The weekend he moved in with her it rained off and on, typical for the Cape in January and exactly the sort of weather for curling up in a comfortable chair and grading papers while finishing off a pot of coffee. Instead, Jack spent most of Sunday lugging soggy moving cartons, with their peculiar smell of cheap transience. Back and forth, from his apartment to the car to the house, seven or eight exhausting trips. He was more out of shape than he realized. When Angie returned from the gym she found him scrunched onto the half of the couch that wasn’t buried under her laundry. He was still huffing.
Once he’d caught his breath he pointed at the dingy white wall separating the kitchen from the dining area. “If this were my place,” he suggested tentatively, “I might tear that wall down.”
“Shows what you know,” Angie said. “It’s a supporting wall. Take that down and the roof comes with it.” She sat with her arms crossed over her substantial chest, as if daring him to contradict her.
“Well, then I’d open it up. Carve out a big space in the middle. Get some more light in the kitchen. Come spring you’ll be able to see the bulbs in front. Tulips. Iris. Daffies.”
It wasn’t his place, of course. It was hers. Part of a meager inheritance that came, traceable step by traceable step, down a long line of forebears all the way back to the gangplank of the Mayflower. But rather than raising her stature in his eyes, all that high-fallutin’ lineage only reinforced for him how quickly and dismally fortunes could change.
So often, as he listened to her talk about the place, it sounded more like a burden than a gift. The other day she’d torn open an official looking envelope and announced angrily: “Taxes went up again. Can you believe it?”
A few weeks before that she woke up shivering in the middle of the night. She pulled up the army-surplus blankets, turned on the light and nudged him awake.
“Just what I need: another thousand dollar repair bill,” she said.
“What?” he asked rubbing his eyes from within a half-remembered dream.
“The lousy heater died,” she said.
“Snuggle closer,” he suggested as he rolled over.
Under her breath he heard her mumble, “My hero.” Then she turned off the light and he felt her arms around him.
Now, he looked over at her as she sat staring at the wall, a blank expression on her face. He expected her to remind him, once again, whose house this was.
“Never mind,” Jack finally said. “It was just a thought.”
“No, no,” Angie said shaking a finger in the air. “What’ve you got? A week before classes begin?”
“Ten days,” he corrected her. “The 13th.”
“More than enough time. Go for it.”
He cocked his head in disbelief. She was not simply green-lighting the concept, she was agreeing to a suggestion he had never made, that he actually do the work. But the more he thought of it the more he liked it.
They had been dating for only a few months. He had met her at a parent-teacher conference; her sister couldn’t make it so she was filling in. Jack had watched intently from behind his desk as Angie scanned her niece’s report card and pointed to the only F, in mathematics, soaring above a flock of D’s.
“Megan’s not one for numbers, is she Mr.-” She read his name tag. “Is she Mr. Cowers,” she concluded brightly.
“Megan’s not one for school, is she?” he’d replied dryly, “Ms-”
“Richardson,” she replied and they shared a guilty laugh. When he asked if she’d like to join him for dinner she suggested her favorite place and later that night, in a back booth of China Heaven, they faced each other and shared intimacies.
“I’m an only child,” Jack said. “And, though it sounds weird at my age, I am, technically, an orphan.” He laughed first, and she joined in.
“I was married once,” she said hesitantly. “For six months.” She blushed. “He was a creep. Cheated on me on our honeymoon, for Christ sake.” Jack waited to see if she would laugh and when she didn’t he looked into her blue eyes. The wound was still there. He used his napkin to wipe sparerib glaze from his lips before leaning over and hugging her and planting a kiss on her cheek.
“Guy sounds like a real loser,” he said. A needy smile quivered on her lips.
“Don’t get me started,” she said as she opened her purse and fished around for something. Jack worried that she might be searching for her list of marital grievances, but a moment later she reached up with a handkerchief and blew her nose daintily before using her chopsticks to scoop another helping of vegetarian lo-mein onto her plate.
One chilly night after work, Angie waited for Jack outside the dental building. She filed a chipped nail and when Jack drove up in his ten year old Volvo with the noisy muffler, she got in, ready for their dinner-date.
“Talked to the landlord today,” he said, his face tight with worry.
“And?” she asked.
“He’s not going to renew the lease. His son is coming home from college and he wants the apartment for him.” He looked up expectantly, as if awaiting an answer to a question he had not asked.
“You could move in to my place,” she offered, her voice rising at the end, making it as much a question as a statement.
“Thanks. I’ll think about it.” He suspected it wasn’t the answer she wanted but that was as committal as he could be, even though the thought of looking for a new place to rent left him feeling depressed.
“I’ve only got one rule,” she announced, as she fidgeted to get comfortable in the front seat, moving a stack of exam booklets to the rear seat. He waited, his hands tightening on the steering wheel, his body hunched forward, his eyes avoiding hers. “Honesty,” she said nodding her head as if that explained everything.
“Honesty,” she repeated. “That’s it. For as long as it lasts, let’s just be honest with each other.”
