Read The Fixer Upper Online

Authors: Judith Arnold

The Fixer Upper (5 page)

“I hate gym,” Ashleigh announced, as if that had any possible relevance to anything in the world. Gym had come and gone hours ago, and during that period Ashleigh had continued her antiwar protest against field hockey. “I think you guys should sit out with me.”

“I like hockey,” Kim told her.

“You don’t strike me as the violent type,” Ashleigh commented, tilting her head to study Kim. Then she shrugged and unrolled her insulated lunch bag. She pulled out a box of lemonade and some sort of icky vegetarian sandwich with sprouts and other green stuff leaking out of the whole-wheat roll.

Reva could not imagine being a vegetarian. It sounded like a noble gesture, a great sacrifice—but not being able to eat a burger? Chicken fingers? Shrimp scampi? She’d rather die. Her lunch today was turkey breast on rye bread. She felt sorry for Ashleigh for being unable to enjoy such a culinary treat.

Kim wasn’t a vegetarian, but she always brought weird lunches to school. Even though both her parents had grown up in the United States, they were into their Japanese heritage and liked to send Kim to school with little Rubbermaid tubs full of miso soup and strips of teriyaki beef that Kim would have to reheat in the microwave by the soda vending machine.

“Field hockey is not violent,” Kim argued. “If anything, sports is a way to get out the violence inside us. Like, you’re pissed at your mother so you whack the ball with your stick, and then you’re not so pissed anymore.”

“That’s my point exactly,” Ashleigh said. “We’re using hockey to sublimate our violence, rather than trying not to be violent in the first place.”

“Ooh,
sublimate
,” Reva said, wiggling her eyebrows. “Ash used a ten-dollar word.”

Both Ashleigh and Kim laughed, which was what Reva had hoped they’d do. She hated when her friends bickered.

Kim scooped a spoonful of soup out of one of her plastic containers and sipped it. “Do you think Ms. Froiken is going to start auditioning soloists today for the fall concert?”

“I heard we’re doing excerpts from
Tommy
,” Ashleigh said.

“That’s what I heard, too,” Kim confirmed.

“Tommy
is so seventies,” Ashleigh said, crinkling her nose. “It’s like, my parents listened to that stuff.”

“It’s good music,” Reva argued. “A lot of old rock is good. And besides, did you ever see pictures of Roger Daltrey when he was young?”

“Who’s Roger Daltrey?” Kim asked.

“The guy who sang
Tommy
in the seventies. He’d go onstage without his shirt, and he had this incredible chest. And no tattoos, either.” Reva couldn’t stand the tattoos all the rock stars seemed to have nowadays. It had become such a cliché, and they looked kind of dirty, like when she got ink smudges on her fingers. Whenever she saw a tattoo on a musical artist, she always wanted to tell him to take a shower.

She hoped Darryl J didn’t have any tattoos.

“Are you going to try out for a solo?” Kim asked.

“Who, me?” Ashleigh wrinkled her nose again. “I’m lucky Ms. Froiken hasn’t kicked me out of chorus. She always stares straight at me when she says, ‘Someone’s flat in the second soprano section.’”

Ashleigh Goldstein was definitely not flat, but Reva refrained from making any boob jokes. If her mother had had that breast reduction surgery, it might be a sensitive subject with Ashleigh, too.

“Actually, I meant Reva,” Kim said, turning to her. “Are you going to try out?”

Reva snorted. “I don’t know. Ms. Froiken never gives me solos.” It was true; Reva thought she had a decent voice, and she tried out for solos every year. Last year, when they’d performed a medley of songs from the
Lion King,
she got to make a little introductory speech about the circle of life before the chorus started to sing, but that was talking, not a real solo.

“You should try out,” Kim urged her. “You’ve got such a great voice.”

Kim was just saying that because she was a good friend—but one reason she was a good friend was that she said such things. “You should try out, too,” Reva told her.

Kim shook her head. “Ms. Froiken always says my voice
doesn’t carry. Anyway, she’s probably going to ask me to do the piano accompaniment.”

“Maybe she’ll ask me to turn the pages for you,” Ashleigh remarked. “That would be one way to get me from ruining the second sopranos.”

