Read The Fixer Upper Online

Authors: Judith Arnold

The Fixer Upper (8 page)

He might have smiled the day their divorce was finalized. Libby vaguely recalled his mouth curving when she’d told him he could take the lamps, Ethel’s ugly china and the coat tree in the foyer.

So he didn’t smile on a regular basis. She could smile enough for both of them. And if he came through with the down payment, she’d be smiling enough for the entire population of New York.

As soon as he left, Reva emerged from her bedroom, smiling enough for Libby. “That went pretty well, huh, Mom?”

“You were eavesdropping?”

“Daddy yells,” Reva said with a shrug. She bounded past Libby, into the kitchen, and pulled a box of chocolate-chip cookies from a cabinet shelf. They were a low-fat brand, which meant they tasted like dried spackle, but the chocolate chips still resonated. “He always talks like he’s addressing the Supreme Court, you know? And he’s not even a…what’s the word? It sounds like an alligator.”

“A litigator,” Libby said helpfully.

“Yeah, that’s it. I mean, it’s like, he doesn’t exactly argue cases in some courtroom like the guy on
Law & Order
and make big moral speeches or something. All he does is sit in his office, reading the fine print.”

“Maybe he likes to orate to us because he doesn’t get a chance to orate professionally,” Libby suggested. Insulting Harry in front of Reva wasn’t exactly kosher, but the kid had her father so perfectly pegged nothing Libby could say would alter Reva’s opinion of him. “Why are you eating cookies? Didn’t you just have dinner?”

Reva glanced at the cookie in her hand, as if she’d forgotten it was there. Shrugging again, she popped it into her mouth. “Bonnie wouldn’t let me order dessert. She wouldn’t hear of it. Her words. ‘I wouldn’t
hear
of it,’” Reva said in an affectedly nasal voice.

Libby laughed. “You’re a very bad girl,” she said, reaching for the box and helping herself to a cookie. “You shouldn’t mimic Bonnie like that.”

Reva ignored her. “So, we get to keep the apartment, right?”

“You heard your father. He said he has to think about it.”

“That means yes,” Reva said with blithe certainty. She grabbed another cookie from the box and set it on the counter. “I’ve gotta call Kim about
The Waste Land
. Bony told me T. S. Eliot was an anti-Semite. That sucks.” She chomped down on her cookie and waltzed out of the kitchen.

Libby watched her, envying her energy, her optimism and her ability to consume cookies without fretting over calories like her stepmother. Or her mother, who tucked in the box’s lid and replaced the cookies on their cabinet shelf. Someday Reva would be thirty-five, and she’d have to worry about cookies and mortgages and even, possibly, God forbid, an ex-husband. But now she was thirteen and all she had to worry about was a dead poet.

Lucky girl.

Eight

“S
he’s hot for you,” Mitch murmured.

One reason he’d put Ned in charge of the Colwyn project was so he could focus his energies on preparing bids for other jobs. This was why he’d been so glad to take Ned on, he’d explained; he knew Ned had the expertise to manage jobs, freeing Mitch to pursue new projects. In time, Ned would start writing specs and bids, too. But specs and bids for New York City renovations were different from specs and bids for tottering old farmhouses nestled among the rolling green hills of Vermont, so until Ned became more familiar with the local regulations and the costs of doing business in the city, Mitch wanted him on site, overseeing the actual labor.

That was fine with Ned. Unlike a lot of his architecture classmates in college, he had always enjoyed getting his hands dirty. He was the son of a cop and a housewife, and
growing up, he’d shared his bedroom with two brothers. Desks and drafting tables were no more his natural element than ritzy private schools were.

But although Mitch had installed Ned as the manager of the Colwyn job, he still came around to monitor its progress. Today, in fact, Ned had asked him to take over at three so he could leave early. By three-thirty, Mrs. Karpinsky would have delivered Eric to Libby Kimmelman’s office at the Hudson School for his interview. Ned had to be there in time to walk his son home.

