Read The Fixer Upper Online

Authors: Judith Arnold

The Fixer Upper (3 page)

Darryl J made golden sounds, sounds that planted the sun right inside Reva’s heart. One of these days, when she was just a little older…

Reva totally believed that anything was possible.

 

Vivienne had come to talk Libby into attending Saturday-morning services with her, but Libby had instead talked Vivienne into skipping services and having a cup of coffee. Libby wasn’t exactly the most observant Jew in the world. She hadn’t been in a synagogue since Reva’s bat mitzvah last January—and that had been organized and overseen by Harry, who for some reason had felt that ushering Reva through this ritual was his paternal duty. Also, he’d gotten to host a fancy reception afterward, to which he’d invited assorted clients and colleagues, thus turning Reva’s coming-of-age observance into a useful networking opportunity.

“I’m not trying to convert you,” Vivienne said, settling
into her chair at the minuscule table Libby had managed to wedge into one corner of her kitchen. She and Reva ate a fair number of their meals there, which enabled Libby to boast that she had an eat-in kitchen.

How much longer she would have an eat-in kitchen was anybody’s guess, of course.

Vivienne crossed one leg over the other. She wore tailored wool slacks and a multicolored tunic that hurt Libby’s eyes. No one should have to look at that many colors at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning. The slacks were boring, at least, a dark blue as restful on the eyes as the top was painful. That was Vivienne in a nutshell—a combination of traditional and zany, boring and wild, restful and painful. Libby deeply hoped that Vivienne would be restful and not painful this morning.

“You want a bagel or something?” Libby asked. She was still in her robe, a faded green wraparound beginning to fray at the collar.

“A bagel?”

“I bought them fresh at Bloom’s yesterday on my way home from work.”

“In that case…” Vivienne fingered her hair. It was a garish red, cut spiky and short. Ever since Vivienne had gotten married, she’d been experimenting with different hairstyles. Libby wondered what Leonard thought about that. Maybe he liked it. Maybe each time she changed her hair, he felt as if he was sleeping with a new woman. “I was planning to eat at the kiddush,” she said, “but if we aren’t going to synagogue, sure, I’ll take a bagel.” She leaned back in her chair, which bumped into a counter. “What’s this, dead leaves?” she asked when her hand accidentally brushed against the plastic bag of foliage.

“Reva collected them for a school project,” Libby said as she sliced a second bagel.

“Is she still asleep?” Vivienne glanced toward the doorway. Maybe she expected Sleeping Beauty herself to materialize there. “You spoil her, Libby.”

“She’s allowed to sleep late on a Saturday morning.”

“When you could instead be bringing her to shul. Actually, no.” Vivienne contradicted herself, waving a manicured hand through the air, pretending to erase the thought from an invisible chalkboard in front of her. “You don’t want to bring her with you right now. There are some new members of the congregation. Single men. A nice Jewish man, Libby—you could do worse.”

“I married a nice Jewish man,” Libby reminded her as she arranged the bagels in the oven to warm.

“That wasn’t a nice Jewish man,” Vivienne argued. “That was my brother.”

For some reason, Libby had received custody of Harry’s family along with Reva and the apartment in the divorce. Gilda and Irwin and their daughter, Vivienne, all believed Harry had been a first-class schmuck to leave Libby. At the time, Libby had agreed wholeheartedly with them. But when she thought about the kind of man he’d become—the kind of man he’d probably been all along, although she hadn’t had the luxury of noticing that at the time because she’d been pregnant and eager to tie the knot—she realized she was better off without him. He seemed much happier with Bonnie, who was so unlike Libby she knew he couldn’t have possibly remained happy with her.

“I just think you ought to be a little more socially active, Libby. You’re, what, thirty-five years old? Time is gaining on you. You wait too long, no man is going to be interested.”

“What apocalyptic women’s magazine did you read that in?” Libby joked as she filled two mugs with coffee and carried them to the table.

“Have you got any Splenda?” Vivienne asked, nudging the sugar bowl away. “I’m trying to lose five pounds.”

