My brother and his wife just bought their first house. It’s what real estate agents euphemistically call a fixer upper. The three bedroom Cape’s previous owner had been a heavy smoking cat lover. We discovered nicotine stains in the closets. And the smell of cat piss? Impregnated into the wood floor. But my brother, a Bob Vila fan since the early Eighties, always dreamed of transforming a distressed property into a showcase home. Me? I’ve always dreamed of being rich enough to have guys like Bob Vila pimp my crib. But my little brother’s the perfect guy to handle such a mammoth undertaking. He’s always been good with tools and fixing things. I don’t know which end of a hammer is up. My brother will slog through sweat, tears, and frustration to renovate a house. I’d be satisfied living in a condo and paying maintenance fees. We’re different that way.
Finally, after spending every spare moment scraping, painting, staining, shopping, worrying, and blowing through oodles of cash, my brother and his wife moved out of their old apartment and into their new home last week. I helped a little. My parents helped a lot. I was mostly there for beer and moral support. The day after the move my brother and I are sitting out in the backyard drinking Heineken’s. It’s an overgrown wilderness but trust me, it’s an improvement over the way it looked before. My brother’s landscaping ambitions involve gardens, a goldfish pond, and bonsai trees. But that’s all in the future. For now we content ourselves watching Pearl, my brother’s overgrown short haired pointer, dig holes in the ground.
“What happens if she, like, digs up a human skull?” I ask.
“A skull?” my brother replies. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Did you know the guy who owned the place before?” I ask. “He could’ve been a serial killer.”
“And buried the bodies in my backyard?”
“It’s been known to happen.”
“Methane probes weren’t part of the home inspection,” my brother says dryly.
“Do you remember when that couple was renovating their house and found a mummified corpse?” I ask.
“The guy who killed his pregnant mistress, stuffed her into an oil drum, and cemented the entire thing into the wall?”
“That’s the one.”
“I don’t think we’ll have that problem here.”
“Why are you being such an asshole?” my brother asks.
“Answer the question,” I say. “What would you do if a human skull turned up in your backyard?”
“I’d throw it in the garbage,” my brother replies.
“You wouldn’t call the cops?”
“And have them bulldoze my yard?”
“It’d be an improvement.”
“I guess you wouldn’t want FBI agents tearing up the floorboards looking for bodies. That might suck.”
“After all the work I did in there?” my brother exclaims. “It’d be like Waco before I let them touch the crown molding in my dining room.”
Suddenly I have a vision of my brother’s new house surrounded by legions of police. Helicopters thunder overhead, illuminating the house with powerful searchlights, as SWAT snipers rappel down and take up position.
“This is the police,” the police negotiator shouts through a bullhorn. “Come out with your hands up!”
“No way coppers!” my brother shouts back. “You’re not touching my crown molding!”
“C’mon kid,” the negotiator says soothingly. “It’s not your fault the previous owner was a serial killer. We just need to tear up the floors to look for human remains.”
“I just had the floors redone!”
“Sorry kid,” the negotiator says, “We’ve gotta do it.”
There’s an eerie calm – punctuated by the sound of rifle bolts being pulled back.
“I have demands,” my brother shouts.
The negotiator thinks for a minute. “OK kid. What are your demands?”
“I want Bob Vila to bring me a pizza!”
The negotiator confers with his colleagues. “OK kid. We’ll get Mr. Vila to bring you a pizza.”
“And I want the Home Depot opened up just for me!”
“OK,” the cop says grudgingly. “We’ll open it up just for you.”
“And I want a polite salesperson who knows what they’re doing!”
The cops look at each other in disbelief.
“Kid,” the negotiator shouts, “You’re asking the impossible!”
“That’s what I want copper!” my brother shouts. “Those are my demands!”
The negotiator looks at the SWAT commander sadly. “You better get the tear gas ready.”
“After all the work you’ve done,” I say, chuckling at the weird films that play in the cinema of my mind, “I wouldn’t want people ripping up my floors either.”
“Well it doesn’t matter if he was a serial killer or not,” my brother says, taking a pull from his beer, “The old man who sold us the house is dead.”
“What!” I yelp. “You closed less than a month ago!”
“He died a week after the closing.”
“If he died before the closing we wouldn’t have gotten the house,” my brother says softly.
A developer had made a bid my brother couldn’t afford to top. The developer wanted to tear down the house and build a McMansion. The old man, faced with a choice between money and helping two people make a fresh beginning, might’ve made the redemptive decision of his life.
“Wow,” I say. “I didn’t know that.”
I raise my bottle of Heineken. “Here’ s to the old man.”
“May he rest in peace,” my brother says. “Especially since I got the cat piss smell out of the dining room.”
“Dude,” I say. “You have a whole new problem now.”
“Your house is haunted.”
“The old man’s watching you!” I screech. “Don’t turn off the lights! This house is ours! This house is ours!”
“You really are an asshole sometimes,” my brother mutters.
“So what are you two boys talking about?” my sister-in-law yells from the kitchen window.
My brother and I look at each other. Our answers are simultaneous.