by Jodi Hiser
Della took one last look at the bowl of fruit and china pitcher on her table, sitting back to survey her work with a scrutinizing eye. She cocked her head and crinkled her nose. Observing the whole canvas, she noticed that the soft strokes of white inside the painted pear looked more like a smear than a reflection of light. She sighed. She would start again.
She stood up to wash her paintbrushes. Someday she would have her own studio in her own home instead of a makeshift painting station set up in her apartment-sized kitchen. While she methodically cleaned the paint from her brushes at the sink, Jim walked in at the front door holding up a piece of paper.
“I did it, Della!” he said, holding the paper up for her to see.
Della grabbed a paper towel. “You did what?” she asked, drying her brushes.
“I bought us a house! Not our forever house exactly, but a fixer-upper,” he said.
“You did what?” asked Della.
“It’s just to help us with gaining the capital we need for our forever home, you know, to have the money to start building.”
Della closed her eyes and rubbed her head. “What do you mean, Jim? We’re going to move into a house in order to buy another house? That makes no sense!”
“Yes it does. And we’re not going to move in. Just renovate. Look here. The title shows it as a 1935 Craftsman-style home. The man at the auction said it was in need of great repair. That’s why it didn’t take much for us to buy it. I was able to pay cash! Our savings took care of it, and Della, with your artistic flare and my handyman business, we can turn this house into a gold mine!”
Della’s chest squeezed tightly and she made a mouse-like gasp. “You spent…our savings?!?” she squeaked. A dizziness fluttered into her head and she had to sit down. She looked up at a framed picture on her wall. It was her semester project in her last year of art school. A watercolored memory of her grandfather’s farm home, her dream home, with his famous rose bushes out front. With their savings, she and Jim had agreed to build an exact replica of that home, right down to the rose bushes. She had worked tirelessly at the art store, selling supplies and teaching classes. Jim had worked tirelessly in his handyman business, and for what? To save every penny for a…dump that was ‘in need of great repair’?
“I can’t believe you bought it without consulting me! Our dream, Jim! This is not part of the dream!”
Jim came over to Della’s chair and kneeled in front of her. “I need you to trust me. We’ll turn this house into a boat-load of money and get three times a return on our investment! It is a magnificent adventure. You’ll see. Trust me.”
That’s exactly what Jim always said before every impulsive thing he did in his life. Della had to admit that he was rarely wrong, and that his impulsive visions often worked out. But she was tired of hanging on by a thread while Jim swept her into one crazy adventure after another. Couldn’t they just settle down? Couldn’t he just have waited?
“You’ll see, Della. Tomorrow I’ll take you to go see this house. I had to buy it sight unseen, but it’s going to be worth it. You’ll see I’m right.”
The next day, Della packed a cooler of water bottles, snacks, and a lunch of sandwiches, potato chips and oranges. Della looked at Jim and sighed. “It’s a good thing I still love you. Because any other woman would have skipped town and asked for a divorce with this new adventure.”
Jim smiled at his wife. “And that’s why I married you. You know how to put up with me.”
“Barely,” said Della as she playfully jabbed him in the ribs on their way out the door.
As they exited the highway onto the narrow county road, Della noticed the seasons had begun to change without her being aware.
“The autumn leaves are so vibrant out here! I didn’t even realize the seasons had changed,” she said, looking out the window while Jim drove leisurely to the project house.
“That’s because you take the subway to that art shop, my Dear. You can’t notice the trees underground,” said Jim.
After an hour of driving, Jim pulled onto a gravel road dotted on either side with a collection of homes, each on a hefty parcel of land. Some homes were newish, others were older. Jim stopped and looked at a crooked street sign which read ‘Apple Ave.’ They turned down the forgotten road and drove all the way to the end of the street. The lot was an overgrown tangle of red and yellow trees, thorny bushes, and briers that looked to be as tall as Della. Jim got out of the car and rushed to the other side to open Della’s door.
“The house is down the dirt path this way,” he said, pointing to a small path with a sprinkle of rocks, a remnant of a driveway from long ago.
Grabbing her hand, Jim led her down the dirt path bordered by weeds and spear grasses. After about fifteen yards, the tangle of trees gave way into a small clearing with what looked to be a greenish lump in the middle, and a forest extending back beyond it.
Della looked at Jim. “Is that the house?” she squeaked. “It’s covered in vines, Jim!”
