Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fiction: Upscale by George McLoone

It seemed the right time to trade up, and Harold Fere decided to take the equity out of his house in Whitethorn Estates and roll it over into a better place on Rhine Court. Whitethorn was a slightly upscale development of aluminum siding colonials, but the better house was custom built, all brick, with larger rooms, a long flagstone terrace rather than a wooden deck, and a pool with a cabana. The lot was almost two acres, and the neighborhood, though somewhat farther from the major arteries, was undeniably upscale.

Still, his wife Patsy had no desire to move. It was such a bother to move, and she had misgivings about their taking on a new mortgage when the old one was almost paid off. She had other arguments-- Their daughter, Megan, no longer lived at home, and the old house was now more than enough room for just two people. Megan had taken an apartment near Adams-Morgan in downtown Washington, an hour away, but would probably like to get out of the city once in a while and visit her old house. A new house would seem strange to her, and she might not want to visit at all. Moreover, if they must move, now was the time to downsize, not upsize, a time for cashing out their equity in Whitethorn and buying a condo with no lawn that needed mowing, no fix-up problems in the upstairs bathrooms, no leaks in the basement, and no mortgage at all. Patsy knew several couples their age who had made similar moves, sensible moves, although she herself would be perfectly happy to stay put in Whitethorn.

Harold assured Patsy that he had not finalized anything, that he was “just looking into what was out there,” a phrase he repeated as he drove her to Rhine Court on Saturday morning. He turned onto the new street, a cul de sac with houses splendid and few, and reminded her that the new neighborhood was not so very far from Whitethorn, that they could stay in touch with the few friends who remained in the old neighborhood—one or two families whose children had gone to the same schools. He told her the Rhine Court house was vacant, and they would not be putting anyone out when looking it over. It was a kind of outing, after all, and they had not done anything together for some time.

The listing agents for the house, Jake and Jackie Montcrief, worked as a team, and their photo was on the For Sale sign in the large, sloping front yard— a happy middle-aged couple, shoulders and heads, Jake behind and above Jackie. They were not there to show the house but had sent their sales assistant, Raven Geary, a younger woman whose Lexus convertible was parked in the circular driveway. She was already standing on the front steps, wore a tailored gray suit, pearls, and had a broad smile. The house’s owners, she told them, had moved to their beachfront on Hilton Head, a permanent move, and the place had been on the market since April, more than six months. She did not name the owners but said they were anxious to sell, although they had turned down two or three offers that were too far below the asking price, not solid offers. They would be willing, however, to consider an offer contingent on the sale of the buyers’ home. She handed glossy brochures to both Harold and Patsy and opened the double front doors.

“As you can see,” she said, “the foyer is quite large, a room in itself. Jake calls it ‘The Promenade’ in the brochure, and the sweeping staircase with the skylight lends drama, as you can see. The coat closet, as you can also see, is big enough for a small office, and the powder room on the left could easily accommodate a couch. My favorite room is ‘The Heritage Room’ across the hall. It’s wood paneled and has a beamed ceiling. The kitchen, too, is quite spacious and has more than enough cabinets, all cherry, and, like the dining room, it opens onto the terrace, as you will see-- But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was a communications major in college, and I should know better. I get a little too enthusiastic at times, especially in a house like this. Jake thinks I have a future in real estate, though to tell you the truth I’m not so sure it’s for me. It’s my fall back, if I don’t get into TV. I sent a tape to a producer at Channel 5 last week, and he’s definitely interested—maybe Weekend Weather, he says, but there is a lot of competition. This is the living room, ‘The Grand Salon’ “—she made quotation marks in air—“as you can see, and do you believe that chandelier? There are four bedrooms up and one down in the finished basement. Of course, it’s too empty now, but it would all look spectacular with furniture, the right furniture. I’ll let you look at The Heritage Room on your own, and then the bedrooms.”

As he saw more of the house, Harold liked it even more. He liked the layout, the spaciousness, and the acreage seemed baronial. But later, in the car, when he asked Patsy what she thought about the place, he heard more misgivings.

“The living area has these lobby-size rooms,” she said, “but that means a lot of cleaning; and I’m put off by that foyer—it’s too big, cavernous-- and the upstairs is strange after all that room downstairs. The upstairs bathrooms are small, smaller than the powder room downstairs. The bedroom closets are smaller than the coat closet off the foyer. And there’s no big walk-in closet in the master bedroom, just three ordinary, smallish closets. It’s an entertainment house, a corporate entertainment house for an executive type who has parties. I would not want us to live there. I hate the house, and did you notice the washer and dryer were all the way down in the basement? Someone’s living down there, by the way.”

