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Fernando peeled a blue sliver of overlooked painter’s tape from the mantlepiece, then turned to his two older sisters. I have some news, he thought. Jen and Harper were at their mother’s bay window, watching the men unload furniture from the box truck: end tables, silver lamps without shades, a mirror fit for a giant—all placed around the FOR SALE sign. Staging the house with furniture was meant to raise the home’s asking price back to where it had been before the downturn. Trust me, the realtor had said. People have terrible imaginations. They need props.
“It’s gonna feel like a completely different house,” Jen said.
“Did this room ever feel like ours?” Fernando said.
“It felt off limits,” Harper said. “Mom’s students, waiting on our couch, farting it up.”
“The Occupiers,” Fernando said, watching as two of the home stagers lowered a white couch from the back of the truck.
Jen laughed. “I forgot you called them that.” The couch was set down in the street, then lifted again. “They’re going to fit that in here?” Jen said.
Fernando opened the front door as the men carried the couch haltingly up the walk. They paused to adjust their grip, the man in front changing his position so he faced the house, revealing Edvard Munch’s The Scream on the front of his T-shirt, but with the angst-ridden subject wearing a pair of headphones and shades.
“Beep beep,” said a third stager, better dressed than his companions. He overtook the men with the couch and trotted into the house with a long sagging bundle. Unrolled, it revealed itself to be a gray shag rug that concealed the divots the old grand piano had worn into the floorboards. The couch came through next, resting a good three feet away from the wall, like in magazine homes. The floor joists creaked from having to once again support a great weight.
“I wish you guys would redo my place,” Jen said to the men.
Fernando found it disconcerting to see the house make room for furniture again. Long before their mother had moved into the memory care center—perhaps a year after she’d stopped teaching piano—she had begun expunging the house of nearly everything: furniture, the TVs, even the piano. She forbade gifts that weren’t edible or experiential. She took up something like yoga—or dressed as though she had. The only possessions she accumulated were glass jars that she filled with dirt and placed on windowsills to grow mint for her tea. Whenever Fernando visited, his mother gave him something to take away from the house—not as a gift, but to find a home for: her spoon collection, a crystal bowl, doorstoppers, a bag of washers, extra vacuum bags. At the time, Fernando had thought this to be just another one of her eccentricities. Overwhelmed by his own life, he’d even been envious of her simplified surroundings. When their mother moved into the center late last year, the house was down to a mattress and sheets, a meditation pillow, a few toiletries, and kitchen essentials. Now the house was on the market to pay for her continued care; it, too, would go.
The home stagers carried in large framed photos now, one with a night scene of Paris, another with a birch forest in winter.
I have some news.
“Should I pick up the lunch order?” Fernando said, instead.
Harper took hold of her walking stick. “I’ll come with. Jen?”
“I’ll stay and supervise. Bring me a diet Coke?”
The house had been left open through the night to air out the scent of fresh paint. It was warmer outside.
“I don’t remember Mom ever sitting on our old couch,” Harper said, as they walked through the garden of furniture.
“The fart couch.”
“She was either sitting next to the piano or napping.” Harper’s walking stick rapped against a tall metallic vase that answered with a resin hollowness.
Harper had inherited their late-father’s disease, but it was mild still and she could almost manage without the cane entirely. She could be mistaken for someone simply wary of dogs.
“How’s Jen?” he asked.
“She’s in the over-compensating stage. CrossFit and paleo.”
“I don’t remember you going through that.”
“I’m a realist. When I found out, I poured myself a triple.”
“Is she exhibiting any signs?”
Harper shrugged. “She says no. I don’t notice any.” Harper was at the back of the truck, peeking in. “This is totally not mom’s style.”
The truck held oversized white lamp shades, a white kitchen table and four white molded chairs, an elaborate gold headboard, and a mattress and box spring shrouded in milky plastic. An acoustic guitar stood in a stand, destined for some corner of the house.
They headed toward the strip of restaurants on Market Street. “Do you remember the adults that mom taught?” Fernando said.
Fernando first discovered his mother taught adult students at a recital, when a lumbering man played a piece as best he could with his thick, swollen fingers. He was no better than the students a fraction of his age, The Occupiers. Fernando had joined after-school clubs, sports—anything to avoid coming home and listening to Scarlatti, the theme to Chariots of Fire, or all those scales and Sisyphean circle of fifths. Having to be quiet was perhaps the worst of it. Three kids in a small house, unseen and unheard, for hours every day. It was unnatural.
“Why didn’t the neighborhood look like this when we lived here?” Harper said. They were only a block away from where they’d all grown up, in one of the last unrestored clumps of homes in Ballard, but the street here was nearly unrecognizable.
“Microsoft. Amazon,” Fernando said.
