He made macaroni and cheese and hotdogs for the kids on a forbidden hotplate in his motel room. They were unfamiliar brands of macaroni and cheese and hotdogs, purchased at the convenience store, but the children didn’t seem to notice. Both Sam and Sarah doused their plates with an off-brand ketchup, too. Ketchup was everywhere, all over their hands and faces; it looked like blood. Jenny didn’t usually let them have much ketchup. Too much sugar made them silly and anxious, she said. They did get a little silly – Sam made farting noises with the ketchup bottle, something else Jenny didn’t tolerate, and Sarah laughed until she fell off the side of the bed – but they didn’t seem anxious.
And after dinner, for once, the kids didn’t complain about their baths and Sam even suggested that he would share one with Sarah. The kids tore the paper off the little soaps and plopped them into the water, where they played with them like boats. They tussled over who would get to wear the plastic shower cap first.
Later, when Greg pulled back the itchy, gaudy coverlet on the extra double bed, the children scooted right in between the strangely thick sheets, smiling in a tight, over-excited way that should have been a warning. While they giggled, tickling each other and squirming around, tangling their legs in the bedclothes, he rummaged in the duffel bag their mother had packed, for a book.
It was only when they finished the story, when Greg turned out the bedside lamp, that Sam rolled over and began to cry into his pillow. Greg turned the lamp back on. Sam wasn’t a crier. He looked over at Sarah, who lay on her back, her fingers gripping the sheet. Sam crying was bad enough but it was Sarah’s expression that did him in. She had that wary look on her face, that old person’s look. Seeing it now broke his heart. Seeing it now enraged him.
Sam made some snuffling sounds and then some choking sounds. Sarah’s old eyes bored into his. “Where’s Mama?” she asked.
“Mama’s at home, honey,” he said carefully, trying not to sound sad or angry. Because of this, his tone sounded distant, even to him. “Don’t worry, babies, Mama is safe at home,” he said in that awful careful distant voice. Sam made a final terrible shuddering snuffling sound and then he sighed, his face still pressed into his pillow. For a moment, Greg thought that would be it. The children would resign themselves to sleeping here with him in the motel room on Friday and Saturday nights for now.
But Sarah sat up. “Daddy, we don’t want to sleep here,” she said, patting Greg on the arm, as if she were reassuring him. “Let’s go home, Daddy,” she said. “Let’s go home and see Mama.”
Sam rolled over onto his back. “That macaroni and cheese wasn’t the right kind,” he said, accusingly. His face looked swollen, wet and red. “That ketchup wasn’t even real,” he said.
Sarah got out of bed. “You come home to sleep, too, Daddy,” she said, and she patted again at his arm. The wary look had turned to one of urgency. “You come home, too.”
He took them back. He bundled them, still in their pajamas, into their coats, and packed them into the car. It was ten o’clock when they entered the subdivision. From two streets over, he could see that the house was dark except for the blue flicker of the television coming from the living room. There was a strange car in his place in the driveway. He had to park in the street.
He didn’t ring the doorbell. He didn’t knock. He used his key. He tried to hustle the children in the direction of the stairs but Sam went veering off toward the living room. “Mama!” he shouted. “We’re home!”
She appeared in the doorway, the blue light from the room behind her making an eerie halo of her disheveled hair. Her face looked indistinct, blurry. Sam ran toward her, loopily. He threw his arms around her waist. “We’ve brought Daddy home to sleep, too!” he shouted, laughing too loudly.
Sarah, standing beside him, reached for his hand. He looked down and she looked up.
Jenny’s blouse was rumpled. He saw now she held a wineglass in her hand. Her lips seemed swollen.
He wanted to hurt her. “The children were afraid,” he said.
She crouched down, put her glass beside her on the floor, circled Sam with one arm, reached out for Sarah with the other. Sarah let go of his hand and went to her.
Rich appeared behind her, blocking out the light. Greg reached behind him and flicked on the one in the hall. “Hello Greg,” Rich said.
