Selling the House – Chapter 5

We conclude the story…

We were the first to arrive at the bank, a little early perhaps, and our inquiring looks as we scanned the tellers and patrons went unreturned. No one in the small lobby was expecting us. The two bank officials important enough to have offices, but not trustworthy enough to have something more opaque than smoked glass for walls, sat behind desks in earnest conversation with suited clients. We deduced that the location had been chosen for the convenience of the buyer’s lawyer, and we would just have to await his arrival. So we sat and tried, unsuccessfully, to find diverting reading material. In comparison to the dog-eared, glossy magazines of a doctor’s office, the pamphlets on mortgages, money market accounts, and interest-free checking were rather dry.

I let Dawn have the only chair in the place while I chivalrously stood nearby, a hovering protecting spirit. As no good deed goes unpunished, it wasn’t long before she said, “Harry, go ask that teller if they have any more of those piggy banks. You know, the one Samuel dropped on Fourth of July?”

I knew. This was a small town that still held a rousing Fourth of July parade that drew an audience large than the town’s population. The bank had given out soft piggy banks, which Sam had loved and then subsequently dropped as Dawn carried him back to the car after dark, asleep on her shoulder.

I also knew my wife. She delights in asking me to do small favors she can do perfectly well herself. True, I was already standing and she was sitting, and it would have churlish to expect her to vacate the seat I had just insisted she take. But the truth is, she is shy of both phones and strangers, so the choice was between futile, boorish nagging or getting it done.

A coiffed tween behind the counter invited me forward from the line. “Oh, the piggy banks? Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said with a sad look, as if I just told her my dog had died. Her patronizing tone slid up and down by perfect fourths and bounced off the walls of the small lobby. “They were none left. We gave them all away during the parade. I mean, I could go look in the back, but I’m fairly sure their all gone.”

“No, don’t bother. Thank you anyway.” I scuttled through a gauntlet of indulgent smiles back to our neutral corner and, crouching by the chair, murmured to Dawn, “They’re all out.”

“So I heard,” she murmured back.

Our lawyer arrived, in a soft brown business suit adorned with reading glasses on a necklace of polished river stones. She ushered us into an unoccupied conference room with the same floor-to-ceiling, fish-bowl windows. The table was ample enough for a formal dinner party, but we all huddled together along one side, politely relinquishing the “seats of honor” at each end. Though the chairs seemed more “dutiful” than “honorable”. These were modern New England business chairs, deeply rooted in Puritan virtues of fortitude and stamina. No executive springs or wheels, no imitation leather or bulging lumbar support. A simple, square metal frame barely disguised by insufficient padding and gray fabric upholstery, with four no-frills, stainless steel legs, thick as rebar, that speared the carpet below. Such a chair did not turn or waver. Such a chair forced ethical choices. Sit up straight, keep all your feet on the floor, and decide once and for all which direction you were going to face.

There was nothing extraordinary about the business we were going to conduct, but our lawyer beamed quietly. And why shouldn’t she beam. She was a grandmother, with a distinguished local career, a large house with a paid mortgage, and a grown-up child in the family business. She handed us papers – legal documents, her final bill, disclaimers and declarations. We sauntered through the pile, signing our names and chattering in undertones like school children in the back pew at church.

The buyer soon entered, slender and ethereal and out of place. She looked around the room with a shy smile. She seemed embarrassed by how much space she took up, and she tried to shrink her five foot ten frame. She wished us a drawling Good Morning. This was the first time she had ever bought a house on her own. Her nose positively twitched her desire for acceptance and her shoulders shrugged disbelief. She sat across the table from us, oozing quiet enthusiasm and nervousness.

At last Finn, her lawyer, arrived, a clean-shaven, suited fellow, with a sufficient amount of gray hair and an ample chin and paunch reflecting his distinguished position as a pillar of the legal bar. He assumed the role of master-of-ceremonies and dispelled the archival hush with a endless flow of dry, cynical, good-natured talk. He began to go through papers with his client, much as we were doing, while asking questions, swapping stories, and reminiscing.

“Did you give her the lead paint disclosure?”

“Yes, here it is,” we answered. “We really have no knowledge of lead paint, but all the interior walls were repainted in the last five years.”

“What is this?” the buyer asked.

“A useless piece of paper that you are legally entitled to read and recycle.”

“Finn, did you hear about the new bill before the legislature? Introduced by our friend Mrs. C?” our lawyer asked.

“Oh God. What now?”

