Built in a Day is the story of an over-educated underachiever whose oath to clean up his act is put to the ultimate test when the world around him crumbles into a state of disrepair. Left in charge of his late wife’s son and a sultry 15-year-old pregnant orphan named Jule, 32-year-old Andrew Bergman has to find the will and strength to rise to the absurd challenge of becoming a stepfather and -grandfather in the course of a few short months. Darkly hysterical and deeply stirring, Built in a Day is an affecting examination of love, responsibility, and the resilience it takes to pick up the pieces.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.55(d)|
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Isabel and I got married in her backyard, on a cold fall day under a tent that had once had banners sewn on it advertising cheap tequila and now just showed the outlines of the letters "Santa Rosa."
All the guests were from her side; a couple of her physical therapy patients were there, along with her boys, Russ and Alex, Russ's beautiful girlfriend Jule, big old Rosie, and a few others I couldn't really place. We had one very expensive bottle of champagne that we managed to hit every glass with, even mine, although I didn't drink it, I just toasted Russ's bang-up job as best man and carried it around the tent afterward. At that point I had been sober for a year and was still being extra cautious.
"Assembled guests," Russ had said, his teenage voice artificially grave. All of us stood with our glasses and listened. Russ was only fourteen but he had that effect on people.
"It falls upon me to say a few words about the couple before you. First, it's been a long road, a very long road. Many of us thought it was too long . . ." A few of us smiled; others nodded. I looked at Isabel next to me but she was staring at her son.
". . . but they persevered." He stumbled on that a bit and this clearly irritated him. Isabel's hand tightened on mine.
"They hung in there and now they stand before us, husband and wife. Please join me in saluting them."
A cheer rose up from the happy little bunch. One of Izzie's physical therapy patients even said Huzzah. The other, a guy named Carl, made a big show of tilting his plastic champagne glass vertically above his mouth and shaking the last drops off the lip.
"I should have been a scientist or a chemist," Carl said to me later, both of us hovering near the edge of the tent. Izzie was dancing with the younger twin, Alex, next to Russ and Jule. Rosie was loaded and had dragged some stranger out onto the parquet.
"My best class in high school was Advanced Chemistry," he said. "Do you remember oxidation-reduction reactions? I could do those in my sleep."
I'd been bored by advanced-placement chem and had kept myself occupied by cheating on my yields while designing elaborate water pipes. At that point in my life my questionable morals had gotten me passed over for valedictorian and kicked out of the Honor Society and I'd be damned if I was going to weigh out crystals and read thermometers like it meant something. Even now, at thirty-two, it seemed ridiculous.
"Doesn't high school seem like an old, really long movie you once saw?" I said. "Like The French Connection or Barry Lyndon?"
"Did The French Connection have Telly Savalas?" he asked. "Do you remember him, Telly Savalas?"
"Yes, I do. I don't think he was in it but I remember him. Wet lips, right? Sort of bags under his eyes?"
He nodded. "And bald as a cue ball," he said, as I knew he would.
"I don't think so," I said. "Not the way I remember him, anyway."
Carl looked as if he hadn't heard me right. "I'm sure he was bald," he said. "That's what I remember most."
"I bet we're just mixing up two different actors. I'm usually wrong about stuff like this, so let's just go with bald."
But he couldn't leave it alone. He just waded right back in. "You know, he had that Popsicle all the time." He began to look distressed and searched the tent for someone to back him up, but there was no one handy.
"Definitely the guy," I said, "but it was a lollipop, I think, not a Popsicle. Lollipop with the little white stick always wagging back and forth. And an Afro. A big natural with a comb in the side."
He seemed to squeak a little. "I think that was someone on Baretta," he said.
"You're right," I said. "I bet it was. And he always said, 'Who loves ya, baby?' "
Now he was wringing his hands. His ailment had been a kind of psychosomatic paralysis and he'd gotten attached to Isabel at some point in the eight weeks she pumped his legs up and down and made him walk between the parallel bars.
"That's him, but he's bald, I swear," he said. "It's a trademark." Just then Isabel showed up and took my arm.
"What's up?" she said. Her grip on the sharp bone of my elbow was something she must have learned as part of her training.
"Carl and I were reminiscing about high school," I said. "He remembers it a lot better than I do."
"Was Telly Savalas bald?" he asked Isabel, slightly out of breath. "He was, wasn't he?"
"I think so," she said.
"And white, right?"
"Definitely," she said. "Excuse us, Carl, we've got to do a few things." She steered us away and toward the card table holding what was left of the cheap cake.