Della pointed to the large glump inside the clearing, completely shrouded in a greenish vine that glittered in the sun, and fluttered in the wind. The leaves looked as if they were mocking her, warning her to proceed at her own risk.
Jim consulted the papers he had brought along. “Well, they didn’t really say it had vines growing all over it,” he said. “It just says, ‘Lot overgrown. House in need of repair.’”
Della sighed and rubbed her head.
“The gal at the auction office told me that this house was built in 1935 by a couple from Vermont. And the wife was a homemaker. I know they had one son.”
“What happened to the son?” asked Della.
“Not sure,” said Jim. “Maybe we’ll learn the story when we work on the house.”
“I don’t know why you say WE Jim, because I’m not sure what any of this has to do with ME,” said Della. “I don’t know how to renovate a house!”
“Listen Babe, I know we can do this together. Just bear with me. I know plenty of jobs that your able-bodied hands and legs can do here. Now you want to go see inside?”
Della cautiously inched up onto a rickety front porch and moved forward through the curtain of vines, pushing away the veil of foliage to where she thought a door may be hidden.
“Looks like the door is here,” said Jim. “I have the key.” He produced a key dangling from a tag with the words: ‘Number Three Apple Avenue’.
Della shook her head and sighed again. To her, it may as well have said ‘Gullible Dupes Destined for Bankruptcy.’
Jim opened the door and stepped gingerly inside. The afternoon’s sunshine was dimmed by the veil of vines that hung outside. Freckles of sunlight beamed upon the floor through tiny openings around the windows. Jim used his cell phone to light up the room. Sprinkles of dust hovered in the light-beams, illuminating a dirty, run-down interior. Della could see a large great-room hemmed in with darkly-stained built-in bookshelves on two walls and an outdated kitchen at the back. A large window, tinted green from the curtains of leaves, looked out upon the jungle in the backyard. A staircase of steps ascended to their left.
“There are three rooms and two baths upstairs,” said Jim. “And a living room, kitchen, dining, and laundry area downstairs.”
“It’s going to be so much work,” said Della.
“It’s going to be great,” said Jim.
As the autumn leaves fell to the ground one by one, Della and Jim had created a new weekly rhythm. Every Saturday morning, they got up early, stopped for donuts and coffee, then headed over to the house project for the entire day. Every Saturday, Jim created a list of new jobs for Della.
Their first Saturday of working on the house involved the large production of removing the veil of vines that clung to the roof and sides of the home. Jim had watched several YouTube videos on how to permanently remove Kudzu vine, and the two of them set to work pulling it up by the roots and spreading weed killer all around the base of the house. When they had finally cleared the last leaf from the outside walls, Della stepped back to observe the shape of the home.
Crooked columns of wood sagged under the weight of a decaying front porch. In the center of the home was a wooden door, eaten by pests and covered in pollen and dust. Two windows were placed on either side of the door with broken panes of glass in each. Above her on the second story, a large gabled roof angled out with another broken window and missing pieces of wood framing.
Della closed her eyes and tried to imagine what Jim saw. She tried to share in his vision.
But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t see it. She shook her head and looked up to the sky. The quicker they got this project done, the quicker they could get their money and run. Della took a deep breath and joined Jim in the kitchen for the next project on the list.
She found him on the floor, ripping up the yellow-striped linoleum that must have been white when it was installed sometime around the eighties.
“Would you look at this, Della?” said Jim. “Hardwoods! They’re everywhere underneath this stuff! These floors alone are going to make this place sell for a pretty penny!” He hummed while he ripped, and Della held his tools while her husband happily destroyed the linoleum floors.
As winter crept in silently with days of early morning fog and afternoon chill, Jim had worked every spare hour he could on the plumbing, electrical wiring, and insulation. Many snags had slowed down their progress; pipes needed replacing, and some subfloors were rotted beyond repair. But Jim always saw the beauty and potential of the little project house. He sanded the wood floors and replaced the staircase. All new kitchen cabinets and countertops had been ordered. The downstairs was beginning to look like a real house to Della’s eyes, and not merely like a dilapidated treehouse in the woods.
One late November evening, after their day of work, Della and Jim sat cozily at their apartment table eating cheese and crackers, discussing the next week’s projects.
“I met the Apple Avenue neighbors today,” said Jim. “They said they’ve lived in their house for forty years, and the lot has always looked run-down. Apparently the couple who built the house in 1935 both passed away a few months apart in 1980. Their son inherited the home, but he worked as a businessman overseas, and never came to visit. The house had renters for a few years, and they made all kinds of changes, but after a while, no one wanted to rent it.”
