He doesn’t like to get his hands dirty. He’s more of a perma-press kind of guy with plastic in his collar and a sharp crease down his leg. The palms of his hands are soft and smooth, made for flipping papers and shaking hands and fondling the leather-covered steering wheel as he drives his clients around to look at property; he drives with his left wrist propped on the wheel, his right bicep stretched along the back of the seat toward his passenger.
He works long hours and often doesn’t get home until very late so when Ronnie isn’t scheduled for a shift at the diner, it’s the least she can do to clean the bathrooms or throw a couple loads in the wash. His house is a four-bedroom ranch style like the other houses on the block. When she’s washing the dishes, Ronnie keeps an eye on the street lined with spindly trees where people walk their dogs on leashes and cars roll by at no more than 15 miles per hour. It’s a nice neighborhood, safe and clean, and taking out the garbage is the least she can do.
Ronnie dries the glasses with a dishtowel and watches hands deftly arrange them in the cupboard. Her fingers are strong and plump, with trimmed nails and dimpled knuckles; hers are capable hands, hands that don’t tremble or hesitate. At work, she has never broken a single dish or cup. Her boss said she was the most sensible waitress he’d ever hired, the only one who ever wiped the greasy fingerprints off the napkin holders and pried the wads of gum from under the tables. He said the others, Krissy and Dawn, were good for nothing because they spent idle moments with their elbows propped up on the counter, combing their fingers through their waxy hairstyles, fiddling with a cell phone, or pouting at their reflections in the backs of spoons. Not like Ronnie who does it all and doesn’t even need a thank-you.
But today is her day off. She moves to the laundry room to empty the dryer and hugs the hot fabric to her face; the fuzz on her cheeks tingles with static. Even fresh from the dryer, she can smell his mildly soapy scent clinging to his clothing—or perhaps his smell is indistinguishable from laundry detergent. It’s not a childhood smell; her parents were never officially married. They never even lived together. Ronnie was fifteen and had only met her father a handful of times when her mother finally succumbed to the cancer. So it was very nice of him to let her, a virtual stranger, come to live with him. Ronnie inhales deeply this newly familiar scent as she folds. The laundry is the least she could do.
Last night at dinnertime, the diner was packed when Angela and Suzette came in. They both have fluffy hair and suits with skirts and work for her father. They had both slept with him at least once, or at least that’s the impression they gave Ronnie with their sensibly tailored words punctuated with their eyebrows, but they seemed nice enough. Not like Sheila at the bank. Every time Ronnie went in to make a deposit, Sheila would whine about how he hadn’t returned any of her phone calls and ask Ronnie for advice. “What’s his favorite perfume?” Sheila would sigh as she slowly, slowly counted Ronnie’s tips. “Something musky or floral, do you think?” Ronnie would answer as best she could but she never delivered those notes sealed in deposit envelopes that Sheila would press into her hand. “If you have to read it first, I understand,” Sheila would whisper. “Just skip over the dirty parts.”
Angela and Suzette squeezed in at the counter. They ordered the breaded combo appetizer platter and white wine spritzers and talked loud enough for Ronnie to hear.
“I saw them at The Oak House the other day,” said Suzette. “I went over to their table to introduce myself, because you know I’m always expanding my network.”
Angela leaned forward. “And?”
“Well, all I can say is he caught a big fish this time.”
“Or she caught him, I heard.” Angela smirked. “I heard he dangled his worm and pulled out a barracuda. Isn’t she from the city?”
“Yep. And a realtor herself, so she doesn’t need any help. She’s looking at commercial stuff and he’s showing her his nicest listings downtown. You know that swanky space on Main Street next to the Starbucks?
“Nice. So he’s in bed with the competition?”
“I think he forgot to study the floor plan this time. There’s no back door on this model and now he’s stuck.”
“That’s a first.”
They had both glanced at Ronnie to make sure she’d heard and when they went, they left her a nice tip.
Ronnie carries the stack of clothes to his room. He’s out for his morning jog but she knocks softly before she enters anyway and pauses to let her eyes adjust to the curtained darkness. His room is surprisingly untidy: the bed unmade, desk loaded with listing stacks of papers, various pieces of clothing on the floor wherever they landed. The air is thick and musty. When he entertains a client, he never brings her home.
She puts his clean things into the drawers and picks the clothes off the floor. When she first moved in, he would still bring his empty glass to the sink and wipe his soles on the mat when it was raining, but she was used to keeping house and tending her dying mother and was eager to make herself useful. Although he never asked her to make a fuss, he didn’t tell her not to, either. From his pants she extracts his wallet, keys, phone, and change and places them in the tray on top of the bureau. She knows he keeps one condom in his wallet and a boxful in the glove box of his Cadillac. She knows he has too many credit cards and he keeps his dirty magazines under the bed. She unfolds the receipts from his pocket and puts them in the top drawer of his desk.
Her mom was only 18 when she was fooling around with Ronnie’s dad in their senior year of high school, 19 when Ronnie was born, 33 when they took her uterus and dead at 34. The last months were the worst, when she’d lie on the sofa in their tiny apartment with her head turned to the wall, getting thinner and greyer until she looked like an old sheet. For days, the only thing that touched her lips was a cigarette and she’d let the ash fall where it would. When Ronnie came home from school, her mother wouldn’t move. “You’re not going to be a dirty girl like me, are you, Veronica?” She’d ask the wall. “You’re not going to let any dirt get up inside you, you’re not going to bury yourself from the inside out like me, are you?”
“No,” Ronnie would tell her. “No, mama.”
