September-October 2008

McMansions Part I

A serialized novel.

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Chapter 1

“Hi hon!” Win whisked an air kiss by Inge’s cheek and continued without slowing toward the counter, where a line was forming fast.

“I got us a good table; my jacket’s on it; let ’em steal it.What are you having?”Win neither looked back nor broke her stride as she released this stream of commentary. She slipped into line and turning, waved Inge toward a small table by the highly desirable window. From her position by the door, Inge could see that a soft, camel-colored blazer lay tossed across it, beside a phone, a bristling ring of keys and an immaculately worn leather binder. This no doubt contained the paperwork for a house Win was listing.

Inge swiveled sideways to slip between already-seated patrons on her way to the window, wadding up her own less-elegant jacket and lifting it over their heads as she did so.

She looked back at Win. “Decaf latte!” she replied, mouthing her words conspicuously, lest she not be heard over the rising din.“Thanks!”

Though it was well past lunch hour on a Thursday, it was standing- room only at Measured Out.Who were all these people, Inge wondered, and how did they find time on a beautiful September afternoon to loiter at a suburban coffeehouse?

She had an excuse. She was only here because her old friend Winifred had suggested that they fit in a visit before picking up their children at Caro. Caro was the private school that both families attended, though Win’s managed the cost comfortably while Inge’s did so only at a great and increasing sacrifice.

Caro had begun years ago in a rundown, converted mansion close to the center of Washington,D.C., and that was where Inge and Win and their children had found it.Both families had taken to the school’s intimacy and warmth; its excellence and affordability. But they had discovered it at what turned out to be the end of an era. In the past several decades, money—rivers of money, gushers of money—had poured into Washington.Newly wealthy families accustomed to striving and achieving had needed a school for which to strive, too, and Caro was found to be it.

As Caro gained in cachet, it was felt that the old dilapidated mansion could no longer offer the amenities its students needed. So, several years ago, the school’s boosterish parents had raised the necessary cash and acquired a magnificent campus with a performance center, a gym and acres of green playing fields.

Naturally, they had not found this within the city limits. Instead, Caro moved to The Hollow, an affluent new suburb in Montgomery County where many of the school’s families had begun to put down roots. Today Caro’s original, ramshackle home in the city was but a memory. The gleaming new school sat, instead, at the far edge of a moonscape studded with massive houses that had risen, seemingly overnight, from the cornfields.

Often, Inge could manage not to see these McMansions, driving straight toward the 3 a.m. pickup as if with blinders on. Today, though, she had been pensive on her way to meet Win and had ogled the enormous houses shamelessly as she passed. She thought they looked like odalisques, winking seductively from old canvases. Or maybe like lions: great lordly lions, sprawled languorously across the landscape on their golden flanks, their towers and turrets gazing impassively outward.

So many people had so much money, Inge marveled, as she waited now at her window seat in Measured Out.Where had it come from?Where had they all managed to find it?

But here was tall Win, snaking back between the tables with a latte in each hand and a couple of napkins pressed between her elbow and her fashionably bony ribs. Inge smiled, happy to break the mood into which she had slid. She liked Win. Sometimes she was not sure why, but she always had.

“I’m so glad I got the window; if I’m stuck too deep inside these places, I get a rash,” said Win, who often arrived with a monologue in progress. “Too much contact with my Fellow Man.”

Inge lifted Win’s belongings to make room on the tiny table as her friend unloaded the drinks. She sipped her latte and watched over the rim of the cardboard cup as Win settled in, putting away her wallet and slinging the lustrous jacket carelessly over the back of her chair. As usual, Win had buckled her heavy gold watch around the strap of her handbag and it clinked luxuriously as she set the bag under her chair. The watch on the bag was a familiar Win thing. Gold gleamed lushly at her ears and around her neck, but her hands and arms were expressive and she could not abide anything on her wrists.

