Read The Fixer Upper Online

Authors: Judith Arnold

The Fixer Upper (2 page)

 

“See, the thing is,” Eric was saying, “Mrs. Karpinsky smells like oatmeal.”

Ned shook the water from his hands, reached for a paper towel and tried to remember what oatmeal smelled like. Right now, his nostrils were locked on to the smell of the onion powder he’d shaken all over the pan of chicken pieces and chunks of potato. Onion powder and garlic powder were the extent of his culinary creativity, along with an occasional dash of salt.

Fortunately, Eric ate just about everything, including oatmeal. Why the fact that his babysitter smelled like oatmeal was a problem, Ned couldn’t guess. “Maybe you should sprinkle some brown sugar on her,” he joked as he lifted the pan from the tiny rectangle of counter that separated the sink from the stove, and slid it into the oven. He still found it amazing that he could cook an entire meal, featuring all the major food groups, in this kitchen without having to take more than three steps in any one direction. The stove, the oven, the sink and the fridge were all within easy reach, no matter where he stood in the room.

Back in Vermont, the kitchen of their house had been sixteen by twenty feet, big enough that he could get an aerobic workout fixing dinner as he jogged from sink to stove to table. The kitchen in this cozy Upper West Side apartment was too small to contain a table. Or a refrigerator with side-by-side doors and an external water dispenser. Or a double-basin sink. Or a window.

Deborah would have hated this kitchen. But Ned liked it well enough, if only because it wasn’t in Vermont.

“So,” he said, swinging the oven door shut and turning to face Eric, who had planted himself in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining nook. “What are you really trying to tell me about Mrs. Karpinsky? You don’t like her?”

Eric shrugged his bony shoulders. “I don’t like the way she smells,” he said.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, Eric would be a teenager and Ned would no longer be able to decipher his cryptic grunts and snorts. But he was still on the safe side of adolescence, and Ned could read him reasonably well. Eric had a wonderfully open face, parts of which were currently hidden behind a mop of wheat-colored hair that cried out for a trim. Despite its shagginess, however, Ned could
see the glint of mischief in Eric’s blue eyes, the slight skew of his mouth, the way his chin shifted as he gnawed on the inside of his cheek. Ned could also see that the jeans Eric had on, bought just a month ago, were looking a little short at the ankles. He mentally added trips to the barber and Filene’s Basement to the weekend schedule.

“Oatmeal smells good,” he pointed out when no explanation of Eric’s problems with Mrs. Karpinsky was forthcoming. “What’s really bothering you about her?”

Eric tucked one foot behind the other and kicked his toe against his heel. “Okay, it’s just that I don’t need a babysitter. I could come home from school and—”

“No.” Ned cut him off quietly but firmly. Maybe he was overprotective, but damn, this was New York City, and he wasn’t going to let his son become a latchkey statistic, stuck alone in an apartment with all the locks bolted until Ned got home from work. Maybe in another couple of years, but not now. Eric was too young.

“Okay, so I thought, like, if there was someplace I could go after school. You know, like a program or something.”

“I researched after-school programs. All the programs in this neighborhood had waiting lists a mile long.”

“Well, see…” Eric reversed feet and kicked his other heel. “The Hudson School has an after-school program for kids. I read about it on the Web. After class you can stay as late as five o’clock and do all kinds of things, like art or go to the gym and shoot hoops or play indoor soccer, or you can do homework or extra-credit stuff. They’ve got a computer lab, too. I could learn Java. Or even Linux.”

“If you went to the Hudson School,” Ned reminded him, leaning left a few inches so he could reach into the refrigerator for lettuce and tomatoes. “Which you don’t.”

“I applied, though, so if I got in—”

“You what?” Ned twisted around so fast a tomato went
flying from his hand. Fortunately, it landed in the sink instead of smashing on the floor.

“I applied to the Hudson School.”

One thing Ned admired about his son was that he never retreated. If he did something, he owned up to it, not in a tiny, apologetic voice but at full volume and with his chin raised. Ned had always taught him that if you were going to do something, you might as well be proud of it—and if you weren’t going to be proud of it, you were better off not doing it.

