Burning Down the House
By Cathleen Medwick
Music for Torching
Flash-frozen in the anxious culture of a suburban subdivision, Paul and Elaine have two boys and a beautiful home, yet they find themselves thoroughly, inexplicably stuck. Obsessed with "making things good again," they spin the quiet terrors of family life into a fantastical frenzy that careens out of control, doing and saying all the things we dare not, throwing into full relief the chasm between our public and private selves. From a strange and hilarious encounter on the floor of the pantry with a Stepford-wife neighbor to an ill-conceived plan for a tattoo, to a sexy town cop who shows up at every inopportune moment, to a house-cleaning team in space suits, to a mistress calling on the cell phone, to a hostage situation at the school, Homes creates characters so outrageously flawed and deeply human that they are entirely believable.
Excerpt from Music for Torching
It is after midnight on one of those Saturday nights when the guests have all gone home and the host and hostess are left in their drunkenness to try and put things right.
"Too much fat," Paul says, carrying in the dishes from the dining room. "The potatoes were swimming in butter, the salad was drenched in dressing."
Elaine stands at the sink, in her apron, in Playtex gloves, trying to protect herself. She doesn't see it yet, but despite her prophylactic efforts, her clothing is stained. Later, she will wonder if the spot can be gotten out, if her clothing can be made clean. She will regret having bought the outfit, having cooked the dinner, having made the enormous effort to make everything good again.
Paul goes into the dining room, this time returning with the wineglasses, the bottle tucked under his arm.
Elaine scrapes plates into the trash can.
Paul puts the glasses down, brings the bottle to his lips, and finishes it, swishing the last sip round and round before bending over he shoulder and spitting into the sink, splashing her.
"Watch it." She says.
"Gristle." He says. "You're doing on purpose. Poisoning me. I could taste the fat—going right to the artery."
Again she doesn't say anything.
"I should be eating legumes."
"I can't make legumes for eight."
She loads the dishwasher. "What about her?" she asks.
"The girlfriend, the date." The woman that Henry—who recently left Lucy, whom they all liked a lot—carried around all night like a trophy.
"Nice," he says, not telling his wife that when he asked the date what she did—as in what her occupation was—she said, What would you like me to do? And when he asked, Where do you live? She said, Where would you like me to live? He doesn't tell his wife that before she left she said, Give me your phone number, and he willingly jotted it down for her. Paul doesn't tell Elaine that the date promised to call him tomorrow. He goes back into the living room for the dessert plates.
"How old do you think she is?" Elaine calls out.
Paul returns, his hands filled with wadded-up napkins. He shakes crumbs into the sink. "How old would you like her to be?"
"Sixty," Elaine says.
She finishes loading the dishwasher, mumbling, "Hope it's fixed, hope it doesn't flood, hope the gasket isn't gone, hope you were right."
"Hope so," he says.
She adds detergent. "Sink's stopping up," she says. "The house is falling apart. Everything is made of shit."
"It only lasts so long," he says, thinking about the date. How many children do you have? She asked him. Two, he'd said. Isn't that below average? Aren't you supposed to have two point three?
"We need so many things," Elaine says.
Paul doesn't hear her. Aren't you supposed to have two point three? She'd asked seriously, as though it were a possibility. He hadn't responded. What was there to say? He had poured her another glass of wine. Every time he hadn't known what to say, he'd poured her another glass of wine. They'd had two bottles between them. You know how to get to me, she'd said, drinking it.
Paul looks at Elaine—Elaine from the back, Elaine bent over the sink. He looks at Elaine and lifts up her skirt, he presses against her, he starts to pull her panty hose down.
"Is this supposed to be funny?" she asks, still washing dishes.
"I don't know," he says looking at the pan where the roast had lain, the bottom of it thick with congealed white fat, veined with bloody juice. He looks at the pan on the counter, imagines dipping his hand into the grease, smearing it over Elaine's ass and fucking her.
