After the second house of the morning—a three-story colonial with six bedrooms, two fireplaces and a Jacuzzi tub on the back deck—Clay’s inclined to set Klecko straight, re-establish parameters and price range. He tells this to Michelle on the front lawn where they wait for Klecko, who’s stayed behind in the house to use one of the three bathrooms. Three and-a-half counting the commode in the finished basement. Take your pick.
“Please relax,” Michelle says to Clay. “Please be patient. We’re just getting started. We’ll get to the shacks and shanties eventually. In the meantime, let’s just go along with it. It’s fun. I think it’s fun.”
“Some fun,” Clay says. “Maybe you should sit with me on the way to the next place. I need help getting in the spirit.”
“Poor guy. You lonely back there?” Michelle smiles through a fake pout and takes Clay’s hand. “Seriously, though, wouldn’t that be weird? Kind of rude? Gerry alone up front chauffeuring us around? We could switch, though. You want to switch? You want shotgun?”
“Forget it,” Clay says. “I’m good.”
“Ready, kids?” Klecko says from the front porch. When Clay and Michelle turn, he smiles and claps his hands three times in front of his face. Like he’s killing bugs or trying to wake himself up. Like a short burst of applause is in order. Like he’s anticipating something great. Like something great has already happened.
Alone in the back of Klecko’s Suburban, Clay’s out of the loop. Up front, Michelle and Klecko chat about home warranties and buyers’ assistance programs, casement windows and pocket doors, high-efficiency furnaces and updated wiring, stand-alone garages and in-ground pools. These are the kinds of things Clay imagines they’re discussing. Problem is, between the noise of Niagara Falls Boulevard’s stop and start traffic roaring through the truck’s open windows—Klecko’s air conditioning is reportedly on the fritz—and the staticy, booming voices coming out of the rear stereo speakers, Clay can’t hear Michelle and Klecko. Instead, it’s the Spike and Abe Show on AM 660, The Voice of Western New York Sports, a program which consists of the two hosts talking over each other and yelling at their call-in listeners, and even though it’s late July, the main conversation topics are football and hockey. The Bills and Sabres. The shtick is supposed to be that Spike and Abe are an odd couple. Spike plays the excitable ex-jock who’s all heart, no head, and Abe plays the sarcastic, cerebral stats nut. They zing each other accordingly. Clay thinks the callers are the most interesting part of the show—Phil in Lackawanna, who wonders what the Sabres can do to amp up their power play, or J.J. in Amherst, who thinks the Bills should trade up and draft a quarterback—but Spike and Abe never let the callers talk for long. They have their provocative riffs and passionate tangents to get to. They have their hasty generalizations and snap judgments to pronounce. Clay finds himself anticipating the respite offered by the not nearly frequent enough commercial breaks.
Clay could be assertive. He could take matters into his own hands, request the windows be closed and the radio turned off, but he doesn’t. Partly out of pride—he shouldn’t have to ask—but partly out of wariness, too. Clay knows himself. If he were included in the loop, it wouldn’t be long before he’d be looking for a way out of it.
Michelle knows Clay, too, and Clay knows Michelle knows. She’s not maliciously ignoring him; rather, she’s giving him a pass, letting him off the hook. She understands house hunting isn’t his thing, and she can tell he has misgivings about Klecko. The man sports a handlebar moustache and juggles two cell phones. He wears a leather newsboy hat, fingerless driving gloves and a white-gold man bracelet. Call Clay shallow, call him unhip, but he’d feel more comfortable if Klecko looked more like a real estate agent and less like a bookie, or an undercover narcotics cop, or mob muscle.
Earlier this morning, in the parking lot of the Red Roof Inn where Clay and Michelle are staying, Klecko said, “Don’t call me Klecko, call me Gerry, short for Gerald, Gerald with a ‘G’,” and he suggested that the three of them all ride together in his truck. Michelle accepted before Clay could answer. If Clay were out to find fault, he could blame Michelle for jumping the gun, or he could blame himself for being slow on the draw. Either way, what was sacrificed was the privacy necessary to speak frankly, to pow-wow, to compare notes and strategize between houses. Of course, Clay understands, in theory, that everyone here is on the same team. Klecko is Clay and Michelle’s agent, their advocate, not their enemy. You don’t formulate strategies to deal with your advocates. Still. It seems Klecko might have a strategy. Clay wonders if splitting up husband and wife between front seat and back seat is a commonly employed technique. A trade secret. A tactic. Like what cops do with perps. Clay’s seen the shows. Two suspects, two interrogation rooms. You play the scumbags off each other until one cracks.
