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The phone was ringing in the kitchen when Mike ducked in, out of the rain. He walked into the big room, with its four burner gas stove from the 1950s and its tilting wood plank floor. The off-white wall phone, the old ‘princess’ model with the dial in the receiver, trilled again; and again. It might be Carol Ann, trying to patch things up – or one of his old high school pals who’d seen him in town. The number was listed in the local phone book. It might be Dave Congdon, calling to set up a good time to come out and start working.
But Mike knew exactly who was calling him this morning. He could feel it, a strident note in the ring, like an alarm going off. There was no answering machine attached to the phone, no ‘voice mail’. It would just keep ringing and ringing until Mike picked up. The longer it rang the more certain he became. He could feel the angry resolve gathering behind the repeated jangle of the old land-line.
He gave up, walked uphill to the phone, and grabbed it.
“Hey Dad,” he said.
“What the hell is going on up there?”
“Good to hear from you.”
“My secretary just sent me an enquiry about some Marine Home Center bills. She’s been paying them right along but they’re adding up and she’s getting concerned.”
“Well, that’s thoughtful of her.”
“She’s a treasure. But she’s not the subject of this discussion. So let me ask you again, what the hell is going on up there?”
“I’m working on the house.”
“What are you talking about? The house doesn’t need work. The house is fine.”
“Are you kidding me? It’s crumbling to bits. Half the trim is rotten. You have thirty five broken panes of glass, peeling paint everywhere -- ”
“That’s not your concern.”
“Yes it is! It’s totally my concern. Good thing, because no one else seems to give a shit.”
“Watch your language.”
“No one gives a darn, how about that? No one gives a hoot. Feel better? It still took me five gallons of bleach to get rid of the mold downstairs. You were starting to have your own private eco-system in there. Too bad its toxic for humans.”
Silence carried along the phone lines, a deep breath, a gathering of forces. “Look, Mike. I appreciate your interest. But the house is going to be sold, all right? And no one who buys it is going to care about the mildew or the trim problems. They’re going to tear the place down, first thing They’re going to build something new. That’s a guarantee. No one with five million dollars to spend wants to live in some derelict old ruin. We’re selling the lot, Mike. Two point five acres of Nantucket dirt. The house is irrelevant. It’s about to fall into the ocean anyway. Elaine Bailey says any buyer will change the footprint, build the new place at the far edge of the property line. They can get twenty, thirty more years out of it that way.”
Mike looked out the kitchen window, past the grassy lip of the cliff to the stone-gray water and the cement sky above it, the turbulent horizon. The rain seemed to have stopped for the moment, but you could tell more was coming. “Elaine Bailey is selling the house?”
“She’s very professional. She knows the market. She got over ten million for the Bradshaw place.”
“She’s horrible, Dad. You know that. She’s like -- she’s some kind of ... she reminds of those sea-gulls at the dump grabbing shiny stuff off the pile. Staring at you with those weird blank eyes. Flapping their wings and strutting around, guarding their stash. But the birds have an excuse. They’re animals. It’s instinct with them. Elaine chose it. She went down the list – doctor, teacher, social worker … and she chose carrion pecking scavenger. That tells you a lot.”
“Please. Elaine has done very well, Mike. She’s at the top of her field.”
“Remember when she came to that yard sale? She wandered around inside ooh-ing and ahh-ing “This is the real Nantucket!” That’s what she said. The real Nantucket -- the place she’s been systematically selling out and trashing since the Carter administration! I never thought she’d get her hands on Northern Flicker, though.”
“All right, fine -- I don’t like her either, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not going out to dinner with her. We all agreed to sell and Elaine can get us the best price. It’s just business, Mike.”
“Aunt Phyllis agreed to sell?”
“All of us.”
“She loves this place.”
“She tried to raise the money to buy us out but she couldn’t. No one is loaning money right now.”
“No, they’re just sitting on it and writing themselves bonus checks for doing such a great job. I need a bail out. This house needs a bail out.”
“We all do. That’s why we’re selling.”
“Aunty Phyllis, I can’t believe this. What happened? Something must have happened to her.”
“She’s had … reverses.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“She lost her job and her insurance. I’m not sure the treatment she wants to try were covered by her group policy anyway. She’s desperate, Mike.”
“I had no idea.”
“She doesn’t broadcast her problems. That’s not her style.”
“I have to call her.”
“Don’t. She’ll call you when she’s ready.”
“So now you know. We’re not spending another dime on the house. I want you to stop working on it.”