There were now exquisite restorations and daring new construction: Victorian filigree punctuated every block or so by structures of steel and glass with owners indifferent to voyeurs. It had once been rundown, back when Ballard had seemed boring, when what passed for entertainment was watching the locks open and close, or hanging out along Shitshole Bay, drizzle tapping your jacket as you smoked. His father had taken him fishing a few times, but then he’d fallen ill and passed on. That was then. Now people hitched their souls to a mortgage just to live here.
They kept walking. The sidewalks had been redone and felt wrong through Fernando’s soles. The concrete was rough and bluish where it once was smooth and gray, cracked and overgrown.
“I have some news,” Fernando said, finally. “I took the test.” The DNA test had been Harper’s idea of a Christmas gift a couple of years ago. A bit of spit in a test tube and then the knowledge of good and evil. “I don’t carry Dad’s genes,” he said.
“Markers for Alzheimer’s?”
He shook his head. His sister’s face tightened happily. She put one of her gloved hands over his, then hugged him so tightly that he nearly winced. Her walking stick raked through a supplicant hydrangea.
“What a relief,” Harper said, eyes wet. “You know what this means, don’t you? You have to be the one to take care of me one day. And maybe Jen. Because my kids won’t lift a finger.” She laughed a little then patted him on the arm. “No pressure.” Harper put a gloved knuckle to her eye.
“There’s something else. Nothing bad,” he added, watching the relief fade quickly from his sister’s face. “On the family tree part, the website matched me with a bunch of new cousins.”
“Exactly.” They were in front of one of the new glass and steel houses now. A man descended the interior stairs in that relaxed two-step rhythm Fernando could feel in his bones but without being able to recall the last time he’d been that light-footed and at ease. An empty banana peel danced like a squid from the man’s right hand, an open laptop balanced on the other.
“You mean, one of our uncles put a bun in someone’s oven? I bet it was Freddy.”
“Think closer to home.”
Fernando watched his sister’s face and felt her realization come to its uneasy rest. “Mom.”
“I’m guessing it was one of the men she taught during the day,” Fernando said.
They reached the pita place and picked up their order, which was already waiting. Harper finally spoke. “It’s something like mercy to know she had a fling,” she said, as they headed back. “I mean, way to go Mom, right? Don’t give me that look. Dad was gone half the year anyway. It’s…nice. Nice to think she had some daring in her.”
Fernando ducked into a liquor store and came out with a soda for Jen.
“This other family…” Harper said.
Fernando shrugged and placed the bottle into one of the two bags of Lebanese food. “I deleted my account. I don’t want to change anyone’s opinion of who my biological father was.”
“But what if you have half-brothers or sisters? Jesus, I’m only a half-sister now. I feel so downgraded.” She tried to laugh. “And this means Dad’s not your—“
“He’s still—was still—Dad.”
The truck was gone. The windows of the house were closed but framed now by heavy drapes that revealed a gleaming brightness within.
“So weird,” Harper said, staring down at the doormat that said, simply, HOME, before pushing open the door.
Jen sat in a chair with an architectural magazine. She swiveled. “Not bad, huh?”
Fernando sniffed. The room was thick with new heat and the scent of a roasting chicken.
“It’s a spray,” Jen said. “The bathroom smells like Hawaii. The bedrooms smell like roses.”
Visitors to tomorrow’s open house would see nothing but the freshly spackled and painted walls, the framed Parisian night scene, the couch with two gray pillows placed at an angle over the cushion seams, the modern chandelier over a breakfast nook, the spread of magazines, the vase of flowers, the scent of a warm meal just minutes away from being served. If you shat, it would probably smell like plumerias. Whoever bought this house wouldn’t see the scuffed and grimy beige walls, the TV with the bad vertical hold, or the fart couch. The hallway was brightly lit for the first time, and the master bedroom looked like no place an exhausted mother would ever go to nap—or to strip down for the man who was Fernando’s biological father. Fernando had an urge to walk across the three firm-looking cushions of the couch and leave a mark.
“Fernando’s got some juicy news,” Harper said, opening up the takeout.
An hour later and less than two miles away, Fernando walked alone up to a tidy split-level with a stand of spruce trees on one side. This was his third visit over the past few months. He recognized the cars parked on the street and could see people inside watching a game: a happy, healthy, extended family, all gathered there because he said he was going to be in town and would try to stop by again. It was a house without a mother facing her end, one without two sisters marked for their father’s fate. It was also not the house in Tacoma with a soon-to-be ex in it, or a son dropping out of college. Instead, this home belonged to the son of its late owner, a man who had taken a few months of piano lessons a long time ago. It was a home where people were nothing but happy to see him. Surprised and even shocked at first—yes—but then delighted. The familial resemblances were uncanny.
He rang the bell. He knew being here was selfish. That everyone he had met so far—the cousins, his half-brother, three uncles, four aunts, spouses and lots of young kids whose names he still didn’t have down pat—were part of a secret he’d eventually need to reveal to everyone, in full. But not just yet. He hadn’t known that some secrets could be light, even buoyant, keeping your head above water. He could imagine his mother having thought the same thing. The door opened.