He didn’t need to inquire further regarding her request. They were both old enough to have been around several blocks and to know there were some scabs you could pick at and other hurts that were best left alone to heal, over time, in privacy. His silence seemed to be the response she wanted and, as if to seal the deal, she leaned over and slapped his back with Heimlich force.
On the drive to the restaurant he experienced a lightness that made him want to smile. He checked to make sure his seatbelt was secure, as if there were a danger he might float up and out the open windows of the car.
Monday morning, his first in what was his new residence, Jack rose early and unpacked the last of his things from the moving boxes. In the hall closet where he’d hung his work clothes (his sports jackets, slacks, button down shirts and ties), there was still enough room for her vacuum cleaner. In the bathroom he looked around for a small place to empty out the brown leather case which contained all of his toiletries- a comb and brush, razor and shaving cream, toothbrush. The Formica countertop, clearly her territory, was a miniature drugstore, a chaos of cosmetics and homeopathic medications. He placed his few things on the small wooden ledge above the medicine cabinet.
By the time the sun was fully up he had showered and shaved and was standing on the porch in his down jacket. Several small white feathers were attempting an escape through a tear at the pocket. Steam floated up from his coffee mug as he watched Angie back the Dodge out onto the ice-patched driveway on her way to work.
“Drive slow on 6,” he called to her.
She waved goodbye and offered a cautious reminder: “Be careful. You know you and tools.”
He cupped one hand around his ear. “Sorry,” he said. “Can’t hear you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, her head bobbing dismissively. “And if you listen to music, listen to your music.”
Jack rummaged around in the cobwebbed garage and stumbled upon an old sledge hammer and two sheets of thin, rolled-up plastic covered with specks of brown paint from someone’s previous attempt at home improvement. Back in the house, he covered the floor with the plastic but every time he took a step it moved. Angie kept a bucket of cleaning supplies under the sink, along with tapes and glues and other adhesives. Impatiently, he shoved his arm behind the sponges and groped blindly, shoving plastic pipes aside, perhaps further than they should be moved but impossible to tell unless he got down on his hands and knees which he had no intention of doing. His hand finally grasped something that felt right and when he pulled it out he was holding a roll of blue masking tape. He snipped off several small pieces which he used to tape the plastic to the wall.
Warming his hands on his reheated mug he sat at the kitchen table to consider his next move. He thought of calling Doug Hendricks, the shop teacher. But even though they’d started teaching at Dumont Junior High at the same time he never really connected with the guy and felt too awkward calling him now, out of the blue and during winter break, to ask for any favors.
The phone rang. It was Angie, idling away a few minutes between cleanings.
“How’s it going? Do I still have a house?”
“Yup,” he said, trying to cut short the conversation.
“Does it still have a roof?”
“Don’t you have anything better to do than to check up on me?” he asked, only half joking. She must have caught the annoyed tone because she quickly said goodbye and hung up, the way she sometimes did when she had a patient walk in.
Jack put his CD of Leonard Cohen’s greatest hits on at high volume. He grabbed the sledge, hoisted it over his shoulder and began hammering away, the dirge-like music somehow comforting. Soon, sweat poured from his face and down his back. After hammering a few more times he stopped and removed his jacket. The construction was lath and plaster, and chips of wood and chunks of plaster flew from the wall and lay strewn about the floor, the white dust settling in the cracks of the floorboards and the creases of his forehead. A blast of cold air reminded him that the fire in the living room needed tending and when he returned he stood in the doorway of the kitchen and admired his handiwork.
There, in the center of the wall, he could see the outline of the space he was creating. It was probably bigger than Angie had in mind, and he wasn’t sure she’d approve. But if she didn’t … Well, she could change it. After all, it was her place. And, as she was not shy about reminding him, she was handier than he was. Not as clever when it came to syntax, or point of view, or analyzing character. He had her hands down in those departments.
That one-upmanship of hers, though- that was something they’d have to discuss if things got more serious between them. Not that he was sure they would, what with her checking up on him, and reminding him of what was hers and therefore not his. Like her CDs. And DVDs. And the house itself.
He picked up the sledge hammer and slammed it into the wall, producing a deep bellow as another chunk of the wall gave way.
Once she loosened up, Angie could be a good sport. He’d give her that. But she tended, as the kids at school would say. Tended towards this and that. In her case, she tended towards haughtiness and righteousness. That way she had of putting him down for things that were none of her business. Like eating meat. As if being a vegetarian made her a saint.
A while back she’d had a few of her friends over for dinner to celebrate the wedding of the lesbian couple. While the others were all seated out on the deck, enjoying their glasses of Chablis, he’d added a tablespoon of bacon fat to the organic potato casserole the newlyweds had brought. Later, at the candle-lit table, when everyone agreed that it was the best dish at the meal, he coupled his hands behind his neck and smiled as they cooed about how much flavor you could get from slow-cooked shallots and fresh thyme.
In bed that night, she explored his body with what felt to him like hungry fingers. When he tensed, she asked if something was wrong. He thought back over the evening.
“It’s the way they flaunt themselves. All that kissing and touching. Its weird.”
“Just because they’re both women? It’s not weird. Just different.”
“I guess so,” he said as he reached over to turn out the light. What’s weird, he thought, is that they didn’t taste the bacon fat, or even weirder, that they didn’t mention it.
