October 29, 2009

It's Exciting Driving the Getaway Car (Until You Get Caught)

It's been raining. And raining. Oh, and then on top of that rain we got some more rain. These are the times when you realize size is a relative thing. Some people think 3-5 inches is small and complain about it. But when it comes to rain it's not that small, especially when you get that much several times in a week.

I'm intrepid when it comes to my job. I'll drive through the mud. I'll walk over snakes, through spider webs. I've climbed down cliffs, up over boulders. I've walked into dark caves, meth houses, dank basements with standing water. I've driven in cars with people who turned out to be thieves, sex offenders and murder victims. (Okay, that last part I didn't know in advance and wouldn't have gone anywhere near them had I known.) I've driven in cars with people who wouldn't even speak much beyond a yes or no when asked. (The dark caves were less unsettling than those people.) I've utilized first aid advice. I've walked three miles to get to a house in the woods where my car wouldn't go. Sometimes I have to wear orange so people don't shoot me.

Country real estate is a daring adventure. Sometimes great, sometimes horrible, but almost always memorable.

Last week a client of mine drove in from way up north of here. He came in on one of the days it was raining. Not just drizzling, but the kind of rain that pummels you when you walk in it. The kind where you have to turn the wipers on high and hope nothing runs out in front of you or that the road doesn't twist in a way in which you least expect it.

He arrived smelling of wet dog. He'd been living out of his van for several days, he and Princess the golden retriever. He was raring to go and I was pleased to see that he was leaving Princess behind to rest because "the rain is freaking her out". I don't much care for dogs and I like wet dogs even less.

The first house we went to had a gate at the end of the driveway. In gentlemanly form, Mr. Granger hopped out of the car and opened the gate (with great difficulty and while standing in a puddle) and held it aside while I drove through. When he got back in the car he volleyed forth with a stream of obscenities about the horrible way the gate fastener was hooked up and how he'd just put on his last pair of dry shoes and now look at him. I sighed. I'm not keen on the potty mouth. However, I made some sympathetic noises and kept on driving.

We looked at several houses that day for many, many hours. The county in which I live is about 42 miles across at its broadest. So, that means if I'm showing property on both sides of the county I'm in the car with total strangers for a good deal of the day driving back and forth. You learn a lot about people during that time. Fortunately for me, Mr. Granger was a talker so I didn't have to do much to entertain him.

Talk turned to alcohol, although I can't for the life of me remember how we got on that subject. We live in a dry county and Mr. Granger seemed definitely dismayed when he learned that one cannot buy alcohol nearby. I told him it was only about 15 miles from my office to the liquor store. That revelation didn't seem to make him feel any better. Once he discovered the distance to alcohol he seemed to dwell on the fact that we had a serious lack of it.

At the second-to-last house we stomped around in the water all around the perimeter of this cabin and couldn't get inside. The keybox that was supposed to be there was not there and we settled on peering into the windows like naughty little children who have been forbidden to go inside. He heaved a big sigh.

"Will this rain never stop?"

I nodded. "This is not really typical weather for us. We've been getting a lot of rain lately."

"It's really starting to get to me. It's been raining ever since I left home."

As intrepid as I am, I hate showing real estate in the rain. It's not because I don't like getting wet and cold. It's not because I have to drive around with people who smell like wet dogs. It's simply because looking at houses in the rain makes people sad and sad people don't buy houses. They go home and pull the covers over their heads, don't answer the phone and watch a lot of daytime talk shows.

At the last house, we were able to get inside and we roamed through the half-empty weekend house of strangers. I was in one room and I heard him open the fridge.

"Hey, the fridge is stocked! They've got good beer, too!"

From the other room I cringe and say, "Really? How about that."

"Boy, I'd sure like a cold one right about now."

Trying to change the subject I yell back, "Hey, I found the back porch. This is really nice. You should see this."

The fridge door slams shut and Mr. Granger appears by my side. We stand at the porch railing looking out at the trees loaded with fall color. Moments later we walk back into the house. Mr. Granger is smacking his lips.

"I'm sure tempted to just leave a couple of bucks in the fridge for them and take a beer..."

