If you’re casting a vote using a similar line of logic as Batman villain Ra’s al Ghul, you might want to reconsider.
The following week, a few days after her thirty-eighth birthday, Cindy Prior asked Sara to meet her at the corner of 20th and Cherry, just a few blocks from where Sara worked. They walked together over cracked and buckled sidewalk down a row of distraught houses. When they reached a faded yellow-brown bungalow, Cindy swung open her arms as if to embrace it.
“Ta-da!” Cindy’s enthusiasm only confused Sara until she added, “It’s mine! It’s my house!” She fished a set of keys from her khakis. “We can go inside and everything!”
They entered through the kitchen, which seemed like it had served the previous owner more as a mud room. The refrigerator was avocado green, and the stove the grisly scene of perhaps one aborted attempt at a meal.
“Everything’s original, and there’s a lot of potential,” Cindy said, quoting her real estate agent and friend Jane Hind. Sara heard more of Jane’s euphemistic descriptions — “classy lines,” “unique,” “old Seattle” — as Cindy escorted her through the house. Off the kitchen were two small bedrooms, one putatively the master but by too small a degree to lord over the other. Instead of a showcase interior, the perfect idealized moment in home owning captured for display, the front room looked as if people arguing about money had left suddenly and violently.
“My lease isn’t up at the Wallingford apartment until the end of the year,” Cindy said, “so you don’t have to feel any rush to leave. And, you know, you can always stay here… once it’s ready for me… or us… to move in. I mean, I know you wanted your own place.”
Sara was only interested in privacy. She’d legally owned two houses with Matt, but she could never maintain a quiet space in either of them.
“Have you had the property inspected?” Sara asked.
“Yeah, Jane has been super helpful. She referred me to a friend of hers who handled it for a fair price.”
“It’s quite a purchase,” Sara said delicately, because the tattered residence was still likely beyond Cindy’s reach, at least on her own.
“My dad loaned me money for the down payment,” she confessed, “… a big part, to be honest… well, all of it, actually. He won’t even consider it a loan. He was so thrilled to help. When I discussed it with him, he just laughed and said, ‘Sure, Captain! You’ve never asked for anything.’”
“You never asked him to stop calling you Captain?” Sara wondered.
“Now you have to see this!” Cindy pushed open the front door, which rattled uneasily on its hinges and revealed a sweeping wraparound porch. “It’s my favorite part of the whole house.” She stopped to look at Sara with consoling eyes. “I’m sorry. This doesn’t bother you, does it?”
Sara cocked her blonde head, considering. “No, I like porches.”
“Oh, I mean, well, your old house had that spectacular porch. I was so peanut butter jealous whenever I came over.” Cindy pulled on her rusty curls like someone trying to straighten lopsided blinds. “But, you know, ‘isn’t that nice?’ jealous not Corinthians jealous.”
“Right,” Sara replied. She had lived in the house on 17th and Prospect for almost a decade, but the day she left, it just felt like checking out of a luxury hotel after a long stay. “I still like porches,” she reassured Cindy.
The swing had left with a past occupant, and orphaned twin chains hung from the ceiling, no longer securing anything. Sara gripped them briefly as if building momentum to propel herself to the knee wall, where she sat and looked out over the faded, ragged lawn.
“So, what do you think?” Cindy zipped and unzipped her down vest as she sat next to Sara. “Do you like the place? Should I keep it?”
Sara frowned. “I thought you’d already bought it.” The closest Sara’s voice came to alarm was when she learned she’d proceeded into a discussion while misunderstanding its key premise.
“Yeah, I have!” Cindy still glowed with the pleasure from her impulsiveness. “But Jane said I have three business days from the closing to kill the deal without penalty.”
Jane usually joked to her clients that this period was the “first trimester of the sale,” but she’d correctly guessed that Cindy wouldn’t appreciate the humor.
“I don’t think my opinion is as relevant as yours,” Sara said.
