A PROJECT RESTORATION NOVEL, MIDLANDS BUILDING
By Terri Kraus
David C. Cook Copyright © 2009 Terri Kraus
All rights reserved.
Present Day Butler, Pennsylvania
His hands shook a LITTLE— not just from nervousness, but from everything else ... things he'd gone through, most likely. At least that's what he told himself. He took a deep breath, then another, before pulling at the door handle and exiting the truck. He reached back into the cab, over to the passenger side, and removed a thick stack of paper flyers from the box with an Insty-Print logo on the side. He straightened them into a neat bundle, adjusted his baseball hat over his short blond hair, and stepped to the sidewalk.
At thirty-three, Jack Kenyon was starting over, though he didn't call it that and wouldn't call it that—at least not yet.
I can do this. I can do this.
A friend back in Franklin had helped him with the design of the flyer. Each sheet of paper was an advertisement for Kenyon Construction, a firm whose total physical assets fit into the locked compartments of a silver pickup truck parked on a quiet residential street just north of downtown Butler, the county seat of Butler County in southwest Pennsylvania.
Jack Kenyon was Kenyon Construction.
Quality Construction. Expert Carpentry. Free Estimates.
Jack carefully rolled up the paper and placed it between the doorknob and the doorframe of the first house. He walked slowly, rolling the next sheet as he walked, and slipped that into the doorjamb of the second house he passed. The flyers cost him seventy-five dollars to have printed; the design was free. The flyer featured three pictures of the Carter Mansion—his last place of employment—in Franklin, Pennsylvania, a few hours north of Butler. Ethan Willis, his boss on that job, had said he could use the photos.
Distributing handbills had been Ethan's suggestion. "That's how I started. It's cheap and direct."
So that's what Jack was doing: rolling flyers, slipping them under doorknobs and between doorjambs, hoping one of the thousand pieces of paper would lead to work ... and soon. He didn't have much of a financial cushion left. A few weeks. Maybe a month—two at the most. At the end of sixty days, if he didn't have a job lined up, he'd have to reconsider his options.
But he didn't want to reconsider his options. He was pretty sure he was nearly out of options.
Hurrying, he turned the corner at Cedar Street and stopped short, almost stumbling, almost dropping his bundle of flyers. An attractive woman with dark brown hair held back with a thin gold band stood in the middle of the sidewalk. She was holding the hand of a small girl, and both of them were staring up at the building in front of them. Carved into a stone lintel above the brick building's main doors were the words MIDLANDS BUILDING, and it was for sale.
The two didn't appear to notice him.
"Sorry," Jack said as he gathered the flyers close, trying not to let them spill.
The woman's face was as hopeful a face as Jack had ever seen. The young girl—her daughter, no doubt—was four years old, maybe five. She stood placidly. She didn't urge, didn't demand motion. She simply stared, taking it all in, as only a child could do.
Jack instantly attempted to create a story in which all the elements fit together. He was good at that sort of puzzle solving.
"Are you going to buy it?" he said as he removed a flyer for Kenyon Construction from his stack and cautiously offered the flyer to her.
Without looking directly at him, she said, "Actually, I just bought it." She extended her hand and took his flyer without even looking at what the paper said.
* * *
Holding her daughter's hand, Leslie Ruskin stared up at the old landmark building, squinting ever so slightly in the Sunday-morning brightness. The arched second-story windows stared back at her, like big eyes with heavy brows—a little dirty but solid with dignity, exuding tradition and timelessness. Something about the place had been irresistible to her. After looking at a half dozen others, in a town with many historic structures, she'd somehow been drawn back to this building, to this corner, in this town. Her attraction made no sense to her, but she heard something—a whisper, a murmur, from the stone and brick and mortar. And she knew she had to own this one specific spot of Butler geography.
Her daughter, Ava, scrunched her small shoulders together and scratched her nose with her left hand.
A car slowly rolled past along the side street, but other than that noise, the neighborhood was quiet. A dog barked, perhaps a block away. It was not an angry bark. It was a "Hello" bark.
"Are we going in?" Ava asked, turning her entire body to face her mother.
Leslie didn't look down, not just yet, and shook her head. "Not right now, sweetie. Mommy just signed the papers that say she is going to buy the building. We haven't paid for it yet. It takes awhile."
"When you buy it, then do we go in?"
Leslie squeezed her daughter's hand. "Yep. That's when we go in."
"Why is it called Midlands Building?" Ava asked.
She was too young to read, but Leslie had told her what the words over the main entrance said.
"I'm not sure, honey. I'll ask the man at the bank. Maybe he'll know."
"And I get my own bedroom?"
"The one with the balcony?"
Leslie bent down, almost kneeling, next to her sweet Ava. Dark, wispy hair framed her daughter's innocent face; wide eyes were deep brown, just like her own. She wore a curious expression, as if she knew more than she let on. As if this was the lost place of her dreams ... the dream home she'd talked about for weeks.
