Read The Fixer Upper Online

Authors: Judith Arnold

The Fixer Upper (9 page)

The top magazine on the pile at his elbow blared headlines that reinforced his decision to avoid such publications: Holiday Etiquette for Tots. The Truth Behind Weekend Soccer Headaches. Everything You Should Know about Palate Expanders.

He shifted the umbrella from hand to hand, unbuttoned his jacket and stared at the wall across from him, which featured a framed watercolor of children frolicking across a pastel-green field under a sunny blue sky—an idyllic scene as far removed from Manhattan’s Upper West Side as the
planet Pluto. He glanced at his watch: two minutes had passed since Mrs. Karpinsky’s departure. He stared at a bowl of cellophane-wrapped hard candies and wondered whether they’d been sent by an applicant as a bribe or were supplied by the school. Maybe Libby Kimmelman liked to pump the interviewees full of sugar to see just how rowdy they might get.

A girl peered into the waiting area, then stepped inside. Ned estimated her to be in her early teens. Her hair hung straight and dark past her shoulders, and she wore a snug-fitting, long-sleeved T-shirt and bell-bottom jeans. He issued a silent prayer of thanks that he’d never owned a pair of bell-bottoms. The last time they were popular, back in the seventies, he’d been too young for them, and now he was too old.

She seemed a little breathless, her cheeks flushed and her dark eyes glowing. When she moved her head her hair shifted, revealing dangly gold earrings. She carried a backpack slung over one shoulder and a nylon windbreaker in her hand. “Are you the only one here?” she asked him.

He had to think about his answer. Obviously, he was the only person in the waiting area, but other people were around somewhere, picking his boy apart. “My son is being interviewed right now,” he said. “And there was a receptionist—” he figured that title came close to describing the blonde “—but I don’t know where she went.”

“That’s Tara,” the girl said. She struggled against a smile, as if she didn’t want him to see how happy she was. He didn’t need her smile to sense her mood, however. Joy seemed to radiate from her eyes and vibrate in her limbs. “Who’s interviewing your son?”

“Libby Kimmelman,” he said, then paused. Should he be telling her this? Who was she? A Hudson student, he assumed, but still…

“Oh. Okay, great.” She flopped onto a chair across the waiting area from him, tossed her backpack and jacket onto an adjacent chair and swung her legs, too antsy to sit still.

After watching her for a moment, he lowered his eyes so she wouldn’t think he was staring at her. He checked his watch, then glanced up to notice her checking her watch.

Tara returned. “Hey, Reva!” she greeted the girl.

“Hi.” Once again, a smile threatened to explode across the girl’s face.

“Waiting for your mom?” Tara asked.

She nodded. “He said she’s interviewing his son,” she whispered.

The blonde smiled at Ned, then turned back to Reva. “Does your mom know you’re waiting for her?”

So this girl was Libby Kimmelman’s daughter. Ned recalled her mentioning a daughter when he’d met her, and here she was. This shouldn’t intrigue him, but it did. He immediately started analyzing the girl’s features. The eyes were her mother’s, large and dark, like those of a character in a Disney cartoon. The nose was not so much her mother’s. The cheeks and chin, yes. Libby Kimmelman’s hair was wavier than the girl’s.

Reva Kimmelman had a spectacular smile, even when she was trying to wrestle it into submission. He wondered if a full-fledged smile from the mother would light up the world the way the daughter’s did.

“You seem psyched about something,” Tara commented.

“I am,” Reva said, “but I’ve gotta tell my mom first.”

She turned her dark eyes to Ned. Did she resent him because his son was taking up her mother’s time? Well, she’d just have to cool her heels. He figured the longer Eric’s interview went, the better. He hoped Tara wouldn’t buzz Libby and mention that her daughter was bubbling over in the
waiting room; he didn’t want Libby to rush Eric out the door so she could see Reva.

“So how’s school going for you?” Tara asked Reva.

“Great. Really good,” Reva said, her leg swinging faster.

“Getting excited about moving on to the upper school next year?”

“I guess.” Reva shrugged and examined a lock of her hair, picking through it with her fingers. “How do you get your nails to grow in, Tara? Mine always come in uneven, and then they break.”

