WINTER 2013 (Issue 77)
Fourteen Tips for Selling Real Estate
Fiction Winner for Writers@Work
Tip #1: Make sure your house has an appealing smell. Bake cookies, light a fragrant candle, place fresh bowls of potpourri in every room.
“There’s an odor in here,” says the agent, Trish, her high heels clacking on the green linoleum . “Something smells odd. I don’t know what it is”.
“Mothballs?” says Jack, while thinking, “Death? Decay?”
“No. It’s something else. But if you do have mothballs, you should get rid of them, pronto. If there’s one scent that turns potential buyers off, in my experience, it’s mothballs. Blech.”
“We don’t have any,” Jack says. “I was joking.”
“Oh,” says Trish. “Well, there’s an odor, anyway. I don’t know. Medicine, maybe.”
“Medicine, yes. We do have lots of that.”
Tip #2: Lighting matters! Before a showing, open curtains and raise blinds in every room. Floor-lamps can help create a warm, inviting atmosphere.
Friday morning. Jack is down at Wal-Mart for the second time this week. He’s stuck in line behind a crew of wildland firefighters, who’re in there buying candy bars and smokes and cold drinks. Jack himself is buying lightbulbs, much to his chagrin.
The crew is from the reservation, so Jack gathers from the words embroidered on their jackets: Blackfeet Nation Hotshots. Most of them have yellow hats beneath their arms and one, a very tall young man in front of Jack, is wearing his. The tall kid’s arms are loaded down with chips and jerky and he wears the kind of knee-high boots that used to give Jack blisters, back when he was fighting fires. Jack knew some guys from Browning then, and he considers asking this tall boy if he knows any of those long-lost friends, but then Jack thinks: why bother? Nobody knows anyone, these days.
The clerk apologizes. She’s a girl about the same age as Jack’s daughter – fifty- something, but much shorter than his Lisa, with a rounder face. “I’m sorry for the wait, sir. That’s the third crew we’ve had through here, on my shift, I kid you not. They’ve pretty much wiped out the carbonated beverages aisle, but you can’t blame them, can you, in this heat?” She turns a light-bulb over, looking for the bar-code. “How many of these have you got there, ten?”
“Eighteen,” says Jack.
“Eighteen. That’s a lot of bulbs.”
“Tell me about it,” Jack says, opening his wallet. “Suddenly, we’ve got to have new light bulbs. Our old ones won’t do. We’ve got to replace them all, the realtor says.”
“Realtors,” sniffs the clerk. She stares off, through the plate glass windows, at the smoky sky. “You know what we need? Wind. We need a good strong wind to clear the air.”
Jack is silent, smoothing out the creases in his dollar bills. Forty-six years, he labored for the forest service, in the woods and later, from behind a big oak desk. Forty-six years, and still the general public’s ignorance of wildfire is astonishing to him. Wind, indeed. She ought to be ashamed.
Crossing the parking lot, his damp shirt sticking to his ribs, Jack sees the fire crew, standing in a semicircle by their van. The men are eating, chatting, making jokes, as though they are impervious to degrees Fahrenheit. The smoke lies heavy all around, dusking the noon sky, making haloes around streetlights. The mountains have all vanished and the sun is nowhere --just a high red haze.
He checks his watch. Adele has been alone for thirty minutes. Not too long --she’s probably still asleep, Jack thinks. But he starts walking faster, just in case.
Tip #3: Do your best to keep in step with trends in home décor. Watch home design shows on T.V., read decorating magazines. Buyers are drawn to homes with a contemporary look.
Before the fires, Jack used to take his wife on walks, twice daily, which exhausted him. Adele walks fast, she always has. Their children used to tease her that she’d never owned a pair of shoes she couldn’t hike five miles in, should the need arise. On their walks around the neighborhood, Jack begged her to slow down, not just so he could catch his breath, but also so that he could point out landmarks and remind her of the names of neighbors, people they have known for years.
But since the fires got started, what they mostly do is sit down in the basement, where it’s cool, and watch T.V. Today, they’re watching Jeopardy. Adele crochets. Jack marvels at the quickness of her hands, covered with knotty veins, but just as agile, now, as they were when she was twenty-one and teaching school. Adele knows every answer for “State Capitals,” as well as “Great Composers.” She even nails the final question, under “Sixteenth Century Explorers" (“Ponce de Leon”, she says, without dropping a stitch). This makes Jack proud and also fills him with an all-encompassing despair.