Her panty hose are down, just above her knees. The water is running, the dishwasher is running.
Unbeknownst to them, the slipper-feet of his pajamas making him stealthy, silent and indetectable their older son Daniel, has slipped into the room. The kid opens the refrigerator door.
Paul turns, sees him, and quickly pulls Elaine's skirt down. Elaine stands, embarrassed, at the sink.
"What are you doing?" Paul demands.
"Is there any caviar? Mom said that if there was any caviar left over I could have it."
"You should be asleep," Elaine says.
Paul points to a small dish on the counter. The kid takes white bread out of the fridge and smears caviar over a piece.
Elaine, trying to pretend that everything is normal, walks around the kitchen putting things away. She walks with peculiar half steps, the panty hose holding her legs together like a big rubber band.
The kid makes himself a second caviar sandwich. "Enough," Elaine says, taking the dish away from him. "It's a delicacy, not a snack. You don't make a meal of it."
"Do you think I'm weird? The kid asks; he's ten now, and suddenly, as if he were two again, everything is a question. "Is it weird that I'm eating caviar in the middle of the night?"
"Go to bed," Paul says.
The kid leaves the room. Paul goes back to Elaine and lifts her skirt again. She turns around.
"Don't fuck with me," she says, grabbing a carving knife from the counter and pressing it against his neck.
"What do you mean?"
"You insult me, my cooking. I am my cooking," she says. "I'm a good cook. I tried hard, very hard, to make a nice dinner. You used to like lamb roast. You once even said it was your favorite food. Even tonight, you took four pieces—there almost wasn't enough to go around. Luckily, Ben is a vegetarian." She holds the knife against his neck. Her panty hose are still bunched between her legs. She feels exposed.
"I was teasing," Paul says. "Musing about whether anyone had ever been charged with murder by the Joy of Cooking."
"If I wanted to kill you, I would just go like this. She pulls the knife across his neck, and the blade barely breaks his skin, making a shallow slash like a paper cut. A thin line of red springs up on his neck.
He runs for the bathroom. She follows him, doing her awkward duck walk. He slams the door, locking her out. The molding around the doorframe falls to the floor.
"It's nothing," she says through the door, pulling her panty hose up—just in case they have to go to the hospital. "Let me see. I'm sure it's fine. It was an accident. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to really cut you."
"Bitch," he says, opening the door.
"I said I was sorry." She pours peroxide onto a Kleenex and dabs his wounds. He winces.
"Don't be a baby," she says. "We were playing your game."
She finishes in the kitchen. He holds an ice pack against his neck, "to keep the swelling down," he says.
"What swelling?" she asks. "It's a cut, not a bite."
"What do you know about it?"
They go upstairs. "The light in the hall is out," she tells him.
"We're out of bulbs," he says.
"Put it on the list," she says.
They undress. There is nothing more to say.
In the morning, in her half-sleep, Elaine's thoughts race, speeding through a giant checklist, a litany of all she has ever done, all she has never done, all she meant to do, all her ideas and good intentions. Her thoughts spin until there is nothing left. She looks up at the ceiling. The paint is cracked and peeling. It needs to be scraped, redone. Exhausted, she gets up.
"Did you see Ben's gut?" she asks. "And Henry's hair—who does he think he's fooling? It's awful. And what about Joan? That's who I'm really worried about. She's so depressed she can hardly speak, and Ted doesn't even notice."
"He notices," Paul says, still sleeping.
"And what does he do?"
"Fucks the secretary."
"The assistant," Elaine says.
Elaine pulls up the sheets and blankets on her side of the bed. Last year they traded in their bed; they went from queen to king because they wanted more room. "After so many years," the salesman in the mattress store had said, "it's hard to sleep on top of somebody else." Now they sleep easily, without touching.
"If our friends are disgusting, does it mean we're disgusting?" Elaine asks.
"Probably," Paul says.
