Closing Costs (Part 2)
A novelette about pre-Covid California.
Read Part 1 here.
IN DECEMBER, KATIE MADE chocolate crinkles for the block’s cookie exchange, delivering them door-to-door with Winston and Hannah. She didn’t tell any of her neighbors that they were moving in the spring, she knew not where. Except for her, the moms of Lupine Lane all owned their homes, which had appreciated wildly in value. So, it was awkward.
It didn’t help that Katie had no close friends in Owl Creek, though she had cordial relations at home and work. She had told no one she was now Catholic, for instance.
Anyway, most Owl Creek parents were too busy for friends. Every adult on Lupine Lane was juggling children’s sports schedules, music lessons, and sensory processing disorders. A typical day might require supervising a complicated homework project and getting a preschooler fitted for an orthopedic brace, or some other doctor’s visit to adjust a child’s medication, or one’s own medication, followed by a quick bite and two hours of off-season girls’ softball. Owl Creek parents wound down by watching TV and drinking wine, at home.
One Saturday, outside a toy store with a life-sized plush reindeer in the window, Katie heard a familiar voice call: “Katie!”
Two minutes later, Helen, a tall, angular woman in yoga clothes, narrowed her eyes and said: “Where do you live, again?”
Katie described the general location of Lupine Lane.
“Oh, that’s a cute part of town! I know it really well. My family had a house there, but . . .” She trailed off, leaving the unspoken suggestion that, in 2018, Lupine Lane was less than ideal. “Now we live in West Owl Creek.”
Helen goggled at Katie, searching for a glint of recognition of how superior in all ways this neighborhood was. Katie assumed her village-idiot look, uncomprehending.
Mildly agitated, Helen swept on: “We’ve been crazy busy.”
“Oh?” Helen always seemed to be, mysteriously, in high demand.
“Max has swim practice three times a week and meets on weekends. He loves to swim! If Max doesn’t swim, he’s insufferable. He’s just high-energy. That’s fine. I’ve learned my lesson. A year ago last spring, he swam and loved it. Then he swam all summer. He loves the water! Then in the winter, we went to down to once a week at an indoor pool. Big mistake! He’s just a high-energy kid and needs to swim. So. in the spring, we started up again: three times a week, on top of cello—Max loves the cello!—and morning Spanish. He’s also obsessed with cars. And explosives. At the first swim meet, he didn’t place. He was just happy to be in the water. He’s not competitive! I worry that he doesn’t have that ‘edge.’ Then at the second meet, he swam the butterfly and got a ribbon. We were there six hours. He loved it! Then at the third meet . . .”
“Good for him!” Not for the first time, Katie idly wondered if Helen was high.
“So, I just worry about him not having that ‘edge.’” Helen paused for breath, looking beautiful and tragic.
“He’s just a kid,” Katie said vaguely. “I’m sure you’re doing a great job. And how is Asher?”
“Asher has ADHD,” Helen rasped dramatically, like she always did. “It’s a nightmare.”
“Huh,” said Katie.
There was a lull, and Helen remembered to ask about Katie’s kids. Katie said they were fine, the usual. Helen’s mouth turned down slightly.
“Are you guys still renting?” she asked. “That must be really hard these days.”
“Yes, for now. We’re planning to buy next year.”
“I thank God our house is almost paid off. We bought at the bottom of the market, just lucky I guess.”
“That was smart.”
“So, where do you think you’ll buy? I hear Shackford’s still pretty affordable.
“We’re looking there—and in Owl Creek,” said Katie, her face suddenly warm.
“Good for you! Of course, it’s a long drive to school. If your kids can even stay in the Owl Creek schools? Max and Asher love riding their bikes to—”
“Their dad lives here, so yes,” said Katie shortly. “And I’m not worried about the drive.”
“There’s just been so many accidents on that road, though. Some really bad ones! And Max and Asher love riding their bikes to school. I’m just so grateful that—”
“Jim’s waiting for me,” Katie said. “But it’s great running into you, Helen. Merry Christmas!”
“Who was that?” asked Jim when Katie rejoined him.
“Our boys were friends in kindergarten. Back when I was a single mom, we would hang out sometimes.”
“That surprises me.”
“She was always inviting me places. I think I made her feel better about herself. However much she hated her life, mine was worse. She’s not a bad person, really. She’s just perennially unhappy.”
“That old dukkha,” said Jim, who had gone through a Buddhist phase like everyone else in California.
“The Queen of Dukkha.” said Katie. “Is everyone in this town miserable?” she said in a new, tremulous voice. “Or just me?”
“Why are you miserable?” Jim asked with genuine surprise. He was wearing a Santa hat, which had seemed funny that morning but now irritated Katie.
“Because these idiots have houses, and I don’t!” she hissed. “Some of these mothers barely work! They work part-time or they work for the schools and have the summers off. Meanwhile, I’m running myself ragged—commuting five days a week, trying to cook and drive the kids to their activities—and we are hemorrhaging money. It’s not fair! I’ve done everything they’ve done. I had to get divorced because Wally, as you know, was impossible. He wanted me to support the family while he sat home watching pornography and making recipes out of Saveur! Why I am being punished, still, for Wally being a bad husband? Why does everyone in this whole town have more than me?”
“Wow. Well, I personally think you have a lot,” said Jim. “Winston and Hannah—”
“I don’t mean that!” cried Katie wildly. “Never mind. Let’s just go home.”
IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 2019, the Huber-Rothschilds’ lease came up for renewal. Jim emailed the property management company that they would not be renewing the lease, noting that the rent had gone up $700 a month in three years. The company emailed back that they would be happy to find another tenant willing to pay market rates in Owl Creek, and to please let them know asap when the Huber-Rothschilds would be out.
In the wet, gray months of late winter, it was harder to drag the family to church. Only Jim had any enthusiasm for Mass in February, the season of Ordinary Time when priests wore green—green, the color of hope!—and everyone appeared to have lost the plot after Christmas.
Tess dutifully went along on her weeks, but Winston and Hannah attended under protest, as Katie had missed the boat for raising cradle Catholics. Now twelve and ten, they were too savvy, ironic, materialistic for religious faith: They were too Californian. Had Katie taken up marathon running or veganism, her children would have thought these interests normal, even if they did not share them. Catholicism, in contrast, struck them as deeply and even frighteningly uncool. She could see Hannah ticking through the possibilities: that her mother had quietly gone crazy, had been brainwashed or hypnotized, was dying.
Katie merely asked that they keep an open mind. One day, however, she noticed in the car’s rearview mirror that Hannah was crying. A single wet tear streaked her cheek.
“I’m a little depressed,” admitted Hannah.
“Why are you depressed?”
“Kids on the street are scared of me.”
“Scared of you? They’re over at our house all the time.”
“They come over, but they think I’m bossy. Matty acts like he doesn’t want to be my friend anymore. Everyone thinks I’m mean.”
“You’re not mean, Hannah,” Katie said. “You have a strong personality. You’re— you’re blessed with a strong personality. And you can have a quick temper. That’s something you can work on, but we all have something.”
“I used to steal things,” said Hannah. “Just little things nobody noticed. I did that for a couple of years.”
“I know you did. We talked about it and returned most of them, remember? Jim was worried about you. Are you still doing that?”
“No. But I can’t ever go back and change that. I just think about it.”
Katie had no card to play but the one. She had no other card whatsoever. So:
“Well, I know you’re not Catholic, but the way Catholics handle that is called confession.” She explained the sacrament in simple terms. “And so you kind of get a clean slate. You don’t have to feel bad about it anymore.”
To Katie’s surprise, Hannah let this pass.
In fact, Katie’s own behavior these days left much to be desired. The bank had approved her and Jim for a $540,000 mortgage loan. This was more than they could afford but seemed like a promising number. When Owl Creek realtors heard it, however, they looked somber, like doctors forced to announce a botched operation. Katie and Jim had toured a motley string of properties: one on the lip of a busy intersection next to a halfway house; another with weed-choked sewer pipes and a large, thriving family of rats in the attic.
All this made Katie even more miserable than before. The long years stretched before her: trying to pay down a half-million dollar mortgage, no end in sight to the daily grind as her kids grew up and, eventually, moved away. Despite their degrees, she and Jim would spend the 2020s as indentured servants—all for a peeling stucco box her own parents would not have lived in. This new, house-buying Katie fizzed and crackled with rage. She had a growing list of people whom she blamed for her predicament, including her parents (for, long ago, letting her marry Wally), Wally himself, and the entire government of California.