Greg inclined his head. He’d never talked to the man before. He’d seen him a couple of times at the school but he’d never said one word to the man. He looked down at Jenny and said, “I’ll tuck them in here.” He waved them in the direction of their bedrooms. They went easily now, Sam calmer, yawning, Sarah hazarding a smile.
When he came back downstairs, Rich was gone. Jenny was sitting at the kitchen table with her glass of wine. She didn’t seem angry. He took a seat at the table. He wanted to explain. When he started, she put a hand on his arm.
“This can’t go on,” she said. “We need to sit down with the children,” she said. “We need to tell them something.”
Jenny wanted him to give some variation of the speech everyone else was apparently giving their children. She recited a version of it to him. She said, “We need to tell them something like ‘Mommy and Daddy aren’t living together because they don’t love each other anymore. But we both love you, very, very much. And we will always be here for you. That will never change.’”
He was silent. She’d asked him to leave, yes, she’d told him she was in love with someone else, yes, but she’d never come right out and said she didn’t love him anymore.
We’ll say something like that,” she said. “The children need to hear something like that.”
He couldn’t give a speech like that. It was a lie. He did still love Jenny. He would always love Jenny. And how could Jenny think he would he be there for the children if he wasn’t actually there? Love was not simply something you said; it was something you did. The important thing was to be there, for nightmares and breakfasts and dirty laundry. What’s more – and this was something his wife clearly did not understand – the love you demonstrated by action when you didn’t feel it was better and more real than the love you demonstrated when you did feel it.
His wife had gotten confused. She had fallen into something with this Rich person who taught at her school but whatever it was, it wasn’t love.
The next day, he sat on the sofa between his two children, while Jenny stood in front of them and said the speech. She shifted from one foot to the other while she did so. He didn’t say anything, even when Jenny gave him a look that meant she wanted him to. The children didn’t say anything either. They pretended like they hadn’t heard her but their bodies betrayed them. They sat there, stiffly, on either side of him. Sam looked smaller, lighter, slighter. Sarah wouldn’t look him in the eye.
There was a silence.
“Are you staying for dinner, Daddy?” asked Sam.
“No,” said Jenny, before Greg had a chance to say anything. He knew that, if he touched her, he would feel her shaking.
“Tell you what, kiddos,” he said, slapping Sam’s knee with the palm of his hand. “Let’s play catch on the lot until it’s time for your supper.”
The three of them went out the kitchen door, which opened onto the lot next to the house. It was gorgeous, an expanse of lawn and gardens and trees that Greg had tended lovingly for years. If Greg and Jenny hadn’t been smart enough to purchase a double lot ten years ago, back when the subdivision was first being developed from farmland, back before the children existed, that lot would belong to someone else and most likely there would be a house there right now, crowding up against the kitchen. Sam had taken his first steps on that extra lot, right next to that vine-covered trellis. Once Greg had found Sarah, around two or so, sitting still in a mossy spot under the lot’s stand of poplars, carefully examining her left hand, which was stretched wide in front of her face. She’d been watching a spider spin its web between her fingers.
Now the three of them stood on the lot a small distance apart and threw a beach ball politely at one another. The children played formally, carefully, rigidly. They did not fight over whose turn it was to catch or to throw. They did not laugh or run. Greg was distracted, too. He was deciding where the prefab would go. There, beneath that maple? Here, next to the rose bushes? Finally the ball hit Sam’s chest and bounded off into the ditch. The children looked after it listlessly, and then at Greg.
Jenny, who all the while had been watching from the kitchen window, called them inside for dinner. Greg noted she’d called them in a little earlier than usual. He thought that now might be a good time to mention the prefab and he followed them inside. But as he was helping Sarah untie her shoes, he saw that there were two pairs of Rich’s shoes on the mat by the back door. A pair of dirty white running shoes and a pair of walking sandals that fastened with Velcro, the kind Jenny had never let him buy. He forgot what he had come inside to say. He kissed the children and left. He was always kissing the children and leaving.