“Maybe you need more calcium in your diet,” the blonde said. “Or gelatin.”

“My friend Kim has to keep hers short because she plays the piano,” Reva said. “If she grows them too long, they tap on the keys and then her piano teacher gets pissed off. My other friend, Ashleigh, paints her nails black. They aren’t long, but they’re kind of disgusting. Do you think fake nails look real?”

“It depends. If they’re high quality and you shape and polish them, they can look pretty good.”

“Yours are real, though, right?”

“Yeah.” Tara scrutinized her hands and, apparently, liked what she saw.

Ned stifled a groan. One definition of hell might be finding yourself trapped with two females discussing their manicures.

The magazines at his elbow tempted him. Surely reading about palate expanders had to be more exciting than eavesdropping on the nails discussion. He lifted the top magazine, flipped through it and discovered it filled with photos of cheerful mothers playing with their children, concerned mothers measuring cough syrup into teaspoons for their children and an occasional mother-and-father pair flanking a child. No single fathers in this magazine.

At last, he heard a door open down the hall, and then voices—Eric’s and Libby Kimmelman’s. “So the thing about Linux,” Eric was saying, “is that it’s free. This guy who invented it believes software should be free. I really want to learn how to use Linux, but when I try to read about it on the Web, most of the stuff’s written in German.”

“That could be a problem,” Libby Kimmelman said. “Maybe you need to learn German.”

“Do they teach that here?”

“Not until sixth grade, I’m afraid,” she said. “Everyone gets some basic Spanish and French in the lower grades. Over in the upper school, they teach Latin.”

“That’s cool,” Eric said. “Nobody talks Latin, so it’s kind of like a secret language.”

They turned the corner into the waiting area, and Eric raced over to Ned just as Reva leaped from her chair and hurled herself at her mother. Before Ned could say hello, Reva let out a shriek. “Mom, guess what? I got a solo! Ms. Froiken gave me a solo!” She flung her arms around her mother and jumped up and down. “I get to sing ‘See me, feel me, touch me, heal me’!”

Ned caught Libby Kimmelman’s eye as he rose from his chair. Her daughter was clinging to her and leaping up and down, shaking her so wildly she could barely remain on her feet. She burst into laughter.

Ned laughed, too, because she looked pretty funny, her daughter bobbing like that, jerking her shoulders and babbling about a choral concert. Libby’s hair was tousled, her blazer pushed askew and her eyes as bright and full as her daughter’s. “Calm down, sweetie, and tell me everything,” she said.

Reva released her and danced in a little circle around the waiting area. “I tried out, remember? And at rehearsal today she announced the soloists. And I got a solo!” She pirouet
ted, giving her foot a graceful thrust into the air. “We’re doing
Tommy
, and I get to sing ‘See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.’ I can’t believe she gave me a solo!”

“She didn’t give it to you,” Libby said. “You earned it.” Ned thought that sounded like the kind of statement the magazine in his hand would advise a parent to make.

He glanced down at Eric, who wore a smirky smile, apparently finding Reva’s exuberance hilarious. Or maybe the smile reflected Eric’s assessment of how his interview went. Jesus, the kid was only ten. What did he know about interviews? He probably thought it was a huge success because he’d had a good time talking to Ms. Kimmelman. Ned had had a good time talking to her, too. Or it
would
have been a good time if he hadn’t been so damn conscious of the stakes.

Eric was carrying his warm-up jacket, and Ned tugged on it. “What do you say we hit the road,” he suggested quietly, not wishing to interrupt the Kimmelman celebration just a few feet away. “I see Mrs. Karpinsky made sure you were prepared for the weather.” The jacket was waterproof, with a hood. Ned wished he had his own warm-up jacket instead of the denim. At least he had an umbrella, thanks to Mrs. Karpinsky.

Eric donned the jacket and started toward the door, shouting, “G’bye, Ms. Kimmelman!” over his shoulder as if they were buddies likely to see each other again in a day or two.

Ned cringed at Eric’s informality, but the kid’s shout caught her attention. She extricated herself from her daughter’s crazed embrace and called across the room, “Goodbye, Eric. It was a pleasure meeting you.”