“Oh, but it is! Maybe even more so. I’m too close to this. It’s like being in love.” Cindy had no personal example to illustrate her point, so instead she said, “When Tim brought home Cyndi, he said he didn’t know how right she was until he saw how much we all loved her. So, you see, it’s really important to me to know how you feel.”
What Sara felt right now was the sudden force of Cindy hurling a decision at her like a medicine ball. She caught her breath and started to speak into her steepled fingers.
“Well,” she said, “this is only my casual observation, but it seems to me the house is in a significant state of disrepair. The exterior paint is peeling and mildewed. The basement is damp. The flooring in the front room will need to be replaced and the sloping addressed. There’s black mold in the bathroom. There’s a steady leak from the roof into the first bedroom. The second has a smell I can’t identify, but it’s possible something died behind one of the walls in the closet.”
“Oh, sure,” Cindy agreed with the trusting reliance of a blind woman being led across a four-lane highway. “But there’s a nice-sized dining room. I could put a real table in there, and I’m already dreaming up all the fun meals I could serve.”
Cindy loved to entertain but it was unrequited. Her apartment was too small; its location not ideal, so she was always a guest and never a hostess. She patted the knee wall, which coughed up dust. “Can’t you imagine sitting out here on a nice day with a beer?” Remembering who she was talking to, she added, “… or a lemonade? Or barbecuing in the backyard?”
“The grass in the backyard is run down and sparse,” Sara noted, “and where there’s no grass, there’s mud and large holes. I think the previous owners had dogs — probably German Shepherds based on the dirt path around the fence.”
Cindy perched her chin on her folded hands. “They’re very happy running in circles, aren’t they?” She spoke as if she saw the former canine tenants romping through the backyard. “Not really going anyplace.”
“I don’t think happiness is what they feel,” Sara said. “They’re just reacting on instinct.”
“Oh, you’re probably right,” Cindy conceded without a struggle, “but I hope that’s not true. Even if they tore up the yard, I’d hate for them to be unhappy.”
“But they’re not unhappy,” Sara stressed, “because they don’t worry about being happy. That’s how they can experience joy.”
Cindy smiled at Sara as though she’d shared something intimate and profound. “I think this place could be my joy,” she declared, waving her hands in front of the house as if performing an illusion. “It’s like my Charlie Brown tree.”
She’d interpreted Sara’s words as something far different than what was intended, but rather than correct her, Sara chose to bolster her optimism with practicality.
“Most of what I described can be repaired,” Sara said. “It would just take some work.”
“And love!” Cindy added, but Sara, who’d been in love, wasn’t sure how the emotion could combat black mold.
“I think,” Sara said after a moment, “ ‘some work’ might be less accurate than ‘a lot of work.’”
“Well, you probably know more about all this than I do,” Cindy said. “You’ve been through it all before when you moved into… the place on 17th.”
“Not really,” Sara said. “Matt just hired someone. There were always people whose job it was to come to us with options. They never provided clarity, just more choices, which I believe Matt secretly enjoyed — anything to delay an actual decision. I remember all this discussion over the color of an accent wall in the den. It eventually wound up being…” She realized she couldn’t remember. “Blue… I think.” She squinted, as if trying to see the wall in her mind. “Maybe purple.”
“Aubergine,” Cindy said quickly. “I loved how the wall provided contrast but didn’t clash with the purple exterior of the house.”
“I thought the exterior was blue,” Sara said, pausing to process this new fact. Perhaps nothing in her life had ever been blue. “See, I’m obviously of no help to you in that area. But I’m happy to assist with…” She started to say “things that matter” but if accent walls mattered to Cindy, she didn’t want to impose her own views on the subject. She walked over to the swing chains. “You know, I used to build things. When I lived with Adam and Barbara, we mowed our own lawn, cooked our own meals, fixed things around the house — not because we had to, but because we wanted to. It’s so peaceful, in a way, to just focus on a simple task without the distraction of needless complexity.”
