“I had a vision for this house, Finn,” I say quietly.
“I know,” he says, his baritone vibrating in his chest, against my shoulder. “I
trust your vision. You know that.”
“No, you don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t act like she looks the same as she
did four years ago. I’m not fishing for compliments. I’m not asking you to spend

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fifteen hundred words publicly praising my skill and taste. I’m asking you to look
at her and see what I’ve done instead of trying to get from the front door to the
dining room as fast as possible so you don’t have to be tainted by the sight of my
thrift-store furniture. The least you could do is stop calling her Shithole.”
He sighs. “I’m sorry,” he says low. “I … you’ve done a good job.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
He doesn’t say anything for a couple of moments, but his arm tightens
around me and he kisses the top of my head. “Plan to have Christmas over at
my house. All of us. Jess and Ken and theirs, too. You and the kids come over
their last day of school and I’ll let you go the day before they have to go back to
school.”
I laugh wearily. “You make it sound like you’re going to take us hostage, not
throw us in the pool and shower presents on us.”
“Maybe you need to be taken hostage.”
I pull away from him, confused. “What?”
He shrugs. “You need to start dating. Find somebody.”
“No, I don’t,” I say, still bewildered.
He slides me a glance. “So you were joking about getting it on with Bryce? I
think not. ‘Many a true word is spoken in jest.’”
I snort. “I’ll tell you the same thing I told Gwen. I’m not blind. Just because
I look and wonder doesn’t mean I’ll touch, much less buy.”
“Hrmph. Blythe, really. I told you I didn’t expect you to stay single and I’ve
been thinking about it all week. Maybe it’s time.”
I sigh. “It won’t be time until I’m willing to put up with the hassle of dating.
It’s not that I’m out of practice. It’s that I’ve never done any. I sat with Darren at
lunch his first day in my school to help him fit in, and three years later we were
married. Furthermore, no man in his right mind wants to get into a long-term
relationship with a woman who’s got four kids.”
He opens his mouth to say something. Closes it. Opens it again. “I can’t argue that,” he mutters.
“There is a guy, though,” I admit reluctantly, “in the pickup lane at school.
Winter Ticas’s dad. Dustin. I’d go out with him if he asked.”
Finn tenses a little. “Oh. Why don’t you ask him out?”
I’ve thought about it, but— “I just can’t do it. I’m not that brave.” Not
brave enough to approach somebody who doesn’t know I exist. “Have you been
thinking about finding someone?”

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He sighs. “I tried,” he mutters, and my heart trips up a little. “Nothing ever
worked out.”
I say nothing for a few seconds, trying to digest that, Finn dating, having a
relationship with a woman, how much I’ll miss him when he moves on.
He will eventually and I need to prepare myself. It’s not natural, a man his
age with his vitality, staying single as if he’s still mourning his wife. Some woman’ll come along who’s just perfect for him, they’ll fall in love, and Finn will leave
because there won’t be any room in his new life for me.
Us, I mean. The kids and me.
I don’t feel so good and I close my eyes. “Finn.”
“Huh?”
“We’re pathetic, aren’t we?”
“Yup.”

Thx for the post. I know ppl are hating on you bad, but Im gratful.
I showed the vid to the guy. He didn’t know you could rent Bobcats and stuff. He thought we were going to have to jack it by
hand. Anyway thx Ill be the only one following the deck blog, but
maybe ppl will get off you’re back now its not on the main page.

No, the regulars are not getting off my back and lurkers are coming out of
lurkdom to bitch, but the deck blog’s numbers are astronomically high for an
unwanted brand new blog with three posts. The landing page rates are unexpectedly high and on average, people who stay on the blog stay as long as it
takes a normal person to read one post and watch one video. I take a screenshot and email it to Finn and my mom with a razzberry emoji.
Neither of them responds.
At dinner when I poke my mom, she very pointedly ignores me.
I look at Finn expectantly. He rolls his eyes. “I told you you were right,” he
drawls with wry amusement. “Would you like me to kiss your feet too?”
I grin because now I have been thoroughly vindicated.
“Right?” my dad asks Finn, shocked. “About what?”
Finn slides him a glance. “The deck. It increases the resale value of the
house.”

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“It won’t make its cost back!” he argues.
“Take it up with Blythe,” Finn says smoothly, gesturing toward me. “I’m
sure she’s already had an appraiser out and figured her profit margin to the
nearest dime.”
“Hrmph,” my dad says, but doesn’t ask me anything.
“How was your day?” I ask Finn sweetly, my mood lightening even more.
“Good,” he says with a firm nod. He starts to talk and the table quiets. Finn
with work stories is always interesting, even to the kids. I’d taken them to see
their grandfather in the courtroom and to his office building to show them that
when he said he was working and wouldn’t be around for a while, he really meant
it.
I scowl in thought. Or did he? If he’d been dating, not all of those nights he
left his chair empty he would’ve been spent working.
Meh. I don’t blame him.
But why would he lie to me about it? It’s not as if he was cheating on me or
anything. You can’t cheat on your daughter-in-law just because you spend almost every non-working hour with her.
Hey, Blythe, I’ve got a date tonight. Cover for me with the kids?
Oh, awesome. What’s she like?
She’s a lawyer …
That went without saying.
Brilliant. Gorgeous. Well-travelled.

How was your date?
Incredible. I took her here and there and we did this and that and we talked about
Nietszche and Goethe and Prufrock and euthanasia.
Oh yeah?
Best sex I’ve ever had.
TMI.
My chest hurts because I could never talk about those things with anyone.
So besides having four kids, stretch marks, a miter saw and a vast collection of
sports bras, I’m not the least bit interesting and I still don’t understand what’s
special about Prufrock.
My mom asks a few questions and he’s happy to answer them, to laugh and
joke around with her. He’s always been happy to talk to my mom; they were
pals the first time they met.

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My gregarious mother, being a kind busybody and natural problem-solver,
had rolled out the welcome wagon as soon as the Marstons’ moving trucks
rolled away.
She’d known by their furniture and Miriam’s clothes that this neighborhood was a huge step up for them from their previous circumstances, and that
the wife would be lost, intimidated, and frightened. She would have no idea
what would be expected of her as the wife of a successful attorney or as the
mother of children who would be going to an affluent school or as an addition
to the neighborhood clique.
My mom knew this because she’d already been through it.
During their first shopping trip, Miriam refused to buy anything for herself
because they’d been poor so long. She was unable to conceive of the kind of
money Finn was making by that time, and she was horrified by the prices—and
it was a consignment store! It took a little bit of work on my mom’s part, but
she finally managed to dress Miriam appropriately.
My mom had eased Miriam’s way from where she started: middle-class
teenage girl who got herself in trouble, to a shanty in Harlem married to a boy
she barely knew while being pregnant with his child and trying to live with his
mother, to a small ranch house in a still-questionable part of town and another
child, to an upscale tract subdivision with closely-set three-thousand-squarefoot mcmansions where every driveway had a boat or an RV and every other
back yard had a swimming pool.
The Marstons had all three.
Finn would have moved up to a bona fide estate after a few years, but Miriam put her foot down. She was in that neighborhood to stay.
So now Finn and my mom are reminiscing a little bit and laughing.
My dad, who’s still mad about Finn letting Bryce talk to him that way, and
pouting because Finn generally pays more attention to my mother than to him,
listens as Finn’s work story gathers steam.
“ … told him he better never talk to my paralegal like that ever again.”
“Then what’d he do?” Ryan asks.
Finn shrugs. “Forgot. Did it again.”
“What’d you do then, Grampa?” Calvin asks.
“Fired him.”
Gwen gasps. “Right then?”
“Yep.”