“It was a pleasure meeting you, too,” Eric said. From him the words emerged a little stilted, but he sounded earnest. He surprised Ned by adding, “So, I’ll e-mail you my Henry Hudson research paper, okay?”

“Okay,” she said, then lifted her gaze to Ned and gave him a smile that lit a fire in his gut.

Whoa. Why would she be smiling at him? She wouldn’t, except as a courtesy. The fact that he liked being the recipient of her smile a little too much was his problem, not hers. He nodded toward her, mumbled a quick thank-you and followed Eric out the door. Eric was already halfway down the hall and Ned had to jog to catch up to him.

At the building’s entry, Ned pulled Eric to a halt. Rain was now streaming down. “We’re going to need this sucker,” he said, studying the umbrella. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d used it. It had been Deborah’s. Umbrellas were a girl thing.

He was confident enough in his own manhood to use an umbrella, though—especially in a downpour. If only he could figure out how to open it. He pushed the button in the handle, but nothing happened.

“You have to take the outside part off first,” Eric pointed out.

Oh. Right. Ned pulled at the sleeve that enclosed the umbrella. It didn’t slide off easily; the ribs pressed against it. Probably because he’d pushed the handle button. The umbrella had opened inside the sleeve.

He tried to squeeze the ribs shut. He tried to peel off the sleeve. He tried to keep from cursing. Maybe umbrellas were a girl thing because guys were too stupid to figure them out.

Eventually, the sleeve slid off and the umbrella burst open. As soon as it did, he heard a shout from down the hall: “No!” Turning, he saw the Kimmelmans, mother and daughter, hurrying toward him. The daughter had donned her windbreaker; her backpack was slung over one shoulder. The mother carried a leather briefcase. Her shout seemed to have been directed at him.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

She raced toward him, although her speed was limited by her slim-fitting skirt and her stack-heeled shoes. “You shouldn’t open an umbrella indoors,” she explained. “It’s bad luck.”

Ned laughed. Then he stopped laughing, because she looked so serious. “Bad luck?”

“Don’t walk under a ladder. Don’t let a black cat cross your path. Don’t open an umbrella indoors. Didn’t your mother teach you anything?” She smiled slightly, but he was pretty sure she believed what she was saying.

“That’s superstition,” he argued.

Her expression was oddly defiant. “Who cares? You’re still not supposed to open an umbrella indoors.”

“Well, I guess we’ll just take this thing outside, then,” Ned said, leaning against the door to open it. Eric scooted out, and Ned continued to hold the door for the Kimmelmans. They eyed the rain, the water-slick stairs leading down to the sidewalk and, finally, each other.

It dawned on Ned that they didn’t have an umbrella—which seemed like a lot worse luck than anything that might befall him because he’d opened his indoors.

His gaze traveled from the rain to Libby Kimmelman in her neatly tailored suit. “Where are you heading?” he asked.

“Home. West End Avenue at 75th. We’ll be fine,” she assured him, although her eyes narrowed as she stared out at the rain.

“That’s on our way,” he told her, extending the umbrella toward her. “Here you go.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t—”

“I don’t need an umbrella,” Reva said, darting between her mother and Ned and joining Eric outside on the rain-spattered steps. “‘I’m free!’” she sang in a sweet soprano. She stood with her arms outstretched, her face turned up to
catch the rain, and sang, more loudly, “‘I’m fre-e-ee!’” Ned recognized it as an excerpt from
Tommy
.

“What she is is wet,” her mother muttered.

“Come on.” Ned crossed the threshold, the umbrella arched over his head and Libby’s. “Let the kids get wet. It won’t kill them.” Before she could object, he angled the umbrella toward the stairs, beckoning her to join him.

She could have remained behind and let the rain soak her, but she was obviously too smart for that. With a shy smile, she fell into step beside him.

Nine

I
t wasn’t his fault that he had to stand so close to her; if they didn’t huddle together under the umbrella, they’d get wet. So he cozied up to her, the umbrella’s handle between them, and headed down the street.

