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In this part of Vancouver, it was usual to see sleek Audis and blocky Escalades parked in the driveways of new houses built to look like old houses on lots where old houses had recently stood. Windows had plastic stripping appliquéd to them to give the appearance of individual panes. Ornate crown mouldings—who could build these days without including them?—were ordered during construction from suppliers who claimed to be able to recreate the contours and detailing found in First Shaughnessy. (Bring us a photograph. We’ll do the rest.) Daniel, in his “glass-half-empty” way, couldn’t feel comfortable in this ersatz sector of comfortable Douglas Park.
When he took his morning jogs in the early days after completion of the house that had been built for him and Deborah, he sometimes saw the contents of his neighbours’ trash, and hence their pitiable lives, scattered across driveways and out onto sidewalks. Racoons had plucked at the sides of garbage bags pulled from the plastic garbage cans that they had overturned quietly in the night, exposing egg shells, half-eaten wieners, perhaps a torn souvenir Euro Disney napkin, sometimes even a sanitary napkin. Daniel could easily imagine the interiors of individual kitchens as he jogged by in the dawn’s early light. His mind riffed uncharitably on thousand-dollar cappuccino makers defiled with Nabob grounds, SubZeros stocked with frozen pizza and no-name tonic water, the granite countertops, the flat-screen kitchen TVs locked onto CNN and the Wolf ranges that grilled processed cheese sandwiches and re-heated cottage roll hams bought in six-packs from Costco.
It hadn’t been his idea to live in the neighbourhood. Deborah had insisted that they relocate there and “build new with an old look”. She had been even more insistent that they demolish the old-timer that stood on the lot when they purchased it.
The transaction had only been possible because of the extraordinary $900,000 distribution that had come Daniel’s way as a junior partner at Miller, Miller—the high powered, class action boutique where he practised law. (The firm had presented him with excellent work but, for all of its initial maverick pretensions, its early successes combined with business imperatives had set it quickly on a path toward hairbrush-up-the-ass stuffiness. His own quirks were tolerated, sort of, because he was so gifted as an advocate and litigation strategist. But early on he had received a visitation from the managing partner, himself still only 37, insisting that he remove from his office wall an enormous serigraph print of the cover of Billy Bragg’s 1986 album, Talking to the Taxman About Poetry. Daniel protested, asking whether it made any difference that Bragg had taken the title from a poem of the same name by the much-respected Russian poet, Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky. It didn’t.)
Due almost exclusively to Daniel’s efforts, there had been a multi-million dollar, early settlement in the Mountfort class action. A “windfall,” Deborah called it—like finding a hundred dollar bill between two pages of a library book. What did she think he’d been doing all those evenings and weekends at the office, on airplanes, on his Blackberry while in restaurants and even answering urgent texts in the toilet? Getting Big Pharma to fork out almost a billion dollars before even going to trial could not be put down to the caprices of good fortune. How little she seemed to grasp.
“A windfall.” He couldn’t let it go. As if the money had dropped into their arms like a we-dared-not-hope-for-it-baby fallen from a stork’s bill—she who earned less than 30 grand as a too-soon-jaded, substitute Kindergarten teacher working mostly with blunt scissors, coloured construction paper and mucilage and who maintained order in her miniature dominion with a professional blend of stern reproofs, head pats and comforting there-theres. (Daniel knew this to be a mean and narrow caricature but these days he was feeling uncharitable and sometimes even mean—a despairing kind of mean—and so it suited him to think of Deborah and the important work that she seemed to do so grudgingly in only two dimensions.)
The “windfall” had brought the end of Daniel and Deborah’s days as Commercial Drive area basement suite tenants swiftly into view. When it did, Deborah had embraced her new vision of herself as a West Side chatelaine with a vengeance and, with reluctance on his part and none on hers, they made an unconditional, all-cash offer.