After spending the rest of the morning tromping through a series of suburban McMansions in Sanborn and Wheatfield and North Tonawanda, Clay gathers from the snippets he overhears—no one says anything to him directly—that the plan for the afternoon is to get lunch and then hit Black Creek Village. There’s a house for sale there that looks great on paper, and, what’s more, it’s within shouting distance of Clay and Michelle’s price range, so Clay feels like things are looking up. Like Klecko and Michelle are finally ready to get real.
Clay’s been ready, has lived through more than his fair share of reality in the last few months. He and Michelle are moving to Niagara Falls from Harrisburg because of Michelle’s new job, and Clay’s been nothing but supportive from the get go. Michelle’s told Clay how much she appreciates the way he’s responded to all the upheaval. The school district’s budget cuts and his resulting pink slip on the one hand, and on the other hand, Michelle’s burgeoning career, her great new opportunity. She waxes as Clay wanes. A lesser man, well, who knows? A lesser man might allow jealousy to worm its way into his heart. A lesser man might allow himself to feel like a lesser man. Clay has this lesser man in him—who doesn’t?—but so far he’s managed to beat the lesser man down. Clay’s tough-minded. Clay’s forward-looking. He knows he and Michelle are fortunate her new job came along when it did. Her head registrar’s salary at the community college in Niagara Falls will be thirty-percent higher than what she earned as an assistant registrar in Pennsylvania. Not that their budget won’t be tight—it will be until Clay finds work—but he’ll land something soon. Clay’s not the kind of guy who won’t land something soon. Things could be worse. These days, things are a lot worse for a lot of people. The reason Clay and Michelle can even think about buying a house is because prices and mortgage rates have dropped so low, and prices and mortgage rates have dropped so low because of underwater loans and foreclosures. One person’s burst bubble is someone else’s golden egg. When Clay reminds himself of this, of other people’s hardships, of those who have it tougher than he does, it makes him feel better, but not in an altogether good way. Fact is, feeling better like this often makes him feel worse.
The restaurant Klecko pulls into has two signs in opposite corners of its parking lot. One says “Whirlpool Diner,” and the other says “Breakfast–Lunch–Dinner 24/7.” The buildings surrounding the restaurant look like they’ve been long abandoned, including, across the street, a weather-beaten Niagara Falls Tourist Information station. The small booth is hugged tightly by weedy vines and covered with incoherent graffiti, and a half-dozen seagulls take turns hopping on and off its sagging roof.
There are empty spaces everywhere in the sizeable parking lot, but Klecko’s got his eye on one in the row closest to the door, between two other big trucks, and he’s hell-bent on backing his Suburban into the space. As Clay waits for things to play out—when Klecko finally hits pay dirt on his fourth attempt, Michelle gives a little cheer—he realizes he was never asked what he’d like to eat. Clay will usually eat just about anything—Michelle probably conveyed this fact to Klecko—but, still, some direct consideration would’ve been nice. The gesture would’ve been appreciated. On the short walk from the truck to the restaurant—Clay follows a few steps behind Klecko and Michelle—he wonders if he’ll be allowed to order for himself. He wonders if he’ll have permission to get something off the adult menu.
As it turns out, instead of menus, the restaurant’s fare is scrawled in chalk behind the cash register. The chalkboard is huge. Nearly wall-to-wall, nearly floor-to-ceiling. Pizza, subs, soups, pasta, fried chicken, pancakes, omelets, milkshakes, burgers, hot dogs, fish fries, curry bowls, Buffalo wings, chili, burritos, lo mien, egg rolls, open-faced turkey and meatloaf sandwiches, beef on weck, ribs and an all-you-can-eat salad bar. Clay’s impressed.
“Lunch is on me,” Klecko says. He places one hand on Clay’s back and the other on Michelle’s. “You kids save your money. I hear you’re in the market for a house.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Clay says.
“It’s not about have to,” Klecko says. “It’s about want to. The Whirlpool is my favorite place to take clients. Can’t go wrong here. The only thing they don’t have is sushi. You want sushi, you’re out of luck. You want sushi, I brought you to the wrong place, and I apologize.”
“I do love sushi,” Clay says.
Klecko’s smile fades but then reappears, even bigger than before, when Michelle reaches around him to slap Clay’s arm. “Behave,” she says.
“Just kidding,” Clay says. “Not about loving sushi. I do. But this looks great.”
“They have calamari,” Klecko says, pointing at the chalkboard. “They have crab cakes.”
After placing their orders at the counter, Klecko, Michelle and Clay claim a booth at the rear of the dining room. There are plenty of open seats—Clay wonders where the lunch rush is, wonders what the lack of lunch rush might say about the place—but by the time they have their food in front of them, the dining area has filled considerably, and they all agree how lucky they are to have missed the log jam currently forming at the counter.