“Aside from lead, it would require all sellers to provide buyers with a complete disclosure of a dozen other substances, along with pamphlets describing in detail the various health and safety hazards associated with it.”

From their mutual noises of disgust, they clearly thought this a terrible idea, but as a layman and a consumer I could not understand why? This must have shown on my face. “It would triple the amount of paper work,” she added, turning to me and holding up the half inch stack we had already worked through, “most of which will end up unread, recycled or in the landfill.”

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” said Finn. “You know, when I was a kid, my dad use to keep a old jam jar full of mercury, and sometimes he’d give it to us to play with, just to get us kids out his hair.”

The buyer blinked, and then added, not without a self-mocking sense of caveat emptor, “Well, I guess that explains a lot about you.”

Having started earlier, we finished our pile of papers sooner and sat back to enjoy the show. Finn and the buyer worked their way through their stack, occasionally passing a document to us to countersign. Finn would explain a document’s purpose in clear prose, discuss the nitty gritty with our lawyer in their legal argot, and then entertain us with some histoire while the buyer signed. Not a bad way to make a living. When the next paper was revealed, he held onto it and switched to a more formal tone than before.

“OK, before you sign this, I have to ask this officially. And you have to say ‘yes’ to make this legal and official, you understand?”

She swallowed whatever witty statement was at the end of her tongue as she realized his tone was, if not serious, then at least not as careless as before.

“Do you sign this document of your own free will?”

Good God? Was he really allowed to ask her this at this late stage in the game? We had cancelled our insurance policy. We had given up our children’s slot at the Montessori school. We had missed the deadline for pre-buying heating fuel for the winter. This was not time for cold feet. Fortunately, I hardly had time to hold my breath, before she answered, “Yes.”

I blew out my breath. “Finn,” I said, “At this point in the process … I mean … does anyone ever say no?”

Finn slid his reading glasses to a well-worn slot on the end of his nose and turned to face me – not an easy trick in those particular chairs. But the twinkle in his eye told me the serious part was over.

“You know, about once every five years, someone does say No.”

He leaned back in his chair, and held up a finger. “I remember this one couple I was helping through the process, and there hadn’t been any indication of a problem or hitch the whole time, a very routine sale, until I said, ‘Do you sign this document of your own free will?’ And she yelled, ‘NO!’ and pointed at her husband with her thumb,” and he demonstrated with his own thumb.

At this point Finn mimicked an angry and bitter woman defaming her spouse. “‘We wouldn’t be here if Mr. Awnt-er-pen-ure here hadn’t had his great, never-fail business idea. And what you think that might be? Come on. Guess. No, don’t guess. You’ll never guess. A tire center! In Vermont! Isn’t that brilliant. Who would ever think to put up a tire center in Vermont! Would you think of that? Of course, you would. How many tire centers are there within twenty miles of here? Lots! But Noooo! Come on, honey, it’s a sure bet. He insisted. We’ll make a ton of money. We can’t lose. Argh! We owned that beautiful house outright and now we have to take out a mortgage just to pay off the losses. I could just SCREAM every time I think of it. And if you think you can…’

“On and on and on she went, while her husband sank in his seat and turned an odd shade of pale gray. I thought she wasn’t ever going to finish. I must have waited ten minutes for her to calm down, until finally she huffed in disgust, ‘Yes, I sign this document of my own free will.’ and then immediately turned to her husband and said, ‘I am NEVER going to let you live this down!'”

The paperwork was completed, and as we shook hands all round, Finn handed us the largest check I ever expect to see in my life. Outside the building, the buyer hugged us, thanked us, and wished us well, and we sincerely returned her emotions. In a couple of months, she would be sending us increasingly anxious and frustrated emails when the basement flooded in one of the wettest summers the state had seen in living memory. But at that moment, we were all pleased with the transaction and relieved it had come off smoothly. She walked off in high spirits, a great burden off her shoulders.

We were now legally homeless, and our future had enough uncertainty that we weren’t completely care-free, but it’s hard to be anxious with a five-digit check for in your hand. Or rather, it’s a different kind of anxiety.

“We need to deposit this RIGHT AWAY!” I insisted.

“OK gang. Let’s go!” Dawn said, in her best up-and-at-’em voice.

“Should we walk or take the car? It’s kind of a far walk, but we have a free parking spot right now.”

“Harry, look at the dollar amount on that check you are holding in your hand. And you’re trying to save yourself twenty-five cents in the parking meter?”

“I am my Mother’s son, but you’re right. Let’s drive.”

