Read The Fixer Upper Online

Authors: Judith Arnold

The Fixer Upper (4 page)

“Only if Eric goes out for the chorus. Tell me some more about him, Mr. Donovan.”

What should he say? He could tell her Eric was the most wonderful boy in the universe, but he somehow doubted she would view his opinion as objective.

“In his application,” she said, helping him out, “he mentioned that he used to live in Vermont.”

Ned nodded. “We moved this past summer. He loves the city, but he’s not crazy about his public school. He told me….” Ned sighed. Eric’s words twisted like a key inside him, releasing worry. “He told me he sees students leaving Hudson at the end of school and they all look so happy. That’s what he wants—to leave school feeling happy. He also likes the
after-school programs you offer. He’s not crazy about his babysitter.”

“He’s what, ten?”

“You’ve got a good memory.” He glanced at the unopened folder.

“Ten’s a difficult age when it comes to babysitters. My daughter’s thirteen, so I have an idea what you’re going through. Ten-year-olds feel they’re old enough to
be
babysitters and way too old to
have
babysitters.” She flipped the folder open, then shut, too quickly to have actually read anything. “He said you’re a fixer upper.” Her voice rose, turning the statement into a question. “I was a little confused by that. Isn’t a fixer upper a house that’s falling apart?”

“I’m in construction,” he explained. “Vermont is full of fixer uppers. Lots of New Yorkers go to Vermont and buy old barns and shacks, and they hired me to turn them into fancy weekend places. So I fixed up the fixer uppers. I guess that makes me a fixer upper.”

“Or maybe a fixer upper fixer upper,” she said with a grin.

Like a fool, he grinned back. “Down here, I’m doing apartment renovations. Same idea, except there are no driveways or front yards.”

She stared expectantly at him. What else should he say? What would win Eric a desk and chair in this school?

Since the topic of his work had come up, he figured now was as good a time as any to raise a related subject. “I saw nothing on your Web site about how much the Hudson School costs.”

“We haven’t set the tuition schedule for next year yet,” she explained.

“Well, whatever you set it to, I think it’s going to be out of my price range. What’s the deal with financial aid? Or am I screwing my kid’s chances of getting in by asking?”

“No,” she said gently. “You’re not screwing your kid’s
chances. We do offer financial aid. You’ll have to fill out an application.” She opened a drawer in her massive desk and pulled out some papers and a dark blue folder with a silhouette of the Hudson School’s three buildings embossed on the front in gold. “I suggest you fill this out yourself, rather than having Eric do it.”

“Right.”

“I’m afraid it’s nosy,” she said, “but we need to know your entire household’s financial situation. If Eric’s mother—”

“Eric’s mother is dead,” Ned said matter-of-factly. Deborah hadn’t earned much when she was alive, and she’d quit her job when Eric was born.

One thing Ned and Eric had never had to miss was her income. Everything else, yes—her little-girl voice, her blueberry pancakes, her uncanny skill at the board game Clue. Her silvery-blond hair, her wire-rimmed glasses, her inability to carry a tune—a flaw Eric had unfortunately inherited from her. Her lack of joke-telling skills—thank God Eric hadn’t inherited
that
weakness. He was a lot funnier than his mother ever was. Deborah had been nothing if not earnest.

“I’m sorry,” Ms. Kimmelman said. She fished a pen from between two stacks of folders, opened the folder in front of her and jotted something down.

Ned bristled. “Do you give an edge to kids whose mothers are dead?” Much as he wanted Eric to get into the Hudson School, he’d be damned if he’d let this lady accept his son out of pity.

She glanced up, her eyes flashing and her smile gone. “No. But we do like to have as much information as possible about our applicants. I’d say this would be a pretty important part of Eric’s life.”

Ned couldn’t argue about that.

“If there are other important parts of his life you think we ought to be aware of, I’d appreciate your telling me.”

Ned rummaged through his mind. It was overloaded with irrelevancies—the fancy rug at his feet, the faint scent of the flowers on her desk. Her eyes, as dark and intense as espresso.

Shoving that thought aside, he considered what was most important about Eric. His insistence on freeing every salamander he’d ever caught within five minutes of catching it. His natural grace on skis. His love of books—not just
Harry Potter
but
Horatio Hornblower
and the
Hitchhiker’s Guide
and his Bart Simpson books. His enjoyment of historical research. His budding interest in hip-hop. His skill with computers. Would any of this make a difference in Eric’s application?