“It’s a tear down, no doubt about it,” Ted the rea-la-tor (his pronunciation) had said over celebratory coffee and blintzes at Solly’s, his affable grin exposing a sickeningly plump cottage cheese curd lodged firmly in the gap between his pointed incisor and front tooth. The sight of the curd had caused Daniel quiet amusement and Deborah noticeable distress, distracting her momentarily from the good news that their unconditional offer on the house had been accepted.
“Why is it so clearly a tear-down?” Daniel had wanted to know. It was in almost original condition. The fir floors, it seemed to him, might come back nicely with sanding and re-finishing. And there were sash windows with wavy glass and brass fittings that every previous owner had been careful not to paint shut.
“It has a soul. It has a history. It has possibilities,” Daniel-the-impractical-romantic continued, but in vain.
Ted looked at Deborah with world-weary bemusement, their expressions both conveying an unspoken “He just doesn’t get it, does he?”
Deborah soon pulled her bobbed hair back into a ponytail—her equivalent of rolling up her sleeves—and set about choosing interior finishings, shrubbery, “window coverings” …
“Does that mean drapes and curtains?” Daniel sometimes asked, churlishly, knowing that it did. She didn’t even answer.
Deborah gave their Gravely Street landlord a six-month notice to quit. Her stride became even more officious, her schoolteacher’s voice even more stentorian and commanding. Daniel could easily see that it would be best if he just got out of the way—no great challenge when logging 60 plus billable hours per week at the office.
As to demolition, the city’s Heritage B designation for the “tear down” gave only small difficulties. “Lucky it’s not a Heritage A,” Ted-the-rea-la-tor had said. “Approval to knock those puppies down can be obtained, but it’s way harder.”
“Much harder,” Daniel muttered under his breath, correcting him.
“What’s that you say?”
“Nothing,” he replied. A puppy with pointed teeth began taking shape as a doodle on the notepad in front of him while the three of them sat around the basement suite kitchen table, egg yolk congealing on their plates. The washing machine lurched to a stop in the next room while the incessant sound of children’s running feet criss-crossed the ceiling from the floor above them. Daniel got up to transfer the whites to the dryer, happy to make his escape from Ted-the-rea-la-tor, their increasingly frequent breakfast companion.
Acting on the chatelaine’s instructions, the demolition crew made swift work of the 1909, Craftsman-style bungalow. In less than a day the fir floors, the sash windows and all of the old house’s secrets and stories, were reduced to a pile of dusty rubble. Confirmation came in a call Deborah took in the staff room at school during afternoon recess.
“Deb …” (he had taken to calling her ‘Deb’ in private conversations now). “It’s Ted. I just did a drive-by. The tear-down is down. In a week there will be a big hole in the ground. In five months your castle will be built.”
The news and the voice of its bearer caused a little palpitation, a schoolgirlish flutter, to pass through Deborah. She hoped others in the staff room wouldn’t notice her reddening face and her weakening knees.
From time to time over the course of construction, there had been perfunctory consultations with Daniel.
“I still think we could have salvaged the fir flooring and used that,” he told Deborah, again.
“Move on, Daniel,” she had said back to him, summarily and unceremoniously.
“You know, you really need to put that old-timer out of your head, Dan,” Ted once said to him in an avuncular tone. He spoke with enhanced authority from his new position as general contractor.
“Ted knows the business, he has the time, you don’t, I don’t, we can afford it. It’s a no-brainer, n’est-ce pas, Hun?”
“But he wears powder blue summer suits. He refers to all manner of things, generically, as ‘puppies’.”
Still, there seemed to be little point in challenging an argument that, on its face, possessed a certain logical integrity. In any event, Daniel had a legal opinion to get out. So he yielded. Outside a court case, or an arbitration, or a settlement negotiation, capitulation in the face of a powerful personality, particularly Deborah’s, had always come easily to him.