Cindy lightly fingered the peeling paint, and flush with excitement, she whispered to Sara, “I’m thinking this would look great as a nice, deep blue gray.”
“OK,” Sara said, smiling. She wasn’t moved by the choice of color, nor did she find it “nautical” and “serene” as Cindy described, but it pleased her that the decision was made quickly and with so little fuss.
“I’m not married to it, of course,” Cindy said, although she’d had her heart set on the color after first seeing the house.
Sara cocked her head again. “Well, I wouldn’t think so. It’s only paint.” Loose, leathery sheets came off with her touch. “When can we start?
Sara sat outside with a just-prepared lunch of grilled cheese, and soon an hour had passed without any reason for her to return to the kitchen. That’s when she felt her phone vibrate against her thigh. She couldn’t ignore the call, because that would imply she was busy or away from the phone, and neither was true.
“Sara! So good to hear your voice.” It was Cindy’s sister, Mindy Gardner. They’d met during Sara’s freshman year of college when Cindy invited her to Thanksgiving with the Priors in Spokane. The then thirteen-year-old Mindy spent the holiday running around shouting the words “Mah-Na Mah-Na” at the top of her lungs. Cindy brought Mindy as her guest to Sara’s wedding in 2005, which probably explained why Mindy returned the favor when she married five years later. They’d exchanged only a few dozen words during that period, but Mindy spoke now as if there was a depth of intimacy between them.
“I’m a bad sister,” she whispered as though expecting Sara to dispense Hail Marys. Mindy had put the call on speaker, and a car horn would blare whenever her drive home from work steered toward the potentially fatal. She was a dentist, like her father, and a good portion of her client base were the children of his patients who’d moved to Portland as adults. “I’ve been planning this big birthday bash for Cindy-bon next Saturday and I’m way behind.”
The next Saturday was August 23, so the timing confused Sara. “Cindy was born on September 1,” she said.
“Yeah, but that’s actually Labor Day weekend. Rick and I are going down to Sunriver with another couple.” Mindy started to hum “Take a Chance on Me.” The impromptu hold music stopped once a thought occurred to her. “It’ll be a surprise party! Won’t that be fun?”
“Does Cindy like surprise parties?”
“Totally! Who doesn’t?”
Sara did not, but Mindy’s question was rhetorical, as evidenced by her moving on to the particulars of the party.
“Hey, so Cindy-bon tells me you’re like a chef at some Capitol Hill gastropub.”
The statement met the requirements of a simile but was otherwise inaccurate, so Sara repeated what she knew Cindy had actually told her sister.
“I work as a cook at a diner in the Central District.”
Mindy continued as though Sara had only confirmed what she’d said. “That’s awesome! Yeah, so you know, we renovated our kitchen last year, but I’m still kinda helpless in it, and my shorter, older sister deserves better than my cereal a la Mindy!”
Sara had lived apart from Matt for a couple months now, and during that time, she’d realized that the frustrating way he had of asking favors was not unique to him.
“Would you like my help with anything?” she asked.
Mindy shouted, “Woo-hoo. You’re a total rock star. When Cindy-bon and I throw parties together, she normally handles all the nuts and bolts: you know, food, prep, clean-up. I’ve got the invitation all saved and everything on Paperless Post, so I just need some help with what’s left.”
“Actually, have you ever used Paperless Post? I’m looking at it now on my iPad…” There was another loud honk. “…and the background design saved great, but the time is AM and not PM. I suppose people would know the difference, but you hate to chance it. Oh, and my address is wrong.”
“If you’d send me the link, I could take a look.” Sara was rushing her responses in order to bring the call to a conclusion, which was one reason why she avoided talking on the phone. It was easier for her to reflect on someone’s words and then prepare the right response over an email or text.
“Oh, you’re a lifesaver!” Mindy’s tires screeched as she suddenly slammed on her brakes. “I’d have my office manager fix it, but she starts getting all Occupy Portland if I even ask her to make me an AeroPress.”