“Perfect timing if I do say so myself,” Klecko says. He then bows his face to the table and closes his eyes. Clay thinks the man’s going to say grace. “I love food,” Klecko says before inhaling deeply. “I love eating.”
“Amen,” Clay says.
“What do you have there?” Michelle says to Klecko. She’s already taken a bite of her BLT and has leaned over Clay’s plate to admire his shrimp fried rice. “Looks to me like a UFO,” she says. “Unidentified food object.”
“Ha! That’s good,” Klecko says. “’Round these parts, this is what’s called a garbage plate. A Western New York specialty. You have your macaroni salad, tater tots, beef patty, red hot, white hot, and fried egg covered in chili sauce, cheddar cheese and diced onions. This piece of white bread on the side is your flavor sponge. You use it to mop up the juice.”
“I don’t use it to mop up anything,” Michelle says. “No offense, but your lunch alarms me.”
“Actually, ma’am, I am offended,” Klecko says as he sticks two consecutive forkfuls of food in his mouth. Clay and Michelle watch him chew and swallow. “You’re being close-minded about the local culture, and I’m a native. You’re casting aspersions at something near and dear to my heart.” Klecko points the business end of his fork at Michelle and winks. “Believe me, it’s good stuff.”
“Looks like you’re really enjoying it,” Clay says.
“So no kids yet for you two, huh, Clay?” Klecko says. “What are you waiting for, an invitation? I’m kidding. Maybe in the not-too-distant future, though, right? Michelle tells me you’re looking for a house you can grow into.”
“Right,” Clay says. He looks at Michelle, who grins sheepishly at her plate. “Having a family’s in our plans.”
“That’s fabulous,” Klecko says.
“It’s exciting to think about,” Michelle says, rubbing Clay’s arm. “We just want the time to be right.”
“Sure,” Klecko says. “You want to have your ducks in a row. Clay, your bride also tells me you’ll be looking for work when you guys land here. For what it’s worth, I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with some leads for you.”
“Oh,” Clay says. “Well, I appreciate that.”
“Not so fast,” Klecko says. “I’m afraid I haven’t been able to come up with much. If this were a few decades ago, I could set you up. Right along the lake in Buffalo there used to be a lot of good jobs. A couple of my brothers worked down there at the Buffalo Color plant. At one time they were the largest supplier of indigo dye in the world. You wearing blue jeans? Chances are the blue came from Buffalo. Or used to. The jeans you would’ve been wearing thirty years ago. Anyway, my brothers are retired, and I don’t know how active the plant is anymore. A few guys I went to school with worked right next door at Airco. Industrial gases. They sucked air out of the atmosphere—with big hoses, I guess?—separated it into oxygen, nitrogen and whatever else—I want to say argon?—and then they sold the gases. Genius, right? Making money off air. Pulling money out of the air. Literally, right? Anyway, again, my buddies are all retired, so I’m not sure about what’s what over there. Seems lately everything’s going the wrong way, right? Layoffs. Downsizing. I suppose the Chinese have us beat on air, too. Air and its components.”
“It’s tough out there,” Clay says, “but I’m sure I’ll find something.”
“Even right here in the Falls there used to be Nabisco,” Klecko says. “Hooker Chemical, too. One stretch along the Robert Moses Parkway used to be called Chemical Row because of all the plants over there. Jobs, jobs, jobs. Anyway. Now they’re gone, gone, gone.”
“Actually,” Clay says. “I’m a teacher. So I’ll probably just apply to local school districts. See how that goes.”
Michelle drops her hand onto Clay’s knee. “Clay’s a great teacher,” she says. “His students loved him.”
“Sure,” Klecko says. He unwraps and slides a straw into his tumbler of Mountain Dew even though there’s one in there already. “Gym teacher, right?”
“Phys. Ed., right,” Clay says.
“So how’s it work when teachers get laid off?” Klecko says. “What are the logistics? They go by seniority? Subject? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Right,” Clay says. “Seniority and discipline. In my school they cut back the librarians and art and music teachers to part-time, and they laid off a reading specialist and two phys. ed. teachers. Those were the logistics.”
“We’ll be a nation of obese, uncultured illiterates,” Klecko says.
“God bless America,” Michelle says.
“I used to love gym as a kid,” Klecko says. “Used to look forward to it. Climbing the rope? I used to love that. Kids need gym, right? That break from learning. All work and no play doesn’t work.”
“I wouldn’t say students take a break from learning in phys. ed.,” Clay says.
“It’s a different kind of learning,” Michelle says.
“Sure,” Klecko says. “Aerobic, anaerobic, isometric, isotonic. I don’t know if you can tell or not, but I workout. I have to, right?” he says, and he points both forefingers at his plate. “Look how I eat.”
