I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions. I remember joking about this one evening with Peter Newbold, the shrink who rents the office upstairs from mine.
“The next time you get a new patient,” I offered, “I’ll sneak to their house for a walk-through. While you jot down notes about their history, dreams, whatever, I’ll shine a flashlight into the attic, open a few cupboards, and have a peek at the bedrooms. Later, when we compare notes, I’ll have the clearer picture of the person’s mental health, guaranteed.” I was teasing the doctor, of course, but I’ve been selling houses since he was in primary school, and I stand by my theory.
I like a house that looks lived in. General wear and tear is a healthy sign; a house that’s too antiseptic speaks as much to me of domestic discord as a house in complete disarray. Alcoholics, hoarders, binge eaters, addicts, sexual deviants, philanderers, depressives—you name it, I can see it all in the worn edges of their nests. You catch the smoky reek of stale scotch and cigarettes despite the desperate abundance of vanilla-scented candles. The animal stench oozes up between the floorboards, even though the cat lady and her minions were removed months before. The marital bedroom that’s becomehis, the cluttered guest room that’s now clearly hers—well, you get the idea.
I don’t have to go inside the house to make a diagnosis; the curbside analysis is usually enough. The McAllister house is a perfect example. In fact, I’d love to compare my original observations regarding Rebecca McAllister with Peter. She was depressed, for one. I drove past the McAllisters’ one morning in late May, not long after they’d moved in, and there she was, out in the early-morning haze, planting annuals all along the garden path. It wasn’t even seven A.M., but it was clear that she had been at it for hours. She was in a rather sheer white nightshirt, which was damp with sweat and covered with soil. People were starting to drive by, but Rebecca had become so absorbed in her gardening that it apparently hadn’t occurred to her to put on some proper clothes.
I stopped and said hello from my car window. We chatted for a few minutes about the weather, about how the kids were adjusting to their new school, but as we talked, I sensed a sadness in the way Rebecca planted—a mournfulness, as if she were placing each seedling in a tiny plot, a tiny little grave. And they were bright red impatiens that she was planting. There’s always something frantic about that kind of bold color choice for the front of a house. I said good-bye, and when I glanced back at Rebecca through my rearview mirror, it looked, from that distance, like there was a thin trail of blood leading all the way from the house to the spot where she knelt.
“I told her I would do the planting, but she likes to do it herself,” Linda Barlow, the McAllisters’ landscaper, told me later that day at the post office. “I think she’s lonely up there. I almost never see the husband.”
Linda knew I had sold them the house, and she seemed to imply that I had been derelict, somehow, in assuring the healthy acclimation of one of Wendover’s newest treasures—the McAllisters. The “wonderful McAllisters,” as Wendy Heatherton liked to call them. Wendy Heatherton and I had actually cobrokered the sale. I had the listing; Wendy, from Sotheby’s, had the wonderful McAllisters.
“It takes time,” I said to Linda.
“I guess,” she replied.
“Wendy Heatherton’s having a party for them next weekend. They’ll meet some nice people there.”
“Oh yeah, all the nice, fancy people.” Linda laughed. “You going?”
“I have to,” I said. I was flipping through my mail. It was mostly bills. Bills and junk.
“Is it hard going to parties for you? I mean … now?” Linda touched my wrist gently and softened her voice when she said this.
“What do you mean, ‘now’?” I shot back.
“Oh, nothing … Hildy,” she stammered.
“Well, good night, Linda,” I said, and turned so that she wouldn’t see how red my face had become. Imagine Linda Barlow worrying about whether it’s hard for me to go to parties. I hadn’t seen poor Linda at a party since we were in high school.
And the way she pitied Rebecca McAllister. Rebecca was married to one of the wealthiest men in New England, had two lovely children, and lived on an estate that had once belonged to Judge Raymond Barlow—Linda’s own grandfather. Linda had grown up playing at that big old house, with those gorgeous views of the harbor and the islands, but, you know, the family money had run out, the property had exchanged hands a few times, and now Linda lived in an apartment above the pharmacy in Wendover Crossing. Rebecca paid Linda to tend to some of the very same heirloom perennials—the luscious peonies, the fragrant tea rose, lilac, and honeysuckle bushes, and all the bright beds of lilies, daffodils, and irises—that her own grandmother had planted there over half a century ago.
So while it was laughable, really, that she might worry about me, it was positively absurd that she pitied Rebecca. I show homes to a lot of important people—politicians, doctors, lawyers, even the occasional celebrity—but the first time I saw Rebecca, the day I showed her the Barlow place, I have to admit, I was a little at a loss for words. A line from a poem that I had helped one of my daughters memorize for school, many years before, came to mind.