“I didn’t notice.”

“There’s a mattress against one of the walls, and a microwave and paper plates on that bar counter across from the walkout doors. I could smell popcorn.”

“A caretaker probably.”

“Sheets and pillows behind the bar, and the bathroom down there had towels and a toothbrush.”

“It’s a full bath. I noticed that.”

“I’m not walking up and down the basement stairs to do the laundry. That’s a deal breaker by itself, and we don’t need all that space. It’s an entertainment house. We don’t entertain. We have Megan over. Sometimes she brings a beau. That’s about it. You’re not a corporate executive. You sell insurance. You go into a shared office Mondays and Thursdays and work out of your home office or study or whatever you call it the rest of the week. What are you thinking? We never entertain.”

“But I am thinking,” he said. “Megan has been going with Jeff for a long time—two or three years. They could get married. Before you know it, we’ll be grandparents—two, three, grandkids and two adults will be over to visit, maybe some of them spending the night. Where would we put them now? On Rhine Court, we’d have two master suites and a kind of apartment in the basement walkout. We could put in a small kitchen down there, and Megan and Jeff and their two kids could stay for a week or two. All of them could. And there’s the pool. The grandkids will love the pool.”

“Megan and Jeff have their own friends,” she said, “some of them with their own kids. They do things with them, with each other. We’re just family. We’re not part of their social life except on holidays, and we don’t share birthdays anymore. We don’t entertain. Jeff wants to live in California, and I’m not sure Megan wants to. He doesn’t have a real job, and I think she’s tired of waiting for him to get settled and ask her to marry him. I don’t think it will last—I don’t think it would last if they got married.”

“Yes,” he said, “suppose it doesn’t last. Megan and her two kids could live with us on Rhine Court until she finds somebody else. I can afford it, you know. I have enough money to buy the house. I make more than enough, and all that equity is sitting there in our old house. I can afford the new mortgage, and my portfolio is up another ten percent this year.”

“Harold,” she said, “I can’t make up my mind if you are simply bored and restless--a pathetically late mid-life crisis-- or if you really want a bigger family, or what. Wouldn’t a new car do? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“I have a new car. This is a new car.”

“It’s a Mercury not a Lexus. Why don’t you spend it on a Lexus? Your friend, Raven, has one, and she’s just starting out. And this is her fall-back job, upscale real estate owned by the anonymous family, like drug lords who got out in a hurry—or arrested, the house confiscated by DEA.”

“Maybe her family has money, or she borrowed the car from the Montcriefs.”

“Harold, it’s an entertainment house, a corporate house-- catered parties-- a long buffet and bar set up in that humongous foyer--dancing in the foyer and in The Grand Salon, spilling out onto the terrace, the piazza de low resistance.”

“You’ve been there before at some party?”

“It just reminds me of those kinds of places. It’s a corporate house.”

That evening, when they were finishing dinner, Raven called to ask how they felt about the house. Patsy answered the phone, but Harold went to his study to take the call. He told Raven how much he liked the rooms, the pool, the room for grandkids.

“However,” he added, “I have to be honest about Patsy. She has misgivings.”

“I understand completely,” Raven said. “Can you share anything else?”

“I could, yes, but there’s no point in pursuing the matter. Anyway, it’s Saturday night, and I’m sure you are on your way out to dinner or a party, a soiree or theatre party, something like that.”

She laughed. It was a light, musical laugh. “O, I wish, Mr. Fere. No, I don’t get out much. I have a ten-year old to take care of.”


“Yes, I’m a single mom.”

“Boy or girl?”

“My son, Leif.”

“Single moms do get out once and a while, so I’m told, and you do look like a TV star.”

“Mr. Fere—Harold-- I’m sorry the house is not for you and Patsy. But we do have others if nothing else in that neighborhood at the moment. Would you mind if I called again-- I mean if something turns up?”

“Call any time,” he said, and meant it.

It was early fall, still warm, and after he hung up he walked into the kitchen to suggest Patsy join him for ice cream in the back yard.

”If you can find the citron candles for the bugs,” she said.

“I told her the house did not seem right for us, not at that price.”

“Did you tell her what I thought of the house?”

He thought about Raven’s laugh, the sound of it, that he would like to hear more of it, that he wanted to see more of her, but realized right away he was merely infatuated with her. She was delightful, pretty, photogenic, and he smiled to himself. Nothing would come of it. This was nothing to feel excited or guilty about. Nothing would happen.

“I told her you had misgivings,” he said. “There seemed no point in going into detail. She may call again if something else turns up in that neighborhood. But Rhine Court has only four or five houses with just the one for sale. I doubt we will hear from her.”

