EASY AS A-B-C
Another house collapsed today. It happens more and more, especially with all the wetback crews out there. Don’t get me wrong. I use guys from Mexico and Central America, too, and they’re great workers, especially when it comes to landscaping. But some other contractors aren’t as particular as I am. They hire the cheapest help they can get and the cheapest comes pretty high, especially when you’re excavating a basement, which has become one of the hot fixes around here. It’s not enough, I guess, to get the three-story rowhouse with four bedrooms, gut it from top to bottom, creating open, airy kitchens where grandmothers once smoked the wallpaper with bacon grease and sour beef, or carve master bath suites in the tiny middle rooms that the youngest kids always got stuck with. No, these people have to have the full family room, too, which means digging down into the old dirt basements, putting in new floors and walls. But if you miscalculate-boom. Nothing to do but bring the fucker down and start carting away the bricks.
It’s odd, going into these houses I knew as a kid, seeing what people have paid for sound structures that they consider mere shells, all because they might get a sliver of water view from a top-floor window or the ubiquitous rooftop deck. Yeah, I know words like ubiquitous. Don’t act so surprised. The stuff in books-anyone can learn that. All you need is time and curiosity and a library card, and you can fake your way through a conversation with anyone. The work I do, the crews I supervise, that’s what you can’t fake, because it could kill people, literally. I feel bad for the men who hire me, soft types who apologize for their feebleness, whining: I wish I had the time. Give those guys a thousand years and they couldn’t rewire a single fixture or install a gas dryer. You know the first thing I recommend when I see a place where the “man of the house” has done some work? A carbon monoxide detector. I couldn’t close my eyes in my brother-in-law’s place until I installed one, especially when my sister kept bragging on how handy he was.
The boom in South Baltimore started in Federal Hill, before my time, flattened out for a while in the nineties, and now it’s roaring again, spreading through south Federal Hill, and into Riverside Park and all the way down Fort Avenue into Locust Point, where my family lived until I was ten and my grandparents stayed until the day they died, the two of them, side by side. My grandmother had been ailing for years and my grandfather, as it turned out, had been squirreling away the various painkillers she had been given along the way, preparing himself. She died in her sleep and, technically, he did, too. A self-induced, pharmaceutical sleep, but sleep nonetheless. We found them on their bed, and the pronounced rigor made it almost impossible to separate their entwined hands. He literally couldn’t live without her. Hard on my mom, losing them that way, but I couldn’t help feeling it was pure and honest. Pop-pop didn’t want to live alone and he didn’t want to come stay with us in the house out in Linthicum. He didn’t really have friends. She was his whole life and he had been content to care for her through all her pain and illness. He would have done that forever. But once that job was done, he was done, too.
My mother sold the house for $75,000. That was a dozen years ago and boy, did we think we had put one over on the buyers. Seventy-five thousand! For a house on Decatur Street in Locust Point. And all cash for my mom, because it had been paid off forever. We went to Hausner’s the night of the closing, toasted our good fortune. The old German restaurant was still open then, crammed with all that art and junk. We had veal and strawberry pie and top-shelf liquor and toasted Grandfather for leaving us such a windfall.
So imagine how I felt when I got a referral for a complete redo at my grandparents’ old address and the real estate guy tells me: “She got it for only $225,000, so she’s willing to put another $100,000 in it and I bet she won’t bat an eyelash if the work goes up to $150,000.”
“Huh” was all I managed. Money-wise, the job wasn’t in my top tier, but then, my grandparents’ house was small even by the neighborhood’s standards, just two stories. It had a nice-size backyard, though, for a rowhouse. My grandmother had grown tomatoes and herbs and summer squash on that little patch of land.
“The first thing I want to do is get a parking pad back here,” my client said, sweeping a hand over what was an overgrown patch of weeds, the chain-link fence sagging around it. “I’ve been told that will increase the value of the property by $10,000, $20,000.”