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones.
Rebecca was probably thirty or thirty-one at the time. I had Googled Brian McAllister before the showing and had expected to meet an older woman. People must think he’s her father is what I thought then, except for the fact that there was something very wise and understanding about her face, a sort of serenity in her expression that women don’t usually acquire until their kids are grown. Rebecca’s hair is dark, almost black, and that morning it had been pulled up into a messy ponytail with a colorful little scarf around it, but it was easy to see that when she let it down, it was quite long and wavy. She shook my hand and smiled at me. She’s one of those women who smiles mostly with her eyes, and her eyes appeared to be gray one minute, green the next. I guess it had to do with the light.
She was a little thin then, but her whole frame is tiny, and she wasn’t as gaunt as she later seemed. She was petite. She was beautiful. She moved in circles, and those circles moved, same poem, although I still don’t recall the name of the poet, but she was one of those effortlessly graceful women who make you feel like an ogress if you stand too close. I’m not fat, but I could lose a few. Wendy Heatherton is slim, but she’s had all sorts of liposuctioning and flesh tucking. I don’t know who the hell she thought she was kidding when she was carrying on about that gallbladder operation a few years back.
It’s a well-known fact that the McAllisters had sunk a fortune into the yearlong renovation of the old Barlow place. Brian McAllister, for those who don’t know, is one of the founders of R. E. Kerwin, one of the world’s largest hedge funds. He grew up in the bottom of a three-decker in South Boston, with four brothers and a sister, and had become a billionaire before he turned fifty. Had he married somebody else, he probably would have been living in a mansion in Wellesley or Weston with a full staff, but he had married Rebecca, who, having grown up with a staff, and distant parents, liked to do things herself.
How do I know so much about the McAllisters? It’s not just from their house. I know pretty much everything that happens in this town. One way or another, it gets back to me. I’m an old townie; the eighth-great-granddaughter of Sarah Good, one of the accused witches tried and hanged in Salem. My clients love it when I drop that into a conversation. That I descend from the witch called, so delightfully and ironically, Goodwife Good. (Yes, I always laugh with them, as if it had never occurred to me until they said it, Good ol’ Goody Good, ha-ha.) That and the fact that my family has been in Salem and here in nearby Wendover, Massachusetts, since the 1600s.
My husband, Scott, used to tell me that I’d have been hanged as a witch myself had I lived in another time. He meant it as a sort of compliment, believe it or not, and it’s true, I do rather fit the profile, especially now that I’m on the darker side of middle age. My first name is Hilda, which my children have always told me sounds like a witch’s name, but I’m called Hildy. I live alone; my daughters are grown and my husband is no longer my husband. I talk to animals. I guess that would have been a red flag. And some people think I have powers of intuition, psychic powers, which I don’t. I just know a few tricks. I have a certain type of knowledge when it comes to people and, like I said, I tend to know everybody’s business.
Well, I make it my business to know everybody’s business. I’m the top real-estate agent in a town whose main industries are antiques and real estate. It used to be shipbuilding and clams, but the last boatyard in Wendover closed down more than thirty years ago. Now, those of us who aren’t living off brand-new hedge-fund money are selling inflated waterfront properties to those who are. You can still clam here—the tidal marsh down by Getchell’s Cove is a good spot—but you can’t make your living off clams anymore. Even the clams at Clem’s Famous Fried Clams are poured into those dark vats of grease from freezer bags shipped down from Nova Scotia. No, the best way to make money up here now is through real estate: the selling, managing, improving, and maintaining of these priceless waterfront acres that used to be marshland and farms but that were recently described in Boston magazine as “the North Shore’s New Gold Coast.”
Brian McAllister happens to own Boston magazine. The day we met, after I showed him his future house, he pointed to a copy of it folded up on the seat next to me in the car and said, “Hey, that’s my magazine you got there, Hildy.”
“Really? Oh well, take it. My copy must be around here someplace.”
“No.” Brian laughed. “I own it. Boston mag. I’m the publisher. Bought it last year with a friend.”
You’re a wicked big deal, a real hotshot is what I thought. I hate rich people. Well, I’m doing all right myself these days, but I hate all the other rich people.
“It’s one of my favorite magazines,” I said.
I was showing him a two-million-dollar house, after all, a house that I knew his wife had already gutted and restored in her mind; had mentally painted and furnished and plumbed and wired and dramatically lit during the few short days since I had shown it to her.
“I bet we can give you a special advertising rate in the real-estate section, if you want,” Brian said.
“That would be great, Brian, thanks,” I said.
And I hated him a little bit less.