RODGE WAS NOT a hurrying kind of guy, but he moved quickly when the front doorbell kept ringing like an alarm.
Cecile hurried in. “I had to hit the bell with my elbow. My God.”
Rodge got the box of Band-Aids and soon was covering the blisters at the base of his wife’s thumbs, along her fingers, over her palms.
“Ow,” she said and then laughed to reassure him. “The staple gun tried to kill me.”
“You need to hire an assistant.” “It’s only one room.”
“If you can’t get help, you should quit the whole idea,” he said. She laughed at him.
“Look at your hands.” “They will heal.”
“I mean it.” He worked for a hospital in accounts receivables and his world was full of people who ended up in the ER, sometimes dying because of preventable accidents. “I’m telling you to stop. I insist.”
The Jordan house—the Jordan room, and a small room at that—was her first job. She didn’t have enough money to hire an assistant, not after living off her savings while she learned the interior decorating business.
It was not lost on him that as soon as their wedding was over, Cecile had begun redecorating him. But he’d been flattered, really. His coworkers noticed him all of a sudden. And Cecile’s concern for the right cut and collars of his shirts— well, it had been fun to get so much attention. But now she was all about the Jordans. The way the Jordans lived. How everything about the Jordans was just right.
“And when they don’t pay you? How will you like the Jordans then?”
“They gave me a deposit,” she said, her voice rising. “Of course they’ll pay the rest.”
That night, he couldn’t get near her with her hands swollen and balanced over her crotch like a fence. He went out to the living room and sat alone in front of the TV, cracking open a beer and staring at a sports channel. This had been his life before meeting Cecile. He didn’t want it back.
Cecile Collette had been Pat Graves before she decided to quit her office management job and follow her passion, a financially dangerous move. “It’s now or never,” she told her coworkers who’d gently implied she was out of her mind. She was forty-nine. This was in Pittsburgh. She moved to Cleveland. It was only two hours west, but it was somewhere else. She wanted nothing around her to lull her back to old routines. Everything would be new, including her name.
Since she was changing her life, she decided to dip her toe—might the ice have finally melted?—into the waters of love. She joined online dating sites, one of which coughed up Roger “Rodge” Debrett, only two years her junior, who pro- fessed to liking candlelight and long walks in the rain—bogus she was sure—but whose mint green shirt with dark-green stitching, epaulets, and white buttons cried out to her for rescue.
They met for coffee. He talked a lot about himself, but she ignored his sales pitch. Rather, she was assessing his comb-over, the fit of his jacket, the possibility he’d inflated his value. And had there been damage in his early years? Yes, she thought, I could do something with him.
Naked and spread-eagled, she listened, shocked, to her loud and uncontrollable giggling—she giggled?
Rodge hopped in circles, his lowering hard-on bobbing up and down, his tie over
his hair like a headband while he cried, “Hoo ah! Hoo ah! Hoo ah!”
It was during their honeymoon—two nights at the Renaissance-Marriott with a pair of tickets to a Browns game and dinner at Johnny’s—that he noticed how she’d touch every fabric she came close to. It made him think of Braille.
“Isn’t it all just cotton?” he’d joked, listening to her identify what the bedspread was, what the thread count was, what the pillows were expected to do. A cold look came into her eye, and he hurriedly backtracked and let her know he was actually “pretty bowled over.” Hell, she had to realize, he told her, “I don’t know any of that stuff.”
Her eyes remained steady. “I don’t want you to know it,” she said. “It’s only important that I know it. It’s what I do.”
“Well,” he smiled a certain smile, “as long as it’s not all you do.”
In the morning, Cecile let herself into the Jordan house, a rambling clapboard in Cleveland Heights, big as far as she was concerned, but lacking the reach and manicured lawns of wealthier neighborhoods. Inside was a mix of valuable and worthless pieces and, like place-savers, possessions of the two children who were off at college. There were also toys for the toddler, a late baby, Poppy.