“I can see why,” said Della. “With no landlord in town to keep it up, I can’t imagine it was very livable.”
“Right,” said Jim. “And when their son passed away just recently, he left the property to his kids, who just sold it at auction. To us.”
Della sighed. “Yes. To us,” she said with a frown. “When do you foresee we can sell it and move on with our boatload of money?”
It was Jim’s turn to frown. “You don’t love it?” he asked. “I thought it would have grown on you by now.”
Della looked at the watercolor painting of her grandfather’s house hanging on the wall of their apartment-sized kitchen. “No Jim. The plan has always been to build—that house, remember?” she said pointing to her picture. “We fix up the house, we sell it, and we move on, right?”
Jim pursed his lips. “Right.”
As November rolled into December, Jim took his portable radio with him to every room of the house as he worked on project Saturdays. Christmas carols blared throughout the house, along with Jim’s off-key voice singing at the top of his lungs. Clearly, handyman work was his joy. Della tried to help in places where she could, but lately, her mind wasn’t in the game. She was more tired than usual, and she just wanted to be in her apartment, under warm blankets. She missed binge-watching Netflix like they used to do on Saturday afternoons.
Christmas Day came with a dusting of snow in the morning and a blizzard by nightfall. It was one of the coldest Christmas Days on record. Thankfully, Della was able to convince Jim to take off one day of work from his business and from their house project to sit and be still in their apartment.
Jim looked at Della after breakfast. “I have a Christmas present for you, but I have to go get it. I’ve been hiding it in the closet.”
Completely taken off guard, Della watched Jim disappear.
“Close your eyes!” he said from the apartment’s hallway.
Della was extremely curious. What could he have gotten her that would need hiding in their closet? She closed her eyes, expecting something for their kitchen. Jim’s heart had always been through his stomach, and he loved getting her items to use in the kitchen for him. What would it be this year? A pasta machine? A bread maker? A new Instant Pot?
“You can open your eyes now, Della,” whispered Jim.
Right in front of her, standing in the living room, was a large six-foot wooden easel complete with a crank to move the wooden parts into different positions.
“Oh Jim,” said Della. “I’ve always wanted an easel for my paintings. Where did you…How did you…?”
Jim smiled from ear to ear. “I made it! I studied the pictures you brought home from the art store. I even added a crank system to move the parts in different directions!”
Della stood up and caressed the wood. It was far better than she had ever hoped to own. “Oh Jim, it’s absolutely beautiful.” She looked behind the easel and noticed a wrapped parcel taped to the backside. “What…what is this?”
Jim looked behind the easel. “Oh yeah! That’s the second part of the gift. Open it!”
Della removed the package from the frame of the easel and ripped open the colorful paper. Inside lay three antique brushes, made with ornate handles and real animal hair.
“I found those brushes in the shed out back of the project house. I think they belonged to the Old Man’s barber things! I thought you might want to use them for your painting!”
Della smiled at her sweet husband and held the brushes close to her heart. “Thank you…so much,” she said. “But where shall we keep the easel? The apartment is too small for it.”
“We can keep it at the project house for now. You know, until we sell it.”
Della nodded her head. “Yes. Until we sell it.”
Della peeled her eyes off of her present and blinked several times. “I have a present for you, too, Jim.” She walked over to the miniature Christmas bush that they had displayed on their coffee table and handed him a tiny box.
“Did you get me jewelry? Aww Honey, you shouldn’t have!” Jim joked as he opened the box. His eyes grew wide as he pulled out a single piece of paper. He froze.
“Is this….a…sonogram?” he asked.
Della smiled and nodded.
Della smiled and nodded.
“We’re gonna be a family!” Jim yelled and picked up his wife in a burly hug.
“We’re gonna be a family,” sang Della.
January and February brought icy weather and sub-zero temps. Thankfully, the fireplace inside the project house had been fixed, and Della and Jim continued to work every Saturday on their project home. Della’s job was to do what she did best: create a color scheme for the house and paint. She envisioned a slate blue color for the outside, with a white trim around the windows, and a red door in the center. For the inside, she chose a buttercream color for the walls, with different shades of blue in the living, kitchen, and upstairs.
