The following week, a few days after her thirty-eighth birthday, Cindy Prior asked Sara to meet her at the corner of 20th and Cherry, just a few blocks from where Sara worked. They walked together over cracked and buckled sidewalk down a row of distraught houses. When they reached a faded yellow-brown bungalow, Cindy swung open her arms as if to embrace it.
“Ta-da!” Cindy’s enthusiasm only confused Sara until she added, “It’s mine! It’s my house!” She fished a set of keys from her khakis. “We can go inside and everything!”
They entered through the kitchen, which seemed like it had served the previous owner more as a mud room. The refrigerator was avocado green, and the stove the grisly scene of perhaps one aborted attempt at a meal.
“Everything’s original, and there’s a lot of potential,” Cindy said, quoting her real estate agent and friend Jane Hind. Sara heard more of Jane’s euphemistic descriptions — “classy lines,” “unique,” “old Seattle” — as Cindy escorted her through the house. Off the kitchen were two small bedrooms, one putatively the master but by too small a degree to lord over the other. Instead of a showcase interior, the perfect idealized moment in home owning captured for display, the front room looked as if people arguing about money had left suddenly and violently.
“My lease isn’t up at the Wallingford apartment until the end of the year,” Cindy said, “so you don’t have to feel any rush to leave. And, you know, you can always stay here… once it’s ready for me… or us… to move in. I mean, I know you wanted your own place.”
Sara was only interested in privacy. She’d legally owned two houses with Matt, but she could never maintain a quiet space in either of them.
“Have you had the property inspected?” Sara asked.
“Yeah, Jane has been super helpful. She referred me to a friend of hers who handled it for a fair price.”
“It’s quite a purchase,” Sara said delicately, because the tattered residence was still likely beyond Cindy’s reach, at least on her own.
“My dad loaned me money for the down payment,” she confessed, “… a big part, to be honest… well, all of it, actually. He won’t even consider it a loan. He was so thrilled to help. When I discussed it with him, he just laughed and said, ‘Sure, Captain! You’ve never asked for anything.’”
“You never asked him to stop calling you Captain?” Sara wondered.
“Now you have to see this!” Cindy pushed open the front door, which rattled uneasily on its hinges and revealed a sweeping wraparound porch. “It’s my favorite part of the whole house.” She stopped to look at Sara with consoling eyes. “I’m sorry. This doesn’t bother you, does it?”
Sara cocked her blonde head, considering. “No, I like porches.”
“Oh, I mean, well, your old house had that spectacular porch. I was so peanut butter jealous whenever I came over.” Cindy pulled on her rusty curls like someone trying to straighten lopsided blinds. “But, you know, ‘isn’t that nice?’ jealous not Corinthians jealous.”
“Right,” Sara replied. She had lived in the house on 17th and Prospect for almost a decade, but the day she left, it just felt like checking out of a luxury hotel after a long stay. “I still like porches,” she reassured Cindy.
The swing had left with a past occupant, and orphaned twin chains hung from the ceiling, no longer securing anything. Sara gripped them briefly as if building momentum to propel herself to the knee wall, where she sat and looked out over the faded, ragged lawn.
“So, what do you think?” Cindy zipped and unzipped her down vest as she sat next to Sara. “Do you like the place? Should I keep it?”
Sara frowned. “I thought you’d already bought it.” The closest Sara’s voice came to alarm was when she learned she’d proceeded into a discussion while misunderstanding its key premise.
“Yeah, I have!” Cindy still glowed with the pleasure from her impulsiveness. “But Jane said I have three business days from the closing to kill the deal without penalty.”
Jane usually joked to her clients that this period was the “first trimester of the sale,” but she’d correctly guessed that Cindy wouldn’t appreciate the humor.
“I don’t think my opinion is as relevant as yours,” Sara said.
“Oh, but it is! Maybe even more so. I’m too close to this. It’s like being in love.” Cindy had no personal example to illustrate her point, so instead she said, “When Tim brought home Cyndi, he said he didn’t know how right she was until he saw how much we all loved her. So, you see, it’s really important to me to know how you feel.”
What Sara felt right now was the sudden force of Cindy hurling a decision at her like a medicine ball. She caught her breath and started to speak into her steepled fingers.
