My father slid a yellowed black-and-white photograph across the desk in my direction. I picked it up and studied it. The picture was of a huge gold house, antebellum, I guessed, with tall white columns marching across a wide front porch. It was set back behind a hedge of tall flowering shrubs, and a woman dressed in a hoopskirt and a 1950s-looking hairdo was posed prettily on the porch, waving, as if to a tour bus.
Pilar took the photo out of my hands and frowned. “Yeah. Wha’s this?”
“Birdsong,” Mitch said smugly. “My maternal grandmother’s family homeplace.”
“Your grandma lived on a plantation?” Pilar asked. “You never said
anything about a plantation to me.”
“This is the house south of Atlanta?” I asked.
“Guthrie, Georgia,” he said. “Sixty-two miles south of Atlanta, if you want to be precise.” He smiled nostalgically. “I wasn’t born there, but my mother and father did take me there from the hospital. I guess I spent every Sunday of my life there until Dad and I moved when I was six.”
“When your parents split up?” I asked. I knew Mitch’s parents had divorced when he was young, and that he and his father had moved from Georgia to Nashville before he started first grade, but he’d never talked much about those early years of his life.
“That’s right,” Mitch said. “I guess I went back half a dozen times after we moved, to visit my mother and grandparents, but I don’t think I’ve seen the place since I was twelve. To tell you the truth, I’d forgotten it even existed until I got this letter from the lawyers.” He tapped the file folder.
“My great-uncle Norbert was the last of the Dempseys,” he said. “An old bachelor farmer. Never married, never had kids. He died several months ago at the ripe old age of ninety-seven. And it seems he’s left Birdsong to me.”
Pilar turned to me. “So, you’re named after them? I kinda wondered how you got such an unusual name.”
“It was Lynda’s idea,” Mitch said dryly. “She bought into all that romantic Southern crap about old family names. While she was pregnant, she got hold of an old family Bible and went through it looking for names for the baby. I told her I thought Dempsey was a terrible choice for a baby girl, but she was dead set on that name.”
Pilar turned to me and rolled her eyes again. “No offense, but your mama sounds like a nut.”
For some reason, I felt the need to defend Lynda, and her choice of baby names.
“I hated my name when I was in grade school. I always wanted to be named Katelyn or Tara or Brittany. But when I got to boarding school, it was kinda cool to be the only Dempsey.”
I turned to Mitch. “I always wished you’d had some family photos of your mother’s side of the family. So I could see the people I’d been named for.”
“My father wanted nothing to do with the Dempseys after the divorce,” Mitch said. “He never talked about them, so it wasn’t what you would call an amicable split.”
“But now they’ve left you a plantation house,” Pilar said excitedly. “How many acres? How many bedrooms?” She grabbed the photo again and stared down at it. “A place like this must be worth a lot of money.”
Mitch shook his head. “Not according to the lawyer.” He picked up a pair of horn-rimmed reading glasses and took a letter from the folder.
“Carter Berryhill, he’s the attorney representing my great-uncle’s estate, says Birdsong conveys with point eight acres of land. At one time, I think, the property consisted of a couple hundred acres, but I imagine the Dempseys sold off that land over the years, and the town kind of grew in around the house.”
“No plantation?” Pilar’s face fell.
“Sorry,” Mitch said. “By the time my grandparents lived there, there were maybe five or six acres. When I was a boy, it seemed like a huge place, with a barn where they’d once kept horses, and a small pasture where my granddaddy did keep a cow, along with a chicken coop and a big flower and vegetable garden, but of course, to a kid everything seems huge and magnificent.”
He ran his finger down the typed lines. “Berryhill says the property was recently appraised for ninety-eight thousand.”
“That’s all?” Pilar got up and went around behind the desk to read over Mitch’s shoulder, just to make sure he hadn’t gotten the number wrong.
“That’s next to nothing,” she complained.
