The events that transpired over the next few days, while appearing to be leading us toward our perfect home, proved to be an annoying yet educational diversion. It was at yet another of Fortuna's weekend retreat wine tasting extravaganzas that we met George and Maryann, a couple who had dedicated themselves to locating, restoring, and transferring mid-century open floor plan homes to well deserving young couples. "We look for the type of person or persons who will appreciate the oneness with nature that these beautiful homes provide." Maryann had said the magic words over a glass of aged merlot and won Maggie's heart. Mine was soon to follow. "Space," Maryann continued, "Is a feeling of connection with all things." "That's right!" I exclaimed, "it's not twenty foot ceilings and six car garages! It's a feeling of attachment, not detachment!" George beamed at Maryann, then she looked straight into my eyes and leaned forward from her chair across from me to touch me on the knee. "We want you two to enjoy ownership of one of these magnificent lifestyles."
The next morning George and Maryann were waiting next to their Prius, with four travel mugs of steaming hot latte’s in hand. They took us to their most recent acquisition, a three bedroom, two bath home on a good sized lot landscaped with fresh green lawns and sculptured hedges. "It was brown," Maryann told us on the way, her head turned far enough to her left to see the two of us lounged in the back seat with one eye while her other eye pointed toward George; shoulders pinned to her seat by her aggressively tight safety restraint. I remember thinking how uncomfortable she looked, and wanting to damper the moment by suggesting she not strain herself so much to fill us in on something we would surely find out later. But I held back. "We painted it stark white, matte finish, and replaced the brownish rock roof with a white rock roof. It stands out so well now!" She beamed with an obvious inner excitement for us to see the place. The color scheme carried through to the interior. White walls, white tile in the kitchen, light oak floors throughout. It was a typical mid century remodel, one that any buyer would come to expect. All being the same, the differences were, of course, the location. After location the things that mattered most were whether or not the home had an enclosed garage (instead of the lame carport mid century architects favored), storage space (covered by drawing in massively large closets into small bedrooms), and high quality kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors (something the flippers invested in to woo prospective buyers). This one had a garage and gloss finish turquoise cabinet doors. The closets were so-so, but livable.
George was pokerfaced about the house, playing the bad guy, the guy who says “You want what I got? Then pony up.” It was a dramatic character change from what we knew George to be. This was our first glimpse into the layers of persona that George possessed, persona’s that, we were to find out, were nourished and coached to perfection by Maryann, who held her multi-layers back until all was discovered, if that time ever came.
Maryann bounced throughout the house, pointing out fixtures and placement of push button light switches. “The fixtures are smooth, and minimalistic,” she gleamed with joy. Maryann loved that word, “minimalistic.” She dropped it all over the house. “Less is more,” she would often add, then give a wink.
Us twenty-somethings are turned off by too much. Maryann knew this. She probably went to a seminar on how to sell houses to the twenty-something crowd. She probably took really good notes and recorded portions with her phone. Then George probably looked everything over. That way he didn’t have to pay for a ticket. George was cheap like that. “I paid good money for this Prius,” he blurted out randomly during a quiet moment on the road earlier. “There was a speck of dirt in the speedometer, so I took the car back,” he began. “I made the dealer fix it. It took a week, so I made the dealer reimburse me for the extra gas I had to use in our SUV. We didn’t drive it at all that week, but I told him we took it on a long trip. He gave me three-hundred dollars.”
This sudden revelation, unsolicited by Maggie and I, was met with the same still quiet that it had broken moments before.
George was a little stiff while Maryann was bouncing around the house. We could tell something was eating at him. He seemed to want to get a heavy laden off his chest. “I don’t feel like you two understand how inconveniencing that experience was.” Maggie looked at me and told me with her eyes that this was about the speck of dirt on the speedometer. With a purse of the lips she signaled to me that I had better pacify George, or he would just harp on that experience for the rest of the trip. “Terribly un-just, a real travesty,” I quickly stated. “I deserve my fair-share of use for the money I paid those people,” George said in a raised voice. “Yes, you do,” I calmly replied.
