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THE HOUSE WAS yellow, a clapboard Cape Cod with a white picket fence and a big bay window on one side, and Ellen loved it with all her heart. She loved the way the wind from the Gorge stirred the trees to constant motion outside the windows, the cozy arc of the dormers in the girls’ bedroom, the cherry red mantel with the cleanly carved dentil molding over the fireplace in the living room. She had conceived children in that house, suffered a miscarriage in that house, brought her babies home there, argued with her husband there, made love, rejoiced, despaired, sipped tea, and gossiped and sobbed and counseled and blessed her friends there, walked the halls with sick children there, and scrubbed the worn brick of the kitchen floor there at least a thousand times on her hands and knees. And it was because of all this history with the house, all the parts of her life unfolding there day after day for so many years, that Ellen decided to burn it down.
At first she thought she wouldn’t have to. While she had known at every step that moving was a mistake, she could almost picture someone else in the house, perhaps a nice retired couple who would stay a few years before moving on, or a quiet bachelor who would love the garden and the big bedroom on the main floor. She was totally unprepared for Jordan, whose brisk efficiency and patronizing air of possession and pity just turned Ellen’s stomach.
“I want to assure you that the house will be well-loved,” Jordan told her repeatedly, after showing up unexpectedly at the back door one day, tape measure in hand. “I adore it and we have great plans for it.”
Ellen was silent. She didn’t want Jordan loving her house, any more than she would want Jordan loving her husband, even if he was her soon to be ex-husband. She didn’t even want to meet Jordan, who had bought the house just weeks ago, with the stipulation that Ellen could rent it back until the end of May. Ellen didn’t want to be able to picture the new family who would be living in her house, the other children who would make a clubhouse in the attic under the eaves and measure their growth against the doorjamb of the closet in the master bedroom. She had attended the closing last week by herself, signing the papers after Jordan and her husband had signed their part, signing away a whole life embodied by the little yellow house.
Ellen instantly mistrusted Jordan, quickly assessing her straight blond hair, cut in the usual suburban-mom bob, her small size (she stood barely five foot three, Ellen guessed), and her persistently upbeat tone of voice, and making an immediate judgment that this was someone she would never like. Jordan had a heart-shaped face, with a sharp, almost elfin chin, china blue eyes, and a spattering of pale freckles across her nose. She had probably been a cheerleader, Ellen thought, and a sorority sister. Ellen, as a petite person herself, felt strongly that small people should avoid perkiness at all costs.
“I know this must be hard for you,” Jordan said. “But you should know that I’m very good with houses. I was an art history and architecture major at U.Va. Where did you go to school?”
The question irritated Ellen. To begin with, it had been more than twenty years since she’d been in any kind of school, so she had no idea why that should be important. And it was also a question that was so completely “East Coast” as to be embarrassing. No one in Oregon ever asked—or cared—about your school affiliation.
“This is the West Coast,” Ellen said, a little sharply. “You’re not supposed to ask what college someone went to here.”
Jordan smiled. “I need to measure the kitchen window again for my contractor,” she said, putting her bag down on the tile countertop. “I’ll only be a minute.”
Ellen watched Jordan, standing on tiptoe in her tiny black capri pants and gray U.Va. sweatshirt, stretching the tape measure from one end of her windowsill to the other. Ellen felt suddenly and unreasonably enraged. And that’s when she first thought of burning down the house, picturing Jordan’s pert mouth in a perfect little O of astonishment when she heard the news.
Ellen didn’t know what to do with the intensity of her feelings about the house. If she lost a parent, God forbid, or even a beloved pet, the outpouring of sympathy from her friends and family would be enormous and complete and sincere. But no one seemed to empathize with the huge sense of loss she had over the house, the grief that felt as real as any she had experienced. It was the death of a life, the life she and Sam and Sara and Louisa had had here and now would never have again.
To be perfectly honest, the house had its flaws. The kitchen was too small and dark and the upstairs bathroom ridiculously crowded, up under the eaves. The stairwell from the first floor to the second was so steep and narrow they couldn’t even fit their queen-size box spring into the opening and had had to special-order one that was split in two. But their bedroom window looked out across the orchard next door, an overgrown tangle of espaliered apple trees, and beyond that over a row of Douglas firs to the purple and blue mounds of the Cascades in the distance. She had ripped up the carpet there herself, and stripped and sanded and polished the old oak floors until they glowed. She’d spent weeks poring over paint chips and mixing colors and painting swatches on the walls to come up with just the right shade of blue-lavender, the same color as the mountains that ribboned across the horizon outside the window. She’d stood each of the girls against the doorjamb to Sam’s closet twice a year and carefully marked the date and their height and their initials. It was not just rooms, not just a house; it was an expression of Ellen herself, nurtured as carefully as the people she’d loved inside its walls.
