Winter in Paradise
It’s the first night of the new year.
Irene Steele has spent the day in a state of focused productivity. From nine to one, she filed away every piece of paperwork relating to the complete moth-to-butterfly renovation of her 1892 Queen Anne–style home on Church Street. From one to two, she ate a thick sandwich, chicken salad on pumpernickel (she has always been naturally slender, luckily, so no New Year’s diets for her), and then she took a short nap on the velvet fainting couch in front of the fire in the parlor. From two fifteen to three-thirty, she composed an email response to her boss, Joseph Feeney, the publisher of Heartland Home & Style magazine, who two days earlier had informed her that she was being “promoted” from editor in chief of the magazine to executive editor, a newly created position that reduces both Irene’s hours and responsibilities by half and comes with a 30 percent pay cut.
At a quarter of four, she tried calling her husband, Russ, who was away on business. The phone rang six times and went to voicemail. Irene didn’t leave a message. Russ never listened to them, anyway.
She tried Russ again at four thirty and was shuttled straight to voicemail. She paused, then hung up. Russ was on his phone night and day. Irene wondered if he was intentionally avoiding her call. He might have been upset about their conversation the day before, but first thing this morning, a lavish bouquet of snow-white calla lilies had been delivered to the door with a note: Because you love callas and I love you. Xo R. Irene had been delighted; there was nothing like fresh flowers to brighten a house in winter. She was amazed that Russ had been able to find someone who would deliver on the holiday, but his ingenuity knew no bounds.
At five o’clock, Irene poured herself a generous glass of Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, took a shower, and put on the silk and cashmere color-block sweater and black crepe slim pants from Eileen Fisher that Russ had given her for Christmas. She bundled up in her shearling coat, earmuffs, and calfskin leather gloves to walk the four blocks through Iowa City to meet her best friend, esteemed American history professor Lydia Christensen, at the Pullman Bar & Diner.
The New Year’s Day dinner is a tradition going into its seventh year. It started when Lydia got divorced from her philandering husband, Philip, and Russ’s travel schedule went from “nearly all the time” to “all the time.” The dinner is supposed to be a positive, life-affirming ritual: Irene and Lydia count their many, many blessings—this friendship near the top of the list—and state their aspirations for the twelve months ahead. But Irene and Lydia are only human, and so their conversation sometimes lapses into predictable lamentation. The greatest unfairness in this world, according to Lydia, is that men get sexier and better-looking as they get older and women… don’t. They just don’t.
“The CIA should hire women in their fifties,” Lydia says. “We’re invisible.”
“Would you ladies like more wine?” Ryan, the server, asks.
“Yes, please!” Irene says with her brightest smile. Is she invisible? A week ago, she wouldn’t have thought so, but news of her “promotion” makes her think maybe Lydia is right. Joseph Feeney is sliding Irene down the masthead (and hoping she won’t notice that’s what he’s doing) and replacing her with Mavis Key, a thirty-one-year-old dynamo who left a high-powered interior design firm in Manhattan to follow her husband to Cedar Rapids. She came waltzing into the magazine’s offices only eight months ago with her shiny, sexy résumé, and all of a sudden, Joseph wants the magazine to be more city-slick and sophisticated. He wants to shift attention and resources from the physical magazine to their online version, and, using Mavis Key’s expertise, he wants to create a “social media presence.” Irene stands in firm opposition. Teenagers and millennials use social media, but the demographic of Heartland Home & Style is women 39–65, which also happens to be Irene’s demographic. Those readers want magazines they can hold, glossies they can page through and coo over at the dentist’s office; they want features that reflect the cozy, bread-and-butter values of the Midwest.
Irene’s sudden, unexpected, and unwanted “promotion” makes Irene feel like a fuddy-duddy in Mom jeans. It makes her feel completely irrelevant. She will be invited to meetings, the less important ones, but her opinion will be disregarded. She will review layout and content, but no changes will be made. She will visit people in their offices, take advertisers out to lunch, and chat. She has been reduced to a figurehead, a mascot, a pet.
Irene gazes up at Ryan as he fills their glasses with buttery Chardonnay—the Cakebread, a splurge—and wonders what he sees when he looks at them. Does he see two vague, female-shaped outlines, the kind that detectives spray-paint around dead bodies? Or does he see two vibrant, interesting, desirable women of a certain age?
Okay, scratch desirable. Ryan, Irene knows (because she eats at the Pullman Bar & Diner at least once a week while Russ is away), is twenty-five years old, working on his graduate degree in applied mathematics, though he doesn’t look like any mathematician Irene has ever imagined. He looks like one of the famous Ryans—Ryan Seacrest, Ryan Gosling. Ryan O’Neal.
Ryan O’Neal? Now she really is aging herself!
Irene has been known to indulge Lydia when she boards the Woe-Is-Me train, but she decides not to do it this evening. “I don’t feel invisible,” she says. She leans across the table. “In fact, I’ve been thinking of running for office.”
Lydia shrieks like Irene zapped her on the flank with a cattle prod. “What? What do you mean ‘run for office’? You mean Congress? Or just, like, the Iowa City School Board?”
Irene had been thinking Congress, though when the word comes out of Lydia’s mouth, it sounds absurd. Irene knows nothing about politics. Not one thing. But as the (former) editor in chief of Heartland Home & Style magazine, she knows a lot about getting things done. On a deadline. And she knows about listening to other people’s point of view and dealing with difficult personalities. Oh, does she.
“Maybe not run for office,” Irene says. “But I need something else.” She doesn’t want to go into her demotion-disguised-as-promotion right now; the pain is still too fresh.
“I need something else,” Lydia says. “I need a single man, straight, between the ages of fifty-five and seventy, over six feet tall, with a six-figure income and a sizable IRA. Oh, and a sense of humor. Oh, and hobbies that include grocery shopping, doing the dishes, and folding laundry.”
Irene shakes her head. “A man isn’t going to solve your problems, Lydia. Didn’t we learn that in our consciousness-raising group decades ago?”
“A man will solve my problems, because my problem is that I’ve got no man,” Lydia says. She throws back what’s left of her wine. “You wouldn’t understand because you have Russ, who dotes on you night and day.”
“When he’s around,” Irene says. She knows her complaints fall on deaf ears. Russ joined the Husband Hall of Fame seven years earlier when he hired a barnstormer plane to circle Iowa City dragging a banner that said: HAPPY 50TH IRENE STEELE. I LOVE YOU! Irene’s friends had been awestruck, but Irene found the showiness of the birthday wishes a bit off-putting. She would have been happy with just a card.
“Let’s get the check,” Lydia says. “Maybe that barista with the beard will be working at the bookstore.”
Irene and Lydia split the bill as they do every year with the New Year’s dinner, then they stroll down South Dubuque from the Pullman to Prairie Lights bookstore. The temperature tonight is a robust thirteen degrees, but Irene barely notices the cold. She was born and raised right here in eastern Iowa, where the winds come straight down from Manitoba. Russ hates the cold. Russ’s father was a navy pilot and so Russ grew up in Jacksonville, San Diego, and Corpus Christi; he saw snow for the first time when he went to college at Northwestern. Privately, Irene considers Russ’s aversion to the cold a constitutional inferiority. As wonderful as he is, Irene would never describe him as hearty.
Lydia holds open the door to Prairie Lights and winks at Irene. “I see him,” she whispers.
“Don’t be shy. Order something complicated and strike up a conversation,” Irene says. “It’s a new year.”
