When I came downstairs, my mother was standing by the door, greeting a couple who was just coming in with her selling smile: confident but not off-putting, welcoming but not kiss-ass. Like me, my mother put great stock in her appearance. In real estate, as in high school, it could make or break you.
“There you are,” she said, turning around as I came down the stairs. “I was getting worried.”
“Hair issues,” I told her, as another couple came up the front walk. “What can I do?”
She glanced into the living room, where a group of people were peering at a design of the new townhouses that was tacked up on the wall. My mother always had these cocktail parties when she needed to sell, believing the best way to assure people she could build their dream house was to show off her own. It was a good gimmick, even if it did mean having strangers traipsing through our downstairs.
“If you make sure the caterers have what they need,” she said to me now, “that would be great. And if it looks like we’re running low on brochures, go out and get another box from the garage.” She paused to smile at a couple as they crossed the foyer. “Oh,” she said, “and if anyone looks like they’re looking for a bathroom—”
“Point them toward it graciously and with the utmost subtlety, ” I finished. Bathroom detail/directions were, in fact, my specialty.
“Good girl,” she said, as a woman in a pantsuit came up the walk. “Welcome!” my mother called out, pushing the door open wider. “I’m Deborah Queen. Please come in. I’m so glad you could make it!”
My mother didn’t know this person, of course. But part of selling was treating everyone like a familiar face.
“Well, I just love the neighborhood,” the woman said as she stepped over the threshold. “I noticed you were putting up some new townhouses, so I thought I’d . . .”
“Let me show you a floor plan. Did you see that all the units come with two-car garages? You know, a lot of people don’t even realize how much difference a heated garage can make.”
And with that, my mother was off and running. Hard to believe that once schmoozing was as painful to her as multiple root canals. But when you had to do something, you had to do it. And eventually, if you were lucky, you did it well.
Queen Homes, which my dad had started right out of college as a one-man trim carpenter operation, already had a good business reputation when he met my mother. Actually, he hired her. She was fresh out of college with an accounting degree, and his finances were a shambles. She’d come in, waded through his paperwork and receipts (many of which were on bar napkins and matchbooks), handled a close call with the IRS (he’d “forgotten” about his taxes a few years earlier), and gotten him into the black again. Somewhere in the midst of all of it, they fell in love. They were the perfect business team: he was all charm and fun and everyone’s favorite guy to buy a beer. My mother was happy busying herself with file folders and The Bigger Picture. Together, they were unstoppable.
Wildflower Ridge, our neighborhood, had been my mother’s vision. They’d done small subdivisions and spec houses, but this would be an entire neighborhood, with houses and townhouses and apartments, a little business district, everything all enclosed and fitted around a common green space. A return to communities, my mother had said. The wave of the future.
My dad wasn’t sold at first. But he was getting older, and his body was tired. This way he could move into a supervisory position and let someone else swing the hammers. So he agreed. Two months later, they were breaking ground on the first house: ours.
They worked in tandem, my parents, meeting potential clients at the model home. My dad would run through the basic spiel, tweaking it depending on what sort of people they were: he played up his Southern charm for Northerners, talked NASCAR and barbeque with locals. He was knowledgeable, trustworthy. Of course you wanted him to build your house. Hell, you wanted him to be your best friend. Then, the hard selling done, my mom would move in with the technical stuff like covenants, specifications, and prices. The houses sold like crazy. It was everything my mother said it would be. Until it wasn’t.
I knew she blamed herself for his death, thought that maybe it was the added stress of Wildflower Ridge that taxed my dad’s heart, and if she hadn’t pushed him to expand so much everything would have been different. This was our common ground, the secret we shared but never spoke aloud. I should have been with him; she should have left him alone. Shoulda, coulda, woulda. It’s so easy in the past tense.
But here in the present, my mother and I had no choice but to move ahead. We worked hard, me at school, her at outselling all the other builders. We parted our hair cleanly and stood up straight, greeting company—and the world—with the smiles we practiced in the quiet of our now-too-big dream house full of mirrors that showed the smiles back. But under it all, our grief remained. Sometimes she took more of it, sometimes I did. But always, it was there.
I’d just finished directing an irate woman with a red-wine stain on her shirt to the powder room—one of the catering staff had apparently bumped into her, splashing her cabernet across her outfit—when I noticed the stack of fliers on the foyer table was looking a bit low. Grateful for any excuse to escape, I slipped outside.
I went down the front walk, cutting around the caterer’s van in the driveway. The sun had just gone down, the sky pink and orange behind the line of trees that separated us from the apartments one phase over. Summer was just starting. Once that had meant early track practice and long afternoons at the pool perfecting my backflip. This summer, though, I was working.
Jason had been at the library information desk since he was fifteen, long enough to secure a reputation as the Guy Who Knew Everything. Patrons of the Lakeview Branch had gotten accustomed to him doing everything from finding that obscure book on Catherine the Great to fixing the library computers when they crashed. They loved him for the same reason I did: he had all the answers. He also had a cult following, particularly among his co-workers, who were both girls and both brilliant. They’d never taken kindly to me as Jason’s girlfriend, seeing as how, in their eyes, I wasn’t even close to their intellectual level, much less his. I’d had a feeling that their acceptance of me as a sudden co-worker wouldn’t be much warmer, and I was right.
During my training, they snickered as he taught me the intricate ins and outs of the library search system, rolled their eyes in tandem when I asked a question about the card catalog. Jason had hardly noticed, and when I pointed it out to him, he got impatient, as if I was wasting his time. That’s not what you should be worrying about, he said. Not knowing how to reference the tri-county library database quickly in the event of a system crash: now that would be a problem.