Vivienne was always trying to lose five pounds, which was why Libby always kept packets of artificial sweetener on hand. She pulled a few from a cabinet shelf and set them on the table next to Vivienne’s elbow.

“So these gentlemen, these new members of the congregation…All I’m saying, Libby, is you could do worse.”

“I’m not looking for a boyfriend,” Libby said. “If one comes along, fine, but I’ve got too much else on my plate right now. You want any orange juice?”

“If you’re pouring…” Vivienne accepted a glass of juice with a shrug. “What do you have on your plate that you don’t have time for a love life? And don’t tell me Reva. If she can adjust to her father getting remarried, she could adjust to you going out on a date every now and then.”

“I do go out on dates every now and then,” Libby said, silently acknowledging that her dates were more
then
than
now
. “And Reva doesn’t dictate my life.” Yeah, right. Reva was the first thing Libby thought about when she woke up every morning and the last thing she thought about before drifting off to sleep every night. Reva was the light burning in her soul—and the headache burning in her skull. Who had time for dates with all that burning?

Still, she shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the opportunity Vivienne had laid before her. “Tell me,” she said casually as she slid the bagels out of the oven and onto a plate. “Are any of these nice Jewish men at your synagogue rich? If they are, I could be interested.” She laughed to indicate she was joking.

Vivienne didn’t join her laughter. “You need money? That hoo-ha school isn’t paying you enough?”

“The pay is fine.” Libby settled into the chair beside Vivienne and smeared some cream cheese onto her bagel. “It’s not the school.”

Vivienne examined the tub of cream cheese. “This isn’t the low-fat kind, is it? Well, what the hell. You only live once.” She scooped a large dollop of cream cheese out of the tub and slathered it onto her bagel. “So, what is it? Reva’s running up big bills at Bergdorf’s?”

“It’s the apartment,” Libby told her. She hadn’t mentioned the problem to anyone yet, and even though Vivienne was aggressively opinionated, she was a true and loyal friend, a better sister-in-law than her brother had ever been a husband. Libby trusted her, and she needed to unburden herself. “Remember when the building went co-op, maybe eight years ago?”

“Way behind the curve,” Vivienne recalled. “Everyone else was going co-op in the ’80s, but this building hung on until much later. You never bought, did you.”

“I couldn’t afford it. We were divorced and Harry let me keep the lease. I could manage the rent, but buying, even at the insider’s price, was out of the question.”

“But anyone who didn’t want to buy at the time got to keep their leases, right? You were grandfathered in.”

“Well…” Libby sighed. “Grampa died.”

Bagel poised in midair, Vivienne gaped at her. “He died?”

“The company that owned all the apartments that didn’t go co-op overextended itself. They have properties all over the city, and the market isn’t as strong as it was a few years ago, and they had to raise cash. So they sold their ownership of the units in this building to another company, which claims we either have to buy or move out.”

“Don’t they have to honor the terms of your lease?”

“My lease comes up for renewal next January, and they’re not going to renew it. I’ve got to figure out a way to buy this place, or else Reva and I will have to move.”

“You’ll never find a place like this for what you’re paying,” Vivienne said, words Libby certainly didn’t need to
hear. She knew she was paying a remarkably low rent for her six-room pre-war, with its nine-foot ceilings, its tall, sunlit windows and its fireplace. She could afford a rent increase. She could even afford the monthly costs of a mortgage. But she didn’t have the funds for a down payment, even at the cut-rate insider’s price the new company had quoted.

“And you need how much?” Vivienne asked her.

Libby winced. “A quarter million, minimum.”

“Oy vey.” Vivienne dropped her bagel and pressed a hand to her chest, as if to contain the convulsions of her heart. “Where are you going to come up with money like that?”

“You know any rich single guys?” Libby said, then grinned so Vivienne would understand she was kidding. Vivienne tended to take things literally. If Libby wasn’t careful, Vivienne would start interrogating the new bachelor members of her synagogue about their net worth.

Vivienne’s heart must have calmed down, because she lowered her hand to her mug and sipped her coffee. “I know a rich married guy,” she said.

“Thanks, but I’m not
that
desperate.”

“Harry,” Vivienne said.

“Harry?” Libby’s ex-husband?

