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"A fax hit my desk for an apartment that isn't officially listed yetyou must see it immediately." Horton's voice was broadcasting an urgency reserved for hurricane evacuation. But in 2007, anyone who'd ever beaten the real estate bushes would be suspiciousof a broker displaying even an atom of passivity. Shoppers of condos and co-ops in Manhattan and the leafier regions of Brooklyn knew they had to learn the art of the pounce: see, gulp, bid. Save the pros and cons for picking a couch.
Several times a week Horton e-mailed me listings, but rarely did he call. This had to be big. "Where is it?" I asked while I finished my lukewarm coffee.
"Central Park West." Horton identified a stone pile known by its name, the Eldorado, referring to a mythical kingdom where the tribal chief had the habit of dusting himself with gold, a commodity familiar to most of the apartment building's inhabitantsmarqueeactors, eminent psychotherapists, and large numbers of frumps who were simply lucky. With twin towers topped by Flash Gordon finials, the edifice lorded it over a gray-blue reservoir, the park's largest body of water, and cast a gimlet eye toward Fifth Avenue.
"I couldn't afford that building," I said. If Horton was trying to game me into spending more than our budget allowed, he'd fail. While the amount of money Jake and I had scraped together for a new home seemed huge to usrepresenting the sale of our one-bedroomin Park Slope, an inheritance from my mom, and the proceeds from seeing one of my books linger on the bestseller listother brokers had none too politely terminated the conversation as soon as I quoted our allotted sum. What I liked about Horton was that hewas dogged, he was hungry, and he was the only real estate agent returning my calls.
"That's the beauty part," he said, practically singing. "You, Quincy Blue, can afford this apartment." He named a figure. We could, just. "What's the catch?" In my experience, deals that sounded too good to be true werelike the brownstone I'd seen last week that lacked not only architectural integrity but functional plumbing.
"It's a fixer-upper," Horton admitted. "Listen, I can go to the second name on my list."
"I'll see you in twenty minutes," I said, hitting "save" on my manuscript. I was currently the ghostwriter for Maizie May, one of Hollywood's interchangeable blow-dried blondes with breasts larger than their brain. While she happened to be inconvenientlyincarcerated in Idaho rehab, allowed only one sound bite of conversation with me per week, my publisher's deadline, three months away, continued to growl. I hid my hair under a baseball cap and laced my sneakers. Had Jake seen me, he would have observed thatI looked very West Side; my husband was fond of pointing out our neighborhood's inverse relationship between apartment price and snappy dress. As I walked east I called him, but his cell phone was off. Jake's flight to Chicago must be late.
Racing down Broadway, I allowed myself a discreet ripple of anticipation. Forget the Yankees. Real estate would always be New York City's truest spectator sport, and I was no longer content to cheer from the bleachers. Two years ago, my nesting hormoneshad kicked in and begun to fiercely multiply, with me along for the ride. We were eager to escape from our current sublet near Columbia University. I longed to be dithering over paint colorsYellow Lotus or Pale Straw; flat, satin, or eggshelland awash infabric swatches. I coveted an office that was bigger than a coffee table book and a dining table that could accommodate all ten settings of my wedding china. I wanted a real home. I'd know it when I saw it.
Horton, green-eyed, cleft-chinnedhandsome if you could overlook his devotion to argylestood inside the building's revolving door. "The listing broker isn't here yet," he said, "but you can get a sense of the lobby." A doorman tipped his capped headand motioned us toward armchairs upholstered in a tapestry of tasteful, earthy tones. Horton unfurled a floor plan.
I'd become a quick study of such documents. "It's only a two-bedroom," I said, feeling the familiar disappointment that had doused the glow of previous apartment visits. Was the fantasy of three bedrooms asking too much for a pair of industrious adultsmore than twelve years past grad school? Jake was a lawyer. I had a master's in English literature. Yet after we'd been outbid nine times, Jake and I had accepted the fact that in this part of town, two bedrooms might be as good as it would get.
"This isn't any two-bedroom," Horton insisted. "Look how grand the living room and dining room are." Big enough for a party where Jake and I could reciprocate every invitation we'd received since getting married five years ago. "See?" he said, pullingout a hasty sketch and pointing. "Put a wall up to divide the dining room, which has windows on both sides, and create an entrance here. Third bedroom." He was getting to how cheap the renovation would be when a tall wand of a woman tapped him on the shoulder.