Maryann came skipping around a corner at the moment George was stiffening up to deliver another diatribe. She grabbed his stiff hand and tugged at his stiff arm. She pulled him away like one would pull away a clothing rack. His stiff upper lip never broke as he was whisked around the corner and out of sight.
The two stood in the kitchen, side by side, next to the stainless steel sink. “We have a few couples interested in this property,” George stated. “The house will sell soon; it’s just a matter of who pulls the trigger first.” Maryann gave George a nudge, probably for using a gun metaphor—something that could be a turn off for some. “George just didn’t seem to have the right kind of karma to be involved in the sale of an eco-friendly, mid century minimal lifestyle,” Maggie reflected later that night over a tossed chicken salad. She was only repeating what she had telepathically said to me earlier that day in the kitchen, right after George’s trigger remark. People tell you how they think with little words and phrases they use. The “pulling the trigger” remark did not raise any red flags for either of us, but it was an attitude remark that helped us to recall and bring to forefront the “fair share” thing that George had casually inserted into his recollection about the dirt speck on his Prius’s speedometer.
That “fair share” thing was the big red flag for both of us. It meant that George’s inner being was always on the hunt for payback for something that happened to him at some point in his life. Someone had to pay for something he was wronged out of or reimburse him for more than he had to pay for to correct, repair, or make presentable something that he was selling and that someone was buying. Someone had to pay much more than he did, since he had to consider his time and the value of his money, too. It was the more issue that got Maggie and I worried. In this case, we were dealing with a man who had funded the restoration of a house and was looking for his fair share as payback. “He either spent too much,” Maggie said to me as she reached over the table and picked the last morsel of salad from my bowl with her chopsticks, “or,” she paused, “he didn’t spend too much and wants too much.” I watched a fresh piece of salad, one that I sort of wanted for myself, disappear into her lush lips.
It would be up to us to dissect the house and determine whether he and Maryann fixed things and were simply looking for a return on their expenditures, or if they covered over things and were looking for a return without expenditures.
The best way to begin the process of dissection is to simply peel away some of the easily accessed exterior. Starting the process is as direct as opening a closet door and looking for places that might have been passed over. We found our first clue in the hallway between the kitchen and dining area. The closet along the wall was reconditioned, and upon opening it we found it to be freshly painted. But with the pull of each of the built in drawers within the closet we found them to be unpainted, untouched, and still containing the dirt, broken pieces, and left over bits of items stored in the past. We determined that we needed to get beyond the walls of the home, from both within and without, to see what lay under the outer skin. We located an access point to the attic through a vent in the living room, which was adjacent to the dining room just a few feet from where we had discovered the drawers.
Maryann sat at the dining room table, a mid century piece she had reminisced to us about finding at a thrift store years before finding the house. “We just knew we would find a home that it looked comfortable in,” she said as she caressed the laminate top. The cherry wood chairs had each been reupholstered in solid primary colors, with the backs in blues, yellows, whites and reds, and the bottoms in alternating blues, yellows, reds and whites.
“George and I took them apart,” Maryann said, pointing to one of the chairs, “and packed them into the back of the Prius. We took them all the way to Tijuana,” she smiled, “that’s in Mexico.” George nodded a few times. “They reupholster down there for cheap, but they do a great job!” Maryann looked proud of herself. Then she added. “We almost ran out of gas coming back. The little light on the dash was blinking. But the gas stations down there are such a rip-off! There was no way we were going to pay an extra ten-cents a gallon, just because they thought we needed it.”
We explained to George, who was hesitant to allow us to look into the attic, that we were planning on installing solar tubes and were interested in gauging the attic clearance. “It’s such a free flowing, nice home,” Maggie said to George with a warm smile.
