There was the issue of the pepper mills. The Obama bust that dispensed fine black grinds from its nostrils. The Native American head packed with red peppercorns, its bared teeth square like a horse’s. Sharin had seen kitchen walls hidden in decades of souvenir spoons, guest rooms hijacked by porcelain dolls peering soullessly from Victorian-style perambulators, but she had never seen anything like this.
“We see nothing wrong with our pepper mills,” Pauline Mint said, threading an arm through her husband’s. They sat in the living room of the mid-century Craftsman bungalow Sharin had taken over for a beleaguered coworker named Lou. The Mints, Lou had warned her, were irrationally proud of how the Catskill Mountains blazed distantly like a Bob Ross paining in their backyard every fall.
Sharin summoned her Vanna White of the New Millennium charm and pointed to the view. “Amazing,” she said.
“A glorious and joyous autumnal wonder!” Robert Mint said, tugging at his jeans to loosen the fabric around his crotch before crossing one leg over the other. “We hope some nice young couple will enjoy it as we have all these years. Isn’t that right, dear?”
Pauline Mint replenished her husband’s glass with homemade pink lemonade.
Sharin accepted a refill as well. “The problem,” she began carefully, “is that some of your pepper mills are quite, well, they overwhelm the view, which is a critical feature of this room, which is why I’m asking you to display them a little less prominently. Just for now, until the house is sold.”
“We didn’t hire you for advice on how to arrange our living room,” Pauline Mint said.
Robert Mint smiled and clapped his hands, perhaps looking to lighten the tone. “And anyway, I hear in New York State it’s what you see is what you get.”
Sharin took a long, slow sip of lemonade. “Yes, Mr. Mint, it is.”
“Call me Robert. Please! You’ve got the keys to our home now, and I’d say that puts us on a first-name basis. Wouldn’t you agree, dear?”
“We have over four hundred pepper mills, Miss Reynolds,” Pauline said piously.
Robert beamed like a boy who had just assembled his first train set. “One for every major holiday for each of the forty years we’ve been married.”
That night Sharin vented her frustrations to Neil as they undressed for bed. She told him about the offensive pepper mills, and about a downstate couple wishing to invest in a winter cottage. The couple had brought along their dippy son, who exacted revenge on her for occupying his parents by jamming a letter opener up his nose and bleeding all over the cream-colored Balinese cat for sale with the cottage.
“That’s the thing about kids,” Neil said, parting the sheets, “if you have them, you have to watch them when the nanny can’t. If you don’t have them, you spend the rest of your days collecting pepper mills. Now what do you say, shall we make a baby of our own, baby?”
Sharin fell onto the bed and spread her arms and legs gracelessly. The gentle whir of the ceiling fan gave her goose bumps. “It’s all ours if you can make it work.” She was asleep before Neil tucked the sheets around her and kissed her goodnight.
Bedside organic blueberries and French toast greeted her the next morning, along with a sticky note on her coffee mug: “Been reading Our Bodies, Ourselves in my free time. Your eggs? I know they’re fresh, and tonight they’re mine.”
Sharin sipped her coffee and thought of ways to avoid having sex with Neil without hurting his feelings. Naturally, she enjoyed their encounters, but she was finding it difficult to keep up with her husband’s zeal now that he was intent on starting a family. He was right to feel pressed for time—they were both approaching 40—and so they had been trying for five months, sometimes multiple times in one day as recommended by the fertility chart Neil had convinced her to keep.
Maybe her failure to conceive was a courtesy warning from the Universe: Adopt a Goldendoodle puppy instead. That would take care of at least ten years. Except when their friends finally began to see returns on having children (“Hunter is hands-down the best goalie on the team. I smell a free ticket to Duke in his future.” “No Auto-Tune for my girl. Taylor Swift can suck it.”), she and Neil would be agonizing over whether their next pet should be a parrot, who might outlive them, or another Goldendoodle—unless the loss of their first one ruined them. Split them apart the way the death of an only child could split a couple apart, or impelled them to start hoarding outrageous things to fill the holes in their hearts.