Lydia whips off her hat and shakes out her strawberry-blond hair. She’s a pretty woman, Irene thinks, and, with the confidence she’s displaying now, not at all invisible. Surely Brandon, the fifty-something barista with the thick spectacles and the leather apron—better suited to welding than to making espresso drinks—would be intrigued by Professor Lydia Christensen? She coauthored the definitive biography of our nation’s thirty-first president. Herbert Hoover has gotten a bad rap from history, but most Iowans are kindly disposed toward him because he was born and raised in West Branch.
As Lydia marches to the café, Irene floats over to the new fiction. She loves nothing better than a stack of fresh books on her nightstand. What an enriching way to start the new year. Irene spent her New Year’s Eve taking down all of her holiday decorations and packing them neatly away. She left the boxes at the bottom of the attic stairs. Russ is due back late tomorrow night or early Thursday morning, he said, and once he returns, he will be fully at her disposal. He left for a “surprise” business trip two days after Christmas. The man has more surprise business trips than anyone Irene has ever heard of and in this case, he was leaving Irene alone for New Year’s. They had quarreled about it the previous afternoon on the phone. Russ had said, “I’m fully devoted to you, Irene, and I strive to see your point of view in every disagreement. But let’s recall who encouraged whom to take this job. Let’s recall who said she didn’t want to be married to a corn syrup salesman for the rest of her life.”
Their conversation, repeated for years nearly verbatim, ended there, as it always did. Irene had pushed Russ to take the job with Ascension, and with that decision came sacrifice. Russ is away more than he’s home, but he does call all the time, and he sends flowers and often leaves her a surprise gift on her pillow when he goes away—jewelry or a pair of snazzy reading glasses, gift cards to the Pullman, a monogrammed makeup case. He is so thoughtful and loving that he makes Irene feel chilly and indifferent by comparison. Also, and not inconsequentially, his new job affords them a very nice lifestyle, luxurious by Iowa standards. They own the Victorian, with its extravagant gardens and in-ground swimming pool on a full-acre lot on Church Street. Irene had been able to renovate the house exactly the way she dreamed of, sparing no expense. It took her nearly six years, proceeding one room at a time.
Now the house is a showpiece. Irene lobbied to have it featured in the magazine, but she encountered resistance from Mavis Key, who thought it would seem like shameless self-promotion to splash pictures of their own editor’s home across their pages. Talk about navel-gazing, Mavis had said, a comment that hurt Irene. She suspects the real problem is Mavis’s aversion to Victorian homes. Like Irene, they are out of fashion.
Mavis Key can buzz right off! Irene thinks. Irene’s house is a reflection not only of years of painstaking work but also of her soul. The first floor has twelve-foot ceilings and features arched lancet windows with layered window treatments in velvet and damask. The palette throughout the house is one of rich, dark jewel tones—the formal living room is garnet, the parlor amethyst, and the kitchen has accents of topaz and emerald. There are tapestries and ornate rugs throughout, even in the bathrooms. Irene’s favorite part of the house isn’t a room per se but rather the grand staircase, which ascends two floors. It’s paneled in dark walnut and at the top of the second flight of stairs is an exquisite stained-glass window that faces east. In the morning when the sun comes up, the third-floor landing is spangled with bursts of color. Irene has been known to take her mug of tea to the landing and just meditate on the convergence of man-made and natural beauty.
Irene supervised all of the interior carpentry, the refinishing of the floors, the repairs to the crown molding, the intricate painting—including, in the dining room, a wraparound mural of the landscape of Door County, Wisconsin, where Irene spent summers growing up. Irene also handpicked the antiques, traveling as far away as Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, to attend estate sales.
Now that the house is finished, there is nothing left to do but enjoy it—and this is where Irene has hit a stumbling block. When she tells Lydia that she needs “something else,” she isn’t kidding. Russ is away for work at least two weeks a month, and their boys are grown up. Baker lives in Houston, where he day-trades stocks and serves as a stay-at-home father to his four-year-old son, Floyd. Baker’s wife, Dr. Anna Schaffer, is a cardiothoracic surgeon at Memorial Hermann, which is a very stressful and time-consuming job; she, like Russ, is almost never around. Irene’s younger son, Cash, lives in Denver, where he owns and operates two outdoor supply stores. Neither of the boys comes home much anymore, which saddens Irene, although she knows she should be grateful they’re out living their own lives.
There was a moment yesterday around dusk when everyone else in America was getting ready for New Year’s Eve festivities—showering, pouring dressing drinks, preparing hors d’oeuvres, pulling little black dresses out of closets—that Irene was hit by a profound loneliness. She had spoken to Russ, they had quarreled, and right after they hung up, Irene considered calling him back, but she refrained. There was nothing less attractive than a needy woman—and besides, Russ was busy.
Irene plucks the new story collection by Curtis Sittenfeld off the shelf; Curtis is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which Irene happens to believe is the best in the country.
She hears Lydia laughing and peers around the stacks to see her friend and Brandon engaged in conversation. Brandon is leaning on his forearms on the counter while the espresso machine shrieks behind him. He hardly seems to notice; he’s enraptured.
So much for being invisible! Irene thinks. Lydia is glowing like the northern lights.
Irene feels a twinge of an unfamiliar emotion. It’s longing, she realizes. She misses Russ. Her husband spent years and years gazing at her with love—and, more often than not, she swatted him away, finding his attention overwrought and embarrassing.
Irene is distracted by a buzzing—her phone in her purse. That, she thinks with relief, will be Russ. But when she pulls out her phone, she sees the number is from area code 305. Irene doesn’t recognize it and she guesses it’s a telemarketer. She lets the call go, disappointed and more than a little annoyed at Russ. Where is he? She hasn’t heard from him since midafternoon the day before; it’s not like him to go so long without calling. And where is he this week? Did he even tell her? Did she even ask? Russ’s “work emergencies” take him to various bland, warm locations—Sarasota, Vero, Naples. He nearly always comes home with a tan, inspiring envy from their friends who care about such things.
Irene notices the time—nine o’clock already—and realizes she has forgotten to call Milly, Russ’s mother. Milly is ninety-seven years old; she lives at the Brown Deer retirement community in Coralville, a few miles away. Milly is in the medical unit now, although she’s still cogent most of the time, still spry and witty, still a favorite with residents and staff alike. Irene visits Milly once a week and she calls her every night between seven and eight, but she forgot tonight because of her dinner with Lydia. By now, Milly will be fast asleep.
Not a worry, Irene thinks. She’ll stop by to see Milly on her way home from work tomorrow. It’ll be a good way to fill up her afternoons now that her hours have been cut. Maybe she’ll take Milly to the Wig and Pen. Milly likes the chicken wings, though of course they aren’t approved by her nutritionist. But what are they going to do, kill her?
The idea of Millicent Steele being finally done in by an order of zippy, peppery wing dings makes Irene smile as she chooses the Curtis Sittenfeld stories as well as Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, which Irene had pretended to read for her book club half a dozen years earlier. With the house finished, she now has time to go back and catch up. Irene heads over to the register to pay. Meanwhile, Lydia is still at the café, still chatting with Brandon; her macchiato lets off the faintest whisper of steam between them.
Lydia turns when she feels Irene’s hand on her back.
“Are you leaving?” Lydia asks. Her cheeks are flushed. “I’ll probably stay for a while, enjoy my coffee.”
“Oh,” Irene says. “Okay, then. Thanks for dinner, it was fun, Happy New Year, call me tomorrow, be safe getting home, all of that.” Irene smiles at Brandon, but his eyes are fastened on Lydia like she’s the only woman in the world.
Good for her! Irene thinks as she walks home. It’s a new year and Lydia is going after what she wants. A man. Brandon the barista.