In retrospect, it’s embarassing to admit when you have lived a cliche, but at the time we laughed all the way to the bank.

Spit Goes Clink

We lost power last night, from about 1:30 in the morning until 7:30.

Without electricity we have no lights, no heat (gas furnace controlled by electric thermostat), and no water (well pump is electric). I am writing this at 10:00 AM, and it is -14 Fahrenheit outdoors (yes, that says negative fourteen, or as Rose says, “megative fourteen” because it is worse than negative), so I don’t know how cold it was outside in the middle of the night. I shudder to think of it. Or maybe shiver. The house isn’t quite back up to operating temperature. We still have condensation frost on the inside of the windows.

I got up, found a flashlight, and called the power company. I left a message on their automated system and waited. I lit a few candles and read for a while, but after an hour, the temperature was noticeably dropping in the house. Samuel had a cold and woke easily, and so he ended up in bed with us, ensuring that neither Dawn nor I would get any sleep. I was up and down a number of times, unable to sleep but too tired and, increasingly, too cold to want to get up. We piled fleece blankets on the children and ourselves. Rose grunted when I asked if she was OK, but her head and hands feet felt warm.

And then I realized that if the house froze, there would be burst water pipes to deal with.

It was 4:00 in the morning. I called our landlady, but she didn’t know how to drain the water out of the pipes. She would try to find out and call me back.

“Meanwhile, can you leave some water running to keep the pipes from freezing?” she asked.

“No, the well pump is electric.”

“Oh… Yeah… Darn.”

I called the electric company and heard the reassuring recorded message that said there was a power outage in our area (and six other places) and crews were dealing with it. Later, I would feel very, very bad for those crews. But not right at that moment. At that moment, I wanted to urge them on with a cat-o-nine tails.

I also wanted to know how dire the situation was. At first I thought to get some water from the water cooler and stick an instant read thermometer in it. But then a few sluggish neurons woke up enough to say, “Hey stupid. Get the flashlight and look at the thermostat,” before rolling over back to sleep.

The thermostat read 60 degrees. 60 degrees? But it felt so cold in the house!

We decided to get ready to evacuate anyway, which raised another problem. The car was 75 yards away in a locked, detached garage. The garage door opener was electric and could not be opened from the outside. We would have to get inside the garage and manually open it, but the man door was locked and we didn’t know if we had a key. I put on fleece pants, a silk turtleneck, snow pants, fleece sweater, winter coat, a neck gaiter, Sorrell snow boots, a fleece touque (as our neighbors to the north say), and a down winter coat, and I walked outside with all the keys we could find in the house.

It occurred to me that this might be my first chance to have my spit freeze in mid-air, but I was too chicken to find out. I didn’t want my lips to freeze together.

We live on a “vacation” lake, so only a couple of house on our block still have people living in them at this time of year. However two doors down, I saw a station wagon with its lights on and my neighbor moving in and out. I went over to talk to him and found out that he was going to drive seven miles to town and look for a generator. His wife was leaving in their other car to drive to Fort Wayne and go to work three hours early. He asked if I had a cell phone, and I said yes, but it got no signal at the lake. Too bad, he said. He wanted to call ahead and see if anyplace was open. Why don’t you use your regular phone I said? He looked puzzled and then realized what I meant.

“All my phones are cordless and they need to be plugged into a socket to work.” I offered my phone but he decided to just go. But he did help me get my car out first. Turns out I did have a key to open the man door, and fortunately he was there to help because to open the garage door, we had to pull on two separate metal flaps, one on each end of the garage door.

So the car was available for a quick get away, if need be. I came inside, and was about to crawl back in bed when the landlady called back. She had not found out how to drain the water, but she was going out to buy a portable generator. I told her that the house was now at 55 degrees so there wasn’t any immediate danger.

I crawled into bed. Even Samuel’s involuntary spasms and twitches and kicks couldn’t keep me awake. But at 6:30 he woke up, as he does every morning, and wanted to get up and play. We said no about as firmly as we say No about anything, but he kept pleading until finally I said, “Sam, come with me.”

We had already covered him in fleece and warm layers, so I walked him into the room where all his toys were. It was very, very dark.

“Sam, the electricity is out. There is no power in the house. Do you think you can play out here in the dark?”

No answer. We went back to bed until the power came on at 7:30 in the morning. We gave a feeble cheer, and then I took Samuel to the playroom and fell asleep on the couch, wrapped in blankets.

An hour later, Rose woke up. She had no idea what had happened during the night, but she was pleased to hear that school had been canceled for the day.