Evidently, Eric was proud of having applied to the Hudson School. He’d mentioned the place to Ned once, about a week ago, casually remarking that it was only a few blocks away and that he could probably get a good education there. Ned had pointed out that private schools in Manhattan generally carried tuition fees resembling the gross national product of certain third-world nations. Eric had raised the idea of scholarships and Ned had said scholarships were great, and then the conversation had shifted to whether Eric was obligated to root for the Yankees now that he lived in New York.

They weren’t poor. Ned had gotten a good price for their house in Woodstock and his business—enough money to enable him to buy a four-room walk-up in a brownstone on West 73rd off Riverside Drive. The place had needed some work, but Ned was an expert at renovations. He’d refinished the hardwood floors, constructed a wall between the living room and the L-shaped extension that was supposed to be a dining area, and converted the newly created room into a den with built-ins and a window seat from which a half inch of the Hudson River was visible, and he’d built a loft bed for Eric so he’d have more floor space in his bedroom. Not a major overhaul, but Ned had turned the place from a dowdy flat into a bright, livable home.

So other than the monthly fees and taxes, housing was paid for, and his income covered expenses and the occasional luxury. But private-school tuition? Ned would have to win the lottery, and he’d rather spend his disposable income on visits to the Hayden Planetarium or skiing trips with Eric than on tickets for Mega-Millions.

Eric must have read Ned’s mind. “I asked for financial aid,” he said. “I think I misspelled
financial,
though. I probably should have looked it up.” He stopped kicking his heel. “So they probably won’t accept me, anyway.”

“Because you misspelled
financial?”
Ned took a deep breath. At times like these, he really resented Deborah for having gone and died on him. Call him sexist, but women knew how to get through these conversations better than men did. They knew how to zero in on a kid’s insecurities and doubts, how to cut through the crap and figure out what was really going on. Ned could cook chicken, he could handle clothes shopping and haircuts, he could bandage a scrape and make funny British voices while reading
Harry Potter
aloud—and he could do things Deborah would never have done, like camping with Eric or teaching him how to throw a curve. But these discussions in which Ned sensed he and Eric were talking about something they weren’t actually talking about…

He busied himself rinsing the salad ingredients while he scrambled for the right thing to say. Eric had applied to a private school. Without telling Ned. Because he didn’t want a babysitter, especially one who smelled like oatmeal.
Add it up, Donovan,
he ordered himself.
Do the math. Figure it out.

“Was there an application fee?” he asked.

“Um, yeah.”

He considerately didn’t turn to face Eric. That “um” warned him that Eric was squirming, and no kid liked to
squirm in front of a witness. “And you paid for this application fee how?”

“Well, I applied online,” Eric explained. “They have this online form, so I just filled it out and sent it in.”

“And paid for it how?”

“With your Visa.”

“I see.” Ned washed the hell out of the lettuce and waited for Eric to say what he knew he had to say.

“I’m sorry. I shoulda asked.”

“Yeah.”

“It was only forty dollars.”


Only
forty dollars?” Forty dollars wasn’t too awful, but if Eric was feeling guilty, Ned would just as soon ratchet up his guilt to an uncomfortable level.

“I got the account number from a bill. You keep them in that drawer, you know which one? In the desk.”

“Of course I know which drawer I keep the bills in.” Ned didn’t want to snap at Eric, but damn. If the kid could give Ned’s credit card number to some posh private school via the Web, he could just as easily give it to an online vendor. He could buy hundreds of CDs—he’d recently discovered hip-hop, much to Ned’s dismay—or silly T-shirts or pasta makers or—Jesus!—
porn
. He was only ten years old, but his voice was beginning to sink from soprano to alto, and the hair on his spindly legs, while still pale, was beginning to thicken. With Ned’s credit card, Eric could rack up hundreds of dollars on the Internet visiting sites that showed breast-enlarged women having sex with farm animals.

That was why Eric needed Mrs. Karpinsky babysitting him. She might be sixty-seven, but she knew a thing or two about the Internet. She’d taken a course at the local branch library, she’d told Ned when he hired her. “I got a set of Victorian napkin rings to die for on eBay, sterling silver, the real McCoy,” she’d boasted. “If I told you how much I paid for
them, you’d want to kill yourself.” She tended toward morbid imagery, but at least she was computer-savvy.