The wind has picked up. It’s bitterly cold and Irene has to head right into the teeth of it to get home. She ducks her head as she hurries down Linn Street, past a group of undergrads coming out of Paglia’s Pizza, laughing and horsing around. One of the boys bumps into Irene.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he says. “Didn’t see you.”
Invisible, she thinks.
This thought fades when she turns the corner and sees her house, her stunning castle, all lit up from within.
She’ll light a fire in the library, she thinks. Make a cup of herbal tea, hunker down on the sofa with her favorite chenille blanket, crack open one of her new books.
Maybe the “something else” she’s seeking isn’t running for office, Irene thinks. Maybe it’s turning her home into a bed-and-breakfast. It has six bedrooms, all with attached baths. If she kept one as a guest room for family, that still left four rooms she could rent out. Four rooms is manageable, right? Irene has a second cousin named Mitzi Quinn who ran an inn on Nantucket until her husband passed away. Mitzi had loved running the inn, although she did say it wasn’t for the faint of heart.
Well, Irene’s heart is as indestructible as they come.
What would Russ say if she proposed running an inn? She guesses he’ll tell her to do whatever makes her happy.
It would solve the problem of her loneliness—people in the house all the time.
Would anyone want to come to Iowa City? Parents’ weekend at the university, she supposes. Graduation. Certain football weekends.
It has definite appeal. She’ll think on it.
When Irene opens the front door, she hears the house phone ringing. That will definitely be Russ, she thinks. No one calls the house phone anymore.
But when Irene reaches for the phone in the study just off the main hall, she sees it’s the same 305 number that showed up on her cell phone. She hesitates for a second, then picks up the receiver.
“Hello?” she says. “Steele residence.”
“Hello, may I please speak to Irene Steele?” The voice is female, unfamiliar.
“This is she,” Irene says.
“Mrs. Steele, this is Todd Croft’s secretary, Marilyn Monroe.”
Marilyn Monroe, Todd Croft’s oddly named secretary. Yes, Irene has heard about this woman, though she’s never met her. Irene has only met Todd Croft, Russ’s boss, once before. Todd Croft and Russ had been acquainted at Northwestern, and thirteen years ago, Russ and Irene had bumped into Todd in the lobby of the Drake Hotel in Chicago. That chance meeting led to a job offer, the one Irene had been so eager for Russ to accept. Now Todd Croft is just a name, invoked by Russ again and again. The man has become synonymous with the unseen force that rules their lives. Todd needs me in Tampa on Tuesday. Todd has new clients he’s courting in Lubbock. “Todd the God,” Irene calls him privately. And yet everything she has—this house, the swimming pool and gazebo, the brand-new Lexus in the garage—is thanks to Todd Croft.
“Happy New Year, Marilyn?” Irene says. There’s a hesitation in her voice because Irene can’t imagine why Marilyn Monroe—Irene has no choice but to picture this woman as a platinum blonde, buxom, with a beauty mark—would be calling. “Is everything…?”
“Mrs. Steele,” Marilyn says. “Something has happened.”
“Happened?” Irene says.
“There was an accident,” Marilyn says. “I’m afraid your husband is dead.”
AYERS: ST. JOHN, USVI
Servers across the country—hell, across the world—regard New Year’s Eve with dread, and although Ayers Wilson is no exception, she tries to keep an open mind. It’s just another night at La Tapa, the best restaurant in St. John, which is the best of the Virgin Islands—U.S. and British combined—in Ayers’s opinion. Tonight, for the holiday, there are two seatings with a fixed menu, priced at eighty-five dollars a head, so in many ways it’ll be easier than regular service and the tips should be excellent. Ayers will likely clear four hundred dollars. She has no reason to complain.
Except… Rosie is off tonight because the Invisible Man is in town. This means Ayers is working with Tilda, who is not only young and inexperienced but also a relentless scorekeeper, and she has a crush on Skip, the bartender; it’s both pathetic and annoying to watch her flirt.
The first seating, miraculously, goes smoothly. Ayers waits on one of the families who came on her snorkeling trip to the British Virgin Islands that morning. The mother looks like a woman plucked from a Rubens painting, voluptuous and red-haired, with milky skin. She had wisely spent most of the day under the boat’s canopy while Ayers snorkeled with her two teenagers, pointing out spotted eagle rays and hawksbill turtles. Now the mother tilts her head. She knows she recognizes Ayers, but she can’t figure out how.
“I’m Ayers,” she says. “I was a crew member on Treasure Island today.”
“Yes!” the mother says. The father grins—kind of a goofy guy, perfectly harmless—and the kids gape. This happens all the time: people are amazed that Ayers works two jobs and that she might appear in their lives in two different capacities on the same day.
Ayers’s other tables are couples who want to finish eating so they can get down to the Beach Bar to watch the fireworks. In past years, Ayers has managed to squeak out of work by quarter of twelve. She and Mick would change into bathing suits and swim out to Mick’s skiff to watch the fireworks from the placid waters of Frank Bay.
Ayers and Mick broke up in November, right after they returned to St. John from the summer season on Cape Cod. Mick, the longtime manager of the Beach Bar, had hired a girl named Brigid, who had no experience waiting tables.
Why on earth did you hire her, then? Ayers asked, but she figured it out in the next instant.
And sure enough, there followed days of Mick staying late to “train” the new hire, whom he later described to Ayers as “green” and “clueless” and “a deer in the headlights.” On the third day of this training, Ayers climbed out of bed and drove down to the Beach Bar. It was two thirty in the morning and the town was deserted; the only vehicle anywhere near the bar was Mick’s battered blue Jeep. Ayers tiptoed around the side of the building to see Brigid sitting up on the bar counter and Mick with his head between her legs.
Ayers hasn’t been to the Beach Bar once since she and Mick split, and she certainly won’t go tonight. She has bumped into Mick—alone, thankfully—once at Island Cork and once, incredibly, out in Coral Bay, at Pickles in Paradise, the place “they” always stopped to get sandwiches (one Sidewinder and one Sister’s Garden, which “they” shared so “they” could each have half) before “they” went to the stone beach, Grootpan Bay, where “they” were always alone and hence could swim naked. Ayers had been stung to see Mick at the deli—he was picking up the Sidewinder, which was funny because she was picking up a Sister’s Garden—and she could tell by the look on his face that he was stung to see her. They probably should have divided the island up—Pickles for her, Sam & Jack’s for him—but St. John was small enough as it was.
Ayers has also seen Mick driving his blue Jeep with Brigid in the passenger seat—and worse, with Mick’s dog, an AmStaff-pit bull mix, Gordon, standing in Brigid’s lap. Gordon used to stand in Ayers’s lap, but apparently Gordon was as fickle and easily fooled as his owner.
Tilda taps Ayers on the shoulder and hands her a shot glass of beer, which Ayers accepts gratefully.
“Thanks,” Ayers says. “I need about forty of these.” They click shot glasses and throw the beer back.
“Yeah, you do,” Tilda says. “Because look.”
Ayers turns to see Mick and Brigid walking into La Tapa, hand in hand. Clover, the hostess, leads them over to Table 11, in Ayers’s section.
“No,” Ayers says. “Not happening. No way.”
“I’ll take them,” Tilda says. “You can have Table 2. It’s the Hesketts. You’re welcome.”
“Thank you,” Ayers says. The Hesketts own a boutique hotel in Chocolate Hole called St. John Guest Suites; they’re lovely people, with excellent taste in wine. It’s a good trade, and very kind of Tilda, although a part of Ayers, of course, would like to wait on Mick and Brigid and dump some food—ideally the garlicky paella for two—right into Brigid’s lap. She’s wearing white.