“You a flipper?” I asked. More and more amateurs were getting into real estate, feeling that the stock market wasn’t for them. They were the worst of all possible worlds, panicking at every penny over the original estimate, riding my ass. You want to flip property for profit, you need to be able to do the work yourself. Or buy and hold. This woman didn’t look like the patient type.
“No, I plan to live here. In fact, I hope to move in as quickly as possible, so time is more important to me than money. I was told you’re fast.”
“I don’t waste time, but I don’t cut corners,” I said. “Mainly, I just try to make my customers happy.”
She tilted her head up. It was the practiced look of a woman who had been looking at men from under her eyelashes for much of her life, sure they would be charmed. And, okay, I was. Dark hair, cut in one of those casual, disarrayed styles, darker eyes that made me think of kalamata olives, which isn’t particularly romantic, I guess. But I really like kalamata olives. With her fair skin, it was a terrific contrast.
“I’m sure you’ll make me very happy” was all she said.
I GUESS HERE IS WHERE I should mention that I’m married going on eighteen years, and pretty happily, too. I realize it’s a hard concept to grasp, especially for a lot of women, but you can be perfectly happy, still in love with your wife, maybe more in love with your wife than you’ve ever been, but it’s eighteen years and a young, firm-fleshed woman looks up at you through her eyelashes and it’s not a crime to think: I like that. Not: I’d like to hit that, which I hear the young guys on my crews say. Just: I like that, that’s nice, if life were different, I’d make time for that. But I was married, with two kids and a sweet wife, Angeline, who’d only put on a few pounds and still kept her hair blond and long, and was pretty appreciative of the life my work had built for the two of us. So I had no agenda. I was just weak.
But part of Deirdre’s allure was how much she professed to love the very things whose destruction she was presiding over, even before I told her that the house had belonged to my grandparents. She exclaimed over the wallpaper in their bedroom, a pattern of yellow roses, even as it was steamed off the walls. She ran a hand lovingly over the banister, worn smooth by my younger hands, not to mention my butt a time or two. The next day it was gone, yanked from its moorings by my workers. She all but composed an ode to the black-and-white tile in the single full bath, but that didn’t stop her from meeting with Charles Tile Co. and choosing a Tuscany-themed medley for what was to become the master bath suite. (“Medley” was their word, not mine.)
She had said she wanted it fast, which made me ache a little, because the faster it went, the sooner I would be out of her world. But it turned out she didn’t care about speed so much once we got the house to the point where she could live among the ongoing work-and once her end-of-the-day inspections culminated with the two of us in her raw, unfinished bedroom. She was wilder than I had expected, pushing to do things that Angeline would never have tolerated, much less asked for. In some part of my mind, I knew her abandon came from the fact that she never lost sight of the endpoint. The work would be concluded and this would conclude, too. Which was what I wanted as well, I guess. I had no desire to leave Angeline or cause my kids any grief. Deirdre and I were scrupulous about keeping our secret, and not even my longtime guys, the ones who knew me best, guessed anything was up. To them, I bitched about her as much as I did any client, maybe a little more. “Moldings?” my carpenter would ask. “Now she wants moldings?” And I would roll my eyes and shrug, say: “Women.”
“Moldings?” Deirdre asked.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “No charge. But I saw you look at them.”
And so it was with the appliances, the countertops, the triple-pane windows. I bought what she wanted, billed for what she could afford. Somehow, in my mind, it was as if I had sold the house for $225,000, as if all that profit had gone to me, instead of the speculator who had bought the house from my mother and then just left it alone to ripen. Over time, I probably put $10,000 of my own money into those improvements, even accounting for my discounts on material. Some men give women roses and jewelry. I gave Deirdre a marble bathroom and a beautiful old mantel for the living room fireplace, which I restored to the wood-burning hearth it had never been. My grandparents had had one of those old gas-fired logs, but Deirdre said they were tacky and I suppose she was right.