Jim listened to all this for weeks. One day he said: “You should try praying the Litany of Humility. I think it would help you.”
Later that day, she looked the prayer up on her phone.
Jesus! Meek and humble of heart, hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus.
It went on like this for some time.
From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Jesus.
And so on. And the last part:
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
The Litany of Humility repelled Katie. She could barely get through it. It was outrageous that Jim wanted her to abase herself in this manner! What did he think she was, a saint?
But as a compromise, Katie decided to go to confession. She had gone only a handful of times since her baptism and not yet gotten the hang of it: It seemed like a cross between therapy and speed-dating. In the confessional, she would blurt out her grubby little sins—straining to make them seem interesting—after which the priest absolved her, uttering a few cryptic words.
This time, Katie confessed that she’d been driving her husband crazy and snapping at the kids, that she was full of resentment despite all the good things in her life. She recited the Act of Contrition and promised to avoid “the near occasions of sin.” The priest assigned her three Hail Marys and a decade of the rosary.
“A whole decade?” Hannah asked later, eyebrows raised.
“That’s just ten beads,” Katie explained. “One Hail Mary on every bead.”
“Oh! That’s good. I thought he meant you had to pray the rosary for ten years!”
“I think maybe, for me, living in Owl Creek is a near occasion of sin,” Katie remarked to Jim after the kids were in bed. “I’m always exhausted. I’m always envious. I never have enough time to enjoy the kids. I mean, what are we doing here? I think we need to come up with a different plan.”
For a few days in March, spring appeared out of nowhere like a magic trick. After weeks of rain, Owl Creek found itself suffused with golden light, cerulean skies overhead, wildflowers lining the roads. After all it had put them through, California suddenly liked them, wanted to show them a good time.
On the daily dog walk, Lupine Lane stood revealed as an earthly paradise. Katie knew nothing about plants and so could only note in passing its yellow puffballs, rosy brambles, jade-green leaves, and fruit trees frilled with pink blooms. A little girl jumped in a puddle in red galoshes. A bluebird soared up to alight on a high branch.
In several front yards, a trendy lawn sign admonished passers-by to LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR. There followed a list of certain types of neighbors (Black, Brown, Immigrant, etc.) whom the viewer presumably did not love, and was now being scolded into loving.
Katie was familiar with the actual neighbors—this was her neighborhood, after all—and they fell into somewhat different categories. There were retired people, college students leasing retired people’s houses for eye-popping rents, and two-income professional couples. Nothing was easier than loving these neighbors, all aggressively self-sufficient, because the worst they might do was wave at you or make a stray remark about the weather. What the signs signaled, in fact, was love of other people’s neighbors, including neighbors who might, for whatever reason, pose a slightly greater challenge to one’s comfort. But it was all rather abstract, because they tended not to live in Owl Creek.
There was a snail on the sidewalk. Katie stopped to consider it: a sludge-brown, eyeless creature in a spiral shell. The snail had cut through all the bullshit of “renting versus buying” and grown its own home out of calcium and mucus.
Unfazed by Owl Creek—where billboards now advertised “NEW HOMES! STARTING IN THE MID-800s!”—the snail dragged itself around town all day, leaving a trail of slime like an obscure comment on everything it saw. Outsider art for Owl Creek to ponder.
Winston had once wanted to play the violin, but he wanted to play the violin no longer. Almost a year into school lessons, he would have been happy to never see a violin again. He was tired of holding it under his chin, plucking at its strings pizzicato, dragging a screeching bow across it, and practicing humiliating songs like “Three Blind Mice.” He was tired of having to turn in weekly practice slips to his strings teacher and stressed out by the lies he found himself writing on the slips (“Thursday: 20 minutes”).
Deeply disillusioned with the violin, Winston had wept and begged to quit his lessons, but he was signed up for the academic year. Wally (and Katie too, reluctantly) had informed him he was going to have to keep it up till June, as spelled out in their subtly threatening contract with Owl Creek Elementary for a loaner violin.
So, Winston was on the hook for the city-wide spring strings concert, a local tradition. Only Katie (who had to drive him anyway) attended, as she and Winston had agreed to spare the rest of the family this ordeal.