“It does seem low to me,” Mitch said. “Birdsong was a showplace. When I was a kid, it was the biggest, fanciest house in town. Berryhill does say old Norbert was in poor health the last few years, and that the house is in pretty bad disrepair, so maybe that explains it.”
I’d picked up the picture and was examining it more closely. The Southern belle on the porch had a familiar look about her. I held it up for my father to see.
He put the reading glasses on again and squinted down at the photo. “It’s such a grainy old print, it’s hard to tell. Could be my mother, I guess. Or maybe just some pretty girl who lived in town. Guthrie was the kind of place that always had aspirations to be like something out of Gone With the Wind. There was some kind of festival they had every spring, and all the women in town would get themselves up in hoopskirts and other costumes like this. I think it was something the mill people and the business owners came up with to try to bring tourists in off of the interstate.”
Pilar looked at my father with astonishment. “You don’t even know if this is your own mama?”
“She died when I was nine,” Mitch said quietly. “Anyway,” he added, pushing the file across the desk to me, “this is what I’ve got in mind for you.”
“What? Dress up in a hoopskirt and wave to tourists?”
“Birdsong,” he said briskly. “My first thought was to tell this Berryhill fella to go ahead and put it on the market, sell it and be done. That’s what I intended, until you called and said you’d been fired.”
“Look,” Mitch said. “You’re out of work. Out of money, basically. No
place to live---”
“The girls said I could stay---”
“Until your savings run out. After that you’re freeloading.”
“Not if you loan me the money---”
“Never loan money to family,” Mitch said quickly. “That’s my policy. Anyway, how do you plan to pay me back? There’s no guarantee you’ll get a job with this mess hanging over your head.”
“You’re saying you want me to move to Guthrie, Georgia? A place I’ve never been? Move into a house I’ve never seen?”
He tapped the photo with his glasses. “You’re seeing it right now.”
“I’ll bet it’s a dump,” I said flatly.
“Now, maybe. But not when we’re done with it.”
“We?” I said.
“I thought we could form a little partnership.”
“What kind of partnership?” I asked warily.
“I think we can flip the place,” Mitch said. “You and me. I don’t care what some country-bumpkin lawyer thinks, I know the old home place has to be worth more than ninety-eight thousand. A lot more. When I was a kid, Atlanta seemed a world away. But now, with all the urban sprawl, Guthrie’s got to be almost a suburb of Atlanta. I’ve done some research, and real estate in Jackson County has been skyrocketing in the past few years. Birdsong, fixed up, would be the perfect ‘estate home’ for some Yankeee corporate executive. Or a country retreat. Hell, the house alone has sixty-eight hundred square feet. A historic property like that, fully restored, ought to be worth around half a million.”
Pilar nodded vigorously. “At least. You can’t even get a chicken coop in Miami for that much money.”
“I’m not asking you to stay down there indefinitely,” Mitch said.
“Yeah,” Pilar put in. “You can’t expect your dad and me to give you a free place to stay forever. We got bills too, you know.”
“Are you talking about flipping? Like all those reality television shows?”
“People do it all the time. Make a lot of money at it,” Mitch said.
“People who know what they’re doing. And I don’t,” I started.
“What are you talking about? I remember when you were just a little girl. We got you a Barbie dream house for your birthday. You threw out the plastic furniture that came with it and spent weeks painting and redecorating it with scraps of wallpaper and fabric from a sample book your mother had lying around the house.”
He turned to Pilar. “This was during Lynda’s ‘I want to be an interior designer’ phase. Which came after the fashion-model phase, but before the sculptress phase. If I had a nickel for all the art lessons and books and crap that woman bought---”
“Stop making Lynda out to be such a flake,” I said angrily, tired of his criticisms. “She’s actually a very talented artist. She’s been doing the jewelry for years now, and several of the hottest boutiques in Hollywood sell her stuff.”
“Hollywood!” Mitch said. “Where else could you sell a necklace made out of pieces of broken taillights and beer can pop-tops?”