Ned tore the lettuce onto two plates. He tried to reduce the violence of his motions, but when you were pissed, it was better to rip into a head of lettuce than the head of your son. By the time his temper had cooled off, he’d heaped each plate with enough lettuce to feed a visiting army, but at least he could trust himself not to throttle Eric. “You are never, ever to use my credit card without asking me,” he said in a tight voice. “Now put these plates on the table.”

“You forgot the tomato,” Eric pointed out, his expression not nearly as contrite as Ned would have liked.

“Fine.” Ned slapped the plates onto the counter and hacked the shit out of the tomato. He divided the mangled chunks between the two plates and handed them to Eric.

He waited until the chicken was done and he and Eric were seated, facing each other in the dining nook he’d created at one end of the living room, before revisiting the subject. The credit card use was one thing. The Hudson School was another. “Look, Eric,” he said. “We agreed on the move to New York. You said you wanted to live here.”

“I do,” Eric said.

“And now you’re hitting me with this school thing.”

“I don’t like my school,” Eric said bluntly. “It’s too noisy.”

“Like you’re the quietest kid in the world.”

“If
I
think it’s too noisy, you can imagine,” Eric said.

Damn him for coming up with such a smart response. “I can’t afford the Hudson School. Do you know what private schools cost?”

“That’s why I asked for financial aid.”

Hell. The school’s cost wasn’t the worst of it. Eric had already figured out how to get around that obstacle: type in Ned’s Visa account number and click on Send.

The problem, the issue that bit into Ned’s gut with greater force than he could ever bite into his chicken, was that Eric was apparently unhappy. With school, with Mrs. Karpinsky, with everything. With this new life, which Ned had been so certain was just what they both needed. “You want to go back to Vermont?” he asked, bracing himself so he wouldn’t cringe if his son said yes.

“Nah,” Eric said, to Ned’s enormous relief. “New York’s cool.”

“So it’s just school that’s bugging you?”

“The school is okay. I mean, I could survive. I told you about Gilbert, right? This kid in my class. He’s like always pushing kids and stuff. He calls me Monty because I’m from Vermont. I mean, that’s really stupid.”

“Definitely stupid,” Ned agreed.

“Anyway, this other kid, Leo, he and Gilbert got in trouble today because they were using all the rubber cement to make a ball, and Ms. Martinez said they were wasting it, and they kept doing it, so she made them leave the room. And Gilbert kept shoving Leo the whole time. I don’t know why Leo didn’t shove him back. I would have.”

“So…” Ned scrambled to get the conversation back to where he wanted it. “So there are obnoxious kids in your class—”

“And not enough rubber cement.”

“So that’s why you want to go to the Hudson School?”

“And the after-school stuff they have there. And…” Eric jabbed the tines of his fork into a chunk of potato, then pulled them out, then jabbed again, as if he believed the potato might still be alive. “It’s just, the kids all look so happy when they leave the Hudson School. I see them sometimes when I’m walking home with Mrs. Karpinsky. The ones who don’t do the after-school program are leaving right when we walk past. The school’s in this row of brownstones
on I think it’s 78th Street, between West End and Broadway. And they look, I don’t know, like they really had a good time while they were there.”

If anyone was experiencing a guilt glut now, it was Ned. His son wanted to have a good time in school. What kind of father was he if he wouldn’t move heaven and earth to send Eric to a school where he could be happy?

He was the kind of father who didn’t have twenty-five thousand dollars a year to spare for tuition.

“Okay,” he said, letting out a long breath. “You submitted this application. You asked for financial aid. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens, right?”

Eric’s face brightened. Ned hadn’t said,
No, you can never go to the Hudson School. He hadn’t said, You will do chores of my choosing at three bucks an hour until you’ve repaid me the forty dollars you charged on my Visa card.
All he’d said was,
We’ll see
. The two most wishy-washy words a father could ever utter. And Eric’s smile was wide enough to split his face.