Tip #4: Never underestimate the power of curb appeal. Some well-placed shrubs and a newly painted door can transform your place from ho-hum to sensational.
Jack sweeps the porch. He gathers up the fine white ash and dumps it in a bucket, over layers of coffee grounds and eggshells. He’ll use it later, on his roses.
He checks the mail --three bills, two advertisements for prescription drug plans, an invitation to his fifty-eighth reunion—and stuffs it all back in the box, just as the sky shrills and a turboprop plane, painted red and silver, like a toy --makes a low pass overhead. So low Jack almost ducks. He half-expects the plane to clip the tallest ponderosas in the gulch across the street, but it clears them, is absorbed into the haze.
The nearest fire complex is several miles away, but sometimes, when Jack checks the mail, he discovers tiny burnt twigs on the sidewalk, charred white threads that crumble at his touch. He’s seen, on television, that there are crews, now, from eleven states, fighting the blazes on the ground and from the air. It’s the worst season in nearly fifty years, since back when Jack himself was on a ground crew, learning how to build a line.
The smoke is bad enough -- the suffocating smell, the taste of it-- and the sky, which is cement-gray, toxic orange at dawn, but it’s the noise that finally wears a person down. The fire planes flying over, night and day --refurbished bombers, helitankers—their sound reminds Jack of newsreel clips they used to show when he was young, too young to join the big boys overseas. No, this is nothing like that war, not really –forests can grow back-- but still, it wears a person down. It’s not, as even Trish admits, the optimal environment for selling homes.
Tip #5: If you have a wife with Alzheimer’s disease, attempt to keep her in the basement, out of sight.
Adele is downstairs, playing the piano. It’s a minuet by Mozart, one she learned when she was nine years old. Her hands move up and down the scale; the decades roll back like arpeggios. She hears her mother on the stairs and remembers that she’s not supposed to practice while her baby brother is asleep. She drops her hands into her lap and turns to tell her mother that she’s sorry, but her mother isn’t there, where she should be. Instead, there’s some old man she doesn’t know. He’s watching her.
Tip #6: Remove your personal memorabilia from the house. We want potential buyers to imagine themselves living there, not you.
Another Friday. Jack is emptying the china cabinet –something he’s been putting off for months. He takes the porcelain figurines out first, wrapping each one in newspaper before he lays it in the box. Here’s a curly-headed shepherd, with a lamb. Here’s a long-necked dancer with a pigeon resting on her fingertips. A pigeon? No. That bird must be a dove. Christ, why do women always love this crap?
Some buyers are coming to see the house, at last. They haven’t had a showing for three weeks. Trish says not to worry, these things happen, particularly at the height of wildfire season.
It only takes one buyer, Trish says, which is all the more reason to take care of unfinished jobs, like this. She’s been nagging him about the china cabinet since before they planted the for-sale sign in the yard.
He finds a pair of salt and pepper shakers, shaped like ducks. Also the mug Tom made at Boy Scout camp, one year. A bighorn sheep, carved out of wood --Adele bought this on their honeymoon, in Glacier Park. He ought to put it all in the garage sale pile, thinks Jack. They won’t have room for any of it, where they’re going.
The cabinet is empty, now, except for dust. Jack gets a roll of paper towels and starts wiping off the shelves. The cabinet’s an heirloom, brought out west by covered wagon. It belonged to someone’s great-grandmother --Jack’s, maybe. Or else Adele’s. Whose was it? Damn, he can’t recall. His wife would know, or would have, at one time. He should have listened while he had the chance.
His first chore finished, Jack moves on to the front room. The wall above the couch is full of family pictures, all of which need to be taken down. Jack takes down Lisa in her Snow White costume, lays the photo in a box, then does the same with Tom, playing a plastic ukulele, and Tom, much older, holding his first child. After the first few, it gets easier. He scarcely glances at the pictures as he lifts them from their hooks and soon the wall above the couch is bare, or nearly so.
The last remaining picture is from 1950. It’s Adele, inside the one-room schoolhouse, where she started her career. Children of every size are seated, two to a desk. Girls on the left side of the room, boys on the right. The boys have crew-cuts, all of them, which make their ears look huge. The girls have braids and knee socks, pleated skirts. Adele herself is pretty in a Fair Isle sweater, hair in geometric coils around her face. Pretty but fierce, with eyes as bright as the nocturnal animals Jack’s father used to trap to make a living (if you could even call it that, a living). Fierce, yes. Jack smiles. Pity the child who showed up late for Miss McDonnell’s class.