With remarkable speed and efficiency, Ted and Deborah built a new-house-with-an-old-look for Daniel and Deborah to live in on a street abundant with other houses equipped with jetted tubs, video surveillance systems and home theatres for watching re-runs of Survivor. In-person trips to Restoration Hardware and virtual ones to online sellers of faucets, cabinet door-pulls and ceiling-mounted shower heads quickly drained their bank account of most of what remained of the Mountfort special distribution; sorties to the landscape architect and colour consultant took care of the rest. Daniel sometimes raised a weak and exhausted voice in protest but he was reminded by Ted—in a firm but patient way—that he ought not to “cheap out” now by looking for bargains or affordable antiques or by leaving the gazebo and terracotta paving stones imported from Bissy-la-Maconnais to another day.
For his part, Daniel continued to stoke the fires that drove the project forward as best he could with his intelligent and adequately remunerated labours at the firm. Everyone but Deborah and Ted seemed to recognise that Mountfort was a “one-off” file, that Daniel’s top performer status could be ephemeral, and that—barring something unexpected—he couldn’t realistically expect to net out more than $140,000 to $150,000 annually over the coming few years.
Daniel would occasionally voice his concerns to Deborah and Ted-the-rea-la-tor about cash flow and cost overruns. Ted didn’t hesitate to share his two cents’ worth of homespun wisdom when these subjects came up. “I’m a glass half-full guy, Dan,” he would say. “That’s the difference between you and me. I’m the perpetual optimist. Don’t worry. Be happy.”
Such contributions were in Daniel’s mind, indeed, barely worth two cents, and Ted’s encouraging comments drew from him smiles that he hoped and intended to be wan. Daniel simply stood back, allowed it all to happen, and on a bright and clear October day he and Deborah finally moved in.
“You can’t, in fairness, call this a ‘West Side’ neighbourhood, can you?” Daniel had asked Deborah at the house-warming lunch that she had made for the three of them at their new-old house. That characterisation had been used numerous times during a conversation she had been having with Ted-the-rea-la-tor about principal residence exemptions, resale values and equity-funded retirement. Daniel had finally felt the need to call her on it.
Recognising that Daniel’s question tapped into his own, special expertise, Ted volunteered an answer.
“The ‘West Side’ has acquired a new meaning,” he said (with a confidence and erudition that would have put Wittgenstein to shame, Daniel thought). “Look at the Real Estate Weekly. It’s become fair game now in this market to call addresses anywhere west of Clark Drive ‘West Side’ properties. And when you do, that means more money, in the tens of thousands even. Like the song says, it’s all about location, location, location. It’s like magic. Everyone knows the drill. You and Deb know the drill.”
The room fell quickly silent. Ted’s use of the diminutive may as well have been a thunderclap. It rattled the china and struck both Deborah and Daniel dumb.
To Daniel’s knowledge, not since Deborah had emerged squalling and red-faced from her mother’s womb had anyone ever presumed to call her “Deb”. Her mother, her father, the paediatrician who had treated her eczema, her first teachers, her date for High School graduation, even Daniel himself the first time he bedded her—they all knew, they just knew, that they were expected to enunciate all three syllables. “Deb-o-rah.” Like “rea-la-tor.”
It was an “aha” moment. Well, not really. It was a moment where a not entirely troubling suspicion was provisionally confirmed.
Deborah’s face reddened as she stared down into the inky depths of the Cab Franc at the bottom of her balloon glass. Ted knew he’d said something stupid, maybe dangerously stupid, but he couldn’t be sure what.
Lost for words, the two of them looked first at each other and then, together, at Daniel. Deborah opened her mouth to speak but Daniel pre-empted her.
He had brought home poppy seed bagels from Solly’s specially for the housewarming lunch and, true to expectations, Deborah and Ted both looked like they had fallen face down, smiling, on a black sand beach. His own plain bagel had left him free of similar dental disfigurement. She fished anxiously about in her purse for her compact, vanity momentarily overtaking guilt and shame.
