Jackie’s parents, Helen and Irv Fischbein, had held their marriage together through the debilitation of one child and the estrangement of another, but now a razor-thin crack threatened to split their home asunder. “Right down the middle. Almost a perfect line,” said Irv, “like a magician sawing his assistant in half.” His litigator’s baritone, once clear and crisp, now wavered with a Parkinsonian tremor, and although Jackie had returned from Peru six months earlier, she remained unnerved at the scope of her father’s aging. During her three years in the rain forest, he’d stopped coloring his hair and had allowed coarse gray tufts to sprout from his ears; his shirt hung loose over his meager frame as though off an oversized coat hanger. “To think,” mused Irv, “that all these years, while we’ve been going about our business, the foundation has been opening up beneath us like our own private San Andreas Fault.”
“You should call Mrs. Parmentier,” interjected Helen. “It’s her responsibility.”
They were sitting on the elevated slate patio behind the fractured house, the post-war split-level on Leatherstocking Lane that Jackie had called home from age three until college. On the outside, the structure appeared sturdy, even squat, its clay-shingle roof glistening under the June sun, crab apple branches encroaching on the dormers. Sure, the shutters might benefit from a fresh coat of paint, and some rust varnished the drainpipe spouts, but nothing suggested an imminent collapse to rubble. When her father had phoned to inform her the house was fissuring—“like the hull of the Lusitania,” was the exact expression he’d employed—she feared she’d arrive to find the upstairs bedrooms shoulder deep down a sinkhole.
“Jackie, tell your father to call Mrs. Parmentier,” urged her mother.
Alice Parmentier had sold them the house after her husband’s death—in 1982. If she were still living, she’d be well over ninety. Jackie didn’t see the elderly widow contributing much to a resolution of their predicament, but she understood—from thirty-seven years of effort—not to challenge her mother directly. “I haven’t heard that name in ages,” she said, sipping her second bloody Mary of the morning. “She looked a bit like an aardvark, didn’t she?”
“Your mother has a point,” said Irv. “In principle, it is the Parmentiers’ responsibility. What sort of nitwit contractor builds an addition onto a ten-year-old house without considering that the foundation might still be settling? But legally, I’m afraid, they’re off the hook. Statute of limitations. We’d be laughed out of court.”
Helen filled her husband’s teacup. “I don’t see the harm in calling her.”
“We’re very fortunate to have discovered the defect at all,” Irv continued. “If I hadn’t brought that fellow in to patch the leak above the boiler, we’d still be in the dark.”
Jackie’s father flashed an I-told-you-so sneer at his wife, who rolled her eyes while she nibbled a cheese danish. She’d also aged, although more subtly, her flesh looser at the corners of her chin and along the dorsa of her hands.
“I took the liberty of getting an estimate on the repairs,” said Irv, louder. “It looks like we’re talking upwards of eighty grand—and a full summer’s work.”
“That’s a lot of money,” said Jackie. Her annual stipend in Peru had been fifty-thousand sols—less than a quarter of that amount.
“We need your help,” said Irv.
She feared her father intended to cut back on her allowance—the cash stipend he’d been feeding her each month, ever since her return from Peru, while she searched for full-time employment. No easy feat when you stood three credits short of a sociology degree from Vassar.
“I have exactly four hundred twelve dollars in my checking account,” she joked.
“Don’t be foolish. Your mother and I can afford this.”
“What then? You’re hoping I’ll hold up the side of the house while you slide a piece of cardboard underneath it?”
“We need you to stay here. To keep an eye on the workmen.”
“Here? For how long?”
“Until they’re done,” said Irv. “Probably through September. I obviously can’t skip work and your mother has your sister to look after.”
All of this was true only in the loosest sense. At seventy-eight, Irv hadn’t tried a case in nearly a decade. His role at O’Dwyer, Robustelli & Fischbein consisted largely of putting golf balls into a horizontal highball glass and perusing the Wall Street Journal. While it was accurate that Helen spent every weekday from eight to four at Laurendale Gardens, where her eldest daughter, Nicole, absorbed cartoons with a vacant stare, the girl—now pushing fifty—hadn’t been able to speak or move her limbs since the age of nineteen, when she’d back-dived drunk into a classmate’s swimming pool, and it was unclear whether she even recognized her mother.