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She doesn’t know what to do, what to think. She thinks Finn hung the
moon and the stars, but her teenage sense of justice is outraged.
Finn doesn’t challenge her. He simply asks, “What’s on your mind, Gwen?”
“I— I don’t think that was fair,” she mutters hesitantly, as if Finn will disapprove and send her into a crashing depression.
“Why not?” His tone’s gentle. It gets that way when he’s teaching and this is
a teaching moment.
“He’s new. New people make mistakes.”
“He was told his mistake. He did it again.”
“Yeah, but … ”
“But what?”
“You yell at us all the time for making the same mistakes over and over
again.”
He chuckles, but then sobers a little. “Gwen, your father taught me something a long time ago that I have practiced ever since and it has never failed me.”
I blink and sit up a little straighter. So do the kids. They want to hear stories about their dad. I want to know what Darren could have possibly taught
Finn.
“When your dad,” he begins with the tone of a natural storyteller, “was a
teenager, he worked at a used-games store. Dungeons and Dragons. Video
game cartridges and consoles. Stuff like that.” My kids have no reference for any
of it. “Comic books. Sci-fi and fantasy and adventure novels.”
And in the back, behind a discreet curtain that matched the wall color, was
the adult fantasy section. I snort. Finn shoots a grin at me.
“Anyway,” he continues, “he managed the place in the evenings and on
weekends.”
Which was why we didn’t date much. We were attached at the lips at
school until I was a sophomore when he graduated and went to college. He
planned big birthday parties for me, sent me flowers for no reason, and occasionally popped into school to bring me lunch. He escorted me to both my
proms and both homecomings and … slept with me almost every night from
the moment I turned sixteen.
Then we got married.
“He had an employee who was awful. Wouldn’t straighten the books or
vacuum the carpet. Wouldn’t stop harassing customers who bought things he
didn’t like.”

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I bite my lip to keep from laughing.
“But he should have been fired,” Gwen declares.
Finn nods with alacrity. “Oh yes. I would’ve. I advised your dad to do that,
too. He wouldn’t. He said, ‘I don’t think that’s the right thing to do, Dad.’ I
said, ‘What do you think the right thing to do is?’ He said, ‘I don’t know yet,
but I’ll figure it out.’”
I’m really interested now. I’ve never heard this story.
“Did he?” my dad asks, surprising me. “Figure it out, I mean?”
Finn glances at him. “Eventually. He was pulling his hair out by the time he
did, though. By that time, the only reason he didn’t fire him was because the guy
would work graveyards and he was dependable.”
My mom and dad both say, “Ah.”
Finn has to take a side trip to explain to the kids why a dependable graveyard employee can get away with so much. “But one day, he overheard the guy
on the phone. He was upset. Almost crying, I guess. Darren was curious and
asked him what was up. I don’t remember what he told your dad. The important
part was that your dad figured out he had some problems and one of them was
that he just wasn’t very likable. Nobody liked him, including your dad.”
“Well, if he acts like a jerk,” Gwen huffs.
“Maybe he just didn’t know how to act in public and needed someone to
teach him.” He slides a glance at Calvin. Gwen and Ryan nod in comprehension. “He wasn’t very attractive. Looked and dressed weird, but not on purpose
to make a statement. He didn’t bathe or wash his hair. It was like he didn’t
know better. He looked unlikable. He stunk. Your dad decided to be nice to him
no matter what. He had to look for the good things about him, then it wasn’t as
hard to treat him well and teach him how to act in the world.
“He told him to bathe every day and wash his hair. He took him shopping
for a ‘uniform.’” Finn makes air quotes. “Took him for a haircut. Treated him
with a little bit of kindness and thought. Came to his defense when customers
complained about him. Let him know he had his back and what do you know,
he turned into a good employee. So, Gwen, when I tell a brand new lawyer to
stop being an ass to my paralegals, I expect him to do that.”
“Then why don’t you be nice to him?”
“Three reasons: First, by the time he gets to me, he should be well socialized enough not to give me shit. He’s not some socially awkward graveyard clerk
with B.O. Second, he should know not to piss off his support staff because they

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can make or break you. Third, I value my support staff more than I value an
arrogant kid straight out of law school who should know better. I was letting
my support staff know I have their backs.”
She still doesn’t get it.
“Let’s try it this way,” Finn says, looking at Gwen. “If your mom started
dating—”
My eyes bug out and I gasp. So does everyone else.
Finn holds his hand up but doesn’t take his attention from Gwen. “No,
hear me out. Say your mom brings a guy home and he’s really nice. Awesome.
Treats her well and gives her roses and takes her nice places. He makes her
happy. Furthermore, he treats you guys like you’re the most important people
in the world. You’d be okay with that, right?”
No, she wouldn’t, but Gwen can’t really say that and Finn goes on without
requiring her to answer.
“But then what if he shows up one day and your mom’s not home and he
starts being a jerk to you? And you tell your mom, and she believes you, so she
tells him to stop being a jerk to you. He apologizes and things go on for a while
and he’s nice to you, even in private. But then he gets comfortable again and—”
“He does it again,” Calvin says, now angry at this imaginary boyfriend I
don’t have.
“If she kept going out with him, then you’d feel like you weren’t important
to her, right?”
Finn’s done with the object lesson. Gwen says nothing, but her eyes are glittering with tears and her mouth is trembling. She looks away and swipes at her
cheek. Finn reaches out and takes her chin gently in his palm. “Gwen, I’m not
trying to embarrass you. My point is that there are times you nurture someone
and times you cut ’em loose. Your dad taught me to think about when to do
what. I don’t always get it right, but when I don’t know what I should do, I ask
myself, ‘What would Darren do?’”
“Grampa!” Calvin pipes up. “What are you going to do to that jerk who’s
dating Mama?”
Finn flashes me a smirk and I grind my teeth.
“I’m not dating anyone, Cal.”
He ignores me. “Can you fire him from being Mama’s boyfriend?”
Finn’s grin gets wider and he’s looking at me, the crow’s feet and lines
around his mouth carving into his skin. I glare at him.