Jordan, standing in Ellen’s kitchen, tapped her little foot impatiently. Ellen noted that she was wearing Tinker Bell sneakers. Why on earth a thirty-something woman who clearly had given birth and seen something of life would want to wear a Disney character on her feet was inexplicable to Ellen.
“Ellen? You’ll be out by May thirty-first, right? I really need to get my carpenters in here as soon as possible.”
Carpenters. Ellen saw hammers smashing great holes in the plaster of her walls, crowbars prying loose carefully painted moldings and cupboards.
“Yes,” she said. “By five on May thirty-first.”
“Good.” Jordan picked up her big brown handbag, overflowing with pens, blueprints (for my house! Ellen thought), and a sterling silver key fob attached to a ring of at least sixteen jangly keys.
“Oh, and Jordan?”
Jordan turned, running a hand possessively over the smooth ceramic countertop.
“Harvard. Early decision. Magna cum laude,” Ellen lied flawlessly. “See you in a few weeks.”
The last day of May was little more than three weeks away. Immediately after Jordan left, Ellen poured herself a cup of tea and sat down at the computer. Of course she couldn’t do anything obvious—she had two girls to raise, and no intention of spending the next twenty years in jail. She had to make sure no one was hurt. It had to be a contained fire, one that couldn’t spread to the neighbors’ homes or injure the firefighters. It had to be just enough to gut a room, pour thick smoke through the rest of the house, just enough to leave the house unsalvageable. Then Jordan and her carpenters could tear it down and build a perfect new house, one that wouldn’t include the room where Ellen had lain in bed for five days after losing the baby, her middle child, or the rooms where Sara had taken her first step and Louisa had whispered “hot, hot”—her first word.
Ellen looked up electrical hazards. Overloaded sockets. Loose wires. Bare wires. Water near wires. The house was almost seventy years old, after all. Then again, the intricacies of electrical wiring terrified Ellen, who still had those little plastic protectors stuck in the sockets even though the girls were no longer babies, just because it made her feel better. No, she needed an accidental fire, something simple. Candles.
The screen door to the kitchen slammed, and Ellen quickly turned off the computer screen.
“Here, in the office.”
Sam walked in and sat on the arm of the blue and white striped couch. His wavy, almost black hair stuck out in every direction. He was dressed in baggy tan corduroys and a navy blue Henley shirt that lay untucked over his pants. A two-day stubble of beard, black speckled with gray, covered the lean angles of his cheeks and chin. Ellen had always loved his rumpledness, even when he drove her crazy. Part of it was simply that he was so physically beautiful and didn’t even know it, and clearly didn’t care. With his high cheekbones, thick dark brows, and brown-black eyes, he looked almost foreign, exotic. A gifted athlete, he moved with an unthinking grace, with a complete ease and familiarity with his body that Ellen envied. She looked at him and realized that, even though she was about to divorce him, she was still attracted to him and probably always would be.
“Are the girls home? I promised I’d take them for ice cream.”
“No, they’re not home yet. They’re staying at Joanna’s for dinner,” Ellen said. “But Jordan Boyce was here. She just left.”
“I thought you didn’t want to meet her,” Sam said. He picked up Louisa’s pink rubber ball from the floor and began to toss it up and down absentmindedly with one hand, catching it without even seeming to look at it.
“I didn’t! She called and asked if she could come take some measurements. I told her I’d be out until six but would leave the back door unlocked. She showed up twenty minutes after I got home. I know she did it just so she could meet me and tell me how wonderfully she’s going to take care of the house. I hate her.”
“That’s silly,” Sam said, deftly tossing the ball above his head and catching it behind his back.
“It’s not silly,” Ellen said. “And stop throwing that ball.”
“It’s silly to hate someone you don’t even know,” Sam said, with some exasperation. He placed the ball down on the couch and looked at her. “You don’t know Jordan Boyce. You just met her. You hate her because you hate moving.”