“For a couple thousand dollars,” I added. “That’s what one of her pieces sells for, you know.”
“If you say so,” Mitch said, his expression telling me he found it unlikely. “Anyway, the point I’m making is, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to fix this place up and make a nice profit on it.”
“Maybe.” Now I was the one who wasn’t buying what he was selling.
“Tell you what,” Mitch said, turning his attention back to the golf tournament. “Hang on. I gotta check to see how Tiger’s doing now. That kid from Australia’s been breathing down his neck for the past three holes.”
“Dad?” I said.
“Oh yeah. You go on down to Georgia. Get yourself settled in the house, then get busy fixing it up. I’ll set you up with a credit card to buy supplies and food and whatnot. Shouldn’t take you more than a month or two to whip the place into shape, right? Then we’ll flip the place and split the profits. How’s that sound?”
“What?” Pilar screeched. “That sounds like some kind of fabulous sweetheart deal to me. How ’bout Dempsey stays here with the boys, and I’ll go up there and get the place ready to sell. It won’t take me any month, I’ll tell you that right now.”
“Damn!” Mitch cried, slapping the desktop. “He shanked it. Son of a bitch has been six under par all day, and he shanks it on the seventeeth hole.” He flicked the television off and stood up. He stood up and put his arm around Pilar.
“Now, baby, you know you don’t want to be messin’ around with some old house in some dinky little town in Georgia. What would the boys do without you? Hell, what would I do without you?”
“You’d get along,” Pilar said darkly.
“Dempsey?” Mitch said, looking over at me. I was staring down at the picture of Birdsong, at the mystery woman in the hoopskirt, waving to a carload of passing tourists.
“What do you say? Is it a deal?”
I sighed. “Deal.
My mother was just as thrilled with Mitch’s project as my stepmother. “Guthrie, Georgia!” Lynda cried when I called to tell her of my impending change of address. “Precious, you can’t move there. Why, the place is a flyspeck. I bet they don’t even have a Starbucks.”
I was packing up the last of my belongings from the apartment in Alexandria. Not that there was much to pack besides my clothes and books. Lindsay had furnished the place before Stephanie and I moved in. And the girls quickly lined up a third friend to sublet my room on a month-to-month basis.
“Fix up the old Dempsey place?” Lynda went on. “What on earth can your father be thinking? You’re a lawyer, sweet pea. You don’t know the first thing about real estate.”
“Dad says I used to love to redecorate,” I said huffily. “Remember that Barbie dream house you guys gave me when I was little? And I made my own furniture and repainted the whole place? Dad said it was really something.”
“It was ghastly,” Lynda said. “You took Magic Markers and scribbled giant orange flowers on the outside of it, and then you glued scraps of hideous striped purple wallpaper over all the windows and the front door. But then, that’s how you dressed too, at that stage. I used to worry that you were color blind or something. Thank God you grew out of all that.”
The door to my bedroom opened and Stephanie plopped down on the bed. “My mom,” I mouthed, pointing to the phone. She nodded that she understood, but pointed at the watch on her wrist.
My plane was due to leave at noon, and it was getting close to ten.
“Look, Lynda,” I said, struggling with the zipper on my suitcase. “It’s not like I’m moving to Outer Mongolia or something. Guthrie is only an hour south of Atlanta. Remember Becky --- my roommate from junior year at St. Catherine’s? She lives in Atlanta, well, Decatur, actually. She does something with computers. She’s going to pick me up at the airport and give me a ride down to Guthrie.”
“So does that mean you’ll be stuck down there without a car?” Lynda asked, even more horrified.
“Dad says I can pick up a used car cheap once I’m down in Guthrie,” I said. “Who knows? I may even get a pickup truck --- wouldn’t that be cool?”