The kids wanted no part of the umbrella, which didn’t surprise him. Up in Vermont, Eric had acted impervious to the weather. He would have worn shorts year-round if Ned had let him, and on a few occasions he’d tried to leave for school without a jacket in the dead of winter. “I’ve got a sweatshirt on,” he’d complain when Ned hauled him back inside and ordered him to put on his parka.

Today was fairly warm, at least, so while his son and Libby Kimmelman’s daughter might get wet, they wouldn’t get chilled. Eric probably wouldn’t even get that wet, since Mrs. Karpinsky had had the foresight to make him bring an appropriate jacket. Reva’s windbreaker offered her a little
protection—not much, but her behavior implied that she didn’t care. She loped ahead of Libby and Ned, zigzagging between the buildings and the curb and belting out excerpts from
Tommy.
“‘Tommy, can you hear me?’” she sang at top volume. If Tommy was anywhere within the five boroughs or northern Jersey, Ned thought, he could hear her.

“She’s been trying out for solos for the past few years, but she never got one,” Libby explained. She seemed almost as excited as her daughter, her smile filling the half of her face that wasn’t taken up by her eyes. “I know how badly she wanted a solo, and this is her last year in the lower school. I’m so thrilled for her.”

Reva was obviously even more thrilled. Teenagers often acted blasé about things that really ought to turn them on.
Blasé
didn’t apply to Libby’s daughter, however. She jogged to and fro, arms outstretched, backpack bobbing against her shoulder as she sang. Eric appeared bewildered by her behavior, but he was still at the age when boys believed girls were congenitally insane. Reva’s zany exuberance probably strengthened that conviction. He gave her a wide berth so she wouldn’t stampede him in her romps around the sidewalk, but he watched her like an entomologist observing a new species of insect.

“Won’t she ruin her voice, trying to sing louder than all the street noise?” Ned asked Libby. If he could hear her over the din of auto and bus traffic, she had to be singing pretty loudly.

“What noise?” Libby laughed. “Your Vermont roots are showing. This is quiet for New York.”

If this—the honking horns, the rumbling engines, the whoosh of tires spinning through puddles and the drumming of rain on the taut umbrella—was Libby Kimmelman’s idea of quiet, he’d hate to think what her idea of loud was. Maybe, if Eric got into the Hudson School and they decided
to remain in Manhattan instead of moving to a suburb, Ned would get used to the noise, too.

And he wasn’t sure he and Eric would stay in Manhattan if he couldn’t get Eric into a better school than the one he was currently attending.

How did the kid’s interview go? Did Libby even remember it? Ever since she’d emerged from her office, she’d been one hundred percent focused on her own child. Ned didn’t blame her, but what about Eric? He struggled to figure out a discreet way of asking Libby about the time—nearly an hour—she’d spent with his son.

She glanced at him and, evidently, saw the unvoiced question in his expression. “You’re curious about Eric’s interview,” she guessed.

“Yeah,” he confessed. “Can you tell me anything?”

She studied his face for a moment, then turned forward as they approached a corner. “It went fine.”

Now, that was an informative answer, he thought sarcastically.

“I really—I’m sorry, but it would be unethical for me to go into detail with you, Mr. Donovan.”

“Ned,” he corrected.

“Ned.” A smile flickered across her lips. “Eric is a smart, funny boy. Poised and self-confident. I would never have suspected that he was new to the city, or that he…well, he’s faced some challenges most kids his age never have to know.”

Ned’s pity meter sent out a preliminary warning signal, but before he could say anything about Deborah, Libby continued. “I’m still not sure how many openings we’ll have in next year’s fifth-grade class, or how many applicants we’ll have for those openings. But for what it’s worth, Eric’s right in the thick of it.”

Still not what Ned hoped to hear. He wanted her to say
she’d been blown away by Eric, downright flabbergasted by his brilliance and charm, willing to kick someone out of the Hudson School to make room for him, if necessary.

“Right in the thick of it” wasn’t bad, though.

“He and I discussed Egyptology,” she added. “I gather you took him to the Egypt exhibit at the Met recently.”

“A couple of months ago,” Ned told her. “He liked walking through the pyramid.”