"Disgusting," Elaine says, going into the bathroom. "Horrible, hateful, and ugly." She closes the door and then opens it again immediately. "Don't forget," she says. "The Nielsons' barbecue is this afternoon. We get to see everybody again."
The phone rings. Paul dives across the bed to Elaine's side and answers it. "Hello," he says breathlessly. Then he calls to Elaine, "Your mother."
"Can I stay at your place tonight?" the mother asks Elaine.
"What do you mean?" Elaine says.
"Your father is driving me crazy. I thought I'd come and stay with you, unless of course you tell me I can't."
"I would never tell you you couldn't."
"So, I can," she says. "It's all right?"
"Yes," Elaine says. We have a barbecue this afternoon, but we'll be home early. The sitter will be here."
Mother is coming—without father, which is a little odd, but who cares. Mother is coming—that's what counts. Mother will make everything all right again.
"Oh, don't worry," the mother says. "I won't even get there before nine-thirty or ten."
"My mother is coming," Elaine tells Paul, already stripping the bed. She goes down the hall to the linen closet and gets clean sheets.
Sammy comes out of his room. "Did you wet your bed?" he asks.
"Grandma is coming," Elaine says. Sammy goes back into his room and closes the door. "I don't like Grandma," he says through the door.
"If she's by herself, do we really need to give her our room?" Paul asks. "Couldn't she sleep in one of the boys' rooms?"
"Let's not make a thing out of it," Elaine says. "Let's just do it the way we always do it. Otherwise it'll mean something that she came alone, and we didn't think enough of her to give her our room. Help me," she says, pulling the fitted sheet across the bed. "Help me."
In the bathroom mirror, Paul looks at himself. He rubs the cut on his neck until blood seeps out. He wonders if the date will call, wonders what he will do with the date if she calls. Will they make a plan to meet? Where will he take her? The Carlyle? Or Ardsley Arms, the motel by the highway that advertises cozy cabins? No. He can't spend the money. If he spends money Elaine will find out—she's better at math than he is; she does the bills. They'll either go to the date's place, or they'll meet somewhere public, like Rye Playland. He'll buy lots of ride tickets. They'll go through the haunted house, rushing to be finished, released and relieved, before their car kicks through the double doors and back into the daylight. They'll go through two or three times. The first time, they'll kiss, long and tenderly, as if they mean it. He'll fondle her. The second time, his head will be in her crotch, her mouth on his cock. The third time she'll straddle him—she'll sit so tall that her head will bang against the fabricated fiberglass rafters, the pseudo timbers, which will crack at well-timed intervals over their heads. The things that go bump in the night will be entirely real.
"And what about Henry's hair?" Elaine had said. Paul looks at himself in the mirror and wonders what's wrong with Henry's hair. Paul is just like his friends, as is Elaine. Their friends are just like them. The like it that way. When one of the friends changes, when something is different, they all get nervous, as if will be contagious—as if this bit of bad luck or ill fortune will now be visited upon the rest of them. Elaine's words echo in his head: "Who does he think he's fooling?"
The phone rings again. "I'll get it! Hello?" he says.
"What are you wearing?" the date asks.
Elaine picks up the phone downstairs.
"I've got it," Paul says. Elaine hangs up.
"You didn't answer me," the date says.
"I asked you what you were wearing."
"What if my wife had gotten it?" Paul says.
"Perhaps she would have answered me already."
"What are you wearing?" Paul asks her.
"What would you like me to wear?" she asks back.
"Very little," he says. "Something, but not much."
"Are you a doctor?"
He starts to say no, but then stops himself. "Would you like me to be a doctor?"
"I'm in pain," she says.
"Tell me about it," he says.
"Examine me and I will."
"You were on an awfully long time," Elaine says when Paul finally comes downstairs. "I made pancakes. Daniel spread the rest of the caviar on his. It's out of control."
They look out the kitchen window. "Grass needs cutting," Paul says. The children are playing in the yard. Daniel has Sammy trapped, with a butterfly net over his head.