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“I guess that would depend on how happy he makes her,” he drawls smugly.
I’m dying. Not from the conversation, per se, but it churns up things within
me: nauseating dread at going out, meeting men, dating; exhaustion from even
the thought of having to integrate someone into the household; cringing mortification at having sex with someone I don’t know, even if he is imaginary.
Considering I’d just been bitching to myself about my lack of appeal, my
nausea at the thought of a real relationship shocks me.
“Hrmph. The payoff isn’t big enough for the hassle,” I grumble.
“Mom,” comes another voice. Ryan, who’s easygoing and usually game for
anything. I look at him and he’s returning that look intently, unamused, looking
so much like me it’s unnerving. “I don’t want a new dad,” he says slowly and
with precision, issuing a warning, if not a threat.
The adults sober.
“You’re not going to get one,” I say matter-of-factly. “I have no interest in
getting married again.”
All four children deflate with relief. My mom is chuckling at their cute territorialism. Finn’s watching me intently, his smile gone, as if to ask me if I really
mean that.
“Finn,” my dad says, sitting back and crossing his arms over his chest, disturbing this communication between me and my father-in-law. “I knew you’d
raised a good pack of kids and you know I thought the world of Darren, but I’m
really impressed you’d admit your son taught you something.”
Finn shrugs. “I’m not proud,” he says simply. “I’ll take truth wherever I get
it, and in this case, I was interested in how he’d handle it. I watched, thinking
he’d come to me and say ‘You were right, Dad.’ Instead he came to me and said,
‘I figured it out.’ I was really proud of him, proud he could teach me something
so profound when he was so young.”
I look away while my dad carries on about Finn’s fortitude in admitting it,
and the children beg Finn for more daddy stories. Tears sting my eyes, but I
don’t know why. This is a melancholy moment, not a grief one, and yet I grieve.
Why? Because I’d never heard this story before? Because it’s moments like these
I miss having a man who loves me and wants me?
When I turn back to my family, Finn’s looking at me again, his expression
now asking me why I’m upset. He knows me too well not to know what I’m
feeling.
I shrug helplessly.

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The conversation rolls on around me. One would think we’d all eventually
run out of things to talk about, but it doesn’t seem like it. Words pour out, all
worn, arranged differently from day to day, usually saying the same things. Occasionally, like tonight’s story, there’s something brand new. Maybe we talk so
much to discover those new things.
I knew everything there was to know about Darren Marston.
Half an hour ago.
Darren used to tell me about his dad, how awesome he was, but I didn’t see
it. Mr. Marston intimidated me, but then, when I was seventeen, intimidation
turned into terror.
We were at a football game. I was cheering. Jessica Marston was with her
friends somewhere in the stands. Ken Marston was a second-string wide receiver. Darren was at work. My mom and dad, and Mr. and Mrs. Marston were in
the bleachers behind the cheer squad.
Just before halftime, we cheerleaders heard a scuffle behind us and turned
to see Mr. Marston dragging the school bully’s father down the bleachers. Once
the man was on the ground, Mr. Marston punched him a couple of times in the
face and ribs, then left him lying on the ground, unconscious, to return to the
bleachers and sit quietly beside Mrs. Marston, rub her back, and pull her close.
She was crying, and turned into him for comfort. Mr. Marston dug for a
handkerchief and wiped away her tears while an ambulance came to take the
bully away.
It took me a good two years into my marriage not to cringe away from Finn
because of that incident, though Miriam put herself between us to ease my
fright and his impatience. It was difficult for me to imagine him any other way,
but he raised Darren, who was practically a saint and worshipped the ground
Finn walked on. Jessica and Ken were feisty, funny, got good grades, didn’t
screw around, and did their own things regardless what anyone else at school
was doing.
I understood, somehow, that people like Darren and Jessica and Ken didn’t
happen in a vacuum. But I could never shake the look of snarling animal rage on
Mr. Marston’s face when he put a man in the hospital in front of hundreds of
witnesses with no consequences.
Then Darren died and when I came out of my fog, I didn’t fear Mr. Marston anymore.
“No,” I burst out, stilling everyone. “I don’t believe that.”

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Finn looks at me, even more confused now. “Don’t believe what?”
“I don’t believe he taught you that. You taught him. Darren treated his employee the way you treated Darren. The way you treat Jessica and Ken. And all
their friends.” I gesture around the table. “The way you treat all of us.”
Finn blinks and looks down vaguely, as if thinking about that.
“Well, that’s what I was saying!” my dad protests. “In a roundabout way, I
guess.”
“You do everything roundabout, Pop-pop,” Calvin says matter-of-factly,
which makes everyone laugh except Finn.
And me.
I’m still watching him. He raises his head finally and looks at me. For a long
time. I look back.
Finally, he mouths, Thank you, though his lips barely move.
I smile at him, notice for only about the thousandth time how ruggedly
handsome he is and wonder how long it’ll be before he falls in love with someone and leaves me.

8:
THE REVEAL
FINN

I don’t know why, but that conversation has me rattled. It was my fault,
bringing an imaginary boyfriend into it, which just devolved from there. Why
isn’t she dating? She should be dating. That asshole she wants to ask her out
should get off his duff … She should work up a little courage to ask him out
… Yeah, I know she’s lonely for a female friend, but it never occurred to me
until I saw her watching my best friend like she was ready to get laid right
then that she might be lonely.
I’m in the shower.
I stop scrubbing my hair.
I can still see that gleam in her eye, the lusty little glances she tossed at him.
I scrub harder.
She doesn’t act lonely.
She’s happy most of the time unless her blog comments go south as they
did with the deck, or she offers her expertise to Missouri Bridge to Shelter, a
housing charity, and gets yet another rejection.
Dear Mrs. Marston, Thank you for your interest. We’re fully staffed and serviced at
this time, but if you would like to sponsor …
Translation: You’re a rich dilettante stay-at-home mom with a mommy blog and a
savior complex to kill time because you’re not qualified to do anything but wipe runny noses
and change diapers. You don’t impress us. Send cash.
Oh, I could grease those wheels a bit. Easily. I know everybody on every
board of every charity in Missouri and Kansas. But she would hate me for it and
I won’t go behind her back.
I respect her too much to do that, even if I’m tempted.

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She moved into DIY Shithole—shit, Bestie—to “be authentic,” she says. Or
as authentic as she can manage. If one day she got a call asking her for help or
responding to one of her offers, she’d be over the moon. If she then found out
she’d gotten it because I’d dropped a few words in the right ears—
She’d never speak to me again.
It would be a betrayal of everything she’s accomplished since Darren died.
On the other hand, there is one nonprofit in town that desperately needs
her help—and she’ll never find out about that if I can help it.
It’s an illegal under-the-table inner city racket one of Giselle’s cousins runs.
Very few people know about it, people who will fund it in cash, in person, without acknowledging the charity, reporting it, or writing off the cash. The Dunham family does. I know there are a couple of movers and shakers elsewhere in
the country who do, but they’re bound to the Dunhams by history, loyalty, and
friendship. Just like I am.
The charity doesn’t even have a name and you have to know where to go to
find a giant tatted-and-pierced ginger because nobody’s going to tell you where
Felix LaMontagne is.
He’s been looking for someone to help transform shipping containers into
fully-equipped tiny houses for the homeless. Blythe would love doing that, but
she’d blog it in an effort to be helpful and “raise awareness,” which would land
him in federal prison for tax evasion.
Again.
Years ago, he came home from some third-world backwater preaching for his
church and promptly set up shop as a Mormon St. Francis of Assisi over on Independence Avenue. His philosophical and ideological choice not to set up as a
503(c), keep books, or file tax returns was deliberate. He knew what could happen.
It did.
And, par for his family’s course, they hailed him as a political prisoner and
feted the bastard for his civil disobedience. Only the Dunhams would consider a
stint in federal prison for tax evasion a worthwhile achievement. They were only
marginally less approving of Wesley Snipes, and that was only because he’s not
a Dunham.
According to Bryce, the church refused to excommunicate LaMontagne
despite numerous calls to do so, but it also refuses to acknowledge his existence.
That’s no big deal. All the churches he works with over there do, to stay out of
the IRS’s way.