“Can’t Maggie help?” asked Jackie.
Yet she already anticipated her father’s reply: Maggie had a household to run, twin nine-year-olds to raise. She couldn’t be expected to drive down to Hager Heights, especially when her baby sister had so much empty time on her hands. In other words, Maggie had provided the grandkids; all they were asking of her was a summer. Jackie knew not to mention her brother, Aaron, who’d severed contact with the family while she’d been in Latin America—and relocated to a remote island off the coast of Nova Scotia. “Or why not just leave the contractor alone? Is there anything in this place that’s so valuable?”
“Don’t talk crazy,” said Irv. “It’s not just about him stealing….It’s making sure he doesn’t vanish during the day and bill us for the labor. Capiche?”
“So you’re basically asking me to babysit a grown man.”
“Call it what you’d like,” said Irv. “As long as you’re here on Monday morning at seven-thirty.”
“Seven-thirty a.m.? Jesus Christ!” Jackie polished off the rest of her drink. “And if you don’t repair this crack? What’s the risk?”
“In the short term, nothing,” conceded Irv. “But twenty, thirty years from now, that crack’s going to open wide enough to drive an Abrams tank through. Besides, you and Maggie will want to sell this house someday, and nobody’s going to buy a crack house.”
Irv beamed at his own wit.
“You’re serious? You have twenty years—and you’re worried about this now?”
“A house divided cannot stand,” Irv declared. “Lincoln was right about that. If we don’t fix this today, we’ll be living under the Sword of Damocles.”
“I’d rather have the cash. So would Maggie.”
“And tell her about the contractor, Irv,” interjected Helen. Without waiting for her husband, she turned to Jackie and said, “He’s Israeli. And single.”
Jackie could imagine few less appealing ways to squander her summer than spying on a team of suburban builders. Her entire adolescence had been one continuous countdown to the moment she might flee Hager Heights, to saying good riddance forever to its oak-shaded streets and two-car garages and boundless depths of suburban hypocrisy. (Only later, at Vassar, did she acquire the term petite bourgeoisie.) But what choice did she have? Her parents—and she was conscious that they’d reached the precipice of old age—had all but sentenced her to three months solitary confinement on the property, and even if she hadn’t depended upon them to pay her bills, she didn’t want to inflict emotional damage. Not after Aaron’s brutal departure. Their only compromise was that she’d continue to live in Marston Moor, where she’d rented a railroad apartment, and her father would lease a car for her commute. So she woke at dawn the following Monday, fed her vacationing neighbor’s illicit pet chinchilla, and arrived on Leatherstocking Lane just as Irv headed off to the station.
“You could have worn makeup,” said Helen. “Or a skirt. Would it have killed you?”
“Be happy I didn’t wear burlap,” snapped Jackie. She prided herself on the comfort of her loose-fit jeans and flats.
“Burlap with décolletage might do the trick,” replied her mother, in earnest. “But if you’re asking for advice, I’d recommend lingerie.”
“You can’t use it, dear, if you don’t own it.”
Jackie waited until she heard her mother’s Oldsmobile round the corner, then retreated to her erstwhile bedroom and curled up on her childhood bed. Little in the room had changed since her exodus, except that her mother had stacked several crates of airport novels by the door—earmarked for the public library’s annual book drive. Slats of light poked through the Venetian blinds, illuminating tiny, languid motes of color. On the desk lay a birthday card for an ex-boyfriend, written but never mailed, that she’d abandoned on a remote Thanksgiving. Her high school gym clothes spooled on the floor of the closet—probably unlaundered in nineteen years. The globe atop the bureau depicted East and West Germany as separate nations. How she despised this room, this house—the plastic slipcovers on the living room sofa, the cloistered shrines to four long-grown children—and what an irony that she’d fritter away her summer to ward off its collapse. When she awoke for the second time, thirty minutes later, the contractor was ringing the bell.