“Well,” she said, “this is only my casual observation, but it seems to me the house is in a significant state of disrepair. The exterior paint is peeling and mildewed. The basement is damp. The flooring in the front room will need to be replaced and the sloping addressed. There’s black mold in the bathroom. There’s a steady leak from the roof into the first bedroom. The second has a smell I can’t identify, but it’s possible something died behind one of the walls in the closet.”
“Oh, sure,” Cindy agreed with the trusting reliance of a blind woman being led across a four-lane highway. “But there’s a nice-sized dining room. I could put a real table in there, and I’m already dreaming up all the fun meals I could serve.”
Cindy loved to entertain but it was unrequited. Her apartment was too small; its location not ideal, so she was always a guest and never a hostess. She patted the knee wall, which coughed up dust. “Can’t you imagine sitting out here on a nice day with a beer?” Remembering who she was talking to, she added, “… or a lemonade? Or barbecuing in the backyard?”
“The grass in the backyard is run down and sparse,” Sara noted, “and where there’s no grass, there’s mud and large holes. I think the previous owners had dogs — probably German Shepherds based on the dirt path around the fence.”
Cindy perched her chin on her folded hands. “They’re very happy running in circles, aren’t they?” She spoke as if she saw the former canine tenants romping through the backyard. “Not really going anyplace.”
“I don’t think happiness is what they feel,” Sara said. “They’re just reacting on instinct.”
“Oh, you’re probably right,” Cindy conceded without a struggle, “but I hope that’s not true. Even if they tore up the yard, I’d hate for them to be unhappy.”
“But they’re not unhappy,” Sara stressed, “because they don’t worry about being happy. That’s how they can experience joy.”
Cindy smiled at Sara as though she’d shared something intimate and profound. “I think this place could be my joy,” she declared, waving her hands in front of the house as if performing an illusion. “It’s like my Charlie Brown tree.”
She’d interpreted Sara’s words as something far different than what was intended, but rather than correct her, Sara chose to bolster her optimism with practicality.
“Most of what I described can be repaired,” Sara said. “It would just take some work.”
“And love!” Cindy added, but Sara, who’d been in love, wasn’t sure how the emotion could combat black mold.
“I think,” Sara said after a moment, “ ‘some work’ might be less accurate than ‘a lot of work.’”
“Well, you probably know more about all this than I do,” Cindy said. “You’ve been through it all before when you moved into… the place on 17th.”
“Not really,” Sara said. “Matt just hired someone. There were always people whose job it was to come to us with options. They never provided clarity, just more choices, which I believe Matt secretly enjoyed — anything to delay an actual decision. I remember all this discussion over the color of an accent wall in the den. It eventually wound up being…” She realized she couldn’t remember. “Blue… I think.” She squinted, as if trying to see the wall in her mind. “Maybe purple.”
“Aubergine,” Cindy said quickly. “I loved how the wall provided contrast but didn’t clash with the purple exterior of the house.”
“I thought the exterior was blue,” Sara said, pausing to process this new fact. Perhaps nothing in her life had ever been blue. “See, I’m obviously of no help to you in that area. But I’m happy to assist with…” She started to say “things that matter” but if accent walls mattered to Cindy, she didn’t want to impose her own views on the subject. She walked over to the swing chains. “You know, I used to build things. When I lived with Adam and Barbara, we mowed our own lawn, cooked our own meals, fixed things around the house — not because we had to, but because we wanted to. It’s so peaceful, in a way, to just focus on a simple task without the distraction of needless complexity.”
Cindy lightly fingered the peeling paint, and flush with excitement, she whispered to Sara, “I’m thinking this would look great as a nice, deep blue gray.”
“OK,” Sara said, smiling. She wasn’t moved by the choice of color, nor did she find it “nautical” and “serene” as Cindy described, but it pleased her that the decision was made quickly and with so little fuss.
“I’m not married to it, of course,” Cindy said, although she’d had her heart set on the color after first seeing the house.
Sara cocked her head again. “Well, I wouldn’t think so. It’s only paint.” Loose, leathery sheets came off with her touch. “When can we start?