Ned didn’t even know how to talk about the most important thing of all: Eric’s spirit, his refusal to allow his mother’s death to destroy him, the way he’d looked at his father one day, more than a year ago, and said, “Crying isn’t going to bring her back, and I’m tired of being sad. Is it okay to stop crying? We can miss her and still be happy.”

If Ned said to Libby Kimmelman, “Accept my son because he understands the importance of happiness,” would she let him into the Hudson School?

“He’s an incredible kid” was all he could say. “If you don’t take him, you’re crazy.”

“There are times I question my sanity, Mr. Donovan,” she said, then laughed. “Please make sure you get these financial aid forms back to my office as soon as possible. Let me give you my card….” She pulled one from her desk drawer and paper-clipped it to the folder before she handed it to him. “The fax number is on there, if you want to fax the forms. And my phone number, if you have any questions.”

He nodded in thanks as he accepted the folder, shook her
hand one more time and wished Eric had asked him for something he could guarantee, like a new bicycle, or Red Hat software for his computer, or tickets to a Rangers game. Admission to the Hudson School was a crap shoot, and Ned had never played with these dice before. He couldn’t begin to guess the odds.

But damn it, he wanted his kid to win.

Four

W
ell, that was interesting.

No it wasn’t.
Interesting
was Eric Donovan’s application, the fact that he’d written it himself and sent it in without informing his father. The upper school received more applications written by the prospective students themselves, but since the majority of Libby’s applicants were five years old, an application submitted directly by the student, without any adult input—which had obviously been the case with Eric’s application—was…
interesting.

But Eric’s father was a whole other thing.
Interesting
barely scratched the surface. The broad shoulders, the callused hands and defiantly working-class apparel, the tousled hair too dark to be blond and too light to be brown, the smile constantly warring with the obvious tension in his jaw, those sleepy blue eyes…

Libby bet she wouldn’t find too many guys like him wandering around Vivienne’s synagogue.

Of course, Ned Donovan was the father of an applicant, and she’d met him only because, like most parents of Hudson applicants, he was pushy. But his parental pushiness wasn’t the usual type. He hadn’t wasted Libby’s time extolling his son’s superlative qualities. He hadn’t mentioned Eric’s IQ, his grasp of quantum physics, his theories about the stone sculptures on Easter Island or his fluency in French. Nor, thank God, had he brought Libby candy or flowers. Or loofahs.

Even so, he’d had his own subtle pushiness. The guy had charisma, and he’d used it. When he’d been sitting across the desk from her, staring at her with those bedroom eyes, she’d had to fight to keep herself from getting sucked in.

She heard a rap on the door, and then Tara cracked it open, peered inside and pushed it wider. “What a stud,” she whispered as she bounced into the room.

Okay, so Libby hadn’t been the only one susceptible to Ned Donovan’s charisma. “He’s an applicant’s father,” she said primly.

“I wish all our students had fathers like that.” Tara’s eyes twinkled with mischief. “We could raise funds by publishing a pinup calendar. ‘Hunky Dads of the Hudson School.’ If they all looked like that guy, we’d sell enough to provide scholarships to the entire student body.”

Libby laughed, even though imagining Ned Donovan as a pinup boy, in a strong stance, with his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a well-muscled chest and his heavy-lidded eyes gazing seductively at the camera, was unsettling. “It would certainly be the hit at the Holiday Fair,” she said, setting Eric’s folder aside and wishing she could set Eric’s father aside as easily. “When I start doing the interviews, I’ll make a note of any candidates for Mr. February or Mr. November. Who’s
on for today?” She nudged a few more folders around, clearing the clutter away from her desk calendar. The only dates written on the page were with prospective students.

Tara pulled a pad from the hip pocket of her miniskirt and flipped a page. “In ten minutes you’ve got Astrid Morgensen. At eleven you’ve got twins—Daisy and Violet Fleur. At one-thirty you’ve got Will Billicki, although—” she squinted at her notes “—if he’s still napping, his mother says they may arrive late, because he can be a wee bit testy if she wakes him up before he’s ready to get up.”

“A wee bit?”

“Her exact words.”

“I’m sure. And twins, too. Oy.” Libby sighed. Two five-year-olds were more than double the work of one, and she couldn’t interview them separately, because the earth would stop spinning if Hudson accepted one twin and not the other. Twins were a set; the school would accept both or none. Libby might as well interview them together.

“Now, I know you’re going to be objective,” Tara remarked before Libby could recite her mantra. “All I’m saying is, if the kid has a gorgeous father, it could be relevant to his application. A Hudson Hunks calendar could do wonders for the annual fund-raising drive.” With that, she waltzed out of Libby’s office.

