“Might take a little work,” Keller said, “mixed in with the love.”
“And a few dollars in the bargain. Here’s what I got in mind.” And he walked Keller through the old house, outlining his plans for its transformation. He had some interesting ideas, including adding a second floor onto the back half of the house, converting it into what was known locally as a camelback shotgun. That last, he conceded, was on the ambitious side, but it could make a big difference in the home’s resale value.
“So here’s what I’m getting at,” Donny said.
“The down payment took most of his cash,” Keller told Julia, “and the rest will go for materials and the other men, because he can’t expect guys like Dwayne and Luis to work on spec. But he figured maybe I’d be willing to roll the dice, and when it’s done and he sells it, I’d be in for a third of the net profit.”
“Which probably translates into a good deal more than twelve dollars an hour.”
“If the job doesn’t take too long, so the carrying charges don’t mount up too high. And if we get a buyer who’ll close in a hurry and pay a decent price.”
“I’d say you made your decision already.”
“How can you tell?”
“‘If we get a buyer.’ And what could you possibly say but yes?”
“That’s what I thought. The only downside is I won’t be bringing home any money for a while.”
“That’s all right.”
“No payments on the loan for the truck, and no contributions to the household budget.”
“It’s a hell of a situation,” she agreed. “If it wasn’t for sex, you’d be no use to me at all.”
It wasn’t until her father’s ashes were scattered and the sickroom emptied and smudged that Julia moved upstairs, to the bedroom she’d occupied as a child. Keller kept his own room, kept his things in the drawers and closet, but spent nights in hers.
The job in Gretna ran behind schedule and over budget, which didn’t really surprise anybody. Both men put in long hours, working seven-day weeks, starting at daybreak and keeping at it until they lost the light. Donny’s cash didn’t last as long as he’d hoped, and after he’d maxed out his credit cards he had to obtain a $5,000 loan from his father-in-law. “The old bastard asked me what I could put up for collateral, and I said, ‘How about your daughter’s happiness?’ You can guess how that went over, but hell, I got the money, didn’t I?”
The work was satisfying, especially when Donny decided to go the whole route, and they designed and built the second-floor addition. “It felt like building a house,” Keller told Julia. “Constructing one, you know? Not just remodeling.”
When the last of the work was done, with the lawn sodded and new shrubbery in place, he brought Julia to see it. She’d been there earlier, with the work barely under way, and said it was hard to believe it was the same house. Outside of the beams and rafters, he said, it barely was.
They went to the Quarter for a celebration dinner, although the real celebration would come when they landed a buyer. They chose the same high-ceilinged restaurant they’d gone to before, ordered essentially the same meal, and didn’t finish their wine this time, either. They talked about the job, and its satisfactions, and the likelihood of Donny’s getting the price he was going to ask for it.
If the profit was all Donny anticipated, he told her, they’d do this again, and next time Keller would be a partner. She said he was that already, wasn’t he? A full partner, he explained, putting up half the purchase price, paying half the expenses, and netting half the profits. Donny was already looking for their next property, and had several under consideration.
“Well, he’s a Wallings,” she said. “They’re enterprising.”
First, though, Donny had two cash jobs lined up, a condo paint job on Melpomene and some post-Katrina rehab for a house in Metairie. A Wallings was practical, Julia said, in addition to being enterprising. And before they undertook either of those jobs, Keller said, they were going to have a few days off.
“Well, of course,” she said. “He’s an Orleanean, isn’t he?”
When they got home she asked him what had gone wrong.
“Because your whole mood changed between when we left the restaurant and when we got to the car. The weather was fine so that couldn’t be it. Did I say something? No? Then what was it?”
“I didn’t think it showed.”
He didn’t want to, but neither did he care to keep things from her. “For a minute there,” he said, “I thought someone was looking at me.”
“Well, why not? You’re a nice-looking fellow and… oh my God.”
“It was a false alarm,” he said. “He was looking past me, waiting for the valet to bring his car around. But I remembered a man I heard about who got in trouble because he went to San Francisco, where somebody who just happened to be there saw him and recognized him.”
She was quick, if you gave her the first sentence she got the whole page. “We should probably stay out of the Quarter,” she said.
“That’s what I was thinking.”
“And other places tourists tend to go, but it’s really mostly the Quarter. No more Café du Monde, no more Acme Oyster House. For oysters, Felix’s has a place uptown on Prytania that’s just as good, and they don’t get as crowded.”