“Don’t even joke about something like that,” Lynda said. “It’s not funny. In fact, this whole bizarre undertaking has me worried sick. I still don’t see why you don’t just come out here and stay with us for a while. Leonard has so many friends in the film business. And you wouldn’t have to live in some backwoods hamlet and work like some field hand just to prove to your father that you’re not a failure.”
“Dad doesn’t think I’m a failure,” I lied. “And it’s sweet of you to want me to come out there, but I don’t know anything about the movie business. And I’m not licensed to practice law in California. It would take months and months before I could get to that point.”
“You could work with me,” Lynda said impulsively. “Learn to make jewelry. I’m about to hire an assistant. I could teach you instead.”
“I’ll be fine,” I told her for the tenth time. “It’s just for a couple of months. It’ll be an adventure! And in two months, after everybody in Washington has forgotten about this whole Hoddergate thing, I’ll come back, get another great job, and pick up the pieces of my life again. Which is what I really want to do, you know.”
“What about your boss?” Lynda asked. “Have you heard from him? What does he think about this whole crazy idea?”
“I haven’t heard from Alex,” I admitted. “According to Ruby, the office manager, he and his wife are in the Grenadines, on vacation. I sent him an e-mail, telling him where I was going and how he could reach me.”
“On vacation with his wife,” Lynda mused. “That can’t be good news for you.”
Stephanie stood up and tapped her watch again. “It’ll all be fine,” I repeated. “I’ll call you when I get down to Guthrie. And I’ll take pictures of the house, so you can see what it looks like.”
“Oh, I’ve seen Birdsong,” Lynda said. “Of course, it was a wreck twenty-five years ago, when your father’s family was living there, so I can only imagine how awful it must be now.”
“You’ve been to Guthrie? Seen the house? But when? Dad said he hadn’t been there since he was a kid.”
“He hasn’t, as far as I know,” Lynda said airily. “Your father had absolutely no interest in anything like that. But before I married Mitchell Killebrew, I made it my business to see the town he’d come from and meet the people in his family. On both sides of his family,” she emphasized. “Why do you think I was so determined to name you Dempsey? I’m not surprised his uncle Norbert left him the house. Such a sweet old man! And he always doted on Mitch, God knows why.”
“Demps?” Now Lindsay was at the door, jingling her car keys. “Let’s roll, girlfriend. Traffic on the beltway’s gonna be a bitch.”
Guthrie, georgia, the little town with big ideas. pop. 2,200. The roadside sign showed a stylized skyline featuring a clock tower and some towering trees. Becky slowed the Honda down to thirty-five miles an hour as the four-lane county road narrowed to two lanes at the approach to the edge of town.
“Wow. Only twenty-two hundred.” Becky glanced over at me. “Did you know it was this small?”
“No idea,” I said. “My father hasn’t been here in, like, forty years. I guess I’m surprised it’s this big, considering what he’s told me about the place.”
My flight down from D.C. had been unremarkable, and when I looked out the window of the plane and saw clear blue skies, sunshine, and green trees on the ground below, I decided to take it as a good omen.
The trees were one thing that surprised me about this part of middle Georgia. I’d lived in Atlanta for a short time after my parents’ divorce, and thereafter had been under the distinct impression that everything outside Atlanta was mostly red mud and tall Georgia pines.
There were plenty of pines down here, yes, but other trees too, many of them already budded out or in full leaf. I recognized oak trees and poplars, and as we got closer to the center of Guthrie, we began to see blooming azaleas along the side of the road, and bright patches of yellow daffodils.
“It’s actually kind of pretty,” I told Becky.
“What did you think?” she said with a laugh. “It was some kind of wasteland?”
The county road had segued into something called simply Boulevard, although it bore no resemblance to any of the boulevards I’d seen in other places. There were a few strip-mall shopping centers on either side of Boulevard. The businesses didn’t look exactly thriving; I saw a Bi-Lo grocery store in a shopping center alongside a dollar store, a tanning salon, and a car wash.
