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The Good Life
By SUSAN KIETZMAN
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2013 Susan Kietzman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShe was in the tub when her mother called.
After receiving the message, Ann sat back against the warmed, white porcelain and closed her eyes, wondering what her mother could possibly need at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night that couldn't wait until tomorrow. She had just talked to her, what, two, three weeks ago? Ann rose from the bubbles, stepped out of the tub, and descended the two steps to the heated floor, where she slowly towel dried her body and hair, all the while looking at herself in the mirrors that covered the walls. She rubbed moisturizer into her arms, legs, face, and neck and blotted almond gel around her small hazel eyes. She approached her pedestal sink to tug the few errant hairs from her shaped, light-brown eyebrows and floss and brush her teeth. Afterward, she slid into her silk pajamas and matching robe and calfskin mule slippers. She grabbed the bedroom phone from its plastic holder and walked down the stairs, through the foyer, and into the study, where Mike had buzzed her on the intercom about her mother's call. "Will you get me a glass of champagne?" she said to him as she pushed the buttons on the phone. "I'll join you in the living room in five minutes."
"Let me know when you're off, and I'll pour the drinks then," said Mike, who, in similar situations with his wife, had been kept waiting more often than not.
"Okay," she said, leaving the study and walking into the neighboring den, where she sat down in a large Italian leather armchair.
"Hello?" asked Eileen tentatively.
"Mother, it's me," said Ann. "What's up?"
Eileen took a deep breath. "I have some news," she said. "Meadowbrook cannot take us until the spring."
"The assisted-living community your father and I were hoping to move into."
"Yes, yes, yes," said Ann. "I just forgot the name for a moment."
"Anyway," said Eileen. "We were hoping to get in there before Christmas."
"What, exactly, did they tell you?"
"They said the unit they had set aside for us was no longer available. I think they made a mistake."
"Oh Lord," said Ann, running her fingers through her chin-length blond bob so it would curl under rather than flip out.
"I don't think I can wait until the spring," said Eileen, her voice wavering. "I need some help." Ann leaned back in the chair, tucked her legs up underneath her, and closed her eyes. Her mother had become increasingly emotional in the last six months or so. Before this, she had always been strong, distant even, with an almost mechanical ability to keep her emotions in check. And while the transformation had been gradual, the needy person on the other end of the phone was not the mother who had organized the annual Grange picnic for forty years and won its women's chin-up contest until she was fifty. "Your father seems to be getting worse every day," she said. "The adult day care at the Lutheran church is threatening not to take him anymore."
"How can an adult day-care facility refuse a patient?" asked Ann.
"They can when he becomes too much for them to handle," said Eileen, clearing her throat. "He tried to escape twice today."
"He gets these notions, Ann, notions that people are conspiring against him. Today it was the day-care kitchen staff. These are the sweetest bunch of volunteers you could imagine. They cheerfully cook a delicious lunch five days a week. And normally your father sings their praises. Not today. Instead, they were representatives from the farmers' union, ready to string your dad up for his evisceration, his word, of their fair work policies. He told me they came after him with a lynching rope, so he ran for the door."
"The staff can stop him, can't they?"
"Well, yes," said Eileen, "if they see him. But basically, they tell me it's their job to take care of him, not to imprison him."
"They don't go hand in hand?" asked Ann, retucking her hair behind her diamond-studded ear lobes.
"Apparently not," said Eileen.
"Where is he now?"
"Watching television. He seems relaxed and calm at the moment, but it's getting to the point that I just don't think I can manage him alone anymore."
"Take the phone to him, Mother," said Ann. "I want to talk to him."
"You don't believe me."
"Of course I believe you," said Ann. "I'd just like to talk with my father."
"Hold on," said Eileen.
Ann picked up the remote from the table next to her and clicked on the flat-screen TV. After hitting the MUTE button, she sank further into the soft back cushion and flipped through the channels. She stopped at a gardening channel featuring an outdoor living area with a kidney-shaped pool much like theirs. Ann looked at her watch, and then heard her parents' voices through the phone. "Who would want to talk to me at this time of night?" her dad said. "Is it something about the meeting tomorrow?"
"It's Ann," said Eileen. "She wants to talk to you."
"Ann who? There's no Ann at the office, unless she's the new girl."
"She's not the new girl, Sam. She's your daughter."
Nothing, and then, "Whose daughter?"
Ann next heard what must have been her mother's hand covering the mouthpiece. Seconds later, she heard her father, his voice reedy and tired. "Hello?"
"Dad, it's Ann."
"Yes, I understand. But it's a little late in the evening to be phoning someone at home. Can't this wait until the morning?"
"It's Annie, your daughter."
"Thank you for calling, young lady. I'll take up your concerns with the president tomorrow."
Ann turned off the TV and sat up in the chair. Eileen got back on the phone. "What in the world was that?" asked Ann.