On her way to the Craftsman, Sharin drove by her two other listings, an American foursquare with original cast iron Duchess radiators, and a two-tone lilac farmhouse whose owners were set on moving to Canada, where, according to a Michael Moore documentary they’d seen, no one locked their doors at night. If she sold these lots plus the Craftsman before Christmas (the couple with the dippy boy had offered cash for the cottage), then she would tell her broker not to expect her back after the holidays. She would be pregnant by then, coming to terms with her fate as a stay-at-home mom, dreading eventual afternoons at the park with other neighborhood mothers, mostly young 20-somethings who would probably mistake her for an astonishingly well-kept grandmother.
Sharin parked in front of the bungalow and remained in her car, fuming and bewildered. She hated Lou. Now he was somewhere in the Bahamas doing a “spiritual detox,” as recommended by his acupuncturist, while she was stuck with a couple whose mark on the world would be a collection of offensive pepper mills. Where did a person even find such things? The Mints couldn’t possibly own over four hundred offensive pepper mills. There had to be some generic ones in the mix. Chubby angel boys blowing on trumpets, Dalmatian puppies with yellow butterflies on their noses.
“They’re just old fuddy-duddies,” Neil said. “I bet you ten bucks the buyers will be fuddy-duddies with an even weirder collection like used baby bottle nipples.”
Sharin checked the time on her dashboard clock against the time on her Blackberry. She was Skyping with Neil while she waited for her first appointment to arrive. “Who keeps pepper mills in the living room? I can’t figure it out.”
Neil unfastened a button of his sprout-green dress shirt and revealed some chest hair. “Wanna see my pepper mill, baby?”
“God! What is wrong with you?”
Neil zoomed out. He was in their laundry room, and his sprout-green dress shirt was all he had on. “I spilled a pot of coffee on myself at the studio,” he said, pointing to dapples of raw pink skin on his thighs. “Come home for lunch and make it better?”
The realization struck Sharin as she stood before the living room and pondered its Hallmark movie gone wrong décor: The Mints were fake sellers. They were duping her, and they had duped Lou before her. Being childless, and both newly retired from dull-sounding jobs, they were feeling restless and insignificant. If they could just know how high people were willing to bid on their life’s work! Imagine the thrill of turning everyone away, the satisfaction of saying “no” and then settling down with a cup of hot cocoa, surrounded by pepper mills—their surrogate children—and watching the sun set against the brilliant backdrop of Bob Ross’s Catskills.
Well, she would show them: She would sell the Craftsman anyway. Some downstate couple looking for a hobby house would offer cash in full, no inspection required, and, here, we’ll pay the closing costs, too, and she would get her commission plus a little extra as a conciliatory gesture from the Mints once they appreciated all she had done for them.
Sharin lost track of time as she packed the most delicate pepper mills into reusable shopping bags and hid the others under the sofa with the kick pleat skirt. There seemed to be more rather than fewer pepper mills since her discussion with the Mints the day before, though she couldn’t prove it, and Pauline would surely declare it was none of her business. The doorbell startled Sharin when it rang, and she banged into the glass table with the Obama bust and the Native American head. The two knocked against each other and burst open as they fell to the floor. She cried out as she dropped to her hands and knees to pick peppercorns from the unyielding fibers of the frieze carpet. The doorbell rang a second time, but it did not ring a third.
“What I want to know,” Neil said, lifting his face and wiping his mouth on Sharin’s inner thigh, “is where do they keep the salt shakers?”
“Can you believe they have a pepper mill chain gang? Five tiny men with holes in their heads. Pepper comes out when you turn them upside down.”
“Are you close? My tongue’s going numb.”
“According to your stupid chart I should have come five times by now.”
“Our chart, Sharebear. It’s our chart.”
Sharin’s Blackberry chirped. Lunchtime was over. She sat up, and Neil, still crouching in front of the kitchen counter, ducked his head under her skirt. “Tonight, we make a baby. You hear me in there?”
They said profane things for fun and groped like unskilled teenagers until Sharin’s stomach rumbled. Neil fed her half of a roasted veggie panini.
