Chapter 1: Linc

Let me tell you about the screwed-up state of things in our house these days. We have no kitchen. We haven't had one for eight weeks and four days. The refrigerator is standing where a bathroom shower used to be. I am boiling my pasta and making my oatmeal on the grill on the patio. Our kitchen table changes weekly. Right now it's the new stainless-steel dishwasher, still in the box.

Mid-night peeing has become a hazardous endeavor because someone inevitably has left something in the middle of my memorized, sacred, eyes-closed path to the toilet. Nails, screws, wood splinters, gobs of caulk and sheetrock dust litter the floors, and shoes must be worn at all times. Bathrobes, too, for the girls. We have strange men coming and going in and out all doors of our house for most of the day.

The renovation at 363 Jacaranda St. has been systemic, to say the least, and I know now that we should have moved out for the project. Jo says we still should move out for the duration of the renovation, but how much longer can it take? Staying in this war zone has become somewhat of a badge of honor with me. If we can weather this, we can weather anything, right?

We are gutting all three bathrooms down to the studs. For the time being, we shower in one bathroom, pee in another, brush our teeth in a third, and this configuration changes with each week.

We are redesigning the kitchen and great room. We are replacing all forty-two windows and five doors.

But the biggy is this: we are literally raising the roof - okay, not the roof but the ceiling - of the entire house by eight inches because at six-foot-four I feel like Gulliver in this 1952 ranch home. To do this, we are knocking out the existing ceiling and robbing some space from the attic. Can you say 'old crumbling plaster?'

Have I mentioned yet that we're living here while all this is going on?

Oh, and did I fail to say that hurricane season is just around the corner? Last year's was the most active on record, and this year promises more of the same. As Violet would say, 'Oh, joy!'

I hear the door of Rod's truck shut outside, and I go to the window to peek out and see if my contractor has parked off the grass this time, as I asked him to do last Thursday.

Yeah, he's good. The pickup rests an inch or two from the edge of green. His wheels are straight. Everything Rod does always looks solid, angular, sensible. I can always count on Rod. Wish I could say the same of all his subcontractors.

Rod rings the bell on the back door and comes on in, unannounced, as I've told him to do. I meet him in the hallway.

"Sure hope you're a good dry-waller," I say.

Rod grimaces, then scratches at his beard. "I take it Bud didn't show."

"Yep," I answer. "That guy's allergic to punctuality if you ask me."

"Damn."

"Yep."

"I wanted to get that tile started in the guest bath. Carlos is set for tomorrow."

"Carlos?"

"My tile guy - and he's busier than Santa Claus these days. Damn!"

"What?"

"I don't know when I can get him down here again. That sheetrock's got to be hung today."

"When could you get him here if not tomorrow?"

"You don't want to know."

"Can't you do it?" I ask.

"Well I sure hadn't planned on it. I've got to be on Marco Island at six."

I look at my watch.

"That gives you eight hours, Rod."

He frowns in concentration, purses his lips, then looks at his watch, which is the coolest watch on the planet. You can tell it's as old as the hills, an analogue model with Roman numerals, the rounded, crystal face smudged with scratches accumulated over the years, all held on by a brown-leather wristband stained with sweat and speckled with paint. If the designers at Abercrombie weren't asleep they'd already have come up with a "distressed" model of Rod Hayden's watch.

"I've got a consolation prize," I say. "You smell it?"

Rod puts his hands on his hips and lifts his nose in the air as Tillie, our cat, does when she's trying to detect some foreign odor.

"Cherry pie?" he asks.

"Blueberry," I answer.

Ah, my new weapon! I had been told by a friend in Rochester that the secret to getting subcontractors to show up at your house is to time the serving of aromatic baked goods with the predictable human blood-sugar crashes of mid-morning and mid-afternoon. (Since I have no working oven right now I have to run over to Mrs. Artuzi's house to use hers.)

I have found this to be especially true between nine and ten in the morning. Up to this point it's worked well on Bud The Dry-waller, but now he has gone AWOL. I'm guessing it has something to do with the fact that the game and fish commission lifted the ban on grouper fishing in the Gulf this week. I know he owns and loves a new 24-foot Sea Ray with two four-stroke Yamaha engines. He talks about it 24-7.

As I do with all the sub-contractors, I listen and pretend to be interested and ask questions and give comment - 'Yeah, man, I hear ya Cool, very cool How fast can that go again?' - knowing that their wives couldn't give a damn, and if I prove to be a hospitable sounding board they'll return more often and finish their damn jobs so my family's normalcy and happiness can be restored.

We sit down at the ersatz bar in the kitchen, an old door atop two sawhorses. I pour Rod a cup of coffee, which he likes black. I've always liked Half-n-Half in mine, but I've been trying it black lately and like it.

He takes a bite and leans back in the stool and closes his eyes as he chews.

"Man, is that good," he says. "Almost as good as that peach cake-thing. Did you always cook like this?"

"You mean bake," I say. "This isn't cooking. There's a big difference between cooking and baking."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

He chews and says nothing, shrugs his shoulders.

"Cooking is fluid and organic, more impromptu, like finger-painting," I say. "Baking is more exact. More like science. Or like construction. I actually like cooking better. I think it takes more creativity than baking because in baking you have to do everything exactly as the recipe says, and in cooking you're more your own boss. You'll be making this sauce, and you might taste it and say, 'hey, it needs some white wine, or some dried basil might add a dimension to this. I mean, that's not to say it's easy. God, no, it's not. Cooking requires some science as well. Like if you're using cardamom pods, for example. I mean those little bastards will release their flavor only after a certain point, and then there's a difference between the green cardamom pods and the black ones."

Rod nods as he chews.

"And then there's gravy. I mean that's temperamental as hell. You've got to choose flour or corn starch, and if you use flour you've got to make sure it cooks long enough to get that floury taste out of it, but if you cook it too hot it'll scorch on the bottom, and then you've got to time it right, and let me tell you with my wife's unpredictable schedule I don't make much gravy, because once it's reached boiling point it's never the same, and I just won't serve something past its prime. Oh, it goes in the fridge, sure, and Jo always eats it. She couldn't care less if the food's lost its integrity. She'll eat anything. That may sound good, it may sound like it makes my job easier, but it's also kind of degrading. I mean if she has no standards then why do I try so hard to make incredible meals? You know what I mean?"

I notice that Rod has accelerated his eating. His bite-size has grown as I continue talking. His plate is nearly empty.

"Do you want some more?"

He strains to swallow one last, large bite. "No, thanks. Was real good, though."

"You sure?"

"Yeah."

He disappears down the hallway, wiping his hands on the back of his thighs, and as I put the dirty dishes in a tub to take outside to the hose I am wondering why I feel so stupid and vulnerable right now exposed in some way, as if I've been caught standing at the curb in my underwear.

Which reminds me: Add toilet paper to grocery list.

Which reminds me: Get clothes to Goodwill

Which reminds me: Buy copy of Goodnight, Moon for the Weiss's new baby.

Which reminds me: Trim bougainvillea bushes on trellis by driveway. (See the connection? Remember that line, 'In the great green room,' from the book? See it yet? Green? Outdoors? Yardwork?)