Read The Fixer Upper Online

Authors: Judith Arnold

The Fixer Upper

Libby stared glumly at her fireplace and pondered the likelihood that her choices of late represented one huge mistake after another. The hugest had been signing all those papers at the bank to buy this apartment. Buying it meant that not only would she never be able to retire, but she’d have to be reincarnated so she could finish paying off the mortgage and her ex’s loan in her next lifetime.

And Ned…another huge mistake. She didn’t even know what was going on between them. She couldn’t kiss him ever again, because lousy mothers up to their eyeballs in debt weren’t entitled to such pleasures.

If she tried to explain, he wouldn’t understand. He didn’t seem to possess the gene for guilt. Not only wasn’t he Jewish, but he was from Vermont. Did they even know what guilt was in Vermont?

Also by JUDITH ARNOLD

BLOOMING ALL OVER

LOVE IN BLOOM’S

HEART ON THE LINE

LOOKING FOR LAURA

JUDITH ARNOLD
T
HE
F
IXER
U
PPER

To Cathy, Kathy, Mary-Lou and Terry.
There’s a reason this book is dedicated to you,
but it’s long-winded and convoluted, so I’ll
spare you. Just know that I treasure our
friendship and I’m glad you’re all in my life.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

As always, I am immeasurably grateful to my agent, Charles Schlessiger, and my editor, Beverly Sotolov, for their insights and their unflagging support. I am also grateful to Lawrence Watt-Evans for his wisdom and his skill at Web surfing, and to everyone at MIRA Books.

One

O
n the first Friday of October, Libby Kimmelman arrived at her office to find two bouquets of flowers in glass vases, a gold-foil box of Godiva chocolates, a CD and at least a hundred file folders on her desk. “Oy,” she groaned. “It’s starting.”

Tara bounced into the office behind her. Tara was so bouncy Libby sometimes wondered whether she wore shoes with springs embedded in the soles. Maybe it was easy to be bouncy when you were twenty-three and naturally blond and you could afford to work as a glorified secretary at subsistence wages because your parents were willing to subsidize you.

Libby was thirty-five and naturally bland. Her job paid a respectable salary, but if someone offered to subsidize her, she’d say yes in an instant.

“I printed out all the online applications that came in this
week,” Tara said, gesturing toward the piles. “That’s what’s in the folders. I’ve labeled them and sorted them into kindergarten applicants and transfers.” The kindergarten pile was significantly higher than the transfer pile. Not surprising—most parents trying to get their children into the Hudson School wanted to get them in right at the start, so the youngsters could benefit from the full Hudson experience.

And why shouldn’t they want that? The Hudson experience was terrific. Compared with the city’s public schools, it was exponentially better than terrific. Small classes, devoted teachers, funding for laboratories and studios, foreign language instruction starting in first grade…A child couldn’t get a better education in New York City. Libby knew this not only because she was director of admissions for the lower school but also because Reva had been enjoying the full Hudson experience since even before kindergarten, when Libby had enrolled her in the Hudson preschool created for the children of employees.

Libby understood why parents pushed to get their kids into the school. She didn’t have to like their pushiness, though. She was starting her second year as director of admissions, and already the thought of all those pushy parents sending her flowers and chocolate and God knew what else was enough to give her hives.

Dropping her briefcase onto her chair, she plucked the envelope poking out of the larger bouquet from its plastic clip, lifted the flap and pulled out the card, which she read aloud so Tara could enjoy it with her: “‘To Ms. Libby Kimmelman, Director of Admissions, Hudson School—Please accept these flowers as a token of our respect and admiration for the very difficult task you perform. Sincerely, Roger Haverford, Jr., Evelyn Haverford and little Roger Haverford III.’”

“Ick,” Tara said. “You’re not going to accept anyone named little Roger Haverford III, are you?”

“I’m going to be objective,” Libby said. That was her mantra:
I’m going to be objective
. With thousands of parents jockeying to get their precious darlings into the school, Libby had no choice but to be as objective as possible.

She wondered if little Roger Haverford III had his heart set on attending Hudson. Doubtful. More likely, the kid had his heart set on a bag of M&M’s and a SpongeBob SquarePants DVD. Over the years, Libby had interviewed a lot of four- and five-year-olds, and none of them had mentioned that attending the Hudson School was their abiding goal. The parents might be obsessed, but the kids had their priorities in order.

She reached for the card from the other bouquet and slid it from its envelope. “‘Lib Kimmelman: Hope you love flowers as much as we love the Hudson School. The Springelhoffen Family.’”

“Eeuw,” Tara said.

“Take the flowers and put them somewhere I can’t see them,” Libby requested. “One bouquet out by the reception area, and the other in the teachers’ lounge. And take the chocolates, too.”