Go figure-I’ve never had a job with fewer complications. The weather held, there were no surprises buried within the old house. “A deck,” I said. “You’ll want a rooftop deck to watch the fireworks.” And not just any deck, of course. I built it myself, using teak and copper accents, helped her shop for the proper furniture, outdoor hardy but still feminine, with curvy lines and that verdigris patina she loved so much. I showed her how to cultivate herbs and perennials in pots, but not the usual wooden casks. No, these were iron, to match the d'ecor. If I had to put a name to her style, I guess I’d say Nouvelle New Orleans-flowery, but not overly so, with genuine nineteenth-century pieces balanced by contemporary ones. I guess her taste was good. She certainly thought so and told me often enough. “If only I had the pocketbook to keep up with my taste,” she would say with a sigh and another one of those sidelong glances, and the next thing I knew I’d be installing some wall sconce she simply had to have.
One twilight-we almost always met at last light, the earliest she could leave work, the latest I could stay away from home-she brought a bottle of wine to bed after we had finished. She was taking a wine-tasting course over at this restaurant in the old foundry. A brick foundry, a place where men like my dad had once earned decent wages, and now it housed this chichi restaurant, a gallery, a health club, and a spa. The old P amp;G plant became something called Tide Point, which was supposed to be some high-tech mecca, and they’re building condos on the grain piers. The only real jobs left in Locust Point are at Domino Sugar and Phillips, where the red neon crab still clambers up and down the smokestack.
“Nice,” I said, although in truth I don’t care much for white wine and this was too sweet for my taste.
“Viognier,” she said. “Twenty-six dollars a bottle.”
“You can buy top-shelf bourbon for that and it lasts a lot longer.”
“You can’t drink bourbon with dinner,” she said with a laugh, as if I had told a joke. “Besides, wine can be an investment. And it’s cheaper by the case. I’d like to get into that, but if you’re going to do it, you have to do it right, have a special kind of refrigerator, keep it climate controlled.”
“Your basement would work.”
And that’s how I came to build her a wine cellar, at cost. It didn’t require excavating the basement, luckily, although I was forever bumping my head on the ceiling when I straightened up to my full height. But I’m six-three and she was just a little thing, no more than five-two, barely a hundred pounds. I used to carry her to bed and, well, show her other ways I could manipulate her weight. She liked me to sit her on the marble counter in her master bath, far forward on the edge, so I was supporting most of her weight. Because of the way the mirrors were positioned, we could both watch and it was a dizzying infinity, our eyes locked into our own eyes and into each other’s. I know guys who call a sink fuck the old American Standard, but I never thought of it that way. For one thing, there wasn’t a single American Standard piece in the bathroom. And the toilet was a Canadian model, smuggled in, so she could have the bigger tank that had been outlawed in the interest of water conservation. Her shower was powerful, too, a stinging force that I came to know well, scrubbing up afterward.
The wine cellar gave me another month-putting down a floor, smoothing and painting the old plaster walls. My grandparents had used the basement for storage and us cousins had played hide-and-seek in the dark, a made-up version that was particularly thrilling, where you moved silently, trying to get close enough to grab the ones in hiding, then rushing back to the stairs, which were the home-free base. As it sometimes happens, the basement seemed larger when it was full of my grandparents’ junk. Painted and pared down, it was so small. But it was big enough to hold the requisite refrigeration unit and the custom-made shelves, a beautiful burled walnut, for the wines she bought.
I was done. There was not another improvement I could make to the house, so changed now it was as if my family and its history had been erased. Deirdre and I had been hurtling toward this day for months and now it was here. I had to move on to other projects, ones where I would make money. Besides, people were beginning to wonder. I wasn’t around the other jobs as much, but I also wasn’t pulling in the kind of money that would help placate Angeline over the crazy hours I was working. Time to end it.
Our last night, I stopped at the foundry, spent almost forty bucks on a bottle of wine that the young girl in the store swore by. Cake-bread, the guy’s real name. White, too, because I knew Deirdre loved white wines.
“Chardonnay,” she said.
“I noticed you liked whites.”
“But not chardonnay so much. I’m an ABC girl-anything but chardonnay. Dennis says chardonnay is banal.”