“I’m going to leave you and Ted together to chat, Deb,” Daniel said.
And with that, he got up, left them sitting at the dining room table and retired with his glass of Semillon Blanc to the floral couch in the ticky-tacky family room (for what family, he wondered?). Putting an old Pete Seeger CD into the player, Daniel breathed in the still unfamiliar smells of new carpets and fresh paint, turned up the stereo volume just a little higher than was either comfortable or usual and began planning his exit, his heart pounding with exhilaration.
“Didn’t Ted’s responsibilities end with the issuance of the occupancy permit?”, Daniel had ventured to ask Deborah later that night, across the pillow, the Williams-Sonoma bedspread pulled up tight under his chin. Daniel knew that whenever she felt pangs of guilt about something she had done or omitted to do, it was Deborah’s habit to try to smooth things over by displaying an uncharacteristic interest in physical intimacy. Having seen guilt scribbled plainly across her forehead following the “Deb” slip, he had put the question in an effort to deflect her away from any thoughts of sex or, more accurately, the urgent little female-on-top ruttings that she counted as sex. In recent years her entirely self-absorbed exertions had put him in mind of a horse scratching its backside against a tree, his only function being to keep the tree upright.
“Are we now paying him to help us choose dining room furniture and border plants?”
“Don’t be like that, Danny,” she answered, her voice solicitous. She reached over and touched his shoulder.
Daniel turned away to face the wall, his mind racing with possibilities, with thoughts of freedom—from Deb-o-rah, from Ted-the-rea-la-tor, from the continued practice of law surrounded by faux mavericks, from mushroom-coloured paint chips and sandalwood soaps, from Thermador induction cooktops and cave-aged gruyère bought at Meinhardt, from everything that in his maddeningly passive way he had allowed his life to become.
“I did three things today,” Daniel’s text said, a week later. “I bought a vintage Rickenbacker, I resigned from the partnership at Miller, Miller and I signed on with Mike to do criminal defence work with him—$2,000/month base, otherwise I eat what I kill.” The text remained unread for two hours. Like Deborah herself that afternoon, her iPhone was set to vibrate. Neither she nor Ted-the-rea-la-tor could hear it over the sound of the jet tub (nor could they see its face light up cheerily over the chamomile-scented mountain range that the rushing water had caused the bubble bath to build around them).
Daniel had found great fulfilment in advising, and sometimes defending, the penniless and downtrodden through a pro bono criminallaw clinic that he manned on Wednesday evenings over the past year. His law school classmate, Mike, had taken him under his wing and helped him swot up his rather rusty knowledge of the workings of the criminal law and the Charter. The class action boutique didn’t like the fact that this bagatelle took him away from his paying files. Neither did his firm like the fact that, despite the managing partner’s protests, he continued to play a punky kind of indie rock at local venues with Mike and other law school friends. But it was hard for the firm to complain too vigorously, given that Daniel’s billable hours continued to come in well over quota and that his work was done brilliantly. This was not a hanging offence (like hanging an enormous print of the Talking to the Taxman About Poetry album cover in his office had been).
A second text came in a few minutes later, also unnoticed. “Actually, I did four things. I persuaded Mike and the others to rename the band ‘The Stool Softeners’. They love it! I could never have gotten away with that at Miller, Miller. We already have a new gig and posters will soon be up all over town.”
This text, like the one before, went unread. The jets had been turned off but a frothy exchange of bodily fluids was in progress. Deborah’s iPhone cheerily hummed and winked from the back of the dual-flush toilet, unremarked.
The third and last text came a few minutes later. “You can keep the house and everything in it. It’s fully paid up. After only four years of marriage that’s more than any court would give you.”
Ted-the-rea-la-tor prided himself on knowing a little about the law. “Take it before he has a chance to second-guess himself,” he said later, sounding very wise and looking rather suave, wrapped in Daniel’s bathrobe. Deborah nodded slowly. She seemed lost in thought.