She eyeballed him through the parlor window. She’d anticipated a heavily-bronzed, potbellied lug in his fifties, so she was pleasantly surprised to find him ten years younger—and decidedly good-looking. So handsome, in fact, that she gave herself a once-over in the bathroom mirror before she opened the door. “You’re here for the foundation, right?” she asked.
“I’m here for the paycheck,” he said. “Dan Mizrahi. At your service.”
She soaked up his broad frame, his crystalline gray eyes. He sported a rocker jacket and alligator boots, but a white gold chai dangled at his neck—blue-collar, maybe, even feral, but unquestionably Jewish. In fact, his skin tone, more olive than bronze, hinted at a long family communion with the Levant. Jackie sensed she was expected to introduce herself, but she suddenly envisioned how her mother would relish her daughter’s marriage to this exotic intruder—how she’d lord the relationship over her like a military triumph—and she recoiled.
“Don’t mind me,” said Mizrahi. “I’ll just have a peek at the basement.”
He stepped around Jackie as though he paid the mortgage and vanished down the stairs.
She determined to ignore him. All morning long, she sequestered herself in her bedroom and read the articles on postcolonial theory that she’d found no time for in Peru—yet she had difficulty connecting Homi Bhabha’s monograph on hybridity to the fetid wells from which the dislocated Macuna children drew their drinking water. Around noon, she returned to the parlor and watched through the bay window as a trio of Latino workmen laid out cinderblock wedges on the yard. One had removed his t-shirt, revealing a jagged scar that ran from his neck to his flank. As she watched these laborers haul additional cinderblocks from their truck, she sensed a presence behind her, and turned to find Dan Mizrahi, now in shirt sleeves, leaning against the credenza. He smiled—but more of a smirk than a genuine smile, as though he’d clandestinely unstrapped her brassiere.
“Do you know how many silver teaspoons you have in the house?” he asked.
That caught her off guard. “I have no idea.”
“Good,” he replied. “Then you won’t miss a few.”
She eyed him warily. “Excuse me?”
“Just joshing,” he said. “But if you’re going to prevent me from stealing things, you really ought to be familiar with your inventory.”
“Of course, you are,” said Mizrahi. “And why shouldn’t you? If I had strange men traipsing through my house all day, I’d do the same.”
Jackie had been prepared to object—to defend herself. The contractor’s jovial ease made such an effort seem fruitless.
“It’s not my house,” she said. “It’s my parents’ house.”
“But they’ve roped you into espionage duty?”
“That’s right. For the next three months, I’m your duenna.”
Mizrahi frowned, puzzled; he didn’t know the word.
“Chaperone,” she explained.
He laughed—a rich, honey-coated laugh. “Now that’s funny,” he said. “My chaperone. But it’s the right instinct. Trusting people is overrated. Some people say, ‘trust but verify.’ I say, just verify. It’s safer.”
“Do you actually believe that?”
“Every word. I’ve learned the hard way. First solo job I did was for a convent. Carmelite nuns. Got the gig done in half the time I’d promised, and good old mother superior tried to stiff me on the tab. We’d agreed upon $8,000 at the outset—and she shelled out $6,000. Clever racket, too. Her word against mine. Was I really going to sue a nun? Waste of fucking time—if you’ll pardon my Latin. But I got the message. Loud and clear.” Mizrahi winked. “So you keep spying to your heart’s content.”
“That’s a rather cynical worldview,” replied Jackie. “The Macuna people have a saying that, roughly translated, goes: You can only know whether to trust a man with your wife if you leave him alone with your wife.”
“The who people?”
“The Macuna. They’re from Peru.”
“Got it. If I’m ever in Peru, I’ll bear that in mind.”
Mizrahi strode toward the foyer, clearly pleased with himself. He already had one hand on the door knob when he turned to Jackie and said, “You have seventeen.”
“Silver teaspoons. I counted.”