Jack puts the photo in the box, then takes it out again, for one last look. In the background of the photo there is something he has not noticed before. It’s a list of words, up on the chalkboard, in Adele’s impeccable DeNealian:
She’d only been at her new job three weeks before Jack found a way to meet her. Much to the envious consternation of his buddies at the Jackalope Saloon, he’d conned his way into a job delivering firewood to the school, a quarter cord per week. It took six months before she’d smile at him, another two before she’d say hello, though Jack could feel her eyes on him, sometimes, when he was splitting wood.
His pals down at the Jackalope all said that she was much too good for him, and he agreed. Now, looking at the picture, Jack recalls a Christmas party that he took Adele to, one time, at the Kinley’s. By this time, they were practically engaged, and yet she’d slapped his errant hands beneath the blanket they shared on the sleigh ride under the blue stars, slapped him until he ached all over and when the ride was done, he’d tumbled off the sleigh, worn out by lust and too much homebrewed cider and the jarring gait of Dermott Kinley’s huge moon-dappled Percherons. Two hired hands were there to help him up, holding Jack underneath his arms. They nearly died of laughter when he staggered off to vomit in the newly fallen snow.
Jack hangs the photo back up on the wall. Why should he hide all traces of their past? The hell with Trish. It’s not her house. But then he thinks: it only takes one buyer, and he puts the photo face-down in the box.
Tip #7: Don’t forget, the kitchen is the most important room. Ask your realtor for ideas on how to give yours sparkle and pizzazz!
Adele has left the fridge door standing open, once again. Jack closes it, then wipes the scattered bread- crumbs from the counter, trying to contain his irritation. She used to be so tidy, all the time.
The clock above the stove says one o clock. Trish isn’t supposed to show up, with her clients, till half past three, which means Jack has about an hour to kill before he needs to get Adele up, dressed, and in the car. He’ll take her to the mall to walk around. She likes the mall; she doesn’t get upset there, usually. It hasn’t changed that much, in thirty years.
He checks inside the oven. Clean, of course. Nobody’s used the thing in months. It still works perfectly, though Trish –with her usual zest for squandering Jack’s pension—has suggested that he ought to buy a new one. No, worse than that, she thinks Jack should replace all of the appliances. She told him this last month. “That color,” she said, “is a major ick.”
“A major what?” said Jack, and he had wanted to tell Trish that his wife had picked them out, back when they built the house. Adele had picked that color –“harvest gold”, not because it was in vogue, but because she liked the way it matched the foothills, east of town. But he’s not willing to discuss his wife with Trish, so he told her, instead, about the two-room cabin he’d grown up in, where his mother fed and clothed four kids without the aid of one appliance –gold or otherwise—because the power-lines did not extend that far from town, back then. He stopped himself before the part about how he and his three sisters had to take turns hauling water from the well. He could tell, from the forced way Trish was smiling at him, she had heard all this before.
Tip #8: Communication counts! Remember that your real estate professional is always there to listen to your questions and concerns.
On Sundays, Lisa calls. Today she says, “Have you been eating, Dad?”
“Tom says Mom didn’t cook at all, the last time he was there.”
“Well, she gets frustrated. But we’re doing fine. I actually know how to fix some stuff.”
“Like what, Dad? Corned beef hash? You can’t subsist on corned beef hash, you know.”
“We’re doing fine. How are the girls?”
“They’re great. I wish your house would sell. No offers yet?”
“Not yet. It’s –you know-- the economy, and this damn smoke. The fires are making things a little difficult. But Trish is bringing some clients by to see the place, the day after tomorrow.”
“Good. That’s good. I saw your fires on our nightly news. They’re not too close?”
“No, no. We’re not in danger. Don’t you fret. Though lately I’ve been wishing they’d just let them burn, you know? Just let them burn this place right to the ground. Save us a lot of hassle, don’t you think?” He laughs. His daughter doesn’t.
“Do you want me to come out there?”
“No. I mean, not unless you want to.”
Tip #9: If you are old, please make your presence inconspicuous. Potential buyers do not like to be reminded of their own mortality. No one cares that you were once considered something of a catch.
Adele is folding laundry in the front room. Halfway through, she stops, aware of a faint smell. Something is burning. Wood. Well, naturally, it’s wood-smoke, from the corner stove. That young man must have stoked the stove up for her, before school. Adele stands, dropping rolled socks on the floor. She’s just remembered that she needs to write the date up on the chalkboard. How could she forget? October 22, 1950, and today they’re going to carve their jack-o-lanterns, right after they take a spelling test. Harvest, cider, churn, butter, fathers, mothers, beautiful, horses.