“I’d rather not,” Michelle says, and she laughs. “That sounded mean, didn’t it?”
“Hey now,” Klecko says, “remember that I’m the one paying here.”
Clay figures there must be more than a couple thousand calories sitting on Klecko’s plate. A whole twenty-four hours worth of food. Eat that stuff every day, you’d have to run a few half marathons a week to break even. Klecko doesn’t look too bad for his age—he’s got good arms and shoulders, a good chest—but Clay would advise him to spend less time on the bench and more time on the treadmill. He could stand to mix in a salad once in a while, too. Maybe skip dessert here and there, switch to diet soft drinks now and then. And he should drink more water. Everyone should drink more water. That’s something that kids in Clay’s phys. ed. classes heard from him all the time. Sure they had fun, but along the way they learned a little nutrition. They learned a little anatomy, a little biology. Not a break from learning by any stretch.
“All right,” Klecko says. “Getting down to business here. The house in Black Creek Village we’re going to see this afternoon.” He looks at Michelle and smiles. “First things first. Just to get this out of the way. After all the testing they’ve done, nothing. Absolutely nothing conclusive. No issues whatsoever as far as that goes. Second, most importantly, the price is right on this house. I mean, it’s a steal as listed, and I know for a fact we have a motivated seller, so I bet we could even inch them a little lower.”
“Testing?” Clay says.
“All clear,” Klecko says. “And, again, on top of that, a motivated seller.”
“Testing for what?” Michelle says. “What’s all clear?”
“Hey,” Klecko says, leaning across the booth, wagging a finger at Clay. “Didn’t you do your homework? You were a teacher. You should know better.”
“I didn’t know there was an assignment,” Clay says.
“Ha!” Klecko says. “Seriously, though. No worries. This is ancient history. We’re talking 70’s, early 80’s. There was an industrial waste issue in the southeastern corner of the city. A lot of hullabaloo. Really bad for this area, all the negative attention. Anyway, long story short, the EPA and President Carter stepped in and got it taken care of. You two probably don’t even remember Carter, do you? He was between Ford and Reagan.”
“Is this related to Love Canal?” Michelle says. She looks at Clay. “That’s over and done with, right?”
“Exactly,” Klecko says. He rips a corner off his slice of bread and smashes it between his thumb and forefinger before putting it in his mouth. “Here’s the scoop. More than a hundred years ago, this guy Love started digging a canal from the Niagara River—he had big ideas about hydroelectric power—but he didn’t get very far. Only about two miles inland before he ran out of money. So humans did what humans do. Made the best of it. For the next half-century or so, the trench served as a dump. A necessary evil. Industry and the military used it for a while, and, of course, some of the stuff they dumped wasn’t great stuff. Surprise, surprise, right? The City got a lot of flack. Hooker Chemical, too. They’re Occidental now. They either changed their name or were bought. I’m fuzzy on the details. The blame game, though. I don’t play it. People back then didn’t know what we know now, right? Anyway, what got dumped got dumped, and people did what people do. They lived their lives. They built houses and schools, raised their children and fought wars. In the 70’s, after a snowy winter and wet spring, some of the stuff in the dump started resurfacing. No one’s fault. Blame the weather. Blame the passing of time. Things happen. Not everything buried stays buried, you know? Anyway, people saw this suspicious stuff in their backyards, in their basements, and they panicked. Can’t blame them, right? The key is, though, that it was taken care of. Those who wanted to move got to move on the government’s dime, and the chemicals were cleaned up. That would’ve been it except that the media turned it into a whole thing, you know? It portrayed the people in the neighborhood as victims, as symbols. A person’s not a symbol, right? One expert even suggested that what was really making people sick wasn’t the chemicals, but the stress caused by all the rigmarole. The protestors, the TV cameras, the doomsday headlines. Anyway. Here we are in the 21st century, right? Lucky us. Lord knows we have plenty of our own problems to deal with. Last thing we need to do is look backwards, dredge up old ones. That’s my take on things.” Klecko picked up his Mountain Dew, nudged the two straws out of the way with his nose, and drained it.
“But what does this have to do with the house we’re going to see in Black Creek Village?” Michelle says. “Black Creek Village isn’t Love Canal, is it?”
“You hear anything I just said?” Klecko drops his fork and reaches across the booth to cover Michelle’s hand with his. There’s a smile on his face. “I could’ve sworn you were sitting right there when I said Love Canal is gone. Over and done with. The houses were razed, and the disposal site was recapped and fenced off.”
“If I’m understanding correctly, though, you’re telling us that Black Creek Village is in the vicinity of where the dump was,” Clay says.
