• CHAPTER 1 •
This, thought Katie. This is what it’s all about. Family time. Sitting in the nook they’d built for these moments, informal and intimate, just the four of them isolated from the outside world in a cocoon of dark walnut benches and matching table. Filament-bulb sconces cast their warm glow against a wall of white beadboard. And the aroma of cooking drew them from bedrooms and basement along with Katie’s texts on the family chat. Dinner’s ready! Wash your hands, please! The nook created a sanctuary for conversation. Tell me about your day. Children’s questions, jokes, teachable moments, and a sharing of opinions crisscrossed to form the emotional scaffolding called family that would support them in good times and bad. That was the idea, anyway.
“Nice job, Kaleb.” This from Elin, a twelve-year-old vegetarian who trained herself for tween warfare by using her eight-year-old brother like an axe uses a sharpening stone. “You’re eating the muscles and guts of cute animals.”
“I am not. Mom, tell her I’m not.”
“Well,” said Katie, “you’re not eating the guts. I promise.”
Kaleb took that as a victory. Elin rolled her eyes and said, “Dad. Tell him.”
Katie’s husband, Jack, wasn’t listening. He was lost in a spreadsheet on his laptop.
“No devices at the dinner table, Dad,” said Elin in a voice both scolding and mocking since no devices at the dinner table was a rule laid down by Jack.
“Sorry, honey,” said Jack. “Something’s blowing up at work.”
Kaleb leaned over and looked at his father’s screen. “Whoa! That’s a lot of numbers. Do you have to add all those up?”
Katie said, “Since when do you go over spreadsheets, Jack? You have people for that.”
Jack looked at Katie over the screen of his laptop. His mouth was hidden but his eyes said back off. He was so touchy lately when it came to work. When it came to everything, really. Jack had his dream house now—he was supposed to be happy. Not angry. Not anxious. Not short with his wife. He had never given her a look like that before. And the kids had a point. No devices at the dinner table included Jack’s devices, so Katie said to him what she often said to the kids. “It’s okay to feel grumpy. It’s okay to feel tired. It is not okay to be rude.”
Jack dropped his eyes back to his spreadsheet, and Kaleb said, “Them’s the rules, Dad.”
“Yep,” said Elin. “Them’s the rules.”
Jack sighed and shut his computer.
Imperfections aside, thought Katie, this was a moment for which they’d built the nook. It was the only element of the addition/remodel that Katie had insisted upon. “I want a nook in the kitchen for family time,” she’d told Jack. “Like a booth in a restaurant for just the four of us.” The addition/remodel itself was Jack’s baby. He found the architect, the contractor, oversaw the budget, stopped by the house every day during construction. To keep his wife happy, one might say, or to keep her from weighing in on the rest of the project, another might say, Jack obliged her the nook.
The Kuhlmanns lived in Edina, Minnesota, in a neighborhood called Country Club on a street called Browndale in a house called perfect by friends and neighbors and drivers-by. Country Club had large homes best described as stately and lawns that looked like they’d all been mowed on the same day and, in the winter, sidewalks so free of snow and ice you’d think elves shoveled in the dead of night. Jack’s architect and interior decorator and landscape designer worked with him to create a home so inviting you had to wonder who hadn’t walked through to see the honed marble countertops and family photos, the five-panel doors and kids’ artwork on the refrigerator, the blown-glass light fixtures and state-of-the-art laundry room complete with a custom-built wooden cage for the family’s dirty clothes.
Two years ago Jack gave himself an obscene bonus after a fiscal year when his company developed a sodium-sulfur battery that solved two problems that had prevented sodium-sulfur batteries from powering electric vehicles. Jack’s company eliminated the battery’s corrosiveness and reduced its operating temperature from 300 degrees to 200 degrees, which is in line with the running temperature of most combustion engines. The big plus of making batteries from sodium and sulfur is that, unlike lithium and cobalt, the elements are plentiful and don’t need to be purchased from countries that do terrible things to good people.
The new sodium-sulfur battery attracted huge investment in Jack’s company from automobile manufacturers, public utilities, and organizations all over the world who had declared war on fossil fuels and human rights abuses. Jack’s company raised over $1.2 billion, and the battery wasn’t even on the market yet. But the money poured in and some of it built the house on Browndale. When they moved back in Jack said, “The only way I’m moving out of this house is when I’m carried out and loaded into a hearse.”