His eyes locked upon hers and she glanced away. Out on the yard, she heard one of the laborers shouting commands in Spanish.
“Did you really?” she asked.
He shook his head. “You don’t trust me at all, do you?”
Maybe, Jackie told herself, the contractor’s worldview wasn’t so distorted. Maybe she should be less trusting. She’d learned this the hard way in Latin America, when she’d discovered that the district director of her nonprofit, an Australian civil engineer with an indigenous wife one third his age, had been skimming funds intended for water purification. In her naiveté, she’d reported his misconduct to Lima; two days later, she’d been sacked. So now Jackie kept a vigilant eye on Dan Mizrahi, poking her head into the basement at random intervals—and rationalized her surveillance as part of an effort to render herself less credulous. He’d warned her, hadn’t he? So just let him try to pocket a silver teaspoon under her watch! Of course, if the contractor wished to strike up a civil conversation, who was she to object? Unfortunately, Mizrahi—who labored alongside his team, sometimes bare-chested himself, delivering orders in fluent Spanish—proved genuinely committed to a fast-paced, uninterrupted work schedule.
Some mornings, Mizrahi did not appear at all; in his absence, a bony Haitian with a pencil moustache acted as foreman. On these days, Jackie wandered the house, sullen and irritable, strewing banana peels and half-completed crossword puzzles across the countertops. At other times, Mizrahi negotiated parallel jobs via cellphone. She eavesdropped on these exchanges, and found herself enjoying the contractor’s anecdotes, which proved far more worldly than she might have anticipated. When I was in Ghana, he’d begin, or, I had this job in Greece…. But his punchline was always the same: Clients far savvier than you have tried to screw me and failed—so don’t get any ideas. Occasionally, Mizrahi’s conversations occurred him Hebrew, and although Jackie couldn’t understand the words, she sensed a gentler, more intimate tone. Following one of these episodes, she downed three martinis and slept until nightfall. Each time she heard his boots cross the dining room, pounding the hardwood like artillery, she hoped he was headed toward the parlor, where she waited with her half-read journals, and not to the circuit breaker in the adjoining closet. But he wasn’t.
After nearly two weeks, during which her contact with Mizrahi had been limited to opening the front door and exchanging brief pleasantries, she decided to confront him. He’d arrived late that morning—nearly at noon—and she found him in heated discussion with the scrawny Haitian. He’d worn a tank top that revealed a tattoo of a winged lion on his bicep. A bandanna ringed his scalp, holding back sweat. When Jackie appeared at the foot of the basement steps, he shifted with ease from English to creole—pointedly, as though to emphasize his entitlement to privacy. After a few moments, the foreman departed, stoop-shouldered and hangdog, and Mizrahi focused his gimlet eyes upon her. “To what do we bottom-dwellers owe this honor?” he asked.
“You’re ignoring me,” she said.
“I didn’t know you were seeking attention.”
The man had a knack for knocking her upon her heels. Jackie drew a deep breath and focused—harnessing her wilderness training. She’d stayed calm in the face of machete-wielding bandits and Shining Path insurgents; she could handle an Israeli builder. “I’m not seeking attention,” she said. “Would you like an iced coffee?”
His features tightened, as though contemplating a business proposal. For some reason, his caution infuriated Jackie. “Is it that difficult a decision?”
Mizrahi shrugged. “Sure. Why not?” And he added, “It’s not my dime.”
The contractor followed her up the stairs into the kitchen. Another room largely frozen in the first Bush administration. Fluorescent magnets—shaped like citrus fruit—plastered the refrigerator with family snapshots, all at least two decades old: Aaron’s graduation from Oberlin; late Aunt Celeste’s 80th Birthday; Jackie and Maggie, awash in teenage glow, feeding dolphins at the Miami aquarium. The painting of a grandfather clock hung above the dishwasher: In the Fischbein kitchen, it was forever eleven thirty-five. Beside the toaster stood the mauve cookie jar where Helen stashed her jewelry. Only a school photo of Maggie’s twins, and a red octagon warning Irv to take his blood pressure pills, hinted that any time had elapsed since Jackie’s youth. “I swear to God,” she said, “this place is toxic.”