“He liked more than that. He told me he’s been reading up on the Internet about hieroglyphics. He seems fascinated with codes and languages.”

“Either that, or he’s fascinated with the Internet.” That she continued to talk about Eric while her daughter danced around a puddle and let her voice soar over West End Avenue struck Ned as a good sign. He waited for Libby to tell him more—did a fascination with codes and languages give a Hudson School applicant an edge?—but she fell silent when her shoulder bumped his and she stumbled on an uneven slab of sidewalk.

He reflexively cupped her elbow with his hand to steady her. The rain lifted a tangy scent from her hair, which glistened with drops of moisture. As soon as she’d regained her footing he let go of her and reminded himself that he shouldn’t be thinking about the way her hair smelled, or the delicate feel of her elbow. She was the woman who could decide his son’s fate, and she was a mother, and she probably had a loving husband hurrying home through the rain right now, eager to arrive at her apartment at the same time she and their daughter did.

“That’s our building,” she said, pointing to a large limestone structure. He didn’t spot any fatherly men racing toward it and waving at them, but he did notice the building: classic prewar, the pale stone edifice lined with broad windows set into ornate brickwork in the facade. A large per
manent awning trimmed in wrought iron extended above the leaded-glass double doors.

Reva darted ahead and stood in the shelter of the awning. Eric arrived beneath the overhang two steps behind her, leaving as much space between them as he could.

“Can we have champagne, Mom?” Reva asked once Libby and Ned joined them.

“Of course,” Libby said.

Champagne? Reva was just a kid. Ned wasn’t a stickler for rules, but he couldn’t imagine giving Eric champagne. That might be because Ned didn’t think much of the stuff himself. If he wanted something bubbly and alcoholic, beer worked better.

Libby must have once again guessed his thoughts, because she chuckled. “Ginger ale in champagne flutes,” she explained. “It’s the way we celebrate big events. Want to join us in a toast?” As soon as the invitation was out, she appeared startled. Her cheeks darkened slightly, although that could have just been an illusion caused by the awning’s shadow. “It was so nice of you to walk us home, sharing your umbrella and all,” she added, justifying her hospitality.

If he was smart, he’d say no. He remembered all the reasons he wasn’t supposed to think about Libby Kimmelman as anyone other than a school administrator who could change his son’s life—and the likely existence of a husband was the most important reason. She wasn’t wearing a wedding band, he noticed as he glimpsed her left hand, but nowadays that didn’t mean much.

Yet this building, this magnificent old prewar with its rococo facade…Damn, but he’d love to see what her apartment looked like. “Sure,” he said. “How about it, Eric? You want some ginger ale in a champagne flute?”

“What’s a champagne flute?” Eric asked.

“A fancy glass.”

Eric considered for about a second. “I like ginger ale,” he informed Libby.

She smiled tentatively, as if she wasn’t quite thrilled about the way things were turning out. If Ned changed his mind and declined the invitation, would Eric fare better in his application?

The hell with it. He wanted to get inside this building. And she was right—it had been mighty nice of him to walk her home.

They entered the building together, Ned carefully folding his umbrella shut to avoid offending her superstitions. A bored doorman in a navy blue topcoat and hat smiled and nodded mechanically at Libby, gave Ned a questioning stare and then went back to the magazine he was flipping through. “Let me just check my mail,” she asked, ducking into a room off the lobby. Ned watched her fumble with her key for a minute before she finally inserted it in the narrow door and pulled it open. Several envelopes spilled to the floor. He considered entering the mail room to help her gather the letters, but thought she might read too much into his chivalry. So he remained where he was and let her scoop them up. She stuffed them into a side pocket of her briefcase, straightened and shoved her hair back. It seemed to have doubled in volume during her walk home. The rain had made it thick with waves and curls, and droplets glistened as if someone had spread a net of diamonds over it.

They moved as a group to the elevators, pressed the button and piled into the car. The lobby hadn’t been too unusual—a floor of black and white marble tiles in a checkerboard pattern, black marble accents on the walls, bronze sconces that produced a little less light than he deemed safe in an apartment lobby. But the elevator was something else. It was paneled, the wood polished to a high sheen and trimmed with bright brass fittings. The
buttons on the control panel appeared fairly new—no numbers worn off—but they were dark tortoise shell, a classy touch.

