When the Bicklers bought the house, it was summer, and they were both absolutely free to do what they wanted. This would be a different summer, one when they wouldn’t take on any obligations, one when they’d get past some of their big problems. Him always focusing on himself, as she put it. Her always accusing him of focusing on himself—as he put it.
They got in a routine: They’d get up at noon, read all afternoon, run every evening, fix supper, eat in front of the TV, stay up late to watch movies, then make love.
Great life, thought Martin, but by August, things had somehow turned sour. Maybe it was the routine itself, the sameness of each day. His wife had grown sullen. He brought it up. “You think?” he said. “We just need a change of pace—or something?”
“Maybe,” Ann said. She fiddled with a strand of blond hair.
“Well . . . ?”
She smiled and went back to her magazine. Her smile was like a thin wedge of orange. He knew that smile.
Just like always. Harboring something to accuse him of. Okay. If that’s the way she wanted it, he’d get off to himself—do something all alone. He’d been thinking about it anyway—fix up this house. It was hot as hell, the August temperatures climbing to a hundred degrees in the afternoons, but he didn’t care. It was an old clapboard house, in need of paint, with a sagging porch and warped floors. They’d bought it cheap from a fellow graduate student whose wife had run off. The guy had no idea where he was going, and he only wanted to unload the place. Martin soon discovered termites in the walls, and when he crawled under the house with its concrete block foundation and lay with his head in the dirt, looking up, he spotted floor joists to replace. The rot extended from the bedroom to the bathroom and all across the house.
With his utility knife he ripped up a section of dirty beige carpet, then used his wrecking bar on the wooden floor to expose rotted joists. He made a big hole. He’d be taking up the whole floor—but that could wait. He began ripping into the exterior wall, exposing termite-riddled studs, and Ann came in from the kitchen with a Diet Coke.
“What’s going on?”
“Big reconstruction job,” said Martin. “This bedroom of ours is about to cave in and pretty soon we’ll be lying in the dirt.” He pointed down—then at the bathroom. “And one of these days we’ll be sitting on that toilet in there, and we’ll go right down with it. That’ll be fun.”
“I’m getting out of here,” said Ann. “I’m using the other bedroom.” Martin watched her take her clothes out of the closet and begin pulling out drawers of underwear and other things. She danced around the big hole he’d made.
He was dripping sweat. The air conditioner wasn’t working right. Who cared? He needed the window open anyway to pitch things into the truck bed. If things went right, he’d have this bedroom project done in a couple weeks or so, and meanwhile they could sleep in that second bedroom. It wasn’t as good, though. It was cramped for space, and both windows faced the waste dump a quarter mile off.
He soon had the exterior wall out—now to those joists. But which were the load-bearing walls? He needed to take out the floor joists across the entire span of the house, and that meant getting under the bedroom wall that adjoined the kitchen. It looked like a load-bearing wall. He had no idea. He began prying out sections of drywall.
Ann came in. “It looks to me like you’re destroying more than fixing.”
“Got to do it,” Martin said, hefting a four-by-eight section of crumbling drywall into the bed of the truck. “This whole place is bad, A to Z.”
“Well,” she said, “if that’s the way you see it.”
“See it? Hell, take a look at it yourself. At those joists.” He pointed at the big hole in the floor.
She looked. “I should’ve known we were getting into something bad.” She looked up at the ceiling with the dark brown spots that looked like melanomas.
In another day he had a truckload full of studs, busted drywall, and warped flooring. It was ready for the waste dump. Now there was no floor at all in the bedroom—only the joists—and he rested uneasily on one and dangled his feet over bare ground.
He needed a break. He found Ann on the bed and tried to make love. She pulled away.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing. Just not now.”
“Just not now. I’m thinking.”
“Nothing.” After a minute, she said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“What we’ve been doing. Being in this house—being us.”
“Oh, is that right? What’s that mean?”
“Like I said, I don’t want to be us anymore.”
“Look,” Martin said, “I could stop all the work. There’s no point in—”
“No,” Ann yelled.
“Listen to me.” She turned her wedding ring on her finger. “Maybe there was nothing between us to begin with. And being together so much, so much—I saw it somehow. It’s strange to say that—I know, but—”
“No. I think I knew it all along. I was just in denial.”
“In denial. What bullshit!”
“No—it’s not. Please. Just go back to your work. I want to be alone—just me with me. Don’t you get it?”
He tried to make love again, but she wouldn’t, so he gave it up. Then he returned to his repair work and, with a vengeance, went for the floor joists with his power saw. He’d get it all out to the waste dump before dark. Then he’d see where he was.