I responded with a witty and effective, "Uhhh...."

"Then they'd probably be all mad because they'd think they were stocked up and then the beer would be gone."

"Yeah, that wouldn't be too good."

Eventually, to my relief, we were back in the car and weaving our way out of the hills through creek beds and over muddy dirt roads. We hit pavement and I drove as fast as the weather would allow.

About seven miles from town Mr. Granger yells, "WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?" I slammed the brakes on and started slowing down. "I know that's not a grapefruit tree, but that's the first thing I thought of when I saw it. What WAS that??"


"I bet that was a pear tree. If it was it was the biggest goddamn pear tree I've ever seen in my life. I just can't believe it!"

"Do you want me to go back?" I am a tour guide as well as a Realtor.

"If it's not any trouble, yes. I'd love to get a picture of that."

I said, "No problem at all," then swung around in a nearby driveway. I dropped him off at the pear tree with the most ginormous pieces of fruit you've ever seen in your life. I told Mr. Granger I would turn around and pick him up in a moment when I was headed in the right direction. He ambled off toward the tree, camera in hand.

I turned the car around then pulled up again next to the tree in time to see Mr. Granger loading his coat up with pears off the ground. I looked over at the house to see if anyone was looking out the window. I sat there for a moment doing the internal "why me" whine that I do when things don't go as smoothly as I like. Then I contemplated the pros and cons of having a big logo with my name and phone number on the side of my car. I mentally added "conspicuous while committing crimes" to the con side of the list.

After a final glance to see if anyone was coming out of the house with a shotgun I see Mr. Granger stand up and start running full speed toward my vehicle, his hands full of fruit. He gets to the door and yanks on the handle only to find the door locked. (My doors lock automatically when the car is in drive.) He looks alarmed and I had to stifle a laugh. I unlocked the door and managed to squeak out an "oh, sorry" without giggling nervously.

I slam on the gas and speed off away from the scene of Mr. Granger's fruit thievery and was thanking my lucky stars that at least he only took fruit off the ground and not from the tree. I ruminated a while about how that would play out in court for me. Would that be a lesser charge? Could I just get probation and maybe some community service?

I sighed and then heard Mr. Granger moan an ecstatic, "Mmmm ohhhh!" I nearly whipped the car onto the shoulder accidentally as I looked over to see what he was doing. One ginormous pear was at his mouth. His eyes were closed and he started chewing. "Mmm ummmm, this takes me back to my childhood! Wow, what memories."

Yeah, for you and me both, Mr. Granger. For you and me both.

October 19, 2009

Familiarity Breeds Contempt, Episode Three

You can call off the search and rescue teams, I'm still here. Thanks, Sproglet, for checking in on me. I have no particular excuses other than life in general has been keeping me from writing -- the writing that I love to do and would do all day long if I was master of my own time and space.

Today was my first day back at work in quite a few days. I've been sick and have had in-laws visiting. Since we are short-handed at work and Rob was out much of the week before I had moved to the front office where I could see the door. Now I'm in the habit of working here and my own desk is a mess and so here I sit.

The last few days Rob has been complaining that I'm no longer working in the same office he's in.  This is what we've done for the last 800 9 years for better or for worse. We like it in addition to it being a habit. We wear the habit like a nice pair of broken slippers, slippers that sometimes end up with an annoying rock inside it that has to be shaken out.

For example, a little bit of shaking has to occur when your husband accuses you of being "one of those embarrassing moms". Pshaw, yeah, seriously.  Me?  Surely not.

I like to crochet and knit. I will be the first to admit that sometimes crocheted things can be really cheesy if not done well. I know this first hand because when I was 8 or 9 years old I had a vest and matching hat made out of yarn and beer cans that my grandmother made for me. Being that young I thought they were really cool and wore them all the time. I had one of those mothers who apparently didn't care what her daughter was dressed in.  (Or worse, maybe she thought they were cool, too. Now that I think about it, that wouldn't surprise me.)