"No, honey. The balcony is off the living room. Your bedroom will be in the back. You'll be able to see the big tree right outside. Remember?"
Ava stared up again, taking in the small balcony, framed with wood painted dark green and enclosed with screen. She nodded. She didn't smile, but she didn't frown, either.
Leslie couldn't tell if her only child was happy or sad. They had left Greensburg, the only home Ava had ever known, less than a month before this moment. And for that last month, they had been living in an extended-stay hotel on the north side of Butler, living in two rooms, with a refrigerator not much larger than one in a child's play kitchen.
"How many days until we can go in?"
Leslie thought for a minute, trying to remember the hundreds of details surrounding her offer to buy this building: the seller's agreement, the need for an inspection, allocating tax funds into escrow, setting a closing date, putting her earnest money into another escrow account, conducting a radon test and a title search, and insisting on a seller's disclosure form.
"Maybe two weeks, sweetie. No more than that." Leslie was confident her right decision would be rewarded—soon they would have a real home again.
But two weeks was almost a lifetime to Ava. Even a single week was a long, long time to her. As a result, Leslie knew her daughter would probably ask the same question every morning. Ava could worry—a trait most likely inherited, or acquired, from her mother—and setting a moving date far enough away might free her from worry.
Leslie stood and looked up again, staring at the oddly screened balconies. Only one apartment unit, she knew, was occupied. Leslie could pick from the other two. She stepped back to decide which of the two empty units looked best from the outside and almost bumped into a young man hurrying around the corner.
The tanned, chiseled face, the short sandy blond hair, the medium athletic build barely registered in her mind. There was only the brief flicker that he was handsome, with that dangerous, tempting look—the same look that had proved Leslie's undoing before. He handed her a sheet of paper and asked if she was buying the building. Leslie replied that she just had.
It was only later, many hours later over breakfast at Emil's Restaurant, as Ava nibbled on her chocolate-chip pancakes, that Leslie looked at that sheet of paper. She needed a contractor, and Kenyon Construction sounded honest.
Trustworthy. Dependable. On Time, the flyer stated.
Maybe it was a sign.
Leslie hoped it was a sign—a good sign after so many months without a sign. Everything in their lives had gone gray and grayer. They were both ready to see sunshine again.
Leslie told herself over and over that this old landmark would be their new beginning— some sort of magical, wonderful new beginning they both so desperately needed.
Amelia Westland, age thirteen years, one month Glade Mills Butler County, Pennsylvania August 21, 1875
Mother and I put up twenty-six quarts of tomatoes, sixteen quarts of cherries, two varieties of pickles and relishes. Yet to be done are beets, pole beans, peas, and corn. Today I helped Aunt Willa make blackberry preserves. Aunt Willa visits from Butler. She is exceedingly amusing and is oft happy, not downhearted, even though Uncle Jacob was killed in the War, so soon after they were wed, after a courtship of long standing. Mother is pleased that Aunt Willa has a penchant for schooling me in the ways of a lady. She has the voice of an angel, and she plays the piano. Sometimes she teaches me silly songs and we laugh and laugh. I take the greatest imaginable pleasure in her company. Today she taught me this poem, instructing me to recite it with my head held high, shoulders back, hands clasped at my waist, in a clear voice:
With little white leaves in the grasses, Spread wide for the smile of the sun, It waits till the daylight passes And closes them one by one. I have asked why it closed at even, And I know what it wished to say: There are stars all night in the heaven, And I am the star of the day.
Yea, the LORD shall give that which is good; and our land shall yield her increase.
JACK KENYON SPENT ALL OF Sunday and most of Monday distributing his flyers— almost all of them, saving fifty or so, just in case. He focused on the northeast side of Butler, north of Jefferson, east of Main. That's where the good houses were built—older, larger, most of them well maintained and preserved with care, some not so well preserved. The early moneyed settlers and Butler entrepreneurs built north of the railroad tracks, cutting into the steep ridge that protected the downtown, building ornate and highly wrought homes with layers of ornamentation. Jack viewed this as fertile geography.
Monday afternoon he visited several lumberyards and building-material suppliers in the Butler area—Dambach Lumber, Cook Brothers Brick, and Butler Millwork—checking out their stock, setting up accounts if possible, asking about contractors' discounts and delivery options, and introducing himself to whatever manager happened to be on duty.
Small contractors, especially small contractors who have just started in the construction business, were often considered horrible credit risks. They operated on a shoestring, and a bad decision or two often doomed many to crash and burn. Jack knew that most every lumberyard had a fluttering of returned checks pinned to an office bulletin board, all angrily stamped Non-Sufficient Funds—all written by people exactly like himself. He thought the personal introductions, without asking for credit at the outset, might set him apart from his less creditworthy competitors. This was another tip he'd learned from Ethan Willis, his former employer in Franklin.
Jack extended his hand to a rather large man, all chest and arms and neck, standing in the doorway of the office at Cook Brothers Brick.