"Fran!" Horton said as warmly as if she were his favorite grandmother, which she was old enough to be. "You're looking well."
The woman smiled and a feathering of wrinkles fanned her large blue eyes. The effect made me think that a face without this pattern was too dull. "Did you explain?" she said. Her voice was reedy, a piccolo that saw little use. She'd pulled her silver hairinto a chignon and was enveloped in winter white, from a cape covering a high turtleneck to slim trousers that managed to be spotless, although they nearly covered her toes.
"We were getting to that, but first, please meet my client, Quincy Blue. Quincy, Frances Shelbourne of Shelbourne and Stone."
I knew the firm. Frances and her sister Rose had tied up all the best West Side listings. I shook Fran Shelbourne's hand, which felt not just creamy but delicately boned. She stared at my sneakers and jeans long enough for me to regret them, then turnedher back and padded so soundlessly that I checked to see if she might be wearing slippers. No, ballerina flats. Across the lobby, elaborately filigreed elevator doors opened. Fran turned toward Horton and me and with the briefest arch of one perfectly pluckedeyebrow implored us to hurry. When the doors shut, she spoke softly, although we were alone. "The owner's a dear friend," she said. "Eloise Walter, the anthropologist." She waited for me to respond. "From the Museum of Natural History?"
I wondered if I was supposed to know the woman's body of work and bemoaned the deficiency of my Big Ten education.
"Dr. Walter is in failing health," she continued, shaking her head. "This is why we won't schedule an open house." Every Sunday from September through May, hopeful buyers, like well-trained infantry, traveled the open-house circuit. Jake and I had done our sweaty time, scurrying downtown, uptown, across, and down again, with as many as a dozen visits in a day. Soonenough, we began seeing the same hopeful buyersthe Filipino couple, the three-hundred-pound guy who had the face of a baby, a pair of six-foot-tall redheaded teenage twins who spoke a middle-European tongue. By my fifth Sunday, in minutes I could privatelyscoff at telltale evidence of dry rot. Silk curtains draped as cunningly as a sari could not distract me from a sunless air shaft a few feet away, nor could lights of megawatt intensity seduce me into forgetting that in most of these apartments I would instantlysuffer from seasonal affective disorder.
"You'll be the first person to see this one," Horton added by way of a bonus. I could feel the checkbook in my bag coming alive like Mickey's broom in Fantasia.
When we stepped out of the elevator on the fourteenth floor, Mrs. Shelbourne gently knocked on a metal door that would look at home in any financial institution. From the other side, a floor creaked. A nurse in thick-soled shoes answered and raised anindex finger to her lips, casting her eyes toward a shadowy room beyond. The scent of urinehuman, feline, or bothcrept into my nostrils, followed by a top note of mango air freshener. "Doctor's sleeping." My eyes strained to scan a wide room where old-fashioned blinds were drawn against the noon sun. An elderly woman, her hair scant and tufted, was folded into a wheelchair like a rag doll, despite pillows bolstering her skeletal frame. Dr. Walter lookedbarely alive. Mrs. Shelbourne placed her hand on my arm. "We shouldn't stay long in this room. I'm sure you understand. Alzheimer's."
"I dotoo well," I said, rapidly beholding the high ceiling and dentil moldings, while memories of my mother, scrupulously archived yet too fresh to examine, begged for consideration. I pushed them away even as my mind catalogued herringbone floors withan intricate walnut border and the merest wink of a crystal chandelier. Mrs. Shelbourne grasped my arm and we hurried into a small, dark kitchen with wallpaper on which hummingbirds had enjoyed a sixty-year siesta. In front of the sink, which faced a coveredwindow, linoleum had worn bare. There were scratched metal cabinets and no dishwasher, and I suspected the stove's birth date preceded my own. I thought of my unfinished chapter, and cursed my wasted time.