“Look,” I told Becky, pointing out the window. “An Ace hardware store. Thank God. Hopefully I can buy paint and stuff there.”
After a block or two of shopping centers, the commercial district petered out and we began to see houses --- big ones, with rolling green lawns and huge magnolias and boxwood hedges. Oak trees marched along both sides of the street, their branches meeting overhead to form a leafy tunnel. The road changed names again, this time to Colquitt Street. Most of the houses were redbrick, mostly built in the early 1900s, I thought, although there were two or three that appeared to be older, even Victorian, and there were a smattering of large Craftsman bungalows. Maybe, I thought, with a glimmer of hope, Guthrie wasn’t as dinky as Lynda remembered.
“Is Birdsong on this street?” Becky asked, slowing down.
I checked the MapQuest directions I’d printed out back at home. “Nope. Looks like you go another couple of blocks into town, and then take a left onto Poplar. The house number is 375.”
The next street sign we spotted was for Mill Street.
“I guess that’s where the bedspread plant used to be,” I told Becky. “According to my dad, nearly everything in Guthrie used to revolve around the Dempsey bedspread mill. Everybody in his family worked there, and I think maybe his mother’s grandfather or uncle or somebody founded it. At one time, Dad said, the mill ran three shifts a day, seven days a week, and a couple thousand people worked there. The town must have been a lot bigger back then.”
“Is the mill still operating?” Becky asked.
“Dad said it closed for good in the eighties, but he thinks it had probably kinda started dying out as early as the seventies, after it was sold to some big conglomerate in New Jersey. His mother’s family was mostly long gone by then. Except for good old great-uncle Norbert. He’s the one who left the house to my dad.”
As we passed Mill Street, a long, sharp, high-pitched whistle punctuated the otherwise quiet of the late afternoon.
“Holy crap!” Becky laughed. “What was that?”
I looked around. “No idea. Maybe a train?”
“We crossed some railroad tracks back at the city limits, but I haven’t seen any since then,” she said.
I looked at my watch. “It’s exactly five. Maybe that’s the town whistle for curfew. Dad said they roll up the streets pretty early in Guthrie.”
We both laughed at the notion of a five o’clock curfew.
“Here’s Poplar,” I said, spotting the white concrete street marker up ahead.
Becky made the turn.
Poplar seemed only slightly less prosperous a street than Colquitt. The lots were large and leafy, although somewhat narrower, with houses set closer to the street. An elderly woman bundled up in a bulky quilted jacket, knit scarf, and cap, despite what seemed to me the fairly mild sixty-degree weather, walked a biscuit-colored cocker spaniel along the sidewalk, pausing to let him lift a leg on a shrub. She turned and stared at the Honda, which was creeping rather suspiciously down the street. I gave her a friendly wave, which she returned, in a lukewarm version.
“This is 373,” Becky said, rolling to a stop at the curb. “And I see 377, there, with the picket fence out front, but I don’t see a 375.”
“Mitch said it was a huge house,” I told her, staring at the two houses, with a large, overgrown patch of trees and shrubs in between. The house on one side was a prim white Victorian clapboard affair, with a wide front porch and a row of upended rocking chairs. The house on the left was pale yellow brick, with arched second-floor windows that made it look perpetually surprised. In between the two houses was a veritable jungle, dominated by a hedge of six-foot camellia bushes near the curb, which in turn was punctuated by a hulking magnolia tree whose roots were pushing through the cracked concrete of the sidewalk.
“Number 375 can’t have just disappeared. Maybe there’s another Poplar
Street, like maybe this is West Poplar and there’s an East Poplar.”
I leaned my head out the window of the car to call to the old lady, who was now studiously avoiding making eye contact with us. “Excuse me.”
She looked down at the dog, and nudged its butt with the toe of her rubber galosh.
“Ma’am?” I called again, afraid she might not have heard me.
She whirled around, fire in her rheumy blue eyes. The dog barked a short, sharp warning.
