The Starter Home
JoAnn walked through the shell of her half-mangled house cursing under her breath as she dodged the toilet sitting in the middle of her hallway. What was he thinking, doing all this himself. If she had half a mind, she’d blow the place up and call it an act of God. She plopped her purse and keys in the one empty spot on a kitchen table filled with tools. Something fell on her foot and she leaned down to pick up one of those grill lighters, the long ones with the safety button you have to pull and push at the same time. Slamming it down beside her purse, she yelled “I’ve had it, Chuck. Do you hear me? I’ve had it. Go hire someone or I’m leaving you. You think I won’t? Huh? Just watch me. I will not live in this trash heap for one more night and I’d like to invite a few people over next weekend for my birthday. If you don’t mind.”
“Hon, I’m almost finished with ….”
“Oh, hush, I don’t want to hear your excuses. Call me at Margie’s house. I’ll be stayin’ there a few days. This stuff better be finished when I come back. Or else.” She was already tugging her suitcase out of a closet and holding back an avalanche when she heard him mumble something she didn't understand. “What’s that you said?”
“No telling but I’d advise you not to tempt me.” Walking back through the kitchen, carry-on in tow, she grabbed her purse and, on an impulse, the lighter too. She stuffed it in her Coach bag and stomped to the stair case. Slipping her feet out of her two inch heels, she took the stairs in rapid succession when one of her feet just missed a pile of poop. “Dammit, Chuck, will you please tell your dog use it outside. He’s made a mess up here and I almost stepped in it.” So much for the doggie door he put in when they got Pepper, the door he carved out a hole in her kitchen door to install.
She jerked the zipper on her carry-on bag and stuffed it with whatever she might need for a few days. She had a plan and needed an alibi. This house was going to be the ruin of their marriage. It was him or the house. One of them had to go. She had been fantasizing for weeks, ever since Chuck fired the helpers and decided to do the repairs on his own. He said wasn’t any need to hire someone to do what he was trained to do. But she kept telling him that doctors don’t treat themselves and if it’s a cardiologist, he doesn’t deliver his own baby. There’s doctors that have specialties just like engineers.
Chuck had a degree in Civil Engineering but he was not an Electrical Engineer, nor a contractor for that matter. And he could use some of that medicine they give hyper kids. He didn’t finish one single thing at the house and she knew that was what would happen when he fired those boys. Sure enough, she’s living in a wasteland and can’t even plug up her hairdryer for the electricity being messed up. On last thought, she ran back into her room, sliding an old journal and a felt box she kept her momma’s heirloom jewelry in to keep thieves from finding them. She didn’t want them lost if her idiot husband blew the house to smithereens or left the door off the hinges and they got robbed.
“Goodbye, Chuck. I’ll be back in two days and I better see some lights on when I drive up. You hear me?”
“Yes dear, I hear ya. You girls have fun tonight making fun me and this house.” He didn’t even look up from that toilet he was putting back in. She hated when he “yes deared” her. It made him look like a battered husband around their friends. And made her look, well, she knew how it made her look. But never mind that. This was war.
“We might just do that. Don’t be surprised you if you feel your ears burning tonight.” She stormed out, remembering halfway out the door to go back and put her high heels back on. She walked around a hose laid out in the driveway and trays full of little flowers he hadn’t bothered planting yet. It was on that to do list of his. Somewhere around number 72. Number one better be fixing that wiring, she mumbled. She slammed the car door extra hard just to make sure he could hear it.
The following night, Margie and JoAnn were drinking Margherita’s and conspiring ways to make the house disappear without alerting the insurance company. JoAnn really didn’t want to hurt anyone either. She just wanted her house fixed. It was a starter home and they started out all wide-eyed and dreamy about the house he would build her when they could save up a little. Ten years later, it was nothing but starting to make her crazy. If only she’d agreed to have kids, this wouldn’t have happened. She and Margie often talked about kids, or rather, the lack thereof.