Hallie Jordan told Cecile she’d called her after seeing her ad in the church bulletin. Which church Hallie meant would remain a mystery; Cecile had joined three. Possible clients would connect Cecile Collette Designs with the fellow parishioner seen in a (Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Catholic) pew. She had also joined the Rotary, the Mandel Community Center, the Chamber of Commerce, and two book groups. All this in addition to her website and a blog.
And only the Jordan room to show for it. Cecile learned that the problem with following a passion late in life was muscling onto the turf of people who’d fol- lowed their passion a whole lot earlier. She was gently but unequivocally rejected for hire in their shops. Her competition was not only dug in but fiercely defensive. She was an unattended nova in a very small heaven.
“Cecile,” Hallie cried as she came into the kitchen. She was carrying Poppy. The little girl had Down syndrome, and her wide face held a questioning look as she turned to Cecile.
“Hi, you two.”
“No, what happened to your hands?”
“Nothing. They’re fine. Comes with the territory. Hello, Poppy. Hello.” The child tucked her head into her mother’s neck.
Turning to find her purse and car keys, Hallie said, “I may not be back before you leave. Help yourself to coffee, okay?”
When they’d gone, Cecile felt that icy freedom of being alone in someone else’s house. Quietly, almost on tiptoe, she walked through the first floor. Framed photos covered the walls of the hallway. Smiling Jordans. The two older kids holding Poppy between them like a prize. Troy Jordan in a summer chair, mugging in Ray-Bans. The fact that no one was breathing or speaking in the pictures encouraged her to idealize their lives. She studied the progress of the older two, from baby photos through school years and into young adulthood, taking them into her heart until she might have given birth to them herself. She returned to her work in a confusion of moods: inspired, sad, motherly, joyful, even elegiac, having lived through a generation of a family in a concentrated twenty minutes.
The problem she’d been solving for Hallie was a room off the kitchen. It was too big and too open to be made into a pantry, and the lack of windows made it difficult for any other use. Cecile drew up a picture of the room as a breakfast nook inside a tent, pleated fabric covering the ceiling and walls, light fixtures that were simple and strategically set.
Hallie hadn’t been sure of hiring her until she’d seen the drawing. “You can do this?”
Outlining the room in furring strips had been easy. Getting the pleating around the central point of the ceiling had gone well. Tall, she was also strong and not afraid of ladders. But using the staple gun became an issue. By the time she attached the fabric along the top of the walls, she could barely move her hands. A hammer and tacks worked until she smashed a fingernail.
She decided to spend the morning trimming and taping the fabric edges. After methodically working around the little room, she found her fingertips drying out and splitting. Moisturizer would help, but it might stain the fabric. In her tool bag she had a box of disposable latex gloves. She put on a pair and continued.
That night, with her hands throbbing anew, she began to think she hadn’t asked enough for the job. She’d been afraid to lose the business if she asked for more money. Wasn’t an initial low price better? But the room was turning out amazing.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Sorry. Nothing’s wrong, Rodge. Go back to sleep.”
She wanted to kill herself for not asking enough money. There were guidelines. Why hadn’t she followed them? Well, she hadn’t, and that was that. What she needed were more clients, which raised another question. What was keeping her from making Hallie her friend? They were about the same age. Going over the short conversations they’d had, it seemed as if Hallie was offering friendship. But that could be courtesy. A presumption on Cecile’s part could be damning for future business. But if they became friends, Cecile could connect to Hallie’s other friends and then the friends of those friends.
“Quit sighing.” “Sorry.”
“What’s the matter?” “Nothing.”
“How about we do it?” “What? Oh. My hands.” “Are we ever going to do it?” “Of course, but my—”
“We can do it without using your hands.” “Rodge, it’s pretty late.”
“Don’t move. Okay? I’ll do everything.” “But I need you to get me turned on first.” “I know. That’s what I’m doing.”
“It’s not really—Rodge.” “Keep your hands in the air.” “It’s not—”
“What!” he yelled. “It’s not what? There’s always something that—this started with the Jordans. You have to get away from that snob crowd. It’s them!” She threw back the covers and hurried out to the living room.
Rodge followed, yelling. “The damn Jordans, damn, rich Jordans. You have to stop this stupid stuff, Cecile.”