“You sound upset.”
“Frustrated,” said Jackie. “Nothing ever happens here.”
“What’s supposed to happen?”
For an instant, she suspected he was poking fun at her, but she looked over at the kitchen table, where he’d seated himself—a round, Formica-topped monstrosity they’d inherited from Jackie’s granduncle—and found his expression sincere. And why shouldn’t it be? He hadn’t grown up imprisoned in the terrarium of a commuter suburb.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s hard to explain.”
So she did her best to explicate her upbringing, and she was amazed at how effortlessly Mizrahi harvested her experiences: her swift departure from college, after refusing to apologize for disrupting a lecture by a right-wing police official, and the months of conflict with her father that ensued; her deportation from Ecuador for threatening a Chevron executive. Even her brief, disastrous marriage to the son of a jailed Black Panther. “Not exactly a winning resume,” she acknowledged. “I was thinking I’d go back to school—finish my undergrad, maybe get a PhD in sociology—but I’m having a difficult time focusing while I’m trapped in this house.”
“I took a sociology course at university,” said Mizrahi. “All I remember is that the professor had a bad hair weave.” He ran his fingers through his own full mop. “And that we called it the study of the painfully obvious. No offense.”
She eyed him, dumbfounded that he had a college degree. “None taken, I guess.”
“University of Haifa,” he said—as though reading her shock. “Business management.”
“You are full of surprises.”
Mizrahi grinned. “Far from it. But I did this job once in London—years ago. I took the client for a dotty old pensioner, so I cut him a sweet discount. Later, I discovered the fellow was a retired real estate baron. Owned half of Kensington. The lesson I learned was worth far more than a drywall job. Share information on a need-to-know basis.”
She couldn’t get a read on him: Was he flirting? Criticizing?
“So what you’re saying is, I talk too much.”
“Not at all,” he replied. “You could never talk too much.” Maybe to take the edge off this brazen flattery, so out of keeping with his own recent advice, Mizrahi mock-pounded a fist on the tabletop, and demanded, “Say, ma’am, what about that iced coffee?”
His humor fractured the tension. Jackie retrieved two mugs from the cabinet. While her back was still turned, she forced herself to sound casual as she asked, “Who’s that person you talk to in Hebrew?”
She braced herself for his reply, as though blindfolded before a firing squad. For an instant, the refrigerator hummed in her ears like a cement mixer.
“A woman I love dearly,” said Mizrahi—and, following a choreographed pause, he added, “My grandmother in Rishon LeZion.”
After that, Mizrahi joined her for an iced coffee break every afternoon. She relished these encounters, which pulsed with romance—or, at least, the promise of romance—although the contractor never even sought to hold her hand. True to his mantra, in the wake of that initial compliment, he kept his feelings tightly bottled. Jackie did most of the talking. As though transfixed, she’d find herself divulging emotions she hardly knew she possessed: ranting against her mother for pointless devotion to her damaged sister, speculating that Aaron’s rupture reflected a deep sense of personal inadequacy. “He always had a chip on his shoulder,” she said. “Honestly, my father was a better parent for daughters. Girls were mysterious creatures to him. Exotic. Almost aliens. Also, you could doll up a daughter like a princess—even in a nursing home, you could shower her with frivolous gifts. But a son? A son was bound to disappoint. If Aaron had followed his every footstep from Cornell to Yale Law to appellate litigation, he’d never have been the perfect snowflake.” Jackie feared she was boring Mizrahi. “So there you have it,” she said, blushing behind her coffee mug. “Now tell me about your fucked-up family.”
“My family’s not nearly as interesting. Trust me,” replied the contractor. “Why don’t I tell you about the house?”
