She didn’t want the Porsche.
What the hell would she do with a fancy stick-shift, anyway? Wreck it trying to find street parking downtown? Chances are, she’d confuse it with another gray Carrera at the mall. Besides, she’d seen a number of fellow divorcees with their cars and high-end bags and pulled-tight smiles…all so much wallpaper to cover the facts. He enjoys his mid-life crisis. He’s got the 25-year-old ‘personal assistant’ in his condo. He’d rather not suffer your life or your family or ‘your’ children anymore.
(This last one bites her, as if Robby and Brynn, senior and sophomore, won’t need more from their dad the way any other kids don’t need more from their two-holidays-a-year fathers.)
No, Jackie wanted the house, the “East-of-Market gem” craftsman with the skylights and Tuscan kitchen and soaking tub. The classy downstairs sconces. The kids’ walls, underneath their pop-star and baseball posters. The phalanx of rose bushes by the walk, which draw compliments for weeks every summer. The financing, where she all-but signed away her life’s savings for a good home. It was her deal, her sweat.
She wanted the continuity, so that her polite neighbors could see she didn’t lose out so badly. That she wouldn’t have to move. She actually liked a few of them, but it was also about image. What kind of realtor loses her own house? Twenty years into a career, wouldn’t it mean she wasn’t willing to put in the hours anymore?
Jackie turns her Volvo wagon up Fifth and passes the large weeping willow, the other immaculate houses and tidy yards. Dahlias are bursts of color here and there. She turns into her driveway and parks next to Tom’s freshly-washed maroon pickup. It’s something she can admire about this contractor. He’s got his stuff together, and he knows the neighborhoods he serves.
Jackie heads inside, free of meetings for the day, wondering how far he’s progressed. He seems to be pretty good with a shovel.
~ ~ ~
With Max, there had been two. Or two that she knew about. The first was the golden-bodied, helium-voiced swim instructor, the one who always chewed gum. Jackie’s not sure how he hooked up with her six or seven times, as he never sneaked out and rarely traveled. Quickies at lunch, maybe, since he usually returned from work at dinnertime. And how did he reward her? He wasn’t that good in the sack. He wouldn’t be some unusual experience for a 19-year-old, unless she was a nymph, turned on by older men. Grabbing the sunroof frame as she straddled him in her red car’s passenger seat, always chewing gum. Parked at some out-of-the-way woods spot she might’ve known about from previous dalliances. Who says a student can’t find time between classes, rather than wait for the drunk-and-disorderly parade of post-bar gawkers?
It had really crushed Jackie to imagine how these encounters might’ve gone — her husband — but she couldn’t help it. As a topic of conversation, S-E-X had not come up in a long time.
Jackie never met or saw Number Two, of course. She was a name, Clarissa, that popped up in his texts and contact list on his phone. She never wanted to know what Number Two looked like. Why did it matter, right? Still, Jackie found herself imagining a tall, dark-haired girl with a boob-job that probably made her look a little lopsided when naked. Can you stand erect with those things? Aren’t they inflated like tires?
He was planting a tree in the backyard when Jackie confronted him about Number Two. He was all smirks and rolling eyes and non-denials. She threw a handful of dark mulch into his face, and it was like the blue-ink ‘approved’ stamp jammed down on so many purchase-and-sale documents in her office. Divorce: ‘Pending’.
She wept for three or four days. She took the kids to Kauai and gorged on surf and pizza and Mai Tais, and used the 5-hour plane ride home to strap on her armor. She had lawyer friends, people with spears and shields, some sympathetic fellow moms from Brynn’s class. She wouldn’t be an unstaked sapling in the December wind.
Not long after that last meeting in the lawyer’s office, sitting in the green chairs at the green marble table and signing documents in front of two strangers, Jackie took stock. Friends had warned her there would be this kind of temblor shock, and then it would pass and life would go on.
One day, Liz from the office dropped by for coffee and house-assessment and said the house could use a mother-in-law. Jackie didn’t have a mother-in-law, anymore, and certainly didn’t like her own mother enough to want her around for more than a weekend.
“Think re-sale,” Liz said. Mother-in-laws were very attractive to buyers with the kind of cash to be looking in this neighborhood. Plus, Jackie’s house was a little short on office space — they had a large den, instead — so it would look very appealing to an investor or tech-geek who works largely from home. And Liz gave her a highly-recommended name.
~ ~ ~
“My Army days were good for something after-all,” Tom had joked, shovel in hand, on the day they met. He’d also brought his tools, stakes and line, and some paperwork. For a two-story mother-in-law, he could handle everything except the plumbing and electrical, and he had a friend who could knock those out in a day. The whole thing would take only a month. The structure would make the backyard a little small, but it would be worth it.
Jackie started to think less and less about re-sale, and more about friends or the kids coming to visit from college. Plus, it was, at long last, a solution to the monstrous briar patch that occupied the southwest corner of the lot. That Frisbee-trapper with the inch-thick stalks and no good berries to show for it.