As she taped her swatches to the newly sanded walls, she carried in her pocket a collection of emesis bags, or ‘puke bags’ as Jim called them. They were a gift from her midwife, after hearing she had to stop and throw up every few hours on the job site. At first, the vomiting was quite unsettling. But after a while, it became a new way of life. She looked at the teeny bump that proudly protruded over her belly and felt that it was worth it. And she wanted to keep working on the house project. The faster they got the house done, the faster they could get the money and start building their dream home.
Della’s paint order came in at the beginning of March. At the paint counter in the community hardware store, the paint specialist that gathered her cans was an elderly man who looked older than the faded paint splotches that decorated the store’s ancient wood floors. He looked at her overalls and painter’s cap.
“You must be doing a lot of painting,” he mumbled. “This here is a big order.”
“Yes, we‘re painting the whole house—inside and outside,” Della managed to say. “It’s a house renovation.”
“A house renovation, eh? Whereabouts?” he asked.
“Over on Apple Avenue,” she said. “It’s a little craftsman cottage, Number 3.”
“Number 3 eh? That was old Earl and Betty’s place,” he said.
Della looked up in surprise. “You knew them?” she asked.
“Yeah, I knew them. I was a kid then, though. I played ball with their son all the way through high school, until he went overseas to be a big-shot businessman,” he said.
Della couldn’t believe it. “What were they like?”
“Well,” said the paint man, “Old Earl could cut hair like nobody’s business. He learned those skills in the Coast Guard and then settled in Vermont after his active duty. He met Betty when he was on a trip to Manhattan. They married in Vermont, but they decided to settle here in upstate New York and start a family. They only had the one kid. I think something happened where she couldn’t have any more after a while. They were a sweet family.”
Della hugged the paint can to her chest. “What was Betty like? Do you remember much about her?” she asked.
“Well,” said the paint man. “She was known for the best vegetables in town. Had the best garden I’ve ever seen, out back of their house. And boy, did she love birds. Had places all over the house where she could watch them and observe them. She gave me my first pair of binoculars when we went bird-watching in their forest. She had birdhouses all over their property.”
“Birds and vegetables, huh?” said Della, loading up her paint cans on a dolly. Her mind was filled with all kinds of thoughts.
When Della drove up to the house that spring afternoon, Jim came out to help her unload the paint cans. “Let’s try a swatch on the back of the house to see if it’s what we want on the new siding,” said Jim. He gathered the blue cans to the back and painted a big square on the back of the house for Della to inspect. She walked back ten yards to see the big picture of the house. As she scrutinized the color in her imagination, she leaned one way and then another to gain perspective.
“I like it,” she said. She backed up a bit more in her meticulous manner and stepped on a rocky area that almost made her trip.
She looked down and noticed a painted rock at her toes. The paint was chipped and fading, but it had been painted purple. She swished through a few bramble bushes and pushed away a thicket of weeds and noticed a pink rock…and then a blue rock…and then an orange one.
She got down on her hands and knees, careful of her rounded belly, and began pulling out any weeds she could manage that didn’t have thorns. As she pulled, she noticed little green shoots poking up from the earth at evenly-spaced intervals. She cleared faster. “Jim!” she yelled. “Come help! I think I may have found something!”
With Jim’s help, the couple uprooted a jungle of weeds and overgrown vines to find four rectangles of garden space, bordered by a row of forth-coming tulips and scattered painted rocks here and there. They found remnants of a mint plant, a bush of rosemary, wild onions, and a lavender thicket. Behind the garden area lived trees that looked to be fruit trees, all covered in vines.
“Do you think they’ll produce fruit?” asked Della.
“Now that they can get sun, I don’t know why not,” said Jim.
Jim looked at Della. I have two things to show you in the house. “You up for climbing the stairs?” He patted her protruding belly.
“Sure,” said Della, not wanting to leave the peace of the newly found garden.
Jim led the way up the freshly carved oak staircase and onto the second floor. Three bedrooms scattered over this second level, two smaller rooms with a shared bathroom, and one master bedroom with its own lush and elegant bath. Jim had preached many times that the master bath was a big selling point and a huge money-maker. He had spent lots of time making sure the master bath was luxurious.
“As I was working on the space near our master closet, I noticed a false wall,” said Jim.
“A false wall?” said Della. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I imagine the renters closed it up because it was probably too warm in the summer with all the windows.”
“What do you mean? Windows? Where?”
Jim led Della beyond their bedroom, beyond their bathroom and closet space, through an opened doorway, up five small steps, and into a private oasis that had once been hidden from view.