— from “The Wrong Questions”
It was the fourth of July, and everyone was celebrating elsewhere. Kay’s Burgers and Fries, on Cherry Street in Seattle, was a small brick building between a dumpster and a beauty supply store that was rarely open. The owner of the establishment leaned across the counter from Sara and scanned her application like it was the Sunday crossword. The waitress, who was nine months into her twenties and six months into her first pregnancy, sat with her feet up at a round metal table and stared out the window that looked out onto the dumpster.
“What do you wanna wait tables for, Richter?” Kay called everyone by their last names. It was a habit she’d picked up from her late husband, who’d served in the Marines during Vietnam. A framed Polaroid of him in front of a flat-top grill hung on the wall.
“I don’t,” Sara said, and a frown further creased Kay’s nicotine-etched face. She continued, reassuring Kay that she wasn’t wasting her time. “I’m answering your posting for a cook.”
Sara’s voice was deep and placid, but it rippled slightly when she expressed her need for a job. It was the first time in her thirty-six years that she’d had a definite need for anything.
“Oh, right, I put out something for both. I got two waitresses ready to hatch.” Kay pulled a pencil from behind her ear and started to scribble on the application. “Can you work late afternoons, nights? We close at 11.”
“Yes,” Sara replied, nodding, “I’ll work anytime at all.”
“You’ll work Jewish holidays?” Kay raised her head and looked over Sara. She was tall and blonde with high cheekbones and large blue eyes. “I suppose that won’t affect you, but I just like to be upfront. This is a business: We’re open every day but Christmas.”
“I understand,” Sara said. “I’d actually like to work long hours.”
Kay grabbed Sara’s hands. They were firm, thin, and unmarked, without even the mild irritation from wearing rings.
“Well,” Kay said after a moment’s careful study, “you’ve either never worked a day in your life or you’re pretty good.” She tapped her on the knuckles. “All right, come with me and we’ll sort you out.”
Kay took Sara through a pair of swinging doors into the kitchen. It was clean but cramped with barely enough room for the cook, who Kay introduced as her son Kevin. He quickly straightened himself to match Sara’s height and wobbled slightly on the leg he’d injured in Iraq. The wound was self-inflicted, much like the war itself, but accidental, so there were no medals or honors, just an early release home. When he returned, he started working for his mother. “Just temporary,” he insisted then and even now to Sara. “Until I can find something else…” He gestured grandly at the undefined dreams that lay somewhere over Sara’s shoulder. “You know, with some opportunity.”
“Yeah, good luck,” Kay snapped, and her son slumped back to his normal, unadjusted five feet nine inches. She lamented to Sara with a shrug, “I had him late. I was barely thirty, and I spoiled him, as you can see.”
Kevin insisted he hadn’t been spoiled. He even did his own laundry and cleaned the bathroom twice a month. (Kay, it seemed, was both his employer and roommate.)
Sara raised her hand. “Excuse me. I think you wanted to ‘sort me out’?”
“Right!” Kay snapped her thick fingers. “Show her how we make a burger, honey.”
Kevin, his face reddening, grumbled under his breath in undecipherable protest over Kay’s calling him “honey” in front of another woman, especially one he hoped to impress. Most men either subtly or overtly tried to impress Sara. She’d been the audience for an unending series of auditions ever since she left Pennsylvania eighteen years ago.
“We do just two things here — burgers and fries,” Kay said. “The fries anyone can learn, but if you can’t cook a burger right the first time, there’s no helping you.”
“Eighty-twenty ground chuck,” Kevin said, forming two patties between the palms of his hands. “All our burgers are the same size — no tall, no venti, no grande… just large.” Pleased with his own clevernesses, he offered Sara a smile, which she accepted patiently.
