On Kitty Vasek’s thirtieth birthday, she bought herself a house. It was a modest home with light blue siding, white shutters, and a garden shed. The first year she owned it, she kept it impeccably tidy. She painted the interior eggshell white, replaced the carpets in Missy and Tommy’s rooms, and installed a dishwasher. She spent the next twenty years landscaping, fencing, and building an impenetrable fortress of collected crap all the way around it.
For Kitty’s upcoming fiftieth birthday, the city had scheduled an appointment to inspect her property for continued safety violations, structural damage, and rodent infestations. If she failed, the house would be condemned, and she would be forcibly removed from her own home, on her birthday.
Kitty was fully aware of her situation. She knew she’d run out of extensions and excuses. Either she cleaned up the monumental mess she’d made, or she would lose it all, forever. She didn’t need Mike to remind her of that. His job was to keep her moving steadily forward, do all the heavy lifting while she focused on cleaning, organizing, and healing.
Some days, she did exceptional work. She took her time, carefully selecting what she wanted to keep, what she could dispose of, donate or recycle. Other days, her anxiety controlled her emotions, swinging her violently up one way or down another. Frantic, she would dig through the piles, heaving everything she touched toward the dumpster, declaring her entire life garbage. Then she’d flip, and cling with desperation to a molded, ten-year-old phonebook or a garden rake with more missing tines than intact ones. Everything held a memory. Some were good, many bad, and when she hit a wall, those memories came crashing down, burying her in self-loathing and denial.
Having experienced similar destructive thoughts and actions on his tortured journey through addiction, Mike quickly learned some of Kitty’s triggers. He found ways to distract her before she became consumed, using her passion for art and for the birds as a motivation to keep her emotional healing moving forward, even if they took a moment of pause in the physical labor of clearing her yard.
He set up a birding station just off the porch, with a small picnic table and supplies they’d discovered as they cleaned. On one of her bad days, she sat at the table and coated her vast collection of pine cones in peanut butter and rolled them in bird seed. Mike strung the finished feeders with scraps of ribbon and yarn. They hung a few in her yard, then loaded the rest in a wagon and walked about town, placing the pinecone treats in trees and bushes all along the park and public spaces.
Another time, when she became overwhelmed, they fixed up the table saw and cut stacks of barn wood to reuse as bird houses. They got creative with the assemblies, making all different sizes and shapes, using leftover paints and stains, leaving some of the wood bare. Bits and bobbles and twists of wire were used for perches, hangers or simply decoration.
Mike found a beam of used lumber and attached the houses in a tower of angles and peaks, creating an aviary condominium to house Kitty’s birds. Solidly anchored in the center of the yard, they cleared the area around it and mapped out a landscape of wildflowers and cover shrubs, feeders and baths.
Before sunset, the first swallow had staked his claim. His song and dance drew his mate. Kitty and Mike sat side by side on the porch steps and watched with wonder as the pair collected mud and twigs to build their nest. As the birds flew about the yard, Kitty’s posture relaxed, the tension leaving her shoulders, the fight easing from her chest. The anger that pinched her features and wrinkled the delicate skin around her eyes gave way to a lighter sense of peace, brightening her entire face.
In moments like those, Mike would catch himself staring at Kitty in wonder and amazement. He’d feel a stupid smile warm his cheeks, his breath stutter from the skipping of his heart as it danced about his chest. He was in crazy, stupid love with the crazy-adorable woman, and he felt magnificent.
He’d experienced the fluttery, carefree feeling many times before, always mistaking it as real love, true connections, but it was only false emotion, another cruel trapping of addiction. As incredible as it felt in the moment, acting on it would be incredibly dangerous to her recovery, and to his. He forced the desire back, kept it tightly contained, and focused his every ounce of energy on her healing.
At night, alone except for his dog, Bella, he’d feel the depth of his emotions consume him like the cruel weight of the vast ocean, and he would reach out to Ashley to help hold his heavy heart afloat. She’d tease him mercilessly for falling for a cougar and then regale him with dirty stories she’d heard from the guys in her unit. She’d curse the ceaseless, senseless physical training, bemoan her sore muscles and leaden legs. She sent random pictures of random things with no explanations, and he’d reply with randomness from his own world.
He missed Ashley. He wanted her home. He needed her to keep him honest and true. But she had her own demons to conquer, her own battle to fight, and she was winning. He left her to it and focused his excess energy on Kitty’s upcoming inspection.
Over the course of the summer, various members of the city council had randomly stopped by to check on Kitty’s progress. Some were empathetic to her struggles, some indifferent. Two were complete dicks about the entire situation. Mike feared no matter what Kitty accomplished, it would never be enough. They wanted her gone.
Kitty needed more than just Mike’s support to win her battle against the city. Her daughter, Marissa, would fight tooth and nail for her until the very end. That was a given. She had been fighting for her mother for as long as she could talk. Unfortunately, she also fought with her mother—constantly, bitterly, destructively. She loved Kitty fiercely. She wanted her happy and healthy. She couldn’t stand to see her imprisoned emotionally and physically by twenty years of collected crap, but she no longer possessed the patience to properly help Kitty let go.