“He’s rich. He pulls down a huge income working at that law firm—a position that you, let us not forget, supported him through law school to obtain. Plus Reva is his one and only child, and he has a moral obligation not to allow her to become homeless.”

“She wouldn’t be homeless,” Libby protested. “We could move someplace less expensive.”

“Where? Jersey?” Vivienne wrinkled her nose.

“I’m not asking Harry for money.” Asking her ex-husband for money would be an admission of failure—and Libby wasn’t the one who’d failed. The real-estate company
that owned her apartment failed. But Harry wouldn’t see it that way. He’d give her a hard time. After all, he’d wanted the apartment as much as she had when they’d decided to get a divorce. Back then, the odds of its going co-op were minimal, and the lease had locked them into a remarkably affordable rent, but after a bit of back and forth, Harry had acquiesced.

As divorces went, hers wasn’t bad. She and Harry could speak civilly to each other. Harry generally deferred to her when it came to Reva, and he’d let Libby have primary custody, although she felt that was largely because his wife was too busy being glamorous to fuss with a stepdaughter. Whenever Reva returned from a visit with her father, she regaled Libby with stories about how utterly inept Bonnie was as a stepmother.

“I think you should ask him,” Vivienne said. “He’s such a schmuck. He owes you, Libby.”

“He’s your brother,” Libby reminded her.

“Yeah, and I’ve been exposed to his schmuckiness my whole life. Get the money from him.”

Libby pursed her lips and shook her head. Harry Kimmelman might be her last resort, but she hoped she’d find a few other resorts first. Anything to avoid having to go to him, hat in hand, and plead with him for—God!—a quarter of a million dollars.

“What, you’re too proud to ask?” Vivienne pressed. “You’d rather wind up homeless than hit him up for money?”

“It’s not just asking for money, Viv. It’s asking for a small fortune.”

“He’s got a big fortune. He can afford it.”

“Can he?” Harry didn’t discuss his finances with Libby. But he was a partner at his firm, and Bonnie had to earn a decent salary as a fashion editor for one of the major glossies, and they were dinks—double income, no kids.

Libby had never been grasping and greedy during their divorce, however, and Harry had been generous in the settlement. In addition to giving her the apartment, he’d agreed to provide liberal child support and cover many of Reva’s other expenses. The private school was free, of course, because Libby worked there, so he was spared the staggering cost of Hudson’s tuition, but he paid for pretty much everything else Reva needed.

Maybe Libby could have Reva ask him for the money…. No, she wasn’t going to put her daughter in the middle of this. She didn’t even want Reva to know there was a chance they might have to move, at least not unless a move became unavoidable.

“Would you like me to ask him for you?” Vivienne offered.

“No. If I have to go to him, I’ll do it myself.”

“My parents might be able to help you out,” Vivienne said. “Not that they’ve got a lot of spare cash lying around, but they’d do anything for you. I’d contribute, but Leonard and I are still newlyweds. We’re still trying to figure out how to handle a joint checking account.”

“I hate this, Viv. I hate having to beg people for money.”

“To finance an apartment like this in Manhattan, you’ve got to beg,” Vivienne said before taking a decisive bite out of her bagel. “Get used to it. You want to keep your house? You beg.”

If anyone else had spoken to her that way, so officious and blunt, Libby would have erupted in anger. But when Vivienne issued her opinions in her slightly nasal New York accent, with bits of cream cheese edging her teeth like the grouting between the tiles in her bathroom, Libby could only laugh. She didn’t have much to laugh about—a weekend that would be spent listening to a CD of a five-year-old girl singing Puccini, fretting about her apartment situation and
bickering with Reva over nonsense—but laughing beat any of the alternatives she could come up with.

Laugh today, beg tomorrow, she thought. Or beg Monday. She could visit a bank. She could inquire about borrowing against her retirement account at Hudson. Maybe she could find a kindhearted loan shark down in Times Square.

Anything would be better than having to ask Harry for money.

