Alice was already dead when I met Michele. Not by hours or days, but by a few weeks at least. Of course, I didn’t know about Alice’s death that night. I pulled up a chair at an empty table in the Metro, a jazz lounge I’d passed maybe a hundred times but never entered, and was prepared to be unimpressed by the lineup of local bands. I was certain that the Metro wasn’t on anyone’s gateway to success list, but it was on my path from the grocery store to the apartment I had then. I’d glanced at the door enough times that when loneliness and boredom conspired to push me off the sofa and into the late spring evening, I’d walked directly there.
It was a Sunday night, and I quickly learned that jazz was saved for Monday through Saturday. The place was more crowded than I’d expected and mixed in age and gender. Everyone was better dressed than I was in a T-shirt and jeans. The bartender flirted openly. I ordered a Cherry Coke and got a cherry without asking. She wanted to know my name as if she expected that I’d be back.
“Jodi,” I’d said, wondering if I should add my last name. It was a strange thing for a bartender to ask when all I’d ordered was a soda. Clearly I wasn’t a regular.
“Tina,” she replied, assuming I’d wanted to know.
Since she knew my name, I did want to know hers, at least for the sake of fairness. I didn’t think that I’d end up using it again, but I did the following Sunday and then again on many more Sundays after that. I never thanked Tina and I guess I should have. Apparently Michele had seen us chatting and asked about me later that night. At that time, Tina knew that I liked Cherry Cokes and not much else. If she hadn’t asked for my name that first Sunday, my story might have ended then and there.
The opening band played a mix of rock and reggae hits. They called themselves Snowball’s Chance and I agreed completely. Michele’s band came on second. I didn’t catch the name of her band then, but I learned it later—Olive and Slim. Michele sung backup to a tall redhead named Sarah. Sarah’s nickname was Slim. But there was no Olive in the band, past or present. For a long time, I thought it must be a cocktail drink.
Sarah had a breathy soprano voice that annoyed and captivated me in the same moment. She claimed the band’s genre was folk, but their songs ranged from alternative pop to country, minus the twang. The thing was, they were good. Really good.
I liked Michele’s alto right from the start, but it wasn’t her voice I noticed first. When my eyes settled on her, she was tuning a guitar. She told me later that she’d lost her guitar tuner earlier that night. She’d tilt her head, ear inches from the strings, play a chord and then straighten up and tighten a peg. A moment later she’d repeat the process, strumming her fingertips across the long neck of the mahogany guitar, bending low, then sitting up again, eyes adrift as she concentrated on the notes. Her eyes were adrift, that is, until they settled on me. I didn’t need to look at anyone else for the rest of the night.
KW didn’t know about Alice then either, not yet. She read the New York Times on Sunday nights. The paper arrived five days late, but she always saved it for Sundays, since it was a Sunday paper. She told me later that she didn’t need to test her brain on crossword riddles anymore. She was mostly interested in the music section, but she read the rest for good measure and after she’d finished reading, she’d spin her wheels on the Internet chasing down each new musician or recording that was mentioned. She found out about Alice via the same postman who brought the late paper. The letter may well have been on time, for all I know, but for KW it was late. Much too late. That the only letter KW ever got from Alice happened to be her obituary was an irony lost on no one, especially KW.
But on that night as I sat transfixed by a blonde with a pixie cut whose fingers seemed to drum on my body as they kept the beat on the belly of her guitar, I had no idea that the four of us were linked to a house on Granite Avenue. In fact, I would probably have laughed at the improbability of it all.
Two Years Later
Trimmed in dusty white, the pale yellow Craftsman house was nearly the same color as the dead grass of the front lawn. The roof was pockmarked with missing shingles, and the drainpipes were pulling away from the house on both sides. I parked my pickup across the street and pulled out my cell phone, searching for Carol’s email about the listing. I found the price and dialed Carol to cancel the appointment. In the Old North End, even a dump was a big stretch for my price range. The call went to voice mail without ringing. Either Carol was showing another house, or she was screening the call. I hung up without leaving a message.