He plucked a fountain pen from his breast pocket—she noticed Montblanc’s distinctive white star logo below the band—and sketched a schematic of the repairs on a paper napkin. When you’re working with a stepped footing, he explained, your first challenge is to measure the grade. Otherwise, you run into trouble with frost heave or shrink-swell. It took a full thirty-seconds for her to lose him, probably because suburban architecture interested her slightly less than the commuter train schedule or the debate, which had recently divided Hager Heights, and her parents, over whether out-of-town guests might visit the municipal pool. All she knew for certain, at the end of his micro-lecture, was that at some point in September, the entire house would have to be hoisted aloft like a piano, and that Mizrahi knew a lot about his business.
“Alice Parmentier, rest her soul, was a fool,” he said.
“How do you know about Mrs. Parmentier?”
Mizrahi reached forward unexpectedly and caressed her cheek. “How could I not in this house? Your mother mentions her every time we meet, as though the poor woman fractured the foundation out of spite.” He removed his hand—and her flesh burned. “Don’t tell your old lady this—there’s no reason to disappoint her,” he said, “but Alice Parmentier has been dead for fifteen years. Esophageal cancer, for what it’s worth. I was curious, so I looked up her obituary.”
He rose from the table, and for an instant, Jackie expected him to kiss her; she opened her eyes again when she heard his boots on the parquet in the foyer.
That evening, as most Fridays, Jackie stayed for supper with her parents. Or rather, she remained to cook for them—a healthy respite from their regular fare of pizza and Chinese takeout. (During Jackie’s girlhood, Helen kept only three phone numbers on speed dial: the nursing station at Laurendale Gardens, Irv’s office, and Big Sal’s Pizzeria.) Jackie didn’t mind really—it wasn’t as though she had to carve the time from a vibrant social life—except that her mother couldn’t praise the meal without offering up a backhanded remark about her daughter’s “spinsterhood.” A fellow would be lucky to eat like this every night, she might say. Or, more crudely, At your age, some men care less about sex and more about food. On this occasion, over avocado-garnished arepas, Helen asked, “Why didn’t you invite the Israeli to dinner?”
Jackie refused to nip her bait. “Which Israeli do you mean?”
“Don’t be that way,” sighed her mother. “I’m trying to be helpful.”
Therein lay the problem: a cornucopia of unsought help. When Jackie’s high school boyfriend, Dave Pastarnack, had dumped her, Helen had called the kid’s parents, behind Jackie’s back, urging them to persuade their son to reconsider. On move-in day at Vassar, freshman year, Helen had insisted on installing her daughter’s telephone herself, and when she couldn’t jigger the jack to function properly, she’d rummaged around the utility cabinet in the corridor until she knocked out service to the entire dorm. “I realize you’re tying to help,” said Jackie—hoping her tone sounded conciliatory. “But not every man on earth is lining up to dine at our house.”
“You don’t need every man on earth. Just this one,” said Helen. “You could ask, couldn’t you? Or would you rather I asked…if you’re too shy?”
An uncomfortable silence settled over the dining room, punctuated by the scrape of Irv’s cutlery across his plate. Jackie considered mentioning Mizrahi’s tattoo—which, at least in theory, might keep the Israeli’s corpse out of a Jewish cemetery someday—but she wasn’t sure that she wanted to diminish the contractor’s stock. Then Jackie’s father cleared his throat, as though to propose a toast. “I’m not going to meddle in your personal life, young lady,” he said, “but this Mizrahi gent really is a find. He’s doing yeoman’s work on the house. Who’d have expected that from a fellow out of the Yellow Pages?”
“I thought he came recommended,” said Jackie. “From the guy who fixed the leak.”
“He was the fellow who fixed the leak,” Irv answered, beaming. “The gent really knows his stuff. He was explaining to me how he’s going to use one kind of thingamabob, and not another—Helen, do you remember what he’s going to use?”
Helen stewed sullenly over her untouched plate.
“Anyway, it’s a lot cheaper, this new thingamabob, and practically as strong,” said Irv. “Should take five grand off the estimate. And on top of all that, he claims he’s going to be finished by early-August. A month ahead of schedule! Who ever heard of that?”