“I am so fucked,” she said between bites.
“Then lie. Say: I’m terribly sorry, but one couple today had a very rowdy kid. He tried to play Cowboys and Indians with your pepper mills, so I made an executive decision to move them to safety—unfortunately not before some got knocked over. Here are ways we can avoid this kind of incident in the future.”
Sharin went back to the Craftsman an hour before her next appointment, to tweeze the remaining peppercorns from the carpet. Neil would fix the Native American head, one of its teeth had chipped, though she would claim the rowdy kid had stolen it, and then one day way into the future she would leave it in an unmarked box at the Mints’ doorstep along with a printout of BuzzFeed’s “20 Ways You Might Not Realize You’re Racist.”
“Miss Reynolds. You’re here quite early.”
Sharin peered up from all fours and smiled her Vanna Whitest smile. “Hi, there. I thought you were serving meals all day at the Lord’s Table.”
“I forgot my lunch,” Pauline said, coming into the living room to straighten the curtains on the window with the best view of the view. “It wouldn’t be right of me to eat freely from the plates of the poor. Can I offer you some pink lemonade? It’s yesterday’s, though.”
“Oh yes, I would love some.”
Sharin was still on her hands and knees when Pauline returned with a tray of refreshments. Her knees were beginning to hurt, but she was feeling a bit dizzy and didn’t want to bang into the glass table again, so she pretended she was doing “Proud Horse” pose for her morning YouTube yoga class.
Pauline settled on the sofa and nibbled imperiously on a quarter of egg salad sandwich that reminded Sharin of her grandmother’s embroidered doilies. The association inspired her to fantasize about emptying every single pepper mill the Mints owned onto the living room floor. The couple would be forced to tear up the ugly carpet, because not even retired people had all day to spend tweezing peppercorns, and then they would see how outdated the wallpaper was and tear away at that. It was a clever plan until she sat back on her heels, not thinking to cup her hands over her knees so Pauline wouldn’t notice the peppercorns clinging to them.
After a half-liter of grocery store chardonnay, Sharin and Neil tried to reproduce the illustration on page forty-two of The Joy Of Sex. They had discovered the early edition at a church tag sale years earlier, underneath a pile of Horatio Alger and O. Henry pocket novels, and couldn’t resist paying seventy-five cents for it, though they had never planned to read it, let alone sample from it.
“I don’t understand the point of this one,” Sharin said, lying on her back so Neil could press his thigh on her groin. The cuissade was what they were supposedly doing.
Neil’s face flushed as he struggled to massage below her pubic bone with the inside of his knee. “I liked the pompier better. We can’t get pregnant this way, but we can get pregnant that way.”
“I don’t like the pompier. I feel cheesy sitting on top of you like that, squeezing my, you know. It’s like,” Sharin wiggled out from under Neil’s thigh and lay on her side like a banana, the way she had learned in Pilates class, “it’s like something I would have done when I was twenty to impress a guy.” She tugged at Neil’s chest hair. “I don’t need to impress you. Do I?”
She slept fitfully through the night, dreaming it was springtime and “For Sale” signs were popping up everywhere like tulips, and all but hers on the Mints’ front lawn flourished into “Sold” signs within weeks. A few times she woke up to find Neil hovering over her, his expression warm and hungry, for he had mistaken her groans and squirms for nocturnal overtures. After a dash of lovemaking in the dark, she fell asleep and dreamed the Mints moved out without warning and abandoned their pepper mills in a large cardboard box in the backyard. She was appalled by this act. She sealed the box with the emergency roll of packing tape she kept in her car, and then placed the Native American head with the chipped tooth on top and turned to the Catskills to observe a moment of silence.
The next morning, Sharin awoke to her usual bedside breakfast and sticky note on her coffee mug. The note said, “I love you,” and its simplicity alarmed her. On her way to the Craftsman, she stopped at the CVS and purchased a three-pack of pregnancy tests and a three-pack of chew toys for puppies, which she would discuss with Neil over Skype while she was parked in front of the house, waiting for her first appointment to arrive.