“She’s a realtor, Harold.”

“I’ll put up the umbrella,” he said. “Maybe that will deter the bugs, keep the citron smoke down closer to the table.”

“I’m going back inside as soon as I see or hear a mosquito,” she said. “Or a bat. I think I saw a bat flitting around outside. Just now, out the window, a bat.”

“Probably a swallow. They eat bugs this time of day.”

“So do bats.”

“I’ll make sundaes.”

“The first bug. I’m not kidding.”

In three days, Raven did call again. She had information about another house about to come on the market, one not so large or so expensive as Rhine Court and in a neighborhood almost as nice, a newer development called Kimberly Farms. The house was three-sides brick and the lot was almost an acre.

“I haven’t quite given up on Rhine Court,” Harold told her. “Patsy does like some things about the house. I might be able to bring her around.”

“Would she like to see the house again?”

“Not just yet, and she’s busy this time of year. She’s a budget analyst for a defense-contracting firm, and it’s the fiscal year for her. But I would like to see Rhine Court once more before looking at Kimberly Farms, if that’s all right--just to make a comparison, today if possible. I’m working from home today and can take the afternoon off.”

“Of course it’s all right. My son is home early from school today. It’s a half day, so I may have him with me, if that’s all right with you.”

“Your son, Leif.”

“I can’t leave him in the car, but he can stay occupied in the kitchen. There’s a small folding table in the kitchen. It’s still there, I think. He can read well enough, but mostly he likes to color. He’s a quiet boy, easy to take care of, studious, older in some ways for all of his ten years, nothing like his father except for the shock of blond hair. Shall we say Twelve Thirty?”

“Will that give you time for lunch, you and the boy? I may need some time at the house.”

“One Thirty, then.”

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll meet you and Leif at the house at Twelve Thirty, and I’ll bring lunch. I have to make lunch anyway, and I’ll bring a few more sandwiches. We’ll eat outside on the terrace. We’ll move the little table outside. Leif can stay there and color while we walk through the house. Nothing fancy, mind you. I’ll make a peanut butter and jelly and some ham and cheese, cookies for dessert. We’ll eat on that lovely terrace. It’s a nice day.”

”It is that, Mr. Fere, but no, I’ll feed him at home, and he can color on the terrace. See you at One Thirty.”

She hung up, and he wondered if telling her he was serious about the house would make any difference in her impression of him. He admitted to himself there could be good reasons for her distance—the age difference, his marriage, and they hardly knew each other. She would probably say this at the first hint of his feelings for her—not the marriage, not his age, but “We hardly know each other” would pass her lips without her reflecting on a dubious sales commission. She would say this to be polite, kind--but perhaps implying they could in time get to know each other. Not today, though. Her boy, Leif, would be on the terrace. His presence would ensure yet more distance—the boy coloring, then bored and deciding he should find out where his mother was and what she was up to with a strange man.

But what if-- as just the two of them walked through the house--she said something inviting, something about the walkout basement and popcorn? Or what if—at some inviting moment--she produced a contract from her purse and held out a pen? No, she was not like that. They did not know each other well enough-- She would say that, and she would be right enough. She would be too polite to say anything about his age or Patsy. Nothing would happen. Still, he could not very well cancel the appointment, not after the phone call. He would keep the appointment, walk through the house one last time, and tell her that as much as he liked the place and her, he was afraid he could not bring Patsy around to his point of view. Leif and his mother would be back home in no time and could enjoy the rest of the afternoon without him.

Harold arrived first and parked in the circular drive, then walked behind the house to the terrace-- what would have been, he thought, the owner’s favorite perch. Nothing remained of the terrace furniture but one wobbly, weather-beaten folding chair, and he sat down cautiously. Nothing collapsed, and he put his feet up on the low brick wall enclosing the terrace and surveyed. He noticed the pool below had been covered for the Fall, the deck chairs and cabana furniture also taken away. He had not yet seen the pool close up, but its condition, like that of the rest of the property, was no longer his concern. He was curious about the pool cover, something he had never seen close up-- a shiny, black polyester cover spread over the pool and fastened with springs anchored into the cement deck. He wondered if water was left in the pool over the cold months, and what sort of effort was required to pull back the cover. It did not look very tight. The fabric sagged in the middle with a wide puddle of rainwater and was littered with leaves, small twigs, and what seemed dozens of tadpoles. He stood up, walked down the terrace steps to the diving board, knelt down, and was surprised at how easy it was to unhook the cover from the springs. The pool was full of water, but the fetid odor knocked him back, and he covered his nose and mouth with his hand. The water was black green, pocked with clumps of algae, decaying cicadas and more tadpoles, dead ones. The pump and filtering system had been shut off, he realized, the pool abandoned for months, perhaps all Spring and Summer.