I recently ran across a tiny little crochet doo-dad that would make a really fun gift for Halloween. My brilliant idea was to make 20 or so of these for the kids in Julius's class. Because what kid doesn't want a crocheted fake candy corn, right? According to my husband, the answer to that rhetorical question is, "None of them."

And so right after I went skipping like an excited spring lamb into his office (which is usually OUR office) and asking him to check his email right away because I had something to show him, we had the following conversation.

Me: Go check your email right away. This is so cool.

Him: What is that?

Me: It's candy corn! Isn't it cute?

Him: Why are you sending this to me?

Me: Don't you read my email? I said at the top why I am sending it to you.

Him: You're standing right next to me.

Me: Okay, well anyway, I thought I'd make some of those for J's class for Halloween. What do you think?

Him: Um, no. If you want to be one of those really embarrassing moms, yeah.

Me: What do you mean?

Him: Crocheted candy corn? Nobody wants crocheted candy corn. Why don't you make them something really cool like the ghost?

Me: I don't want to make a ghost. I like the candy corn. It's cute. How can you not think this is cute?

Him: It's really easy. Look, I'm just trying to help you be one of the COOL moms. Do the ghost. Or the pumpkin. The candy corn is a triangle. The kids are going to say, "Why is this lady giving me a crocheted triangle?"

Me: It's not a triangle, it's candy corn.

Him: Kids are not nostalgic. They're six. Do the ghost. Or the pumpkin.
About 10 minutes later I walk past the door to the office and see him waving me in. He's got a funny look on his face. It turns out he has my mother on the speaker phone. He explains to her the situation and insists in a smug kind of way that she tell us her opinion. He does this because he is certain she will agree with him.

My mother, because of her religious convictions doesn't want me to do the ghost. I asked her, ghost aside, which is more cool, the pumpkin or the candy corn?

She says, "Honey, I'm afraid I have to agree with your husband. The pumpkin does sound cuter."

I said, "I knew you would agree with him. You two are just alike. That's why you don't get along, because you're just exactly alike."

Both of them were yukking it up mightily. Ironic since they never agree on anything unless it's to disagree with me. Mom mentioned it takes the two of them to gang up on me to keep me in line.

I said, "Well, fine then. Just remember the next time you two are fighting and want me to referee -- just remember I think you both deserve each other."

And now it's time for an opinion poll. Let me put you on the speaker phone with my mom and Rob. Here you go:

October 8, 2009

Against My Better Judgement I Drove On

After the Fleisingheimer Fiasco I went back to my office and sat working quietly and diligently trying to catch up on all the stuff I have to do now that it's just the two of us in the office. I frequently work with the lights off. I don't know why, it's just what I do. So I'm sitting in the dim light at my computer when the door bursts open and a large man with rolled up pants and rubber boots emerges into the foyer and turns to look at me.

I glance over the top of my monitor and raise my eyebrows at him and am about to greet him when he bellows, "Wanna go 4-wheelin???"

My first thought was, "Oh hell no." A 6'5" man wearing rubber boots who is at least halfway to 500 pounds and fills up my entire doorway blocking what little light is left coming into the room is not who I'm going to jump on the back of at ATV with, especially without a hello first.  Well, maybe if it were Brad Pitt.

My alarmed look said more than I really needed to say and he started laughing and said, "I'm Doyle."

Doyle turns out to be a fella I've been talking to on the phone for about three months. He has a whole heap of land to sell up on a nearby mountain. He's been promising to meet me up there for a look-see and we've just not been able to hook up. And there, suddenly he is, rubber boots and all.

He explains that he and the family are on the way up to the land and while he realizes it's short notice he thinks it would be awesome if we could meet up there today. We made the arrangements, I got directions and as he started to walk out the door he turned and said, "Oh, I almost forgot. There's a big mud hole up there in the road. It looks really bad, but it looks worse than it is.  I got stuck up there about a week ago but I made the mistake of slowing down. If you just keep driving and hit it steady and push on through you'll be okay." And with that he was out the door.