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I’m not sure if Blythe’s insistence on being “authentic” is cute or just eyerolling. She doesn’t know “authentic” and it would kill her spirit if she saw it up
close and personal. Felix demands his sponsors deliver in person so they can see
it, see what he’s trying to do. He recruits people who can teach and mentor folks
who have potential, but need training and encouragement. It’s the days I’m
down on Independence Avenue to drop a wad in Felix’s safe I feel like my
childhood and adolescence was damn near like Beaver Cleaver’s.
I wish Blythe would stop trying to “be authentic.”
Yeah, I gave her a hammer and a drill and showed her how to use them because I was fucking sick and tired of having to make penny-ante repairs around
her shit-construction mcmansion. I didn’t expect she’d take to it the way she did.
I made her take remedial English and math at the junior college because I
was fucking sick and tired of reading her nonsensical notes and watching her
try—and fail—to read a tape measure and add fractions. Now—well, hell. She
uses AutoCAD like a pro and can figure angles in her head faster than most
people can multiply by two. I didn’t expect she’d take to college, either.
Those were the only two things I did for her, and I did them so I wouldn’t
knock her head off for being so fucking stupid. Yes, I taught her how to build,
but only because she asked me to show her some more things. Then more. I
didn’t think about it much and I didn’t take her seriously until I heard I want to
build my own house. By myself. That was when I realized that if she kept going the
way she was, she might be able to.
The rest—her bachelor’s degree, her precise math, her technical writing
skills, her business management—she did all that herself.
Now I know she’ll build her own house.
Yet …
… no man in his right mind wants to get into a long-term relationship with a woman
who’s got four kids.
She’s right. Furthermore, even if she didn’t have children, I don’t know
many men who’d find what Blythe does to be admirable. Impressive, yes. Admirable, no. That’s what contractors are for, especially when one has the kind of
money she does. No matter how good she gets, she’s always going to be seen as
an eccentric dilettante to people who send her invitations to society parties in
spite of the fact that she never goes because she doesn’t have an & Guest.
Blythe’s eccentric, no doubt about that. But she’s no dilettante. She’s far
better at construction than I, her teacher. She’s better than my contractor box-

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ing coach, who taught me. She’s better than any contractor I have ever been
forced to hire because she won’t fix my shit.
Geez, Finn, like you don’t know how to shove a light switch in a wall.
I don’t mind helping her with her house. I still have a thing for power tools.
But there is no way I’m ever again going work on a house I actually live in
or plan to live in. And building one from the ground up? I’ll be fucking goddamned to hell if I ever do that.
Blythe Hemming Marston, that silly, stupid girl my son married, turned
herself into a craftsman, draftsman, interior designer, and professional contractor when I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t lying three weeks ago when I
told her there was nothing about her I didn’t respect, but I thought she knew
that. Two weeks ago, I stood there looking at the work she’s done, seeing it,
and it began to dawn on me that what she’s done is beyond amazing and
she’s—
She is fucking spectacular.
She gets shit from her blog followers; she gets shit from the charities; she
gets shit from her mom and dad; she gets shit from the kids because they’re jealous of their friends’ houses; and she gets shit from me because she won’t move
in with me.
No wonder she decided to go forward with the deck because one random
guy reached out to her with faith and gratitude. No wonder she takes time to fix
her PTA pals’ houses. No wonder she got insecure the first time she tripped
over a woman I admire.
Blythe is running on her own faith in herself and her vision with no one
supporting her emotionally.
Not even me.
… fucking pigsty …
God, I’m an asshole.
So I can’t think of anyone I’d be comfortable setting her up with because
what guy is going to want to date a stay-at-home mom with four kids (one of
whom has a basket of tics and looks at the world in bewildering but interesting
ways) and a pet Sawzall, no matter how pretty she is?
I stop scrubbing again and try to remember what Blythe looks like, the way
a man notices a woman instead of a father-in-law looking at his daughter-in-law,
whom he’s been looking at for twenty years and still can’t place in his mind. It
takes me a while.

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About five-seven, in good shape for a mom of four and looking too young
to have a sixteen-year-old. She has pale skin, curly dark hair past her shoulders
that she wears in a bouncy ponytail most of the time, and happy brown eyes.
That’s it. That’s all I got. I’d probably notice more if I saw her in anything other
than boyfriend shorts or cargos, tee shirts, and steel-toed boots.
Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen her dressed up since Darren
died. The kids have school programs and I go to every one of them, but I’ve
never noticed how she dresses for those things. Does she even own a dress? Or
do I just not remember?
That’s entirely possible.
She accused me of not seeing what she’s done to her house because I won’t
look at it. She’s right. Was right. I looked. I couldn’t help it; it smacked me in
the face. I was so stunned, it was all I could do to praise her the little bit I did.
She thought I was patronizing her. I didn’t bother to correct her. I’ve done it
before.
I sigh.
Honestly, I’m torn about her dating.
She does so well on her own. She has vision, purpose, and absolute clarity
as to her goals. Shit, when she was seventeen, she didn’t know how to spell the
word ‘goal.’ She had to get married just so she wouldn’t starve to death.
Now she’s thirty-four and doesn’t need a man and certainly not the way she
needed one when she was eighteen. A man would get in her way, slow her
down. She doesn’t need anybody.
Not even me.
God, that’s depressing.
She wasn’t joking about being willing to “tap that,” when she was eyestripping Bryce, and the wistful tone of her voice when she told me about
Dustin Ticas let me know she wants something. But I also didn’t miss how
green around the gills she went when I made it a little more real than a vague
hope. I haven’t seen that terrified look on her face since I marched her into the
community college enrollment office.
I shouldn’t have said that, especially not in public, putting her on the spot
like that.
The payoff isn’t big enough for the hassle.
Frightened or not, her observation’s valid. I can’t disagree, and I don’t have
four kids living at home who have to approve, one of whom has now officially

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put his foot down and told her flat out he’s going to make life hell for any man
who trespasses his mom.
I can’t say I blame him.
She brings a guy home and then suddenly I’m persona non grata. No woman in her right mind would choose her dead husband’s father over a relationship
with someone who’ll love her and take care of her the way I take care of her.
And ways I don’t.
Yeah, I’m the kids’ grandfather, but I don’t treat them the same way I treat
my other five. Blythe’s kids have grown up with me being around all the time,
and they’re not going to like having me slotted back to true grandfather status,
taking them on outings a few times a year and seeing them on holidays.
I’d also have to host this jackass at my table on Thanksgiving, and I can’t
imagine having him sitting there being all snuggly with her.
I snarl at the faucet. That’s disgusting and I don’t want to see it.
I sigh and turn off the shower.
Even if I could think of somebody I’d be okay setting her up with, I
wouldn’t. If she doesn’t want to find a man, who am I to try to force one on her?
And I sure as hell am not playing matchmaker for a guy who can’t see the
awesome woman right in front of him every afternoon.

