Their conversation, repeated for years nearly verbatim, ended there, as it always did. Irene had pushed Russ to take the job with Ascension, and with that decision came sacrifice. Russ is away more than he’s home, but he does call all the time, and he sends flowers and often leaves her a surprise gift on her pillow when he goes away—jewelry or a pair of snazzy reading glasses, gift cards to the Pullman, a monogrammed makeup case. He is so thoughtful and loving that he makes Irene feel chilly and indifferent by comparison. Also, and not inconsequentially, his new job affords them a very nice lifestyle, luxurious by Iowa standards. They own the Victorian, with its extravagant gardens and in-ground swimming pool on a full-acre lot on Church Street. Irene had been able to renovate the house exactly the way she dreamed of, sparing no expense. It took her nearly six years, proceeding one room at a time.

Now the house is a showpiece. Irene lobbied to have it featured in the magazine, but she encountered resistance from Mavis Key, who thought it would seem like shameless self-promotion to splash pictures of their own editor’s home across their pages. Talk about navel-gazing, Mavis had said, a comment that hurt Irene. She suspects the real problem is Mavis’s aversion to Victorian homes. Like Irene, they are out of fashion.

Mavis Key can buzz right off! Irene thinks. Irene’s house is a reflection not only of years of painstaking work but also of her soul. The first floor has twelve-foot ceilings and features arched lancet windows with layered window treatments in velvet and damask. The palette throughout the house is one of rich, dark jewel tones—the formal living room is garnet, the parlor amethyst, and the kitchen has accents of topaz and emerald. There are tapestries and ornate rugs throughout, even in the bathrooms. Irene’s favorite part of the house isn’t a room per se but rather the grand staircase, which ascends two floors. It’s paneled in dark walnut and at the top of the second flight of stairs is an exquisite stained-glass window that faces east. In the morning when the sun comes up, the third-floor landing is spangled with bursts of color. Irene has been known to take her mug of tea to the landing and just meditate on the convergence of man-made and natural beauty.

Irene supervised all of the interior carpentry, the refinishing of the floors, the repairs to the crown molding, the intricate painting—including, in the dining room, a wraparound mural of the landscape of Door County, Wisconsin, where Irene spent summers growing up. Irene also handpicked the antiques, traveling as far away as Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, to attend estate sales.

Now that the house is finished, there is nothing left to do but enjoy it—and this is where Irene has hit a stumbling block. When she tells Lydia that she needs “something else,” she isn’t kidding. Russ is away for work at least two weeks a month, and their boys are grown up. Baker lives in Houston, where he day-trades stocks and serves as a stay-at-home father to his four-year-old son, Floyd. Baker’s wife, Dr. Anna Schaffer, is a cardiothoracic surgeon at Memorial Hermann, which is a very stressful and time-consuming job; she, like Russ, is almost never around. Irene’s younger son, Cash, lives in Denver, where he owns and operates two outdoor supply stores. Neither of the boys comes home much anymore, which saddens Irene, although she knows she should be grateful they’re out living their own lives.

There was a moment yesterday around dusk when everyone else in America was getting ready for New Year’s Eve festivities—showering, pouring dressing drinks, preparing hors d’oeuvres, pulling little black dresses out of closets—that Irene was hit by a profound loneliness. She had spoken to Russ, they had quarreled, and right after they hung up, Irene considered calling him back, but she refrained. There was nothing less attractive than a needy woman—and besides, Russ was busy.

Irene plucks the new story collection by Curtis Sittenfeld off the shelf; Curtis is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which Irene happens to believe is the best in the country.

She hears Lydia laughing and peers around the stacks to see her friend and Brandon engaged in conversation. Brandon is leaning on his forearms on the counter while the espresso machine shrieks behind him. He hardly seems to notice; he’s enraptured.

So much for being invisible! Irene thinks. Lydia is glowing like the northern lights.

Irene feels a twinge of an unfamiliar emotion. It’s longing, she realizes. She misses Russ. Her husband spent years and years gazing at her with love—and, more often than not, she swatted him away, finding his attention overwrought and embarrassing.