"Big-game hunt," Paul says. "Next he'll attach a tag to Sammy's ear."
"You were whispering," Elaine says.
"Big deal," Paul says. It's unclear whether he means big deal as in "none of your business," or big deal as in "a large business transaction."
Elaine stuffs clothes into to the washing machine.
"Aren't you supposed to separate the coloreds and the whites?" Paul asks.
"Segregation ended," she says, closing the lid.
"But I thought""
"If you want to do the laundry, feel free." She picks up her purse. "I'm going to Liz's. I need some time to myself. Keep an eye on the kids."
"Why do you go to Liz's? Isn't she there? And what about Jennifer? Isn't Jennifer there? Is that really time to yourself?"
"Jennifer stays in the basement," Elaine says.
"You spend more time with Liz than you do with me."
"I like her better," Elaine says, leaving.
At the cookout, regardless of the fact that they were all together the night before, they act glad to see each other. Perhaps they are not acting, perhaps they are genuinely glad to see each other. Perhaps it was difficult being left to their own devices for twenty-four hours. Who knows? But they are in surprisingly good spirits; they are the kind of people who believe in putting on their party clothes and a party face, or at least starting off with a smile.
"Can I get you a drink?" George Nielson, the host, asks at regular intervals. "Freshen that? Are you running out? Pour you another? More ice?"
Henry is there, with the date.
Paul sees her from across the yard and blushes bright red.
"Are you all right?" Elaine asks. "Are you ill?"
He sips his drink. "Spices," he says. "Bloody Mary."
"Joan is here without Ted?" someone says.
"He's not well. He ate too much last night."
"Call him, tell him to come anyway," Pat Nielson says. "We miss him. He doesn't have to eat, he can just drink. He can still drink, can't he?"
Ted's wife, Joan, shakes her head. "He's better off in front of the TV."
"And where are the Montgomerys?" Elaine asks. "They didn't come last night either." The tsk-tsk, don't-ask face is made.
"Lost his job," Joan whispers. "They don't know what to do. Mortgage, two in prep school, one in that special place—it's a lot, an awful lot."
The subject is changed.
"You have such a beautiful home," Elaine says to Pat.
"Thank you," Pat says. "You don't know how much it means to me to hear that. It's all I do. House, house, house, as though nothing else mattered, as though that's all there was in the world." She smiles.
"It's lovely," Elaine says.
The Nielson twins, Molly and Mary, play waitress. They wear little black dresses with white aprons tied on. The guests applaud their servitude and wonder aloud how much Pat and George are paying them. The guests can't tell the girls apart and so just call them both Mmmm..., and the girls fill in the rest accordingly.
The men hover around the grill, their faces slowly turning red in the charcoal glow. The women are bathed in the cold blue fluorescent light of the kitchen. Each side eyes the other, hoping the gossip being traded doesn't really give the goods away. Henry's date stands in the dark, in a kind of no man's land between the two groups, with only the citronella torch as her guide. Paul keeps her company.
"How are you feeling?" he asks.
"I think I'm having a recurrence," she says.
"Stubborn case," Paul says. "You probably need further treatment."
The date looks at Paul. "Your hair," she says. She starts to say something about Paul's hair, but Elaine comes between them.
Later, when they are roasting marshmallows, when he's got the date eating off his stick, Paul will try to touch her. He'll rest his hand high on her thigh.
"I'd rather you not," she'll say. "For now, I prefer to touch myself."
Far away there is the sound of another party, voices in a distant back yard. Through the trees they can see lights in other houses. Every lit window is like a small stage, a miniature color television set where little dramas play themselves out. "Shall I put on some music?" George Nielson asks.
"That would be lovely," Pat says, and George goes into the house, throws open the living-room windows, and Sinatra wafts into the night.
"Sinatra!" Henry shouts in to George. "Why are we listening to Sinatra? Are we our parents?"
The Nielsons begin to dance. Hearts are warmed. "Isn't it nice," someone says, watching Pat and George go cheek to cheek across the yard. "They still enjoy each other so much."