“It’s a crow’s nest, Della!” sputtered Jim in all excitement. “Back in the day, I hear, craftsman homes had crow’s nests as design features. And this tiny room is at the top of our roof and the windows on each wall look out to the north, south, east, AND west! And look what I found on the floor! Binoculars!”
Della gasped. This must have been Betty’s special room; a place she went to watch nature and study the birds. She cocked her head and looked out the southern windows. She could see the clearing of the garden they had made. She wondered about Betty’s life, here, in this peaceful oasis, and she couldn’t help but think….about her easel, and new shelves of paint and supplies, and a sink in the corner, and a table for tools and working….
“Don’t you think so, Della?”asked Jim.
Jim had been talking all this time, and she hadn’t heard a word he had said.
“Hmm? What?” she asked.
“Don’t you think this could be a huge selling point for a prospective buyer?” asked Jim. “This could be a study, or a sunroom, or a reading nook, or…”
But Della wasn’t listening. She was looking out the windows, watching a bluebird swirl in the air, and following his pattern into the trees beyond the house.
“Hmm? Yes, Jim?”
“I have one more thing to show you. I discovered one more thing I really wanted you to see. I’m almost done with the house, and I wanted you to see it before we paint the upstairs walls and call this project done!” Jim grabbed Della’s hand and led her back into the main upstairs hallway, turning into one of the secondary bedrooms.
Jim proudly pointed to the outer wall of the small bedroom and lifted Della’s chin to look up towards the upper wall.
Towards the top of the outer wall, Della saw a circular stained glass window portraying a spectrum of colors with the picture of a rose inside the center.
“I uncovered it yesterday when I was redoing the drywall,” said Jim. “I think it must have leaked and the renters must have just covered it up. But I fixed the installation all around the window and took care of the cracks. It kind of reminds me of the rose bush you painted, you know—”
“My grandfather’s rose bushes,” Della whispered.
“Yeah, that’s it,” said Jim. “Anyway, I just thought you might want to see it before I tape it for our painting.
It was at that moment that Della knew. She knew the house that they had so painfully restored to sell was meant to be theirs. The forgotten garden, the uneven driveway, the art studio in the crow’s nest, the room with the rose—a room in which she could put a crib and a rocking chair—it was meant to be theirs. This was supposed to be their dream home.
“Jim, I’ve changed my mind,” said Della.
“Oh Della, I can’t afford different colors of paint. You assured me you liked the buttercream and blues. Babe, we gotta stick with it.”
“No, hon, not the paint. I changed my mind about the house. I think we belong here.”
Jim stopped and stared at his wife. He was speechless. Then a big grin came over his face.
“I thought you’d never figure it out,” he said.
He took his wife’s hand and held it while she stared at the stained-glass window.
“Thanks for giving me this gift of a home, Jim,” said Della.
Jim looked down and rubbed Della’s belly that looked as if she were carrying her own miniature planet underneath those overalls. “Thank you for carrying this gift of our family, Della.”
The two of them stared at the rose on the window and breathed a sigh of relief.
Late one afternoon, the August sunshine streamed in from the western windows of her crow’s nest studio. Della sat at her easel and watched the birds swooping in and out of their bird houses that Jim had placed around the property. Around her easel was her grandfather’s old work table, a treasure for sketching, a small sink that Jim had put in for her brushes, and two sets of open shelves where Della stored her paints, jars of brushes, sketching pencils and erasers. With windows on each of the four small walls, she didn’t have much space to hang things. But in one of the free spaces hung her watercolor rendition of her grandfather’s home with the rose bushes out front.
Della looked towards the back yard and saw her husband picking green beans from a trellis in their garden. Beside him, a plant hung heavily with cucumbers that were yet to be picked. Beyond that, the tomato plants reached high towards the sky, boasting beautiful Romas that begged to be eaten. She suddenly had an idea of what would be for dinner that night.
Her daughter lay in a small bassinet in the corner of the studio, sleeping soundly. Why can’t she sleep that soundly at night? Della wondered. Baby Rose was just three weeks old, and Della had felt like it was time to paint again. She had rested and healed long enough. She scooted her chair back to survey her work so far. She breathed a happy sigh of relief. As she looked at her painting, she noticed the reflection of light upon her creation was perfect. It showed the glow of the sun setting behind Number Three Apple Avenue. Their house. Their dream house.
Now all she had to do was hang it up next to her granddaddy’s picture.