“No,” Ellen said. “I hate moving and I hate her.”
“This is like having a conversation with a three-year-old,” Sam said.
“Oh, come on, Sam. She’s an idiot, with her little U.Va. sweatshirt and her fake sincerity. And the Realtor told me she’s named her children Lily and Daisy and Stamen, so they all have flower names.”
“She didn’t name a child Stamen,” said Sam. “Really?”
“She did! When she had her son, she couldn’t name him Poppy or Iris or another girls’ flower name, so she named him Stamen. It sounds close enough to Holden and Caden and all those other trendy boy names you hear at every preschool now. And she kept telling me again and again how the house will be so well-loved—as though I didn’t love it well enough!” Ellen felt like crying again.
“Oh, come on,” Sam said. “It’s a house. It’s four walls and a roof and it’s been a good house for us and now our life is changing. You’ll have another house.”
“But it won’t be this house,” Ellen said. “That’s like saying if Sara dies I can just have another child.”
“It’s nothing like that,” Sam said. He made a disgusted tsking sound with his tongue that really irritated her. “That’s a totally inappropriate analogy. You wanted this, remember?”
“I didn’t want this,” Ellen said. “I never wanted to leave the house.”
“Right,” said Sam. He stood up in front of the couch, both hands on his hips. “You just wanted to leave me. It’s no big deal to leave me, and to take the kids away from their father, but it’s huge to have to give up the house.”
Ellen looked at him mutely. She was forty-four, and she was tired. For the first six years of their marriage they had moved, on average, once every eighteen months. Sam was an inventor. After getting a degree in chemical engineering followed by a brilliant early career in product development for Procter & Gamble, he’d decided to start his own business, SamCan, Inc., where he created a series of wildly imaginative new products. The problem was that every new idea seemed to be accompanied by his conviction that he had to live in just the right place to launch it. They moved to Fort Worth when Sam invented the line-dancing boot, footwear that contained a small metronome that tapped out the dance beat for the rhythm-impaired. When that didn’t take off (no one in Texas seemed to consider themselves rhythm-impaired), they moved on to Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and then Brooklyn. Finally, twelve years ago, they arrived in Portland to perfect the Gutter Buddy, a motorized little broom that fit inside a gutter, chopped the pine needles and leaves into bits, then pushed them down the drainpipe.
And then Ellen simply refused to move again. After years of putting off having children, and working endless hours to get her decorating business up and running in one town after another, she was done. She wanted to buy a house and paint the walls red, not some neutral rental color. She wanted to get pregnant and have babies. She wanted to plant bulbs and know she’d be there in the spring to watch them bloom. She wanted to make friends and reminisce over shared memories that went back more than twelve months.
So they stayed. Sam took a job at Oregon Health & Science University, working in biomedical engineering, and she opened her shop, Coffee@home, where she sold espresso drinks and home furnishings, and she had the babies and worked on the house and planted a perennial garden. She became best friends with Joanna, her next-door neighbor. They went through pregnancy and breast feeding and croup together, and their children were so close that Joanna’s daughter, Emily, became known as “Three,” the third child Ellen and Sam had wanted but couldn’t have. After twelve years in Portland, Ellen had finally allowed herself to believe that this was it, that she had roots that were deep and strong and permanent. So when Sam came home one day and announced that he had an absolutely brilliant idea that could fly only in Boston, she said, simply, “No.”
The hot dog diaper was his best idea yet, Sam said. It was a special absorbent wrapper for hot dogs cleverly crafted to keep the mustard and ketchup from squirting out the other end. He’d been struck by the idea one day when they’d been watching the Portland Beavers, the local AAA team. The girls had been alternately giggling and whining over the mess they made with the mustard and ketchup that seemed to shoot out from their hot dogs with every bite. “Daddy, look,” Louisa had said, holding up her dripping hot dog, which had a sticky napkin, soaked in mustard, stuck on one end. “My hot dog pooped!”
And Sam was thunderstruck. Diapers, it had to be said, were his thing. Ellen had insisted on cloth diapers for both the girls, and Sam had quickly become an expert at folding, wrapping, and pinning, much more adept, in fact, than Ellen herself. He seemed to love changing the babies, perfecting his elaborate diaper-folding technique, nuzzling their warm bellies with his nose. Ellen always rolled her eyes but felt secretly and foolishly proud that she had a husband who was the first to whisk away the baby who needed changing.
