The Beginner's Goodbye(17)


by Anne Tyler

The “they” she referred to was me, as it happened—me and a retired kitchen designer from Anne Arundel County. So I just said, “Oh. True,” and took my coffee back to my office without the slightest thought of following her suggestion.

“Remind him it’s a buyer’s market before you settle on the price,” Charles called after me. “Buyer’s? Seller’s? Whichever.”

“Okay.”

Mr. Hogan was describing field maneuvers. Smith and Donaldson were positioned on my left about fifty yards away and Merritt and Helm were holed up in the woods to my right but I didn’t have a visual on them because there was a considerable dip in the terrain running some two hundred yards north-northeast along the …

My eyes wandered toward my bookcase. The Beginner’s series lined several shelves—a rainbow of narrow, shiny spines identical in size. I stood up and went to examine them more closely. They were arranged by publication date, earliest to the most recent. Kitchen Remodeling dated from several years back, and it was on the top shelf. I pulled it out.

“Knowing What You Want” was the first chapter. (Where in your present kitchen do you do your slicing and dicing? DO you, in fact, do any slicing and dicing?) “Communicating with Your Contractor” was the second. Almost the entire remainder of the book consisted of what now seemed to me an inordinately detailed plan for setting up an interim kitchen in a spare bathroom.

I took the book to my desk and sat down to read the contractor chapter. Apparently the essential element was control. Do not assume that, having issued your directives, you can lean back and let your contractor run wild. Inform him or her that you will be checking his or her progress at the end of every workday. Insist that he or she submit a timeline, in writing, outlining the steps to be completed by certain fixed dates. Schedule meetings on a weekly basis, at which you will require him or her to present a record of current expenses.

It was Nandina who was to blame for the him-her business, although otherwise she steered clear of the editing side of things. (For starters, she couldn’t spell. She was one of the smartest women I knew, but she couldn’t spell worth a damn.)

I closed the book on an index finger and reached for the telephone. I punched in the number I’d written down for Gil Bryan.

“Hello,” he said.

At least he wasn’t as gruff as the first man. He spoke at a normal level, above the whirr of some power tool in the background.

I said, “Gil Bryan?”

“Yes.”

“This is Aaron Woolcott. I own that house on Rumor Road where the—where the—”

Stupidly, I could not seem to get the words out.

“Where the tree fell,” Gil Bryan said. “Right.”

But even with his help, I wasn’t able to go on. I can’t explain what happened. My eyes filled with tears and I didn’t trust my voice.

“Are you thinking of getting that fixed?” he asked me after a moment.

I swallowed and said, “Yes.”

“I could come by and take a look, if you like.”

“I’m not there,” I said. I cleared my throat.

“Maybe after you get home from work, then?”

“I mean, I’m not ever there. I’m staying with my sister. That rain we’ve had broke through the tarp and the hall ceiling fell in.”

Gil Bryan made a whistling sound through his teeth.

“I was thinking,” I said, “could you stop by my sister’s house around five-thirty and I’d just give you the key so you could go check the place out?”

“Check it out on my own, you’re saying?”

“Yes.”

There was a pause. Then he said, “Well, I could do that, I guess. But it’d be better to have you along.”

I said nothing.

“So, okay,” he said. “I’ll go it alone.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re talking about just the roof? Or the interior, too.”

“Everything. I don’t know. Just take care of it. You decide.”

“Everything? What kind of time frame are you looking for?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “However much time it takes, I guess.”

Then I gave him Nandina’s address, and hung up, and put The Beginner’s Book of Kitchen Remodeling back in its place on the shelf.

· · ·

I’d chosen five-thirty for a reason: Nandina would still be at work. She made it a point of honor, most evenings, to stay longer than anyone else in the office. So she wouldn’t be there to horn in on my first consultation with Gil Bryan. She wouldn’t find out that it was my first consultation.

But my sister has an uncanny sixth sense; I can’t think of any other way to explain it. She knocked on my door at a quarter till five and stuck her head in and said, “I’m going now. See you at home.”

“You’re going now?”

“I might as well. I’m at a good stopping place,” she said. She had her purse slung over her shoulder.

So, by the time I got there, she was already in the kitchen starting dinner preparations. And when the doorbell rang, she arrived in the hall right behind me, wiping her hands on the hem of the apron that covered her housecoat.

Gil Bryan had the dingy, dusty look of a man who’d been at hard labor all day, but the skin beneath his eyes was still shining, and I felt the same sense of trust that I had before. I said, “Come in, Mr. Bryan,” and he said, “Gil.”

“Aaron,” I told him, and we shook hands. (He had a hand like a baseball mitt.) Then I had to add, “This is my sister, Nandina,” because she was still standing there. “Contractor,” I told her curtly, and she said, “Oh,” and backed off and returned to the kitchen.

“Come in and have a seat,” I said to Gil.

“Oh, I’m all dirty. I’ll just take the key and be on my way.”

I fished my key case out of my pocket. As I was unhooking my house key, I asked, “Are you planning on going over there this evening?”

“I figured I would.”

“Because I’m not sure the electricity is working.”

“Huh,” he said. “Okay, I’ll go in the morning. Check it out during daylight. How about I come by here tomorrow, same time, once I know what’s what.”