Wednesday, January 11, 1984
Betsy, who usually takes a while to get to the point, is telling me about her sister, Shelly: "Shelly got married in college. Her husband was a graduate student. He became a professor. They lived in Nebraska. After fifteen years he came home one day and said, 'I don't love you. I never loved you.' She came to California and now she's making minimum wage at Walgreen's. She's taking classes in accounting. You need to help her."
"Help her how?"
It's a tiny cottage in Los Altos. Shelly has a pretty face that would delight a cubist painter: chiseled, not curved. Her voice is gentle; her smile, wide.
I tell her the ultimate solution is to tear out the wall, rebuild and retile. She can't afford it. The landlord should pay but she doesn't want to "bother" him. We come up with a less elegant repair: a gooey fiberglass mixture that I will apply by hand. When dry, it will seal out the water and buy a few years before the whole wall collapses.
I've never applied fiberglass before. It takes more hours and more materials than I expected. The fumes space me out. It doesn't tool well and I can't get it smooth. At one point while I'm working Shelly stands in the doorway, watching, and after some small talk she finally asks, "Do you have children? Just wondering. I saw the little bear on the dashboard of your truck."
"Three kids," I say.
Somehow, that was the wrong answer. Her face clouds over. She walks away.
I pile some debris, grout and broken tile, on the bathroom floor. Shelly returns to the doorway. "Did you always want children?"
"No," I say cautiously.
"What changed your mind?"
"It wasn't like I didn't want children ever. It was more like I wasn't ready. And then one day, I realized I was ready."
"How long did that take?"
"We'd been married, um, six years. It was our anniversary, actually, when I told her."
"And your wife - was she ready?"
"She had to think about it."
"About thirty seconds."
So I am. Meanwhile, a cat has pawed a little hole in my pile of debris and is squatting over it. "I'm so sorry," Shelly says. She sweeps up the pile and then sprays the floor with Lysol. As she scrubs, she asks, "What made you ready?"
"I don't know. I just was."
The floor is clean now, but she continues scrubbing, not meeting my eye. "You see, I met this young man. I mean, young. For some reason he likes me. So I was just wondering."
I don't know what makes me say it, maybe a protective instinct, but I ask, "Is he nice?"
There's an intake of breath, a hesitation. Then she says, "He's lovely."
I don't finish until 8 pm. It looks slapdash and may not even hold. I hate doing this kind of repair, so temporary, so ugly, and not inexpensive.
I clean up. Shelly inspects the work.
"Sorry," I say. "Maybe I could come back tomorrow and do something better."
"No, it's lovely," she says, and she writes me a check.