She didn’t answer. And she was supposed to answer, supposed to say: Oh, you know, that faggot from my wine-tasting class, the one who smells like he wears strawberry perfume. Or: That irritating guy in my office. Or even: A neighbor, a creep. He scares me. Would you still come around, from time to time, just to check up on me? She didn’t say any of those things.
Instead, she said: “We were never going to be a regular thing, my love.”
Right. I knew that. I was the one with the wife and the house and the two kids. I was the one who had everything to lose. I was the one who was glad to be getting out, before it could all catch up with me. I was the one who was careful not to use the word “love,” not even in the lighthearted way she had just used it. Sarcastic, almost. It made me think that it wasn’t my marital status so much that had closed off that possibility for us, but something even more entrenched. I was no different from the wallpaper, the banister, the garden. I had to be removed for the house to be truly hers.
My grandmother’s parents had thought she was too good for my grandfather. They were Irish, shipworkers who had gotten the hell out of Locust Point and moved uptown, to Charles Village, where the houses were much bigger. They looked down on my grandfather just because he was where they once were. It killed them, the idea that their precious youngest daughter might move back to the neighborhood and live with an Italian, to boot. Everybody’s got to look down on somebody. If there’s not somebody below you, how do you know you’ve traveled any distance at all in your life? For my dad’s generation, it was all about the blacks. I’m not saying it was right, just that it was, and it hung on because it was such a stark, visible difference. And now the rules have changed again, and it’s the young people with money and ambition who are buying the houses in Locust Point and the people in places like Linthicum and Catonsville and Arbutus are the ones to be pitied and condescended to. It’s hard to keep up.
My hand curled tight around the neck of the wine bottle. But I placed it gently in its berth in the special refrigerator, as if I were putting a newborn back in its bed.
“One last time?” I asked her.
“Of course,” she said.
She clearly was thinking it would be the bed, romantic and final, but I opted for the bathroom, wanting to see her from all angles. Wanting her to see, to witness, to remember how broad my shoulders were, how white and small she looked when I was holding her. When I moved my hands from her hips to her head, she thought I was trying to position her mouth on mine. It took her a second to realize that my hands were on her throat, not her head, squeezing, squeezing, squeezing. She fought back, if you could call it that, but all her hands could find was marble, smooth and immutable. Yeah, that’s another word I know. Immutable. She may have landed a few scratches, but a man in my line of work gets banged up all the time. No one would notice a beaded scab on the back of my hand, or even on my cheek.
I put her body in a trash bag, covering it with lime left over from a landscaping job. Luckily, she hadn’t been so crazed that she wanted a fireplace in the basement, so all I had to do was pull down the fake front I had placed over the old hearth down there, then brick her in, replace the fake front.
Her computer was on, as always, her e-mail account open because she used cable for her Internet, a system I had installed. I read a few of her sent messages, just to make sure I aped her style, then sent one to an office address, explaining the family emergency that would take me out of town for a few days. Then I sent one to “Dennis,” angry and hate-filled, accusing him of all kinds of things. Finally, I cleaned the house best I could, especially the bathroom, although I didn’t feel I had to be too conscientious. I was the contractor. Of course my fingerprints would be around.
Weeks later, when she was missing and increasingly presumed dead according to the articles I read in the Sunpapers, I sent a bill for the things that I had done at cost, marked it “Third and Final Notice” in large red letters, as if I didn’t even know what was going on. She was just an address to me. Her parents paid it, even apologized for their daughter being so irresponsible, buying all this stuff she couldn’t afford. I told them I understood, having my own college-age kids and all. I said I was so sorry for what had happened and that I hoped they found her soon. I do feel sorry for them. They can’t begin to cover the monthly payments on the place, so it’s headed toward foreclosure. The bank will make a nice profit, as long as the agents gloss over the reason for the sale; people don’t like a house with even the hint of a sordid history.
And I’m glad now that I put in the wine cellar. Makes it less likely that the new owner will want to dig out the basement, risk its collapse, and the discovery of what will one day be a little bag of bones, nothing more.