What is Mick thinking? And why isn’t he working? It’s New Year’s Eve, he’s the manager of the Beach Bar, it will be mayhem down there, even now at a quarter to ten. How did he get the night off? The owners never give him holidays or weekends off. And why isn’t Brigid working? Why did they choose La Tapa for dinner when they both know Ayers would be here? Are they looking for trouble? Because if they are, they found it. Ayers’s nostrils flare and she paws at the ground with one clog like an angry bull.
She steps into the alcove by the restroom, pulls out her phone, and texts Rosie. Where are you? Please come save me. Mick and Brigid are here at La Tapa for second seating!
A few seconds later, there’s a photographic response—a table set for two with a bottle of Krug champagne in an ice bucket.
In the background is the Caribbean, scattered with pinpricks of light—boats heading over to Jost Van Dyke for the invitation-only Wheeland Brothers concert. It has been rumored that Kenny Chesney might sit in for a song or two.
Ayers studies the picture, trying to get an idea of where the Invisible Man’s house is. Looks like somewhere near Cinnamon Bay. Rosie refuses to disclose exactly where the Invisible Man lives or even tell Rosie his name. He’s very private, Rosie says. His business is sensitive. He travels a lot. Apparently the house is impossible to find. There are lots of places like that on St. John. Rosie stays with the Invisible Man when he’s on-island, but otherwise she and her daughter, Maia, live with Rosie’s stepfather, Huck, the fishing captain, who owns a house on Jacob’s Ladder. It’s a strange arrangement, nearly suspect, and yet Rosie seems content with the way things are. Once, after service, when Ayers and Rosie were drinking upstairs at the Quiet Mon, Rosie confided that the Invisible Man paid for all of Rosie and Maia’s living expenses, including Maia’s tuition at Gifft Hill School.
Ayers makes it her New Year’s resolution to find out more about the Invisible Man—at the very least, to figure out where he lives.
She tucks her phone away and heads out to the floor to studiously ignore Mick and Brigid and to hear which fabulous wine the Hesketts are going to end their year with.
After her shift, Ayers greets the new year with a bottle of Schramsberg sparkling rosé, sitting on the west end of Oppenheimer Beach. Because of the wind, she can actually hear the music floating over from Jost. There’s a group of West Indians down the beach, drinking on the porch of the community center. At midnight, they sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Ayers texts Rosie. Happy New Year, my friend. Xo.
Rosie responds immediately. Love you, my friend.
At least Rosie loves her, Ayers thinks. That will have to be enough.
It’s ten o’clock the next morning when there’s a pounding on Ayers’s door. She hears Mick’s voice. “Ayers! Wake up! Open up! Ayers!”
She groans. Whatever he wants, she doesn’t have time for it. He sounds upset. Maybe he got fired, maybe Brigid broke things off, maybe the new year brought the crystal-clear realization that the biggest mistake he ever made was letting his relationship with Ayers go up in smoke.
Ayers rises from the futon and staggers toward the front door. Her head feels like a broken plate. After the Schramsberg on the beach, there had been some shots of tequila here at home, as well as a forbidden cigarette (she quit two years ago but keeps a pack stashed on top of her refrigerator in case of emergency). She needs a gallon of very cold water and fifty Advil.
She swings open the door. There’s Mick, with tears streaming down his face. The sight renders Ayers speechless. Mick is a douche bag. He doesn’t cry. Ever.
“What?” she says, though it sounds like more of a croak.
“Rosie,” Mick says. “Rosie is dead.”
After meeting with his accountant, Glenn, at Machete Tequila + Tacos, it becomes clear that Cash is going to lose not only the Cherry Creek store but the one in Belmar as well. All Cash can think is: Thank God.
Now he can go back to being a ski bum.
He hadn’t really wanted to go into business in the first place, but he had grown tired of receiving envelopes in the mail from his father, with newspaper clippings meant to be encouraging and helpful about young men “just like you” who had stumbled across a way to turn their life’s passions into income-generating ventures. Russ was also keen for Cash to “finish your education,” and so sometimes the envelopes included advertisements for online college courses or the myriad offerings for nontraditional students at the University of Iowa. You could live at home! Russ wrote, and Cash would picture himself trapped with his parents in the suffocating ornateness of their Victorian house. Because Russ was so rarely home, Cash suspected that Russ’s true motivation was to have Cash care for his mother and grandmother, chauffeur them to the Wig and Pen, play Bingo with Milly and the other extreme-elders at Brown Deer. No thank you. When Cash talked to his father on the phone, Russ would end each conversation by gently pointing out that sooner or later, Cash was going to need to think about health insurance, a retirement fund, having an infrastructure in place so he could start a family.
Like your brother.
Russ had never actually uttered this phrase, but Cash heard it as the subtext. Cash wanted to point out to his father that while Baker used to work the Chicago futures market, and while he used to make a ton of money, he now sits at home in Houston, day-trading in his boxer shorts and smoking more weed than Cash could ever hope to get his hands on in Colorado, where weed is legal. Baker only has two claims to actual legitimacy: He cares for his four-year-old son, Floyd (although Floyd goes to Montessori school every day from eight thirty to three), and he keeps house for his wife, Dr. Anna Schaffer, who has turned into a legitimate Houston superstar. She’s the Olajuwon of the cardiothoracic surgery scene.
Cash lets Glenn, the accountant, pick up the tab for the four Cadillac margaritas and order of guac—fifty-seven bucks—and then the two men walk out to the parking lot together. Cash wonders if he will be able to keep his pickup with the name of the store—Savage Season Outdoor Supply—painted on the side. It’s an eye-catching truck, made even more gorgeous with his golden retriever, Winnie, in the back.
He fears the truck will be repossessed, like the stores. The bank is coming in the morning. Right now, he needs to go to both stores and empty the registers. There is two hundred and forty-five dollars in the Cherry Creek store and a hundred and eighteen dollars in the Belmar store. This and Winnie are all Cash has left to his name.
He has a rental apartment on 18th Avenue in City Park West but he hasn’t paid his rent for January so he envisions a middle-of-the-night pack up and escape to Breckinridge. Jay, who runs the ski school, will be thrilled to have Cash back. Unlike every other twenty-something kid in the Rocky Mountains, Cash knows how to ski as well as snowboard. This means Cash can teach the trophy-wives-of-tech-moguls who want a hot instructor way more than they want to make turns, and it also means huge tips from the moguls who want their ladies taken care of while they go ski the horseshoe bowl on Peak 8.
It’s all going to work out, Cash thinks. Losing the stores is just a bump in the road.
As Cash turns onto Third Street, he puts both of the truck’s windows down. Winnie automatically sticks her head out the passenger-side window and Cash stick his head out the driver’s side.
No more standing behind the register selling Salomon boots to some Gen Z executive in from Manhattan who says he’s heard hiking Mount Falcon is “lit,” no more biting his tongue to keep from telling Executive Boy Wonder that he could hike Mount Falcon in the Gucci slides he came in wearing. No more worrying about inventory or deliveries or if Dylan, the kid Cash hired to “manage” the Belmar store, was filching from the register in order to pay his oxy dealer.
His father will be very disappointed. Russ was Cash’s only investor, and all of that money is now gone, with absolutely nothing to show for it; it’s as though Cash has blown it all on a very expensive video game. Cash will have to call his father and tell him—before he finds out another way, such as an email from the bank. Any other father would be angry, but what Cash knows will happen is that Russ will tell Cash he’s “let down,” which is so much worse.