Two

I
f Reva didn’t love Kim, she would hate her. Kim was just so totally
perfect.
She had that whole Japanese-American tough-but-dainty thing going for her. Her hair was so black the highlights were blue, and it was naturally straight, not like Reva’s, which she had to press the waves out of with her straightening iron. Kim was petite and wore size-two jeans,
size freaking two,
and she was incredibly smart, and she played the piano really well, even though she said she hated it and wanted to quit. Her older brother, who played the violin, was a freshman at Juilliard and her older sister, who attended the Hudson upper school, took cello lessons at Juilliard, and Kim’s parents were already saying they expected Kim to take piano lessons at Juilliard once she started ninth grade. Kim insisted that would never happen because she hated hated hated the piano, but she never said so to her parents. She just complained to Reva.

The thing was, Kim was really a great person, so Reva had to forgive her for being perfect. Also, Reva had a few things on Kim. For instance, she could invent the best excuses to spend Friday afternoon at Central Park, checking out Darryl J. Kim never came up with good excuses for anything. It was always up to Reva to devise their cover stories. Kim said this was because Reva had a much better imagination, and Reva didn’t argue. She liked having at least one thing better than Kim, and an imagination was a pretty cool thing to have.

Collecting leaves for a school project. Kim considered Reva some kind of genius for thinking that story up.

“We’ve got to remember to bring home some leaves, though,” Reva reminded her as they jogged into the park at the West 77th Street entrance. She figured they could collect leaves on the way to the Band Shell, which was where Darryl J would probably be. That was where he was last weekend, when she and Kim had seen him and fallen in love.

Reva wondered what the “J” stood for. She wondered where he would go once it started getting really cold. She wondered whether he had a girlfriend. At thirteen, she was too young for him, but maybe he’d wait for her. Like, he could date other girls now, as long as he was willing to dump them all when Reva turned fifteen. Okay, sixteen.

Kim picked up a maple leaf that was lying on a bench. “How’s this?”

“It’s torn. This is supposed to be for a school project, remember?”

Tossing the leaf to the ground, Kim shrugged. “What kind of project? My parents will ask. You know them.”

“Botany,” Reva said. Eighth-grade science was mostly about the scientific method and lab technique and how to keep a proper notebook. It was pretty boring except for when they actually
did
something. Like, they were currently
studying the properties of magnets. Writing out the labs in a notebook was about as exciting as getting a tooth drilled, especially all those details about what the metal nail weighed and how far it was from the magnet when it reacted to the magnet’s attraction. But actually doing stuff with the magnets was fun. If Reva decided to become a scientist when she grew up—not likely, but stranger things had been known to happen—she would have an assistant do all the measurements and write everything in her lab notebook for her.

Magnetism was physics. Leaves were botany, which was biology, which meant she and Kim were doing absolutely nothing like it in their science class. The last time Reva had to collect leaves for school, it was for an art project in second grade, when the class made autumn place mats by sealing colored leaves between rectangular layers of transparent contact paper. Reva’s place mats had come out ugly, but her mother had used them every day until Thanksgiving. She was that kind of mom.

“Ashleigh Goldstein is so weird,” Kim said, picking up a couple of aspen leaves and handing one to Reva. “Wasn’t that weird, what she did in gym today?”

“You mean, refusing to play field hockey because it’s too militaristic?”

“What’s militaristic about field hockey?” Kim asked as Reva scooped a couple of oak leaves off the path. “You just run back and forth with a stick.”

“I thought Ashleigh’s protest was cool,” Reva argued. “I mean, yeah, she’s weird, the way she wears that ankh necklace and the black nail polish and everything. It’s like, she can’t decide if she’s Goth or hippie.”

“I bet she just didn’t feel like playing hockey so she made that up, about it being militaristic,” Kim said. “That’s just so her.”

“She wants fewer team sports and more stuff like modern dance and yoga. I think it’s because she sucks at sports.”

“I heard Ashleigh tell Monica Ditmer in the bathroom yesterday that her mother had breast reduction surgery.”