9:
TUMBLR
BLYTHE

“Finn!” I holler down at him to get his attention. He looks up where I’m
perched high on a ladder threading a rope through a pulley I’ve permanently
attached to the house. I can set the deck posts myself with my system. It just
takes three times as long.
I toss him the end of a rope. He dutifully catches it, starts lashing the first
post, and that starts our workday. I wait. Watch. He and Bryce discuss the best
way to tie it. They’re finally done, and Finn looks up at me.
“Okay.”
I grab the rope with a gloved hand and step off the ladder, pulling the post
up as I drop.
I’m no Cirque du Soleil performer, but I feel like it when I’m playing on my
pulleys. I have lots of practice at this, but one thing I can’t do is make my counterbalance go higher if I’m not as heavy or if it’s at a bad angle.
It’s at a bad angle.
Ryan and Scott have to come pull on the rope while Bryce and Finn maneuver it in position over the anchors and drive in the temporary nails so I can
come down. We repeat this process with the next one, and a third.
Putting up the posts is the easy part. Getting it all plumb, square, and level
is the hard part—especially when on this morning’s walk, after my little chat
with the owner of my house, the one he hasn’t sold me yet, I decided I want a
pergola.
Finn glared at me for that.
“Wisteria, Finn!” I cried. “Wisteria!”
“Oh, for fuck sake,” he muttered and turned away with a sigh.

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I really do want the deck. I also want wisteria. And I’m used to getting what
I want. Finn’s still pissy because it’s not consistent with my mission statement of
authenticity, yet I won’t move into his house and treat Bestie here as a job site.
But the deck blog’s getting lots of traffic and we’re filming everything now.
My video kid quit her job to do this, even though I told her it would be a
temporary gig.
It won’t be. She and I both know that, because I need help with other
things, social media being at the top of the list. I’d like to move her into doing
the books, but that’ll take quite a bit of training.
But I’m also a little distracted today. The more I look at Bryce, the more I
realize how much I miss the warmth of a strong male body next to mine, having
one between my legs. I don’t want Bryce. He only caught my eye because he’s a
symbol of the need I’ve been ignoring for the last year or so.
Oh, I know I long for sex with a man. It’s that I want a man I know well
and love, and I don’t have one of those.
Having a no-strings-attached affair has occurred to me before, but I get
that sick feeling of dread in the pit of my belly again. How am I supposed to
find a husband if the thought of a one-night stand makes me ill?
And even if I went looking, who’d have me?
I talk to the single mothers at my kids’ school. We talk while we wait for
dismissal or the end of extracurricular activities or after-school events over cookies and coffee. We talk when I go fix something for them. We talk at PTA
meetings and fundraisers.
There are two kinds of single men they bitch about.
The totally uninterested. They’re all into porn now. It’s easy, quick, and cheap.
No work involved. No girl cooties, no kids, no responsibilities. If you didn’t know better,
you’d think they were completely asexual. Porn isn’t difficult. They’re disconnected from
real life and they don’t see real women as sexual objects because we’re not perfect. You
think you don’t want to be objectified until you find out you’re competing with digital
blowup dolls. They’re not even interested in booty calls.
The pickup artists. They only objectify you. They give you the privilege of going out
with them, they’ll take you out to dinner, wine you and dine you, then expect you to put out
immediately because they found your looks to be worthy of them and they spent money on
you. Be careful if you don’t go along with the program because they’re the types to assault
you if you turn them down while you’re picking out produce in the middle of Wednesday.
They’ll say you were asking for it because your lipstick was too red. If they find you good

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enough to marry, they’ll want their suppers on the table when they get home from work. I
could find better if I went to a BDSM club looking for a dom.
I didn’t really understand that last part and I didn’t want to look stupid, so
I didn’t ask. Google let me know I don’t want a dom.
Then they bitch about their ex-husbands. My husband left me. I don’t know
which he wanted more: getting out of the responsibility or having sex with his assistant,
who’s fifteen years younger than me and doesn’t have stretch marks. He’s trying to recapture
his youth. Yeah, I was a bitch, but he was a bastard. I was willing to go to counseling, to
work through things. He wasn’t. And now he’s cheating on the woman he left me for because
she’s starting to make demands about permanence, and I’m at the doctor for an STD.
She told me that a few months back. I still grimace at the “STD” part.
Dustin’s an ex-husband, but I don’t know the ex-wife so I don’t know the story
there. What if he’s just as bad?
Two days ago, while my pals and I were standing there in the pickup lane
at school waiting for our kids to pour out of the doors, they turned on me:
Blythe, you’re lucky you’re a widow.
I recoiled, horrified.
Your husband died. To hear you tell it, he was a saint. Yeah. You’re lucky and I
don’t even care how bad it sounds to say you lucked out while he was alive and you lucked
out when he died. He didn’t choose to leave you.
They’re really angry.
And because they’re so angry, I’m not sure how much to believe.
Then again, school and Home Depot are pretty much the extent of my social circle. Not that it has to be, but society has its share of douchebags, too.
If the pretty and outgoing women in my circle are that frustrated, that angry, if they’re having that much trouble finding decent guys, who am I to think
I’m going to find anybody especially when I don’t go out? Heck, I pick the kids
up in my giant pickup in my work clothes.
I’ve talked to the single dads there in the pickup lane. They complain about
their ex-wives and the women who don’t like nice guys because they all want
bad boys. Women, so I’m told, fall for those pickup artists every time.
It’s all a big mess and it overwhelms me. Merely listening to this twists my
mind and heart into knots. I can’t imagine enduring it. But my sympathy for the
single dads started vanishing when I noticed how they treat me when we talk.
They’re careful to stand away from me. If they look at me, they don’t look
in my eyes. They don’t look at my boobs, either, because I’m wearing a tight

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sports bra. They look at my clothes, my truck, whatever I have in the bed of my
truck, and they do it with a slight curl of the lip.
None of them would be caught dead driving what I drive, shopping where I
shop, working with their hands, doing what I do. It’s not that they can’t. It’s
because it’s beneath them. And because I’ve got money and I’m a woman, it’s
downright shameful.
I’m slumming in my boyfriend jeans or cargo pants and work boots, my
hair lousy with sawdust, my tee shirts or tanks soaked with sweat and stained
with paint, drywall mud, and sometimes blood. The fact that I get invited to
parties none of them do because I am above them socially is salt in the wound.
Geez, Blythe, what are you trying to prove, anyway?
I was the prettiest girl in high school. I know because I was voted that. I
was homecoming queen and prom queen. Two years in a row. It’s not my vanity
speaking; it’s what others valued about me. I’m still hot. When I make an effort.
I make an effort for school events, concerts, recitals, and ball games.
Now that’s what I’m talking about, Blythe. You clean up nice. Very, very nice.
And then the guy sees me the following Monday afternoon and he’s reminded I’m slumming because I just don’t feel a need to make an effort to pick
up my kids at school. Getting those responses is a test.
There is not one single dad at my kids’ school who’s going to look at me
with anything but slight disgust, even though they know what I look like
cleaned up, even though they know I’m far from destitute, even though they
know I’m in social circles they want to be in.
I have sympathy for the moms. Maybe they were bitches. Maybe they did
drive their husbands to cheat or whatever. There are three sides to every story,
but it’s irrelevant to me. They accept me. They admire me, even. They know
what I’m doing even if they don’t understand why I would want to. Their envy
is the envy of exasperation, frustration, and vague aspiration because not only
am I a widow, I’m self-sufficient. I don’t have to depend on anybody to do anything for me.
But the dads … When they don’t even want to touch a pretty, educated,
well-off widow because she’s doing a blue-collar job in spite of the fact she can
bump them up the career ladder and social scale, they don’t deserve any sympathy. Every time they start in on why women don’t like nice guys, that feminists
ruined everything, I say, “Maybe their idea of nice and yours aren’t the same.”
They’d be mad if they got it. They don’t.

