Last Word

From ​Rise: How a House Built a Family

cover-rise2Bright and early, I put on a gray skirt suit, one that had been a little tight until divorce stress claimed the last post-baby pounds. I wore a red shirt underneath because red means power, and also because red means Caroline, the name I’d given to the collective spirit of all women who’d been stomped on and were cheering me on to succeed. After touching up my makeup, I added a simple pearl necklace and earrings. They were department-store pearls, not the sort you passed on to your daughters, but they looked real, and this was a day for appearances, not reality.

As soon as the kids left for school, I dropped my son Roman off at a day care. I stopped at a shipping store and bought a white cardboard tube to hold my plans and then sat in the car for a half-dozen deep breaths, wishing I could get my head between my knees in the cramped front seat. “Do or die, Cara.”

The car door stuck, but a solid shoulder whack knocked it open. I walked into the high-ceilinged bank lobby like I owned the place, my eyes straight ahead, even when I sensed heads turning my way. If my skirt had a pocket, I would have patted it like it was filled with rolls of Benjamins. The loan officer at the floor desk shifted uncomfortably when he saw that I was headed for him. Before I said a word, he looked over his shoulder and waved me back to the head moneylender with the windowed office and heavy cherry door.

“Rothschild,” he said, shaking my hand without getting fully to his feet. “What can we do for you today?” His eyes drifted to his paperwork, so I placed my long cardboard tube on the desk, diagonally across whatever he had found slightly more interesting than me.

“I’m building a house, and I need you to help me cover some of the materials. The labor is taken care of, and the land is free and clear. I’ll be the contractor.”

He tipped back in his chair, not exactly propping his feet on his desk, but his posture saying that he would have if my cardboard tube weren’t in his way. “You can fill out an application and leave it with my assistant.” And there it was, that smirk they must teach in loan-officer school.

I handed him the completed application. Before he had time to scan much of it, I slid a thin stack of his papers over and dropped three neat folders with labeled tags protruding. “Three years of tax returns,” I said, then lifted the next folder, “and here’s an asset breakdown. The copy of my blueprint”—I tapped my fingertips on the tube—“is yours. I understand you’ll need it for the inspections.” I’d learned that at the last bank, the one that had turned me down before my seat was warm.

“And you’re a licensed contractor?” he asked, leaning forward in his chair, head down while he thumbed through my papers, eyes pausing on the dollar signs.

“I’ve pulled the permits. And while I’m not licensed, I have a lot of experience researching energy-efficient building models.” I added a folder of passive-solar designs to the stack, pretending that I had read as much of it as my 11-year-old daughter Jada had.

But he was tilting back, stalled on the licensed-contractor nonsense. That quick, I’d lost him. The big fish was slipping right back into the pond.

So close. I had been so close.

“It’s vital that I have this by Wednesday—Thursday at the absolute latest. I’m ready to break ground immediately.” I raised my eyebrows, nodding my head. “You can do that for me, right? I was told you could—by Wednesday.”

Who was this damn cheeky girl? She was not me. She was not the Cara who listened in terror to the fi-fah of her husband’s breath while his thumbs pressed blue temporary tattoos on her skin. I had the irresistible urge to rub my neck but redirected my hand to my clutch, a narrow leather bag that would have been more at home at a cocktail party. It had been that or my large bag filled with Cheerios remnants and tiny notebooks where I jotted down clever dialogue in the grocery line. I pulled out a tiny tin of mints, held it out. “Mr. Rothschild?”

He shook his head, leaning back over the papers and flipping through too fast to be doing anything more than a magician’s trick of distracting me while the number ticker in his head weighed the risk of taking me on.

I dropped a mint on my tongue even though I hadn’t wanted one and was afraid I would either choke on it or start drooling when the menthol hit my sinuses. He held up one of the papers and turned sideways to his computer. I smiled a bit, probably a mirror of the loan-officer smirk, when he slipped a pair of wire reading glasses on his nose before typing in a few numbers. He had barely been able to see my papers, let alone evaluate them with any real accounting math. He was as fake as my pearls.

“No accounts with us?” he asked, looking at the computer screen instead of me.

“This will be my first.”

He scrolled a few pages, probably reading them, or at least the important parts. I was fairly certain it was my credit score he was looking at, and thankfully, it was in remarkably good shape. I’d never liked debt and paid everything off in record time. But more than one man in my past had gone on spending sprees that gave me plenty to pay off.

“And you’ll be able to do this immediately? By Wednesday?” I repeated, hoping he was distracted enough not to notice that my confidence, which had been unprecedentedly high to this point, was waning. My voice hadn’t squeaked, but it had been a touch too high, too plaintive. I pushed my shoulders back and dropped my chin, willing my voice to drop, too. “I’ll finish the foundation work before Christmas. Ice makes everything more complicated.”

He sat back, his chair spinning slowly back toward me, seemingly on its own.

Cara Brookins is the author of Little Boy Blu, the TimeShifters trilogy, Gadget Geeks and Doris Free. Her debut memoir, Rise: How a House Built a Family (St. Martin’s Press; on-sale Jan. 24) is about a series of traumatic events that led her and her four children to build a 3,500-square-foot home from the ground up. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.