“Lookit,” Klecko says. “It’s perfectly understandable for you to have questions. If you didn’t have questions, there’d be something wrong with you. I guess I’m just a little surprised you didn’t look to get some of this info on your own before today.”
“You gave us a list of houses,” Clay says. “We didn’t think about cross-referencing their addresses with chemical dumpsite locations.”
“Let’s take a step back,” Klecko says. “Let’s take a breather. I sense you’re getting spooked about something you shouldn’t get spooked about. Maybe that’s my fault. You know what? Rather than me running my big mouth anymore, I think the best thing I can do for you is get you over to the house. A picture’s worth a thousand words, right?”
“I guess we can’t really know what’s what until we see it,” Michelle says.
“Exactly,” Klecko says. “And what’s nice about the location is you’re like three, maybe four blocks from the river. There’s a boat launch right there at Griffin Park. You guys have a boat? You want a boat? The price you’ll be getting on this house, you’ll be able to afford one. You a fisherman, Clay? You could catch your own sushi.”
“I am not a fisherman,” Clay says.
“I’m with you,” Klecko says. “Boring as hell, right?”
When they get up to leave the restaurant, Klecko has a plan. He and Michelle will go to the cash register first, and then after a few minutes, Clay will go up to pay for his lunch separately. “I have two coupons, see,” Klecko says as he hands Clay one of them along with some cash, “but there’s a one coupon per table limit.”
“So I pretend like I wasn’t sitting with you?” Clay says. “I pretend like you and my wife had lunch together, and I was sitting by myself?”
“They don’t know who’s married to who,” Klecko says. “We’ll meet you out in the parking lot.”
“To whom,” Michelle says. “Who’s married to whom.” She looks at Clay and shrugs. “Want me to stay with you? You and I can go up together.”
“Sure,” Klecko says. “Either way.”
“Forget it,” Clay says. “I have to hit the restroom anyway.”
“OK, good,” Klecko says. “That’ll be good. That’ll work out.”
In the men’s room, Clay pitches the coupon in the garbage. Later, though, outside in the parking lot, he tells a different story. “The cashier wouldn’t let me use the coupon because she saw me sitting with you,” Clay says. “She crumpled it right in my face.”
“Wow,” Klecko says. “That’s petty, right? I mean, that’s ridiculous.”
“She was none too happy,” Clay says. “She told me I should be ashamed.”
“Rules are rules are rules are rules,” Michelle says.
On the drive to Black Creek Village, Klecko leaves the radio off, the windows up. Clay holds his hand up to the vent above his head. Air conditioning’s working like a dream.
Klecko’s playing tour guide. He points out the Summit Place Mall, where there’s a Save-A-Lot. “This might be the closest grocery store to you guys,” Klecko says. “And Sears and Bon Ton are still in the mall. Everyone else left, but there’s a rumor that a group from Toronto might move in and try to do something.”
Klecko pulls into the parking lot and takes a whirl around the circumference of the mall. As if Clay and Michelle were in the market for retail space. Even if they were, Clay would pass. The parking lot’s in bad shape—one big pothole—and Clay’s put in mind of a ghost town. Things are too quiet. Seagulls outnumber cars, especially behind the grocery store where they take turns dive-bombing the overflowing Dumpster. Nearby, a stock boy in a red apron sits on the loading dock and tosses a chunk of his lunch to a fat straggler, who catches it in mid-air like a good pet.
When they pass a parked security vehicle, Klecko waves, but the guard doesn’t wave back. “That hombre doesn’t look too happy, but security guard wouldn’t be a bad job, right, Clay?” Klecko says. “If the teaching thing doesn’t work out right away, I mean. You’d have to be viligant, though. You’re the eyes and ears.”
“Vigilant,” Michelle says. “Not viligant.”
“What’s viligant?” Klecko says.
“Viligant’s what you said,” Michelle says. “It’s nothing.”
“If you say so, Daniel Webster,” Klecko says.
“I’m the word police,” Michelle says. She turns around and smiles at Clay. “Right, honey? Grammar, too. I’ll get you for can and may. I’ll get you for I and me.”
Klecko looks in the rear-view at Clay. “You’re a lucky man,” he says.
“How are we doing?” Clay says. “We getting close?”
“Yep,” Klecko says. “We just turned onto River Road. The Niagara River’s over there on your left, and this is Griffin Park here. I told you about the boat launch.” Klecko pulls into the driveway of the park and does a slow loop around the parking area. “There are a few walking trails here,” Klecko says, “and some picnic tables. People come to exercise their dogs or to get some peace and quiet on their lunch hours.”
“What’s over there?” Clay says. At the edge of the park stands a high barbed-wire fence. It runs from the road all the way to the water.
