On a late August Saturday, Joe Stoltz cuts chicken breasts into perfectly even chunks before dunking them in a teriyaki and honey marinade. The whole family will be here soon to partake in summer's last thrill. Monday will herald the start of fall -- and something even bigger.
For now, the nervousness is put on hold. The priority is barbecue.
Joe's dogs -- Apa, Molly and Reggie, as in running back Reggie Bush -- gaze longingly upward at the food on the kitchen counter.
His two younger children, son Logan, 11, and daughter Sydney, 14, are making the most of their final weekend of freedom before school starts. The house echoes with the giggles of their friends. His oldest son, 21-year-old Ry, is at work at Raley's, a grocery store down the street.
The day before, Joe had taken Sydney shopping to buy new clothes. He can hardly believe his little girl has grown into a high school freshman.
He felt relieved she wanted to shop at Plato's Closet, a store that sells "gently used" brand names for teens and young adults. The bill came to $47.40. His wife, Becky, made sure he took a coupon that knocked it down another $5. Not bad for shoes, a hoodie, several shirts and a pair of jeans, he thought.
At 43, his life had come down to counting every dollar. That's what happens in a recession when you can't find work.
Every month, the Stoltzes come up short on their bills. They shelved all their dreams after the real estate crash left Joe, who co-owned a flooring business, without any jobs.
A child of the Pacific Northwest, he's never seen the East Coast. He realizes now that he will have to wait a while longer before he can eat lobster in Maine, see skyscrapers in New York and take his kids to see the Smithsonian in Washington. That's the nation's history, he says.
Joe joined the ranks of tens of thousands of Nevadans who could not find work as they watched their state top two unhappy lists: the highest unemployment rate and the highest number of foreclosures in the nation.
Many of them voted for President Barack Obama, who handily won Nevada in 2008, but this go-around, the Silver State is up for grabs.
The state's rural areas will probably go for Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Las Vegas is expected to vote for Obama. But Washoe County, where Reno is located, is evenly split. It's a battleground county in a battleground state.
Here, every voter will count. And here, plenty of them suffered in the recession, especially in the construction sector.
In mid-2006, more than 25,500 people in Washoe County were working in construction. Three years later, the county registered only 11,600 construction jobs.
Stung by an empty pocketbook, Joe doesn't know who'll get his support come November. He knows this, though: He's part of a new voting bloc of the long-term unemployed whom both campaigns see as gold.
That's evident simply by the number of political ads that air here every day -- almost every commercial break.
Joe's always been an independent voter: He registered as a Republican only because he had to list a party affiliation in Nevada. He votes for a candidate, he says, not along party lines.
He pays attention to the electoral buzz on television, though he's not particularly a fan of ads featuring folks who've been jobless and down. He doesn't need others telling him about his own life. He doesn't care much for the mud-slinging, either. It's so tough to sort through the bitterness and figure out what Obama and Romney really stand for, he says.
A new Obama ad featuring Bill Clinton especially made him pause and look. He's a Clinton fan.
For Joe, a presidential election has never been as intensely personal. This time, he has everything at stake: his marriage, his family, his future.
"I'm not really turned off by Obama," he says, "as much as I'm just not 100% sure."
He thinks Romney may be too wealthy to relate to people like him. Joe is not a believer in trickle-down economics and doesn't support cutting taxes for the rich. But he's bothered that America's deficit has soared to $16 trillion. Maybe, he says, Washington needs a businessman like Romney who is good with money.
Joe looks at the clock. It's just past 10:30 in the morning. He's still got to make the lemonade, get ice, cut up the vegetables for the kebab skewers and clean the pool for the afternoon gathering.
The dreaded pager screeches inside Becky's purse.
She's had only two jobs in all her 40 years. The first was selling burgers at Hardee's as a teenager. The second, as a cardiovascular technician at a Reno hospital. She's the one who helps surgeons put in pacemakers and defibrillators or perform angioplasties. This weekend, like many weekends, she's on call. She'd just come home at 6 a.m. from an overnight procedure. Now, she has to go to work again.
That's the way it has been since she started volunteering for more on-call duty to make extra money. One recent Christmas weekend, she got paged 13 times.
Becky puts on her purple scrubs and hurtles toward her Nissan pickup with coffee in hand.
"Bye, babe!" Joe says. "I hope it's not a long one."
He hates that Becky has to work so hard to make ends meet. He wants someone in Washington to fix the economy, to make things easier for middle-class Americans.
He used to think the economy would turn around quickly. That didn't happen.
He finally came up with a plan for his own family: In the coming days, he's taking big steps to reinvent himself. But he's not sure which candidate's plan is right for the country, which one will reinvent America.
"Everything is so vague," he says, cutting the last of the chicken. "They tell you what they are going to do, but they never give you the details."
The doorbell rings, a sure trigger for Molly, the Chihuahua, to bark from her spot on the couch. It's Laura, the first of Becky's sisters to arrive for the party. From there, it's a steady stream of almost 20 people.
Another sister, Diane, arrives next with peanut butter and chocolate cake in hand, along with her husband, Steve Dullanty -- Joe's former business partner. Steve offers to help assemble the kebabs on the bamboo skewers. Pepper, onion, mushroom, beef or chicken. Then repeat.
He asks Joe about Obama's visit to Reno a few days before.
"I bet that was pretty cool seeing the president," Steve says.
"Yeah, that was pretty cool, actually."
It was the first time Joe had seen a president up close. He liked that on his Reno campaign stop, Obama focused on higher education as the "pathway to the middle class." He especially liked that Obama said he and Michelle did not come from rich families and that it took years for them to pay off their student loans.
That was a message that resonated.
Joe heads out back to the concrete patio he poured a few years ago. It's a hot one: 95 degrees outside. He grabs another can of Rockstar, the energy drink he's been gulping ever since he gave up soda.