“I’m not feeding my idea with anything Seth wants to cook,” Jackie said. “This is stupid. Petra is stupid.”
I closed the book. “I don’t know. Maybe she’s got a point. When you came up with that great ad for Castorelli’s Deli, didn’t you fall head over heels in love with it?”
“Was that the dancing pickle?” Trey asked, laughing. “I loved that pickle.”
“It was a good idea,” Jackie said slowly. “And I came up with it on my own and designed the whole thing myself. I don’t think these tips, or whatever they are, are practical. Or fair. I’ve been doing this longer than anyone at . . . the company. I know what I’m talking about.”
“You do,” I said. “But maybe what we’re talking about and what they’re talking about are two different things.”
“It’s all advertising,” Jackie scoffed.
“I don’t know,” Trey said. “I kind of dig this Petra chick.”
Jackie made a face and went outside for another smoke.
“You live for your work,” Trey said quietly. “What are you doing when you’re there, Mom? You’ve never worried about losing your job before. You’re freaking obsessed with it. Is this guy picking on you?”
“No,” I said. “Not really.”
“Then what are you doing?”
I heard the fear in his voice. Trey knew more than I wanted to tell him about our financial situation. Children shouldn’t need to know about lapsed life insurance policies and low-return 401(k)s and college savings accounts that would only cover one year’s tuition. Jesse and I had been diligent about our money, but that didn’t seem to have the results we’d anticipated. Even careful people couldn’t save enough to cover retirement, college tuition, and the constantly rising costs of everyday living. Trey had a right to be worried. I had a responsibility to hide that I was terrified.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve been a star at Giacomo for seventeen years. That means something.” The lie left a sour taste in my mouth. I filled a glass with water and squeezed some lemon into it. Trey stared out at the backyard.
“I can’t believe I’m actually saying this to you,” he said, “but you need to focus.”
I thought about the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times I’d said those same words to him.
“I’m always focused.”
“You’re giving too much attention to weird stuff, like this garden idea. You’ve never done anything like this before. You would have grounded me until the next decade if I did something like it.”
“Maybe I’m exploring, like you are.”
He smiled faintly, and then shook his head. “You aren’t allowed to do that.”
“And you are?”
“Yeah. I’m not a parent.”
“I’m not being irresponsible, Trey.”
He pointed at my shoes, encrusted with dirt, that I’d forgotten to take off when I came inside. “You sure about that?”
“Is he going to watch us the entire time?” Trey asked, shooting a nervous glance in Mr. Eckhardt’s direction. “He’s really creeping me out.”
We were on our knees digging shallow holes for the tomato plants. I’d actually had the foresight to buy stakes and some wooden lattices, and it seemed I could at least prop up the wilted vegetables until they grew heartier. The back portion of the yard I’d devote to herbs. The pickings were slim at the nursery, and I knew I was planting the lesser-used varieties—sage instead of basil, marjoram instead of oregano, borage instead of parsley, lemon balm instead of mint. Behind the garage, I’d found some large, flat paving stones left over from the previous owner that we’d never gotten around to throwing away. I could use them as dividers.
Neither of us wore gloves, and the earth was still damp, sticking to our skin and wedging under our nails. We’d stopped wiping smudges of dirt off our faces about five minutes in, and we resembled matching coal miners, streaked with black.
“He’s still watching,” Trey whispered.
I winked at him and rose to standing. “Mr. Eckhardt!” I called over the fence. “Would you like to help us with the planting?”
He stood in one swift motion, and I heard not a single joint crack. “You’ve gone crazy,” he said. “This is an ecological disaster.”
“Isn’t that overstating it a bit?”
“The first thing I’m doing when I go inside is calling the village police department.” He leaned over the fence. “Do you understand me, Paige? This has gone too far. If you’re having a breakdown, do it privately, instead of tearing apart your lawn for attention.”
“She’s not having a breakdown,” Trey said.
“Your family had a breakdown,” Mr. Eckhardt said. “I’m sorry for your loss, but you are letting it destroy your sensibilities.”
I took a step closer to him. “That was uncalled for.”
Mr. Eckhardt crossed his arms over his chest. He had to have served in the military. I thought of Hollywood movies with the drill sergeants yelling at privates until they broke down or cried. I would do neither of those things. “What are you waiting for? Go inside. Call the police.” I thought of Officer Leprechaun’s twinkling eyes. “Go right ahead and call them. You can use my cell.”
He stared at me a moment with cold, empty eyes. “Don’t think I won’t,” he said, then turned on his heel and disappeared into his dark kitchen, one I curiously had never seen. I had lived next to the man for over a decade and never once saw past his foyer.
“Do you think he’ll call the police?” Trey was trying to come across as nonchalant, but I could tell he’d been rattled.
“I don’t know, but at least I got rid of him. That man is a menace to society. He just wants his way or no way. It’s not a wonder he never married.”
Trey didn’t seem to want to converse, so we worked in tandem for a while longer, silently, but a conversation was gurgling underneath the placidity of our quiet. It was dangerous, a possible volcano of emotion, so I started moving more quickly, hoping to avoid it.
“You know, there is some truth to what he said.” Trey fingered a tomato plant leaf instead of meeting my eye.
“What’s true?” Though I knew what he meant.
“Our family did break down. Without Dad . . . it’s not the same. It’s broken.”
I tossed the trowel I was holding. My hands had begun to shake. Trey rarely spoke of Jesse—was this why? Because he thought we were irreparably damaged? “Is that what you think, sweet boy?”
Trey found the courage to look up at me. When he did, I could see he wore an expression I was not accustomed to—a very adult, almost clinical look of analysis. “Dad held everything together. When he died, it was like”—he struggled for the word—“the mechanism had broken down.”
At least he hadn’t said “the center” was gone. I’d spent two years trying my damnedest to be a strong center, to hold everything together, but it was like being the center of a tornado. Eventually, I’d have to deal with the swirling emotional forces threatening to level us.
“I can be a mechanism, too,” I said, trying to reassure myself as much as him. “Or I can at least try.”