“Reclamation area,” Klecko says.
“Part of Love Canal?” Clay says.
“Short answer, yes,” Klecko says. “This is what I meant, though, about a picture being worth a thousand words. I mean, look at this park. Great, right? A lot of neighborhoods would love to have a park like this.”
“But what it’s next to,” Michelle says.
“Lookit,” Klecko says, pulling the Suburban back onto the road. “You kids are going to do what you kids are going to do. I understand that. But think about this. You’re worried about ‘next to.’ This is the 21st century. Where can you live where you’re not next to something? Good people live next to bad people. Good neighborhoods are next to bad neighborhoods. Good countries are next to bad countries. You can drive yourself crazy worrying about next to.”
Michelle doesn’t turn her head to look at Clay—Klecko’s talking, so this would be rude—but she does reach her hand back toward her husband, and she leaves it there in mid-air until he meets it with his hand, and then she squeezes. Clay doesn’t know if she’s doing this for his sake or for her own. The squeeze could be Michelle trying to reassure Clay, or it could mean Michelle’s looking for reassurance. About how things will be OK if they love the house in Black Creek Village and end up buying it. About how things will be OK if they pass on the house. About how something better will be sure to come along.
“What’s great about this house you’re about to see are the windows,” Klecko says. “They’re all dual-functioning. Very convenient.”
“Dual-functioning?” Clay says.
“Sure,” Klecko says. “You can see in them, and you can see out of them.”
“Groan,” Michelle says. “Real estate humor.”
“Dual-functioning doors, too,” Klecko says. “You can go in and out. And all the stairways. Up and down.”
Stuck in the lawn next to the For Sale sign is an Open House sign. Surprising for an afternoon in the middle of the week. “Indication of an owner who’s getting itchy,” Klecko says. “This baby’s ripe.”
Michelle stands on the sidewalk next to Clay. She cranes her neck back and uses one hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “Is that a metal roof?” she asks. “They last forever, right? Forever’s a plus.”
Clay likes the roof, too. He wouldn’t have had the guts to choose the color—it’s a bright green—but it really pops. The surrounding houses have traditional black and brown shingle roofs, and Clay likes how the metal roof stands out. He also likes the idea of living in a brick house. If Klecko mentioned the house was brick, Clay doesn’t remember. At any rate, the place definitely has curb appeal.
There’s one other couple touring the house, and they’re just finishing when Klecko, Clay and Michelle come in through the living room. The couple has twin babies in tow. The father hauls one in a carrier strapped to his back, and the mother has the other in a sling over her shoulder. The open house host, a woman who looks to be in her fifties, can’t take her eyes off the babies, can’t stop smiling at them, not even as Klecko introduces her to Clay and Michelle.
When the other couple leaves, Klecko tries to make small talk with Eva, the open house host—Clay sees from the nameplate Eva wears that she and Klecko work for the same realtor—but Eva seems reluctant. She smiles politely as Klecko talks—he tells her they’re fresh from the Whirlpool where he introduced Clay and Michelle to garbage plates—but she makes a point of strolling away from him to the opposite side of the room, where a coffee table is set up with a platter of cookies and a punch bowl.
“Tell you what,” Eva says when Klecko stops talking. “Why don’t I take Michelle and Clay through the house? Gerry, you can take a break. Just hang out down here and greet visitors. Feel free to help yourself to the refreshments.”
“Sure, OK,” Klecko says. “These two are probably sick of my yammering anyway.” He makes his way over to the table and plucks a cookie. “Ginger snaps,” he says. He picks up a cup of punch, dunks the cookie and then pops it in his mouth. “I’ll hold down the fort,” he says.
The house is nice. It’s not perfect—the kitchen’s a bit on the small side, and Michelle’s not crazy about the layout—but there’s a newish furnace in the basement, a lot of storage space in the well-insulated attic, and on the second floor, Clay likes the size of the bedrooms, and Michelle likes the newly remodeled master bath. There’s some strange wallpaper here and there, and one of the bedrooms has only one electrical outlet, but these are the kinds of things you can address after moving in.
“I don’t know if Gerry told you how good the asking price is,” Eva says as she shows Clay and Michelle the linen closets in the upstairs hallway, “but it’s pretty amazing. With the money you’re saving, you could update the electric and get started on some of the cosmetic improvements you might have in mind. Anyway, a house like this, it’s a real opportunity,” she says. “That’s how I look at it.”
“It has a lot going for it,” Michelle says. “I like the roof. And that corner bedroom would make a great nursery.”
“There’s a little one on the way! That’s wonderful,” Eva says. “Congratulations.”
“No, no,” Michelle says, and she smiles. “Not yet. But it’s in our plans.” She looks at Clay. “It’s a factor in our thinking.”