Three

W
hat Ned knew about private schools he could fit on the point of a penny nail. What he
felt
about private schools could cover a two-by-four, but those feelings were based mostly on Hollywood movies featuring arrogant preppies in crested blue blazers and gray pants and speaking with snooty British accents. He’d become acquainted with a few prep-school alums in college, and they hadn’t been anything like the Hollywood stereotype. They’d been presumptuous, though, astonished that not all teenagers received a new car for graduation and allowances large enough to cover spring-break jaunts to the Bahamas.

All right, so he was a little biased. If private school was Eric’s dream, Ned would bulldoze whatever obstacles stood in the way of that dream.

He stood on the corner of West End Avenue and 78th, watching youngsters—none of them wearing uniforms—
stream down the sidewalk and sort themselves into the three adjacent brownstones that all appeared to be part of the Hudson School. He wasn’t sure which building he should enter, but the brownstone on the left seemed to be attracting most of the smaller children. That must be the lower school, the one Eric had applied to.

That Eric had sent in the application without even telling Ned still shook him. The kid had asked some questions about private school a couple of weeks ago, but Ned hadn’t realized he was actually thinking of applying. That he’d gone ahead and done it—helping himself to Ned’s Visa card—had left Ned uneasy and awash in guilt. Had moving to Manhattan been a mistake? Ned asked himself again. Had he destroyed his son’s educational opportunities?

He and Eric had made the decision together to move to Manhattan, he reminded himself. They’d agreed that they had to leave Vermont, and he’d sent feelers out to various friends who might be able to find him work. His old classmate at college, Mitch Moskowitz, ran a rehab-and-renovation business in New York, and he’d come through with a job offer. When Ned had run the idea past Eric, Eric had freaked out. “New York! That’s so cool! Let’s go!”

Ned had planned the move carefully. He’d done research. The apartment he’d found for them was right near a primary school with a solid reputation, and it fell within the district of a high-scoring middle school. By the time Eric was ready for high school, Ned had assumed he’d either get into one of the elite public high schools—Eric was, after all, a flipping genius—or they’d rethink their plans and maybe leave the city.

He’d met Eric’s fourth-grade teacher at the local elementary school, and she’d impressed him as a tough, smart woman. Ned had believed that things would work out. And they would, he assured himself, even if Eric didn’t get into
the Hudson School. But if Eric wanted the Hudson School, Ned would do what he could to get him in.

He waited for a few stragglers to race up the steps ahead of him, then climbed the front stairs and entered the building on the left. The vaulted entry smelled like lemon, leather and money. The walls were paneled with dark wainscoting, and a turned mahogany staircase ascended out of sight. A few framed bulletin boards held fliers and announcements, and an easel in the curve of the stairway displayed a placard with the date printed on it in bright block letters. High-pitched voices echoed from above, tumbling down the stairs.

An open door to his left led into an office. He glanced at his watch. Eight-fifty. He’d phoned Mitch to say he’d be arriving at the Colwyn job a half hour late, but he hoped this wouldn’t take that long.

Smoothing the collar of his shirt beneath his denim jacket, he wondered whether he should have worn a tie. Maybe he ought to have splashed on a little cologne, too, instead of his usual no-name aftershave. Did he even own any cologne? He recalled buying a bottle when he’d decided it was time to start dating again, but given how messy that whole period had been, he’d left the bottle behind when he and Eric had packed up their belongings and moved.

Drawing in a steadying breath, he strode through the doorway and smiled at the woman behind the counter. She stood at a long worktable, inserting papers into an electric stapler that bit down on them in a crisp, quick tempo. Glancing up, she smiled hesitantly. She appeared middle-aged, her brown hair streaked with silver and her eyes obscured by large-framed glasses that gave her face a buglike appearance. “May I help you?” she asked.

“I need to see whoever’s in charge of admissions,” he said, moving a step to his left so the huge bouquet of flow
ers balanced in a vase on the counter wouldn’t block his view of her.

Her smile chilled. “I’m not sure if Ms. Kimmelman is available for unscheduled meetings with parents,” she told him.

“Well, if you’re not sure, perhaps you could find out.” She didn’t seem convinced, so he added, “My name is Ned Donovan. I’m here for my son, Eric,” as if that would make a difference.