“You don’t ruin the second sopranos,” Kim said, which Reva thought was really sweet, given that Kim wasn’t crazy about Ashleigh. “I’m a second soprano, and I’ve never heard you sing flat. I think Ms. Froiken is staring at Kirsten Hough when she says that.” Kim jerked her head toward Larissa’s table. Kirsten sat at Larissa’s left, wearing a sheer white blouse with a pink camisole under it, just like Larissa. “Anyway, you should go for it, Reva. You’ve got a great voice.”

“Yeah.” Reva took a swig of her milk and shrugged. “Like, maybe someday I’ll wind up on a street corner, singing for spare change.”

“Or singing backup for another street singer,” Kim murmured, then winked.

Oh, God, how cool would that be? Singing backup for Darryl J…Not that he needed a backup singer. Not that his songs needed any embellishment from anyone at all whatsoever. But if Reva was his backup singer, she’d get to travel with him and appear with him on the stage of the Knitting Factory or the Mercury Lounge, and she’d step up to the mike with him on the parts of his songs where she was supposed to sing, and they’d both lean in toward the mike together with their lips so close they were practically kissing.

“Okay, you guys.” Ashleigh used her thumb to nudge a stray sprout into her mouth. Black nail polish, Reva decided, was almost as bad as tattoos. It made a person’s fingers seem dirty. “What are you talking about?”

“What do you mean, what are we talking about?” Kim asked innocently.

“You’re talking about some actual street singer, right?”

Reva and Kim exchanged a glance. Ashleigh was more perceptive than they’d realized. Should they tell her about Darryl J?

He wasn’t their private property, after all. The more fans he had, the quicker his rise to the top would be. He deserved to have lots of people seeking out his music. He was so talented. And Ashleigh wasn’t like the divas, who’d sneer at anyone who listened to a performer who wasn’t already famous. Ashleigh was open to new things.

“There’s this guy who sings in Central Park,” Reva said.

“He’s
really
cute,” Kim added.

“And talented. His name is Darryl J.”

“We’ve heard him sing lots of times,” Kim boasted.

“Darryl Jay? Like the bird,
j-a-y?”
Ashleigh asked.

“No. Just the letter
J,”
Reva told her.

“What does it stand for?”

“We don’t know,” Reva said, savoring the mystery of it.

“And he’s good?” Ashleigh asked.

“Not only that, but he’s really cute,” Kim declared.

“What kind of music does he play?”

“Melodic rock,” Kim explained.

“But slightly hip-hop,” Reva added.

“Only, it’s melodic.”

“A little like Ben Harper, only better,” Reva said. “And he plays the guitar.”

“And he’s very cute,” Kim said.

“Yeah, I got that part, about him being cute.” Ashleigh grinned. “So, like, what? You guys just stumbled over him one day or something?”

“Something like that, yeah. And now we’re his most devoted fans,” Reva boasted. Telling Ashleigh about him was fine, because no matter how much she might love Darryl J—if she ever bothered to find him and listen to him—and no matter how many friends she told about him, and how fast
his rise to stardom occurred, Reva and Kim had priority over everyone else. They’d discovered him. They’d gotten there first.

“So…where would I find him in the park?”

“He’s been playing at the Band Shell,” Reva said. “We’ll be going on Saturday, if you want to join us.”

Ashleigh got kind of aloof. “I don’t know. I might have plans,” she hedged, which probably meant she wasn’t sure she wanted to traipse through Central Park with Kim and Reva on a Saturday. Reva had no idea where Ashleigh hung out on her weekends. Somewhere grungy and Goth, she supposed.

“Well, let us know,” Kim said, shrugging as if it was nothing to her one way or the other. Which was pretty much how Reva felt about the whole thing, too. If she and Kim could build Darryl J’s fan base, that would be great. And if they couldn’t, they wouldn’t have to share him with anyone. He’d be all theirs.

Either way, Darryl J belonged to them, and Saturday afternoon they’d get to bask in his beautiful music and his magical smile.

Five

“I
’m home,” Libby called out as she swung open the door. Her briefcase was crammed with folders and her head still resounded with nerve-grating echoes of Will Billicki’s whine.