I called my husband to do a little marital negotiating. I explained to him how I didn't want to drive through a big mud hole based on what had happened the last time I drove through a mud hole on River Road. That time I eased into a giant puddle that was in a built-up railroad bed that had been converted to a road. What looked like a shallow puddle ended up turning into a bottomless pit of tire-sucking mud and only by the grace of God am I here to tell about it. Muddy water ended up over the top of my side mirrors, and this is no exaggeration. I was certain I would die there and that one day, thousands of years from now, students of archaeology would be theorizing about me and the subsequent extinction of mankind. They'd call me Lucy of the Arkansas Mud Pits and forensic artists would do a rendering of me for the Smithsonian.

We agreed to go up as a family after Julius got out of school. It would be a fun and fabulous time and give the boys a chance to get out into the woods and explore nature. Best of all I wouldn't have to drive.

About 15 minutes later I remembered I had a city council meeting that night and had to leave right away or I'd never make it back. I had to go solo.

One of the reasons I drive the behemoth vehicle that I drive is that I'm frequently called to negotiate some rough Ozark territory. After a $2200 repair on the last car we had due to hitting a rock because our clearance was too low on the Trailblazer, we decided our next vehicle would have the highest clearance possible and settled on a baby Hummer (H3). While I occasionally dabble in political correctness and green-living, I don't fool around when it comes to what I drive. Where I go is not where you want to get stranded with no cell service.

I send Doyle a text message telling him I was coming up early and to watch for me. I found all the little turn offs, many unmarked. I drove and drove and drove and finally the road narrowed down to a single-lane grassy track through the woods. I drove and drove some more and finally I made it to the mud hole.

This is when I realize the term "mud hole" is relative. A mud hole can be a little wet spot in the yard big enough for one kid to stomp his feet in. Or it can look like a giant tarpit that stretches the entire width of the road and extend for about four car lengths. If I was looking at the first one there wouldn't be a story to write here.

I idled in the road for a while looking at the pit before me. I heard Doyle's words echo in my mind, "If you just drive through and don't slow down you'll be okay." I step out of the car and walk to the pit to get a closer look. I can tell where the last vehicle made its path and since Doyle seems like he knows what he's talking about that seemed the most sensible way to go. The ruts were at least two feet deep.

I tried to call Rob to describe what I was looking at and to get some last minute advice. I have always considered driving in the mud to be a manly pursuit and an art form that one can perfect over time with the help of testosterone and some hard-coding in the male DNA. I have no interest in getting better at it and would prefer to let my husband do this bit of dirty work.

And yet there I was with no cell service. With the prospect of a juicy listing ahead of me, and against my better judgement and screaming intuition, I drove on. About a car length in I bogged down a bit and my tail end boogied back and forth and the car complained vehemently but finally I got to the other side. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath, sacrifice a goat to God and then kept on going. Doyle said there were three of these to maneuver through.

The second one was more manageable. I decided I was born for this and asked myself, "Who needs a guy when you're this much of a stud?"

The answer came moments later when I tried to traverse the third pit and got stuck. I spent a few minutes trying to get unstuck. There are two magic buttons on the dashboard that are supposed to be some kind of help when you're in a bad spot. However, I couldn't remember what the buttons do. They either slow the wheels down or speed them up or maybe they turn the wheels sideways and the vehicle turns into a hovercar. I'm not sure. Despite not knowing what they do I pressed them and tried again. The first one seemed to do nothing. The second one made a big grinding noise.

I took off my sandals and pulled on my massive steel-toed work boots with the neon pink bootlaces. Out the door I went with the car still running. Mosquitoes buzzed around my head. The car was into the mud about 1/2 of the way up the tire. The treads were completely filled with mud. I looked around for stuff to put under the tires. The place was remarkably free of stuff I could carry. I tossed one small log into the pit and it disappeared ineffectually. I went back to the car, which was still running, and pulled on the door handle which was locked. Because being stuck in 2 feet of mud, alone, with no cell signal is not nearly challenging enough. Fortunately, the back door was open, so my panic and bitterness was short-lived.

I got my useless phone, turned off the car and started walking toward where I knew Doyle would be. It wasn't far. Fifteen seconds later I heard what sounded like a lawnmower coming toward me and around the corner zipped what looked like a redneck golf cart filled with Doyle, his wife and five children. They raced into the mud, fishtailed through and shot out the other side coming right at me.