Henry pulls Paul aside. "So," he asks, "what do you think of the girl?"
"Nice," Paul says. He doesn't tell Henry that she telephoned, that they played doctor, that he scheduled her for a return visit. He doesn't tell Henry that chances are the date has a serious problem, something thoroughly beyond both of them, and that he's beginning to think she's incurable. Instead, he asks, "Where'd you meet her?"
"In an elevator," Henry says. "Can you believe it? Isn't that unbelievable?"
"What does she do for a living?"
"You won't believe it," Henry says. "Psychic."
"And she makes a living that way?"
"Unbelievable," Paul says, looking at Henry's hair. Henry runs his hand through what's left of it.
"Who sits where?" Joan asks when the hamburgers are ready. "Is there an order, a special plan?"
Pat Nielson tells everyone exactly where to go. She seats Paul next to Elaine's best friend, Liz.
"Long time no see," Liz says, kidding.
"I keep forgetting exactly what it is you've gone back to get your Ph.D. in," Paul says.
"Women's studies," Liz says.
"So, I guess you don't want to get married again?"
"Prick," Liz says.
"Asshole," Elaine says later when they're walking home. "You did it on purpose."
Paul doesn't say anything. He ducks behind a tree and urinates.
Elaine waits for him. "The Esterhazys have done something to their house," she says.
Paul peers out from behind the tree. "Deck?"
"Nope, porch. They glassed in the screen porch."
Paul comes out from behind the tree. "Looks good," he says, zipping up.
They have walked to Nielsons'. Walking and drinking is the way it is done. That way they can drink too much, eat too much, and get home still feeling decent about themselves: it could have been worse, at least they got a little exercise, a taste of the night air, at least no one got killed. The problem comes a few minutes later, when Paul has to get in the car to drive Jennifer, the babysitter, who is Liz's daughter, home. He sits looking up at the house, thinking it looks shabby. Even in the dim glow of the street lights, it looks less promising, less hopeful than the other houses up and down the block.
Jennifer comes out of the house and gets into the car. "Was that incredibly painful?" asks, gesturing toward the side of her head, which is shaved as though she'd been prepped for surgery, and then to her eyebrow and lip, both of which are pierced by silver rings. He touches his own lip and eyebrow as if he were speaking sign language.
"Only equal to the pain I'm already in," she says.
He nods. Jennifer was five when he and Elaine moved in. She is his first memory of the neighborhood. He spotted her playing on the lawn of what was then Roger and Liz's house, and somehow the sight of her, staging a party with her Raggedy Anns—she was dressed like a Raggedy Ann herself—made him think that they could live here, that everything would be O.K. He doesn't know why.
"Great scar," she says, pointing to the red line on his neck. "Did you do it yourself?"
"No," he says. "I had help."
He makes a turn. "Can I ask you a question?" he says, and without waiting for a reply goes on, "what does my wife do at your house all day?"
"She fucks my mother," Jennifer says, without a pause.
His fantasy. His nightmare. He has no idea whether she's lying or not.
Elaine is in the living room, waiting for Paul. She is talking to her mother, who has apparently run away from home. As Elaine talks she rearranges the furniture as though this will make all the difference.
"What's wrong?" Elaine asks, pushing a chair across the floor as quietly as possible. "Why are you leaving Daddy?"
"I'm not leaving," the mother says, helping to switch a lamp from one end table to another. "I'm taking a night off. After fifty-three years, every now and then you need a night off. By the way" the mother says, "when I got here Daniel was puffy, like he was having an allergy. So I gave him an antihistamine."
"Fish eggs," Elaine says, plugging the lamp in. Her words come off with the dismissive intonation of someone saying "fiddlesticks." The mother looks confused. "He eats too much caviar."
The mother shakes her head. "I'll never understand."
Paul comes in, makes himself a drink, and carries it into the living room.
"You drink too much," Elaine says pushing the coffee table farther away from the sofa.