"Honey," I said. "He was asking for it. You weren't there, he was really being awful."
"Like last time?"
At the engagement party I'd convinced him that vanilla was an element, on the periodic table and everything.
"I'm worried about Russ," I said.
"Baloney," she said. "Don't change the subject."
"Okay, I'm not worried about him but I'm afraid he's growing up too fast." This was true. A lot of things about Russ worried me, and the fact that he might catch up and pass me was somehow not a ridiculous thought. That toast was typical. That kid had his shit together way too much for fourteen.
Isabel took the champagne glass out of my hand and sniffed it.
"Still there," I said. "Still smells just as awful."
"I know we don't say things like this but I'm crazier than ever about you," she said. "It's our wedding so I thought I'd take a chance and get mushy."
"Oh, Izzie," I said. "You can say whatever you want anytime you want. I will too."
"I'll try." I meant it, even though I'd proposed to her in tears, blubbering, practically speechless. Afterward I'd laid my head in her lap and hiccuped, feeling as if I'd been plucked from the surf by a helicopter and deposited in a soggy pile on the beach.
Under the tent Isabel was looking at me the same way she had that day.
"So try now," she said. "Say something."
"Okay," I said. "I'm absolutely nothing without you. I'm less than nothing. My whole life begins today."
"Hmm," she said. "Not really romantic for a wedding." But she had colored a bit, so I was not far off. "Keep going."
I could tell I was scrunching up my face, like a child squeezing out the answer to his mother's possibly entrapping question about his whereabouts or the smoky odor lingering around his clothes.
"When you're not around I think for a second that my life hasn't changed, and that I can go back to the way I was. Then I realize that Holy Shit you aren't around and I panic a little and think, Why isn't she around? Where is she? So I go find you or find something that reminds me of you." I licked my lips, they had gone dry.
All of it was true--what I usually did if I couldn't get to her was look for Alex, twenty minutes the baby of the family, but sometimes it seemed like twenty years. The boys were fraternal twins--Russ stocky and handsome, Alex thin and boyish. I'd find Alex and we'd play Nintendo or backgammon or throw a football around until I got it out of my system.
She didn't say anything for a moment.
"That's maybe all for today," I said. "I'm sorry."
She put the champagne glass down on the cheap card table. She took one of my hands and moved close, and I could feel her start to move her hips, and I instinctively started to move away.
"No, come on," she protested, pulling me back. "You said."
We started to dance, and everyone looked at us. We danced the way we had practiced to the video we had rented, a modified swing. I tried not to count out loud and stare at my knees and actually succeeded for seconds at a time to look like I knew what I was doing.
"All my life I thought I was better than everyone else," I said. "And now I feel like a failure because I can't dance at my own wedding with my own beautiful new wife."
She pulled me a little closer. "You are better than everyone else. You could be President. Why do you think I let you badger me into this marriage?"
Badger. She'd said yes even before I started blubbering.
Then we fell into the groove and we actually danced like regular people, loosening up, working it a little the way the freaks on the tape had, ballroom pros with waxy expressions and colitis, both of them.
But God they were good dancers. They were fabulous, whatever I thought of them personally.
Izzie had been married once before, at eighteen, her boys born that same year. Her husband was an orphan raised by the high school librarian. All he ever wanted was a family so he wooed Isabel all through junior high and high school and he succeeded in knocking her up after a homecoming hayride. When the boys were five he moved them all from Kansas to Iowa City so he could take a job at the Procter & Gamble factory making Pert Plus. She got a job bartending at Rosie's where she could go to work after he got home. That's where she met me. The first time she saw me she stared at me so long I thought I must have known her or done something to her drunk and not remembered. I had been taking a poetry workshop and had been ostentatiously scribbling on notepads and coasters for weeks at one corner of Rosie's fake-Irish bar. I still remember the first thing I said to Isabel, one of the best things I ever said to her, a jewel among the turds of things I would end up saying to her for the next year or so. I said, putting down my pen and shoving some frayed papers into my jacket pocket:
"If you're going to be working here now I think my old life is pretty much over."
She went deep red and it was one of those things that happened like a natural phenomenon, like an explosion of flowers or a meteor shower.
At least, it seemed to be like that. Most of the time I saw her I was in the process of drinking myself sick. I had no idea what she saw in me--she was dark and very intensely sexy and I was a goateed slacker with a scraggly soul patch and a few crappy piercings--but it took only about a week for us to take up with each other. Once we even made it in the walk-in, in the middle of her shift, right there on the cold cardboard next to the half-barrels, and worried the whole time that Rosie would walk in on us.