Refusing to shift her gaze from him, the woman pursed her lips and crossed to a desk. She lifted a phone, pushed a button and listened for a moment before speaking. “Tara? There’s a gentleman here who wants to see Libby. He says he’s here for his son—” she eyed Ned quizzically “—Eric Donovan.” She paused, then said, “I have no idea.” Another pause, and, “All right.” She lowered the phone and told him, “Ms. Kimmelman’s assistant said she’d check.”

Ned nodded and tried to guess what the assistant was checking. He didn’t have a police record. Nor did he have a legacy of family members who had attended the school, or a well-connected associate who would vouch for his son, or a history of making huge donations to the endowment fund.

Feeling the woman’s gaze on him, he turned to study the cubbyhole mailboxes fastened to one wall. Most of the boxes had papers or envelopes in them. A table beneath them held another bouquet of flowers. Such an abundance of flowers—had someone died?

A quiet buzz jolted him. He turned back to the counter to see the woman lift her phone. “Oh. Well, all right, then,” she said, then hung up and gave him a suspicious glare. “Ms. Kimmelman is willing to meet with you,” she said, her tone conveying that such a willingness was a rare thing. “Tara will be here in a minute.”

Exactly one minute passed before a young blond woman entered the office through the glass door. Clad in a short skirt, a cotton sweater and enough costume jewelry to lead a Mardi Gras parade, she exuded more perkiness than he could handle on only one cup of coffee. “Hi, I’m Tara,” she said, then beckoned for him to follow her.

They headed down a hall. “Libby usually doesn’t meet parents without appointments,” she informed him. “I don’t know why she agreed to meet with you, but I’ll warn you, things are really hectic right now. So don’t take it personally if she can give you only a couple of minutes. You can schedule an appointment with her for some future date, if you’d like.”

Libby Kimmelman.
He repeated the name silently a few times until it was permanently imprinted on his brain.

“Today,” Tara told him, “she got five bouquets. It’s a good thing you didn’t bring flowers. She’d hold it against you.”

Flowers had never even crossed his mind. Was he supposed to accompany an application to a prestigious private school with a gift? Or would a flat-out cash bribe be just as effective? How big a bribe?

Tara swept through another door, passed an empty anteroom with a huge bouquet perched on a table just inside, and led him down a narrow hall to the end. She rapped on the door marked Director of Admissions, then inched it open. “Libby? Eric Donovan’s father is here.”

A woman’s voice drifted out. “Send him in.”

Tara pushed the door wider and stepped aside, gesturing Ned ahead of her. He entered the office and hesitated. His gaze took in more walls of walnut paneling, an elegantly patterned rug that looked authentically Middle Eastern and old, and a grand, varnished walnut desk.

The woman seated behind the desk was surprisingly
young—mid-thirties, tops—and her dark shoulder-length hair was held off her face with a barrette. Her suit jacket hung across the back of her chair and the sleeves of her blouse were rolled up. Her brown eyes took up half her face, and a knife-sharp nose sliced straight down between them. Her desk was cluttered with towering piles of folders and a vase stuffed with flowers. She seemed exhausted, and it was barely 9:00 a.m.

“Ms. Kimmelman?” He approached the desk, right hand outstretched. “I’m Ned Donovan.”

Despite the fatigue shadowing her eyes, her smile struck him as genuine. She rose from her chair and shook his hand. “Libby Kimmelman. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

A pleasure? Did she even know who he was? Or was she just relieved that he hadn’t brought her flowers?

He liked the feel of her hand, cool and smooth, her nails short and shiny. He liked the curve of her smile, too, even though he sensed tension in it. She waved toward an armchair facing her across the desk, then busied herself shoving piles of folders around until he could see her without tilting his head.

“I wasn’t aware that flowers were part of the deal,” he said, motioning toward the vase.

“Flowers, chocolates, fruit baskets and a hamper filled with bubble bath, natural sponges and loofahs. That’s today’s haul. Tara, could you take the chocolates with you when you go?”

“Sure.” The perky blonde bounded into the office and lifted a box of chocolates from a corner of the desk. Cradling the box in her arm, she started toward the door. “If you don’t want the bubble bath, I could use it.”