Cecile now began seeing Rodge as she would a large, unmovable cabinet that drew the eye from the rest of an otherwise beautiful room.
She shoved him toward the front door. He yelled louder.
“I need my sleep,” she screamed, “so I can do a good job for the Jordans. It’ll get me more work.”
It was the following day when the trouble started. After Hallie settled Poppy in for an afternoon nap, she saw Troy getting out of his car. His face looked dam- aged. “How come you’re home?”
“Can you come inside?” he asked and let her lead the way into the house. “Is that woman here?”
“No. She’s picking up a light fixture. She’ll be back.” “Christ.”
He went into the living room and sat down, waiting until she sat across from him. “First thing this morning, because we’re getting backed up, I call the outfit making the new machine.”
“For the eco bags.”
“Yep. I say, ‘Hello. It’s Troy Jordan. I’m checking on the order.’ And he says,
“He lost your order?”
“There was no order. He never got an order. No deposit, no nothing.” “So you reordered?”
“With what? There’s no money. That shit took the loan money. My partner.”
She stared at him, picturing his partner’s friendly, undistinguished face. “He took it where?”
“He stole it. He’d been out for a week, so this morning, I call up the machine people. ‘How’s it hangin?’ I find out nothing’s hanging. So I start checking. He cashed out our line of credit. I don’t know where he went. He’d put in for vacation. I thought he was in Wyoming.”
“Wait. He took the money for himself ?”
“I was with the lawyers for two hours before I had to get out of there. That shit left with over three million dollars, and I have to pay it all back, which I can’t, and no machine, no way to fill the new orders. No nothing. We’ve been backed up with shipments and getting the place up to speed for the new stuff.”
“There must be papers. Contracts.”
“Oh there were, yeah. I signed all sorts of papers. They were dummy papers. Nothing was real. I called in the lawyers. They called the prosecutor and the FBI. Jesus Christ. Everything.”
“I trusted him.” “Was he on drugs?” “I don’t know.”
“Or gambling.” “I don’t know.”
“What about insurance? Is there insurance?”
“Nothing that stops the bank from taking the business. They’ll take everything. Or they’ll give me another loan, and I’m not sure I can manage two of them.”
“He’ll be found. You can’t disappear anymore.”
“I’ll never see that money though. And I may be sued. I may be indicted. I
don’t know what legal costs I’m looking at. The payroll still has to get out. This morning I thought that machine we ordered, thought we ordered—I was worried about the ventilation and the electrical codes—and this son of a bitch—”
“Legal costs? They can’t indict you.”
“You know what’s funny? He knew just when we had the most cash available to cover everything. I was at the table making plans with this shit, and all the time, he’s waiting for everything to ripen.”
Hallie was silent, staring at Troy, who now flung himself up and against the back of the chair as though the thing had goosed him. She only stared at him for something to focus her eyes on while this news shifted and butted inside her head. She began thinking very quickly.
The cars, she could sell one of the cars and a lot of the furniture, most of it, and sell the house, the contents of their life suddenly flying off into the blue.
It came to her that she would never want to eat anything ever again. What’ll we do? seemed a question both inadequate and redundant to the moment. After a long time—sunlight slipping from the front of the house to the back, the middle of the day leaving them with the beginning of an afternoon—the news was no longer something that happened to other people. Never to them.
He said, “We tell the kids the rest of college is their dime. They’ll be all right.” Seeing her face, he said, “They will be.”
“I wish I was younger. For what’s coming. I’m thinking of driving off a bridge.” “Don’t drive off a bridge.”
Poppy. Security for Poppy. Now something violent squeezed her heart. She felt herself trembling.
He said, “Off a cliff ?” “No.”
“I think I’m serious.” “Please.”
A slow creaking noise came to them. Cecile was letting herself in through the back door. There followed a long struggling sound as though she might be burdened with a large package. The noise became a scrabbling. Then the quick suction of her shoes—was she trying to be quiet? The kitchen might have been the aim of an inept burglar. Had someone else decided to rob them? One thief wasn’t enough? They got two?