There were three older kids skateboarding in front of the driveway when he went out to get in his car. Two long and lanky, one short and stocky, all three wearing their skateboarding uniforms. Their baggy cryptic t-shirts, their enormous saggy-bottomed pants, their headscarves and earrings in places other than ears. One of the lanky ones whipped right in front of Greg, zipping at a high speed across the cul-de-sac on his skateboard.
The next thing Greg knew, the kid was impaled on a wooden stake Mrs Sandinsky had put down in her front yard for some tomato plants. There was blood everywhere, blood and squashed tomatoes. The kid was fish-gasping for air, lying there with on his back with this wooden stake poking up through his middle. Greg felt himself reeling. He lifted his hands to hold his head up. His hands were covered in blood and tomatoes, which was confusing, and then Greg saw that they were not. His hands were not covered in blood.
There was no blood, anywhere. There were perfectly formed tomatoes, yes, hanging from a green vine that twined around the wooden stake in Mrs. Sandinsky’s front yard, but there wasn’t a kid impaled on that stake. The kid on the skateboard was fine. He was shouting; he was laughing; he was long gone. Greg could just barely make him out, disappearing rapidly over the crest of a small hill, his skateboard clacking on the cement.
It was tiny, the prefab. A neat little one-room bungalow with a kitchenette along one wall and a tiny separate bathroom and the saleswoman told Greg that, in a pinch, he could move in as soon as it was delivered. It’d only take a couple of days, the saleswoman told him, to hook up the wiring and the plumbing. The saleswoman had thin lips. She wore pantyhose that made her sausage-y legs look the wrong colour and shiny; she made a rustling sound when she walked. She kept talking about the variables. “When you purchase one of our designer homes,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about the variables. You get exactly what you pay for. You control the variables. When you hire a contractor to build you a house from the ground up, it always ends up costing more than you planned for. Too many variables.”
The prefab was so small it would be delivered in one piece on the back of a truck. Greg liked the idea of a house being delivered in one piece. Unlike the larger models, which were delivered in two or three or even four pieces, this tiny house would be indivisible.
The saleswoman handed him a plastic pen with a row of bungalows stamped on its side. He watched his hand moving over the purchase agreement, spelling out the letters of his name. It felt like someone else was controlling the movement of his hand. His hand wrote out a check for the deposit. The saleswoman picked it up and waved it back and forth, as if to dry the ink, even though it wasn’t that kind of pen. She had very long, thick-looking fingernails with bright white tips, and one of them was chipped. “It’s all yours,” she told Greg as she waved his deposit check around between them. She smiled. Her top lip seemed almost to disappear when she smiled. There was red lipstick on her front right tooth.
“Perfect,” he told her. “I want to move fast.”
There were two men standing beside the eighteen-wheeler. Greg guessed it was the big one who had called him on his cell at work. The big one, the one who looked like he was the one in charge, had a shock of white hair that seemed to stand up a foot from the surface of his head. His belly hung low over his belt. The other one was a younger, smaller, more muscular version of the big one, hardly more than a kid, with a tuft of high yellow hair instead of white. The prefab, a perfect little bungalow with beige vinyl siding, white trim, and green shutters – just as Greg had ordered –sat heavily on the back of the truck, overhanging it on either side. It was the same colour as the house and roughly the same shape as the house but much smaller. It looked like something the house had given birth to. There was a crane parked behind the eighteen-wheeler. Someone whose face was obscured by the brim of a red-and-black checkered cap was sitting hunched over in the cab of the crane. Tendrils of smoke curled up from underneath the cap. Greg nodded in the man’s direction. A hand materialized beside the cap and tugged on its brim in greeting.
“So where’s the cement slab?” said the big man, the man who looked to be in charge, when Greg got close enough to hear him. With his thumb and the elevation of one bushy white eyebrow, the man indicated the empty lot beside the house.
