Ritual Confessions

January 24, 2008

The man under the house — continued

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 9:49 pm

But I couldn’t bring myself to do that. We’d offered this man the job and apparently it had taken him all morning to get here. Reluctantly, I told Jack I felt I had to honor our previous arrangement.

“But listen,” I said, finding myself wanting to appease him, “I have a ton of work I want done on the house. My daughter’s room was just the first order of business. I want to strip the wallpaper off the walls in another room and then paint that one too, and rip up some carpet and put down wood floors…” and I went on detailing my long wish list of renovations.

I brought him inside to show him the areas I was talking about. He’d named his $100 price so fast; I tried to get an idea of what he’d want to do other things. But now he became evasive, saying he charged by the hour and it was impossible to know how long such jobs would take.

“Like you never know what you’re going to find under that wallpaper,” he told me.

I went over to the wall and ripped off a long strip. “Well, you can look at it now,” I said. I told him I didn’t like to pay by the hour because I feel that in such a situation, workers have no incentive to get a job done in a timely manner.

“Oh, hey, I don’t screw around,” he said. “I get it done.”

I didn’t point out that at that very moment, he was presumably on the clock of the owner next door while chatting me up.

“Well, at the very least, I’d need a guarantee that the job wouldn’t cost more than a certain amount,” I said.

He looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. I realized that we were already on somewhat adversarial terms and I began to wish I’d never entered into this conversation.

“Well, look, I’m sure we’ll figure something out,” I said, in a tone meant to wrap up the discussion.

But when I returned to the house late that afternoon to pay the painter, Jack appeared in the driveway again.

“Listen, I’ll come up with a fair price to give you guys,” he said. “I thought about what you were saying and I understand how you feel.”

I told him I appreciated this, citing the many costs associated with buying a house and telling him we wanted to rein in our spending for a while.

I recounted this exchange to my husband when he came home. “So, you know, already it’s awkward,” I concluded. “I all but promised him this work, but he wouldn’t be specific about how much he’d want for it.”

“Why did you even start talking to him?” my husband asked, irritated. “Why didn’t you wait to see if the painter would show up? You’re too impatient.”

He was right, I thought. I never should have started down this path.

The next morning, upon arriving at our new home with our moving truck in tow, we discovered that the house did not have water. It was Saturday, the first day of a holiday weekend. I called the water department and got a recorded message citing their business hours. I called our realtor and got her voicemail. I contemplated three days with no working sinks, showers, or toilets. Then I remembered that Jack was the former owner’s cousin. Maybe he could get Walt on the phone, and he’d be able to help us. I went next door.

Jack told me Walt was out of town. But he accompanied me back to the house and disappeared inside of it. When he resurfaced in our kitchen, he told us that he’d turned the water on.

We were abjectly grateful. My foreboding of the day before evaporated. How lucky that I had made friends with Jack. We had bagels and cream cheese sitting out on the kitchen island, and we invited Jack to help himself to whatever he wanted. He dug in without hesitation. He stayed a long time.

The next morning as my father was taking out a bag of trash, Jack greeted him from the next yard, asked how things were going. My father mentioned the leak to him. He also mentioned a few rooms in the house that weren’t receiving heat. Jack said he’d come by once his working day was done.

Privately my husband said to me, “I don’t want this guy coming over every day.”

“Do you dislike him?”

“Well, I don’t want you to ever be alone with him.”

 “Why not?” I asked. “What’s he going to do? We know who he is. We know where he works. We know his cousin.”

“All right, all right,” Nick said.

As it happened, Jack did not make it over that day because we were gone for most of it, at Ikea and Home Depot until well into the evening. But the next afternoon, just after I’d dropped my parents off at the airport, he was at the door.

“I can take a look at that leak now, if you want,” he said.

I couldn’t think of a reason why not. I led him to the guest room and, because Charlotte was with me, I closed the door behind us.

“It’s been a long time since a girl took me into a room and closed the door,” he said.

I laughed as if this were a joke. “I don’t want the baby to go for the stairs,” I said.

I showed him where the water had come from while Charlotte tugged at my shirt.

“Why are you trying to undress your mommy?” he asked her. Then, to me: “Why do they do that?”

“She wants the milk,” I said abruptly.

“Oh…. so you’re still…”


“It always makes me uncomfortable. To see a woman doing that. Even though it’s beautiful and natural and all that. There was a woman once, I was working on her house, and I walked in on her just after she finished feeding her baby. The baby was done drinking but she hadn’t put herself away yet.”

“Anyway,” I said. “There’s the spot where the water was coming in.”

He scrutinized it. “I’d have to break into that part of the ceiling to see what’s going on,” he told me.

I realized that I was, in fact, very uncomfortable being alone with him. “Let me call Nick,” I said, pulling out my cell phone. “I just want to make sure that’s okay with him.”

“Tell him to wait until I get home,” my husband said immediately. “Just tell him I want to be there to look at the pipes with him.”

I relayed this information to Jack, who looked at me steadily for a moment with an expression I couldn’t decipher. Then: “All right,” he said. “I’ll come back when Nick gets home.”

No sooner had he left than my phone rang. It was my mother, calling from the airport. “I just wanted to tell you,” she said, “not to be alone with that man from next door.”

“Oh,” I said. “Wow. Nick said the same thing. What’s making you say that?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t like the way he was looking at you.”

Hearing this, a little chill set in, the chill of fear. “He was here earlier,” I said. “He made me uneasy too. I won’t be alone with him again. He’s coming back later, after Nick gets home.”




  1. Unrelated thoughts:

    1) This fellow is bad news, darling, and presuming too much on his relationship with the former owner of your house.

    2) I’m really flattered that Nick trusts you alone with me. Or should I be mildly insulted? 😉

    Comment by davidrochester — January 25, 2008 @ 3:02 am

  2. What you should be flattered about is that Nick is aware of my hopeless crush on you, and likes you anyway — I can safely say there is no one else in the world who enjoys these privileges simultaneously.

    Comment by elissakaren — January 25, 2008 @ 3:28 am

  3. You know — what’s really weird is that I have occupied that privileged place with more than one married friend. It’s a funny niche to fill in life, but there are certainly far worse ones. If I had to choose between The Safe Crush and, say … The Drunk Guy Whose Keys You Have to Keep Taking Away, I’d always choose the former.

    Speaking of which, can you have coffee tomorrow? I can probably meet a bit earlier than 11 … I have a 9 AM listing presentation appointment, which shouldn’t take more than an hour; depending on how it goes, I might need some time afterward to decompress or bang my head against a wall, but how long can that really take? I’m also happy to drive up north, if you like … if you need help unpacking, just say the word. Because, you know, I was so useful when I came over to help you pack. I believe I spent five minutes putting pots in a box,and the rest of the time playing with styrofoam peanuts. So I’m sure you’re anxious to prove my utility yet again.

    Comment by davidrochester — January 25, 2008 @ 6:30 am

  4. Nick is right. Jack is a scary person. Please be careful.

    David, if it helps my hubby is a little bit jealous of you.

    Comment by Shawn W — January 25, 2008 @ 7:22 am

  5. Shawn, that’s very nice. I now feel like quite the dashing cad.

    Comment by davidrochester — January 25, 2008 @ 7:41 am

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