I met Cleo a year and a half ago - in July, 1985 - when she moved into a newly constructed problem house. The builder, she said, was "an arrogant little creep." When Cleo pointed out that he had painted the exterior with interior paint, hooked up the air conditioner in reverse so that it cooled the outside, left all the outlets dead in one room, messed up a sink trap and neglected to install an air gap for the dishwasher, he told her, "Shut up! This house is perfect!" When she further pointed out that the kitchen drawers had nails sticking out, he said, "Just don't put your hands in the drawers."
This is my niche: cleaning up the messes that the big guys leave behind. Rather than deal with lawsuits against arrogant creeps, a lot of homeowners would rather pay me, get good service and be done with it.
Cleo's husband was an obstetrician, but I rarely saw him around. Occupational hazard. Cleo had no children. Her husband was probably 20 years older than her. Second wife, I assumed, though I never asked. Cleo was a kind woman, warm, outgoing, very pretty with black hair and light brown skin. She had a way of making you feel comfortable.
Cleo designed and sewed her own clothes. She had the eye for style. On a Sophia Loren frame she somehow combined modesty and flash, and she always looked fabulous.
One day, cooking hamburgers (and yet dressed as if she were about to step onto a runway), she offered me lunch. Sitting on a bar stool at the kitchen counter, I joined her 17-year-old nephew who was visiting from New Jersey. His name was Earl. To my surprise Cleo served me two hamburgers, big ones. And two for Earl. Apparently Cleo was accustomed to men with big appetites.
"I want you to talk some sense into Earl," Cleo told me. "He's been here two weeks and gotten two speeding tickets. The last one, he was doing 95 on the Dunbarton Bridge."
Earl groaned, realizing that the hamburgers were a trap even as burger grease was dripping down his chin.
"Earl," I said, wiping my own grease, "don't try to be the fastest guy on the road. Be the second fastest. That way, the other guy gets the ticket."
Cleo frowned. This wasn't the advice she was hoping for.
"We done here?" Earl said. And he was gone. I saw a black car lurch out of the driveway.
"Sorry," I said.
"I mistook you for a grownup," Cleo said.
|The piano, 1991. My daughter, age 13.|
When I finish, she asks if I want a piano. For free. It's a beaut, but they don't have room for it in their downsized condo. My daughter, age 8, wants to learn the piano. This would be great. Thank you.
Then suddenly it's awkward. It's time to present the bill. They've just given me a like-new $2500 piano. How can I bill them for $400? It seems ungracious. But I can't afford not to - we've had a bad winter, financially - and I wouldn't have taken the piano if they'd asked $400 for it. Still, it's awkward. And for once, Cleo doesn't put me at ease.
A few days later, I stopped by their condo. My daughter had drawn a picture of the piano with a big "Thank you!" My wife had baked four loaves of bread. A country-style thank you from our home in the mountains. But nobody was there. I left the picture and bread at the door.
I never heard from them again.