“You’re not going to eat the candy?” Tara gazed longingly at the gold Godiva box.

“I can’t,” Libby said. “It would be unethical. It would also be fattening. My tush doesn’t need chocolate.”

Tara lifted the box. “It’s a one-pound ballotin. Do you know what Godiva charges for this?”

“I’m guessing a lot. Was there a card with the chocolates?”

“Here.” Tara handed her the gift card, which had been wedged under the gift-wrap ribbon.

Libby opened it. “‘Dear Dr. Kimmelman…’ Hey, they’ve given me a doctorate!” she boasted. The rest of the note was typical: Shane Fourtney’s parents thought these chocolates
might sustain her as she tackled the arduous task of choosing the next kindergarten class at Hudson. “We hope you like truffles!” the note concluded cheerily.

“Take the candy to the lounge with the flowers,” she urged Tara. “You can open it there and pig out if you want. Just don’t tell me about it.”

Tara grinned and bounced out of Libby’s office, juggling both bouquets and the candy.

Libby moved her briefcase to the floor and sank into her chair. What the hell was a
ballotin
, anyway? What kind of word was that? Flemish? Why couldn’t the folks at Godiva just call it a box?

Staring at the piles of folders on her desk, she sighed. Last year, her first behind this majestic walnut desk in the stately, paneled office of the director of admissions, she’d been overwhelmed by the flood of gifts. Bribes, really. As Anthony Caruthers, who’d warmed this chair for thirty years and trained Libby as his replacement before retiring to a thatch-roof cottage in Tahiti to paint and study Plato, had told Libby many times, “The only gifts a director of admissions should ever accept are those that dwell within the soul of a deserving child.”

Someone ought to stitch that into a sampler, Libby thought glumly as she stared at the piles heaped atop her leather-trimmed blotter. Perhaps Anthony could do needlepoint if the painting-and-Plato didn’t work out. Libby, unfortunately, had no time to master needlepoint. She had hundreds of applications to plow through—and the season was just beginning.

She lifted the CD that lay on top of the taller pile. A label had been tucked inside the jewel case: “Samantha McNally Performs Her Favorite Songs” was printed in block letters; below them was a slightly blurry photo of a beaming young girl with an oversize red ribbon in her hair. Opening the case,
Libby scanned the label on the CD, which listed the songs Samantha McNally performed on the disk: “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” a medley of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “The Alphabet Song,” and “Un bel dì, vedremo” from
Madama Butterfly.

Libby shuddered.

She shifted one pile of folders to the left so she’d have an unobstructed view of her desk calendar. Her ex-mother-in-law had given her a Palm Pilot for her birthday last year—“So you can keep track of all your dates,” Gilda had said, a bizarre comment from the mother of a man who’d walked out on Libby ten years ago—but Libby preferred her archaic day-by-day paper calendar, which she didn’t first have to turn on if she wanted to find out what was on her schedule. Nothing, she noted as she gazed at the blank page. Not a single date.

Libby didn’t date much. Her ex-mother-in-law knew that. But a decade after the divorce, Gilda kept showering Libby with gifts and taking an inordinate interest in Libby’s nonexistent social life. She was obviously still trying to compensate for her son’s idiotic decision to leave Libby for a skinny fashion editor who sounded as if she had cotton balls stuffed into her sinuses when she talked.

Don’t think about it,
Libby ordered herself.
Don’t think about Harry and his fancy-schmancy wife and their hoity-toity apartment…and the fact that you and Reva are teetering on the verge of homelessness.

She gazed at the towering pile of kindergarten applicants, and weariness seeped through her, even though she hadn’t yet glanced at a single file. Instead, she reached for the top folder from the shorter pile. Flipping it open, she skimmed the first page of the application form, which mainly provided basic information—name, address, birth date, parents’ names and places of employment. On the sec
ond page Libby read that Amanda Starrett’s family would be moving from Massachusetts to New York in January and would like to transfer her to Hudson. According to the essay her mother had written in answer to the question “Please describe your child,” Amanda, all of nine years old, had already proved herself astonishingly gifted at soccer, and her painting style merited comparisons with Jackson Pollack’s.

Not to gloat, but Reva was painting like Jackson Pollack when she was two. Libby snorted and set aside the folder.

The next applicant was Vijay Bannerjee, whose parents had both recently joined the faculty of Rockefeller University. They predicted that young Vijay would be an Intel Science Competition finalist by the time he was fifteen. Surely the Hudson School should be eager to experience his brilliance before he moved on to fame and glory and a likely Nobel Prize.