Jack was proud of his new abode and he felt especially excited to show it off because that evening, after nook time with the family, the house would fill with neighborhood couples for book club—the first book club the Kuhlmanns would host since the remodel/addition.
Proud is not the word to describe how Katie felt about the house. Better words would be undeserving, embarrassed, ashamed even, because Katie Kuhlmann did not grow up with wealth. She married into a life of privilege, which made her life a hell of a lot easier for her than it was for most people. She worked hard as a mother and at her job at General Mills but this kind of extravagance was gifted from Jack, who grew up with old money, his family making their fortune in lumber when Minnesota was still just a territory. Jack built the remodel/addition as a fortress to preserve that gift, to keep the privilege inside and random cruelty of life outside.
• CHAPTER 2 •
Katie first saw Jack at a University of Minnesota hockey game. She sat by herself in the student section wearing a white angora stocking hat. Two dark braids fell from her hat. She wore a powder blue turtleneck sweater out of which hung a silver pendant that looked like a small snowflake, and her lips shined like wet ice. When she stood to cheer Minnesota’s first goal, Jack involuntarily said, “Who is that?”
He said these words to no one, but they were heard by Bagman, aka Adam Ross, who had earned his nickname after getting so drunk at a University of Minnesota football game that he passed out before the first half, and Jack and the guys put a paper bag over his head and left him that way for the remainder of the game.
Bagman disappeared down the concourse. Ten minutes later he emerged carrying three beers in a cardboard carrying tote. He approached Katie and handed her one of the beers then pointed to Jack. Katie held up her beer and mouthed thank you. By the end of the game, Katie and Jack had made a date for the following Saturday night.
* * *
“Who’s ready for ice cream?” said Katie. She slid out of the nook and removed two bowls from the cupboard and ice cream from the freezer and, while she scooped, watched her husband violate the sanctity of the nook by reopening his laptop while his children, his precious children, their precious children, sat unobserved and ignored as if they were decorative plastic fruit.
“What’s happening at work, Jack?” said Katie.
“Nothing. It’ll blow over.”
“Really? Because you look like you’re about to throw up.”
“Yuck!” said Kaleb. “I’m getting out of here!”
“I am not going to throw up,” said Jack. “I just have to iron out a few hiccups.”
“You can’t iron hiccups,” said Elin. “You iron wrinkles. You get rid of hiccups by holding your breath or by getting them scared out of you like this: Boo!!!!!!!!!!!”
Kaleb jerked and knocked over his juice glass. Jack yanked his precious laptop out of the wet, slammed it shut, slid out of the nook, and stormed out of the kitchen. And then the thought came—it came so clearly Katie wondered if she’d said it out loud.
Jack’s hiding something. My husband is hiding something from me.
• CHAPTER 3 •
Book club started in the living room with spouses commenting on whatever book they were supposed to have read, then the women lingered upstairs as the men traipsed down to the basement for the built-in mahogany bar and red-felt billiards table and eighty-inch TV.
The living room was the jewel of the newly added space to the Kuhlmann home and was now the home’s second living room, the original being renamed the sitting room though no one, in Katie’s recollection, had ever sat in it. The new living room had ten-foot-tall ceilings and eight-foot-tall windows. They went all around, one after the other like matching glass tablets on three walls. They might have called it the sunroom if they didn’t already have a sunroom. The space was large enough to host three sitting areas, each defined by an area rug over the hardwood floor. The room also featured two fireplaces and a grand piano. Not a baby grand—a concert grand, a seemingly odd choice since both Elin and Kaleb had abandoned lessons two years ago. But when you have to fill a space you have to fill a space.
The day when the family moved back in and Katie saw the space completely finished and furnished, the word that came to her mind was obscene. Jack had promised a tasteful home but Katie felt like he’d delivered an embassy. If they wanted to fill the house with friends, they’d run out of real friends and have to dip into Facebook friends, the kind you have but who aren’t really friends or even acquaintances—they just accumulate on your page like unpaired socks in an overflowing sock drawer.