Catching her husband’s eye, Hallie’s shoulders began to shake. Troy threw up his hands. He began shaking, too, his eyes shut, his mouth opened wide, gasping back laughter. After a short time, hysteria played out only to return when they heard Cecile call out to them from the kitchen, “I’m here?”
“Okay,” Hallie managed to answer before leaning sideways against the sofa arm, her eyes squeezed shut, shaking with strangled laughter. Grief seized up inside her. “Oh,” she said finally, sniffing, sighing. Pointing toward the kitchen, she whispered, “That room might make it easier to sell the house, the—decor?” She was gripped again in hysteria, tears down her face and her breathing hiccupping.
That evening when Rodge came home from work, Cecile was soaking her hands in Epsom salts. He found the ibuprofen and fed two pills into her mouth and held a glass of water gently against her lower lip so she could swallow them.
“He was home in the afternoon,” Cecile told Rodge. “Troy. I heard them laughing in the living room. I was hanging the chandelier. It’s not a real chandelier. It’s plain. But it was just big enough and just heavy enough. Thought I’d fall off the ladder. And don’t look at me like that. I can hang lights. It was just . . . They were laughing. You know how people make those wheezing, sucking sounds like they’re trying to be quiet, but they can’t stop laughing?” She felt close to tears, hurt by the suspicion they’d been laughing at her.
What she didn’t tell Rodge was what followed the laughing. There was a long moment of silence, and then Cecile realized they’d moved to the living room floor and were having sex, the noise from them loud and thumping, someone’s voice yowling, the other voice grunting. It felt like the whole house was in on it. She hurriedly finished and ran out before they reached the end. On the way home, she nearly had an orgasm at a red light, so aroused was she by Troy and how she imagined he was going at it in the next room. That she’d overheard them infuriated her. She couldn’t recall instructions on how to deal with this sort of thing in her professional guidelines.
The atmosphere in the Jordan house that evening affected Poppy, who, sensing something wrong, fussed and was unhappy. Both parents gave themselves over to her, distracting themselves with her care. Long after the little girl went to sleep, Hallie and Troy were still knocking about the first floor, tidying up as though cleanliness might save them. Unable to stand being awake any longer they finally went to bed.
Anger came in waves for Hallie. She worried about Poppy. The older kids would take care of their sister as everyone aged, as she and Troy passed on, but that wasn’t what flayed at her. It was her child’s immutable innocence. Like light, this moving, diapered light. Hallie responded with such a need to protect her that a threat of any kind sent her soul raging against the universe, screaming at it from inside her head.
Troy was awake. She thought he might be crying. Like a lover bereft. She remembered him before the theft, anticipating his company’s future, a new machine for the newly designed bags, ecologically sound, his war against plastic. For months, so much excitement and wonder. Like a teenager with a first love. He was heartbroken.
What would they do?
Her job was suddenly important. Teaching remedial math had flattered her sense of civic spirit, the extra cash allowing her to hire someone to fix that worthless sort of room off the kitchen. She’d teach more classes. But that would leave her less time for Poppy. She’d need more time for the child now that she couldn’t pay for Poppy’s team. Only she’d have to work more hours—
They’d sell the place, of course. Pay off the mortgage. Maybe sell it themselves to save on the agent’s fee. Yes. They’d do that. They’d have everyone they knew over, a goodbye party and—Does anyone know anyone looking to buy a house? A sell-the-house party. Her spirits rose at the idea of everyone coming inside to them, one last time. Soon, she thought, before it’s all over.
The following morning, Cecile let herself into the Jordan house. She was wearing her best clothes, expecting a group of people to see the tented room reveal. Instead, she was alone. She waited. She took photographs. When she felt she’d captured every angle, she waited some more. Hallie finally came downstairs and into the kitchen, a mean, bitter expression on her face. Poppy was walking with her, holding her hand.
Cecile said, “Ready when you are!”