The sun was inching toward Pikes Peak. Dusk would settle in less than an hour. I climbed out and stretched. A cold wind gusted and I zipped my Carharrt jacket, turning the collar up to block the wind that whistled down my neck. I crossed the street and walked up the brick path toward the front porch. Under the overhang, I was shielded by two sides of the house and the wind had less bite. I tested the porch swing. The white paint had splintered off where legs had rubbed the planks and the chain whined, but the bolts were driven deep in the wood and the swing felt solid.
The longer I sat on the swing, the colder I got, but I stubbornly waited until Carol pulled up to the curb before hopping off. Carol kept her phone sandwiched between her shoulder and ear as she climbed out of her Lexus. The car was jet black and gleaming as usual. Carol was a regular at the car wash. My Ford had been black once, months ago, but winter storms had left their muddy mark. She waved, double clicked the lock button on her car, tested the door to make sure the lock button had in fact worked and then headed up the brick path. When she reached the front steps, she ended her phone call and dropped her phone into her purse. “Great location, right?”
“I think that might be all it has going for it.”
Carol tested the porch handrail and smiled when it wobbled. “You know what they say about location.”
“Be ready to dump a lot of money into a house if it’s in the right location?”
Carol rolled her eyes. “I just got off the phone with Michele. She told me to tell you hello.”
I had lots of practice by now at keeping up a front when Michele’s name came up. The best way to keep anyone from noticing that her name threw me off balance was to smile and nod, then promptly change the subject. “I don’t have the budget for this place, Carol. I don’t think I should even waste your time going inside.”
“I’ve wanted a peek in this place for a while. You’re not wasting my time. And you know, you aren’t going to see another property pop up in this neighborhood that is even close to your budget.”
“Well, then, maybe the North End is out of my league.”
I wanted to ask Carol why she’d been on the phone with Michele. They were friends, of course, but I knew Michele and Desi, her girlfriend of the moment, were considering buying a house together. They’d discussed the idea in detail at a recent dinner party, even asking my opinion about buying a fixer-upper versus a newer home.
The thought of them moving in together wasn’t the worse thing I heard that evening, but it was close. That same night they’d gotten into an argument and Michele’s parting words to me had been, “You’d be the perfect person to buy a house with. If Lynn lets you go, come find me.”
This was, in fact, worse than hearing about her plans to buy a house with anyone else—worse because she could joke about it. She liked to try to get a rise out of Lynn, who had only shaken her head in response to the comment. No one in the room had taken it seriously, least of all me.
“Think of your profit margin. You can stick to making peanuts remodeling dumps in suburbia or sign on for a bigger loan and play the game with the big boys. Think big, Jodi. You’re ready for this address.”
“I think I’d need a business partner with some capital to qualify.”
“Lynn would help, wouldn’t she?”
“I wouldn’t want to ask.” There was no way in hell that I was going to ask Lynn for financial help. She might agree, but adding her name to the loan would mean I owed her—a debt I could never pay off. Carol was staring at me, so I added, “Lynn hates the idea of signing on to loans with anyone. She doesn’t like shared risks.” We’d carefully avoided sharing finances on her insistence. Besides that, we didn’t need to add another potential issue to our already full list.
“I should know better than to stick my nose into someone else’s relationship. Forget I mentioned Lynn. If you like the potential here, talk to the banks and see what you can take on. You might be surprised.”
“Judging by the outside, I have a feeling the rest of it is going to need more than the usual facelift. I bet I’d get lots of surprises with this place.”
“To tell you the truth, I thought you would take one look at it and cancel.”
“I tried. You didn’t answer.”
Carol’s sly smile confirmed that my call had been screened. Whatever Carol claimed as her reasons for thinking this was a good buy, it was, of course, in her best interest to show places at the high end of my budget.