Chuck was raised with a mess of siblings. His parents, knowing full well what make all these little snot nosed mongrels, still joked about visiting Mr. Hilton when his momma got one of the kids past diaper age. His parents couldn’t make love in the house without interruptions so they’d take a little weekend trip to the Hilton Hotel in Panama City and do the deed. From that point on, “Visiting Mr. Hilton” was a code word for hanky panky as the siblings got old enough to know about those things. They did the math. Nine months later, there was another sibling. Why on earth, after all that competition for bacon at breakfast, would Chuck want a bunch of little hoodlums himself. She didn’t intend on having to stay at a hotel to have sex. No sirree. But then, she wasn’t planning on having that problem in the first place.
When they married, they hadn’t really settled things in that department. He wanted kids, she didn’t, and both were planning to wait until the other was swayed into some sense. Ten year later and here she is, drinking with her friend and commiserating about how long its been since she and Chuck have visited Mr. Hilton. This latest feud was causing her to wither and rot, not something one wished to do in her sexual prime, as Margie calls the decades between thirty and fifty something for a woman and fifteen to thirty for a man.
JoAnn had decided that he was trying to get her back when, recently, he announced that they didn’t need some big castle now that it was just going to be the two of them and Pepper, their Dalmation-Poodle mix. They just needed some renovations. He’d planned to put in some personal touches and weatherize their little starter home. He liked the idea of a more energy efficient electrical system and a water saving toilet so he save up for solar panels and the new fangled toilet seat that flushed with half the water a normal one does, the new shiny white one JoAnn nearly tripped over coming home. But she had already bored Margie with all these details for weeks. She was glad Margie was still willing to listen to her rant.
Margie wore hair extensions to fluff up the back of her bleached hairdo. She had perfect nails, And, she had one of those husbands who doesn’t even change lightbulbs in their house. He “has a guy”. She doesn’t clean her own house either. Her “help” does it for her. But no, Chuck has to DIY everything. She loved him, though. Well, she didn’t wish him too much harm. But that house. Good grief, that house would be the death of her. So what if she didn’t have kids? Could she not have a nice house to invite her friends to? Would that not be too much to ask?
When it came time to leave Margie’s house after a Champagne brunch at the Club the next morning, as Margie’s guest, of course, JoAnn wrapped her arms around her best friend and heard her whisper “Don’t kill him, Jo, jail is no place for a lady.”
“I won’t. I swear. Oh, listen, I left Chuck’s lighter at your place. I didn’t need the temptation.” Margie did that clicking thing with her tongue, a wordless “shame on you.”
JoAnn had to admit, she missed her bed, though the house itself was no vacation. Placing her bag and purse on the passenger side seat, JoAnn drove toward her home. On the way, two fire engines whizzed past her, sirens blasting. She picked up her speed, half hoping and half dreading they were on their way to 111 Skylark Circle. What about Chuck? Surely he’d be awake by noon and able to get out. What was she thinking? Was she actually hoping there was a fire? Her mind flashed pictures of things she forgot to take with her, things that might have been destroyed. Of course, her main concern was Chuck but what has she done? What had she wished for? She didn’t mean it. She could live with the house as long as Chuck was okay.
In a fit of frustration, she waited at the four way stop to turn left. She could hear the sirens nearby but couldn’t tell what direction they were coming from. It sounded like they were everywhere all at once. She took a left and then another left before she could see, at the far end of the street, a hose laying across her driveway and men putting out the fire that was billowing out her stained glass window over the kitchen sink, the one Chuck extracted from her childhood home when her dad retired and downsized to a condo in Gulf Shores. The one he presented to her for her birthday just after they were married, when she realized his moving out was the final goodbye to the house she was raised in. It was bad enough she was moving out to live with her new husband. That was the sweetest gift he’s ever given her. That was back when his do it yourself attitude was handsome and manly.
She sat in her car, mouth half open, not moving an inch. The car was still running, the radio still on NPR without some announcer blabbering about some news from across the world. She just stared are her house in flames.
