A while back, the 50’s themed restaurant in my town sponsored a contest – be the best dressed child in Eisenhower era fashions and win a free ice cream sundae for a month. My wife was all over it. “We’re gonna win,” she said. “Just watch.”
I’m sure you will, dear,” I said. Over the years, I’ve learned to never underestimate my wife’s determination to save a buck.
When the pandemic first started to rage, we, like many couples, found ourselves with a lot of time on our hands to make home improvements. And thing we both agreed needed to be fixed first was the retaining wall in front of our house. Made of wooden railroad ties, termites had turned it into an all you can eat buffet and the whole thing was ready to give way and send an avalanche of dirt into the street. So, I called a contractor in for a quote.
“$10,000?” my wife, said after the man left. “No fucking way.”
“I don’t see that we have any alternative.”
“And he was just going to make some boring thing out of bricks like our neighbors have? I don’t want to be like everybody else.”
“Do you want me to shop around? Call another guy?”
“No,” Annie said, “I will build it myself.”
At first, I thought my wife was off her rocker. Bereft of an engineering degree, I figured her efforts would result into a disaster that would cost more than ten grand to fix. But Annie was undeterred. “I’ll just build it out of rocks,” she said. “And plant a garden in it.” So, Annie and I spent a good part of that pestilent spring finding large rocks suitable for her wall. Turns out, a guy on the other side of town was excavating a new basement and had boulders to spare. The division of labor was about what you’d expect – Annie sorted through the rocks like they were gemstones and I lugged them into our minivan and then hauled them out and arranged them by size on our front lawn. It was a workout.
“What’s your wife doing?” my neighbor asked me, looking at the ersatz Stonehenge on our lawn.
“She’s going to build a retaining wall,” I said.
“Can she do that? Doesn’t she need a permit?”
“The town says no.”
Worried about his own property, he looked pensive. “What if doesn’t work?” he said.
“Then it won’t.”
People filled their quarantine time with all sorts of projects: losing weight, baking, whipping up gourmet meals, drinking wine, gaining weight, building additions to their house, creating You Tube videos, writing a book, learning a language, starting an online business, keeping their kids from distracted from the stress, drinking more wine – all to not go stir crazy in our “bubbles.” I rode an exercise bike every day until I almost passed out. My wife? She built a wall. It took a long time and, as I watched Annie place each rock with extreme care, I prayed that the whole boondoggle would work out. If it didn’t, I was afraid I’d need buckets of Prozac to keep my wife from those nice young men in white coats. But, after a couple of months, the wall was erected, the garden seeded, and we had a retaining wall unlike anyone else in the neighborhood. Rustic chic, I guess.
“Yeah,” my neighbor said, inspecting the completed edifice. “But will it hold when it rains?”
I kicked a rock with my foot. It didn’t move. “Look solid to me,” I said. “But only time will tell.” But when the rains came, the wall didn’t move an inch. Now, three years later, it’s a charming addition to our property that reflects my wife’s sense of style – her flair. At least when the garden’s weeded that is. Honey, I never doubted you.
The day of the contest arrived and, after a few hours or primping and preening, my wife and daughter emerged from the bathroom looking like a little bobbysoxer and a demented Joan Crawford. “No more wire hangers in this house!” my wife crowed, admiring herself in the mirror. Truth be told, I found my wife’s costume oddly sexy.
“Why aren’t you dressed up, Daddy?” Natalie asked.
“You want to win, right?” I said.
Dozens of vintage cars were parked in front of the restaurant with Do-Wop beats blasting out of their radios. Smiling, I remembered my parents were teenagers in the 50’s and ribbing my dad’s slicked back hair and mom’s bouffant when they dressed up to go to reunions. I went to high school in the 80’s and could only imagine Natalie’s reaction to my re-wearing the fashions of that era and listening to Devo.
“Are we going to win, Daddy?” my daughter asked as we walked inside.
Looking around, I saw only one other person dressed in ‘50’s garb and, to be charitable, my wife’s getup blew hers away. “Of that,” I told Natalie, “You can be certain.”
Sure enough, my wife and daughter were crowned the winners and Natalie was awarded one free sundae a month. The first time we went to collect her prize however, I was gobsmacked by the size of it. “Jesus,” I said looking at the glass goblet filled with vanilla ice cream, nuts, butterscotch, hot fudge, and whipped cream topped by a cherry, “It’s the chalice of diabetes.”
“Oh dear,” my wife said, “She won’t be able to eat the whole thing.” But Natalie was game. Waving the restaurant’s owner over I said, “She’s staying at your house tonight.”
“Man,” he said, “You’re gonna have to peel her off the ceiling.”
“Thanks a lot, brother.”
To my surprise, Natalie self-regulated and, after only eating fifteen percent of her caloric disaster, pushed the sundae away. “Too much sugar,” she said.
“Wow,” I said. “When I was your age, I would’ve eaten the whole thing.”
“Now it’s going to be in our house,” my wife groaned.
“I won’t eat it,” I said. “I’m on a diet. I only had two spoonsful.”
The sundae lived in our freezer for about a week before it was finally consumed. “Next time we go,” Annie said, tossing the empty takeout container into the trash. “We have to invite some her friends to help her eat it.”
“Good idea,” I said, “She’ll be very popular.”
We’re only four months into our sugary journey and, so far, Natalie’s invited two sets of playmates to help eat her free treat. Last night her aunt was the guest of honor and we took some funny pictures.
After her aunt drove Natalie back home from the restaurant in her little sports car, we chatted outside and watched our dogs root around the front yard. Looking at the retaining wall my wife built, I realized I’d have never built it, nor would I have ever thought of dressing up Natalie to win a sundae. That’s all thanks to my wife’s flair. It drives me nuts sometimes, but Natalie’s world would be much poorer without it. She’s very lucky to have the mom she has. When I think of it, I’m lucky too.
Later, with Natalie asleep in bed, I looked at my wife as she lay under the covers with a leer and said, “Any chance you can dress up like Joan Crawford again?”
“In your dreams,” she yawned, “I’m going to bed.”
Oh well. I guess my wife’s flair only goes so far.
Addendum: By popular request: