Option to Buy

Maggie Verdon was out doing her errands. During the first year that Maggie lived in South Hadley, she plotted out such expeditions to be maximally efficient in both time and distance. She had recently retired (her husband George was old enough to retire but for some reason had no interest) and had not yet shed the illusion that time was precious (because time was money). Maggie carefully planned her trips for groceries (small lists in town, large lists at the supermarket in Holyoke), the library (she exercised her privilege as a town resident to use the opulent Mount Holyoke library), the dry cleaners (George’s monogrammed shirts and at least one suit a week), and various runs to the hardware store, bookstore, and the discount stores and malls strewn along Route 91 to the south toward Springfield. Before they moved, Maggie had managed a temp service agency and raised two children; she knew how to be both well-organized and productive.

But as the first glorious fall, long winter, and dawdling spring passed by (while George worked the long hours that his transfer and promotion inevitably meant), Maggie was home alone with little to do. She was a new resident in a reserved New England town where Yankees respected a newcomer’s privacy almost as much as they respected their own. The concept of wasting time now seemed irrelevant for a resource that seemed to go on forever. Time was no longer a precious commodity. Filling time became the issue.

Of course, Maggie did the usual things that older women with time on their hands did. She visited Teddy and the grandchildren in West Hartford for as long as she could stand the chaos (three hours seemed to be the limit) and as often as she thought Teddy’s wife Eleanor would tolerate it. She signed on to volunteer one afternoon a week tutoring third-graders after school. She took lessons in water-color painting from the local arts council and joined a monthly reading group organized by the bookstore. She made elaborate gourmet meals and prayed that George would get home before they disassembled themselves. She went to the hairdresser once a month, even though she had never colored her thick gray and faded-chestnut hair and had worn it in a chignon her whole life. There was little for the pert and blonde Sheila to do but wash it, snip an inch off the ends, and put it back up in a way that was never satisfactory.

Maggie made curtains for the new house and knit sweaters for her two grandchildren (which she never saw them wear), and yet there was still the question of what to do with oneself after lunch. And sometimes before lunch. The worth of a day’s hours fell like a bad stock; Maggie was left with her original number of shares, but the certificates were hardly worth keeping in the safe deposit box anymore. But as a life-long miser of hours and minutes, she reviewed her investment endlessly and assumed that there was some way that its value could be redeemed. As a former business woman, she knew she had to either increase demand or decrease the resource. The former seemed possible, and probably was the only way to make the latter at least appear to be taking place.

So instead of trying to plan her errands efficiently, Maggie started to think of ways to stretch them out, and often drove the long way around town to see the sights and prolong her absence from the silent house. She would take circuitous routes from one destination to another, avoiding main streets and meandering through neighborhoods. One of the things that began to fascinate her as she did so was the status of the houses that she and George had considered when they had arrived in South Hadley a year ago – considered but not purchased. Not every house they had looked at – just the serious prospects. George’s job headquartered him in Holyoke, in a large office complex across from the mall and easily accessible from Route 91 – but everyone told them that under no circumstances did they want to live in the tattered city of Holyoke. After a weekend spent touring Easthampton, South Hadley, and Granby, they settled on the college town of South Hadley and came back for four days of house-hunting. It was while the housing market was still tight and there were not a great number of choices, so they had made a reasonably quick decision and bought the comfortable ranch with the screen porch and the large terrace out back.

Maggie did not regret their purchase. They lived on a rural road just outside of town and had enough acreage so that the neighbors’ houses were visible only in the denuded winter. The privacy was very appealing. The house needed painting inside and out as well as carpet and tile, but that had given Maggie a chance to make it her own; their real estate agent had arranged for the house to be refurbished according to their directions before the Verdons even moved in. The house was now a pale grey with slate blue shutters. The low ranch with a shallow roof was slung into a mild incline and surrounded by mature gardens (the house was forty-one years old, built the year that she and George were married which seemed a fortuitous coincidence) – purple and white Hosta on the north side, an assortment of day lilies on the south side, and climbing roses around the screen porch. It was a lovely house, and Maggie had had no buyer’s remorse. But as time went by, she began to fantasize about the houses that she and George did not buy.

All of the houses that the Verdons looked at had fit the profile they worked out together and faxed to the agent: at least three bedrooms, master bedroom and bath on first floor, fireplace, dining room, two car garage, and a price at least 25% below what they were selling their over-sized and over-priced house in Virginia for. They were certain that this would be the last transfer of sixty-three year old George’s career and that if they liked the new place, they might decide to stay there in retirement, albeit with annual winter retreats of a month or two on the Florida Gulf Coast. The profit they had made on the last house had gone into their retirement savings to fund these retreats, and they had come to New England prepared to stay – at least during the temperate seasons. Massachusetts had good memories for them – they had met in Boston when Maggie was at Boston College (a good Catholic college for a good Catholic girl) and George was studying business at Northeastern (a practical major for someone who believed that the only rewards were in this life and not the fictitious next world). George had clung to his faith more than Maggie had clung to hers, although she did go to Mass a few times a year.

So they’d looked at houses. For example, there was a salt-box near the center of town that Maggie passed every time she went to the library or post office. It had a brick facade, a blue front door, and a privet hedge along the sidewalks on both sides of the corner on which it stood. It was the corner that had done the house in as far as Maggie was concerned. Houses on corners had little privacy and the privet hedge stood no more than two feet high. However, the house had had a beautiful cherry kitchen and an adorable Dutch door (also painted blue) out to the backyard.

Near the center of South Hadley, the houses were close together – the backyard of the house looked right into the neighbor’s side garden. Maggie would often see an older couple next door working in that vegetable patch as she went by. She imagined that if they had bought the salt-box (and George would have been happy to buy it − it was Maggie who had nixed it in the end), she would have quickly become friendly with the elderly gardeners next door. They would probably have kept her supplied with tomatoes and squash all summer. Maggie could envision using their zucchini to make bread and then bringing them a loaf.

One time recently Maggie had gone by and noticed that the man was using a walker, and she suddenly realized that she had not seen him for a while. Had he had a stroke or broken a hip? If Maggie had been their neighbor, maybe she would have been the one to come running when something went wrong – calling the ambulance and then driving the wife to the hospital and sitting with her in the waiting room. When the old man came home – and for some reason she started to call him “Walt” in her mind – she would have volunteered to come over and sit with him while “Myrtle” took a break and went and got her hair done. It would have been a different life. She thought she might have enjoyed being part of Myrtle and Walter’s life and she could have kept an eye on them as she leaned out over the bottom half of that adorable Dutch door.

And then there was another house they had looked at just off the town green, an old colonial that didn’t really have a master bedroom on the first floor, but did have a full bathroom and a den that could be converted if either she or George ever had trouble with the stairs. The house dated from just after the Civil War, but it looked older, really early American. There was painted wainscoting everywhere and two deep fireplaces. The cellar was a nightmare – a rock foundation that seemed to sweat water and mice – but the house itself was immaculate and there was room to put laundry connections in the pantry so there was no need to use the basement on a regular basis. The house even had a plaque noting that Dr. Sylvester Lindstrom had built it in 1870 and carried on his practice on the first floor while his family lived upstairs. The yard was full of lilacs and old apple trees and the roof was slate. It was a lovely home. George thought that it would take a lot of upkeep and that it probably wasn’t very well insulated, but he would have bought it if Maggie wanted to. Maggie had been a little afraid of it, but she had kept an eye on it, noticing that it sold very soon after they had looked at it.

South Hadley had an active historical society and if Maggie had bought the Lindstrom home, she certainly would have joined. Maggie became aware that the house was on the July 4 tour of historic homes, along with a dozen other houses near the common, so she bought a ticket and saw the house once more just a few weeks ago. The new owners had not changed much. Maggie had actually done some research on the house over the internet (long after it belonged to someone else) and found that the side wing was not original – there used to just be a roof over the drive where carriages could pull up to the side entrance. On the other hand, there used to be a fully glassed-in conservatory on the other side of the house, which now was a large screened porch – seldom used based on the amount of clutter that had accumulated there. Maggie doubted whether she could have convinced George to tear down what was now an expanded kitchen area in order to restore the old entrance, but she certainly could picture turning the screen porch back into a conservatory. Perhaps there would be a way to use the glassed room to accumulate solar energy for the big old house. In any case, in this climate it would be more useful than a screen porch. And she would have changed the colors. The house was now white with black shutters, and, while she could not tell exactly what color the house was originally from the old black and white photos at the Historical Society, it appeared to have been darker. Perhaps grey. Yes, she would have made it grey with red shutters and a red door – a red door with a huge wreath on which she would put a spotlight on Christmas. And room on the front lawn for an antique sleigh at Christmas. She had seen one of those old sleighs at a flea market – the upholstery was all gone but it would have been lovely filled with boughs of pine and holly.

Of course, old houses were a lot of work and had a minimum of bathrooms – which is why she had decided against it in the first place. The old Lindstrom place was huge, but it only had two bathrooms, of which one had a tub but no shower. And no real master bedroom suite. On the other hand, there had been a house for sale at the very corner of the street they now lived on that had three and a half full baths, including one in a full in-law suite behind the garage. The in-law suite was precious really, with a small bedroom separated from its parlor by just a half-wall (good place for some plants). The apartment had a galley kitchen and a breakfast nook with a bay window looking out into the backyard. The house itself had been nice too, with a recently renovated kitchen (granite counters and pale custom cabinets). It had a lovely yard with a big old tulip tree out front that had been in bloom when they looked at the place. They had both liked it, but decided against it because of the in-law apartment. It wasn’t just that they didn’t want to pay for an apartment they didn’t need – the price was not too bad and it would definitely hold its value – but Maggie was afraid that someone in their family might decide that they did, indeed, need the apartment. There was their daughter, Susanne, out in California, trying to make her way in the world and working hard at only asking for financial help about once a month. She didn’t think Susanne would come home, but what if she grew desperate? Or got pregnant? Would she see the apartment as a ready-made solution? Well, as bad as the last few years that Susanne had been home were, Maggie thought maybe she could imagine living with her daughter again. It was not Susanne that blocked the sale. But George’s mother was still alive – alive because Rachel had finally, in her sixties, given up smoking and drinking. Alive, but mad at the world for the terms on which she got her extended existence. She was getting frailer and she did not like Maggie. Rachel, actually, did not like anyone, but for these very reasons she might prefer an in-law apartment (with only Maggie to put up with) to an assisted-living home in Duxbury (populated by gabby geriatrics).

Of course, if they had bought the house, maybe Maggie would have found a way in her heart to welcome Rachel. She wanted to be close to her mother-in-law; she had the best of intentions until she actually had to spend time with her. Maggie’s own mother had died ten years ago and, while they were never as close as other mothers and daughters (was that why she had trouble relating to Susanne?), she felt the void of someone in the world who had to accept her, to acknowledge her, as belonging to them. George did not count in this way. Marriages were different, more vulnerable. Fatherhood had an accidental feeling about it. But maternity seemed solid. She would have liked to find a semblance of that with Rachel – sort of a Ruth and Naomi fantasy. She could picture it − as long as Rachel did her own cooking and didn’t barge into the main house uninvited.

Or, then again, maybe Susanne would come home and she and Maggie would find in adulthood a relationship which had eluded them ever since her daughter hit puberty. Maybe now that Maggie was in menopause, there would be a shift back to the point where only one of them was fecund, hormonal. Even if her daughter was pregnant, it might be wonderful to have a baby in the house again – or a toddler who could be spoiled by her Grandma. It would have been worth trying. But what if it didn’t work? One could not evict one’s daughter (or mother-in-law) without emotional consequences. But Maggie kept thinking about it as she drove by the house she had not bought, and the more she meditated on it, the better her future self got along with her mother-in-law or Susanne’s unborn children.

Maggie thought about these houses and wondered what it would be like to be in a town where you might pass by a house you had actually lived in. Her son Teddy was in that position. He had left his first wife (after five years of marriage) for Eleanor. Fortunately, Teddy had not had any children with Lisbeth, but they had had a house built specifically for them with a huge gourmet kitchen for poor Lisbeth and a workshop behind the garage for Teddy to work on those little radio-controlled planes he used to fly around on weekends. It was a much nicer house than the one he and Eleanor had been able to afford. Lisbeth still lived in the house − she was a dermatologist and could afford it, but it was not more than a mile or two from Teddy’s new bungalow. Did Teddy ever drive by? Did he miss his workshop and Lisbeth’s cooking? Did he think about whether he had made the right decision? Eleanor and Teddy seemed happy, but they were struggling to make ends meet, and with two kids the house was cramped. If Maggie spent the night, the two kids had to bunk in together and they didn’t like that much. Nevertheless, there was a nice feeling in the crowded little house, a feeling that the relationships in that small space were warm and comfortable and that occasional spats (and continual chaos) were all part of the fun. Yes, Maggie thought that Teddy had a wonderful relationship with his new wife and probably didn’t think about his old house.