As she had so often before, Inge reflected on the dynamism that always blew in with Win.Her old friend all but vibrated with energy. This tended to conceal the colder truth that Win was not beautiful. Her features were pleasingly regular, her figure was flawless and her hair was long and thick, but she lacked the color or curve that would have made her a lovely woman. It was rather that she would have been a handsome man. There was something masculine, too, in the authority with which she inhabited her possessions. She had taste and style and she indulged it, buying only the best, wearing it perfectly and investing it, always, with her own striking individuality.

But Win was still talking, and as she so often did, she was talking about her former husband, Jason. She was talking about his clothes.

“Jason, of course, wears a parka,” she was saying, “an ancient one. I’d love to see him in a more contemporary look, but I can’t get him to stay interested long enough.” She brayed with laughter, contemplating Jason’s hilarious lack of interest in his clothing.

“No, really,” she continued, though Inge had expressed no disbelief. “We were talking about this last night.He dropped off the boys and I swear he was wearing the jacket he had in college. I’ve offered to burn it for him but you know how he is.”

This was a well-worn subject of conversation and Inge was amused.

“Win,” she said. “You don’t have to burn his jackets any more. He’s not your problem.You guys aren’t married.”After all, if Win had wanted control over Jason’s wardrobe, she could have retained it. The divorce had been entirely her idea.

“Yeah, how about that?”Win laughed again.

“And how is the single life, Winifred?”

“It works for me, but it’s not for you, sweetie. You’re not the type. Besides, you don’t want to leave Dan. Dan is such a teddy bear!”

“He sort of looks like one,” Inge admitted, thinking of her husband’s curly beard and burly form. “But I don’t need convincing. I’m not going anywhere.”

If Dan was a teddy bear, she thought, Jason was a prince. The two couples had been close friends forever, so she knew from long experience that Jason Dean’s classical good looks were a match for his classical good character.A clear gaze and a strong jaw were not always fronts for a penetrating intelligence and a powerful sense of duty, but in him they were.What he lacked in a sense of humor, he more than made up for in brilliance, absolute dependability and ferocious loyalty. It had made him a superb lawyer and a successful one, too, as clients trusted him instinctively and never looked back.

He had been livid when Win left him two years ago, but characteristically, he was a flawless ex-husband. The result was the desideratum of separating couples everywhere: an amicable divorce.It suited Win to a tee.While married, she had fought like a cat. Divorced, she never stopped talking about Jason, and anyone who heard her and did not know they were over would assume she was a conventional and adoring wife.

Inge considered, not for the first time, the deep strangeness of her old friend. But she shook her musings aside.

“It’s good to see you, Win. But was there something you wanted to tell me? Your e-mail was so mysterious.” She lifted her cup to her lips and drew deeply on the brown warmth within it.

“That’s true! It was and I do.”

Whatever it was, it was good news.Win was positively sparkling. Maybe it was a man.

“And …?” Inge smiled and raised her eyebrows expectantly.

“I bought a house.”

Inge gasped. “You bought! So that must mean you sold!”

When Win and Jason had divorced, they decided not to sell the house they owned together, in which they lived with their two sons.Many had questioned the wisdom of this decision. The housing market had been rising like floodwater for at least five years and it was thought to be near peak. The Deans’ house—comfortable, middle-sized and on a large, well-located lot—had appreciated steeply since they bought it years before in a sagging market. Most couples in their position would have taken their considerable profit and cashed out.

But Win was a real estate agent, and it had been her professional opinion that the value of their home would climb still further. She had insisted that they hold. She and the boys remained in the house and Jason, ever compliant, contributed to the mortgage and paid the rent on a modest apartment for himself.

Inge knew all this and knew, too, that Win had been proven right.After pausing briefly to catch its breath, the market had continued roaring upward and the house she owned with her ex-husband had become something like Fort Knox with yellow siding. It was a parlor game in certain circles to speculate about what the thing was now worth.

So the possibility that the Deans had now sold was, for the moment, even more interesting than the news that Win had bought.

“I will be selling,” corrected Win. “I went ahead and got the new place, first. I’m not worried about finding a buyer for my old one.