"I'll call it a night," the mother says going upstairs. "See you in the morning."
Paul quickly finishes the drink and goes back for another.
"It's fattening," Elaine calls after him. "I thought you were watching your gut."
"Cunt," Paul says to Elaine, who is now remaking the L-shaped sofa into a bed for he night.
"Are you flirting with me?"
Paul does a strange and suspicious dance, circling around the sofa, around Elaine—like an animal, like a boxer. He circles and drinks. "Fucking whore." He grabs her with his free hand. He is drunk, his breath Scotchy, tainted with bitter belches. "Show me," he says, squeezing her. "Show me what you do."
"Go to hell," she says, eyeing a chair she thinks would better on the left side of the room.
"I'm there already."
"So leave." She tries to twist away from him. He holds on. He bends to put his glass on the coffee table, but the table has been moved. The glass lands on the floor and the drink spills.
"You're hurting me," she says.
"You hurt me too," he says.
The mother comes to the top of the stairs. "Keep it down," she whispers loudly, "or I'll have trouble sleeping."
"You're ruining my life," Paul hisses. He tears at his wife's clothing. He bites her. He does to Elaine what he'd like to do to Henry's date.
"I hate you," Elaine says, when Paul is on top of her. "I used to like you. I thought you where cute. But look at you now."
He fucks her, using the sofa for leverage, his feet pressing against the armrest.
She begins to cry. "I'm bored," she says. "I'm so bored it's not even funny." She digs her fingers into his back. Her nails sink into his flesh and stay there.
"I'm unhappy," he says, still humping her. His few remaining strands of hair come unglued and fall forward, hanging in his face. He stops humping her for a moment, flips them back, then starts humping her again. "I'm unbelievably unhappy," he says loudly, and then begins to cry.
They stop fucking. They don't finish, they simply stop.
"Remember when we smoked the crack," he says. "Right here in this living room. You were the fountain, the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel? You were a Roman candle. What could we do now that would be like that?"
"Nothing," she says. "There's nothing we can do."
"Do you want a drink?" he asks her.
"No," she says. "Nothing."
"Have you had enough?" he asks, rolling off of her.
They are both crying.
Paul is in the bathroom, looking at himself in the mirror again. He looks at his hair. He takes Elaine's nail scissors and cuts it all off. Embarrassed, liberated, gleeful like a little kid, he runs his hand over his head. He is ruining something, actively destroying it. He hasn't felt this powerful in years. All the neatly combed strands are gone. He squirts Barbasol over his head; he looks like transvestite wearing a bathing cap. He scrapes the razor over his scalp, round and round he goes. Paul finishes, thinking he looks better, healthier, more accepting of what he's become.
"Damn it!" Elaine shouts. "Damn it to hell!" She has tripped on a loose board, spilling clean clothing down the stairs.
Paul comes out of the bedroom. "What happened?" he asks. All the clothing has been dyed pink by a red shirt that got mixed in with the whites.
"Fucking floor," Elaine says collecting the clothing, handing Paul his pink underwear. Then she notices his shaved head. "What the hell were you thinking?" she asks.
"I'm equal to it," he says. He looks at his underwear. "You're crazy," he says. "You can't even do the laundry."
"So fire me," Elaine says, going down the hall to wake Sammy and Daniel.
"I'm not going to wear this underwear and I'm not going to school—and you can't make me," Daniel says.
"You have to go to school. It's the law. If you don't go, the police will come and take your father and me away.
As she says this, it seems to occur to her that this might be absolution, a way out—let them come and take her away, so be it.
"Fine," she says through Daniel's door. "Don't go to school. Don't wear any underwear, either. It's your life. I'm only your mother."
Paul leaves with Sammy, promising to stop ant the five-and-ten and buy new underwear on the way.
"But I like pink, pink is good, pink is pretty," Sammy insists.
"I don't care what you like," Paul says. "What you like doesn't matter here. It's what's good for you. Pink is not good for you."