Doyle slamed on the brakes right in front of me. He grinned, "I'm a little disappointed in your car. I thought surely you could make it in that." I explained that perhaps a better driver could. I relayed the whole story to him including the part about the two mysterious buttons and he laughed heartily about that. He said, "I guess you better learn what those buttons do after this." He told me to get in and he'd give me the tour and then he'd help me get the car out of the mud. He said if nothing else the Polaris could pull me out. I doubted it sincerely as he slammed on the gas and we dove into the pit.

The Polaris has no windshield or sides. It has a rollbar which I clung to for dear life as we tipped at a 45 degree angle in the mud puddle. I was certain Doyle would dump me out the side. Over the screaming engine he yells, "I'm sorry if I spray you with mud. I'll try hard not to." I wanted to say, "Just try not to kill me and that will be just fine." (I didn't.)

I have to pause for a moment to tell you about the wonders of the Polaris. We drove through mud holes that came up to the bottom of the vehicle. We drove across creek beds, fallen trees, up near-vertical embankments, down gravity-defying mountain slopes. Not once did the Polaris fail to measure up. The only complaint I have at all was the lack of windshield. I had to wipe spiders, inchworms and a few other unidentifiable creepy-crawlies off me about every 6 feet. That part was maddening, but beyond that I was impressed and have now moved the unaffordable Polaris to the top of my wish list where it will sit until the day I die because I'm too busy paying for my children's college educations.

Doyle drove me all over the gazillion acres. Three adults and five children in one little all-terrain vehicle. I didn't think it was possible. We had a grand time, except for the snake I nearly stepped on and the one time Doyle drove all the way up to the edge of the creek embankment and I was certain he'd send us tumbling ass-over-teakettle into the canyon below.

Over hill and dale we made our way back to the awaiting, entrenched, bundle of disappointment I call my ride. I surmised to Doyle that he could probably get the vehicle out of the pit since I'm not a very good driver when it comes to mud. He managed to agree with me without making me feel too bad about it. It's good to know your strengths and weaknesses so that when you're faced with one and someone else agrees with you that it really is a weakness, you don't feel too bad about it. It saves wasting a lot of time feeling sorry for yourself.

I lurked in the woods out of way in case Doyle came sliding out of the mud pit toward me. I strategically placed a few trees in the way to avoid mishap. He slipped, he slid, he revved, he rocked, he rolled and in reverse he finally extracted my car from the pit. I applauded. My vehicle had redeemed itself. I had blamed it for my shortcomings and would have to make amends.

Doyle and family promised to follow me in the Polaris until I'd gotten through the other two mud pits. Again, number 2 was no match for even my pathetic skills. Back to the first one I made it through only halfway again and got stuck. I sat for a moment, stressed and angry. I growled at the steering wheel in frustration as if that would help. I glanced in the rear view mirror to see Doyle round the corner in the Polaris. He slowed down and stopped, waiting to see what I would do.

"I'll be damned if I'm gonna ask him to help me again when I know this car can get out of here." I recalled what I'd seen him do and put aside my fear that I'd break Rob's car if I pushed it too hard. I would not be defeated by 864 cubic feet of mud.

I drove forward, I rocked backward. Back and forth, forth and back. I could feel progress being made and then suddenly I shot forward straight for a tree. At the last moment I swerved and the car bunny-hopped out of the mud onto the grass. Diagonal, but out. I jumped out of the car and looked back at Doyle and his family sitting in the Polaris. I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled, "Sorry, but I have to do a victory dance now!" and proceeded to an embarrassing rendition of something that looks similar to the Bruins mascot victory dance.

I hopped back into the car and sped off for my meeting which I would barely make. The windows were down and as my heartbeat calmed to its normal pace I glanced around the car realizing it was full of splattered mud. As soon as I got into signal range I called home.

"I owe you five dollars, honey."

Suspicious, he asked what for.

"To wash the car. It's... a little muddy."

"I don't think so. You better just go wash it yourself. What did you do to my car??"