Apparently, Will would have happily napped all afternoon if his mother hadn’t brought him to the Hudson School for his interview. “A wee bit” scarcely scratched the surface of how cranky he’d been, and Libby had urged his mother to reschedule. But she’d insisted he would be fine. “Just give him a few minutes,” she’d pleaded.

Libby had given him a painful half hour. She often coined nicknames for the children she interviewed, in order to jog her memory once the committee met to decide which applicants would be accepted into Hudson. In her mind, Will Billicki became “Shrill Will.”

I’m going to be objective
, Libby had chanted to herself
as she’d soldiered through her thirty minutes of hell with the boy. One Shrill Will had been twice as much work as two Fleurs, whom Libby had barely been able to tell apart and who had talked to each other and ignored her completely throughout their interview. As for the Viking girl, she’d actually had some interesting things to say about longboats.

Too bad Libby had given away all the chocolates she’d received in the past week. Her headache might respond to a couple of Godivas—or, better yet, a glass of wine. If a prospective Hudson parent sent her a bottle of merlot, the kid would definitely have an edge in the admissions process.

Seconds after Libby closed and locked the apartment door, Reva appeared in the doorway to the living room, pressing the handset from the cordless kitchen phone to her ear.
It’s Grandma
, she mouthed, before saying into the phone, “Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yeah, math’s okay. In science we’re doing magnetism—oh, and leaves. Listen, Grandma, Mom just got home. I’ll put her on. Bye.” She thrust the phone at her mother.

Libby set her briefcase on the mail table in the foyer. Ridding herself of it made her realize how heavy the damn thing was, crammed with applications she had to review before tomorrow. “Hi, Gilda,” she said into the phone. She knew the caller was her mother-in-law. Her mother phoned rarely, and when she did Reva called her “Dee-Dee” because she insisted she was too young to be called anything that hinted of grandparenthood. Her name was Delia, and “Dee-Dee” sounded youthful.

“Libby!” Gilda exclaimed, as if astonished to hear her voice. “Did you know they’ve got fresh swordfish steaks on sale at Gristede’s? Only $6.99 a pound. I picked up a couple for Irwin and me. You should stock up. They say swordfish has that fat in it, the one that makes your good cholesterol go up.”

“I think that’s salmon, not swordfish,” Libby murmured, switching the phone from hand to hand as she wiggled out
of her blazer. “Salmon’s the one with the omega-3 fatty acids in it.”

“Well, swordfish is good for something. I should have picked some up for you.”

“Thanks, but my fridge is full.”

“Reva should eat more fish. It’s brain food, did you know that? It makes you smart.”

“Reva’s already smart,” Libby said, thinking about Reva’s frequent smart-ass attitude.

“Vivienne says she sleeps all day.”

“Only on the weekends. She’s a teenager. Teenagers need a lot of sleep.” Libby strolled toward the kitchen, tossing her blazer over the back of a dining-room chair on her way. Gilda could talk all she wanted about fish, but Libby had to deal with real food.

“So, Vivienne said she stopped by to see you on Saturday,” Gilda commented. Libby braced herself, expecting her ex-mother-in-law to pester her about her refusal to socialize with the eligible men Vivienne had lined up for her at the synagogue. Gilda surprised her by saying, “Vivienne said you’re having financial problems.”

Libby wasn’t sure how to respond. She bought time by yanking open the fridge and pulling out the package of ground beef she’d left in there to defrost that morning. It was still half-frozen, but it would thaw quickly enough when she browned it before mixing it into the tomato sauce for her pasta. “I’m okay,” she finally said, exercising discretion. Reva wasn’t within earshot, but she could appear at any moment. Libby didn’t want her to hear about the housing catastrophe that loomed before them.

“According to Vivienne, you aren’t okay at all. Libby,
bubbela,
what’s a family for if you won’t turn to them in times of trouble? Tell me what we can do. Irwin and I can help.”

“No, Gilda.” Wedging the phone between her ear and her shoulder, she unwrapped the meat, plopped it into a skillet and turned on the heat. Then she used the edge of a spatula to hack the frozen red core into smaller pieces. “It’s sweet of you to offer, but no.”

“I’m not sweet. Ask Irwin. He calls me his little
chrain.
You know what that is?”