Some months later she left her husband and I got a job at Starbucks running the blenders. The twins, fishing in Alaska with their old man, had no pity on me when she called them crying after I'd insulted her or threatened to break it off.
"Dump him," the boys would tell her from their end. "Just dump the fucker." They were thirteen then and apparently thought that the lives of adults were simple that way. "He's a loser," they said. "He sucks."
I know they said this because Izzie told me after she hung up.
"They're right," I said. "What have I got to show for myself?" At that point I'd been an Iowa University undergraduate for over twelve years and had been through four advisers, seven majors, and five department chairs. The Guaranteed Student Loan people had me on speed dial.
"You're brilliant," she said. "You're strong and handsome and we were made for each other. I knew it the minute I saw you."
"You should listen to your kids," I said. I was probably drinking her liquor when she said this stuff.
At the end of that first summer Russ and Alex dropped by Starbucks on their first day back from Alaska. I recognized them right off, even though I had seen them only once before, when they had come into the bar after school to show Isabel something.
They stood in front of me, on the other side of the counter, and pretended to look at the bagged beans on display behind the Plexiglas. They were all done up in lumberjack shirts and Doc Martens, with gray hoods resting back on their shoulders.
Arlene, the assistant manager, asked them to step over to the register.
"We're just looking," Russ said.
"I can help you over here," Arlene said firmly.
"They're friends," I said. Arlene glared at me and retreated into her office to roll quarters. She hated me, I suppose for my general goateed slackerness. She was only twenty-two but was already saving for a house.
"Hey," I said to the boys. "Que pasa?"
They didn't answer. Alex picked up a pewter coffee press and turned it upside down.
"Can we sort of get some coffee?" he said.
"Sure." I started up a couple of Frappucinos. "I'll take a break," I said. "We'll all sit down. You want a couple of biscotti or something?"
They just blinked at me. We all stood there while the blenders screamed.
At the corner table they sat with their feet out, knees spread. They sucked on their Frapps and stared at the customers.
"You guys catch a lot of fish up there?" I asked.
"Pravda," Russ said.
"That means yes," said Alex.
"Well, technically, it means truth," I said. "If I had said, 'You guys sure caught a lot of fish up there,' then 'pravda' would have been right."
They both shrugged and their eyes wandered around the store again.
"These flatlanders must seem weird after hanging with the Russians all summer," I said. They ignored me. Russ was eyeing a couple of lesbians at a far table who could easily have been twice his age.
I made a motion in my chair, the kind you make to recapture lost attention. Their heads swung back to me slowly, as if on casters.
"Me and your mom? We've been having some problems, you know. Rough spots. She probably told you."
Russ vacuumed the last of the Frapp off the bottom of his cup. "Jah," he said.
"Did you say Jah?" I asked.
"Jah, Rastafari," his brother chimed in.
"You know," I said, "in that context Jah means God, not yes."
Then Russ stood up. His hand plunged into his front pocket. "We've got six thousand dollars," he said. "A sixteenth share."
"Wow," I said. "Nice work."
"Dad's going to buy his own boat someday."
"That's fabulous. Bully for him." I wiped my hands on my green Starbucks apron--a loaner, as I'd not been able to purchase my own. They left dark smears on its waxy surface.
Then Russ pulled out a tight handful of cash and held it in his fist directly in front of me. "We'll give you four bills to break up with Mom."
"Four what?" I said. "Do what?"
"Four thousand bucks," he said. His hand was a foot from my nose. His voice had somehow taken on a little echo. "Four thous-"
"I fucking heard you," I said. Conversation at the surrounding tables subsided. Russ stood over me, arm extended, elbow locked, holding the money like a ninety-pound porpoise trainer.
I lowered my voice. "Why don't you just sit down, Russ," I said.
"Dude..." Russ said.
"It's Andrew. Sit down please."
"...it's four thousand dollars, Andrew."
"God damn it, enough," I said. Everyone in the place heard it.
I stood up and backed away from the table. Russ just held out the cash, defiant, the entire restaurant staring at him. At the next table a pimply grad student's fingers hovered in the air above his laptop. Arlene herself watched from the office doorway.
"Just enough, already," I said, my voice fading at the end. "This is ridiculous." But still nobody moved.
I untied my apron, somehow. I draped it over the chair and turned my back on Russ and his brother and the fistful of dinero. I walked across the sperm-motif carpet and out through the double set of doors and onto the pedestrian mall.