Hallie let the little girl go in first and followed. “Oh. Very nice. Yeah.” She laughed. “My God. It’s actually magnificent.” She leaned against the doorway. “Oh my God,” she said as though completely defeated. “I’m going to have to. I knew I would.” Cecile was amazed at the woman’s response. Poppy turned and toddled out of the room. Hallie followed the girl. “Poppy. Come with Mommy.”
And wouldn’t you know, Cecile thought, catching some errant threads. At eye level beside the doorjamb. She used her thumbnail to tuck them under the fabric. She searched around in case there were more. Sure enough, at the angle
where the baseboard met the molding. On her knees doing a quick fix, she heard a car move along the driveway. She wondered if Troy had come home again in the middle of the day. Back on her feet, her face close to the edge surrounding the door, she gave it a last going over.
“Honestly,” she laughed, thinking Hallie was still close. “Two tiny threads. There’s always something, isn’t there.”
No response came. She went out to the kitchen. Hallie and Poppy had disappeared. She called out. No one answered.
Hallie’s number was on her cell, and when she tried it, she heard it ringing on the second floor. Calling Hallie’s name again, she walked through the house. She found the door that led to the basement and hollered down. Nothing.
Angry now, she decided to stay until someone appeared. All day if she had to. The final bill was in an envelope in her purse. She went into the living room and sat where she could see most of the first floor. No one would get by her.
After about twenty minutes, she heard a car again. It was Hallie driving up with Poppy.
“God,” Hallie said on her way in. “I can’t get my head around anything.” Settling the child in her left arm to free her right hand, she began pulling cash from her purse. The money, with the distinctive blue line announcing these were hundred dollar bills, was folded and jammed into Cecile’s hand. “Grab it while it’s going,” she said, her eyes tearing. “No more where that came from.”
Cecile felt it would be bad form to count it out. She closed her bandaged fingers around all the cash. It had an unanticipated feel. She had expected a check.
Hallie went into the tented room with Poppy. Her voice harsh, she told Cecile, “I was right. It does make the rest of the house look like crap.” “I could do the living room if—”
“No, no. God no. We’re selling the place.” “What?”
“I’m having everyone over for a party. The last stand at the Jordans’. We need to unload it, like yesterday.” She stared at the walls and ceiling of the room, and her face began to soften. “Yeah. I’ll miss this. It’s so beautiful. Beautiful.”
Cecile felt her breath getting shallow. New owners might not like a tented room. What if they tore it out? “Why?”
“So we can start over. You should buy it. Do you want it? The roof has to be replaced, and the furnace gets wonky.”
Unsure of what to say—a simple no seemed rude—Cecile asked, “How much do you want for it?”
“Whatever. As much as we can get.” She put her hand over the back of Poppy’s hair, stroking it. “And we’ll have a big party. This was a good house. We’re having a big send-off. Goodbye house. We have a lot of friends. Someone might know someone. Otherwise, I call a realtor. Whatever.”
Cecile said carefully, “Can I help you set up? For the party? I can do up a table so it’s—”
“No! This is crackers and a bowl of punch. They won’t be coming for the food.” “I won’t charge. I mean, I’ll just do it for free, like an ad for myself.”
“Oh.” Hallie said. She seemed to bring Cecile into focus. “Okay. If you want to.” Taking another look at the room, she said, “You should come to the party. Right? You have to be here. People will ask how you did this. I couldn’t tell them. Come, okay?”
It was after five, and Rodge made himself a drink.
“I’m so late,” Cecile cried as she hurried in. The amount of worry in her voice alarmed him. “I don’t want to be early to this thing, but I don’t want to be too late either.”
“Are these clowns some kind of royalty?” “You aren’t drinking are you!”
“Where’s your good jacket?”
The way she was fluttering all over made him want to catch her as though she were a huge bird let loose in the place. She yelped when he got his hands on her.
When he began roving down her breasts, she yelped louder and hurried away. The bathroom door was slammed in his face. He heard the shower running. Furious, he had another drink.
And another quick one before he took his own shower and, later, because it was really annoying him the idea of her excitement about the rich people, a very short one before letting Cecile help him into the new jacket she’d bought him. His old jackets no longer buttoned across the front. When he thought she wasn’t looking, he threw back one more before they left. “Honey,” she said in a strong voice. “You don’t need that.”