The main seating area was a three-sided sectional that easily sat five on each side. Two winged armchairs guarded the open end like sentries. The whole thing was anchored by a coffee table the size of a small bedroom. Three silver platters sat on the table, one covered in lemon bars, one in chocolate turtles, and one in tiny jars filled with butterscotch budino. There was also a cup of dessert spoons, a stack of plates, and paper napkins edged in silver.
The women looked like they belonged in Katie’s new space more than she did, like they’d picked their outfits from display windows in downtown Edina or at the upscale Galleria mall. Katie tried to shop those beautiful stores but couldn’t stomach it. She considered Nordstrom Rack a luxury. Otherwise it was outlet malls or Marshalls or the J.Crew Factory store. Maybe it was because she grew up with little money or maybe because she enjoyed bargain hunting but she couldn’t keep up with her Country Club friends when it came to clothing and felt self-conscious as if she were wearing a sandwich board that said 50% OFF!
Katie had opened a bottle of port and brought out tiny stemware. The female half of the club discussed which book they’d read for January (the women mostly did read the book and they always skipped December because, you know, the holidays). The January book club was scheduled to be hosted by the Ackermans, who were not in attendance for the November book club—they had driven up to Roseau for their daughter’s hockey tournament.
That’s when Sandra (don’t call me S-and-ra, it’s S-ah-ndra) Dahlstrom said, “I heard the Ackermans are getting divorced.”
Sandra had long hair that vacillated between blond and brown and looked twenty years younger than Sandra herself, whose beauty shouted forty-four! next to her hair that lied twenty-four. She wore yoga pants too often but believed one should highlight their best traits, which in Sandra’s case were her legs. Sandra worked as an executive coach but currently had no clients because she was taking a break to rebrand.
“No,” said Katie. “The Ackermans can’t be getting divorced. They’re so … normal.”
“Their son is in Hannah’s class,” said Sandra, reaching for a lemon bar, “and he told Hannah that his parents are getting a divorce, and his dad sleeps in the basement, and after they talk to the therapist some more he’s moving into an apartment.”
The cluster of eleven women sat silent for a moment, all of them thinking the same thing: If it could happen to Terri and Richard, it could happen to them. Well, almost all of them were thinking that. Not Katie. The idea of her and Jack splitting felt impossible. Sure, things weren’t great between them lately, but Katie had built her life with Jack. She’d been with him since the night they met at the University of Minnesota hockey game. They were a couple. A team. All of the growth they’d each experienced in the last twenty-four years was interwoven. Together they were a basket that held life. Apart they’d be nothing.
“Excuse me, ladies.” This from Sandra’s husband, Lucas, a forensic accountant who wore a camel cardigan over a white dress shirt and pants so pressed each crease could be used as a weapon. No one had ever seen him wear jeans, even when mowing the lawn, which he did twice a week whether the lawn needed it or not. He kept his hair so short he might as well have been bald even though he wasn’t, and his scalp shined as if it had been waxed. Lucas said, “Sandra, honey. Hannah just called because the dog threw up. I’m going to run home and take care of it.”
Sandra Dahlstrom looked at her husband for what felt like a full minute, pushed her long sometimes blond, sometimes brown hair back over her lined forehead and said with great flatness, “Have fun.”
Lucas laughed. “I’ll try. See you soon, ladies. And save me a budino!”
Sandra watched her husband exit the living room then turned back to the women and said, “According to Hannah, the Ackerman’s son—I can never remember that boy’s name—he said Terri and Richard called a family meeting and said the two of them had simply grown apart and that they still love each other as people, whatever that means, and they’d remain good friends but it would be better if they were no longer married. They are still going to celebrate family birthdays and holidays together and—”
Miriam Friedman shook her head of gray curly Johann Sebastian Bach hair and said, “Bullshit.” She owned a handful of foodie-grade delis around town called Deeeeeeelish! As Miriam refilled her tiny glass with port she said, “Never going to happen.”
“Probably not,” said Latisha Nicolaides. “Not once the lawyers get through with them. I should know—I’m a lawyer. But it sounds like maybe they really have just grown apart. It happens.”
“As opposed to?” said Katie.
“As opposed to someone cheating,” said Miriam.
Jane Hansen nodded as if this was common knowledge. Jane was the oldest of the book club members and wore her hair short and gray over her thin face.
Copyright © 2023 by Matt Goldman