“Horseradish,” Libby said. She had to eat the stuff every spring at Gilda’s Passover seder, and it always made her nose run.

“What a guy.” Gilda’s sigh sounded oddly affectionate. Her voice lost its gentle undertone when she continued. “Vivienne says if you don’t raise a lot of money, you might lose your apartment. She says it’s going co-op.”

Vivienne talks too much,
Libby thought, although she supposed she herself talked too much. She shouldn’t have told Vivienne about her financial crisis with the apartment—or else she should have told Vivienne not to share the news with her mother. Gilda might have the personality of a horseradish, but she had a cream-puff heart, and of course once she heard Libby was in trouble, she would want to intervene. Even if Libby wasn’t in trouble, she’d want to intervene.

“So what kind of money are we talking about?” Gilda pressed.

“A lot. But really, Gilda, you and Irwin shouldn’t be worrying about this.”

“If we could help—”

“You can’t. I mean it.” She wedged the phone between her ear and shoulder again, this time so she could fill a pot with water for the pasta. “Irwin’s retiring in, what, five years? You should be saving money for that. You can’t count on Social Security.”

“We’re saving, we’re saving. We have a nice fund, Libby. Don’t worry about us. We could spare a little.”

“A little won’t help,” Libby explained.

Gilda said nothing for a minute, then, “If it’s that much, you should ask Harry. Giving you money is the least he could do, the way he walked out on you and Reva for that new wife of his.”

“He does give me money,” Libby said. She hated defending her ex-husband, but she wasn’t going to lie about him. “He sends me a check every month.”

“For Reva. What does he ever do for you?”

He leaves me alone,
Libby answered silently, grateful for the fact that he did. “We both work,” she said, forcing patience into her tone. “We both earn incomes. We both agreed there was no need for alimony.”

“But he left you. A good woman, the mother of his child, and he left you for that stuck-up lady. You should’ve taken him to the cleaners, Libby, I always said.”

“He’s your son,” Libby reminded her.

“I should’ve raised him better….”

“Gilda. Stop it.” She stirred the browning meat vigorously. It sizzled and spat, just the way her temper would sizzle and spit if she loosened her grip on herself. After being trapped in the interview room with Shrill Will, she didn’t care to spend her evening listening to Shrill Gilda wallow in guilt over her son’s stupidity. Nor did Libby want to think about her housing situation. She
had
to think about it, but she didn’t want to. Thinking about it fried her, just like the meat in the pan.

She couldn’t give in to anger, though. Being a single parent meant staying in control, projecting confidence and serenity and not indulging in temper tantrums, even when they were called for and there was no therapeutic chocolate or wine within reach.

“Go to him, Libby,” Gilda urged her. “Tell him to be a mensch. He owes you,
bubby
.”

“That’s the problem. He
doesn’t
owe me.”

“He left you.”

And good riddance
, Libby thought. “A long time ago,” she said. “Everything was settled ten years ago. I can’t throw our divorce in his face and ask for more money. ”

“But it’s okay to let him throw his own daughter out in the street?”

Libby reminded herself that she really did love the woman on the other end of the line. “I appreciate your concern, Gilda, but I’ll figure out how to deal with this situation on my own, okay? It’s not Harry’s problem. It’s not your problem. Give me a chance to work on it.”

“I should take a hint, right? Fine. You’re upset and you wish I’d shut up—even though it’s my fault. I botched things when raising Harry, and now he’s a schmuck. Take it out on me. I deserve it for raising such a schmuck.”

“You didn’t raise a schmuck, Gilda,” Libby assured her, wincing at the sheer falsehood of that statement. “Just stop worrying, okay? Things will work out somehow.”

“They always do,” Gilda said, apparently trying to sound comforting, although her words lacked conviction. “But remember, he’s there, and it’s his daughter.”

“Okay. I’ll think about it,” Libby assured her. “I’ve got to go. The meat is burning.” She said goodbye and disconnected the call.

“So what’s going to work out somehow?” Reva asked from the doorway.

Great. She’d caught the end of the conversation. What else had she heard? “You know Grandma,” Libby said casually, pulling a box of linguini from a shelf and shaking out enough for their dinner. “She gets worried about nonsense.”

“What kind of nonsense?”

