The story was dangerous ground, I knew that instantly, and the little voice daring me to tell it a certain way should have stopped me before I started. C’mon, it said. Imagine her expression. I was cautious enough to leave the parties unnamed at first, and almost trailed off, almost told our guests You know what? It was so long ago I don’t remember the details. But alcohol and dares don’t mix, and my antidote to dull company is to keep refilling my glass. Besides, there was so much safe ground ahead.
Our guests were a friend my wife had recently made at work and her husband. It’s a scenario I find myself in often. My wife doesn’t ask more of me than making pleasant conversation and clearing the table, and usually I end up enjoying myself. Tonight, though, the conversation had lurched around. The husband contradicted his wife frequently, while she gave us looks meant to convey that she didn’t let him get away with this at home.
It was after dinner, before dessert, when the wife said they hadn’t wanted to ruin our appetites, but boy, did they have a story for us. Then the husband, mostly, told us how a month ago their two-year-old twins woke up with bug bites on their legs—see, I’m already making things up, it might have been the twins, it might have been the wife, the bites might have been on their arms, I have no idea, because the couple’s portentous expressions tipped off their climax (all that and it turns out they weren’t bed bugs!) and I turned to thinking about my own story.
My story, which also features a husband and wife and their two boys, one ten years old and one a baby, begins—well, this is where I began it that night—the summer after the baby was born, when this couple, after getting estimates from every house painter in and around their Chicago suburb, talked themselves into accepting a lowball bid from a roofing company. Some eaves on their big Victorian needed fixing before the painting, and the roofer, a Polish guy, thinking he could make a fast buck subcontracting to this Mexican kid who’d done some solid carpentry work for him, invented a history of painting houses.
Actual painters had warned that earlier coats of paint probably had lead, and following lead-safe practices would add to the cost, but the Polish guy took a few chips for testing and said they were clean. Next thing the couple knew, they were pressing their noses to the window watching two Hispanic workers struggle to raise a ladder. But they liked the Polish roofer, so they told themselves these guys were just there to do the scut work.
The two workers proceeded, using no plastic sheeting or drop cloths, to prep the house with an electric sander that sprayed dust everywhere and coated the yard with paint flakes. On top of it, they butchered the scraping job, making it obvious, by the time they showed up with paint and paintbrushes, that they were day laborers. The couple had signed a contract though—with a thirty-percent deposit they would have to forfeit—and the Polish roofer swore that he’d be taking over in a couple of days. They had just resigned themselves to the worst when a meddling neighbor decided to test a paint chip with a Home Depot lead kit, and you can imagine, considering the profound ways even tiny amounts of lead can fuck up a small child’s brain, how crazy things went from there.
Until now our guests—husband to my right, his wife to my left—had been nodding along politely, because once you’ve heard ten or twenty homeowner disaster stories the next one might as well be about bed bugs. But remember, they had a pair of two-year-olds. So now they sat up straight.