— from The Wrong Questions
Sara returned from her walk through the Pearl District with her mind cleared of all frustrations from the other day. Perhaps if she’d walked longer and further, she might have realized that she hadn’t achieved clarity so much as she’d managed to tidily sweep up her feelings and put them someplace out of reach. It was like when Matt would agree to get rid of something they no longer used or had any need for, and he’d just move it to the basement or attic.
Back at the penthouse, she pulled off her boots by the front door and took whispered steps into the living room, where she stumbled upon the sepulchral figures of Gina’s in-laws displayed neatly among the furniture: Lillian Merrick was draped across the front of a walnut sofa, like a winter coat someone neglected to hang in the closet, and Doug Merrick sat on the opposite end with his legs parted wide and his stubby arms folded gravely.
“Why, it’s Sara Richter!” Lillian glanced at her husband. “Did you know she was going to be here?”
“I do now.” Doug plugged a thick finger into the gray shrubbery growing inside his ear. The only other significant amount of hair on his head was a bushy mustache, which Gina liked to call the “Tyrannosaurus Pornstachus.”
“How are you?” Sara asked.
Doug answered, “Fine!” quickly, dismissively, which was his normal pattern of speech. Lillian’s fingers clicked together like knitting needles.
“Oh,” she said hesitantly. “You mean today? Right now?”
“It ain’t the Daily Double, Lillian.”
“I’m sorry, Sara,” she murmured, punctuating her apology with a gust of laughter conspicuously devoid of joy. “It’s just… my mind… Doug’ll tell you… my mind’s in other places. See, we came over a little early, not to get in the way or anything… Gina has so much to do, not that she needs my help or asked for it… but anyway, I thought we might get some time with Charlie and the girls. We don’t see them as often as we’d like… and I checked with Charlie about what time would be best…”
“Two o’clock!” Doug broke in, his displeasure beating against Lillian like heavy rain. “You’d settled on two o’clock, which is when we got here, and they’re asleep.” He threw up his hands. “Middle of the day. I can understand the kids…”
Sara, who could hear Gina rattling with purpose in the kitchen, offered to ask the younger Mrs. Merrick to rouse her husband and daughters.
“That’s sweet of you,” Lillian said, “but Charlie works so hard at Microsoft, I hate to disturb him. I know it’s not my place. I’m not his wife. I’m only his mother, but he needs his rest.”
Doug smirked through his mustache, but he didn’t push the matter. He seemed content to be disappointed.
“Did you just get back from a walk?” Lillian asked Sara. “I’ve always admired that about you. You’re so active.”
“You’re wrong there, Lillian,” Doug said decisively. “The best thing about Sara is all up here.” He tapped his bald head. “She’s always been a smart girl, real level-headed. So’s Gina, for that matter.” After a moment’s hesitation, he included his own daughter. “And Teri, of course.”
Sara avoided taking a side in the “mind-body” debate and thanked the Merricks in equal measure for their dueling compliments. She sat in a straight back chair opposite the couple and served herself a healthy piece of the German butter cake laid out on the coffee table. She wanted to join Gina, but she felt committed to the Merricks for at least another few minutes. She’d known Doug and Lillian almost as long as her former in-laws, and although they’d always expressed genuine affection toward her, she felt a stifling tension in their presence from the couple’s tortured efforts to maintain an illusion of marital harmony.
Doug’s right leg jerked restlessly. At his own home, he was constantly adjusting furniture, clearing shelves, wiping away traces of dust only he could see, but the penthouse was spotless beyond even his militaristic expectations, with everything just right, so he turned his attention to his wife, whose hand had fluttered over to take a tiny sliver of cake.
“What did we discuss?” His lips drew tight across his face.
“Oh!” She wrapped the stolen slice in a napkin as if hiding evidence of a crime. “I’m just not used to eating Thanksgiving dinner so late in the day.” She gripped the napkin within a clenched fist. “I suppose that’s a regional difference, but we’re all happy to adjust to it for Gina’s sake. And of course the meals are so heavy and rich. It can throw you off your diet.”