“We bought all new vent covers at Costless on the same day, so they all match,” George blurted. He wanted us to know that all the covers were new, and purchased at the same time. “We parked our new car all the way out at the end of the lot,” he went on, “so it wouldn’t get any scratches or door dents.” My head was halfway into the attic, and Maggie was below me holding the flimsy wooden ladder. “This looks like original equipment,” she had joked to me when as I was setting it up. “Well,” George paused, “Come to find out some couple parked their Mercedes right next to us. We found them trying to stuff a statue of Jesus into their backseat, and to get him in they had to hold the car door open all the way, propping it to the point of nearly hitting our Prius.” Maryann shifted herself at the table, sitting more erect now. “I yelled at the guy,” George went on, “Hey,” he was re-living the experience now, his face taught and his fist clenched, “what the hell are you doing up against our car?”
I shifted my focus from the attic, which was very dusty but not dark enough to hide the piles of rotted insulation left over from decades earlier, briefly to Maggie with a look of disapproval in my eyes, to George, who was just preparing to launch into an answer to his own question. “‘You better not hit my car with that goddamn Jesus statue! I yelled at him," George recalled loudly. “That thing had a jagged edge granite base,” George went on. Maryann was at the edge of her red and blue chair, staring straight at George, not in disbelief, but in a supportive way like a manager would connect with his prize boxer just before a knockout. “The guy's wife,” George's face was turning red now, “had the gall to yell at me, ‘hey asshole, back off!’ So I told them both in my loudest voice, ‘you hit my car with that stupid statue and I'll bust it in a million pieces and leave it in a pile on top of that shiny car of yours!’”
“Well,” George finalized, “they must have gotten the message that I was not to be dealt with, because they stuffed that statue into their car without a tap to our Prius and hightailed off to wherever they were going with it. I hope that Jesus thing makes them better people one day.”
“I think we have seen all we need to see for now,” I said, speaking for Maggie, too. I was sure she would agree, which she did with a shift of her left foot toward the direction of the front door. “Just be sure not to nick the walls with the ladder on the way to the garage,” Maryann cautioned me. I made sure to do exactly that, noticing the lack of primer used in the hallway after some of the paint peeled away when I hit it. I quickly pushed the dangling scratch of paint back into place and pressed it in with my thumb.
I was able to slip into the guest bath in the hall next to the garage and shake off the dust that settled from the rafters while replacing the ladder. Not that I had hit anything with the end of the ladder; dust was just settling. And settling. It continued to settle, even as I stood still there in the darkness.
Having now moved into the living room, I found George with his finger extended in scolding fashion at a space between Maggie and Maryann. “I told that guy over the phone, you had better bring me the correct receipt so I can get my rebate!” George was beginning to sweat—somewhat like the garage sweats dust, but harder to shake off. “And do you know what his reply was?” George turned his gaze straight to me, transferring his hatred for the moment on a guy whom he had only recently met and had nothing to do with his purchase of an above sink water purifier. “Well,” he paused, “I laid into him real good: I asked him if he wanted to keep his job, if he wanted to feed his kids next week; I asked him if he had a mortgage, and if he didn't mind losing his house and moving his family into a crummy, cheap apartment.”
I was just beginning to wonder, if all that were to happen to that guy on the other end of the phone, would George and Maryann find a nice mid century for him and his family when he got his feet back on the ground?
“And then he got really quiet,” George recounted in a passive aggressive voice, “and he asked me very nicely if I had a computer connected to the Internet, to which I replied, ‘yes, of course.’ That was when he gave me the site I could go on to apply for my rebate.”
A thin layer of perspiration had condensed on my arms, hands, and face, not from heat or from fatigue, but from the anticipation and stress I felt for the guy in George's story. As I had not shed all the dust from the garage, that perspiration had turned to a slime.
“Let's all go get a coffee,” Maryann chirped.
The climate in the Prius, on the ride back to the winery, even with the hot coffee's in hand, was chillingly stale. Maggie and I were fully expected to fall heels over for the house. The conversation in the car, rather than heated and brisk regarding a final price and financing, was, plainly put, mum.