"Well, I got a little bit stuck, but it's okay, Doyle got me out."

Big pause. "Who's Doyle?"

I laughed. "That's a long story. I'll tell you when you get home."

I drove on, scratched my itchy ear and realized there was even mud there. Mud in my ear. Imagine!

October 2, 2009

I Didn't Think I Could Fit Both Feet Into My Mouth, and Yet There They Were

In my line of work I am frequently called to get into people's private financial affairs whether I want to or not. Some days I compare it to being a proctologist -- it can be interesting and fascinating, it's rewarding to be helpful, but some days it's also just a dark and uncomfortable place to be. But, you know, somebody's gotta do it.

So there I am sitting at Mr. and Mrs. Fleisingheimer's dining room table which looks a lot like my dining room table with its bits of paint and dried glue from the kids, except their dining room table was remarkably free of half-folded laundry.

Mr. and Mrs. F were perusing the docs laid out before them and there I was poised with my notary stamp ready to seal the deal for them. My stamp glinted in the sunlight streaming through the fabulous floor-to-ceiling windows.

Mrs. F broke the silence by saying, "My name isn't on this application." This small but astute observation sent us down a twisting and turning path through a forest of pointy brambles and spiderwebs across the face.

Mr. F's response was, "Don't worry about it because your name is on the mortgage."  Without going into a lot of personal details, I can just say that this was not the best answer. The best answer would have been, "Yes, dear." An equally good answer would have been, "How can we modify these documents to your satisfaction?" Another good response would have been, "Can I get you a martini, sweetheart?"

But, no, that's not really how it all went down and I sat there for 15 minutes unable to avoid witnessing an uncomfortable marital negotiation from my ringside seat. I stared at my glinting self-inking stamp and wished I had something to stamp. Or that I was someplace else.

After a lengthy phone call to various financial wizards it was determined there were reasons why Mrs. F wasn't on the loan application. All of the reasons were normal, nothing heinous or terrible, just the facts of financial life when one spouse makes most of the money. And in my job I am also frequently called to help educate people about financial matters related to credit, loans and home-buying and this tendency to advise and educate is also, apparently, my Achilles heel. At least that day.

I say to Mrs. F as we are about the resume signing paperwork, "Do you work?" I know when the words go out of my mouth that this was the wrong way to word the question to a stay-at-home-mom.

I was immensely relieved when she didn't go reactionary on me and set me straight about the definition of work. She simply glanced over at me and said, "No." I heaved a heavy internal sigh of relief.

Too soon, of course.  She set down her pen and looked over at me with pursed lips and said, "Of course I work. I work very hard."

Fully-prepared to engage in some frantic backpedaling, I apologized and said, "I should have worded that better. Of course you work. What I meant to say was, 'Do you have a quantifiable income other than the obvious value you provide your family by working inside the home?'"

She said, "No, I don't have a job that makes money."

Like a blind, nervous cow who can't see the quicksand in front of her, I plowed ahead knowing that surely soon I would be out of this mess and could get on with the business at hand. I thought it would help to lighten up with a little joking. I said, "Well, see now, you just need to allot Mrs. F an allowance for all that hard work she does."

Mr. F straightened up in his seat and squinted at me, saying, "What do you mean an allowance? She has control of all the money."

Mrs. F, if possible to look more irritated, looked more irritated and said, "We don't like that word 'allowance'."

"Mm. Well then, yeah. Okay."

We sat looking awkwardly at each other for about 5 seconds which seemed more like about 5 hours and then I shoved more papers at them to sign. Note to self: No more joking. Ever.

Finally we came to the end and surprisingly they were cordial, enthusiastically thanked me for my time and all those niceties you do when you're saying your goodbyes. Handshaking, small talk, smiling, offers to do more business in the future. A small miracle in the opinion of one who is frequently a big social bungler.

As I pulled out of the driveway, the gravel crunched beneath the tires of my vehicle. I stopped at the end of the drive and looked both ways up and down the highway. All clear. I turned east and headed back toward the office to see what other adventures I could get into. Little did I know one was coming just three hours in my future.