“I figured that out.”
“You’re wasting your time.”
“I’m cancelling the charge at Marine.”
“Do what you have to do, Pop.”
“Dave Congdon called me to verify a work order. I told him to stay away. I’m not paying him to humor you.”
“I’ll pay him.”
“With what? Listen to me! If Congdon does any unauthorized work on that house, he’s fired! I told him and I’m telling you. Elaine is going to be bringing people out. I don’t want them seeing a job site. And neither does Elaine.”
“Elaine gives the orders now?”
“We’re following her lead on this. She knows the business.”
“I’m not quitting.”
“Yes you are! If you want your share of the house.”
“Well I don’t. So that’s fine then. Have a nice day.”
Mike slammed the phone down. It was nice to have a phone you could actually slam down. Pushing the disconnect button really hard just didn’t give you the same satisfaction.
He walked around the house trying to master the unruly mass of emotions. The rosa rugosa on the east side of the property surged in the wind like an angry crowd. He needed to beat his feelings back. Bring out the riot police. First, take names: anger, betrayal, disappointment, bitterness … and determination, that was there, too. Or maybe it was just his old stupid stubbornness, refusing help with his ninth grade algebra homework, staying up all night, getting nowhere, falling asleep in class the next day.
Waiting with Mio, defying the evac order. He thought about that last conversation, now. The sailboat Mio was going to buy when he got back to the states, the trips he was going to take – Maine to Bermuda, then across the Atlantic, and setting up a charter business in the South of France … none of it was ever going to happen and they both knew it. But that was what Mio wanted to talk about, so they talked about it. They even talked about the loan terms he was working out. He had all the figures in his head.
Mike thought about that conversation a lot. It didn’t matter to anyone else. It didn’t even matter to Mio any more. But it mattered to Mike. If it didn’t matter, then nothing mattered.
When it dried out the next day Mike pulled the rusty old lawn mower and the bulky gas powered weed whacker out of the garage, fueled them from the red plastic container, got them started after a dozen tries (”Push the clutch bar down!” he finally remembered his father shouting at him) and mowed the lawn. It took most of the morning, but it gave him as defiant, disproportionate satisfaction to cut those smooth straight swathes of civilized lawn into the jumble of Bushy rockrose, lion's foot, eastern silvery aster, sandplain blue-eyed grass and daisies. They had been taking over, making the house look derelict and abandoned. Clearly people lived here now, people who cared enough to take care of the place.
He dug out the hedge clippers and trimmed the privet in the afternoon. All day long he sensed Carol Ann watching him, but she never came out of her house. It was just as well. He had no idea what he might say to her after his disastrous outburst. He was like the feral cats his mom took care of, darting out from under the house for a bite of food, hissing at the people who wanted to help, unfit for human companionship.
But he got some anyway. The next day, Dave Congdon drove out in his beat-up old F150, the same old square- paneled, bondo-patched wreck with the wooden ladder rack in the bed.
“Hey,” he said, climbing out of the cab. He looked old, suddenly. Four years could do that to a person. One morning could do it to you. Mike could imagine what that must have been like.
He was standing on a step ladder, brushing a coat of finish paint onto one of the lower windows. It was a cool sunny Tuesday, perfect for outside work. Dave hadn’t been able to resist. He had a stack of cedar trim stock in the back of the truck. “Place looks great.”
Mike gave the required answer, call and response, the painters’ catechism: “Getting there.”
“Want some help?”
“Sure, just …”
“Well, my Dad said --”
“I know what he said.”
“So, I mean …”
“He thinks this house belongs to him. Him and his family. But it don’t.”
Mike cocked his head. “So – what? It belongs to you? You and your family?”
“It belongs to nobody, son. It belongs to itself. It was here before we got here and it’s gonna be here after we’re gone. It has … I don’t know what you’d call it. A life of its own. A history. It’s got character. More character than some of the people who lived in it. So what I do, that’s between me and the house. Your Dad don’t come into it.”
They watched each other. “I can’t pay you,” Mike said.
“Can you buy a case of beer?”
“Then let me set up my table saw and get started. I figure we can Dutchman these new pieces, save a lot of lumber. Price of cedar these days…”
As he turned away Mike said. “Hey Dave --”
“No need for that, I know you know. And you know I know it. The rest of em don’t. Let them do the talking. Makes em feel better.”
“We wouldn’t want them to feel bad.”
Mike nodded. “He was a good kid, though.”
“That he was. Now give me a hand with this saw.”