"Don't worry," Elaine's mother says, sitting at the kitchen table, checking her reflection in a kitchen knife. "It happens." The mother tilts the knife back and forth making strange exaggerated expressions with her eyes and mouth. She puts the knife down. It happened to your father and me. And we survived."
"What did you do?" Elaine asks.
"We went to Italy," the mother says. She finishes her coffee, draws a breath, and clasps her hands together. "Time for me to get myself together and go home."
"You're leaving already?"
"Your father is lost without me."
"But I thought we might be able to spend some time together," Elaine says.
"You'll be fine," the mother says.
Elaine starts to say something, but the mother holds up her hand like a stop sign, silencing her. "You'll be fine," she says again. "I'm telling you."
"But Mama," Elaine says. "Mama."
"Elaine," the mother says, getting up from the kitchen table, "Grow up."
The mother has come, the mother has gone; everything is the same as it was. She didn't make it all right again. She was no help at all.
The telephone rings. Elaine answers it, and the caller hangs up.
Paul is in his office. He has changed his underwear. The pink underwear is in the trash can under his desk. He thinks about the cleaning lady finding it—pulling it out, taking it home, and giving it to her husband, the cross-dresser. He takes the underwear out of the trash and puts in his briefcase. His secretary puts through a call from Henry. "Hi," Paul says. "What's up?"
"Conference call," Henry says.
"Ménage à trios," the date says.
Paul doesn't say anything. His heart has stopped for the moment. "Come on," Henry says.
"Play along. I'm Bond, James Bond."
"And I'm the Russian spy," the date says.
"Who am I?" Paul asks.
"A diplomat from the U.N.," Henry says.
Paul's secretary interrupts. "You have a meeting in ten minutes."
He puts his hand over the receiver. "In eight minutes, knock on my door."
"Of course," the secretary says, closing his door. He goes back to the phone. Henry is talking to the date, doing a poor imitation of Sean Conner. The date moans, with a Russian accent. Paul just listens.
Elaine is home. She goes from room to room, thinking she should clean, she should dust, she should vacuum. Elaine thinks she should sit down, make some calls; she should get the dishwasher repaired, the disposal replaced, the leak under the sink fixed, oven tested, shower re-grouted, floorboard fixed, house painted. She should go to the nursery and buy flowers for outside. She should clean out all the closets and give away what they don't need anymore.
Elaine goes from room to room, lying on every bed, sitting in every chair—room to room, thinking. Round and round. Upstairs, downstairs. Faster, faster, she makes mental notes: what is missing, absent, or in need of attention. She makes notes until she feels sick and then she goes downstairs and opens the refrigerator to get a drink. The bulb blows out while she is trying to decide what she wants. It is enough. More than enough. She goes outside and sits on the steps. She can't go back in the house. She can't go in the house again.
She sits on the steps. The air is thick. The mailman comes.
"It seems too soon for this," he tells her, gesturing to the invisible air. "Hot, humid, and only the beginning of June."
Daniel comes out of the house; Elaine had forgotten he was home.
"I'm bored," he says. "And there's nothing to eat. All the caviar is gone."
"Then go to school," she says. "You'll get there just in time for lunch."
"Fine," he says, defiantly, "I will." And he heads off down the driveway.
Elaine sits on the steps all day. She sits until Sammy and Daniel come home from school.
"Go in and bring me a Coke, will you?" she asks Sammy, and he does, delivering the ice-cold can, apparently without noticing that the refrigerator light is out.
Daniel drags a beach chair out of the garage and sets it up for her. She lies down in the backyard.
Paul comes home, goes into the kitchen, makes himself a drink.
"You want one?" he yells out the kitchen window.
"Please," she says.
He comes out into the yard with their drinks in hand. He takes off his tie, his shoes, his socks. He wiggles his feet in the grass.
"I can't cook dinner," she says. "I just can't do it."
"We'll grill," he says. "Well just slap everything on the grill."