Outside I sat down on the band platform and smoked my last seven cigarettes. When I went to the machine at Rosie's pub I discovered I couldn't even scrounge a pack's worth of money out of my pants.
I went to my apartment and called Isabel at home and broke it off with her, just like that. I can't even remember what I said, but I didn't mention the boys or the money. I threw away all of my liquor, upending scotch bottles in the sink and filling the air of my little kitchen with the heavy smell of what seemed like orchids. I stayed in my apartment for three weeks, living on Top Ramen and frozen orange juice, and when the first of October rolled around, I walked outside, a little unsteady but sober. I plugged my phone back in, bought some groceries. But I avoided the pedestrian mall and Rosie's and any time I saw any kids anywhere near the twins' age I crossed the street or cut through a yard to avoid them.
I found a new job, amazingly enough, at a sign painter's shop out by the Coralville strip. It was owned by a Korean bachelor who spoke very little English and spent most of his time ignoring the ringing phone and heating up vile-smelling lunches on a hot plate. Mostly I cut vinyl for window signs--insurance brokerages, lawyers, the Ford dealer. It was close work, the kind of work you can do just as well with the radio turned up loud, and it suited me.
Once I had to put the assistant principal's name on his door at the high school. The proximity to fourteen-year-olds concerned me at first, but it turned out there was nothing to worry about. It was Christmas break. I got my materials out quickly, though, and squeegeed the glass and ran my level line with the red wax pencil. Too quickly, it turned out. The plastic was the cheap kind my boss liked--a fake gold leaf that was prone to creasing. Plus the assistant principal was the kind of guy who like to use his initials, which were a problem with letters that small--the periods, mostly. At any rate the vinyl slowed me down and after twenty minutes I was sweating and rubbing and thinking I'd have to go back and cut another strip when I heard the boots clatter down the hall. I dropped my squeegee.
But it wasn't the boys; it was Rosie, Isabel's boss, all two hundred fifty pounds of her. She was huffing from the stairs, plucking here and there at her running suit. When she got up close she was still panting.
"Hey," she said, putting one hand on a drinking fountain for support. "New job?"
"Yeah," I said. "I guess. A couple of weeks now."
She nodded at the door. "This asshole sends me a letter a week before Christmas telling me my kid might not graduate in the spring. I already spend two hours a night with him on his fricking homework."
"Nobody's in there," I said. "A bunch of them came out about a half hour ago. Nobody's gone back in."
She squatted down, still out of breath, her hands hanging in front of her. "School still gives me the creeps," she said.
"Here," I said, pushing my portable stool over to her. "Sit on this."
She straightened up and eyed it warily. "I sit on that thing I might be taking it with me when I leave, if you know what I mean."
"Oh, no," I said. "Go ahead."
She sat on it and looked me over.
"How much do you pay to get your hair cut that way?" she said.
"How long do you stare at that soul patch in the mirror every morning?"
"The same amount of time as every other poseur, if that's what you're driving at."
"Take it easy," she said. "I'm just giving you a hard time because I miss you."
"Oh," I said. I didn't know how to respond to that.
"While I'm here," she said, "I should ask you if you know why Isabel gave her notice. If you knew any way I could talk her out of it."
"That's what she said. She didn't give a single other detail."
I sat down against the door. "I don't know anything about it," I said.
"She didn't mention it?"
I just shrugged. "She talked about finishing her physical therapy training, but that's all I know."
She nodded. "Word on the street is that you quit drinking. You do that on your own?"
This time it was my turn to nod.
"Good for you," Rosie said, her skepticism barely contained. She watched me work for a while.
"Hey," Rosie said. "Is that hard what you're doing there?"
I looked down at the strip of vinyl in my hand. It had already begun to dry and curl. It wouldn't be going on anyone's window. For some reason disappointment swelled against the wall of my chest.
"Yeah," I said. "It's hard. I was surprised how hard. I thought it would be a breeze to pick up."
Rosie stood up and unstuck her pants from her thighs. "That must be why they call it skilled labor, Pancho," she said. "What the hell did you expect?"
It was a Saturday morning the following Spring when I knocked on Isabel's screen door out on Prairie Du Chien. It had taken me about forty-five minutes of pacing the block before I'd gotten up the nerve. Russ answered in baggy shorts and a black t-shirt. He had a drop of milk on the point of his chin. Some very bad music blared from somewhere within. "Dude," he said. "Que pasa?"
"Hey," I said. "Your mom home?"