Irene is distracted by a buzzing—her phone in her purse. That, she thinks with relief, will be Russ. But when she pulls out her phone, she sees the number is from area code 305. Irene doesn’t recognize it and she guesses it’s a telemarketer. She lets the call go, disappointed and more than a little annoyed at Russ. Where is he? She hasn’t heard from him since midafternoon the day before; it’s not like him to go so long without calling. And where is he this week? Did he even tell her? Did she even ask? Russ’s “work emergencies” take him to various bland, warm locations—Sarasota, Vero, Naples. He nearly always comes home with a tan, inspiring envy from their friends who care about such things.

Irene notices the time—nine o’clock already—and realizes she has forgotten to call Milly, Russ’s mother. Milly is ninety-seven years old; she lives at the Brown Deer retirement community in Coralville, a few miles away. Milly is in the medical unit now, although she’s still cogent most of the time, still spry and witty, still a favorite with residents and staff alike. Irene visits Milly once a week and she calls her every night between seven and eight, but she forgot tonight because of her dinner with Lydia. By now, Milly will be fast asleep.

Not a worry, Irene thinks. She’ll stop by to see Milly on her way home from work tomorrow. It’ll be a good way to fill up her afternoons now that her hours have been cut. Maybe she’ll take Milly to the Wig and Pen. Milly likes the chicken wings, though of course they aren’t approved by her nutritionist. But what are they going to do, kill her?

The idea of Millicent Steele being finally done in by an order of zippy, peppery wing dings makes Irene smile as she chooses the Curtis Sittenfeld stories as well as Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, which Irene had pretended to read for her book club half a dozen years earlier. With the house finished, she now has time to go back and catch up. Irene heads over to the register to pay. Meanwhile, Lydia is still at the café, still chatting with Brandon; her macchiato lets off the faintest whisper of steam between them.

Lydia turns when she feels Irene’s hand on her back.

“Are you leaving?” Lydia asks. Her cheeks are flushed. “I’ll probably stay for a while, enjoy my coffee.”

“Oh,” Irene says. “Okay, then. Thanks for dinner, it was fun, Happy New Year, call me tomorrow, be safe getting home, all of that.” Irene smiles at Brandon, but his eyes are fastened on Lydia like she’s the only woman in the world.

Good for her! Irene thinks as she walks home. It’s a new year and Lydia is going after what she wants. A man. Brandon the barista.

The wind has picked up. It’s bitterly cold and Irene has to head right into the teeth of it to get home. She ducks her head as she hurries down Linn Street, past a group of undergrads coming out of Paglia’s Pizza, laughing and horsing around. One of the boys bumps into Irene.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he says. “Didn’t see you.”

Invisible, she thinks.

This thought fades when she turns the corner and sees her house, her stunning castle, all lit up from within.

She’ll light a fire in the library, she thinks. Make a cup of herbal tea, hunker down on the sofa with her favorite chenille blanket, crack open one of her new books.

Maybe the “something else” she’s seeking isn’t running for office, Irene thinks. Maybe it’s turning her home into a bed-and-breakfast. It has six bedrooms, all with attached baths. If she kept one as a guest room for family, that still left four rooms she could rent out. Four rooms is manageable, right? Irene has a second cousin named Mitzi Quinn who ran an inn on Nantucket until her husband passed away. Mitzi had loved running the inn, although she did say it wasn’t for the faint of heart.

Well, Irene’s heart is as indestructible as they come.

What would Russ say if she proposed running an inn? She guesses he’ll tell her to do whatever makes her happy.

It would solve the problem of her loneliness—people in the house all the time.

Would anyone want to come to Iowa City? Parents’ weekend at the university, she supposes. Graduation. Certain football weekends.

It has definite appeal. She’ll think on it.

When Irene opens the front door, she hears the house phone ringing. That will definitely be Russ, she thinks. No one calls the house phone anymore.

But when Irene reaches for the phone in the study just off the main hall, she sees it’s the same 305 number that showed up on her cell phone. She hesitates for a second, then picks up the receiver.

“Hello?” she says. “Steele residence.”

“Hello, may I please speak to Irene Steele?” The voice is female, unfamiliar.

“This is she,” Irene says.

“Mrs. Steele, this is Todd Croft’s secretary, Marilyn Monroe.”


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