He’d spent the day trying not to obsess about the interview. Eric wasn’t the least bit anxious about it. He believed being granted admission to the Hudson School would represent the fulfillment of his destiny. Nice to be so sure of yourself, Ned thought—not that he’d ever been overwhelmed by self-doubt, but he had a passing acquaintance with reality, and he knew damn well that sometimes things didn’t work out the way they were supposed to.

Eric could handle the director of admissions. He wouldn’t notice her big dark eyes and that intriguing hesitancy in her smile. He’d think nothing of her rippling brown hair, and if he shook her hand he wouldn’t be aware of how soft her skin was, and how firm her grip. Yeah, Eric would probably do just fine in his thirty-minute face-off with her.

The scent of coffee dragged Ned’s attention back to the brightly lit loft in the Meatpacking District. Most of the walls had been framed, and the place resembled a rustic jail, lots of vertical two-by-fours dividing the loft into room-size cages. Macie Colwyn had swept in just minutes after Mitch arrived, and she’d brought with her a cardboard tray filled with cups of coffee from a café she swore was so exquisite, Starbucks ought to change its name to Earthbucks. Ned wasn’t sure what that meant, but then, he was no coffee con
noisseur. As long as it was strong, black and heavily caffeinated, he had no complaints.

The three carpenters on the crew had helped themselves to cups of coffee and were hard at work shaping the doorways and positioning the electric boxes for the sockets and light switches. Ned had joined Mitch by the card table to drink his coffee while reviewing everything that had been accomplished so far. He’d left the lid on the cup—pine-scented sawdust floated in the air, and he didn’t want it floating in his coffee—and drinking through the square opening lent the gourmet brew a plastic taste. If it was better than Starbucks, he couldn’t tell.

“Who’s hot for me?” he asked Mitch.

“Macie Colwyn. Look at the way she’s watching you. No, don’t look,” Mitch murmured, peering past Ned. The woman must be somewhere behind him. When she’d made her grand entrance with the coffee ten minutes ago, she’d resembled an ostrich, her long, thin legs wobbly thanks to her spike-heeled boots, and her tufted purple-tinged hair reminding Ned of gaudy feathers. “She wants you,” Mitch insisted.

Ned kept his gaze steady on his friend’s face. Mitch was the antithesis of Macie Colwyn, a complete absence of whimsy. His dark hair was unremarkably short and he dressed, like Ned, in faded jeans, sturdy shirts and steel-toed boots, even on days when he spent most of his time in the office. When he and Ned had been classmates at Penn, he’d worn his hair down past his shoulders and refused to sport jeans that didn’t have at least a few holes in them. But age and the responsibility of running a business could compel a man to groom himself.

“I can practically see her breathing from here,” Mitch warned. “We’re talking heavy breathing, Ned. Panting.”

“Maybe she’s got asthma,” Ned suggested, keeping his
voice as subdued as Mitch’s. Then he added, because it needed to be said, “She’s married.” Under the din of one crew member’s hammer, another’s power drill and a third’s boom box, which played syncopated salsa through pathetically tinny speakers, Macie was unlikely to hear them.

“Have you met her husband? He’s a gargoyle,” Mitch said.

“Yeah, but he’s a billionaire gargoyle. When you’re that rich, your looks don’t matter.”

“So she’s married,” Mitch argued. “She’s still lusting. I bet she got turned on by your suggestion of the columns last week. Columns are phallic.”

She had indeed been excited by Ned’s column idea for her living room. Every day when he showed up at the loft, she asked when the columns would be arriving. Every day he explained to her that they would be among the final pieces installed. They were merely decorative, which meant they got added after all the structural work was done.

“If she’s lusting,” he deadpanned, “it’s only because I’m so irresistible. I don’t need columns for sex appeal.”