“I was thinking I’d send it to a nursing home, along with some of the flowers.”

“If no nursing home wants it, send it my way.” Tara
closed the door, leaving Ned and the director of admissions alone in the stately office.

Something was clearly going on that Ned didn’t get. Flowers. Chocolates. Loofahs, whatever the hell they were.

He refused to be intimidated. He’d come to the Hudson School on a mission, his favorite, most important mission: Eric. Getting him into this school and finding the funding to pay for it. If loofahs were part of the deal, so be it.

He straightened in his chair and his gaze collided with Ms. Kimmelman’s. For a brief, weird moment, he forgot his mission. She had amazing eyes.

He should have worn cologne.

Shit, Donovan—get it together,
he ordered himself. The right time would come to meet women, socialize, have a sex life and all that kind of thing—but the right time wasn’t now. And this lioness guarding the majestic gates of the Hudson School wasn’t a woman he ought to be thinking about in the context of his sex life.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Donovan?” she asked pleasantly.

Let my son into your school
. He cleared his throat and shifted in the chair, which was surprisingly comfortable, upholstered in burgundy leather that had grown smooth and hard with age. For some perverse reason, the chair irked him. Maybe because it was so classy. Like Libby Kimmelman, with her gold-button earrings and her tasteful apparel. Like the Hudson School itself. Ned wasn’t used to feeling outclassed, but this office was classy, no question about it.

He cleared his throat again. “My son applied to the Hudson School. He sent in the application before I even saw it.”

“Are there parts of it you’d like to amend?” she asked, rummaging through one of the piles on her desk.

“He saved to disk what he sent you, and it looked okay to me, as far as it went.” Ned wished he had a pencil or
something to hold. He wasn’t sure what to do with his hands. They sat inert on his knees, his fingers hot and itching to move. “He didn’t…Look.” Ned took another deep breath and went for broke. “He really wants to attend this school, and if that’s what he wants, that’s what I want for him. He’d do well here. He’s a terrific kid. And I just—I don’t know the ins and outs of this thing. I’ve never had any dealings with private schools before. I didn’t know about the flowers and chocolates and the…whatever they are. The loofahs.”

Her smile was reassuring. “Flowers and all the other gifts do applicants no good at all. I get rid of them. The Hudson School doesn’t accept students based on the presents their parents send me.”

Okay, then. “So, how do kids get in?”

“I have a committee. We review the applications. We interview the children, and sometimes their parents. Then we sit around a table and discuss each applicant. We try to figure out who will contribute the most to the school and who will benefit the most from it. It’s not an exact science, Mr. Donovan, but we work hard and we usually wind up with an excellent group of children. Now, your son, Eric—” she rummaged through the pile again and pulled out a folder “—is applying as a transfer student. I don’t know how many openings we’ll have in his grade for next year. We usually have a few.”

“A
few?”
Anger and skepticism flared inside Ned, but he tamped it back down. “How many kids apply for those few openings?”

“It varies. We accept applications through the end of October, and the number of openings—”

“In other words, my son’s got as much chance of getting into this school as a cow has of swimming to France.”

She smiled again, all dark eyes and white teeth. “Can cows swim?”

Ned wished he could share her grin, but he was too annoyed. A
few
openings? Hell.

“There are always openings for transfers, Mr. Donovan,” she assured him, “and nowhere near as many applications as we get for the kindergarten class. Your son has as good a chance of getting in as anyone else. A better chance, probably. A much better chance than a cow swimming to France.”

“And why would that be?” he asked.

“He wrote his own application, for one thing.” She tapped the folder without opening it. “I’ve received hundreds of applications this fall, and Eric’s was the only one that gave me a genuine feeling for who he was. All the others were written by anxious parents. Your son had the guts to write his own application. That’s worth a few points in my book.”

“He’s got more than guts,” Ned said. “He’s smart and funny.”
And he’s got his heart set on this damn school.

“According to his application, he can’t sing very well.”

Ned was surprised that she could say that without refreshing her memory by skimming Eric’s application. “Is singing required for the Hudson School?” he asked cautiously.

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