Cash will also have to hear from his brother, Baker. Baker didn’t like it when Russ “handed” Cash the stores, and he predicted Cash would fail within two years. Why doesn’t Cash have to work for what he gets, like everyone else? Baker had thundered when he’d found out what was happening. He won’t appreciate the opportunity he has unless he’s earned it himself. In essence, Cash had rolled his eyes at his older brother and chalked the rant up to jealousy. What he wished he’d confided to Baker was that he didn’t want the stores. They weren’t so much handed to him as foisted upon him by their overeager father. Now that Baker’s prediction has come true—the stores are gone, Cash sunk them, and he feels little, if any, personal loss, because his sense of self wasn’t vested—Cash will have to endure the inevitable I told you so.
Cash loves his brother, in theory. In practice, he can’t stand the guy.
In a rare show of courage—probably fueled by the Cadillac margaritas—Cash picks up his phone and dials his father’s number. It’s eight thirty here, nine thirty at home, ten thirty on the East Coast. Cash isn’t sure where his father is this week, but he hopes the late hour works in his favor. His father likes to have a bourbon or two most nights. He hopes that it’s one of those nights, and that Russ’s mood is buoyant and he and Cash can laugh off the train wreck of two stores and a two-hundred-thousand-dollar investment as a valuable learning experience.
The call goes to voicemail. Cash experiences a rush of relief that leaves him dizzy.
A few seconds later, his phone lights up and the relief quickly turns to dread. Then relief again when Cash sees that it’s not his father calling back. It’s his mother.
His mother! Cash hates reverting to the behaviors of his adolescence, but he decides in that instant that he will tell his mother about the stores going under and he will let Irene tell Russ. He can even tell Irene not to tell Russ—he can pretend he wants to break the news to Russ himself, but Irene won’t be able to help herself. Those two are typical parents; they tell each other everything.
“What’s good, Mama?” Cash says. “Happy New Year.”
“Cash,” Irene says, “where are you?”
Something is wrong with her voice. It sounds like she’s being strangled.
“I’m pulling into my driveway,” he says. “Just me and Winnie.” Now is not the time to explain that he’s going to pack up all of his worldly belongings and head for the mountains; somehow, he senses this.
“Cash,” Irene says.
“Your father is dead.”
Cash’s first thought is: I don’t have to tell him about the stores. Then, the cold, sick meaning of the words hit him. His father is dead.
“What are you talking about?” Cash says. “What do you mean?”
“There was an accident,” Irene says. “A helicopter crash, in the Virgin Islands…”
“The Virgin Islands?” Cash says. He’s confused. Are the Virgin Islands even a real place? He thinks they are real, but they sound fake and he would have a hard time finding them on a map. Are they in the Caribbean, or farther south, like the Falklands? And what do the Virgin Islands, wherever they are, have to do with his father?
A helicopter crash? No, there’s been a mistake.
“St. John, in the Virgin Islands,” Irene says, and her voice is full-on quavering now. Cash shuts the engine of his truck off and releases a long, slow stream of air. Winnie lays her head in Cash’s lap. It’s amazing how much dogs understand. Cash has seen and heard his mother cry on plenty of occasions—all of them happy, every tear a tear of joy and wonder. She cried when Baker and Cash graduated from high school, when Baker and Anna had Floyd, she cried every Christmas Eve when the church choir launched into “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” But Irene Hagen Steele didn’t cry over disappointment, or even death. When her parents died, Irene handled it with a solid midwestern pragmatism. Circle of life and all that. She arranged for proper Lutheran funerals and covered dish receptions afterward. She didn’t cry.
This, of course, is something else entirely.
“St. John,” Cash repeats. “In the Virgin Islands.”
“Your father was in a helicopter crash,” Irene says. “It crashed into the sea. Three people were on board: your father, the pilot, and a local woman.”
“Who told you this?” Cash asks.
“Todd Croft’s secretary, Marilyn,” Irene says. “Todd Croft, your father’s boss.”
“Was Dad in the Virgin Islands working?” Cash asks. The exact details of his father’s career have been hazy ever since he switched jobs. When Cash was young, Russ worked as a salesman for the Corn Refiners Association. Then, when Cash entered high school, Russ got a different job, a much better-paying job working for Todd Croft, who owned a boutique investment firm, Ascension, that catered to high-end clients—international soccer stars and the like, though when Cash asked which soccer stars, Russ claimed he wasn’t at liberty to say. Russ’s job was to keep the clients happy, do interface, provide a personal touch, whatever that meant. All Cash knows for sure is that they went from being the middlest of middle class to people who had money. “Having money” meant Irene could buy and renovate her dream house, it meant no college loans; it meant Russ had seed money for Cash’s doomed business venture.
“I’m not sure,” Irene says. “Todd’s secretary, Marilyn, told me your father has a ‘concern’ there. She told me your father owns property there.”
“Property?” Cash says. “Does Baker know about this?”
“I haven’t talked to Baker yet,” Irene says. “I called you first.”
Right, Cash thinks. Their family, like every family, has its allegiances. It’s Irene and Cash on one side and Russ and Baker on the other. Irene called Cash first because they’re closer—and also because she fears Anna, Baker’s wife.
“Maybe Baker knows what Dad was doing in the Virgin Islands?” Cash says. His father is dead. Could this possibly be true? His father was in a helicopter crash?
“I have to fly down there,” Irene says. “I can’t get there tomorrow. I’m leaving Thursday morning out of Chicago. I’m not sure what to do about your grandmother. This will kill her.”
Cash does some quick mental calculating. It’s an eleven-hour drive from Denver to Iowa City. If Cash grabs his things from the apartment and the money from both stores, he’ll be on 76 by ten o’clock. Even with stops, he should be pulling into his parents’ driveway before noon.
“I’m going with you,” Cash says. “I’ll be at your house tomorrow and I’m going down there with you.”
“But how can you get away?” Irene asks. “The stores…”
“Mom,” Cash says. “Mom?”
“Yes,” she says.
“Call Baker,” Cash says. “But don’t tell anyone else about this yet. Don’t call Grammie. I’ll be there tomorrow. I’ll help you. I’m on my way.”
HUCK: ST. JOHN
Any day on St. John is better than a holiday, if you ask Captain Sam Powers, known to one and all as “Huck.” Huck’s first mate, Adam, is twenty-seven years old, and all he can talk about on their December 31st afternoon fishing charter (a couple from Albany, New York, and their college-aged daughter, who hasn’t been off her phone since getting on the boat) is how he can’t wait to go to Drink for the big party that night. They have a ball drop and snow, and everyone is served drinks in real glasses instead of plastic cups.
“You should come with me,” Adam says to the college-aged daughter. (Maybe she’s older, Huck can’t tell, but he thought he was clear with Adam: pursue girls who show an interest in fishing! This girl, who is scrolling through her Instaface account, is attractive, sure, but she doesn’t even seem to realize she’s out on the water, for Pete’s sake. If it were up to Huck, he’d turn around and take her back to the dock.)
The girl raises her eyes to look at Adam, who is elbow-deep in a bucket of squid, baiting the trolling lines. “Ah-ight,” she says.
Is that even a word? Huck wonders.
“Yeah?” Adam says. “You’ll go? It won’t get good until about ten, but we should plan to arrive around eight, eight thirty.”
“We have a dinner reservation at eight in Coral Bay,” the girl’s mother says. The mother is attractive as well, but she isn’t interested in fishing either. She brought a book—something called Lilac Girls. Huck isn’t against books on his boat; in fact, there was a period of time when he believed that a person reading brought the fish. Huck likes to read himself, though never on the boat, but at home in his hammock, yes. When LeeAnn was alive, she got him hooked on Carl Hiaasen, and from there it was an easy jump to Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly. Rosie is always telling him he should try some female writers, and he promised her he would read anything she put into his hands, as long as it didn’t have the word girl in the title. Gone Girl, Girl on the Train—and now look, Lilac Girls. The mother—Huck has forgotten her name; he only retains the names of people interested in fishing—seems pretty engrossed, however.