He stood up and walked back to the front of the house just as Raven’s car pulled into the drive. This was no way to sell a house, he thought, and he was about to say something to her about the pool when Leif jumped out of the passenger side with a school satchel in his hand and ran behind the house.

Raven was dressed casually this afternoon. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, and she wore jeans and a gray sweatshirt, no makeup, no lipstick or eye shadow. No, nothing would happen. She smiled and offered her hand. He held it longer than he should have, but she pulled away gently when she had to unlock the front door.

“Leif does have manners,” she said, “but I told him he could be invisible today. As it is, I don’t usually introduce him to clients and of course almost never take him with me to show a house. But we—you and I-- talked on the phone about it, and you have already seen the house, so we don’t have to spend too much time on the things you do like but just on what may be some concerns, lingering concerns. I guess that’s not very good salesmanship on my part, is it?”

He began to think there was not much point in bringing up the pool. She did not need to be told about it from him, and he was not about to draw things out by hinting at some way to negotiate the price down. But his answer did not come out that way.

“I won’t take up much of your time,” he said. “I do like the house. Of course, it could use cleaning, and it’s a little down at the heels here and there. Perhaps the listing agents, the Montcriefs, could speak to the owner about a caretaker. It is a fairly large house, after all, and there is the pool—“

“Jake does have a caretaker, sort of—me-- a part-time caretaker, when I have time, late in the day, sometimes at night. He pays me for it, but the market is so busy right now I don’t have the time, not every week, and when I do come over here late I have to bring Leif. Sometimes he falls asleep downstairs in the walkout, and I have to carry him upstairs to the car. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.”

“I did see the bed in the basement.”

“Almost a bed, but at that age kids fall asleep just as easily on the floor. A blanket and pillow on the floor usually do fine. It is a basement floor, though, and the mattress was there, and it seems clean. There’s another one upstairs and a box spring, a frame and headboard, an actual bed all taken apart. It’s in the corner bedroom, in the closet against the wall, a queen, I think. I brought some sheets, pillows and blankets over one evening last month, but I didn’t get around to putting the bed together. I forgot a hammer, and anyway if I did get it together I probably shouldn’t leave it up. It’s not my furniture after all. Maybe I was just too tired.”

“Let’s have a look. Maybe I could put it together, and I for one, one prospective buyer, would think nothing odd about seeing the occasional piece of furniture in a vacant house. If somebody says anything, you could just point out it’s the owner’s. As you must know, a furnished house, even a partly furnished room, makes a house look---“

“Would you?”

“Maybe I won’t even need a hammer.”

“Shall we go upstairs, then? God, I haven’t said that in a long time. Sorry, I didn’t mean anything by that. I mean, I meant something of course, but not anything. I didn’t mean to suggest anything.”

“I understand completely.”

“Harold, look-- I may as well clear this up now. I’m not seeing anyone, but you are married.”

“I understand, and I am too old for you, right?”

“Not at all.”

“And your boy is here.”

“He’s good about respecting my privacy, but thanks for reminding me to check on him. He’s supposed to be doing his homework on the terrace or coloring.”

“You do that, and I’ll go upstairs, have the bed together in a jiffy, and be on my way.”

“Yes, good, makes sense. You can get back to me about what the place needs. I mean, please do if you are still interested, interested in the house.”

Harold was halfway up the stairs when he heard her calling for the boy from the door opening onto the terrace. When he reached the second floor landing, she was calling Leif’s name in other parts of the house. Then she was calling for him from the front door. He heard her walk outside to the front porch and down the drive, still calling the boy’s name. Leif should be on the terrace and answering, he told himself, and he remembered the pool and the corner of the pool cover he had forgotten to refasten.