Doug’s mustache bristled furiously. “It’s not a diet. It’s common sense. We could skip eating for the rest of the weekend after today’s full-fat fest.”
Lillian sighed, buckling under the weight of her husband’s declaration. “Well, it’s just wonderful to see you,” she said to Sara. “I’m so glad you’re spending Thanksgiving with us. I assume Gina didn’t tell me for a reason.”
“She works for a living,” Doug barked. “She was probably too busy to send you the guest list.”
“I just wish she had,” Lillian said, her sagging eyes still on Sara, “because I would have brought you something. Charlie says you’re practically starting all over, so you might need essentials, you know, like a good vase.”
Doug gestured in disbelief at the empty space beside him.
“That’s kind of you,” Sara said, taking up another forkful of cake.
“Even when we didn’t have much,” Lillian continued, “I would always set the table with fresh-cut flowers. It can be whatever’s on sale at the supermarket, but it just makes your house feel like a home.” Her hand fell on Sara’s arm like a tissue. “Are your parents still in the same house?”
The question confused Sara, and Lillian explained she meant the same house where Sara grew up.
“No,” she said, pausing to swallow. “We didn’t stay in one place that long. We traveled a lot when I was young.” She mentioned a year spent in Costa Rica and another on a sailboat in the British Virgin Islands.
“I can’t imagine not feeling like you had a home,” Lillian said, shaking her narrow head sadly. “We were determined that Charlie and Teresa would have stability, so no matter the sacrifice, we promised never to move while they were in school. When their father was transferred to Denver in ’89, I stayed here with them, and he rented an apartment in the city.” She smiled slightly at the memory.
“Sara doesn’t care about that,” Doug broke in sharply. “What have you been doing with yourself?” he demanded
Sara knew Doug Merrick well enough to understand he was only interested in how she earned money, and she answered accordingly.
“Oh, that sounds… different,” Lillian remarked. “Do you say ‘Order up!’? I like when they say ‘Order up!'” Lillian shared her son’s sense of humor but not his freedom to express it.
“Christ, Lillian, let her get a word in edgewise!” Doug yanked on the ends of his blazer sleeves. “We’ve never spent that much time in restaurants.”
“No, that’s true…”
“Of course, it’s true, why else would I mention it? We never ate out. Now, I did occasionally at business meetings, which were always a waste of time, but we never went to a sit down place and paid for it with my own money until…”
“Charlie introduced us to Gina.” The napkin had shredded in Lillian’s hands and crumbs sprinkled over her shoes. “That would’ve been toward the end of his sophomore year — almost seventeen years!”
“She can remember that but not the exit to our house,” Doug grumbled.
Lillian pressed forward, her fingers weaving together. “I was more than happy to cook a nice meal at home, but Charlie wanted to make a good impression. It was The Metropolitan Grill. It’s probably the Irish in me, but I just find fancy dinners very showy. Anyway, that would have been spring of 1998.” She smiled at Sara. “You hadn’t met Charlie yet, had you?” After a meaningful pause, she added, “What a shame.”
Doug Merrick glared at his wife and, with only slightly less contempt, his watch. “I hope we see these girls before they go to college.”
“I’ve said I was sorry so many times!” Lillian billowed out from the sofa like thin drapes covering an open window during a storm. Her voice, however, never rose above its usual whisper, but that was still the moment when Lillian Merrick’s daughter-in-law appeared from the kitchen — spotless and composed, as if she’d only been calmly watching others at work.
“I heard people talking out here, so I just assumed Charlie was up,” Gina said, placing a hand on Sara’s shoulder. “Why it’s almost 2:30!”
Doug nodded while tapping the side of his nose. “Sara’s been entertaining us while we wait for our appointment.”
Gina clucked her tongue. “Why don’t I arrange a trade? I’ll go round up Charlie and the girls, and Sara can come help me dot the ‘i”s and cross the “t” in Thanksgiving.” She reached over to cut off a tiny piece of cake and popped it in her mouth.
— from “The Wrong Questions”