As he drove, she held on to the handle above her window.
“Where is this place,” he asked in a voice that told her the place couldn’t be anywhere good.
“You’ll like them.” He said nothing.
“And I have to tell you, my God, she wasn’t kidding about cheap food,” Cecile laughed. He recognized her bright and cheery come-on-Rodge voice. “Wait’ll you see. Saltines. A block of cheddar. And this punch bowl. I helped her get this silver monstrosity out of the attic. A couple of cans of fruit juice and a gallon of cheap gin. Otherwise there’s a pitcher of tap water. I’m still laughing. It’s that she just didn’t care. She thought the whole thing a big hoot. But I arranged it so it really looks, just, oh my God. And all I did was take some leaves from a catalpa tree I found near the back of the garage and some sprigs of euonymus. I think she appreciated what I did. The table looked incredible. It’s good to be friends with people. The punch bowl belonged to her great grandmother. It took me over an hour to polish it. And right next to it, she sticks this tower of plastic party cups. I’m serious. Those little—”
“All right, what?” She waited. He was silent.
“Rodge, just be yourself. They’ll love you. Just the way you are is fine.” His hands tightened on the steering wheel.
They had to drive three blocks beyond the address to find a parking spot.
At the front door, he sucked his gut in hard. Affecting a very formal tone, he said, “Now. My dear.” He held the door open. “After you.”
Gently, she said, “You might stick to water.” A lot of noise. There was a crowd of people. “Everyone!” Rodge said in a loud greeting, his hand up. The people closest turned, smiled, made room.
She went into the dining room and almost hollered. The catalpa leaves and euonymus sprigs were piled up like compost behind the plate of crackers. The rest of her greens, as she looked, were on the floor. The table was covered with unmatched platters of deviled eggs, meatballs stuck with toothpicks, rolled ham slices, bite-size quiches, cookies. Of course, Hallie’s friends. But didn’t Hallie know her friends would bring food? Without thinking, Cecile moved a few sprigs and leaves, freeing them and then rearranging them. She heard, “Excuse me,” and moved to let a woman who’d entered the house behind her with a dish of crudités and dip find some space. Cecile introduced herself while stifling a little rage. Stay on course. Meet everyone. The table design was a freebie. The first people into the house would’ve noticed it, and that’s more than enough.
She turned to Rodge, wanting to encourage him to eat something, but he was pouring out two glasses of punch, and she took one from him, thanking him.
“By all means,” he said, “my dear.” “What?”
“Should I make a toast to you,” he said, smiling.
It was then that she heard Hallie’s voice from the kitchen saying, “That’s her.” She looked over. Hallie and a few women were grinning at her as she called, “Cecile!”
The woman beside Hallie yelled, “That room!” Cecile realized others had turned to see who she was. “Come see it,” Cecile said to Rodge.
As she moved to join Hallie, she realized Rodge had noticed the greeting she’d been given. And she saw from the corner of her eye that he didn’t like it. He picked up the ladle and replenished the punch in his cup, his expression full of injury.
She threaded her way through the crowd to get to the kitchen. Here she began to realize the people around the Jordans were the same hodgepodge as the furniture, unmatched and plain or beautiful or young or very old. Her spirits lifted; the mix augured a place for her too. And weren’t they all talking with such animation! The party went at a faster speed than any party she’d been to before. She stepped with buoyancy into the kitchen. To let her pass, a number of arms lifted cups containing the juice-colored gin of the punch, and this put her in mind of weddings where the bride steps under a salute of swords.
“Oh,” she laughed, ducking to get through. She felt very young. She joined Hallie and her friends at the doorway of the tented room. The lights from the hanging fixture and the sconces she’d installed had the place looking magical.
“You did this?” One of Hallie’s friends asked her. “How did you do this!”
“You like?” Cecile laughed. Yes, she happened to have some of her cards with her. “No job too small,” she sang out softly. “And the bigger the better. Anything and everything.” She remained near the decorated room while this group lauded her. Her heart filled. Were her feet even touching the floor? If I can’t make something beautiful, she thought, I don’t want to live.