Once the idea for the hot dog diaper hit, Sam spent hours trying to develop a fabric that would contain spills but keep the hot dog moist and juicy. He wanted to quit work and devote himself to the hot dog diaper full-time. He made a few prototypes and sold them at the Beavers’ stadium. He drew up a marketing plan. There was no place in the world like Fenway Park for hot dogs, he said, and Boston was the place to be if they were really going to make the hot dog diaper a success.
Ellen was doubtful, and adamant. What if the hot dog diaper didn’t take off? she argued. (The very idea that Sam expected people to put something called a “diaper” near their food was ridiculous enough, as she pointed out repeatedly.) What if they ended up eighteen months from now with their savings depleted and Sam out of work? They had children in school, with friends and routines and all the familiarity that years in one place finally had brought them.
And they had the house. It wasn’t just four walls and a roof, as Ellen tried to explain to Sam again and again. It was the thirty-nine pages of carefully crayoned pictures of turtles that Sara and Emily had taped to the basement wall when they were four and created the Turtle Club, whose original purpose was long forgotten even while the drawings, yellowing and curled at the edges, remained. It was the faded spot in the paint on the stairwell where Louisa had tried, somewhat in vain, to scrub off the elaborate mural she had penciled there at age three. It was the view out the window of the girls’ bedroom, overlooking the garden with the enormous white hydrangea, its trunk held together with duct tape ever since the ice storm six years ago.
But what to Ellen was a life beloved and well-worn, like a favorite pair of jeans, was to Sam a life of unending boredom and predictability. He craved the risk and excitement of a new entrepreneurial adventure; he didn’t want to end up at fifty-five or sixty, he told her, still sitting in the same cubicle every day and mowing the same patch of lawn every weekend.
Finally, Ellen agreed to take out a second mortgage on the house so Sam could develop and sell a first round of hot dog diapers. The money was spent before they knew it, and then he had to borrow from their savings, and then, just as Ellen had feared, the money was all gone.
Sam had quit his job at OHSU to work on the prototypes; Ellen’s shop, while it was turning a small profit, wasn’t bringing in enough to cover the payments on the first and second mortgages. She was frustrated that her business, which she’d worked so hard to grow, had become their sole source of income. Coffee@home had always been a treat for Ellen—work, yes, but fun work. She loved escaping for a day or a weekend to go on buying trips to find furniture and collectibles for the shop, and then arranging it all in a way that made Coffee@home seem completely inviting. She loved working behind the counter and getting to know all the regular customers, and becoming part of their lives. She loved her little staff. Now, with the pressure to earn more and more, much of the fun was gone. She bought collectibles with an eye for profit, not passion. She pored over websites trying to figure out new ways to market the shop and started to pay for advertising in the local paper. She kept the shop open longer to squeeze a few extra dollars out of each day.
Finally she grew so angry—with herself and with Sam—that she could barely speak and spent months in a constant state of rage. In the end they agreed to separate and sell the house. Six months ago Sam had moved into a small apartment in Beaverton, about fifteen minutes away, and taken on consulting work while still commuting back and forth to Boston in a persistent attempt to get the hot dog diaper off the ground. More than once he had asked Ellen to reconsider—for the kids, for their own relationship, which stretched back over twenty years, a living history of each of them. But for Ellen, the one wild spark in her personality that had driven her to marry someone as unconventional as Sam had been extinguished by the loss of the home and the security she had built so carefully over so many years. If she had to be the grown-up, so be it, but she was not going to be the grown-up for a forty-five-year-old man.
“We can’t have that conversation again, Sam,” she said finally, looking into his eyes. “You’re the one who mortgaged the house for the hot dog diaper, and who’s choosing to spend half his time three thousand miles away from his family.”
“Right,” he said abruptly. “I’ve gotta go.”
She stood up and walked back to the kitchen with him.
He paused at the screen door, one hand on the latch. The sadness in his face was painful to look at; she stifled the impulse to reach out and put a hand on his shoulder.
Instead she said, “Can you take the girls Friday night? I’m going to have a little party, and it would really help me out.”
“Sure. What’s the party for?”
“It’s kind of a farewell party for the house.”
“Don’t you want the girls there? And I’m not invited?”
Ellen heard the edge in his voice.
“No, it’s a girls’ night out thing. Just Jo and Laurie and some others.”