“Dinner reservation?” Dan, the father, says. Dan is a name Huck remembers because Dan wants to catch fish and Dan is paying for the trip. Dan works for the state government of New York—Huck shudders just thinking about it—but he is now on his Caribbean vacation and he wants to catch a fish, preferably a wahoo or a mahi. Huck assured Dan that would happen even though he’s been experiencing something of a dry spell. He hasn’t had a decent haul since the high season started.
Huck has decided to stay inshore—one look at the mother and daughter told him they would not be up for the forty-minute ride south to blue water—so wahoo and mahi are out of the question.
“Yes,” the mother says. “We have an eight o’clock reservation at Shipwreck Landing.”
“Good place,” Huck says.
“But I want to catch a fish and grill it up,” Dan says. “That’s what we agreed on.”
The wife shrugs. “If you catch a fish big enough to feed the three of us, I’ll cancel.”
“Count me out,” the daughter says. “I want to go to the party.”
Hank will have to reprimand Adam for starting this mess. He doesn’t get involved in other people’s family drama. He focuses all of his emotional energy on his own girls—LeeAnn’s daughter, Rosie, and Rosie’s daughter, Maia. Maia, at age twelve, probably qualifies as Huck’s favorite person in the world.
Now there’s a girl who loves to fish.
Huck’s mind wanders as it tends to when he’s captaining his boat, The Mississippi. People always ask if he’s from Hannibal or Natchez, St. Louis or New Orleans, but the answer is no. Huck’s nickname was given to him his first week in St. John, twenty years earlier at the bar at Skinny Legs, by a West Indian fella named Rupert, who is now Huck’s best friend. Rupert saw Huck’s strawberry-blond hair and the nickname fit somehow. Rupert hooked him up with a boat for sale—a twenty-six-foot Regulator—that had been bought by a kid on the island who lost his shirt gambling in Puerto Rico and needed to sell it quick for cheap. The boat had been named Lady Luck, but Huck changed it immediately to The Mississippi to match his new identity.
Who wants to drink from real glasses? Huck wonders. He can do that at home. His favorite thing about this island is that it’s a barefoot, casual place; there isn’t a pretentious thing about it. After a full-day charter, Huck likes to hit Joe’s Rum Hut for happy hour—he gets a planters punch or the local beer—and he wanders to the waterline of Frank Bay for a cigarette, then he heads down to Beach Bar with his drink and he’s allowed to finish it there before he buys his next drink. He knows everyone and everyone knows him: Huck, captain of The Mississippi. It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t had a decent catch since Halloween. He always has clients because he’s connected. And he also happens to know what he’s doing.
Huck will spend tonight with Maia because the Invisible Man is on-island. Sometimes, when the Invisible Man is here, Maia will go along with her mother, but tonight is New Year’s Eve. The Invisible Man hasn’t been here for New Year’s Eve in four years, and so Rosie planned a special night of champagne and romance.
Fine. Huck can think of no better person to ring the new year in with than Maia. Huck will stop by Candi’s on the way home and pick up some barbecue.
He anchors the boat at the edge of Mandal Bay, off the north coast of St. Thomas, and helps Adam bait the hooks. The air has been crystalline since Christmas, and today there isn’t a cloud to be seen. The sky is a deep, painterly blue. There are supposed to be thunderstorms tomorrow morning but there’s no sign of them now.
“Who’s casting?” Huck asks. Dan already has his rod at the ready. Mrs. Dan is reading, and the daughter is on her phone. Huck looks between the two of them. Nothing.
Hey, Huck wants to say. You’re in the Caribbean! Look at the string of palm trees backing that platinum beach over there. Look how clear the water is. Days don’t get any more picturesque than this. Now, let’s catch some fish.
Adam taps the girl’s shoulder. “You want to try? I can cast it for you.”
“No, thanks,” she says. She does manage to tear her eyes off her screen long enough to offer him a smile. “This is my dad’s thing.”
How can Adam possibly want to take this girl on a date? Huck wonders. He doesn’t bother asking the wife if she wants to fish. He just casts the line himself.
New Year’s Eve doesn’t change his luck. Dan catches two blue runners and a hardnose. He’s getting visibly discouraged; he’s a hunter with a family to feed. Then, blessedly, he reels in a small blackfin tuna, which will be at least enough for him and Mrs. Dan. This does double duty of making Dan feel like a success and getting the daughter off the hook for dinner.
“Everyone happy?” Huck asks. He doesn’t wait for an answer. “Okay, let’s head back in.”
The town of Cruz Bay is more frenetic than usual. People are flooding the streets, plastic cups in hand, wearing shiny hats and feather boas; women are in black velvet dresses even though it’s eighty-one degrees. Hank couldn’t be happier to get in his truck, stop by Candi’s for one order of ribs and one of chicken, extra comeback sauce, one side of pasta salad, one of slaw and one of plantains, then coax his aging truck up the series of switchbacks that comprise Jacob’s Ladder.
“Come on, chipmunks,” he says, as his engine growls in its lowest gear. He started saying this to amuse Maia when she was little—she loved thinking about a pair of little furry animals eagerly powering the engine of Huck’s truck—and now when he says it out of habit, Maia rolls her eyes.
Maia is standing in the driveway wearing denim shorts that she made herself the old-fashioned way—by taking scissors to a perfectly good pair of jeans—and a gray t-shirt on which she painted what Huck refers to as an iguana on acid: the bugger is a swirl of seventeen different colors. Maia’s hair is out of its cornrows in a bushy ponytail, which is how Huck likes it best. She must be 99 percent her father, whom Huck has never had the pleasure of meeting, but she was gifted with the milk-chocolate eyes of Huck’s late wife, LeeAnn, which is another reason why Maia is Huck’s favorite and basically can do no wrong.
“Hey, Nut,” he says. “Nut” is short for “Peanut,” which refers to a birthmark Maia has on her shoulder. She still tolerates the name, though maybe not for much longer. “Joanie went home?”
“Yes, but I was invited there overnight,” Maia says. “I texted but you didn’t answer. Drive me?” He can see the uncertainty on her face. She knows that they had plans and that she’s now breaking them to go to Joanie’s. What she doesn’t know is whether he’s going to be relieved about this change of plans—because he wants to drink some beers and fall asleep in his hammock long before midnight—or upset, maybe even angry.
She’s getting older, Huck thinks. Her legs are long but still as straight as sticks; she remains a little girl for the time being. Anyone with one good eye can see what’s coming down the road: bras, boyfriends, broken hearts, bad decisions, maybe not quite as bad as the ones her mother has made, he hopes.
Joanie is a good kid with nice parents. Both the mother and father are marine biologists who work for the National Park Service. They are avid hikers, naturalists, vegans. Huck can’t imagine what they’re having for dinner, but whatever it is, Maia will be wishing she stayed home for ribs and chicken.
He nods at his passenger seat. “Let’s go,” he says.
LeeAnn believed that everything happens for a reason, a theory that Huck only half agrees with, because some moments in this life seem random and senseless.
But he is very, very happy that Maia is at Joanie’s house the next morning.
Huck spends his New Year’s Eve eating both the ribs and the chicken and drinking a cold six-pack of Island Hoppin’ IPA, then wandering down the street to have one drink with the neighbors, a local family made up of Benjamins and Singers—they’re having a full-on shindig with a roast pig and homemade moonshine. Huck gets a good tip from Cleve Benjamin: there has been a school of mahi hanging six miles offshore, in the same place for the past three days. Cleve has the coordinates written in his phone; he shares them with Huck.