If the Hudson School published such a calendar, Libby would certainly buy a copy. Ogling students’ fathers would be a pleasant way to pass the time when her ex-sister-in-law wasn’t trying to set her up with members of her congregation. Unfortunately, most of those students’ fathers were married to students’ mothers, so ogling would be the beginning and the end of it.

Ned Donovan wasn’t married, though.

And his son wasn’t a student at the Hudson School. Yet. And might never be, depending on his interview and the
number of openings for his grade and a host of other considerations. And if he did wind up at Hudson, his father would be a student’s father, which would put him off-limits. And he was already off-limits, anyway.

Besides, he wasn’t rich. If she was going to set her sights on an unattached man, she might as well find someone who could help her hang on to her apartment.

She restacked her folders and centered Astrid Morgensen’s on her blotter. Opening it, she read what Astrid’s mother, Hilga Eydendahl-Morgensen had to say about her spectacular daughter. Not yet five, Astrid was an expert on Nordic history. “She believes she is a descendent of Erik the Red,” her mother wrote in the essay, “and who are we to say she’s wrong?”

The mantra rose to Libby’s lips:
I’m going to be objective.
If Astrid Morgensen wanted to believe she was Erik the Red’s however-many-times-great-granddaughter, so be it. The Hudson School could always use a Viking maiden in its kindergarten class.

 

Macie Colwyn was an artist, although what her art was Ned had no idea. Her husband, whom he’d never met, did something that involved sitting at a desk and earning oceans of money, and with that money Macie had purchased a two-thousand-square-foot loft in a neighborhood just north of the West Village, which Mitch had told him was the Meatpacking District. Not a particularly charming name, and it didn’t strike Ned as a charming neighborhood, either, but Mitch had assured him it was going to be the next TriBeCa.

After living for two months in the city, Ned almost understood what that meant. Manhattan was an island of neighborhoods, each with its own special personality. People who bought lofts in the Meatpacking District would be looking for a different sort of renovation than people who bought
penthouses on the Upper East Side or town houses in Murray Hill or flophouses in the Bowery. The only important thing such clients had in common was access to more money than Midas. A person couldn’t buy a residence worth the sort of rehab work Greater Manhattan Design Associates did unless that person was filthy rich.

Thanks to her husband, Macie Colwyn was filthy rich. She looked as if she’d undergone a bit of rehab work herself. Her bosom was disproportionately large, given her otherwise petite physique, her lips were permanently puckered and her eyebrows never moved. What she wasn’t spending on this loft she was apparently passing along to some lucky plastic surgeon.

“She wants a new wall,” Mitch muttered to Ned as he entered the loft.

He acknowledged his good luck in having stopped by Libby Kimmelman’s office before arriving at the site. If he hadn’t detoured to the Hudson School before work, he would have arrived at the Colwyn loft on time, which meant Mitch might not have been there. Although Mitch had landed the commission, drawn up the preliminary designs and signed all the contracts, he’d been letting Ned oversee the actual project. It was big and complex, but Ned had an architecture degree and plenty of experience. The job itself was nothing he couldn’t handle.

He wasn’t sure he could handle Macie Colwyn, however. “What do you mean, she wants a new wall?” he muttered back as he closed the door behind him and removed his denim jacket. The loft spread out around him, its old linoleum flooring torn up to expose the discolored plywood underneath, its enormous windows admitting glaring rivers of morning sunlight into the open space, wires and surge protectors, tools and worktables scattered around and three crew members working their re
tractable tape measures as they marked off areas into what would eventually become rooms. One of the worktables had a roll of papers spread out across it, Mitch’s blueprints for the project. Macie stared at the plans, her arms folded over her pumped-up bosom and her eyes narrowed, as if she wasn’t sure how to interpret what she was looking at.

Mitch ran a hand through his hair, which was already standing in dark tufts, as if he’d been tearing at it. “She says the living room in the original spec is too big and she wants to divide it into a front parlor and a back parlor. I explained that if she does that, the front parlor isn’t going to have a window in it. She’s trying to figure out how to put one in.”

“Put a window in?” Ned’s gaze circled the loft. “Opening onto what? The back half of the living room?”

“Talk to her. She won’t listen to me.”

Ned let out a breath. The hardest part of home renovation work was dealing with insane clients who believed their riches could buy anything, even a wall with a window that opened onto nothing.