Tom could’ve rented a Bobcat, but they tended to tear up lawns a bit. “Same problem with goats,” he’d joked, and she’d laughed.
It had felt like a while since she’d really laughed.
He spent two days taming the monster and pitching recovered discs and soccer balls back into the yard. The briar patch disappeared and, in its place, was a promising 12×14 square staked out with lines. Jackie would come out onto her deck, going over potential B & W comps, and admire him. He’d show up at 7:30 with his thermos, get to it with a kind of fierce efficiency, and work until eight o’clock. As when she had painted Robby’s bedroom walls, she enjoyed seeing the step-by-step of progress. At the close of business, you knew how far you’d come.
~ ~ ~
From the balcony, she works on her thermos of coffee and watches him dig. She sits in the Adirondack and goes over the comps for this morning’s client, a nice Microsoft couple from Mumbai. They seem to like maple trees as much as the actual houses on the sheets. Jackie scratches out her notation of ‘Juanita’ and writes ‘Houghton Beach’ in its place. She might find some good openings there. She’s scored two coup sales there — where she knew some on-the-fence sellers and had the buyers lined up and closed the deals. Those were sweet. Everybody wins.
She glances down at Tom, in his shallow pit of foundation work, and finds he isn’t there. Then there’s a rapping at the glass downstairs.
He’s standing on the porch, handsome in his sweaty grime, holding something in a towel. She smiles when she opens the door.
“Hey Tom, what’s up?”
“Well, I found this.”
It’s a human skull, its face tilted and dirty in the blue towel. At first she recoils. She didn’t realize she’d never seen one before – not outside the safe glass confines of a museum.
“Down there,” she asks, realizing it’s an idiotic question. He didn’t get it at the gas station this morning.
“Yeah,” he says, turning it a little.
Jackie swears to herself. She recalls two or three incidents where bones, Native American or not, were uncovered at a construction site and everything ground to a halt. Anthropologists from the university were called in to determine that, in fact, people had lived here before, wore clothes and ate food, and died. She knows a realtor in one of the affected offices. That kitchen/solarium addition was put on hold for two years. Two years of standing at your kitchen sink, drinking coffee and grinding teeth as a bunch of bearded strangers used toothbrushes to make absolutely zero progress in your backyard. Piles of lumber collecting mold under a flapping blue tarp.
Jackie comes to sit down at her kitchen table, pondering. It would be so nice to just make it go away. Can’t we do that?
“What do you think,” she asks.
By law, of course, he knows what he’s supposed to do.
Tom comes in, closing the door, and sits down opposite from her. He looks over the skull again, then shrugs. “I mean, personally, I don’t care. Somebody died here, big whoop.”
“It’d be easier to just…forget it, right?”
“It’d be easier,” he concurs.
A hint of fatigue in his voice betrays that he knows what she already knows: That they could both get into trouble for such a transgression.
How can she close this sale?
Jackie leans back in her chair. “How much is our contract for, out of curiosity?”
“It’s, uh, right about eighteen. We decided that would be fair.”
“Yeah. Now, wouldn’t it be fair if I bumped it up a little? Say, twenty-three?”
His eyes widen and a look of satisfaction spreads on his face. “Yeah, that would be fair.”
“And…if I threw in something else? Say, if I was to go upstairs for a shower and, I dunno, maybe left the bedroom door open?”
He shifts in his seat. “Oh. Uh, yeah, that would make it really fair.”
She gets up and runs her finger along the edge of the table, en route to her bedroom.
~ ~ ~
Tom naps after the first time. He was eager, yet considerate.
Now he rouses and goes to the bathroom. He remarks on how nice the house is, all that fancy tile in the bathroom.
Then she invites him in again, and gently holds his face during the act. He is the first since Max, and it feels pleasantly strange.
Of course, she’ll have to be discreet around the kids. And all that sweat and grime…she’ll have to wash the sheets after she washes herself.
And he’ll go back to digging. He’ll take care of the item. He’ll put it in a plastic grocery bag and toss it in the trash bin.
Then he’ll get back to the work of improving her home, her future.
~ ~ ~
The next morning, Jackie finds an old bag of French Roast beans in the bottom of the fridge door. Max always preferred French Roast. She ought to clean out the fridge more often.
As the kids bicker upstairs, she grinds enough beans for three cups’ worth. Then she pours the rest in the compost pail — Let the chipmunks get their buzz on — and tosses the bag. While the coffee brews, she assesses her corduroy skirt in the bathroom mirror. She imagines Tom will approve. Outside, a roar announces the massive green garbage truck. It’s seven-seventeen. Hers is among the first stops.
This is something she’s never consciously watched before. The truck’s robotic arm lifts her bin to the metal maw of history, bangs it once for good measure, and returns the bin. No more plastic bag. The truck lumbers on.
Jackie pours her coffee, satisfied. The trash service, the coffee-maker, the new skirt — these are expenses you have to pay in life.
She doubts she’ll even notice a spike in her water bill — from doing all that laundry.
©2011, Justin A. Edison