“Not construction columns, anyway. Just stay alert for her,” Mitch said, barely moving his lips. “She’s a Greek goddess. She wants a temple, and you’re just the guy to give her one.”

Ned grinned. His anatomical column had no interest in her whatsoever, and he hoped she would find another temple to worship in. He took a final slurp of coffee before lifting his jacket from one of the chairs and putting it on. “I’ve gotta go, Mitch,” he said. “Keep your fingers crossed that Eric does okay at this interview.”

“He’ll do great,” Mitch predicted. “And if it doesn’t work out, you can always move to the ’burbs. Some of them have terrific school systems.” Mitch lived in a pricey town up in Westchester—the smallest house in town, he always joked,
but Ned had seen it and it was pretty big for a small house—and his kids were allegedly getting a superlative education thanks to that town’s public schools, for which Mitch paid almost as much in taxes as a private school’s tuition would run. Ned wasn’t knocking Mitch’s choice, but in his mind suburbs were for intact families, husband-and-wife pairings, two drivers to make use of the two-car garage. Besides, he and Eric really liked the city. They liked the noise and the bustle and their cozy little apartment. Eric’s public school was the only gripe.

Ned wondered if Macie Colwyn was watching him as he strode around a wall of vertical two-by-fours to the door and out. The only reason he cared was that if she wanted him, other women might want him, too. One reason he’d moved to New York, after all, was to meet women—smart, attractive women who didn’t hire plastic surgeons to remodel their faces and bodies with the same ease they hired people like him to remodel their real estate.

A gray gloom hovered over the city as he exited the building onto West 12th Street. Sometimes, Ned had discovered, the city seemed gloomy even on a sunny day because the buildings were so tall they blocked out half the sky and most of the sun. But the buildings in the Meatpacking District weren’t that tall, and the gray was definitely caused by heavy clouds that must have rolled in while he’d been working. He lifted the collar of his denim jacket around his neck and jogged to the nearest subway station.

The train was relatively empty—a big change from his usual ride home at the end of the day, when half the city seemed to be crammed into a single subway car with him. Settling onto one of the molded plastic seats, he recalled life in Woodstock, Vermont, where folks would joke that rush hour meant four cows crossing the road from one pasture to another at the same time.

The subway’s tremors and sways were easier to take sitting down. Ned stretched his legs out in front of him, closed his eyes and tried to picture Eric walking into Libby Kimmelman’s elegant paneled office. Would he be impressed? Probably not. He knew a few things about quality construction, thanks to his dad, but he was too young to care about the trappings of power. And Ms. Kimmelman was young and pretty. She wouldn’t scare him. He’d probably tell her all about his research on Henry Hudson, his interest in learning Linux computer programming, his preference for contoured skis and the difference between cold fronts and occluded fronts.

Ned hoped these were areas of interest that the Hudson School valued in a kid. If they weren’t, Ms. Kimmelman could stuff Eric’s application up her snobby nose with a sterling-silver spoon.

Actually, her nose wasn’t that little, he recalled. It was a prominent nose. An interesting nose.

That was what he’d come to New York for: not just women who wanted him, but women with interesting noses. The thought made him laugh, which eased his tension a little.

He got off the train at West 79th and climbed the stairs to the street. A drizzle had begun, and he darted among the raindrops down the block and around the corner to the Hudson School’s trio of brownstones. He raced up the stairs of the one on the left and ducked inside.

He remembered the woman behind the counter in the front office—same drab, gray-streaked hair, same oversize eyeglasses—but a whole new battalion of flowers decorated the place. One bouquet consisted entirely of yellow roses, one featured an array of autumn-hued chrysanthemums, one comprised a cluster of exotic blooms he couldn’t identify and one was a tortured arrangement of bent branches,
dried flowers and minimalist leaves. He wondered if they’d all accompanied applications—and if he should have ignored Libby Kimmelman and her assistant and sent some flowers to ensure that Eric’s application would be viewed favorably. Maybe he should have sent a loofah—or better yet, hand-delivered one.