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If one single dad in the pickup lane talked to me as more than a sounding
board, smiled genuinely, didn’t look at me in disgust, and asked me out, I’d go.
He’d already know I have four kids and an air compressor, so I would have to
assume he might want a relationship. It wouldn’t even have to be Winter’s dad.
None of them sees me any more than Finn does.
Furthermore, I can’t think of one guy at Home Depot—and I know them
all by sight and name (and department) (and work schedule)—who’d ask me
out, either. I might go just to have a good time out with somebody who won’t
look at me like I’m a freak.
“God, Blythe, do you have to be so fucking obvious?”
I turn to see Finn almost on top of me with a sledgehammer braced against
his neck, his gloved hand around its handle. He’s not amused now. In fact, he’s
downright pissed off.
I scowl. “What do you care who I look at and how? It’s not like you haven’t
had your share of women since Miriam died. Don’t look at me like that. Do you
expect me to believe you’ve been celibate for the last eight years? Do you expect
me to believe you were working all those nights you missed dinner? Which you
didn’t even have to lie to me about.”
Now he’s really pissed.
“Let me tell you something.” I then proceed to dump on him all these
things I hear my kids’ friends’ parents say about the opposite sex and their exhusbands. I proceed to enlighten him about the way the single dads look at me
and what they say to me.
He’s listening, a stony expression on his face. I can’t tell what he’s thinking
and it makes me mad. I can always tell what he’s thinking because he lets me.
“So screw you. You go banging the pretty young things who—”
“I don’t do pretty young things,” he grits.
“I don’t care who you do!” I hiss, even though I suddenly realize I’m madder
about his working than I thought. “But don’t jump down my throat for taking in
the scenery. I have a right to my life.”
“He’s married,” he snarls back.
“He’s a grown man. He can mind his own business. I don’t know what bee
got in your bonnet, because three weeks ago you said you wouldn’t stand in my
way. Last week you’re practically pushing me out the door to go man hunting.
This week you’re on me because I’m doing what any healthy woman with eyeballs in her head would do because the man’s built like a Greek god.” His jaw

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grinds. “Do you think I’m cheating on Darren, just like the kids would think?
Just for looking? I’m not interested. I’m looking and being depressed about my
chances and thinking how nice it would be to love a man again, to sleep with
him, to—”
I stop and look up and away because I’m going to cry and I’m not going to
tell my father-in-law I need to get laid in the worst way, that I’m growing to
hate B.O.B. with a passion. The Dracula Incident showed me that clearly. I feel
the moisture on my cheek and wipe it away with the back of my suede work
glove.
“At this point,” I grind out, “Sweeney Todd is a romance, two men fighting
over a woman, singing about how pretty they are. I’d end up in a pie, yeah, but
at least I’d get eaten!”
I blush furiously. That didn’t sound bad in my head.
“Blythe.”
I ignore him. I stand there with my back to all the people who’re working,
talking, laughing. Hopefully the Black Sabbath is covering our heated argument.
“What if I did bring someone home?” I ask. “Are you going to leave me?
Are you going to chase him out? Are you going to stoke the kids’ jealousy, subtly sic them on him? You’re good at that. Are you going to find ways to keep me
from having— Did you mean what you said about not standing in my way or
were you trying to get out of an awkward conversation? But it doesn’t matter,
does it?”
“Do you really think I’d do that?” he asks, quiet, tense. “Drive off a boyfriend? Keep you from being happy?”
“Well, I didn’t until right this very minute.” He’s still without expression. “I
wish I could be satisfied with porn,” I mutter, my chest so tight I almost can’t
breathe. “You can get real live women.” I take a step back and sweep my hand
up and down, head to toe and back. “You’re handsome— Look at you, James
Bond! —wealthy, intelligent, and you don’t mind getting dirty. But I—” I gulp.
“I don’t know what I could get even if I did meet someone who’s not having an
affair with his right hand or his assistant or his wife or his vanity or his money
or his sense of entitlement and self-importance. I have four kids and a profession that disgusts or intimidates men and my father-in-law is my BFF. I’m such
a catch.”
“Do you want me gone?” he asks tightly.

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“No!” I screech, then lower my voice again. I’m about to tear my hair out. “I
want you to get off my back for drooling all over your hot bestie. It is none of your
business!”
With a glare, he steps around me and stalks off.
I’m so angry I can’t see through my tears, and I need alone time.
So I go the other way, up the driveway, ignoring the rickety staircase to my
third-floor bedroom and head out for a walk around the block. I don’t care that
I’m leaving my help to fend for themselves instead of working right alongside
them. I don’t care that I’m leaving it to Finn because I don’t want to look at him.
Another argument.
That’s three—four?—in two weeks.
It’s a record, even for us.
But this is a brand new issue, and I’m angry that he can do what he wants
because he has opportunities I don’t. And I’m angry and jealous that he takes
those opportunities because I don’t have any to take.

10:
GROUND FAULT
CIRCUIT INTERRUPTER
FINN

What the fuck is wrong with me?
I knew my reaction was over the top even before I opened my mouth. So
what if she’s drooling all over my “hot bestie”?
The minute I saw her staring at Bryce with that look on her face, my gut
pretzeled. I don’t know why.
Built like a Greek god? Dafuq?
She’s gone.
Went to take a walk around the block. Or something. Maybe she went to
her room, that shitty bedroom she hasn’t so much as touched in the four years
she’s been here. Everything else is getting close to done, almost time for her to
find DIY Shithole 2, but instead of rehabbing her room, she builds a fucking
deck. With a pergola.
She won’t leave DIY Shit—fuck me, Bestie. She won’t rehab her room. She
won’t try to find somebody, but the bit about how the single dads treat her
when they deign to talk to her shocks and distresses me. Her boyfriend shorts,
work boots, and gloves are her uniform, her identity. She’s proud of them, what
they represent, what she built herself.
Why wouldn’t a man be attracted to her?
I know for a fact two nice guys at Home Depot want to ask her out, but
they’re— Well, okay, yeah. They are intimidated by her. They read her blog,
know what she does. When I go alone, they ask me how she’s doing, what
she’s doing next, and … when she’s going to be by again. And she’s completely