"He's disoriented, honey," said Eileen, walking back into her kitchen, where some hot chocolate was warming on the stove top for Sam. "He had fallen asleep."
"Is he always like this, Mother? And if he is, when the hell did this happen? He wasn't like this last Christmas."
"The last few months," said Eileen, retrieving the bag of mini-marshmallows from the cupboard next to the oven. "In the last few months, he has gone downhill very quickly."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"I did mention it a couple of times, Ann. When you live with someone every day, it doesn't seem dramatic until it suddenly is."
"Do you have any outside help?"
Eileen hesitated. "I don't want that," she said. "I don't want an underpaid, devil-may-care county health-care worker coming into my house."
"So get private agency help," said Ann.
"Oh Ann," sighed Eileen.
"What do you want then?"
Eileen took a moment, and then said the words she had rehearsed before making the call. "I want to come live with you."
Ann felt like she had been in a car accident, the air bag slamming into her chest. She inhaled deeply, frantic for air. "What?" she finally said.
"Your father and I would like to come live with you," repeated Eileen. "It would be temporary, of course. As soon as Meadowbrook has something available, we'd be happy to leave. We need that kind of facility at this point anyway." Ann tried to corral her thoughts as they flew around the room. "I know this is an awful lot to think about," said Eileen.
Her head buzzing, Ann said, "Yes."
"Sleep on it," said Eileen. "My father always told me to sleep on important decisions."
"Granddad was a wise man," said Ann, her imminent conversation with Mike taking shape in her mind.
"We need you, Ann," said Eileen. "You're our only child and your father is sick."
Ann swallowed the saliva that had pooled in her mouth. "I'll call you tomorrow," she said.
Ann walked back into the study where Mike was still at his computer. She stood behind him, put her hands on his muscled shoulders, and looked down at his manicured hands on the keyboard. "So," he said, eyes on the screen, "what's up with your mother?"
"Let's go into the living room," said Ann. "We'll talk there."
Mike hit the SAVE button and slowly stood. As he did, Ann backed up, feeling the presence and pressure of his six-foot-four frame filling her space. He loosened his tie, undid the top button of his custom-made dress shirt, and stretched his long arms out in front of him, arching his broad back like a taut bow. He then wrapped one arm lazily around Ann and led her through the doorway and into the entrance hall. "One drink," he said, yawning. "I'm exhausted."
When they reached the living room, Ann sat down on the white linen couch in the east sitting area, and Mike walked to the marble wet bar to make their drinks. Ann put her legs up on the adjoining seat cushions and lay back, one of two antique needlepoint pillows supporting her damp head. She stared at the eighteen-foot ceiling, searching for words like constellations in the sky. The pop of the champagne cork startled her. She looked over at Mike, who was pouring one of the splits from California. "I thought you were going to order the new champagne I wanted," she said.
"And I did," said Mike, carrying the drinks to the couch. "It takes more than four days to get here from France, Ann. Plus, you have a dozen of these splits—chilled to your specifications—still in the fridge."
"I'm tired of the splits," said Ann, sitting up and moving her legs so Mike could sit.
"The splits are perfect. You don't need any more than two drinks in an evening."
"Tonight I do," said Ann.
"There is always an excuse, Ann."
"And tonight, it's a good one."
"Well," said Mike, setting the glasses down on the table in front of them on the Audubon bird coasters that never made it back into the side table drawer. He sat on the opposite side of the couch. Ann took her crystal champagne flute from its Great Horned Owl perch and lifted it to her lips. She was as thirsty for the bubbles and the fizz on her tongue as she was for the warmth in her stomach and the downshift in her brain. Perhaps the French champagne, available only in glorious full bottles, would arrive along with her parents. They would be watching the evening news at the same time she was pouring her first glass of the evening. They would be getting into their pajamas just as she was getting into her second glass. And with the third glass, they would be turning out their bedside table lamp, just as the light of recognition and reason in Ann's head was beginning to fade. The timing couldn't be more appropriate. "Dollar for your thoughts?" asked Mike, crossing the ankle of his right leg over his left knee and settling in.
Ann looked at her husband of twenty-two years. She had met Mike in college. He was known then, at least to the women who tracked his whereabouts on campus, as 3G, the gorgeous and gifted goalie of the university ice hockey team. Ann had been well aware of him from the first hockey game she attended, but she did not make herself available for a staged introduction until the beginning of her sophomore year. By then, she had achieved her goal of weighing ten pounds below what the doctor advised, and her blond bob, freckled nose, and slim legs—her most alluring features—were beginning to attract attention from the players on campus. She carefully planned her happenstance meeting with Mike, and by the beginning of his third hockey season, they were an item. While Ann pursued Mike because he was great looking and powerful, she soon grew attached to him because they wanted the same things out of life: security and freedom. Plus, they were both only children; they understood each other's histories and motivations. When Mike was a senior, he asked Ann to marry him. This was not necessarily because she was the one true love of his life. Could he know at twenty-two? No, it was more because his parents both died in a head-on collision with a log truck on the road that led to their country retreat, and Mike knew Ann would understand both his needs and his responsibilities. The week after his impromptu proposal and Ann's eager acceptance, his parents' fortune, made a generation before in the timber industry, became theirs.