Libby sighed. Weren’t there any
normal
children applying to Hudson? Children who painted like no one famous and whose scientific prowess extended to building model solar systems out of Ping-Pong balls, fish wire and pipe cleaners? Parents were so afraid to admit that their children were just children. If they got to know Hudson students, they’d realize that most were not destined to win Nobel Prizes or create paintings that hung in the Museum of Modern Art, or to sing Puccini at the Met. They were just kids, lucky enough to get a good, solid education before they entered the world. The school hoped most of them would contribute something worthwhile to society—but for God’s sake, they didn’t have to be geniuses.

Her wonderfully nongenius daughter poked her head around the open doorway. “Hey, Mom?”

Warmth billowed inside Libby whenever she saw Reva, the same warmth she’d felt the first time she’d held her damp, whimpering newborn in her arms. Reva was thirteen
now, in her final year of Hudson’s middle-school program, and the only time she was damp and whimpering these days was when she got caught in a downpour. Today was sunny, though, and her hair hung in a glossy brown fall down her back, each strand as straight as a plumb line. Her face had lost its baby fat in the past year; suddenly, she had cheekbones. She’d started tweezing her eyebrows, and their spare shape gave her a startled look. Her shirt covered the waistband of her jeans. Thank God for the Hudson dress code, which banned exposed navels.

“What’s up?” Libby asked.

“Kim and I have to go to Central Park after school today, okay?”

“Why?”

“We have to collect leaves for this project.”

“How late will you be?”

“Five?”

Libby shook her head. “It’s getting dark earlier. I don’t want you in the park once the sun starts setting.”

“It doesn’t get dark before five.”

“It gets
darker,”
Libby declared.

“We need to get a lot of leaves. It’ll take awhile. I don’t know if we can get it done by five.”

How long did it take to collect leaves? “What’s the project?” Libby asked.

Reva rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically. “God, Mom. It’s a science project on deciduous trees. Deciduous are the kind of trees that lose their leaves. Okay?”

Libby knew what
deciduous
meant. That Reva did, too, implied that her science class must be spending time on the subject. “Okay,” she said, opting not to comment on Reva’s exasperated tone. “But I want you home by four-thirty.”

“I don’t know if we can get it done by then,” Reva protested.

“Try,” Libby suggested. “And don’t go north of 79th Street.”

With another profound sigh, Reva pivoted on her sneakered heel and stormed out of the office.

Whatever warmth Libby had felt at Reva’s arrival was gone now. Sometimes Reva was the sweetest, most lovable girl in the universe, and sometimes she most definitely was not. Libby wished Reva would give some warning about which daughter she intended to be at any given moment—the sweet, lovable one or the exasperated eye-rolling one. Maybe she could send Libby a hand signal—thumb up or thumb down. Maybe she could wear a T-shirt that read I Love You, Mom on one side and The Bitch Is Back on the other.

Libby glanced at her desk calendar again. Only five more years before Reva left for college. Only seven before she was officially no longer a teenager. God willing, they’d both survive until then.

Shaking her head, she reached for the next folder on the pile. She flipped past the first page and zeroed in on the essay the parents of Eric Donovan had written about why the Hudson School should be thrilled by the opportunity to educate their son.

“My name is Eric Donovan,” the essay began, and Libby sat back in her chair and stopped skimming. Rarely did a child write his own essay. For this application, she’d take her time.

“My name is Eric Donovan, and I’m ten years old. Me and my dad just moved to New York from Vermont, and I like the city a lot. The only problem is, I’m in this public school a few blocks away and it’s really crowded. My class is too big, thirty-four kids, and it’s always so noisy it’s hard for me to concentrate. I used to do really good in my school in Vermont, pretty much all As except for stuff like penman
ship (you can’t tell how bad my handwriting is because I’m writing this on my computer) and music. I don’t have such a great voice, but I know all the words to ‘Ninety-nine Bottles Of Beer’ (ha-ha.) Anyway, I’m smart and I work hard and I think I’d do much better in a school with smaller classes and less shoving and shouting in the halls. I asked my dad if I could go to private school and he said sure, as long as I can get financhal aid. (I’m not sure I spelled that right.) He’s I guess what you’d call a fixer upper, he fixes old houses, only now we’re in New York and it’s mostly apartment buildings instead.

“Anyway, I really like the way the Hudson School looks on the Web site, and I like that it was named after an explorer. We studied Henry Hudson in my third-grade class in Vermont last year, and I wrote a really excellent term paper, which I would be happy to show you if you’d like to see it. So it just seems like I should go to the Hudson School. If I can get some financhal aid. And if I get accepted, which you never know.”

Libby read Eric Donovan’s essay twice more. Nothing in his application implied that he could sing Puccini or paint like Pollack. Her first promising applicant, she thought with a smile as she closed his folder and placed it on top of the pile.

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