Tip #10: Details count! Clean all the windows, in and out. Polish doorknobs. Make sure hinges do not squeak.
So far, she’s only wandered off one time. Just once, so Jack considers himself lucky, in that sense. She got almost two miles from home (he can picture how she must have looked that night, striding fast along the darkened highway in her robe and slippers, her hair blown back, eyes shining in the night). It’s a miracle she wasn’t killed. Now they have special locks on all the doors, and Adele wears a metal bracelet with her name and address, all the time --at least, she’s supposed to. She detests the thing. Jack is always finding it in funny places, stuffed between the couch cushions or buried in the soil of potted plants.
On their most recent visit to Adele’s neurologist, there was a stranger in the office, with the doctor –some intern, with a rash of pimples on his forehead. When the kid leaned forward, writing on his clipboard, the pimples shone like mountains, like the Swan range on that giant relief map in the lobby of the Forest Service headquarters. When Adele informed the intern that the current president was Richard Nixon, the corners of the young man’s mouth twitched up. He glanced at the neurologist, as if Adele’s wrong answer proved some fascinating point. And Jack said, “she taught Latin, did you know that? Latin.”
Which she had, along with every other blessed subject, at the old two story high school where she’d started working, once they moved to town. She was the one who had insisted that they move here, so that Jack could go to college, something he would never have imagined on his own. It was Adele who had brought home the bacon, while Jack spent his days in the high- windowed classrooms of the Forestry department, the pages of his spiral notebook riffling in the breeze of ceiling fans. She’d packed his lunch and ironed his shirts each day, while all the boys he’d grown up with, back home, were still out working in the woods, still coaxing ticks from nooks and crannies with the burning ends of cigarettes, still losing thumbs in chainsaw accidents.
Tip #11: Place fresh-cut flowers in your entryway to help potential buyers feel at home. Daffodils are always a good choice. The color yellow has been shown to trigger spending instincts in the human brain.
It’s two o’ clock, and Jack is busy picking out an outfit for Adele when he hears footsteps on the porch. They weren’t supposed to be here yet. They weren’t supposed to come till three o clock. “Here, put this on,” he says, pulling a blouse off of a hanger. “Don’t leave this room. I’ll be right back.”
He finds Trish on the front step, fumbling with her keys. Behind her are a boy and girl who both look much too young to buy a house. The boy has facial hair; he’s sporting one of those small goat-like beards that cartoon Frenchmen wear, and centaurs. Tom used to wear a beard like that in college, just to make Jack mad. The young man’s face is smooth, so smooth that his small beard looks pasted-on. The girl beside him is a tiny, freckled thing, with red-gold hair and pale eyelashes. She reminds Jack of an Irish girl he used to know, before he met Adele.
“Oh,” says Trish. “You’re here.”
“You’re early,” Jack says.
“No. I told you two o’ clock.”
“We could come back later,” says the freckled girl, “If this is a bad time.” She’s talking in a loud, slow voice, as if she thinks Jack might be deaf, or stupid.
“No, no,” Jack sighs. “Come in.” He holds the door, but the girl turns and walks to the far end of the porch. She leans over the railing.
“We were just admiring your roses,” she says, too loudly. “And the view. It must be really something, on a clear day.”
“It is,” Jack says.
“Oh yes,” says Trish. “When the air’s clear, you can see straight up the canyon. It’s spectacular.”
“What we need,” says the boy, stroking his little beard. “Is wind. A good strong wind would blow this smoke right out.”
Jack steps backward, almost stumbling in his haste to get back in the house. “Please,” he says, “why don’t we go inside,” but his voice is lost beneath the shuddering whine of another fire plane, passing overhead. They crane their necks to look at it, all four of them. “Huh,” says the boy, after the plane has passed. “That was a really neat old bomber.”
“A Neptune P-2V,” says Jack. “To judge by the dimensions of the fuselage.”
“Oh, wow,” the girl says. “Wow. Are you a pilot?” She has on a sleeveless cotton dress with bra-straps peeking out from underneath. Her shoulders are as freckled as her face and her eyes, staring at Jack, are wide and green.
“No.” Jack shakes his head. “I never flew planes, but I used to fight fires, once upon a time.”
“Wow. That’s so cool.” She’s talking in a normal voice, all of a sudden.
Jack opens the front door as wide as it will go. He smiles and bows, just like some television butler, ushering his guests inside with a low sweep of his arm.