In a school auditorium on the west side of town, the one hundred and fifteen elementary string players of Owl Creek sat assembled in three sections: Beginners to the audience’s right, Intermediates to the left, and Advanced in the center, onstage. Katie threaded her way through rows of weary, winter-pale parents to take a seat with a good line of sight to Winston, wearing his Oxford shirt in a metal folding chair in Beginners.
Violin in his lap, he gave her a brave smile: Winston the Dutiful, passing with flying colors the famous ‘marshmallow test’ of self-denial, ready to execute his task whatever his dark secret feelings toward the violin. Katie waved at him.
A large officious woman in a purple dress took the stage, and the spring strings concert commenced. When her raised right hand dropped, the children drew their bows back and forth across hundreds of strings as one machine. Music poured out over the audience: first recognizable melodies from the Beginners (“Old MacDonald”), then more complex songs from Intermediate, and finally hints of artistry and technique from Advanced. The strings teacher was good at her job, marching Owl Creek children up through the ranks and into the waiting arms of seventh grade Strings, a popular local elective, followed by high school Orchestra, which entailed an exciting trip to Europe.
The audience clapped loudly after every song. Their wayward offspring were being transformed into cellists, and it was marvelous in their eyes. Back and forth, back and forth: a sea of children playing in unison on viola, cello, violin. Their small feet tapped the floor, keeping time. They gazed impassively at the sheet music before them, pressing their fingers down on the necks of their instruments. Doing their jobs.
“I’m proud of you,” Katie told Winston after it was over. “And just think, you’ll never have to play ‘Hot Cross Buns’ in public again for the rest of your life!”
“I don’t know about that,” said Winston grimly. He threw his violin in the car and they went home.
“He did fine,” Katie remarked the following morning, still in bed. “But he’s just running out the clock. I don’t think he’s cut out to be a violinist.”
“That’s probably for the best,” said Jim, adjusting the pillow under his head. “The world can only take so many violinists.”
THE CALIFORNIA POPPIES were out in force when the moving truck came at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. It was April, the cruelest month, but Jim and Katie felt plucky and brave as the movers hauled their belongings out the propped-open front door.
The couch went by, and then the bookcase, then four wooden chairs, floating before their eyes as if in a twister en route to Oz. Boxes of books and dishes were marched up the ramp into the maw of the giant truck parked in the street, announcing the household’s departure.
“You really don’t have much,” one of the three long-haired movers observed in passing.
“No, we don’t,” said Jim.
“Most families have a lot more stuff than this. This is, like, nothing!”
“We’ve moved a lot of it already.”
“Yeah, but the furniture, I mean. And the TV is super-small. How many kids did you say you had?”
“Wow. Well, good for you, man.”
“Keeping it lean, I guess.”
“Right on. Are you taking this piano, or . . .?”
“Yes, we’re taking it.”
“You see the leg is broken, right? It’s just propped here, not bearing weight.”
“I realize that. But we’re still keeping it.”
Katie went out to the backyard and sat on a bench where she and Jim had liked to drink wine in the evenings. Under the oily dark-green leaves of a tree whose name she’d never learned, she sat with her hands folded in her lap, thinking about flowers.
The California poppy was originally called the cup of gold. Its blossoms were tissue-thin bowls of yellow petals drenched in a deep orange at the center: an eye-catching bloom that grew in bunches, little families. In fourth grade, Winston’s class had written reports on the state flower, and Katie had studied the papers displayed in the classroom window, hoping (as always) to understand some tiny part of where she was. She’d considered the children’s drawings in colored pencil, gold and green.
The California poppy was made the state flower in 1903. Now it was everywhere you looked, lining the coastal highways, burgeoning in several yards on Lupine Lane: a scraggly, showy little plant that insisted on living, invited or not. Just throw the seeds down and forget it, people said. It was basically a weed. It would grow anywhere.
When word got out that Katie would be stepping down to a part-time, work-at-home schedule, people at CaliBar looked at her with new interest. Who was she, really? Colleagues appeared in the oak doorframe of her office to shoot the breeze and remark in passing—jokingly!—that Katie was jumping ship, abandoning her post, wimping out, begging off, making a French exit, and generally being lazier than they had given her credit for. Hey, good for her! Having delivered himself of these thoughts, the visitor (usually a man) would wander off to forage for leftover donuts in the kitchen.