“That flat screen mounted to the wall in the living room can be included in the purchase of the house, but we want full price for it,” George said, breaking the silence with what he thought would be a negotiating tool. Maggie and I didn’t want the television, let alone the house. Maryann jumped in on the, unbeknown to them, one-sided negotiation. “We bought that T.V. last year at Costless. It was the top of the line. We took it back to exchange for another one last week, just eleven months and twenty-seven days from the day we purchased it. There is nothing wrong with it, we just wanted a new one. Apparently,” Maryann’s face began to contort now, “apparently, some reporter wrote a piece in a financial paper about Costless’ liberal return policy on electronics, and our son wrote him a letter describing how we have been ‘using,’ as he so negatively described it, that policy to get our T.V. renewed every year.” George tightened his hands around the wheel of the Prius and depressed the gas pedal. We began to creep up on a large truck in front of us. “I mean, so what,” Maryann went on to tell the story, oblivious to the hazardous conditions George was pointing us all in on this twisting, two lane road. “we were just doing what someone at Costless had determined was okay to do. We saved the box and wrapping under our stairway and,” George felt the need to come in on the story now, “it was a lot of work to get those T.V.’s in the boxes the way they were meant to!” George pushed harder down on the gas pedal now, placing the Prius within inches of the truck in front of us. “We are not young people,” Maryann went on, not bothering to look ahead at the perilous situation we all were in, “We’re in our sixties, and moving that T.V. around the house, carrying it out to the car, and lugging it back to Costless was, well, a hassle!”
“So why didn’t you just live with it, if there was nothing wrong with it, and taking it back was so much work?” Maggie asked, politely but facetiously.
I was about to suggest to George that he consider backing off a little from the truck in front of us, but he had that look on him that he must have had when he caught the Jesus statue people stuffing Jesus into their Mercedes. I ascertained that a man who was more worried about Jesus scratching his car than a truck slamming on the brakes at sixty miles an hour in front of us and causing far worse damages would be a hard man to reason with, since reason was not apparent at this particular time. I began to wonder how often it was apparent, and decided that George needed to read some Jesus stuff, since Jesus was a reasonable, patient character.
“It was never a matter of something being wrong with the televisions,” George angrily replied to Maggie. “It was the policy, and we were just using our fair share of it. They never said anything about it not being for televisions that worked.”
“That makes perfect sense,” I whispered to Maggie. I held her hand tight, preparing for a crash and thinking that if I held her hand I could somehow protect her.
The inside of the car began to flash. “Oh my god, this is it,” I said in the same quiet whisper. Maggie slipped her hand out of my grip and patted the top of my knuckles. The flashing was from the blinker on the truck. It was slowing down to turn off the road. We were in the clear.
The car was quiet again. There was no talk of price, or financing, or how much George and Maryann wanted for the television. We just knew it would be as much as a new one was. Maggie and I were just looking forward to getting out of the car at this point.
As we neared the winery, price came up again. “Well,” George said as he looked straight ahead at the road, “If you two are not going to engage us in negotiating for the house, then we should at least discuss the cost of this day’s excursion.” Maryann turned around to look at us both, her head turning toward Maggie, then toward me. “We bought the coffee this morning and this afternoon, and we drove.” She stared at us. George was silent. She waited, but neither Maggie and I were going to say anything. “We figure, and it is only fair,” George butted in, “That you owe us for the gas and the afternoon coffee. The gas milage would be half as much in a bigger car, and since this car cost a lot, we should be reimbursed for the mileage of a bigger car. And the coffee should be reimbursed at the rate of a luxury latte, since that is what we bought this morning.”
With a few less dollars in our pockets, Maggie and I lounged down in our guest house on Fortuna’s and Apollo’s winery, retreat, and pot farm to get over the day, tossed chicken salad’s on the low strung mid century coffee table before us. “That was an expensive grande mocha iced latte!" I yelled at our five year old television.