“There’s no slab,” said Greg. It seemed he’d moved a little too fast. He’d bought and paid for the prefab, scheduled the delivery even, but he’d forgotten about the slab, and, of course, he had neglected to tell Jenny. Had avoided telling her. And now here the prefab was. The wind seemed to toss the limbs of the trees on the lot in slow motion. Greg shook his head and looked up at the sky. A white cloud sailed slowly across the blue expanse.
“There has to be a slab,” said the man.
Greg shrugged. The white cloud seemed now to be moving in reverse. He touched his forehead with the fingers of one hand.
“So where should we put it?” asked the younger man, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet.
Greg was tired. He felt like lying down on the road and going to sleep. The words came out like someone else was saying them. “Just put it here,” he said, pointing to his feet.
“Right here in the road?” said the big man.
“It’s okay,” said Greg. “We’re the last house on the cul-de-sac. It’s a dead-end, see?” He pointed to the place where the road ended to show them.
“It’s a dead-end, Dad,” repeated the younger man, as if that explained everything. He was still bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“Shit, I don’t care,” said the older man. “It’s your prefab,” he said. “We put it where you want,” he said. He made a hooting sound and started waving his thick hands at the man with the cap, who was still hunched over in the cab of the crane.
“Put it right here,” said Greg. “At the foot of the driveway.”
“That your house?” asked the older man, thumb and eyebrow indicating the house.
“Yes,” said Greg. Because technically it still was.
“We knocked on the door when we got here a half hour ago,” he said. “There was nobody home.”
“No,” said Greg. “They’re…we’re at work,” he said. “My wife and I both go out to work. And the kids are at school.”
“I got kids, too,” said the man. He paused.
“I see that,” Greg said, looking at the younger man, who smiled at him.
“Okay then,” said the big man. “We’ll put the prefab down here. You can hire someone to move it onto the lot once you get your cement slab poured.” He seemed to be justifying the plan to himself.
Greg nodded, slowly, although he knew there would never be a cement slab on that lot.
The two men went to confer with the crane operator. Greg sat down on the lawn of Jenny’s house and watched them thread a net of ropes around the prefab, then hoist it off the back of the truck and set it gingerly on the road, right at the foot of the driveway. The whole procedure took no more than an hour. When it was finished, the older man handed him a silver key. Then three men nodded at him – the crane operator still faceless behind his tipped cap in the cab of his crane, the other two on the ground – and then they were gone.
Greg sat on the lawn, the key in the palm of his hand, and stared at the prefab. Although it was a tiny house, it took up the whole road. There were only a few feet between the back of it and the start of the driveway, and a few feet between its front step and the neighbour’s lawn across the street. Only now did it occur to Greg to wonder why Mrs. Sandinsky hadn’t come out to see what was going on. She couldn’t be home. He looked down the street at the Camerons’ place. Both Eric and Elizabeth worked, so they wouldn’t be home, either. There were only two more houses on the cul-de-sac, and no one seemed to be home there, either.
Greg climbed the front steps. There were three. He put the key in the lock and twisted. The door opened into the one main room. The floor gleamed. It was laminate, in a warm chestnut shade he had picked out himself. The walls were very white. The saleswoman had told him he could pick any colour he wanted but he’d stuck with white and he was glad he had. The gleaming floor and the paper white walls soothed him. Everything smelled plastic and new. Along the back of the house there was a tiny, neat, galley kitchen – there were the etched glass panes in the cupboard doors he’d picked out – and a tiny, neat, tiled bathroom. The tiny window in the shower overlooked Jenny’s house. He went into the kitchen area and stood at the kitchen sink. There was a bigger window there and it overlooked the house, too. It happened to line up with Jenny’s kitchen window. He could stand there doing his dishes, watching the kids as they sat at the kitchen table over in Jenny’s house. He smiled, thinking of it. And then he began to laugh.
He went back through the living room and out the front door, laughing. He walked over onto Mrs. Sandinsky’s front lawn and stood beside the staked tomatoes so he could get a good look at the front of the prefab. It looked good. The tiny house itself looked good, but something was missing. The tiny house seemed somehow unsettled, insubstantial. It needed roots. He got out his cellphone.