“Really?” Reva could not imagine why anyone would want to reduce the size of her breasts. At the moment, she measured 32A. Her dream in life was to make it to B. Her
real
dream was to have cleavage, but she was pretty sure you had to be at least a C for that, and she didn’t dare to hope for too much. Her mother wasn’t that chesty, and she’d said these things tended to be hereditary, so Reva was probably doomed. The idea of having boobs so big you wanted to shrink them was just too bizarre.

Darryl J undoubtedly liked big boobs. All guys did. If they didn’t, a dozen magazines, a zillion Web sites and thousands of plastic surgeons would go out of business.

“What if he’s not there?” Kim asked. She was always worrying about stuff not going the way it was supposed to.

Reva didn’t worry too much. Things usually seemed to work out, one way or another. “If he’s not there, we’ll go home with a bunch of leaves,” she said. “And then we’ll go back to the park tomorrow. You know he’ll be there on the weekend. That’s where the money is—the weekends.”

“I wonder how much he makes,” Kim said, kicking a few brown leaves on the paved walk. Her sneakers had little rhinestones glued on the toes in star shapes, and when the sun caught them they sparkled. Reva had considered getting sneakers like that, but her feet weren’t the sparkly type. They were too large, for one thing. She already wore the same size shoe as her mother—not that her mother owned any shoes Reva would ever want to borrow. For work she wore low-heeled pumps, and at home she wore flats with wide toes, like the shape of your actual feet. They were ugly, but she said they were comfortable, and someday Reva
would understand that comfortable was more important than stylish when it came to shoes. Reva hoped that day wouldn’t arrive too soon.

Her mind drifted back to Darryl J—specifically, Kim’s comment about how much he made. Reva had heard that some street performers actually earned enough to live on just from the coins and bills people tossed into their instrument cases. She’d also heard that serious musicians had to audition for spots in the subway stations. The real money must be there, she figured.

“Hey, maybe you and your sister and brother can set up a trio on the sidewalk and make some bucks,” she teased. “You could play…I don’t know. Who writes music for piano, violin and cello?”

“Mendelssohn,” Kim said glumly. “Well, lots of people, but we’re all learning a Mendelssohn trio now. My parents want us to perform at a holiday party they’re hosting this December.” She wrinkled her nose in disgust.

“Leave your brother’s violin case open at the party,” Reva suggested. “Maybe the guests’ll throw some money into it.”

Kim laughed. That was another thing Reva could do—say things that made people laugh. Most of the time, she didn’t think what she was saying was all that funny, but if people laughed, that had to be a good thing. About the only person Reva couldn’t make laugh was her stepmother, Bony. Her real name was Bonnie, but she was so skinny Bony fit her better. One thing Bony would never need was breast-reduction surgery. She always picked at her food and gave Reva warning looks when she took seconds. Okay, so Reva didn’t wear size-two jeans like Kim. She wore size four and sometimes six, depending on the style. Like, she should put Weight Watchers on her speed dial.

“The thing is,” she said, “Darryl J is going to be rich
someday. He’s going to be discovered, and then he’ll get a huge contract and do concerts and sell lots of CDs. Tracy Chapman used to sing on street corners in Boston, or somewhere around there, and then she got discovered and she wound up famous.”

“Who’s Tracy Chapman?” Kim asked.

Of course Kim wouldn’t know. Her parents listened only to classical music, Mendelssohn and that stuff. Reva had nothing against classical music, and Ms. Froiken, who taught music at Hudson, told interesting stories about how Haydn wrote the “Surprise Symphony” to wake up people in the audience who nodded off during concerts, and how Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” caused a riot the first time it was performed. She made classical music fun.

But other music was fun, too—not just the stuff Reva listened to but also the stuff her mother listened to. Old rock. Some of it was pretty good. Her mother had a Tracy Chapman CD that was full of wistful, plainspoken songs that Reva could just imagine someone singing while strumming an acoustic guitar on a street corner in some city and hoping people would throw money into the open guitar case at her feet.

Tracy Chapman wasn’t poor anymore. And someday Darryl J, because he was so talented and so incredibly gorgeous, wouldn’t be poor, either. He’d be riding to concert arenas in a limousine. And Reva would be riding with him, because he’d be in love with her.