Halfheartedly I lifted a tattered shade. "Holy cow," I said, though only to myself. Sun reflected off the park's vast reservoir, which appeared so close I thought I could stand on the ledge and swan-dive into its depth. Far below, I could see treetops,lush as giant broccoli. The traffic was a distant buzz. I felt a tremor. The subway, stories below? No, my heart. Picking up my pace, I followed the brokers through the spacious dining room and down a hall where I counted off six closets. I peeked into a bathroom tiled in a vintage mosaic of the sort decorators encourage clients to re-create at vast expense. We passedthrough a starlet-worthy dressing room and entered a bedroom into which I could easily tuck my current, rented apartment, with enough space to spare for a study. As Mrs. Shelbourne pulled the hardware on draperies bleached of color, I could swear that a strobehad begun to pulse. From the corner of my eye I saw a black cat slink away while Horton kicked a dust bunny under the bed, but I took little note of either. As I stood by the window, I was gooey with the feeling I'd experienced when I first laid eyes on theGrand Canyon.
The silvery vista spread casually before me might be the most enchanted in the entire city. I closed my eyes, traveling through time. Women were skating figure eights in red velvet cloaks, their hands warmed by ermine muffs. Bells jingled in the evergreen-scentedair as horses waited patiently by sleighs. I blinked again and the maidens wore organdy, their porcelain skin dewy under the parasols shielding their intricate curls. I fast-forwarded to my girlhood and could imagine the large, glassy pond below was the crystalstream beside my grandparents' log-hewn cabin in Wisconsin's northern woods, the bone-chilling waters of Scout camp, perhaps Lake Como of my honeymoon scrapbook.
Beside this champagne view, the fifty-four other apartments I'd considered seemed like cheap house wine, including the possibilities that cost far morealmost every one. I pulled myself away from the window and looked back. Walls were no longer hung withfaded diplomas, nor was the carpet worn thin. Mirroring the reservoir, the room had turned gray-blue. I saw myself writing at a desk by the window, lit by sunbeams, words spilling out so fast my fingers danced on the keyboard like Rockettes. This time my manuscriptwasn't a twenty-year-old singer-actress' whiny rant. It was a novel, lauded by the critics and Costco customers alike.
I could see myself in this room. My face wore deep contentment. The bed was luxuriously rumpled, since a half hour earlier Jake and I had made love, and now he was brewing coffee in our brand-new kitchen, as sleekly designed as a sperm. Perhaps he'd alreadygone out to bike around the park or was walking our shelter-rescued puppy. Tallulah, the little rascal, loved to chase her ball down our twenty-foot hall.
In every way, I was home. Then I snapped out of it. I was wearing my real estate heart on my sleeve, all but drooling. Quincy Blue, you dumb cluck. I sensed Horton looking at me as if he were a cannibal in need of protein, and checked to see if he and Fran had excused themselvesto decide whether they should triple the apartment's price or merely double it. We walked past another bathroom, this one housing a tub as long as a rowboat, ambled back through the dim hallway, and ended in the living room.
"The view's even better from herea pity we can't pull up the shades," Mrs. Shelbourne whispered as she walked toward the statue slumping in the wheelchair and greeted her. "Hello, Eloise dear." She took the woman's listless hand. "It's Frances. I wishyou could sit at that piano"she pointed to a piece of shrouded furniture"and play me Chopin."
The woman emitted a dry rattle, craned her neck toward Mrs. Shelbourne, and smiled. She was missing several teeth.
"If you wish," she said clearly. Suddenly Dr. Walter tried to raise herself in the wheelchair. "If you would be so kind as to assist me." The nurse lumbered to her side. On her aide's sturdy arm, Dr. Walter walked toward the piano, her posture better thanmy own. She settled on the cracked black leather stool and stretched her knobby fingers. I covered my mouth with my hands, afraid I might gasp. Her hands fondled the ivories and began to play an unmistakable Chopin mazurka. The Steinway was out of tune andthe pianist wore a faded housecoat, but Dr. Walter's rendition pleased her audience to the point that even Horton was wiping away tears. The concert continued for almost twenty minutes and then, as if someone had pulled a plug, the pianist's hands froze. Likea small child, she looked around the room, confused. I was afraid she, too, might cry.
We clapped. "That was exquisite," Mrs. Shelbourne said hoarsely as the nurse helped her patient back to the wheelchair. "Simply exquisite."
Dr. Walter closed her eyes and in less than a minute was sleeping. Mrs. Shelbourne thanked the nurse and hurried Horton and me to the elevator. I waited for his chatter, but it was she who spoke. "Tell me your story. I can see from your face that you haveone." She looked at me as if she were the dean of women.