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oblivious, waltzing in and out dressed like a beloved rag doll. A very happy
one.
She’s not happy right now.
She’s restless.
I want to fix that for her, but I can’t and now that she’s dropped these
bombs on me— When did men start preferring porn over a real-live woman?
More to the point, why?
Who are these pickup artists and how fucked-up and insecure does a man
have to be to try out that bullshit?
I head over to Bryce and relay this. He doesn’t look surprised. “Porn’s a
problem,” he says low. “Gaming, too. Giselle’s single friends are just as upset.”
I look at him skeptically. “Giselle talks to people?”
“Internet.” He shrugs. “Porn’s easy. Cheap. The men don’t have any interest in real women. Too many flaws. Their faces, bodies. Husbands fall into it,
too. Wife just had a kid, she’s tired, he’d be an ass for asking, he gets online to
get off, and after a while, having sex becomes a chore. With gaming, they just
want to stay in their vicarious adventures. Not only don’t they want real women, they don’t want real adventure, either. The way I see it, a large number of
men, especially the young ones, have opted out of the evolutionary cycle.”
I’m utterly and completely shocked. “Trophies for everybody?” I ask,
stunned. “Everybody’s a winner, nobody’s a loser? No drive to compete, to win?
Is that it?”
“Couple of things. Rejection’s not the only thing they risk now. Arrests for
harassment. Lawsuits. Rape, because nobody—not even the girls—knows what
that really is anymore, legally speaking. The slightest thing a woman they don’t
know can accuse them of. It’s a valid fear. So the guys opt out because they see
the field as white but they can’t harvest. Honestly, I’m not sure which one is the
chicken and which one’s the egg. But think about it, Finn. We’re older. We
didn’t grow up in a climate where every woman could potentially get you arrested and slapped onto the sex offender registry. We also didn’t grow up being able
to sit on our asses and play video games all day. We had to work, had to play
sports, go camping, fix stuff. Church. Scouts. And in my case, piano lessons.”
I’m still so stunned I can barely form a sentence. “I can’t imagine that. I
don’t have one male colleague who won’t go after somebody he wants.”
“We get off on the process. The hunt. Now, we work our asses off to go into
court with a case that might bomb and we lose millions, and sometimes we

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spend years on one case. We’re on the hunt for the payoff, and when we win, it’s
incredible. That rush, the high.”
“Or lose.”
“Catharsis, because at least it’s over. Then we go hunting again. Think
about getting the high of winning every single day, all day, in front of a computer monitor instead of once a year or five or ten. Not even the billion-dollar suits
can top that. So, yeah, dating and sex is life-ruining hostile out there, I’m not
going to sugar-coat it, but these little shits won’t even go to the trouble to jump
out of a plane or rappel a skyscraper to get their testosterone on.”
“Fuck me. We’re doing it wrong.”
He barks a laugh. “I chased Giselle for a year and a half before we got together, and I was pissed the whole time. But I look back and realize I was getting off on the chase itself. I woke up jacking off to her. I thought about her all
day. I went to bed jacking off to her. And the payoff was— I can’t describe it.
And then real life set in and, yeah, I love her and the sex is always going to be
good and I have nothing to complain about because this is what I want with
her, but the hunt’s over. There’s no more ‘falling in love’ going on, no more mystery, and that’s where the high is. These guys don’t want the chase to get the
sex, much less the reality of having a relationship. On the other hand, I don’t
want to put up with the drama, either.”
I think about that for a moment. “I’ve never really been in love. I started off
with the relationship straight out of the gate. I thought I was in love a couple of
times after Miriam died, but my heart didn’t break when whoever I was seeing
walked away. And I never did do drama. Had enough of that with my old man.
I don’t get it.”
“The difference between being with a woman you aren’t in love with and
falling in love with a woman you want to be with is like … bleach and baklava.”
Damn. Now I’m feeling deprived. “Well, what about the pickup artists?”
“Different kind of lazy. The hunt is there, but it’s a quick one. I was hunting a wolf who let me catch her when she felt like it. These guys go for a rabbit
in a snare. No relationship, or if one does develop, she’s little more than a maid
you can fuck. And somehow this makes you an alpha, however they define that.
Giselle found one of those pickup artist sites by accident. She was horrified.
‘Pull up your skirt and bend over. Now get in the kitchen and make me a sammich.’”
I snarl.

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“And then there are the ones who think they’re entitled to any pussy that
catches their fancy. They’re animals. If Giselle ever got her hands on those guys … ”
Ah, yes. I wouldn’t even want to be on the wrong side of Giselle because
her justice comes with cold steel and hot lead, and she never misses.
“That said, I’m not sure how much of that is internet posturing and fantasy.
Giselle’s not squeamish—”
That’s an understatement.
“—but that turned her stomach. She was upset for days. She had to trawl
radical feminist sites to wash off the filth.”
I raise an eyebrow.
Bryce nods sagely.
I see Gwen out of the corner of my eye, peeking around the corner of the
house. I raise my eyebrow at her. She flushes and ducks back out of sight. I turn
back to Bryce. “Go get some goddamned clothes on. Half naked in front of my
granddaughter. Really? You think that’s okay?”
He slides me an irritated glance, but jogs off toward the street.
The posts are set and bolted. It’s time to put up the ledger boards. Blythe
still isn’t back, and it’s not like her to abandon a job in the middle.
We have enough people to put up the skeleton. We have enough daylight
to put up joist hangers and possibly all the joists. We snap the chalk lines. We
drill, screw, ratchet, hammer.
At Winnie’s direction, Gwen comes down the drive and around the corner
of the house pulling a rolling cooler behind her. Then Calvin, Kaia, and Duncan
follow with more. Everybody’s provided for: water, lemonade, sweet tea, Gatorade, and Shasta.
Jerry’s car rolls down into the drive next and he emerges with enough Gates
barbecue to feed all of Hyde Park.
“Knock off,” Winnie calls out the back window.
We’re only too glad to do so. It’s noon. We’re hungry, hot, tired. There’s
shade, food, and drinks. I instruct one of the kids to set up the sprinkler over in
the corner of the back yard.
Blythe is nowhere to be seen. She’s been gone for hours.
“Where’s Mom?” Calvin asks.
“Went for a walk,” I say casually as I wipe my arm across my forehead. “I’ll
go get her. She’s probably hungry.”
I have no idea where she might have gone. I just start walking. It takes me

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about a half an hour to find her in Kemper Place, an old, posh, semi-gated
neighborhood of about a dozen mansions, the whole of which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
She’s sitting on top of a stone wall across from an acre lot on which is a
ramshackle Greek revival mansion about half the size of mine that’s been under
renovation for the last twenty years but never changes. It needs to be razed, but
nobody’s ever wanted to because of the neighborhood’s historic status. The
house itself has a plaque. There’s one man dragging a tarp full of bricks from a
pickup truck around to the crumbling chimney opposite the driveway. No one
else is around. He looks tired. Hopeless.
The wall Blythe is sitting on is low, with flat stones standing on end, perpendicular to the flat top, spaced about eighteen inches apart. She’s sitting there between two of them, her feet dangling, watching the solo construction worker. Not
the way she was watching Bryce, but absently, as if she’s interested in his progress.
She looks as weary and alone as he does.
I sigh and sit down beside her.
We don’t speak.
Until I can’t stand the silence anymore. “I’m sorry,” I say low. “I’m not trying to act like your dad or something.”
“You’re not acting like a dad,” she returns immediately, also low, her voice
crackling with anger. “You’re acting like a jealous lover.”
“Blythe—” I stop. Jealous lover? Is she serious?
“What?” she asks sharply when I don’t continue with the thought, whatever
it was because I don’t remember I’m so shocked. “Blythe what? Blythe blundered?”
Now I’m annoyed. “No, and don’t use that shit on me. It doesn’t work.” So
she gives me the silent treatment. “Are you hungry? Thirsty?”
She growls, but in capitulation. She has to be ravenous.
“Your mom made sweet tea and scratch lemonade. Your dad got Gates.
Lots of it. I was shocked he’d shell out for that much food.”
“You’re slipping,” she mumbles. “He asked me if I wanted him to go get it. I
said yes, then he waited for me to go get my credit card. He couldn’t even be
bothered to front it or even go get my damned purse.”
I roll my eyes. Of course. Yes, I’m slipping. I was more concerned about
Blythe than thinking about the fact that Jerry wouldn’t shell out for anything
for anyone else, including dinner.