Then there was a tap on the window. She looked to the left to see the sweet face of her Chuck, face clean and shaved, not one smudge on him. He was okay. She opened the door and he held her close, Chuck clearing his throat and JoAnn sobbing. “Oh, where’s Pepper? She’s okay, right?”
“In the neighbor’s fenced in yard. Said he’d keep her a few days while we get all this settled.” She wanted to be angry at him, wanted to gloat that she was right about getting a real Electrician to do the house, but she couldn’t muster enough righteous indignation to do the job. She just held both sides of his face with her newly manicured hands and hook her head. “What would I do without you two?”
They both turned as they heard one of the fire fighters approaching. “Sir, we think this might have been the source of the fire. We had to get pliers to turn the metal post under this knob, or what’s left of it. The knobs were melted off but we think the it must have been what caused the fire. There were a bag of groceries on the stovetop, gave the fire something to chew on for a while, but it spread when it hit the ceiling.
“You got groceries?” Chuck was a decent cook but only if it’s done on the grill. He’s not one for grocery shopping. Must have been feeling a little guilt himself.
“Plannin’ on surprising you with a nice dinner tonight. Even got Pepper some bacon treats to keep him in the other room so he won’t beg while we eat. Then, when I was looking around for the lighter I’d just bought, I realized I’d left it at the store. Just ran right out and left Pepper loose in the house. Thank goodness for the doggie door. She was outside barking her lungs out. That’s what got Gus’s attention. He heard the dog and looked out in time to see smoke coming out of the rooftop.”
“Sir, you said bacon treats. You think the dog could have reached the stovetop?
“Of course, she can.” both Chuck and JoAnn said in unison. “Can lay her chin on our counter if she’s interested in what’s sitting there, why?”
“Well, this is a push and turn knob and they were located diagonally on the front of the stove, not on top where its safer. A lot of older homes have them like that, still. We’ve had a few fires happen this way when kids or pets can reach them. Something on the stove top gets their attention and the animal jumps up to see what’s there. One little push and then they get back on all fours and pull the knob a little to the side. Pets do it better then the kids. Go figure?” JoAnn was relieved, and she thought Chuck looked a little relieved himself. Pepper did it. She burned our house down. Sad as it was, it was almost funny.
“Sounds like your dog was the culprit and the one that kept the whole place from going up in smoke. Your insurance company can assess the damage but I’d be looking for another place to live if I were you. Between the fire and our hoses, the structure is likely beyond repair. You should be able to salvage some items upstairs but the smell isn’t going away any time soon. We’re glad everyone’s okay, though. We’re gonna clean up here and be on our way.”
The men shook hands and, just then, it dawned on JoAnn that this whole things happened because the electricity had been working again. She looked at Chuck and smiled. “You fixed it? You had the place ready?” He nodded. “Oh, honey. I’m so sorry. All your hard work and now, this. But I’m curious, what did you leave at the store that you couldn’t do without?”
“Well, funny thing. I know I put the grill lighter on the table and I couldn’t find it anywhere. They were walking toward his truck, parked across the street when he arrived to find the house in under a cloud of smoke. “Here babe. Happy early Birthday.”
Inside the bag was a bouquet of roses and a brand new, extra long, grill lighter. “Seemed foolish to have driven all the way back for nothing but a lighter so I thought I’d pick up some roses while I was there. You know, in case you were still mad at me. Got behind some lady with a bunch of kids and full buggy. Took forever to get out again. Then I drove up to the house and all hell’s broke loose. Gus in the yard yelling ‘I done called the ‘far’ station an I got ya dawg in my back yard so she won’t escape.’ You should have heard the old man rant on. I’d have hugged him but, well, you know. He smells something awful.”
All she could do was smile at him. She didn’t want to think of what was lost, or what she almost lost, or what might have happened had she left the lighter where it was. No use wondering. What’s done is done. “So, what do we do now?”
“Well, for starters, how about lunch. Then, I’m thinking lets pay Mr. Hilton a visit.” The sly look on his face told her there will be no hard feelings for the last few weeks. It will be a new start for both of them, in more ways than one.