“Fine. I’ll pick the kids up at six.”
Ellen watched the door click behind him, stared at the pattern of filtered sunlight on the grass through the branches of the big cedar tree in the backyard.
She wondered if it was against the law to buy two hundred candles at once.
IT WAS ONLY 7:00 A.M., and Ellen was already hot and dirty. She could feel her hair slipping out of the big tortoiseshell clip she wore when she was working, and her T-shirt and jeans seemed to be covered in a fine layer of dust. She’d spent the early morning back in the tiny storeroom, searching for the boxes of pillar candles she had ordered last September to sell for the holidays. There had to be at least four dozen left, she thought, big, fat candles in warm shades of red and gold. They’d be perfect for her party. After almost half an hour of perching precariously on the little red stepladder and rooting through coffee filters, boxes of antique salt and pepper shakers, packets of sugar, and other miscellany, she finally found them, stashed underneath a box of Christmas lights and several unsold vintage snow globes.
She barely had time to stash the candles in the trunk of her Toyota before she had to open the store for the usual morning rush of before-work customers eager for their coffees. Cloud, the store manager, had called in sick, meaning Ellen was alone until Stacy arrived for her shift at three. Ellen tucked her hair behind her ears and began to steam milk for another latte.
The store was doing surprisingly well. Coffee@home had started out when the house had grown too small for the treasures Ellen picked up at flea markets and estate sales and on little driving trips along the Oregon coast. She loved good furniture and quirky accessories and the often-rich history behind old things. She had a good eye for color and shape and unexpected mixes, and she loved turning the house into a home rich with comfort and beauty and memory, piece by treasured piece. She had picked up the bright red corner cupboard six years ago in Seattle, knowing it would fit perfectly in the corner of the dining room. She’d found the old carved Chinese wooden bench at a thrift store in Eugene and knew, even with her eyes closed, that it was the perfect size to fill the nook beneath the sunny bay window in the living room. When she realized that she had enough, that the house was full and felt right, she set up a booth at a local antiques mall for leftover treasures, like the duplicate pieces of milk glass and the bentwood rocker that didn’t really fit in the bedroom.
When the booth did well, she rented her own space in a shopping center in West Slope anchored by a large grocery chain on one end and a framing gallery, a barbershop, an office supply store, and a gift shop on the other. Ellen’s shop was next to the gift store. It was a large, square space with a wall of windows opening onto the sidewalk. She installed bead board paneling halfway up the interior walls, with a plate rail above it to hold small treasures. She painted the paneling a soft turquoise, and the walls above it a sunny yellow. The floor, a worn golden oak, she left as it was.
She filled it with the overflow from her house and her antiques booth: a mahogany dresser with drawers of golden oak and shiny brass drawer pulls; a kitchen table from the 1930s, with white painted legs and a soft green enameled top with flowers stenciled in bright yellow at the corners; a rustic armchair made of hickory branches, with an intricately woven rush seat and back. She used the plate rail to display her Fiesta ware: cobalt plates, turquoise creamers, bright orange teacups, cream-colored saucers. On the walls she hung old maps and paintings of Oregon, framed in rustic wood.
One day on a whim Ellen purchased a beautiful copper espresso machine, with a gleaming dome and a brass eagle on top. She learned how to make cappuccinos and lattes and espressos, how long to steam the milk to build up a creamy head of foam without scalding it, how to grind the beans to the right consistency so the espresso was rich but not muddy. Soon she had installed a counter and a case for scones and muffins and crisp biscotti that she bought from a local baker. She changed the name of the store, which had been simply At Home, to Coffee@home and got a black-and-white 1950s-style sign made with a big coffee cup logo and the name of the store in pink neon.
Soon she had a steady stream of customers who liked the fact that they could buy the large, comfortable armchairs they sat in every morning while they read the paper, or the Harlequin mugs that stood in a brightly colored row atop the hutch against the back wall. Every three months she held a floor sample sale and sold all the biggest pieces of furniture at a discount, before the chairs could get coffee-stained or the sofas too filled with crumbs.
Now she had a manager, a staff of five, which meant she could take weekends off and even leave on vacation once in a while, and an actual income after years of barely breaking even. And she had work that she genuinely enjoyed. Ellen loved making the drinks, the warm feel of the steaming milk in the metal jug against her hand, the grateful way people cradled their cups against their palms.
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 2008
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Hachette Books