Maggie spent a great deal of time pondering her problems with relationships. She was insecure enough to blame herself for the lack of close ties in her life, but too fond of her independence and long-established routines (was it a paradox that she wanted independence so that she could persevere with entrenched habits?) to sacrifice them on the altar of self-satisfied maternal or filial feelings. She did become strongly attached to things however. Once she bought a piece of furniture or a new salad bowl, she became fiercely fond of the object and it broke her heart when something broke or was mislaid. It was such a fierce attachment that Maggie felt for the last house they seriously considered but did not buy. This was the house that Maggie most often made a detour to drive by and she did so on her way home from the library on this day.

It was a brick cape, painted white with a large chimney (also painted white) up the front of the house. She and George had been so serious about this lovely house on the crest of a country road (with the sunken living room and built-in china cabinets and the beautiful view of Mount Tom), that they had actually made an offer. But the house inspection had been a disaster. The seller was the male half of a couple going through a divorce. The couple had inherited the house from an aunt and had lived there themselves for a very short time. However, the aunt had lived there all her adult life, but had apparently seen no need to maintain her investment for her heirs. There was the need for a new roof, furnace, septic system. And the cost of all these things could have been negotiable in price reductions. But there were also termites and, while the charming house was certainly not a total loss, it was not entirely clear how much work would have to be done. Maggie had loved the house, but George had pulled the plug. While the sellers were willing to make major concessions, George saw years ahead of leaky pipes, banging on the roof, and tradesmen who did not show up.

The heartbreaking part was that the house never did sell. Soon after Maggie and George moved to town, the real estate market dried up and it would have been impossible to sell such a house. Within a few months, it was clear that the house was empty. Maggie guessed that the couple had mortgaged the house and that it was probably headed for foreclosure. The grass grew long, the paint peeled off the bricks, and someone’s car took out the mailbox and a small clump of birches in the front yard. The mailbox and the birch wood languished on what had been the front lawn and in the summer day lilies poked their heads above the new meadow to remind Maggie of the old aunt who had lived there her whole life. Maggie’s heart cried out to the house. She even suggested to George that if they could get it cheaply enough, they should buy it as an investment and fix it up. George just looked at her over his glasses.

“I’ve been by there.” George folded up his paper. “If the house had problems before, can you imagine what it’s like now? Roof was bad even then. Probably got things growing in there. And things living in there. No thanks.”

But Maggie felt bad for the house. She tried to imagine herself talking to the roofers and putting on her overalls and giving the place a good shoveling out. She did hope that George was wrong and that there were no creepy-crawly things in the house. She could abide ants and even spiders, but anything that had fur was too terrifying for her limited bravado. She hoped that the wood floors had not been ruined by moisture – they were the thin oak boards and nicely installed with even some box-patterning in the hallways. Maggie kept hoping that she would go by someday and see cars and trucks in the driveway, and workmen reviving the place. But she also knew that if she did see the house getting the attention it needed, she would be jealous that it was not her doing the rescuing. Many nights Maggie went to sleep thinking about how she would have decorated the house, how she would have made the sunken parlor and large fireplace the focal point of the first floor, and scraped and repainted all of the elaborate woodwork. How she would have found just the right area carpets – hooked carpets would be perfect – to set off the oak flooring.

It was amazing how well Maggie could remember the floor plans of all these houses, some of which she had visited only once or twice. Sometimes, when she was trying to sleep, Maggie would visualize one of the houses and wander through the rooms, remembering as many details as she could. The blue and white striped wallpaper that looked like mattress ticking in one bathroom. The ornate brass towel bars in another that were the worse for the bathroom humidity and would have had to be replaced. It was really remarkable what she could remember. But, of course, she had not been just examining a house; she had been scrutinizing a potential life, visualizing a possible future.

Maggie pulled into the driveway of their ranch and pushed the button to open the garage door so she could put her car away. Nowhere else to go today. As usual, she noted that the garage needed some shelving to organize the assorted paint cans and yard tools – she kept asking George to do something about it. She also kept hoping he would do something about the driveway which was badly cracked. As Maggie got out of the car, she could hear screams and splashes. She wished that those children next door weren’t so noisy when they were in the pool. She couldn’t even see the pool, but she could hear cries of “Marco” and “Polo” and the excited yaps of a small dog. She let herself into the kitchen and then walked to the front door where the mail had come through the slot and lay strewn across the little patterned rug that fit there so nicely. Maggie noticed that one of the letters was really for the people across the street and her aggravation deepened. The Moores didn’t have a box on the street, only a number at the post office. To return their letter, she would either have to knock on the door (and they were elderly and would probably insist she come in for tea and sit on the couch covered with orange cat hair) or drive it to the post office. Well, she thought, the post office was another reason to go out. Maybe she would go through the center of town and take another look at the old Lindstrom place.