But her father lives in a real house. Usually when she hears him come in, Ronnie retreats to her room to give him plenty of room but this time, she meets him in the hall. His shirt has a deep v neck of sweat. When he’s wearing shorts and a t shirt it’s easy to see the cute boy he used to be, the one now disguised in the graying temples and heavier muscles of a handsome man. He seems startled to find Ronnie in the foyer.
“Just wanted to say hi and tell you I brought home some sandwiches from the diner. They’re in the fridge.”
“Oh—hey, thanks.” She turns to go to her room when he says, “Uh, would you like to join me for lunch? I can tell you about the birds and the bees.” This is his favorite joke: “Ron,” he says, “let me tell you about the birds and the bees.” He puts a stern look on his face and takes a deep breath. “They make nests and honey!” When he introduces her to people, he always says, “This is Veronica, who’s young enough to be my daughter,” and every time he opens the refrigerator, he picks up the salad dressing and says, in a high voice, “Close the door, I’m dressing!” It cracks him up, every time.
She puts the sandwiches on plates, pours two glasses of milk, and they sit down at the kitchen table. They rarely eat together and Ronnie can’t relax, hopping up for paper towels, fetching salt and pepper, filling the silence with chatter. Finally she settles down and asks, “So, what’s new? I haven’t seen you in awhile.”
“Oh, business is fine, fine.” He smiles his reflexive smile. “Couldn’t be better. If I was any better, you’d have to call me a high roller. ”
Ronnie takes a gulp of milk. “I hear you have a big new client from the city.”
“Yep. Camilla Powers.” He scowls. “Why, who’s been talking?”
“Angela and Suzette were in last night.”
“Good to know how much they care.” He sounds sarcastic but looks relieved.
“Is that why you’ve been so busy? Is she hard to…” Ronnie takes a bite and chews. “Is she a picky client? You don’t have to say, I know it’s none of my business.”
“She’s something else, that’s for sure.” He pushes his unfinished plate away. “She is serious business. In fact, she’s coming over here tonight to look around.”
“She’s coming here? How come?”
He doesn’t look up from the table when he says, “She said she just wants to see what I’ve done with the place.”
Ronnie turns to look at the room behind her, the faded linoleum, the dark, bulky cabinets. Fluorescent light from the bulb overhead pulls shadows around her father’s eyes and suddenly he looks old and tired.
He tells the table, “For the first time in my life, I wish I didn’t have what it takes. I mean, to seal the deal.
“Oh, well,” he sighs, “she’ll be here at 7:00,” and goes to take a shower.
After she’s trimmed the shrubs, weeded the bed of marigolds, hosed the cobwebs off the eaves, wiped down the baseboards and light switches and the shelves inside the refrigerator, Ronnie takes a shower and searches for just the right thing to wear, finally settling on the black blazer and skirt she wore to the funeral since it’s the fanciest thing she owns. She applies mascara, blow-dries her hair, and puts on her only piece of real jewelry, a tiny gold key on a chain her father sent for her 10th birthday.
When the high heels ring on the bricks outside, Ronnie, determined to make herself useful, opens the door. Camilla Powers pauses on the threshold with a stiff smile.
“Welcome,” Ronnie chirps in her best hostess voice. “Please come in. Can I get you something to drink? Milk? Orange juice? Water?”
“No, thank you.” She extends one sparkling hand towards Ronnie. “I’m Camilla Powers, of Powers Realty.”
“Of course. Hello. We’ve been expecting you.”
Ronnie tries to match Camilla’s grip, which is firm and succinct. “I didn’t realize he’d have one of his agents here tonight.”
“Oh, no, I live here.” Ronnie laughs.“This house isn’t for sale. I wondered if that was what you came for.”
Just then, her father emerges from his room. “Here you are! I didn’t hear you come in.” He kisses the cheek Camilla offers him. “So you’ve already met Veronica. As you can see, she’s old enough to be my daughter.” That’s when he turns around notices what Ronnie is wearing. “Wow. You look great, kiddo.” He turns back to Camilla. “Can I get you a drink? A screwdriver, maybe?”
Camilla stands with her head cocked to one side, working her tongue into her cheek. “You know, I’ve just realized that I have an important phone call to make. I think it’s going to take awhile.” She looks simultaneously annoyed and amused, like a woman who has just found a bit of confetti in her mouth. “Perhaps you’ll take a rain check?”
“Of course. I’ll call you tomorrow. First thing.”
He closes the door softly behind her and collapses against the door. “What just happened?”
“Did I do something wrong?”
He has his head in his hands. “I don’t know. What did you do?”
Fear washes over her and pools at her feet like a stain on the carpet. She pushes him aside, flings the door open, sprints across the grass, and manages to grab the car door handle before Camilla’s car pulls away.
Camilla rolls down the window. “What do you want?”
“I don’t want to mess everything up,” Ronnie gasps. “What can I do to fix this?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, honey.” But something on Ronnie’s face makes her add, “Look, I don’t really want to know what’s happening here; you can have him all to yourself.”
Camilla waves a hand to dismiss the whole scene. Ronnie sticks her strong, dimpled hand through the window to shake it and says, because she doesn’t know what else to say, “Thank you for all your hard work!”
And when those tail lights finally disappear around the corner, Ronnie turns to look at the house, all lit up against the night. It definitely has curb appeal, she thinks. She walks without trembling along the neat brick walk lined with marigolds and through the front door.
I don’t think this title is working. Just a little too provocative, I think. If you agree, please come visit me on Facebook or comment here about other possible titles for this piece, or any other comments. What: Save as Houses or maybe Curb Appeal or…: What do you think?