He shook his head. "Nope." We stood there for a moment and stared at each other.
"Yeah, well," I said, "if you could tell her I stopped by."
He didn't answer; he just stood behind the screen. Then the figure of a woman appeared behind him. My heart gave a panicked kick, then the figure stepped closer to the screen and the image coalesced into that of a young girl. She was wearing a heartbreakingly short white t-shirt and cut-off jeans. Her hair was freshly slept in. She was holding a spoon in one hand and a TV Guide in the other. That was the first time I'd set eyes on Jule.
I looked back at Russ. "How's your brother?"
"He's all right," Russ said. "He's asleep." And that was it; I Ieft the two of them in the doorway.
I had reached the mouth of the alley when Isabel's car pulled in. She almost hit me with her old Renault. There was a lot of glare from the low sun. When she rolled down her window the glare still hit me from the side mirror and I couldn't see the expession on her face.
"Hey," I said. "You got a job on the graveyard shift or something? I hope that's what this means."
I couldn't tell, but I don't think she smiled.
"I'm getting my certification," she said. "A few nights I work at a nursing home for credit."
"Rosie said you quit. Where are the groceries coming from?"
"Savings." The car started easing forward. I followed alongside.
"I quit drinking," I said. "Cold turkey." She cruised a little faster.
"Stop," I said. She didn't. "Stop," I pleaded. I stopped walking. "I want my money," I yelled at the rear window.
The car jerked to a stop at the house. She opened the door and clambered out of the car, throwing a scarf onto the seat.
"You want what?" she said.
"My money," I said. I could feel the conviction draining from my voice.
She just stared. The kids appeared, silently, on the other side of the screen door, all three of them this time.
"They owe me four thousand dollars," I said. "I have witnesses."
"You're kidding me, right?"
"'It's true," I said. "Let's talk about it inside. Let's just see."
She stood there next to the car, arms crossed, and set her head a bit to one side. "I've got news for you, Andew, I took the money," she said. "The whole four thousand. It's gone."
I was seeing the wad of bills again in Russ's palm. I was hearing his boots.
"I lost my new job," I said. "I'm out of money and I basically don't have the rent."
She took a couple of breaths. "So it's true? That's what you really came here for?" The anger had drained from her voice; she looked and sounded heartbroken.
"You don't understand," I said. "This was a stupid job, and I tried. I tried hard, I really did. I should have been able to do it but I couldn't. I have no idea why."
"God, I do," Isabel said. "Stupid me, I absolutely do know why."
"Izzy, nobody ever said you were stupid."
"I'm going to bed," she said. "I've been working all night and I'm tired." She opened the door and pushed past the kids. "Ask the boys if you want to know why your life is the way it is," she said to me. "They're smarter than both of us put together." In another second she was gone.
The three of them watched me from behind the screen. I started to walk away. "Dude," Russ said, opening the door and waving me inside. I followed him dumbly into the kitchen. I could see Isabel's shoes heading up the stairs. "Let's look at it this way," he said. "When people hit the bottom they got no choice, right? They have to start over. It's like you die and start a new life. Like Jule did."
"I don't know what you mean," I said, but the words had sent a chill into my chest. I looked over at the girl.
"Why did you start over?" I asked her. She just stared at me.
"Her folks died when she was ten," Alex said. "She lives here now. We got a court order and everything."
"That's terrible," I said. I didn't feel any better at all. I really wanted to sit down.
"Dude," Russ said. His arm was now draped over Jule's shoulders. "Don't look so whacked out. It's not so totally hopeless."
"It's not?" I said. I stole a glance at the top of the stairs. The hall up there was mostly in shadow but a soft light came from the near end where her bedroom was.
"Absolutely," he said. "A guy told me it's easy to get jobs. They're everywhere. It's a college town." He dug into his pocket and pulled out a wad of money, significantly smaller than the one he'd flashed months before.
"How much," he said, "do you need to get you going again? Would five hundred do it? No strings attached this time."
I looked at the bills peeling from his fourteen-year-old fingers, at the beautiful young girl holding onto his arm. Did he really know what he was doing? How could he? It didn't seem possible.
Directly above me I could hear Isabel getting ready for bed, her soft footfalls and the opening and closing of drawers.
"What do you say?" asked Russ, the bills curling around his fingertips.
"Jah," I said. I left Russ there and walked to the stairs, and climbed them up to where the light was. Isabel met me at the top, and I fell to my knees at her feet.
"Oh God, please marry me," I sobbed.
"Oh, Baby," she said, over and over, "Hush, baby..."