“You’re concerned about the history with Love Canal, I’m sure,” Eva says. “That’s understandable, of course. Frankly, that’s why the price is what it is. Location, location, location. Were this house, say, ten or twenty blocks north, the price would be considerably different.”
“That’s a point,” Clay says.
“I think about it like this,” Eva says. “What I said before about the house being an opportunity? Part of what I mean is that whenever a house sells in this neighborhood, it helps the people who live around here move on from what was. A new generation, you know? Maybe that’s sappy. But just by living here, just by getting up in the morning, going to work and coming home at night, you’d be participating in the ongoing healing process.”
“Interesting,” Michelle says. “Food for thought.”
“Anyway,” Eva says, “my two cents.”
When Michelle decides she wants to take one more pass through the bedrooms, Clay dismisses himself to look at the backyard. He sneaks out the side door so as to avoid Klecko, who’s still hovering over the cookie platter, laughing into one of his cell phones and dialing on the other.
A few toys line the fenced perimeter of the yard. A Nerf football. A plastic dump truck and bulldozer. A one-armed robot. Clay turns around, heads through the side yard to the front of the house. When he hits the sidewalk, he hangs a right.
While upstairs in the attic, Clay had seen through one of the dual-functioning windows another stretch of barbed wire fence. This reclamation area is only a half-block away from the house. When Clay gets close enough to read the sign behind the fence, “Glen Springs Holdings Company,” he inhales deeply, but he doesn’t smell anything other than cut grass and the faint smell of cigarette smoke. A hundred feet from where he’s standing, there’s a guard house at the closed main gate, where two men in hard hats lean on a pickup truck. Smoke break. When they notice Clay, they stub out their cigarettes and get in the truck. Their slamming doors startle a nearby rabbit, send it scurrying under the fence toward Clay, but when it gets to the sidewalk, it freezes, turns tail, and ducks back under the fence again. It finally stops to hide behind what looks like a short, mushroom-shaped chimney sticking a couple feet above the ground. A vent of some kind, Clay figures. They’re scattered here and there over the freshly mown lawn. Whatever’s buried here needs to breathe.
The truck takes off slowly, following the tire tracks along the perimeter of the fence. Maybe Clay should think about a new line of work after all. How hard could it be? Guarding a someplace no one wants to get into anyway? He has both eyes and ears. He can be vigilant. Viligant, too, if need be. He could be both. What’s more, he could walk to work.
Back at the house, Klecko’s standing on the front porch, holding the Nerf football from the backyard. Clay gets the sense Klecko’s been waiting for him. When he gets close, Klecko tosses the ball at him, but the throw’s short. The ball bounces off the top of Clay’s shoe.
When Clay’s retrieving the ball, Michelle comes out the front door. “Hey,” she says to Klecko, “Eva’s looking for you. She wants to know what you did with all her cookies.”
Klecko snickers and claps his hands in front of his face. “I’ll touch base with Eva later. You kids are probably just about ready to get back to the motel, right? They have a pool there? You could have a swim. Then maybe a nap. You guys have some thinking to do, right?”
After they’re all in the truck, though, Klecko announces he’d like to make one more quick stop. He drives only a couple blocks before pulling into another park, this one made up of five or six ball fields. The placard on the backstop of the first field reads “Welcome to Cayuga Little League.” Klecko drives to the end of the lot, to the last field, where there’s a practice going on. A gaggle of boys in sweatpants and crooked caps fielding grounders and pop-ups. In the stands sits a spread-out group of parents, some watching the boys, others busying themselves with their cell phones.
Klecko gets out of the truck, and Clay and Michelle follow him to the fence. Klecko bends over to pinch a long blade of grass and sticks it in the side of his mouth. “I thought it would be good for you to see this place. Someday maybe, right? Little Clay Jr. They have softball, too. Little Michelle Jr. They could walk to practice. We were talking about ‘next to’ before. I just wanted to show you something else you’d be next to.”
“Shortstop’s got an arm,” Clay says.
“Coach probably has him pitch, too,” Klecko says. “He’s twice the size of the other kids. The intimidation factor.”
Beyond the field, at the end of the parking lot, there’s a short pedestrian bridge spanning a small creek. Klecko strolls to the bridge, and Clay and Michelle follow. “This is 93rd Street, and over there is Cayuga Boulevard,” Klecko says. He spits the blade of grass over the bridge’s rail into the creek and then takes a ginger snap out of his pocket and pops it into his mouth. “Got a few more cookies stowed away if either of you are feeling peckish.”
“I’m good,” Michelle says.
When Klecko looks at Clay, Clay raises his hands. He means, “No thanks,” but Klecko thinks he means, “Yes, please,” and he flings a cookie. Clay ducks, and the cookie soars into the creek.