“The apartment’s probably a mess,” Libby apologized as they rode up. “Things are usually chaotic in the morning when we’re rushing around, and—”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure our place is worse.”

“Mrs. Karpinsky makes me pick up all my stuff,” Eric complained.

“Good woman. She’s worth every penny I pay her.” Even if she smelled like oatmeal, Ned added silently.

The elevator bumped to a halt and they emerged. The air had a familiar, pleasant scent. Clean laundry, Ned identified it. A few years ago, he wouldn’t have recognized that dryer-sheet fragrance, but he’d learned a lot about laundry since Deborah had died.

Libby didn’t fumble her keys this time. She opened an apartment door and stepped inside. Ned held Eric back to let Reva in first—he’d have to work with the boy on his manners. Reva waltzed through the entry, singing once more. “‘See me…fe-e-eel me…’”

Ned paused in the entry. It was spectacular.

Chaotic, maybe—if one had a low tolerance for chaos. A closet door hung open, revealing a jumble of coats, jackets, hangers and enough scarves to warm every neck in Alaska. A sloppy pile of fliers occupied a small mail table, and Libby hastily set her briefcase atop them, effectively hiding them. A single pink shower sandal lay on the floor of the hallway.

But what a floor! Herringbone parquet in various oak stains, bordered with a dark oak trim. The finish was dull and scuffed, but the craftsmanship blew Ned away.

So did the square footage. The foyer alone was as large as his kitchen, and the living room that opened off it had a fireplace.

Without asking for permission, he strode into the living room. If the hearth, which held nothing but a thin layer of dust, was any indication, no one had burned a fire here in years. But the fireplace was a thing of beauty, flanked by ridged moldings and topped by an ornate mantel, which, like the moldings, was slathered in off-white enamel paint. He rapped his knuckles on the shelf and heard wood under the paint—and something else under the wood. Marble, he’d bet.

“This is incredible,” he said.

Eric laughed. “I told you my dad was a fixer upper,” he reminded Libby. “Wherever he goes, he has to check stuff out and figure out how to fix it up.”

A drop of water hit the toe of Ned’s work boot, and he carried the dripping umbrella back into the foyer. Seeing no obvious storage place, he propped it in a corner as Libby shoved the closet door shut. Opposite the living-room door, another doorway opened onto the dining room, and through it he saw a long trestle table covered with papers and files. The furniture in the living room and dining room was old and shabby. The apartment was old and shabby, too, but God, what potential.

“Is the fireplace operational?” he asked.

Libby smiled awkwardly. “I have no idea.”

“You don’t know?”

“I’ve never used it. Eric, can I take your coat?” She extended her arm to Eric, who obediently unzipped his jacket and handed it to her. She hooked the hood over the cut-glass doorknob of the closet.

“How can you have a fireplace and not use it?”

“I’ve never built a fire,” she admitted. “The house I grew up in didn’t have a fireplace, and I never joined the Girl Scouts.”

“The one time we tried to roast marshmallows, we had
to do it over a burner on the stove,” Reva muttered, shaking her head.

“That was a disaster,” Libby added with a laugh. “The marshmallows dripped all over the coils. What a mess!”

Ned turned back to study the fireplace from a distance. “You ought to strip the paint off the mantel and moldings and find out what’s underneath. A fireplace like that is a treasure.”

“Oh, sure.” She laughed again, but stopped when he didn’t join her. He hadn’t said anything funny, certainly not about her fireplace.

“These floors are terrific, too,” he added. “If you polished them and slapped on a fresh layer of polyurethane, the place could pass for a ballroom.” He fell silent when he realized she was staring at him. What kind of asshole was he, to come into this woman’s home, go nuts over the construction and then advise her to renovate the place?

“If I could afford a fixer upper, I’d refinish those floors and unbury the fireplace treasure,” she said, startling him even more. How could she live in an apartment this spacious, with its high ceilings and crown moldings, and
not
be able to afford a renovation? The place had to be worth a fortune. If she could afford to live here, surely she could afford whatever she wanted.

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