This news surprised—and relieved—Jackie. She’d taken Mizrahi for the sort of man to pad five grand onto the bill, or draw out the work an extra month, not the opposite. That on-the-make quality, his primal capitalism, had been his one glaring minus; now that she sensed Mizrahi’s self-interest was mostly talk, she found herself giddy.
“So anyway,” said Irv. “I trust the gent. I don’t see the point of you driving out here every morning to spy on him.”
“She’s not spying,” objected Helen. “She’s providing company.”
“Whichever. The bottom line,” said Irv, “is that she should be seeking gainful employment instead of burning through cash like some Third World government. Not that I’m not glad to help out my daughter—any of my children. But permanent dependency isn’t healthy.”
“You can’t be for real,” cried Jackie. “First you force me to stay. Not you’re forcing me to leave. What is wrong with you?”
For an instant, the notion crossed her mind that the entire enterprise might be a setup, part of her parents’ ploy to bring a Jewish bachelor into the house, then pretend to drive a wedge between them in order to foster desire. Like in a nineteenth century novel. Or The Fantasticks. But one glance at her father, still in his vest and jacket, mechanically fingering the waddle of flesh above his necktie, convinced her this was pure fantasy. Irv Fischbein didn’t have enough romance in him to conceive such a ruse, let alone implement one. “I thought you didn’t want to stay,” said Irv, bewildered. “A riddle,” he added, addressing the air. “You and your mother.”
Jackie understood that her father wouldn’t put an end to her daily visits if both she and her mother wished them to continue, but Dan Mizrahi didn’t know that. So the following afternoon, over iced coffee on the patio, she said, “You’ve charmed the pants off my dad.” She’d broken down on the way to Hager Heights that morning and lacquered her lips—with the most naturally-hued lipstick available at the 24-hour pharmacy. A breeze rustled the azaleas. Slicks of rainwater dappled the slate, providing wading pools for chipmunks. Mizrahi’s Haitian had taken his crew into Marston Hills to purchase flagstones and wire mesh.
“I’d prefer your old man kept his pants on, than you very much.”
Mizrahi had kicked his boots up onto a vacant deck chair.
“He says you don’t need a duenna anymore,” said Jackie. “He trusts you.”
The contractor laughed. “I thought your pops was smarter than that. Maybe I’m not the one who requires a duenna.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Exactly what it sounds like,” he said, rising. “Maybe I’m not the one who requires a duenna. Maybe you are.”
And this time, he did kiss her. Without hesitation. His lips intense, almost fiery, as though branding a steer. She was suddenly conscious of the open air, of the neighbors.
“Let’s go upstairs,” she said. “I have some teaspoons for you under my mattress.”
As a teenager, sex in her childhood bedroom—allowing Dave Pastarnack to grope and grunt blindly—had felt daring, rebellious. She hadn’t found Dave particularly attractive, or remotely on her wavelength, but he was the best of limited pickings at Hager High, and when he’d dumped her, she’d actually been more relieved than heartbroken—her mother’s reconciliatory efforts notwithstanding. How different from sex with Dan Mizrahi! Staring up at her childhood ceiling, still glossed with a glow-in-the-dark Milky Way, she felt (more than lust or love) catharsis. As though each of Mizrahi’s thrusts effaced another torment of her adolescence, as though his very presence might expunge her teenager self. Afterwards, the contractor held her in the fading light and kissed her eyelids, then the tip of her nose, as in a fairytale.
“I thought nothing ever happens here,” he said.
“Not until now.” She glanced at the alarm clock—a digital device shaped like a deer; in third grade, she’d been obsessed with Bambi. “My mother will be home soon.”
“So if I’m going to pinch the silver, I’d better get to work.”
“You’ve already taken enough for one day.”