She doesn't say any more. They have their drinks. They have more drinks. The bleating bellow of mothers calling their children home echoes up and the street. "Wendy, Jonathan, Danielle, Michael, dinner's ready." Elaine's stomach growls; she hasn't eaten since breakfast. Paul set's up the grill—a little too close to the house, Elaine thinks, but she doesn't say anything. He lights the coals.
"I don't think you realize what I'm saying," Elaine says. "I can't do it anymore."
"What do you want to do?" Paul asks.
"Where are the children?"
"In the front yard."
Elaine and Paul are silent, listening for Sammy and Daniel's game. The static of the children's walkie-talkie cuts through the air.
"What are you wearing?" Daniel squawks.
"Blue shorts," Sammy squawks back.
"And what color are your socks?"
"Mine are red," Sammy says, and then, as if they know the parents are listening, the children begin beeping each other with the Morse-code button, talking in an unintelligible language of longs and shorts, dots and dashes.
Paul picks of the can of charcoal-starter fluid and squirts it against the house. "Is this what you want? He asks.
Elaine sucks in her breath. She can't tell if Paul is joking or not.
"Tell me," he says, emptying the can against the house, spraying a swath over the grass, a line that leads straight to the grill. "You have to tell me."
"I don't know," Elaine says.
The briquettes are almost ready; the coals are dead-white, red-edged, glowing. Elaine goes to Paul and puts her hand around his waist. She balances herself, then raises her leg, her foot, her toe and taps her toe against the leg of the grill.
"Harder," Paul says.
Elaine pulls her leg back and kicks the grill. The coals fly up and out, the frill tops over. Everything sputters and smokes for a minute and then slowly the fire builds up from the ground, the grass, and moves toward the house. They stand watching as fire creeps up the back wall of the house. Wordless, each wonders if it's a game—a dare to see who will run for the garden hose. As the fire builds their nervousness and excitement grow. Elaine begins to laugh and then stops herself, pinching her cheeks together with her hands. In the early-evening light, the blue flame is nearly invisible. Fire seeps into a crack in the wall. A line of white smoke rises. Elaine watches, wishing she could hurry it, wishing she could be sure.
Paul leans on Elaine and puts his shoes and socks back on. "Get the kids and get in the car," he says.
Elaine walks away, turning back to see Paul blowing on the fire, fanning it with his hands, encouraging the flame. "We're going out for dinner," Elaine tells Sammy and Daniel.
"Roger," they say into their walkie-talkies. They get in the car and wait for Paul. A few minutes later, red-faced, breathless, he joins them. They drive to a nearby restaurant. The waitress fills their water glasses. Paul and Elaine smile at each other.
"I'll have steak," Paul tells the waitress. "And the baked potato with sour cream."
"The fat," Elaine starts to say.
"I just want to live," Paul says. "Live and not worry. Is that possible?"
"I'll have the same," Elaine says, closing her menu.
During dinner they hear sirens. They linger over coffee. The children eat ice-cream sundaes. When the check is paid, they get back in the car and head toward home. The street is blocked off, there are fire engines and police cars. In the distance, they can see their house in flames with fire coming out of the roof.
In the back seat, the children are oddly silent.
"Is that our house?" Daniel asks.
"Yes," Paul and Elaine say.
They watch for a few minutes and then worried someone will recognize them, they drive away. They check into a motel. The children, stunned by the spectacle, stone on hot fudge, go quickly and quietly to sleep.
"We're awful," Elaine says, crawling into bed next to Paul. "Really bad."
"We have to try harder," Paul says.
"We have to be nicer to each other," Elaine says.
Paul plays with the blankets, pulling them up over their heads. "We should build a fortress to protect ourselves from the world," he says.
"To protect us from each other," Elaine adds.
"From ourselves," Paul says, letting the blankets fall down over them.
They are quiet. Paul curls up against Elaine and wraps himself around her.
"What are you wearing?" he whispers in her ear.