He turned and ran down the stairs, but slipped on the bottom step and sprawled face down across the marble foyer, banging both knees and bloodying his nose. He was able to sit up, but something was wrong with both wrists and his fingers were numb. He tried to take hold of the stair railing and pull himself up, but he had no grip. He got his forearm around the newel post and lurched into a standing position, but the pain in his knees made him groan, wobble and struggle against fainting. He called her name, but she was too far outside to hear him, far down the driveway near the street, calling for the boy up and down Rhine Court. He managed to stay standing and began rolling against the foyer wall, lurching and rolling into the living room and out onto the terrace, where he faced yet more steps down to the pool. He sat down on the terrace and was able to scoot on his backside down the steps to the deck, then along the deck to the unhooked flap near the diving board. He called the boy’s name two, three times, as though this would make the child bob up in the small opening. He got his head wet under the flap, trying to peer into the black green, and the rest of him somehow slipped into the water-- into the deep end of the pool, sinking in his clothes and shoes to the bottom, unable to see anything under the heavy canvas. He tried to find purchase-- a ladder, part of the pool cover-- but he was too deep for that. He tried to find the shallow end, someway up, out, and bumped his head against the side of the pool, a hard collision that flashed a white light behind his eyes. He would drown with the boy, he thought, wherever the boy was. He closed his eyes to the pain of lungs on fire and waited to die, a certainty interrupted by something nudging his thigh—a stick but wrapping itself around his left leg like a snake. Something was dragging him to the surface, to the flap opening-- now much bigger—and into daylight, air, and half onto the deck like a gaffed fish. He gulped air and could see a long pole with a wide hook pulling away from him. He could see the hook at the end of the pole was his snake, and he could see the boy holding the pole across the diving board.

“I saw you go in,” Leif said, “and I got the pole from behind the cabana and made a lever with the diving board. You can lift heavy stuff like a dead body with a lever if it’s really long. But what were you thinking fooling around with that pool cover? This pool is dangerous and it’s full of dead frogs and germs, maybe even a baby alligator that a kid throwed in when he got back from Florida, or piranha fish. They’re both against the law, you know. It’s a good thing my mom didn’t see you.”

Harold attempted to slow his breathing and stay conscious. He tried to say something and on the third try was able to.

“Leif,” he said, “your mother is looking for you. She walked down to the street looking for you. I thought you had fallen in the pool. I went in after you.”

“Yes, yes,” the boy said. “Tell her that. You might get away with that. She likes you. You’re Harold, right?”

“Your mother. Can you bring her here?”

“I heard her talking on the phone about you. Two times. She was talking to her friend, Jackie, who is the boss of her and also the boss of Mr. Montcrief.

“Please bring her to me.”

“I have my own cell phone, but I hardly ever use it. She makes me keep it in case of an emergency like when I’m in the trunk of a car because I’m kidnapped. She’s probably trying to reach me right now, but I have it turned off. I don’t want any calls. Cell phones shoot radioactive waves into your head through your ears and give you brain cancer. It’s just for emergencies, see, so you’re not supposed to waste the battery. I’m pretty quiet usually. My mom probably told you that. She tells everybody that, so they don’t think I have a speech disorder like what you call a dumb mute or a dip shit that can’t even talk. You’re pretty old. I can see that, and you may not have a cell phone. It’s hard for old people to read the numbers. I maybe could call her on my cell phone for you, if you are having an emergency—But, Harold, you did not see me anywhere near the pool. You saw me up on the terrace doing my homework. You were just messing around with the pool cover by yourself, like you were curious, and you fell in, then you got right out. I’ve never been near the cabana. I wouldn’t be fooling with anything like pool poles and such. Your nose is bleeding because you slipped on the pool deck when you got out. Right?”


“What else is wrong with you?”

“My knees hurt, I’m not sure I can stand up, and I have no feeling in my hands and fingers.”

“Have you been drinking too much alcohol?”


“But that would explain everything. Then I could tell her how I got you out of the pool with a giant lever after you fell in drunk, what you call knee-walking drunk.”


“Maybe I could call 911 instead and have them send an ambulance.”

“All right, do that. Do you know the address here?”

“Sure I do. It’s Eighty Three Rhine Court. It’s written in letters right above the front door-- not in numbers but in letters--and it’s easy to remember. What you do is make a picture in your mind of eighty- three rhinos in Africa around the watering place for the herd and all the other animals and their prey. I’ll tell them you’re drowning and getting attacked by eighty-three rhinos. That should hurry them up.”


“And I’ll ride with you in the back of the ambulance all the way to the hospital.”


“My mom can follow in our car, if she has time. But first I need to talk to you about your wife.”


“It’s pretty important, Harold.”

“No, Leif, not today. You might have a lot of questions, and it could take some time if we have to stay at this pool. How about if we—you and I-- talk about my wife in the ambulance?”

“Yes, yes. I’d like that. I’ve got the phone right here, and I’m dialing 911, and I’m going to hold the phone by your head so you can talk to them yourself. I’ve changed my mind about the rhinos and stuff. Just be sure you tell them I had nothing to do with it, in case they ask you, and that I have to ride in the ambulance with you because you are getting delirious and need someone to explain what you mean when you are hurting someplace. What’s your wife’s real name in case I have to remind you?”


“Good. That’s a start.”

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