He had already dealt with one woman today—a woman who’d hinted that she might be crazy, but seemed remarkably sane to him. He couldn’t imagine Libby Kimmelman demanding an exterior window on an interior wall. He also couldn’t imagine her injecting her lips full of whatever it was that made Macie Colwyn’s lips look as if someone had whacked her hard on the mouth. And Libby Kimmelman clearly hadn’t injected her forehead with Botox, given the worry lines that creased it.

What had she been worried about? he wondered. Breaking the news to Ned that his boy wouldn’t be able to attend Hudson, or just the challenge of dealing with unwanted bouquets of flowers?

Mitch raked his fingers through his hair again, a gesture
that forced Ned’s thoughts back to the challenge at hand. Ned had to try to fix things. It was his job.

Tossing his jacket into a corner on the dusty subfloor, he strode over to the table where Macie stood before the un-scrolled floor plan, studying it as if it were a biblical artifact, written in Aramaic so she couldn’t read it. “Mitch says you’ve got an idea about breaking the living room into two rooms,” he said.

She peered up at him. Her eyes were ringed with smudgy black liner and her hair, cut in layers that reminded him a little of an artichoke, had a purple undertone. She smelled like some kind of herb. Given his lack of culinary expertise, he couldn’t identify it, but it reminded him of Thai food. “I understand that redoing the design will add to the expense,” she said. “That’s not a problem.”

“No, it’s not,” Ned agreed. Every damn change she demanded, from wall moldings to light fixtures to backsplash tiles in the kitchen, would add to the expense, and Mitch would happily bill her for it. “The problem is, if you put a wall up in the middle of the living room—” he pointed to that section of the blueprint “—you’ll wind up with a room without a window. Not only will it be gloomy, but you might have building code problems.” He wasn’t sure about the Manhattan building codes, but mentioning them might be enough to scare her away from her idiotic notion about the new wall.

“Who would we have to pay to make those problems go away?” she asked.

He had no idea. He hadn’t been working in New York long enough to know the ins and outs of local corruption. “I’m not sure all building inspectors are on the take,” he fudged. “You offer payment to the one honest guy and you’ll wind up…” He concluded with a shrug, letting the threat remain unspoken. “But there are other ways to break up the
living room,” he continued, before she could grill him on the sentencing guidelines for bribing public officials. “For instance, we could put in a broad arch here.” He indicated the midpoint of the living room on the floor plan. “Something wide enough to let natural light flow throughout the entire room, but it would still break the room up for you. Another possibility would be columns.”

“Columns?”

“You know. Like pillars.”

“Ooh, columns!” Her face lit up. “Like the Parthenon. Could we get Corinthian columns?”

“Whatever style you want. I’d have to check with Mitch on suppliers, but I’m sure we could get Corinthian columns, if that’s what you’d like. A pillar on each side would suggest a division of the room, but you’d still have the flow.”

“I love Corinthian,” Macie gushed. “All those leaves and scrolls around the top. It makes such a statement, don’t you think?”

A statement about the pretentiousness of the home owner, perhaps, but Ned kept his mouth shut. If Macie was enthusiastic about the idea, he’d push it for all it was worth.

“Would we have to have just one on each side? Maybe we could install four of them, spaced evenly across the room.”

Jesus, that would look dumb. Ned smiled. “We can explore different placements once we’ve got the room framed. The columns wouldn’t be weight bearing, so we could put them wherever you want them.”

“Columns.” Macie sighed happily and gave herself a little hug. “I feel like Athena just thinking about it.”

If he and Mitch didn’t have to add a stupid wall in the middle of her living room, she could be Athena, Hera and Aphrodite rolled into one. “Great,” he said. “Let’s get to work.”

 

“Can I sit here?” Ashleigh Goldstein asked as she approached Reva’s table. One table over had empty seats, too, but the girls sitting there were Larissa LeMoyne and her friends, a group of stuck-up divas who probably IMed each other every morning before school because they always were dressed alike, in Marc Jacobs stuff from Barney’s. If Larissa was wearing a black miniskirt and tights, they’d all be wearing black miniskirts and tights. If she was wearing hoop earrings, they all wore hoop earrings. It was really gross.

Ashleigh Goldstein belonged at that table like Darth Vader belonged at a Sweet Sixteen party. Reva waved at the empty chair next to her and said, “Help yourself.”

Kim appeared less than pleased, but Reva didn’t mind Ashleigh’s company. She considered Ashleigh cool in a perverse way. Today, Ashleigh was dressed like a bag lady, in layers of faded denim and linen. Her hair was dyed black, but it looked sooty instead of sleek like Kim’s, and around her neck she wore her ankh on a velvet cord and a
chai
on a gold chain. She had big boobs, too. That thing about breast size being hereditary must be true.

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