“What you want?” she demanded.
“Excuse me,” I said, giving her my friendly lobbyist smile. “I’m looking for number 375 Poplar Street.” I spoke in a deliberately slow, distinct voice.
“What’s your business?”
“What do you want on this street? What’s your business in Guthrie? I seen those Atlanta plates on your car.”
“Uh-oh,” Becky said under her breath. “I think we just found Guthrie’s version of Boo Radley.”
“Well, uh, I’m here to see about 375 Poplar Street. It, uh, belongs to my father,” I stammered. “And, uh, I’ve come down here to uh---”
“I knew it!” the old lady exclaimed, stepping closer to the car. “Knew it the minute I laid eyes on you. You’re Killebrew, all right. Ain’t ya?”
“Uh, yes, ma’am,” I said, smiling uncertainly. The way she said Killebrew made it sound more like a contagious disease than a name. “I’m Dempsey Killebrew.”
“Dempsey!” she shrieked, taking a step backward. “He’s got some nerve.”
The cocker yipped and lunged toward the Honda, snarling and hurling itself against the tires.
“Holy crap,” Becky said. “Boo Radley and Cujo on the same street.”
The old lady reluctantly reined in the cocker, and continued to glare daggers at me.
“Do you know this street?” I asked. I held up the folder of papers Mitch had given me before I’d left Miami. “The house is called Birdsong. The lawyers gave us the address as 375 Poplar Street. But I don’t see---”
Before I could continue, the old lady wheeled around and marched rapidly away, crossing the street in midblock.
“Oooh-kaaay,” I said, watching her retreat. “That was kinda weird.”
“Hey, Demps,” Becky said. She’d opened her door and stepped out of the car. “Look here.”
She stood in the shade of the magnolia. With the toe of her shoe, she’d kicked away a patch of the dense carpet of pine needles and fallen leaves, revealing what looked like a cracked and crumbling concrete driveway leading into the overgrown lot.
I got out of the car and walked around to join my friend.
“Hey,” Becky said, pushing aside a low-hanging tree limb. “Demps, I think there’s a house back in here.”
I ducked under another branch draped with a luxurious fringe of kudzu. “You’re right. I see something pink.”
After another five minutes of ducking and batting away at vines, branches, and brambles, and cursing myself for not changing out of the high-heeled boots and Theory pants suit I’d worn on the flight down to Atlanta, we found a clearing in the underbrush.
Looming up before us was an enormous wreck --- a tottering wedding cake of a house painted an improbable shade of Pepto-Bismol pink.
“I think we found your Birdsong,” Becky said.
“Bird droppings is more like it.”
I picked up a stout tree branch lying at my feet --- not sure whether I would use it as a walking stick or a weapon --- and walked closer to the house.
The concrete steps leading up to the front porch were as cracked as the driveway, and laced with more kudzu, which seemed to be making a determined advance against the house.
Now, standing at the edge of the porch, looking up, I could start to see that this was, indeed, the house that had once been Birdsong.
The grand columns that had marched across the front of the house were still here, but their faded pink paint was now blistered and peeling, and in places I could see where their plaster plinths had started to crumble.
I poked my stick on the wooden planks of the porch, afraid they might suddenly give way beneath my feet, but, mercifully, they seemed solid.
Becky stood at the edge of the porch, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
I walked over to the front door. It was heavily carved, and painted a faded gray, with leaded-glass sidelights and a fanlight overhead. I found the doorbell, a cracked plastic button, and pushed it. I heard a shrill ringing inside.
I tried the doorknob, expecting nothing, but when it turned in my hand, I let out a surprised gasp.
“What?” Becky rushed to my side.
I pushed the door open, its hinges screaming a protest.
“Holy crap,” she whispered.
Excerpted from THE FIXER UPPER © Copyright 2011 by Mary Kay Andrews. Reprinted with permission by Harper Paperbacks. All rights reserved.
The Fixer Upper