"My mother," began Ann, shifting her body to face him, "wants to come live with us."
"What?" said Mike, stopping his heavy crystal glass of single-malt scotch halfway between his lap and his lips.
"I think you heard what I said."
Mike lifted the glass the rest of the way and took a long drink. "Start from the beginning," he said, leaning forward with his forearms on his thighs, scotch straddled between his legs, and dark blue eyes drilling into Ann's. She pushed back six inches on the couch cushion, sipped her champagne, and relayed the story her mother had just told her—that Meadowbrook, the assisted-living facility, had no room, and that alone Eileen could no longer care for Sam, her husband of forty-eight years. "This is not a problem," he said dismissively. "We can easily get someone in there to help. If money is an issue, we can certainly help them with that." Ann explained her mother's desire to live with them, reiterating how old-fashioned she was, and how much she believed in family. "Family is different now," said Mike, finishing his drink. "We live in a global world; the multigenerational living arrangements of the past have gone the way of the family farm. Your parents ought to know that, their farm being anything but profitable for its final ten years."
"They were never in it for the money," said Ann.
"They were to some extent, Ann. It was their livelihood," said Mike. "My point is how different life is today. Our lives, our expectations are so far removed from where theirs ever were. It would be a monumental adjustment to have them here, even temporarily." Ann said nothing. "I don't need this right now, Ann," Mike continued. "I've got a million balls in the air at work. I need my home life to remain relatively stable." Ann nodded in agreement; Mike was right. Her parents were both seventy-two years old and lived, mentally and physically, in another era. Her mother's desire to move into their life was unrealistic. Ann could easily refuse her request and send her a large check to cover their increased expenses.
"Nobody needs this right now," said Ann. "This would affect me the most. I have no interest in playing nursemaid."
"So say no," said Mike, getting up from the couch to make himself another scotch. "It's as simple as that."
"It's not as simple as that," said Ann, downing the rest of her champagne, then setting the empty glass back down on the watchful owl in front of her. "They're my parents."
"Whom you've had very little to do with for the last twenty years. We see them at Christmastime and that's it," said Mike, his massive back to her. "And every year, you moan and groan, along with the kids, about spending three days on the farm."
Ann thought back to the previous Christmas, trying to remember their visit. "What was my dad like last Christmas?" she asked.
"He was okay," said Mike, returning to the couch with his drink and the bottle of champagne, which he emptied into Ann's glass. "He interacted with the kids a bit. He was certainly a part of the celebration."
"He was quiet."
"Yes," said Mike, "he was quiet. But your dad's always chosen his words carefully."
Ann swallowed half her glass and then said, "They would live here for six months."
Mike set his glass down on the Scarlet Ibis and looked searchingly at his wife. "Are you even entertaining this?"
"Hear me out," said Ann, scrambling. "We could give them the guesthouse."
"We use the guesthouse," said Mike. "That's why we have one."
"Mike, we don't have a lot of overnight visitors, especially during the winter," said Ann. "Our entertaining is ninety percent drinks and dinner, with overnights thrown in occasionally. That guesthouse is underused. You know that." Mike picked up his glass and took a sip. Three feet from Ann, he was miles away. "There are two bedrooms back there," she said, talking faster. "One could be for my parents and the other could be for the live-in help, quality help, which I would get in place before their arrival. And they would be all set. They would live their lives and we would live ours. Of course, I would spend a bit of time with them every day, and we would ask them here for dinner once a week—maybe on Sunday afternoon—and that would be that."
Mike scratched his head, then finger-combed his tight black curls back into place. His eyes roamed the room, as if the secret to ending this discussion lay underneath a chair cushion or behind a burlap drapery panel. His gaze returned to his wife's face, bright and focused on his. He could see, anyone could, that she wanted this, as much as she wanted another vacation in Tuscany or a Tiffany necklace at Christmas. "You're kidding yourself if you think a live-in aide is the only cost of your parents living in your backyard for six months," he said, not ready to surrender. "First of all, they have to leave their home. Someone—most likely you—has to help them pack up whatever they might want or need at this Meadowbrook, and then you'll need to sell the house. Then, we'll need to get your parents here. Then we'll have to assess their needs and hire the right people. The list is endless. You can't just fix this, Ann. This is not like organizing a Christmas party."
"I know that," said Ann, softer and slower. "But I also know we can get through this."
"Then you've decided," said Mike, stiffening.
Excerpted from The Good Life by SUSAN KIETZMAN Copyright © 2013 by Susan Kietzman. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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