“There’s enough fish in that spot to fill your freezer chest until next Christmas,” Cleve says.
Huck is grateful for the information and feels lucky to be trusted and liked by his West Indian neighbors. He’s accepted because he was married to LeeAnn—some of these folks grew up with LeeAnn out in Coral Bay, others knew her from church or worked with her at the Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center, still others are distantly related to her first husband (Rosie’s father), Levi Small, who left the island long ago and has never come back.
Huck wanders home and takes his last long look of the year over Great Cruz Bay; he can hear music wafting up from the Westin below. Then he goes inside and falls asleep.
He intends to sleep in but is awakened at seven by the forecasted thunderstorm, and then he can’t go back to sleep, so he gets out of bed and fixes himself a New Year’s breakfast of hash—made from potatoes, onions, peppers, and some of the leftover barbecued chicken—and throws two fried eggs on top. He reads his book, The Late Show, by Connelly. He stops every few pages to wonder about the wife from yesterday—if she enjoyed the fish or if Dan cooked it for too long and ruined it. Huck then wonders about Adam and the daughter. Did they have fun at Drink? Did Adam get lucky? Or did the girl have too much champagne, as most amateurs do on the final night of the year, and spend her night crying or puking? Huck bets on the latter.
He is having a cigarette on the front porch when the police pull up. He thinks for a second it’s about Adam. But they ask him to go inside and then they tell him: there was a helicopter crash early that morning in the waters north of Virgin Gorda.
Rosie is dead.
BAKER: HOUSTON, TEXAS
Anna makes two New Year’s resolutions: She’s going to spend more time at home with Baker and Floyd, and she’s going to become friends with at least one of the other mothers at Floyd’s Montessori school, the Children’s Cottage. She hands Baker a page from her prescription pad (Dr. Anna Schaffer, MD) with the two goals written down.
1. More time at home
Baker finds he has follow-up questions. Does “more time at home” mean she’ll have sex with him on days other than his birthday and their anniversary? Does “making friends” mean that some of the “at home” time will be spent on “girls’ night out,” or in long phone conversations listening to Delia, mother of Sophie, air her grievances against Mandy, mother of Aidan?
Baker folds the paper in half, kisses it, and puts it in his jeans pocket. It’s appropriate that Anna wrote her resolutions on the prescription pad, because their relationship is sick. These two actions will heal it, he hopes. “Good for you,” he says. “What should we do today?”
A look of panic crosses Anna’s face. She’s a beautiful woman, with flawless olive skin; she has impenetrable brown eyes and long dark hair. She exudes serenity and, beyond that, competence. She’s a natural-born perfectionist, at least when it comes to cardiothoracic surgery. It’s only her personal life that she has trouble navigating.
“Today?” she says. She checks her phone. “I have to go to the hospital.”
“It’s New Year’s Day,” Baker says.
“It’s Tuesday,” she says. “I have rounds.”
“But…,” Baker says, waving the page from her prescription pad in the air.
“Am I supposed to tell Mr. Kavetsky, who just had a triple bypass, that I can’t check on him because I have to… what? Do a gouache project with my husband and four-year-old? Watch Despicable Me 3 yet again?”
“You haven’t even seen it once!” Baker says. His voice is defiant, verging on bratty. He sounds like a four-year-old. But come on! For Anna to represent herself as someone who is routinely subjected to children’s movies is downright unfair. She never watches movies with Floyd; she hasn’t seen Despicable Me 3—or numbers one and two, for that matter. On the rare occasion she does sit down with Baker and Floyd to watch a movie, she falls asleep in the comfy womb of the leather gel recliner, leaving Baker to answer Floyd’s rapid-fire questions about the intricacies of character and plot. Floyd, like his mother, has a finely tuned intellect, but it’s as if after physically giving birth to Floyd, after donating the genius half of his DNA, Anna decided her job was done. First, she turned the care and feeding of Floyd over to a baby nurse for the staggering fee of three hundred fifty dollars a day, and then, when Anna was done “breastfeeding”—she nearly always pumped milk, was a fiend about it, in fact, insisting that it was much more “efficient” than latching Floyd onto her actual body when he was going to switch to the bottle eventually anyway—they hired Maria José, a nanny from El Salvador. Maria José and Anna didn’t see eye to eye (Maria José held Floyd all day long, and in the evenings, when Anna came home from the hospital, Floyd was set down, and he would cry)—and so Maria José was dismissed.
Then Anna hired Svana, from Iceland, who drew Floyd a bath that was too hot and scalded him the color of a lobster, necessitating a trip to urgent care. Good-bye, Svana. At that point, Baker was looking for a job in private equity, but he kept getting to final interviews and not getting hired—he suspected that Houston firms tended to hire Texas boys, especially those who had played high school football—and since Anna’s career provided plenty of money, Baker thought, why didn’t he stay home and care for Floyd? He could day-trade while Floyd napped. Day-trading encapsulated everything he loved about his field—it was a game, a gamble, a risk, a thrill—and he was good at it. He was also good at parenting. The love and joy and wonder he felt when he looked at tiny baby Floyd—a person, another person, he had helped create—was nearly overwhelming. Why would he pay someone else to care for their child when he could do it himself?
Anna had put up the predictable arguments: Staying home with Floyd wouldn’t provide Baker with any intellectual stimulation. You’ll be bored stiff, she said. He would be like the unfulfilled housewives of the 1950s. He would choose something inappropriate to fill his time—internet porn or marijuana, or an affair with one of the mothers he met at the playground. He would get so far behind in his career that he would never catch up. What would Baker do when Floyd was eighteen and headed to college? Even three years hence, when Floyd went to preschool, too much time would have passed for Baker to seamlessly reenter the world of high finance. He would become depressed, smoke more weed than he already did, get addicted to pills.
Baker had assured Anna at the time that she was being melodramatic. But now Floyd is four years old, and while he is a very bright, curious, and well-adjusted kid, it’s true that Baker’s decision to stay home has created issues. First of all, Anna has grown so comfortable with their new roles that she has nearly checked out of family life altogether. Secondly, whereas Baker has not become addicted to internet porn or had an affair, he does smoke a fair amount of dope, and he has developed very close friendships with a group of mothers, all of whom have sons and daughters at the Children’s Cottage. His clique includes Wendy, Becky, Debbie, and Ellen. They are all single mothers—three divorced and one single by choice—which is how they became friends in the first place. They have more or less adopted Baker as their “school husband.” He covers their kids when they have work emergencies, he fixes things around their houses, and he gives them free investment advice. He suspects that the other mothers—the married mothers—are critical of the relationship between Baker and his school wives, but it wasn’t until the Holiday Sing that he realized just how jealous and vile women could be. One of them cornered Anna in the bathroom and told her she was very “evolved” for letting Baker have a “harem.”
Anna had not been amused. Baker assured her the friendships were just that and not one thing more. He informed Anna that if she wanted to put an end to the vicious gossip, she should show her face around school more often. She should make some friends of her own, which was how she arrived at Resolution Number Two.
“Why can’t someone else cover your rounds?” Baker asks now. “Why can’t Louisa do it?” Louisa is another surgeon in the practice, Anna’s closest friend. It feels like Anna is forever going in to cover Louisa’s patients; surely Anna is due a return favor?
“Louisa is busy,” Anna snaps. “We’re all busy.”