Rodge supposed he should squeeze into the kitchen and see the room, but instead, he lifted his chin in a signal to Cecile. She should follow him. He was going into the living room. That’s where it seemed obvious party guests should go. They didn’t belong in the back of some kitchen.
Two couples standing near the sofa were deep in conversation. He moved near them, stumbling slightly over the rug.
One of the men said, “I don’t think four hundred. Maybe three fifty?” They were pricing the house, he realized. He moved a little closer. The talk turned to mortgages and interest rates.
Rodge said, “Hah,” and the four people turned, smiling at him. “How much would you say they’d get?” one of them asked.
“I wouldn’t buy a whole house,” Rodge said. The words felt sticky on their way out of his mouth. “I’m in . . . condo. Gotta condo. Right.”
They stared at him. Then they turned away.
He went back to the dining room. To a young woman nearby, he said, “Looks like the well might rush dry.”
She gave a cursory look into the punch bowl before moving past him.
As he drank from his refilled cup, he caught sight of Cecile in the kitchen. Her head was thrown back, her mouth wide open. Her eyes were closed. She was crying out, “Oh!” and the group around her was laughing.
He went back into the living room and kept going. He ended up in the hall- way. The hallway was covered with family photos. He went over and looked at them. Bending close, he wanted evidence of privilege. Cecile should see this, he thought. Vacation pictures of people who hadn’t paid her. That cash she’d come home with hadn’t fooled him. He believed the wads of bills had come from her own savings account to save her pride, to convince him the Jordans weren’t stringing her along. Meanwhile, she was over here polishing their silver all after- noon for nothing. He had to save her from this mess she’d gotten herself into.
He didn’t hear Troy descending the staircase.
Troy had put Poppy to bed. The idea of the party had seemed crazy enough to him to wrestle his feelings onto a mat, pinning them down and leaving him agog. Distraction was carrying him for the moment. That was the immediate plan.
He was halfway down the stairs when he spotted the comb-over and the enormous gut on a middle-aged stranger. The man was inspecting each of the family photos with a pronounced sneer on his face. The sneer was aimed at pictures of the older two, Troy’s son and daughter. Babies and then toddlers, his children maturing through beach trips and graduation pictures. And then Hallie with the newborn, and from Hallie’s arm, a waterfall of blankets all the way to her sandals and, peeping from the crook of her arm, a pink knitted cap. Whoever this man was, he gave a snort before draining his cup, after which he turned to walk back through the house.
In the dining room, Rodge picked up the ladle in the punch bowl. He saw Cecile spot him from the far end of the kitchen. She shot her hand up. He glared at her. Her face, and her hand flapping, told him to come and look. Her expression promised it was fun. His glare replied all this nonsense had gone on long enough. Two men beside her joined in. Now he had a trio waving him forward. They looked like cartoons. He turned his attention to the punch, scraping up the last of it.
Troy had followed him. “Who are you?”
Rodge smiled at his host. “I’m Rodge,” he told Troy and put down the ladle. He held out his hand. “Cecile’s husband.”
Troy ignored his hand. “Rodge Collette? You’re an interior decorator too?” “Debrett. I’m Rodge Debrett. And I work at University Hospital.”
“What are you, a doctor?”
“A doctor? No. Not exactly.” He pulled at the edge of his new jacket with the hand that had been refused.
“What are you!”
Rodge took his time, wanting to frame a title for himself that might flatten this son of a bitch. “You think I’m one of the docs? No, your error.” He felt his balance go off kilter and grabbed the side of the table. As he steadied himself, he had a glancing view of his wife and the women and men around her watching him with alarm. Watch this, he wanted to tell them. “Listen,” he said. “A doc? I’m the man who makes sure those doctors get paid.” His heart seized a bit just then because he believed the other man was about to hit him. He braced his feet on the floor, fists up, ready to return a punch.
Troy didn’t hit him. He turned his back on him and walked away.
Rodge hollered, “What am I? You want to know what I am?” and unzipped his fly.