Tip #12: Never let your desperation show. You won’t get full market value for your house if buyers figure out you have to sell because your wife is dying a slow, agonizing death and you – poor bastard—can’t keep up a place this size alone.
Adele looks out the bedroom window, at the haze. The air’s so thick, she can’t make out the barn, the silos, or the windmill on the hill. Where is it coming from, this smoke? Is it the neighbors, burning slash again? She’ll have to ask Jack to go talk to them, when he gets home.
Tip #13: Fresh linens in the bathroom are a must. For extra zing, try fastening your towels to the rods with fabric bows in a coordinating hue.
Once inside, Jack excuses himself from his visitors and goes to check on his wife, in their room. She’s as he left her, getting dressed. Jack helps her find some socks, tells her, again, that they are going to the mall. Then he remembers that she left a pile of laundry scattered in the living room, where everyone can see. “Stay here,” he says. “Don’t leave this room. I’ll be right back.”
In the living room, he gathers up the laundry, stuffs it all into the basket. As he works, he hears the clients in the kitchen, talking. They don’t know that Jack is there.
“It looks so dated.” That’s the young man talking. “Look at that linoleum. My God! That fridge.”
“It takes a special kind of person,” Trish is saying. “One with vision, one who can see past certain minor flaws and understand the equity potential here. You have to think location, and square footage.”
“Oh, yes.” The pretty girl’s voice. “Yes, this place is big, for what they’re asking. Plus, I’ve always wanted to live someplace with a view.”
Jack stuffs two more towels in the basket and starts heading down the hall. Too late, the guests are there already. “It’s an ideal floor plan,” Trish is saying, “lots of room to start a family someday. Three bedrooms up and laundry on the...” She stops. Her clients stop, too. Adele is in the way.
Jack drops the laundry basket and starts jogging down the hall. “Well, you must Jack’s wife,” he hears the agent saying. “It’s so nice to meet you, at long last.” Adele stares at Trish’s outstretched hand, but doesn’t touch it. Adele is fully dressed, Jack is relieved to see, with all the buttons done up on her blouse.
“Sweetheart,” Jack says, out of breath. “Let’s go and find your shoes. We’re going to take a little drive.” He takes her arm, but Adele doesn’t budge. She’s staring at the clients.
“You really think that you can get away with this?” she says.
The girl’s mouth opens, wordlessly. The boy moves closer to her, putting a protective arm around her shoulders. “Oh, ma’am,” says Trish, “I’m sorry if we came at a bad time.”
“You two just think that you can do whatever you please? Is that it?”
Jack sees the girl take the boy’s hand, prepared for flight. Trish looks at Jack, her raised, plucked eyebrows seeking explanation. He has not told her about his wife’s condition.
“Sweetheart,” Jack says, “Honey, please. These people are our guests. Let’s welcome them.” He tries to steer Adele back towards the bedroom, but she shakes him off.
“It’s a school night,” says Adele. Her cheeks are flushed. “You have a curfew for a reason. Do you hear me? Why are you just standing there ? Have you gone deaf?”
It’s more than Jack can bear, the way the freckled girl is looking at his wife. He wants to go away, to find some small dark place and hide in there until he wastes away, but what about Adele? She’s trembling. “Go on,” he says to the young girl, not looking at her face. “Your mother isn’t feeling well. Go on now. Please just go.”
Nobody moves. The two prospective buyers (who are surely not prospective any more) just stand there, gawking, until Trish turns on them, with a brusque voice. “Well, kids, what are you waiting for?” she says. “You heard your mom. You’re grounded. Let’s get going.” And the agent shepherds them off, down the hallway, first giving the girl, who’s been standing as though frozen to the spot, a gentle shove between the shoulder blades.
Jack watches as they go. Before they round the corner, Trish turns back and gives him a sad smile, and he feels a pang of something he has not felt since before the diagnosis. Jack feels as though he’s found a bright green sapling, hanging on, amidst the charred ruins of a wilderness.
Tip #14: Above all, avoid sentimental thoughts about your house. Emotional attachments are a hindrance, when it comes to sales.
Adele, reclining on the forest floor, with Jack. It’s late September, 1953. Their skin is etched with patterns of crushed ferns. The members of the school board would be scandalized if they could see her now, she says. Jealous old coots, says Jack, they only wish. She laughs. He picks a dead leaf from her hair. Above, the cottonwoods shake like wet dogs and clouds, reflected in the creek, dissolve and flow. Harvest cider churn butter fathers mothers beautiful horses.