Essayist • Teacher • Attorney

The Million Dollar View

Aug 12th, 2010

After her father’s death, Ms. Jacobs was charged with selling her parents’ house on Staten Island. In this essay, she contends with an unctuous realtor as well as her own emotional conflict:

“What a lovely neighborhood,” the realtor said. She stepped into the foyer and extended a perfectly manicured hand.

I sighed. She was the third agent to tour the house, so I was prepared for the smart suit and matching shoes, this time in sky blue, as well as the professional optimism. Like her competitors, she was eager to nab the listing. But I was tired: settling my father’s estate, and in particular, cleaning out his house, was proving to be a huge burden. The drive that day from Connecticut had consumed close to three hours—and it must have been my tenth trip. Besides, anyone could see that a 1960’s ranch, with its redwood exterior and low slung roof, was a poor cousin to the stone mansions that now surrounded it.

I took her coat while she poked her head in the kitchen.

“Charming,” she said.

Now I was downright cranky. Even I, a person with fond childhood memories of the place, knew that nothing, not even the snazzy new cooktop my father installed after my mother died, could propel this tired house into the realm of Charming.

“Did you bring a sample contract?” I asked. This was, of course, a pointed reminder that: (a) I was not a woman to be trifled with—a lawyer, as a matter of fact; and (b) I wanted this matter handled as efficiently as possible (“expeditiously,” I’d said on the phone)—just like any of the other deals I’d handled during my legal career. There would be no emotion attached to this transaction.

“I didn’t forget,” she said, wagging a finger. From her briefcase, she produced a packet of forms and handed them to me along with a glossy brochure, her business card stapled to the front.

I motioned that she should go first and she sallied forth, a clipboard firmly in hand. Her high heels made a clicking sound on the tile floor as we made our way to the large room at the rear of the house.

Straight ahead lay a wall of glass, a 50-foot span of floor-to-ceiling windows set to take advantage of a spectacular ocean view. But the only thing visible at that moment was the fog. It swirled outside, billowing like a gauzy curtain hung just beyond the glass.

She glanced at the windows and then turned to focus on the décor: her eyes moving over the brick fireplace, the sleek sofas and wood floors, everything finished in a creamy white. She scribbled on her pad. “We don’t see too many contemporaries on Staten Island,” she said.

I immediately deduced she was not a native. To those of us born and bred in that tiny borough, a group that included three generations on my mother’s side, it was simply: The Island. Or was I mistaken? Was it possible she thought I was the outsider?

Two decades had passed since I moved away. To think that I had finally shed my embarrassing Staten Island accent filled me with a certain satisfaction—and sorrow.

The woman frowned, then tapped her lips with one finger, as if contemplating a grave problem. “These houses are interesting,” she said, watching my face closely, “but sometimes present a challenge.”

This was, of course, realtor-speak for: This may be hard to sell. And though it pained me, the executrix, to hear such news, I had the urge to laugh. Did she really think I didn’t know it was an unusual house? After all, that had been one of my parents’ prime objectives. I used to poke fun at the way they always jumped at the chance to recount the 40-year-old tale.

“We wanted a modern house,” my mother would tell anyone foolish enough to show a flicker of interest, explaining how she and my father had looked high and low, finally deciding to build one themselves—acting as their own General Contractor—a job that, judging by her tone, one could reasonably have concluded was only slightly less important than President of the United States.

“And we used Andersens,” my father would add, inviting guests to check out the windows. “Did you know they’re insulated?” he would ask, pointing to the pocket of air sandwiched between the double-paned glass, as if this should resolve any lingering doubt in their minds as to the absolute superiority of the building materials.

I, however, had not inherited their enthusiasm for modern architecture—my own house a prim colonial. Besides, I had no time for idle chitchat. I still had a long drive ahead of me if I wanted to sleep in my own bed.

“Did I mention the furniture’s included?” I said.

“Everything?” she asked, her voice rising in surprise. She made a sweeping gesture, her hand coming to rest atop the dining table: a slab of glass almost an inch thick.

“Well, most of this isn’t really my taste,” I said, deliberately using my lawyer voice. The one I reserved for difficult negotiations, when I absolutely, positively had to remain detached.

The woman’s head jerked up, as if she suddenly remembered something. “Sorry for your loss,” she said quickly.

I swallowed. It had been two months since my father’s funeral, and I still wasn’t sure what to say when people offered their condolences. In part, because I hated to appear vulnerable. But also, because I had such mixed feelings toward the end. Nobody should have to suffer like that.

I settled for a curt nod.

The woman shuffled a few papers before breaking the silence: “Maybe I could get a peek at the rest of the house,” she said, her voice once again cheerful.

I led her down the narrow hall and she followed, opening and shutting doors and taking careful notes. “Separate linen closet,” she said at one point, using a ballpoint to check the appropriate box on her form. “Tiled bath,” she noted with another flick of her pen.

We arrived at the master bedroom last.

All evidence of my father’s final illness had been tactfully removed. I had made sure of that. Gone were the morphine bottles and latex gloves. The soiled linens swapped for crisp new sheets, the sad bedspread replaced by a snowy down comforter. And yet, as I stepped in the room, I had the peculiar feeling he was still there.

Perhaps it was the fog—it floated outside the windows and reflected in the mirrors like a shroud—because this hadn’t happened before. I’d managed two other tours without so much as a twinge of memory.

But that afternoon was different. I looked at the double bed that he and my mother had shared and, sure enough, there he was: an old man in striped pajamas sitting on the edge of the mattress, too weak to stand—his thin long feet, the skin mottled, resting on a fluffy white rug. It was as if the pain was still circling the room, still stalking its prey—its dagger drawn.

I reached for the dresser to steady myself and closed my eyes. When I opened them, he was gone. I scanned the room, taking in the pale furniture—purchased when they were newlyweds—my eyes finally landing on another of those fluffy rugs. Flokati, I suddenly remembered, recalling the proper name of those wool carpets. The ones my mother had saved for years to buy. “From New Zealand,” she used to whisper, as if confiding a great secret.

The realtor stood at the window. “Look’s like the weather’s breaking,” she said, reaching to touch a valence overhead. “Did you say the window treatments were included?”

I glanced at the curtains and remembered that my mother had made them. She was already sick by then, but we didn’t know it. “Do you like them, sweetheart?” she’d asked after my father had hung them, her voice reflecting gentle pride.

Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe—it was as if someone had punched a hole in my lung. I turned and fled.

I waited in the living room, gazing out the windows. The woman had been right: the fog was lifting. I could see from The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge clear to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, the water sparkling in the distance.

A minute later, she joined me. “Wow,” she said, blinking hard as she stepped into the sunlight.

I turned to face her, but saw my parents instead. All at once, I was seven years old again—it was the day we had moved in—the two of them were twirling each other around the room, laughing and admiring their new home.

“This view just might be worth a million dollars,” the realtor said, transfixed.

Yes, I thought, picturing only my parents’ joy.

The two of us stood silent for a moment.

I took a deep breath. “Did I tell you that my parents built this house?”

“No kidding?” she said, still staring straight ahead. “Well, the windows are amazing.”

I looked at her and smiled. “Did you know they’re Andersens?”

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