If Marissa had her way, she would rent a backhoe and dig her mother out in one fell swoop. She’d level the property, scrub it down with bleach, everything brand new and sanitized in its proper place. It would erase Marissa’s pain, soothe her heart, finally put her at peace, but it would be the destruction of Kitty. For her protection, Mike kept Marissa as far away from the cleaning and sorting process as possible.
At first, he found it to be an extremely difficult task. Marissa had quit her job at the construction office. She was angry and antsy, and dissatisfied by daytime television. She’d sleep late into the morning, giving Kitty and Mike a bit of early peace, but once she woke the screaming and tears soon followed. Luckily, she grew bored fast and broke faster. Eight days unemployed was all she could handle before she found a job as a bank teller, coincidentally working alongside one of the more empathetic members of the city council.
Marissa pleaded Kitty’s case behind the scenes while Mike did the physical work on the front lines. Working separately, they accomplished more than they ever could together, but Mike feared it still wouldn’t be enough. He had assumed Jimmy would help with the heavy lifting and hauling, but Jimmy only came around when he needed something.
The first time, Jimmy roared in on blind fury, demanding Marissa return to work. He’d already sent Brent out twice, then Dan. When politeness failed, he tried to drag her back by force. He flew into the driveway, up onto the front porch, and pounded on the door until Marissa came out screaming for him to leave. They argued in the hot sun for twenty minutes, then inside his air conditioned truck for another hour before he left with a squeal of tires and she returned to the house teary eyed and exhausted.
He came back a month later. On a warm evening, as the late summer sun set in the west, Jimmy jumped the curb in front of Kitty’s house and stopped hard, leaving the engine running as he spilled from the cab. Beer cans rolled out with him, clattering down the street. He stumbled across the yard, up to the porch, and crashed against the door. Mike tossed aside his trimming shears and pulled off his gloves, but Kitty held him back with a firm hand. Together, they watched Marissa carefully collect Jimmy’s broken pieces and carry him inside.
“Let them be,” Kitty instructed, her voice soft as she released her hold on Mike and returned to painting the weathered picket fence along the back of her property a cheery, lemon yellow.
“Are they still…” He trailed off, decided it wasn’t his business to ask the nature of Jimmy and Marissa’s relationship. Kitty didn’t mind sharing the details.
“I wish they were, but no, and it breaks my heart,” Kitty said with a heavy sigh. “They lost too much the first time around.”
“What did they lose?”
“Their child. They were just children themselves.” She tipped her head, as though to better see something she did not understand. “Missy miscarried late, just into her second trimester. There was a car accident; a terrible, terrible accident. She was in so much pain, my baby girl. I just couldn’t bear to see her like that… and she bled… Oh, Mike, I’d never seen so much blood. And then the complications, the infections. She had to have surgery. She can never have another… And poor Jimmy, he lost… I don’t know. His lost his faith, for sure, but it’s almost as though he completely lost himself, somehow. I thought he was finally finding his way back again, that Kylie was helping him remember who he is, where he came from, that maybe he could make himself a nice little family with her and her son, but now… I don’t know what happened. I just don’t know.”
It wasn’t until Mike talked to Ashley a few days later that he learned that Kylie had packed her son and their belongings, and headed west, seeking the peace and serenity of the ocean waves and setting suns she remembered from her youth.
With Kylie in California, Jimmy became untethered, reaching instinctively for Marissa to hold him steady, but she wasn’t enough for him anymore. He needed something stronger than sex and alcohol. He needed something to keep his hands busy, exhaust his body and shut up his mind. He needed hard, relentless, physical labor. He needed to work.
As summer turned to fall, Jimmy spent every daylight hour at Kitty’s house. He ripped off the back deck, rebuilt it anew. He re-shingled the roof, cut down a dying Elm tree, jack-hammered her cracked, crumbling sidewalk and driveway, hauled it out and poured new. He worked from sunup to sundown, never stopping to take a break. He didn’t seem to eat much, or sleep at all. His skin burned and peeled. His hair grew long. He dropped weight at an alarming rate. Kitty worried over him, told him to eat, asked him to slow down, but he refused to stop.
When inspection day came, Kitty passed with flying colors. As the fire marshal, city council, and chief of police commended her hard work, she stood tall, her cheeks flush with life, proud of all she had accomplished. Marissa invited everyone out to Charlene’s for prime rib dinner to celebrate a job well done, and Kitty’s very happy, fiftieth birthday. Jimmy paused for the night, enjoyed a bite of cake with his whiskey, but he couldn’t stop.
The following morning, he walked down to the courthouse, stood at the base of the steps, held his fist high at auction, and bought the biggest piece of shit house he could possibly find. And then, he hired Mike to help him tear it down and build it anew.