Cecile saw this and so did the people around her. A few more heads turned in his direction and, with that, more and more people turning to see what had every- one suddenly paralyzed. His hand pulled out his wrinkled, fleshy coup du ciel as Cecile had happily named it. It moved, growing slightly as though sensing many people. Turning its singular eye, Who all is here in anticipation? Then the thick hand of its owner directed it down. Rodge peed into his cup, a few drops ricocheting up, the noise echoing in the sudden silence. He poured the cup into the punch bowl, a torrential noise given the hush. To the sound of his wife crying out to him, he did this a second time for good measure.
The house with the tented room sold quickly. The furniture was sold, too, and one of the cars. Until a plan was in place, the Jordans moved in with Hallie’s mother, who lived in a bungalow in Bay Village with her partner and her partner’s dog, a Great Pyrenees. The dog, a natural nanny, hovered over Poppy, who grabbed its fur and hugged it, followed it, fed it, and often napped against its heavy belly.
The two elder Jordan children came home to find work and cheap rooms. They were there at dinner when Hallie’s sisters and brother came over with their partners. The dining room was crowded. A chair had to be brought in from the garage. Hallie now and then put her hand on Troy’s back, rubbing the soft fabric of his shirt. It was less support for Troy—though it was that—than a warning to the others not to pile on with advice or opinions. The two grown children watched their father as though unable to recognize him. When Troy announced he’d begin again and it would be even better, it was a non sequitur. Hallie’s mother brought up the affection the dog had for Poppy. She told anecdotes about previous family dogs, devious terriers and foolish hounds, but the stories gained only a little flight before losing air.
Finally someone asked, “Who was that guy? At the party?” The room came to life. Hallie and Troy began laughing. “Oh my God, that guy!”
“I will never drink gin again in my life.” “Or punch. Nothing liquid.”
“But who was he?”
“That’s what he was saying. That guy. He was telling Troy who he was.” “I didn’t care who he was.”
“He came in with Hallie’s decorator.” “Did she bill you for it?”
“He was the only thing that made me glad to sell the house. I couldn’t eat in that dining room again.”
As they laughed, talking about the party, Hallie looked for the dog. There. Once she found the dog, she saw Poppy, her lifeline, an antidote. Seeing Poppy, she felt her breath come deep and steady. She sat back, calm now, and felt her son’s arm around her. She heard her grown daughter’s voice, “You should go into catering, Mom.”
“Beatrix Windsor,” Cecile, now Beatrix, introduced herself to the woman. They’d left St. Paul’s after Mass at about the same time, and the woman looked approachable. “I’m new to Grosse Pointe, to Michigan in fact.”
“Oh. Welcome. You’ll like it here.” “Just hoping to find things peaceful.” “This isn’t a business move?”
She turned for a quick look at the lake before they headed into the parking lot. “I lost my husband.” She didn’t mention how. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“I wanted to kind of start fresh. Away from memories.” “I don’t blame you.”
“And my business is portable. I’m an interior decorator.” “A decorator.”
She would not be downhearted. The divorce had left her nearly penniless, but enough remained after they sold the condo to cover an apartment rental and new business cards. She found part-time bookkeeping work, something to hold her until Beatrix Windsor Interiors began taking on clients. Her ads were already in the bulletins of her new churches. She had not been afraid to knock on doors of design shops and show photos of the tented room. One owner said she might be used, as he’d put it, for any overflow. Just that slight promise had thrilled her. To keep her spirits high, she worked evenings on her living room. Her landlady was impressed. And the landlady might know people.
There were nights she was tempted to go back to a dating sight and find another man. A fantasy of romantic moments tempted her. There were times she longed for the bustle of children, of pets and schedules and hurrying, the measure a shared life would take of her. But then she’d sketch out a solution to the problem of a room and become so engaged she’d question if love was really in her best interest. People didn’t blossom beneath her talents the way a sofa or a wall could. Burned bridges and a foolish man be damned, she could be happy. Michigan would get beautiful. She had her passion.
With permission of the University of Iowa Press ©2020 Eileen O’Leary. Used with permission.
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