Carol’s cell rang, and she made an apologetic face as she reached into her purse for it. I glanced at the house across the street and then up and down the block. Every yard within sight was meticulous save this one with the For Sale sign. Without a doubt, this house was the one spot of blight in the neighborhood.
Carol was right. If I didn’t lose my shirt, a remodel in the North End could radically change the look of my checking account. I stepped off the porch and walked the length of the dead lawn. The freeze-dried grass crunched underfoot, and the wind bit at my cheeks. March in Colorado Springs was fickle. A week ago, temperatures were in the seventies and I’d sweated in a T-shirt and jeans. Now I wanted my wool coat.
It was easy to find spots where the paint had curled away from the wood and less easy to find bits of siding that were in tolerable condition. The warped shutters and single-pane windows were simple, though not cheap, to replace. The roof was another expense. Some of the shingles were cracked and many were missing, but with a closer look the roof seemed in need of repair, not replacement. Still, the list of repairs was already extensive, and we hadn’t crossed the threshold yet.
Carol finished her call and motioned me back to the porch.
“You’re sure this isn’t a foreclosure?”
“I know the listing agent. It isn’t a foreclosure. But it’s been a rental for years. Lots of deferred maintenance, obviously.”
“Think they’ll come down much on the price?”
“You never know.” Carol punched a code into the lock box and pulled out a key. “The renters moved out six months ago, but it first went on the market last May. Ten months is a long time to wait for a buyer. The owner’s probably tired of paying the mortgage on an empty rental.” Carol swung the door open and waved me inside. “They dropped the price ten grand last week. They’re motivated.”
The floorboards creaked. Beige carpet, worn threadbare in places, covered the entryway. I turned to look out the front window. Someone had taken down all of the drapes as well as the rods. White marks remained where the brackets had once attached to the gray walls. A woman jogged past the house. Carol’s Lexus was parked halfway up the driveway, partly blocking the jogger’s path. The jogger hesitated long enough to scowl, then veered into the street.
Carol closed the door and slid the deadbolt into place with one fluid move. She took off her coat and then took a deep breath. “Some places I walk into and immediately know they have a mold problem. No funny smells here. That’s a good start.”
She walked over to the curio cabinet to the left of the doorway and added her card to the handful of other cards scattered on the shelf, then picked up a fact sheet on the house. “Circa 1899. Well, you wanted a place with some character, right? And I know I said this before, but for the Old North End, this place is a steal. I sold a place on the two hundred block for just under a million, and that one needed work as well.” She sighed. “The right buyer needs to come along and add a little sweat equity…”
The entryway opened up to a small living room with a brick fireplace on one end and a staircase on the other. A half bath had been added under the stairwell and a narrow hall led past this into the dining room. While Carol flipped through the business cards on the shelf, I wandered down the hall, stopping in the dining room. Sunlight poured into it through a bank of windows. Between the trees outside, there was a peak view of the mountains. Dark clouds had begun to gather in the north. A storm was predicted to blow in that evening, but whether it might bring snow or more icy wind was still in question. A narrow doorway opened to the kitchen. The kitchen was adorned with wallpaper featuring bluebirds hovering over bouquets of pale pink roses. Speckled white Formica countertops and white metal cabinets completed the scene.
Carol came into the kitchen smiling. She tapped the wall nearest the doorway. “You could take this wall out and open the kitchen up to the dining room. Did you see the view there? With this address, that’s a million dollar view.”
I went over to the sink and turned on the faucet. The pipes gurgled and spit for half a minute before the water flowed. I cupped my hands and tasted the water. City water. Lynn had gotten me used to filtered water. Above the kitchen sink, a small window looked out to the backyard, which was little more than a large rectangle of dead grass framed with a leaning wood fence. Past the fence, the neighbor’s tidy yard sloped down to Monument Creek. Swollen with snowmelt, the creek seemed nearly a river as it coursed under a bridge and then disappeared from view. Tufts of evergreens dotted the far side of the creek. The mountains claimed the rest of the scene. Snow-capped Pikes Peak stood in center stage with layers of evergreen-splattered foothills framing the rest of the horizon.