“I won’t make you do gouache,” Baker says. It’s a very cool painting technique that Wendy taught him; she makes her own greeting cards and wrapping paper. “Or watch Despicable Me 3. I thought we could go to the park. It’s beautiful out…”
“I’m sure Floyd will love it,” Anna says. She grabs her bag and smiles. Smiles are what pass for kisses these days. “I’ll be home by six. We can get pizza!” She says this, apparently not recalling that Baker has bought a roast he’d planned to serve with Boursin potatoes and sautéed asparagus. Anna isn’t impressed by Baker’s efforts in the kitchen. In her world, each dawning day is merely another chance to eat pizza.
“Okay,” Baker says. He watches Anna’s back disappear through the door—and at that moment, he knows he has no choice. He has to ask for a divorce.
Divorce, he thinks as he waits at the bottom of the big slide for Floyd. It’s such a dark, ugly, complicated word.
Floyd comes whooshing down, his bangs flying. He’s such a good kid, so cute and perfect in his boyness. “That was my tenth time down,” Floyd says. “Let’s go to the swings.”
Always ten times down the slide, no more, no less, and slide always precedes swings, where Baker is allowed to push Floyd seven times—then Floyd takes over under the power of his own pumping legs. Baker senses some OCD tendencies in the rules Floyd sticks to at the park, although the jungle gym is a free-for-all and Floyd is very sociable and can make friends with other children in an instant, as he does today. When he’s finished on the swings, he joins a game of tag, leaving Baker to lie back in the grass and let the mellow January sunshine warm his face.
Will she even notice? She’ll move out and rent one of the condos across the street from the hospital. She’ll have no problem paying for the house and for Baker and for Floyd. Baker has a tidy sum in the bank as well; his luck this past year playing the market has been tremendous. All will be well. Baker’s only concern is that Anna will never see Floyd if they don’t live in the same house. And yet isn’t that exactly why Baker should get out? What kind of mother doesn’t love her own child? That may be too harsh. Certainly Anna loves Floyd. But does she like him? Does she enjoy one single thing about being a parent?
Baker sits up on his elbows and watches Floyd, running and laughing, right in the thick of it with a bunch of kids he just met. He’s so happy and carefree. Can Baker really be considering putting the kid through the emotional trauma of a divorce? Anna’s parents are divorced. Her father has been divorced twice. And so that is her idea of normal. But Baker’s parents have been happily married for thirty-five years. Baker knows that Irene and Russ will see his divorce as a failure. He will see it as a failure.
It’s a new year, Baker thinks. And Anna did make the resolutions, which is a promising start.
He’ll give it more time, he decides. Maybe she’ll surprise him.
Anna doesn’t make it home by six, although she does call. “I’m going to be another hour,” she says. “Just order the pizza without me.”
Does she ever get tired of disappointing people? Baker wonders.
“Will do,” he says. He won’t order pizza, but neither will he go to the trouble of making the roast. Floyd has asked for pancakes for dinner, and pancakes he will get. Baker makes bacon and squeezes some fresh juice. Why not?
“Would you mind staying awake until I get home?” Anna asks. She sounds almost nervous, and Baker gets a flutter of excitement in his stomach.
“Absolutely,” he says.
That simple question changes the whole tenor of the evening. Anna wants him to stay awake. She wants to spend time with him. She wants to… connect, maybe. He’ll give her a massage, he’ll draw her a bath, he’ll wash her hair, he’ll do anything she wants. He loves her so much. At times, it’s like loving a shadow or a hologram. But not tonight.
Baker makes big, fluffy buttermilk pancakes and crispy bacon, and he gives Floyd two cups of juice, even though that’s a lot of sugar before bed. He cleans the kitchen, does the dishes, sends Floyd down the hall to brush his teeth. He helps Floyd get into his pajamas and starts reading him The Dirty Cowboy. It’s a long book, and Floyd falls asleep on page six, as he always does. Baker eases himself off the bed, turns on the night-light, and slips out of the room.
This is the time of night when he usually takes a few hits off his bong, but he won’t tonight. He needs to stay awake!
He cracks open a beer, gets himself a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Red Velvet Cake ice cream—which his single-by-choice mom-friend Ellen turned him onto (she eats “like a long-haul trucker,” in her own words)—and switches on the TV to get a recap of the bowl games. He’s… just drifting off when he hears Anna coming through the door. He sits bolt upright. He’s awake!
“Hey, babe,” he says. “I’m in here.”
He hears Anna in the kitchen, rummaging through the fridge, opening the cabinets. He hears a cork being pulled from wine. A few seconds later, Anna comes into the den. She lets her hair free of her elastic, takes a sip of wine, and regards him with an expression he can’t read. Interest? Curiosity? What does she see when she looks at him? he wonders. Well, he’s slouched on the sofa with an open beer and half a bowl of melted ice cream on the table next to him, so she can hardly view him as a sexy world conqueror.
He sits up straight, moves over, pats the sofa next to him. He is soft with forgiveness. It’s as easy for him to fall into his chubby-hubby stoner-dad role as it is for Anna to default to her super-busy achieving spouse. He’s guilty of smoking a joint and falling asleep on the sofa most nights. He’s as much to blame for their disconnect as she is.
She reaches for the remote and shuts off the TV. In the six years of their marriage, eight years together, Baker has never known Anna to watch a single minute of television.
“How was work?” Baker asks.
“I’m leaving you,” Anna says.
“I’m in love with someone else,” Anna says. “And it’s beyond my control so I’m not going to bother apologizing for it.”
“Oh,” Baker says. “Okay.” He looks at his wife. With her hair down and loose, she is at her most beautiful, which he feels is unfair, given the circumstances. But then, too, Baker experiences a strange sense of inevitability. He knew this was coming, didn’t he? Earlier today, when he had thought about divorce, when he had all but decided on it, in fact, it was because he knew this was coming. Anna doesn’t love him. She loves someone else. But who? Who is it?
“Who?” Baker says. “Who is it?”
“Louisa,” Anna says. “I’m in love with Louisa.”
She’s in love with Louisa.
Anna doesn’t bother giving him time to process, to react, to emote. No. She takes her wine and leaves the room.
Baker sinks back into the Baker-shaped and -sized divot on the couch. His phone rings. It’s his mother.
His mother? No. He can’t possibly speak to his mother right now. Briefly, he wonders if Anna called his parents to inform them she was leaving him, then decides the answer is no. Anna and his mother don’t have a relationship. And Russ once naively referred to Anna as a “smart cookie,” and Anna hasn’t spoken to him since.
The house phone rings and Baker wonders who on earth would be calling the house phone at ten o’clock on New Year’s night. The ringing stops. Anna calls down the hall. “Bake? It’s your mom.”
This is not happening, Baker thinks. Now he has to get on the phone and make at least sixty seconds of pleasant conversation without letting his mother know that his life is dissolving like an aspirin in acid. His wife is in love with her esteemed colleague, Louisa!
“Hey, Mom,” Baker says, picking up the phone in the kitchen. He hears Anna hang up. “Happy New Year.”
“Baker,” Irene says. She’s crying. So obviously Anna did tell her.
“Mom, listen…” Baker scrambles for a way to talk Irene off the ledge. She was born and raised in Iowa. She’s the editor of Heartland Home & Style. Do they even have lesbians in the heartland? Baker doesn’t mean to be a wise guy—he obviously knows the answer is yes, and Irene and Russ live in Iowa City, which is pretty much the People’s Republic of Iowa, but even so, he worries this is really going to upset her. Confuse her. She’s going to ask why Anna turned into a lesbian. She’s going to ask if it’s Baker’s fault.
“Baker,” Irene says. “There was an accident. Your father is dead.”