“Stuff about when Grandpa retires,” Libby said, pleased that that wasn’t a lie.

It wasn’t the truth, either, and Reva was too smart to let her get away with fudging. “If you don’t want to tell me, why don’t you just say so?” she asked petulantly, her mouth curving in a self-righteous scowl.

Libby didn’t want to tell her—but she couldn’t say so. Who knew how Reva would react to the news that they might lose their home? Nowadays, asking her to straighten up her room could trigger outrage and door slamming. Informing her that she soon might not have a room to straighten up…Libby didn’t even want to imagine the hysteria that would ensue.

Still, lying wasn’t a great strategy, either. “It’s just that this apartment is going co-op,” Libby said, praying that Reva wouldn’t understand the ramifications of her statement.

“Yeah, so?”

“So, I have to do a little recalculating.”

“Going co-op…” Reva entered the kitchen, sidestepped her mother and flopped onto one of the chairs at the tiny corner table. “Like, what exactly does that mean?”

“It means that our apartment will no longer be for rent, so if we’re going to stay here we have to buy it. Well, not outright buy it, but buy shares in the building proportionate to our unit. It’s kind of confusing.”

“I’m not an idiot,” Reva said. “Buying shares in the building is like buying the apartment, right?”

Libby sighed. “Right.”

“How much do we have to pay?”

Libby sighed again. “Too much.”

Reva shrugged. “Get the money from Dad.”

“Reva.” Was Libby the only person in the world who hated the idea of hitting up her ex-husband for large quantities of cash?

“He’s got plenty,” Reva pointed out. “You know what he charges his clients? Hundreds of dollars an hour. I figured
it out once, and he’s hauling in like over half a million dollars a year. And he doesn’t spend it all on food, because Bony never eats. She’s so skinny it’s disgusting.”

Reva’s mention of food drew Libby’s attention back to the stove. The water was boiling, and she added some dry linguini to it, then nudged the sticks of pasta down into the pot as the water softened them.

“You should buy fresh pasta,” Reva remarked. “Kim says it tastes better.”

Fresh pasta costs more, too.
If Libby had any hope of financing her apartment purchase without begging Harry for assistance—as everyone in the whole damn world seemed to think she should—she was going to have to start watching her pennies. No fresh pasta. Chuck steak, not sirloin. Store-brand ice cream instead of Ben & Jerry’s. Maybe she ought to race over to Gristede’s and stock up while the swordfish steak was on sale.

“Dry pasta tastes fine,” she said, then clamped her mouth shut before her frustration spilled out. Shrill Will’s whines had subsided to a background din in her skull, a grating accompaniment to the messy condition of her life. She did
not
want to go to Harry. She did
not
want to lose her apartment. She did
not
want the water to boil over the top of the pot, but it was doing just that, hissing as it spattered against the stove’s glowing red coils. She turned down the heat and stirred the pasta until the water sank back below the rim, then dealt with the meat, which was brown and dry, nearly burned.

She was an utter, abject failure. She couldn’t budget, she couldn’t cook and she couldn’t maintain her objectivity when she interviewed brats.

“So Kim and Ash and I are going to the park this Saturday,” Reva was saying, evidently no longer interested in discussing financial crises with her mother.

Frankly, Libby was no longer interested in the subject,
either. She wished it would just go away. “Who’s Ash?” she asked as she pulled a jar of tomato sauce from a shelf in the door of the refrigerator.

“Ashleigh Goldstein.”

“That girl with the black nail polish?”

“You don’t like black nail polish?”

“I didn’t say that,” Libby replied, eager to avoid an argument with Reva. One of the advantages of working at the Hudson School was that she was familiar with most of the kids and their manicures. Ashleigh Goldstein’s father was a Park Avenue orthodontist, and Ashleigh seemed determined to present herself as anything but the daughter of a Park Avenue orthodontist.

“What’s going on in the park on Saturday?” she asked. “You don’t have to collect more leaves, do you?”

“There’s always something going on in the park on Saturday,” Reva said.

“I meant, something specific. One of those toy boat regattas, or a kite-flying contest?”

Reva rolled her eyes. “Yeah, like Kim and me and Ash would want to watch a bunch of assholes fly kites or play with their little toy boats.”

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