“Now this view I could get used to.”
Carol had come over to the sink and leaned to get the angle on the mountains. “Knock out these”—she tapped on the metal cabinets nearest the windows—“and put in a bigger window. You’re still miles from the Peak, but it will feel like your backyard with that view.”
We walked back to the living room and then up the staircase to the bedrooms. Two rooms shared one upstairs bathroom; the fixtures and tile suggested that it had been remodeled around the same time as the kitchen. From the master bedroom, a glass door led to a balcony overlooking the backyard. Several boards on the balcony were split, and the railing wouldn’t meet code in any state. It had been reattached to its weak anchor on the house multiple times, judging by the jerry-rigged odd lot of screws and nails temporarily fixing it in place. Carol ventured out to join me on the balcony, stepping tentatively and then eyeing the railing skeptically.
“The layout’s nice, isn’t it?” She shivered. “I should have known not to pack up my winter parka until May.” Without waiting for my opinion on the weather, she added, “And the rooms are larger than I’d expected. You’re not going to find a better view for the price.”
The sun was setting and the storm clouds darkened. “It needs a lot of work.”
“And that’s where you come in.” Carol patted my shoulder. “You wanted a bigger project.”
“Did I say that?” I grinned and Carol cocked her head. “I’m nervous about the loan amount.”
“You’ve already been approved for three hundred. What’s another hundred grand? Lynn won’t kick you out if this place takes a little longer than the others.”
There was no reason to discuss my relationship with Carol, especially the money aspects of it. Lynn and Carol were friends. If she wanted, she could talk to Lynn about it. I turned to go inside before Carol had time to ask another question. Carol followed me, stopping to fuss with the lock. It had resisted movement when I’d first tried to unlock it, but with a little force, the bolt had screeched loose from the jamb. Relocking it seemed out of the question now. Carol glanced over at me and then shoved the bolt as far as it would go and left it at that. Halfway latched was probably sufficient. The door needed to be replaced with a glass slider. One more thing to add to the list.
I retraced my steps to the dining room and then to the kitchen. I’d never been much of a cook, but Lynn was, in fact, worse than me. I walked over to the narrow window above the sink and had a last look out the window. The view saved the place, but it still needed a lot of work before I would get any return on that. Carol was right—the kitchen needed a bigger window and the wall to the dining room needed to go. Knocking out walls was all pleasure. I’d found, with a little Metallica blasting, that swinging a sledgehammer into drywall was better than any gym workout and probably as good as a therapy session.
I peeked in the pantry and found a trap door. The door took a bit of work to budge and opened to a narrow staircase. I pulled the string on the fixture mounted on the wall. The bare bulb lit briefly before blowing, leaving me to depend on the dim light from two grimy windows for my inspection. It revealed a dusty, but dry basement with unfinished walls, a serviceable furnace, updated breaker box and a cement floor. Carol called for me, and I climbed back up the stairs. The trap door closed behind me with a thud.
“I pulled up another place that I thought you might want to look at as well. There’s no view and it doesn’t have the address, but it’s a lot cheaper,” Carol said, handing over a printout with a picture of a brick rancher.
The sterile look of the suburban rancher was enough to seal the deal. I handed the printout back to Carol. She was staring out the dining room windows and took a moment to reach for the paper. The sun dropped behind Pikes Peak and the mountains in the foreground grayed.
“I want to make an offer on this place.”
“Without Lynn looking at it?”
“She’s busy with her own work. This is my project.” It was true that Lynn had helped choose the last house I’d remodeled, but I’d made up my mind that she didn’t need to weigh in on the next. She’d gotten too involved with the last project, and the job had strained our relationship. “Anyway, I know what she’d say. That I’m taking too big of a risk.”
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