Jackie closed her eyes again, but Mizrahi shifted her weight from his arms. She was about to ask him for another five minutes—as she’d often done, in elementary school, when her mother tried to wake her for the morning bus. But from across the carpet, where he’d deposited his pants below her poster of a silhouetted Che Guevara—another source of adolescent conflict with her father—blared Mizrahi’s cellphone. A bugler piping a frenzied “Reveille,” each refrain increasing in both tempo and pitch. How fitting. Hearing the pulse of the ringtone, frank and dauntless, Jackie felt as though she finally understood the cadence of her lover, as though she’d known Dan Mizrahi years, and not weeks.
“I’d better take that,” he said, retrieving the phone. “I’ll be back.”
“In private?” she asked. “You don’t trust me?”
He grinned. “A guy has to preserve some mystery.”
Alone in the bedroom, a crazy notion struck Jackie. They still had another half hour, at least, before her mother returned—maybe more, if Helen stopped at her beauty parlor to have her hair permed. In a manic burst, Jackie overturned multiple bureau drawers, churning up marooned socks and paperclips and a tiara from her fourth grade dance recital, until she found the articles she wanted. Lingerie. Still in the dust-clad discount packaging: a post-prom surprise for Davey Pastarnack—if he hadn’t kicked her to the side of the oak-shaded street. She scanned the sizes before settling on a baby-doll nightgown over a ruffled crimson torsolette. The bandeau fit, if barely, but the tug above and below enhanced the hourglass of her figure. What a jolt Helen would get if she ever saw her daughter like this: her tomboy radical frilled up like Bettie Page. Jackie draped herself over the covers, an afghan knitted by her grandmother lapping her ankles.
She figured Mizrahi would be back in a few minutes—ten or fifteen, tops. But when thirty elapsed and he did not reappear, she inched open the door and tiptoed into the upstairs hall. Tentatively, only 99% certain that the mustached Haitian hadn’t returned. Had her mother driven straight from Laurendale, she assured herself, she’d be home already. Other than the whir of the air-conditioner beneath the kitchen window, the house stood cloaked in an embalming silence. Only approaching the basement did she hear Mizrahi barking into his phone.
“I understand where you’re coming from,” the contractor said—his voice unfamiliar, laced with latent malice. “But I’m not going to shell out that kind of cash on my own. I don’t care what track record you have.”
Jackie ducked into an alcove. Now she regretted stealing up on him, but she dared not retreat, fearful he’d catch sight of her.
“Let me tell you something,” continued Mizrahi. “Years ago, I did a job in Peru—for a missionary working with the Macuna people. You never heard of them? Well, neither had I. But they have an expression in their tribal language, and it goes something like this: You can only know whether to trust a guy with your wife if you leave them alone together.”
Jackie’s chest constricted. Her fingers clenched the lace of the torsolette.
“Great saying,” said Mizrahi. “But it turns out, the Macuna have the highest rate of infidelity in the world. Most of them have no clue who fathered their kids. Get me drift?”
The contractor shifted into a tale about his years in Morocco. Jackie tuned him out; she fought the urge to flee half-naked into the street. From her hiding place, she could see the cinderblocks lined like children’s toys against the cellar wall, the waist-high sacks of joint compound, the intricate blueprints taped to the boiler room door. All for naught. All at once, the coarse reality came to her: there was no fissure, no San Andreas Fault, probably not even an obituary for Mrs. Parmentier. Mizrahi was fleecing her parents of eighty-thousand dollars for nonsense. Fleecing her. The bastard had even had the audacity to caution her against trusting him—and she’d ignore his warning.
Her thoughts raced from grief to rage, and she briefly saw herself raking her nails down the contractor’s smug cheeks, but she shook of these fantasies when she heard the roll of her mother’s Oldsmobile in the driveway, then the rise of the automated garage door. Mizrahi barked an expletive into the phone and terminating the call.
“Jackie, is that you?” he asked—his voice gentle as a summer breeze.
She steeled herself and stepped into view.
Mizrahi’s eyes widened as he took in her body; for the first time, she’d caught him by surprise, speechless, and she knew, of an instant, that there’d be no cheek-clawing. No scene at all. She pocketed her knowledge—a secret weapon to be held in reserve—and watched, galvanized, as her future husband struggled for words.