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“He takes advantage of you.”
“You want to kick him out too?”
“I don’t want to kick anybody out!” I almost roar. “And I told you to cut
that out.”
“Or what?” she snaps.
I have no or what. She gives as good as she gets and I like that about her, but
she hears things that I didn’t mean and don’t feel. If, I concede to myself reluctantly, I knew what I meant and felt. Which … I’m turned upside down right
now.
Jealous lover. “So dad and potential boyfriends are off the table as topics of
conversation.”
“If you’re gonna make it about you, they are.”
I grind my teeth. “It’s not about me.”
“Finn—”
I hold up a finger. “Shut it. I said I was sorry. You started out at breakfast
looking for a fight. I gave you one. You’re welcome.”
She looks away. “I’m sorry. I didn’t get much sleep last night,” she admits
reluctantly.
“Neither did I.”
She doesn’t move, so I don’t. “What’s happening to us, Finn?” she asks
weakly, as if lost. “I’m building a deck to—um, because I want to. You’re losing
your cool with my dad. You and I are arguing more and more … ”
I know what she means. Something’s come between us and I don’t like it. It
can’t be DIY Shi—BESTIE!—suddenly tying my knickers in a knot. She’s lived
there four years and it’s almost done. It’s not even the deck that, I will admit, is
going to be a thing of beauty, especially once the pergola’s blooming with purple
wisteria up against the red siding.
I close my eyes. I get it now. Red and purple.
The tension between us is getting thicker and I don’t know when or why it
started.
But she is right about one thing. I open my eyes. “Your dad’s pissing me off
because he’s trying to edge me out.”
To my surprise, she doesn’t immediately protest. To my shock, she says, “I
know. I don’t know what to do about it.”
I shrug. “He is your dad.”
“A dad I don’t … know very well.”

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That surprises me a little. “What do you mean, you don’t know him?”
She shrugs. “He never really made an impression on me in any way. I mean,
I did what he told me to. There’s nothing to know.”
Ah, I see. She was a cipher for so long it surprised both of us when she finally popped up with a brain and a personality to go with it.
“He sat in your chair Thursday night and I made him move. He was pissed
all through dinner.”
I had witnessed that, but said nothing, encouraged she’s not blind to it and
she’s not going to ignore the issue. The tension between those two was as thick
last night as the growing tension between her and me. I suspect that was why
she didn’t sleep well. It’s not the first time he’s tried to take my place at the foot
of the table, but he’s frightened of me because he thinks he knows what I’m capable of. All it takes to move him out of my chair is a side-eye.
Someday he’s not going to move and then he’ll regret it.
He doesn’t know half what I’m capable of.
“It’s just … ” she says, hurt in her voice. “I don’t know how to keep hold of
my mom if I shake my dad, even a little bit. I don’t want to get rid of him. I just
want some distance. The closer he gets, the more time he spends with us, me,
the more he takes. He takes and takes and takes whatever he can—”
“You let him,” I point out.
“No, I don’t let him!” she barks. “They’re little things. He takes them before
I notice. My time. My dignity. My airspace. My food. My money. I wanted to
feed everybody today, so I let him go get it because that’s his only real contribution to this project. But he’ll eat more than anyone else. It’s the extra I resent,
you know?”
I do know, but one thing catches my attention. “What about your dignity?”
She’s looking down, looking around, finding a few weeds to pull and mangle. “Little things,” she says again, muttering. “I’m not even sure if I can explain
it. Tone of voice maybe. He’s doing it to the kids, too, if they catch his attention
enough. He doesn’t say the s-word or the d-word, but it’s sort of, I don’t know,
in his voice. It’s really slight. You have to be paying attention, though, and
sometimes I think I’m imagining it. I don’t know if the kids notice and I haven’t
asked because I don’t want to point it out if they haven’t.”
My jaw grinds.
The s-word. The d-word.
Stupid.

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Dumb.
Any variation, including tone of voice, sarcasm directed at any individual
and most of all oneself— I don’t allow it. Not from Blythe, not from the kids.
There are few things that will make my blood pressure rise faster than
hearing my loved ones being belittled and especially belittling themselves.
I’ve kept his mouth under control for the last few months, ever since Jerry
and Winnie began showing up for dinner every night. Before that, they weren’t
around much. Too busy cruising, and they cruise so he can eat as much as he
wants and Winnie can travel the world without having to take care of his appetite. It was Winnie the Skinflint’s idea after a cost-benefit analysis. I thought it
was a brilliant plan, but they haven’t done much of that since she started gaining
traction as a frugality maven.
“Do you want me to have a go at him?”
“No,” she says wearily. “I need to do … whatever … myself,” she says wearily. “But my mom … ”
Jerry and Winnie are attached at the hip. I like Winnie. I always have. She’s
smart and resourceful, and she knows how to carry a conversation. I have other
reasons to be very grateful to her. Jerry’s always annoyed me, but now that all
this has been spoken, it’s going to be harder for me to be civil. I must, though,
for Winnie’s sake.
And that’s where we leave it. Blythe loves her mother dearly and needs her.
I owe Blythe’s mother a debt of gratitude.
Jerry is the thorn to Winnie’s rose.
I gesture across the street. “What’s with the haunted house?”
She chucks her chin at the would-be mason. “Spent all his money on infrastructure. Foundation’s sound and square now but he can’t afford to do the rest
and his wife’s on his case to get it done because she has delusions of grandeur.
He works on it around his day job.”
“What’s he do?”
She puffs a sad laugh. “He’s an actuary.”
God, what irony. “He’s not going to be able to do that chimney himself.”
“I know that. So does he.”
“You talk to him a lot?”
“Yup. This is on my morning walking route. On weekdays, he’s here until
nine, rain or shine.” She pauses. “He’s about to give up, but if he does, he’s looking at a divorce and bankruptcy. That’s the only reason he’s still trying.”

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“He’s told you this or you’re extrapolating?”
“Extrapolating. I give him … three more months.”
I look at the house again. She has a soft spot for crumbling things. Houses.
People. I can’t tell by looking at it that it’s sound, but I’ll take her word for it.
“Does he know what you do? You haven’t offered to help him, have you?”
“No and no.”
That surprises me and I look at her. “Why not? That house is your wet
dream.”
She looks away.
“I would’ve razed it,” I grumble.
“I know,” she whispers.
Fuck. That sounds like an indictment.
I slide off the wall and wait for a few seconds until she does too. We walk
back to Bestie together in silence. Her head’s bowed. She’s dragging her feet. I
don’t know whether she’s more upset with me or her dad. I ask.
“I’m just upset. I don’t know why. Things are … I don’t know. Changing.
Somehow. I feel it but I can’t— I don’t know how to deal with it. Maybe if I
knew what it was, I could, but I don’t even know that much.”
“Me neither,” I say wearily because I feel it too. “Me neither.”

to be continued …
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