“May I help you?” the woman in the eyeglasses asked.

“I’m Ned Donovan. My son is having an interview with Libby Kimmelman,” he said, moving toward the corridor he’d gone down the last time he’d been here.

She stopped him with a sharp reprimand. “You can’t go wandering around the building unescorted. Please wait.”

He might have responded that he had no interest in wandering around the building, except that wouldn’t be true. He would love to roam the halls of the grand old building and peek into classrooms. He’d scope out the facilities to see what kind of library, gym, art studio and science lab twenty-plus grand a year in tuition would pay for. Eric had told him the students emerging from the Hudson School always looked happy, and Ned would like to observe some of those happy students.

But he supposed he wouldn’t want his kid attending a school where strange men wandered around the building unescorted, so he gathered his patience and stood where he was while Eyeglasses summoned someone over the phone. The chipper blond girl. He recognized her the moment she appeared at the end of the corridor, jangling costume jewelry and wearing a short skirt that showed off her youthful legs. What had her name been? Tina? Tessa? Something pert.

“Libby is interviewing your son right now,” she told him as she accompanied him down the corridor to the admissions office.

“How is the interview going?” he asked.

She shrugged. “He hasn’t raced out of the office in tears, if that means anything.”

Ned found her words less than reassuring. Trying not to frown, he followed her into the waiting area. Mrs. Karpinsky sat in one of the chairs, a bulky tote bag emblazoned with the logo for Channel Thirteen, the city’s public TV station, propped on the floor between her legs, and a Game Boy clasped in her hands. She worked the buttons deftly despite the arthritic bumps that swelled from the joints of her thumbs, and the toy emitted metallic beeping sounds.

“Hello, Mrs. Karpinsky,” he said in greeting. Even though he was her employer, he always called her Mrs. Karpinsky because she looked like someone’s grandmother—which, in fact, she was. In deference to her age, he wouldn’t feel comfortable calling her Fannie.

She glanced up and smiled, her gray hair mussed and her eyes overly bright from focusing on the game’s tiny screen. “So, you finally decided to get here?”

He checked his watch. “I got here when I said I would.”

“You’re wet.” She gestured toward his drizzle-damp hair. “Fortunately, I had the good sense to bring an umbrella. Two umbrellas. One is mine. The other one I found in your closet. I brought it so you and Eric can get home without catching pneumonia.” She poked around in her tote and pulled out a compact umbrella. When Ned leaned toward her to take it, he caught a whiff of a familiar scent.

Oatmeal.

“I don’t suppose you need me anymore,” she announced, turning off her game and tucking it inside her tote. “I expect to get paid for the entire afternoon, of course.”

“Of course.” Her bluntness amused him.

“And remind Eric to do his homework. He hasn’t even glanced at it yet. I’m out of here.” Mrs. Karpinsky enunci
ated the slang phrase too clearly, as if she wasn’t speaking her native tongue.

“Thanks for bringing Eric,” Ned said. He remained standing until she’d gathered her tote and sauntered out of the room, her crepe-soled shoes squeaking against the polished floor.

The blond girl skipped off and Ned settled into one of the seats. A few magazines lay on the end table by his elbow, but they were the same sort of child-oriented magazines Eric’s pediatrician in Vermont had always left out for the parents to thumb through, and those magazines invariably troubled Ned. Reading them made him far too aware of how inept he was as a parent. Articles answered questions he would never have thought to ask: “Will forcing my child to use the potty cause him to become neurotic?” “Can you publish a few recipes for legumes that my children will enjoy?” “What are some effective reading-readiness exercises?”

Reading-readiness exercises? Were they like sit-ups and push-ups? Ned and Deborah had read to Eric until one day, when Eric was about five, he’d started reading the books to them. Was that an exercise or simply sharing a book with a kid? Was Ned a deficient dad for not knowing the difference?

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