“So does this mean it’s peaked? The market?” Inge was a homeowner, too, and ever since that astoundingly shrewd call two years ago, she considered Win infallible on the subject of housing trends.

“I don’t know,” said Win, at last betraying a little impatience with this digression.

“Oh–I’m sorry.” Inge put a smile on her face. “So where’d you buy? That’s exciting!”

“Morris.”

“Morris?Win!”

Inge’s smile abruptly needed life support.

She and Dan had long considered this neighborhood beyond the aspirations of anyone but a tech entrepreneur, a rock star or possibly, a foreign embassy. It was a near suburb, close to Washington, ancient and gorgeous. The houses in Morris looked more European than American with their carved, ivy-covered walls and mossy old stone. The trees in Morris were older than the republic. Morris had cobblestone streets, for heaven’s sake.

“Now, it’s not one of the huge ones,” cautioned Win, reading Inge’s thoughts on her incredulous face. “But it’s beautiful and they had to sell and I scooped it up.”

“Show me.”

Win needed no further encouragement. She swooped over the table top, spun the leather binder toward herself and deftly unbuckled the strap.Unfolding it she turned it around to face Inge. There lay a glossy color photo of what looked like an old stone cottage with low eaves, nestled amid tall trees.

Inge gasped again, this time from recognition. “The gatekeeper’s house! I know that place! You bought that? I’ve passed it a million times!Win, I’ve always wanted it!”

This was entirely true. Inge had coveted this house for many a year. It was situated at the corner of an enormous lot, on a straight street that cut through the heart of Morris. Behind the house— far back on the lot, amid tall trees—sat an immense stone mansion.

The mansion itself was almost too grand to covet; it had actual battlements, if memory served. But the house Win had bought was a smaller structure that might at one time have accommodated a gatekeeper or groundsman. Inge and Dan had often noted the irony that today only a very wealthy buyer would be able to afford this cottage provided to a servant of yesteryear. While smaller than the property it protected and smaller, too, than a contemporary suburban home, it was spacious for a detached home so close to the city.

And it was beautiful. Inge gazed at the photo. The leaded windows, the chimneys of old, rounded stone and the heavy, wooden door were all apparently original.

The McMansions that had so tantalized her just moments ago vanished like smoke. This was possibly the only house Inge wanted even more. And now Win had it. How?

“Like I said,” Win continued, reading her mind, “they had to sell.”

“Well. I mean, congratulations.And it can’t just be that you got a deal. This is a total triumph for you, Win.” Inge knew it was vulgar to respond to Win’s news by alluding to price—vulgar and out of line. But her thoughts were in a ferment and her control was not good.

“I’m happy I could pull it off,” said Win, politely.

Inge exerted herself and lifted the photo, gazing at it with a pleasure she did not feel. “I can’t believe we’ll get to go inside it!” she said. “What’s it like?”

Brightening, Win hitched her chair closer so that both women could see the picture.

“It never really was for a gatekeeper,” she said. “I mean, technically that’s what it’s for, but it’s been used as a guesthouse for the past century or so.” She pointed at one of the windows with a lacquered nail. “That right there is the living room,” she said happily, and commenced describing. There were pictures of the interior as well, and these made it clear that the house was just as charming inside as out. It was definitely a cottage and Inge could not exactly see a family in it; her own, she knew, would bounce right off of its adorable historical walls. But Win was single. She had the boys, of course, but perhaps she did not see herself as a family in quite the same way any more.

“The big house behind it has a long history,” Win was saying pleasurably, as she closed the folder. “A Supreme Court justice used to live there, and a former U.S. ambassador to France. His wife apparently kept a salon.”

“How cool is that!” said Inge. “How many bedrooms?” She found herself thinking of Win’s boys, and wondering where they would sleep.

“Just two,” said Win crisply. “Plus a sunroom for my office. So the kids will have to share, at least until I can afford to expand.” She held up her crossed fingers and laughed. “But the fireplace in the living room is 6 feet wide, and they’ll have a real clawfooted tub—an ancient iron one in perfect condition. They’ll love that.”