The driver of the delivery truck from the garden supply centre ducked his head toward the prefab and said, a big smile spreading across his face, “Well, would you looky here.” He talked in a folksy way, stretching his words out to match his smile.
Greg helped him unload the truck. Grunting, together they stacked the sod next to the prefab’s front step. They laid the sections of the white picket fence down on Jenny’s driveway. Then they stepped back next to the truck and, both of them with their hands on their hips, surveyed what they had done.
“You gonna lay that sod down around that house?” asked the driver, slowly, in his folksy way.
“And you gonna put that picket fence up around the sod?” asked the driver, even more slowly.
Greg nodded again.
“Well, I’ll be,” said the driver, climbing into his truck. He stretched the three words out so long Greg could hardly tell what they were. He winked, still grinning widely, and drove off. He passed Mrs Sandinsky coming up the road in her station wagon. That station wagon was at least 30 years old.
Mrs Sandinsky was the first to get home. Greg wasn’t wearing a watch, but judging by the position of the slow-moving sun in the sky, it was about three. Mrs Sandinsky had never been much of a talker. She pulled into her driveway, got out of her car, and waved to Greg, exactly the way she used to wave at him when she’d seen him mowing the lawn or weeding the gardens or raking leaves. She didn’t seem surprised. Maybe she thought the prefab was only temporarily sitting in the middle of the road, until Greg finished doing whatever he was doing with the pieces of wood over on the driveway. By what must have been around four o’clock, though, he thought he could see the curtains moving in her living room window. He kept working. He’d managed to pre-assemble a good section of the picket fence and now he was laying down the sod, right over surface of the road. He didn’t know how well it’d fare there, long-term, but it looked good. After he’d laid down about half the sod, he decided to try to put a section of the fence up, to get an idea of what that would look like, too.
It had to be around six when Jenny drove up with the kids. The sun was just beginning to slip out of the sky and the slant of the light gave everything a warm, even glow. There was plenty of room for her to pull the car into her driveway, and there was no reason she couldn’t drive over the corner of her lawn a little bit, if she didn’t feel she could squeeze past the prefab without scraping it or her car, but she didn’t even try. She stopped and parked the car in the middle of the road. Greg waved but he didn’t look up for long. He was having trouble getting the fence to stand upright on the cement. You couldn’t pound the stakes into the ground the way you would with a fence constructed on a lawn, so he’d had to attach these extra square platforms to the bottoms of every third or fourth post and they took a long time to screw in.
He could hear the car doors slam and the delighted shrieks of his children. He looked up to see them running up the front steps of the prefab. He watched them fiddling with the doorknob.
“Come get the key, guys!” he called to them, still screwing the post into its platform. “You need a key!”
A shadow fell across his hands. “What in god’s name is this?” said Jenny in a low strangled voice. From his knees, he looked up at her. Her face was stretched and drained and white.
“It’s my prefab,” he said. He put his screwdriver down on the cement and sat back on his haunches, examining the new angles and planes of Jenny’s stranger’s face.
The kids were clamoring around him, one on each side, throwing their arms around his shoulders, kissing the two sides of his whiskery chin. He hadn’t shaved for days. “Where’s the key, Daddy,” Sam shouted in his ear.
Greg fished it out of his pocket along with some crumpled paper, his eyes still on Jenny. Sam grabbed the key and scampered back up the front steps. Sarah followed close behind him. Sam unlocked the door and the two of them went in. Their squeals echoed in the empty room.
“You can’t put this thing in the middle of the goddamn street,” said Jenny in a new voice, one that matched her new face.
“Why not,” he said. “It’s not in anybody’s way.”
“It’s not in anybody’s way?” said Jenny. “It’s not in anybody’s way?!”
He looked at her and looked at her. He didn’t recognize her. He shrugged. “It’s a dead end,” he said. Then he turned away from her and climbed those three steps, to the door that Sam and Sarah had left ajar. He went inside, to find the children spinning in circles in the middle of the empty room, and kicked the door shut behind him.