“You sure you’re a gym teacher?” Klecko says.
“You surprised him,” Michelle says. “He wasn’t ready. No fair.”
“I didn’t want it,” Clay says. “I’m still full from lunch.”
“Plus the sun was in your eyes, right?” As Klecko laughs, one of his phones rings, and when he sees who’s calling, he rolls his eyes at Clay and Michelle before answering. “Eva!” he exclaims into the phone. “Been too long. What can I do you for?”
Michelle takes Clay’s hand and leads him a few steps further onto the bridge. “Well?” she says quietly. “What are we thinking?”
“I don’t know,” Clay says. “We could always rent for a year. Get the lay of the land before we put down roots.”
“Sure,” Michelle says. “We could do that.” She drops Clay’s hand and pinches the bridge of her nose. “We’d probably have to put some of our stuff in storage.”
“Or we could pull the trigger on this one,” Clay says. “The price is right.”
“There’s what we can afford to do, there’s what we can’t afford to do, and there’s what we can’t afford not to do,” Michelle says.
“OK, great! I’ll be sure to pass along that message!” Klecko says into the phone as he turns back toward Clay and Michelle, and he shakes his head and smiles after hanging up. “Sorry for that interruption, kids,” he says, “but Eva wanted to make sure I mentioned to you two that if you have questions about property taxes or schools, she has that info handy. Guess who else has that info handy, though? I do. It’s in the truck, safe and sound in the glove compartment, and when I drop you guys off at the motel, you’ll have it in your hands. That was my plan all along. I am your agent after all. Eva has her clients, and I have mine.”
“That info will be helpful,” Michelle says. “Thanks.”
“You have to factor in everything, right?” Klecko says. “That said, you have any idea which way you’re leaning?”
“We need to talk it out,” Michelle says. “Make sure we’re on the same page.”
“Listen. I hate to be nosy, but I had one ear on you guys when Eva was talking at me, and I thought I heard the word ‘rent.’ Is that what I heard?” Klecko says. “You’re not sure you want to be homeowners?”
Michelle looks at Clay, bites her top lip. “We have a lot to discuss,” she says.
“Well,” Klecko says, “that’s a bit of a kick in the pants.” He turns to face the creek for a moment before spinning back around. “If Eva told you guys that you could work with her, that she could get you some kind of special deal apart from me, well, just to let you know, that’s dirty pool. One agent moving in on another’s clients. She shouldn’t have done that. It’s unethical.”
“She absolutely did not do that,” Michelle says.
“She has a bit of a reputation for being forgetful,” Klecko says. “For forgetting things like who brought who to the dance.”
“Who brought whom,” Michelle says. “But no. Eva didn’t say anything about us working with her. She didn’t even give me her card.”
“Well, OK,” Klecko says. “All right then. That’s good to hear. Sorry about talking out of school, but with Eva…. Well, there are just some people, you know?”
“So back to the motel now, right?” Michelle says. “I’m whipped.”
“Sure,” Klecko says. “I’ll get you that tax and school info, and then you kids can confer. Maybe sleep on it. I have to say, though. Please hear me on this. Renting? Not a good move. You might as well light your money on fire. You might as well flush it. Might as well stuff it into a barrel and send it over the Falls.”
“We shouldn’t think of our mortgage as debt, right?” Clay says. “We should think of it as an investment.”
“You said it, not me,” Klecko says, and he nods as he passes another ginger snap between his lips.
“Also, don’t look now, but here comes your future,” Clay says. “You should say that to us.”
“I know what’s holding you back,” Klecko says. One of his phone rings, but he ignores it. “You’re hung up on the past. You’re still on Love Canal. But every place has a past. Focus on the present. Black Creek Village. Focus on the future. What I was trying to convey by showing you those kids up there playing ball. Your line of work, I thought you’d get it.”
“I do get it,” Clay says.
“Lookit. It would be a mistake for you kids to think of your first house as just a house. It’s more than that, right? Isn’t it more than that?”
“It’s a sanctuary,” Clay says. “You should tell us to think of it as a sanctuary.”
“Or a haven,” Michelle says. “I like ‘haven.’”
“Not bad,” Klecko says. He flicks a ginger snap high into the air with his thumb, cranes his neck back and catches it in his mouth. “You guys should get your real estate licenses,” he says as he chews. “It can be rewarding work. Not that different from teaching, Clay. In the sense that you help people. And you two as a tag-team? You’d clean up.”
“Or a refuge,” Michelle says as she takes Clay’s hand in hers and squeezes it again, this time tightly enough to make him wince. “You should tell us to think of our home as a refuge.”