The mall at the heart of Central Park wasn’t as crowded as on the weekends, but since the afternoon was mild and sunny, people were out. Maybe they’d left work early—folks liked to do that on Fridays. Maybe some of them were unemployed and had nothing better to do than hang out and search for someone to play chess with, or feed the pigeons stale bread, or just stroll along the paths that meandered
through the park. Maybe some were so rich they didn’t have to work. And the younger people, the punky boys on skateboards and the girls like Kim and Reva, had probably just been let out of school. Maybe they’d told their mothers they had to collect leaves, too.

A mime stood at one end of the Band Shell, doing that whole icky-jerky-movement thing. Why did mimes paint their faces white? And the silly black hat with the flower sticking out of the hatband, and the striped shirt—what was that all about? No one was interested in this mime, anyway; people walked right past him. Poor guy, trapped inside an invisible box and no one cared enough to watch him break out.

She and Kim hurried past, following the twangy sound of a guitar. There was Darryl J, surrounded by a small cluster of people. The mime must be jealous, Reva thought, but that was his problem.

She and Kim joined the crowd gathered around Darryl J. They didn’t move directly to the front—that would be too obvious—but found a spot that offered a good view of him. He was as handsome as ever, his hair in neat, even braids, his skin smooth and the color of caramel, his guitar and mike plugged into a small amp. He wasn’t too tall—Reva liked that about him—and he had dark eyes that glowed like mood-ring stones, and a smile that could turn solid rock to lava. His jeans were baggy, but they weren’t torn, and the crotch didn’t droop to his knees. On top he wore a kind of woven hippie-ish shirt.

He couldn’t be much older than eighteen, she estimated. And in January she’d be fourteen. A few years from now, they’d be perfect for each other.

He was singing something fast and catchy, the words spilling from him in a cascade of rhymes that almost sounded like rap, only he was singing instead of just chant
ing them. “‘When I see you, I wanna be you, so I could know you inside out, and I could show you what I’m about,’” he crooned.

Reva sighed and clutched Kim’s arm. Kim was beaming. She probably loved him as much as Reva did, but she was too well behaved and obedient to follow through. She’d never ride in a limo with him, because her parents would shit a brick if she did, and for all her fussing and complaining about stuff, she never liked to upset her parents.

Reva didn’t care. True love was more important than her mother.

His guitar case, open at his feet with his little white Darryl J sign propped up inside it, contained a fair amount of coins and paper money. Reva wished she had enough money that she could toss some into his case, but she got only five dollars a week allowance—probably the smallest allowance of anybody in the entire eighth grade at Hudson—and if she gave Darryl J some money, that would mean no ice cream cones or lattes after school with her friends, and nothing to set aside for a movie outing or mascara, which she really desperately needed because her eyelashes were pale at the tips. Her mother said she was too young for mascara, which meant Reva had to buy her own and sneak it on when her mom wasn’t looking.

If she got together with Darryl J, she wouldn’t have to worry about budgeting her puny allowance to pay for mascara. Not that he was rich now, but he would be. She had faith. He was that talented. He’d fill arenas. No—more intimate settings, cooler places. Downtown clubs, and then maybe Roseland. Not Madison Square Garden, where the performers were just tiny dots on the stage and the only place you could actually make out their faces was on the JumboTrons.

Of course, she wouldn’t be seated out there in the vast
darkness of the upper tiers, staring at the monitor. She’d be backstage in the wings, where Darryl J could see her. He’d glance her way between numbers and send her a secret smile that said, “I’m pretending to sing these songs for all those people out there, but I’m really singing them for you.”

That was how she felt today, standing with maybe twenty other appreciative listeners as he sang, “‘If I could be you, then I could free you. One and one are one, flunk the math and feel the sun.’”

Reva felt the sun, burning deep inside her.
One and one are one,
she thought, allowing herself a grin at how Mr. Rodriguez would react if she ran that equation by him in math class. He wouldn’t understand. He was married and paunchy and he was always making stupid puns: “Where do rectangular trees come from? Square roots,” and “I will now sing an imaginary number,” and he’d pretend to sing, mouthing the words but not making a sound.

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