Oh, well. Perhaps this was what she had always been: a dropout in the carapace of an achiever. A Bartleby who ‘preferred not to’ and had nothing more to say.
She was revamping her work life to hang out more with Win and Hannah. She was not doing it to be their cook, chauffeur, maid, tutor, event planner, and nurse, though she was all these things at times. The goal was just to be herself—an imperfect, slightly weird Catholic in her forties—in the presence of her own children. Work would always be with her, but Win and Hannah would not always be with her. Suddenly Winston was as tall as she was, and Hannah—little Hannah!—was showing her how her own phone worked. There was still time to steer them, gently, toward the Good. They needn’t stay in California all their lives. There was a secret door leading out, an escape hatch hiding in plain sight . . .
No one at CaliBar was permitted to work full-time from home, and so, with Jim’s backing, Katie had offered to cut her hours and salary in half.
She was departing office life for the domestic arena of intangibles, in which there were no numbers, graphs, or bottom lines. And still, it counted.
THE HUBER-ROTHSCHILDS LIVED AT 2713 Tierra Verde Drive in Shackford, California. It was a three-bedroom, two-bath house, 1450 square feet with an open floor plan, and had recently sold for $362,000. While Katie made breakfast, after-school snacks, and dinner, she could see Winston in his reading chair and help Hannah with homework at the kitchen table. The master bedroom was outfitted with a corner desk for Katie. The house’s dominant colors were muted: blue, olive, and dove gray.
Between the his-and-her sinks in the master bathroom, there was a built-in shelf where Jim placed a small statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Katie added odds and ends the kids had made— a small clay duck, an origami robot—and it looked vaguely like a shrine, though sometimes she left earrings there, just for convenience.
The women on this block had names like Rosalia, Juanita, Noor, and Pushpa. They were grandmothers, mothers, matrons, and their grown children worked casino shifts or construction or went into law enforcement after a few years’ military service or styled hair. They repaired HVAC units, drew blood, sorted mail, staffed daycares, fought fires, cleaned teeth, and mapped boundaries and easements for the county.
“Where did you move from?” an old woman asked at the shared mailbox on the corner.
“Oh.” A short pause followed. Shackfordians believed that they were capable, hardworking people and Owl Creekers were soft-handed ninnies.
“Well, welcome to the neighborhood,” she said, provisionally giving Katie the benefit of the doubt.
Katie said: “Thank you! Nice to meet you.”
That evening, she and Jim stood in the yard, surveying the pickup trucks of Tierra Verde Drive. “I feel like we’re in the Witness Protection Program,” Katie said in a tone of wonder. “It’s just so different. The force field of Owl Creek barely exists here.”
“I know, right?” said Jim, drinking a beer.
Weekday mornings, Katie drove 16.7 miles to Owl Creek, taking all three children to school, though Tess would soon have her own car. And in the afternoons, she picked the children up and drove them home. They listened to music on the drive: REM, Paul Simon, Big Band. Winston and Hannah told her about their days, and Katie laughed at their stories and gave impromptu advice.
Winston and Hannah’s eligibility for the Owl Creek schools now rested on Wally, who still lived there in an overpriced duplex. But what if Wally moved out of the school district? What then? There were work-arounds, but their spots in Owl Creek High—a feeder for Stanford, Caltech, and the UC system—were not assured. This spooked people in Katie’s circles, who questioned whether she was making a wise decision. Was she going to leave something like that to chance?
But Katie wasn’t worried. She knew Winston and Hannah, and they didn’t need Owl Creek High. God had made them, as clearly as if he’d signed his name on the soles of their feet. She had a feeling they would be all right, regardless.
Perhaps in 2020, life in California would calm down.
As the sun set one evening in May, Katie and Jim sat on a bench on their front porch, holding hands. They were each other’s midlife crisis, or shall we say, midlife adventure, and they were quite fond of each other.
Jim had turned on the sprinkler, and it sprayed water rhythmically over a square of grass with a tree in the middle. “I like this house,” he said.
“Me too,” said Katie.
While they were here, it was their home.
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