He hit the wall one more time and the sledge hammer went clear through the other side, shooting a puff of white powder across the oak table. He walked around into the dining room and bent down, chair height, inspecting the results. He could only see the mottled trunk of the pine tree in the back yard. To even get a peek of green he’d have to expand the opening. Bringing the outdoors inside. That was his reason for wanting to do the project in the first place, so he let fly with another thwack. And then another.
By the time four o’clock rolled around he was covered in a slick paste of sweat and plaster dust and flecks of wood. Crouching at the dining room he could look through the hole in the wall, a great cavernous opening, and see the green needles on the lowest branches of the pine tree. He stood back to appraise his work but needed more distance. He was heading into the living room when he heard an unexpected sound.
He froze, his entire body contracted. In the otherwise silent house he heard an ominous drip. In a panic he flew into the kitchen. The faucet at the sink was dry. Besides, the sound was coming from the wall. What the hell was a water pipe doing in this wall? He opened the pantry and took out the flashlight, sent its beam up and down, shot it into the space he’d created. Dry. Not a trace of moisture. Then another drip. He shined the light outside hoping to see rain. Nothing. Cocking an ear, unsure where the sound was coming from, he slowly headed into the living room. In the mirror above the fireplace he caught sight of himself, a ghostly wraith in shades of gray. And there, just over his shoulder, he saw the first cut of Angie’s headlights slicing across the driveway.
“You’ve been busy,” she said a minute later, unloading two bags of groceries in the kitchen. Leonard Cohen suddenly blasted through the speakers. He stepped over and turned the volume down to medium, still loud enough to conceal a drip. Nervously, he held out his arms, wiggled all of his fingers.
“And I’m still in tact,” he said.
“So it appears,” she said stuffing cans of beans and corn into the pantry, not even undoing her coat or removing her gloves.
“Like it?” he asked, displaying his handiwork with a wave of his arm.
“Well” she said, one hand under her chin as she squinted at the wall. “You may not be getting through to Megan but you sure as hell taught that wall a lesson.”
“Try not to be too encouraging. I might get a swelled head,” he said angling back nearer the hole in the wall, straining to hear the next drip. But the music was too loud. The groceries unpacked, Angie placed her hands on her hips and stared at him, and in that instant he was about to confess. Tell her it was all his fault, pack his things and move out. He wasn’t sure where he’d move to, but he’d come up with something.
“Well, get your coat,” she said. “We’re voting tonight. Remember? That land-use ordinance I mentioned? The one that will affect my property value? Hello?”
She tapped her foot impatiently but her voice, to him, had the ring of the governor announcing a midnight reprieve. Jack grabbed his down jacket and followed Angie out to her car. The drive to the Town Hall took ten minutes and when they got there the parking lot was empty.
“Every vote’s going to count on this ballot,” she said. “Thanks for coming.”
“Sure,” he said, shrugging. As if it were no biggie. As if he were voting the way she expected.
Later, back at the house, she turned off the engine and they sat in the driveway, her headlights illuminating the inside of the house. They could see the hole in the wall and through it all the way into the living room where the headlights were reflected in the mirror above the couch. She leaned over and kissed him gently on the lips.
“You were right: it’s going to be beautiful. Thanks.” When she looked back at the house her eyes bulged and her jaw dropped. He followed her gaze. What, less than an hour ago, was merely a sturdy, functioning porch in need of touch-up paint was now also, and quite dramatically, a waterfall. A cascade of dark water slipped over the edge for the entire length. He blinked in disbelief and when he opened his eyes Angie was already out of the car and up the stairs and grumbling as she slogged across her flooded porch. Jack got out of the car and when he closed the car door the headlights went off.
Pointing to the side of the garage Angie shouted to him, “The main shut-off is right there. Kill the water.” She turned and disappeared into the house. Jack searched in the darkness, found the valve and with great effort managed to turn it until it no longer moved. When he looked up, Angie was wielding a mop, sopping up the flood on the porch. She cupped her hand above her eyes to search him out among the shadows. He was standing on the ground right below her.
“The plumber’s just gonna love me,” she fumed.
“I’ll go around back,” he said. “No point in getting my shoes soaked, too.” Even in the faint drizzle of moonlight he could see her eyes roll. As if his getting his shoes wet might somehow improve the situation or his role in it. He was dreading a confrontation as he trudged around to the back. There she stood in the doorway blocking his entry.
She sighed heavily. “Busted water pipe. Under the sink.”
The blue masking tape, he thought. Shit.
“Do I have the luck, or what?” she said, stifling a cry.
He stepped forward and pulled her into him, clasping his arms around her shoulders. She resisted for a moment and then collapsed in sobs. Jack felt the warmth of relief swell his chest.
“Honesty,” he said, as he held her. “Remember the deal?”
He felt her head nod.
“Well,” he said, brimming with generosity, “I live here too. That makes it half my responsibility. We’ll work it out.”
“You are so unbelievably-”
He placed his hand gently across her lips and led her, squishing and sloshing through the water on the hallway floor, squishing and sloshing all the way into the bedroom.