"I'm Jack Kenyon," Jack said, as confidently as he could. "I'm just starting out. Wanted to introduce myself. Let you know that I want to be a good customer."
"Burt Cook," the man responded. "I sort of own the place."
Jack looked over his shoulder. "It says 'Brothers.'"
Burt unfolded his arms and still managed to appear massive. "Yeah, I know. But it's just me. I always wanted a brother growing up. My parents said that one of me was enough. But Cook Brothers Brick sounds better than Cook Brick. Cook Brick is plumb hard to get out of your mouth."
Obviously Burt had not yet grown tired of repeating the story.
"You new to the Butler area?" Burt asked.
"I grew up in Pittsburgh—south of Pittsburgh, actually. I'm new around here, I guess.
Started handing out flyers a few days ago. Have to start somewhere."
Burt nodded as if he understood. "You got an extra flyer? You can put it up on the board over there. Sometimes we get amateurs in here trying to do things themselves and they look for a little help. And sometimes the big crews need an extra hand. You never know."
"Thanks. I'll put one up. I have a few in my truck."
Jack loped out to his truck and in a minute was posting the flyer in the middle of the board.
Burt leaned against the counter and folded his arms back over his chest. His arms barely made it across. "Why Butler? Why here? Must be better places to pick than Butler. Not that I'm nosey or anything. Just interested."
Jack wasn't bothered by the question. In truth, it was a question he'd already posed to himself dozens of times. He thought he'd come up with a succinct, clear answer and decided to try it in an out-loud way.
"Butler's a nice town. Not too big. Not too small. It doesn't seem like a fancy place. It feels honest. Lots of old buildings. Seems like a good place to start a renovation business. Close enough to Pittsburgh, if you need a big city. Far enough away to not be bothered."
Burt nodded, as if satisfied, then added after a bit, "Well, it's nice to meet you. Hope to see you back here, Mr. Kenyon."
Jack offered a half wave in reply and walked back to his truck, confident that he'd made a good impression.
That went well. Nice to know I still have it.
* * *
"Leslie Ruskin. I called yesterday about enrolling my daughter in kindergarten. Ava Ruskin."
The woman behind the battered desk craned her wrinkled neck forward, as if making sure that Ava was indeed a child.
A brass nameplate holder sat on the woman's desk, but the holder was empty, as if waiting for the school district's central office supply to provide an updated name. The unnamed woman's eyes narrowed in a permanent, angry squint, the kind only a civil servant with a lifetime position can have.
"Yes, Leslie Ruskin. And Ava. She's five, and I want to enroll her in kindergarten. We've just moved to the area."
"You're late. Students registered for school last spring. School starts next week."
Leslie fought hard to keep control of her voice. She was not angry, she seldom got angry, but panic began to form inside. She knew this was simply a misunderstanding and not worthy of panic. Yet there it was. She had never moved anywhere, all on her own, at any time in her life, and she now realized that moving was much more complicated than she'd imagined.
Grandma Amelia experienced a lot of upheaval in her life. She overcame some big obstacles. I can handle this. I can.
Leslie took a deep breath before responding. To handle things in an appropriate manner, to relax in order to banish stress was a necessity—that was something she'd read in a Reader's Digest article while standing in a long checkout line in the grocery store.
"I explained this yesterday when I called. We just moved into town. We didn't know we were going to be here until a few weeks ago. On a permanent basis, I mean ... in this school district."
The woman behind the desk pursed her lips. "Registration is over. Has been for months. I don't know if we can do anything about this."
Leslie looked back over her shoulder to make sure that this building was indeed a school and that she had not entered a business. She could see the lettering on the banner that hung over the office windows facing the dark, unlit hall. Even though the letters were backward, she could easily read the hand-painted words: WELCOME STUDENTS TO THE EMILY BRITTIAN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL.
Leslie looked down at her daughter. Ava seldom seemed perturbed by anything. She might worry, but she didn't grow anxious. Or perhaps, more truthfully, she simply did not show her anxieties like her mother. She smiled back up at her mother, then rubbed her nose with her hand.
"I called yesterday. The woman I spoke to said all we would have to do is come in to the office with Ava's birth certificate, her state health form, and proof of residency. I have all of those. And the custody papers. She said I needed those as well. The woman said if I had all that, my daughter could be registered. I have all of that with me. Just as requested."
"What woman?" the nameless woman asked, a little harsher than Leslie thought appropriate.
"I can't remember. I'm not sure I asked."
The nameless woman all but threw her hands in the air in response. "Well, no one told me anything about this."
Leslie drew in a deep, calming breath to fight her rising anxiety.
"The lady's name was Wilson," Ava said firmly, unexpectedly. "You said 'Mrs. Wilson' on the phone, Mommy."
Leslie was often amazed by what her daughter chose to remember, or could remember. She was like a sponge. (Continues...)
Excerpted from THE RENEWAL by Terri Kraus. Copyright © 2009 Terri Kraus. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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