“During Mardi Gras—”
“During Carnival,” she said, “we’ll stay home altogether, but we’d do that anyway. Poor baby, no wonder your mood changed.”
“What bothered me,” he said, “wasn’t getting a scare, because it didn’t last long enough to amount to all that much. By the time I knew to be afraid I could tell there was nothing to be afraid of. But I’ve got a whole new life, and it fits me like a glove, and I cut every tie to the past when we shoved that car into the river.”
“And you thought that whole part of your life was over.”
“And it is,” he said, “but what I also thought was that nothing from the past could find me, and that’s not exactly true. Because there’s always the possibility of an accident. Some sharp-eyed son of a bitch from New York or L.A. or Vegas or Chicago—”
“Or Des Moines?”
“Or anywhere. And he happens to come here on vacation, because it’s a popular spot.”
“Not so many tourists since the hurricane,” she said, “but they’re starting to come back.”
“And all it takes is one, who happens to be in the same restaurant, or on the street when we come out of the restaurant, or any damn thing. Look, it’s not very likely. We don’t exactly live the high life here, we keep a low profile by nature. Most of the time we’re home alone, and when we see somebody it’s Edgar and Patsy or Donny and Claudia. We always have a good time, but nobody’s putting our pictures in the Times-Picayune.”
“They might,” she said, “when you and Donny emerge as the hottest outfit in post-Katrina reconstruction.”
“Don’t hold your breath. Neither of us is that ambitious. You know what appeals to Donny about flipping houses? As much as the opportunity for profit? The chance to quit bidding on jobs. He hates that part, everything you have to take into consideration to come up with a price that’s low enough to get you the job but high enough so you come out ahead doing it. Of course he has to do all the same calculations when he’s the owner himself, but he says it doesn’t give him the same kind of headache.”
That changed the subject, and it stayed changed, but in bed that night, after a long shared silence, she asked if there was any way to get himself all the way off the hook.
He said, “You mean as far as Al is concerned, since the police are only a problem if I get arrested and somebody runs my prints. With Al, well, time’s a healer. The more time passes, the less he’s going to care whether I’m alive or dead. As far as taking action to get him off my back…”
“Well, the only way I can see is to find some way to learn who he is and where to get hold of him. And then go there, wherever it is, and, uh, deal with him.”
“Kill him, you mean. You can say the word, it’s not going to bother me.”
“That’s what it would take. You couldn’t sign a mutual nonaggression pact with him, settle the deal with a handshake.”
“Anyway,” she said, “he ought to be dead. What’s so amusing?”
“Who knew you’d turn out to be such a tough guy?”
“Hard as nails. Is there any way to find him? You must have thought about it.”
“Long and hard. And no, I don’t think there is, and if there is I sure can’t figure it out. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
Donny got an offer on the house right away. It was less than he was asking but still well above his costs, and he decided not to hold out for more. “The sooner we’re out of one deal, the sooner we can get into the next,” he told Keller, and after the deal closed Keller’s one-third share of the net was just over eleven thousand dollars. He hadn’t been keeping track of his hours, but knew his profit amounted to a good deal more than twelve dollars an hour.
He came home with the news, and you’d have thought Julia already heard. The table was set with the good china, and there were flowers in a vase. “I guess someone told you,” he said, but no one had, and she congratulated him and kissed him and said the flowers and all were because she had news of her own. They’d offered her a full-time teaching position for the coming year.
“A permanent position,” she said, “and I wanted to tell them that nothing’s permanent in an uncertain world, but I decided to keep my mouth shut.”
“That means more money, of course, but it also means benefits. And it means not having to make the acquaintance of a new batch of brats every month or so. Instead I’ll get one batch of brats and be stuck with them for the whole year.”
“On the downside, it also means working five days a week for forty weeks a year, not just when some teacher gets sick or decides to move to I don’t know where.”
“It ties a person down, but would it keep us from doing anything we really wanted to do? What’s great is having the summers off, and if you ever want to get away from New Orleans, summer’s the time when you want to do it. I think I should tell them yes.”
“You mean you haven’t already?”
“Well, I wanted to discuss it with you. You think I should go for it?”
He did, and said so, and she served a dish she’d adapted from a New Orleans cookbook, a rich and savory stew of meat and okra served over rice, with a green salad, and lemon pie for dessert. The pie was from a little bakery on Magazine Street, and while he was tucking into a second piece she told him she’d bought him a present.