Round Robin Phinney is 230 pounds of bad attitude. She dishes out sandwiches and insults to the customers at Screaming Mimi’s deli. She takes a dim view of people in general and men in particular. A Chicago two-flat on the Near North Side is her sanctuary. She has an apartment upstairs. Downstairs, she’s created a private park, lushly landscaped, dotted with ponds and furnished with two Chicago Park District benches.
Manfred Welk is what Charles Atlas would have looked like if he’d been serious about lifting weights. A former Olympic powerlifter for East Germany, his ex-wife turned him in for spying. Brought to Chicago after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he needs a place to live.
When cold weather hits and Robin’s furnace goes out, the plants in her park start to die. Worse, she has no money for repairs — but she does have a small vacant apartment in her basement. Something she might swap for the services of a live-in handyman. After interviewing a number of prospective fix-it people, Robin finds, to her great horror, the best choice is a giant German with CIA connections. That’s bad enough, but the guy turns out to have a kid, a blue-haired prepubescent brat named Bianca who’s been raised in a brothel.
Robin, Manfred and Bianca all have their demons to cast out. You’ll have a grand time watching as they do.
62 5-star reviews on amazon.com, 6/23/13
"Great read! I really enjoyed this book, the story line and the characters. It's well written by someone who understands women well. I wish that I would regularly find books this good for the kindle. I look forward to more from this author."
"A romance with comedy and depth."
"A wonderfully poignant and humorous novel! I just finished reading Round Robin by author Joseph Flynn and felt so good inside that I knew I had to share this with other readers."
"What a wonderful, refreshing love story. I read this book in one day and thoroughly enjoyed it. There is so much meaning is this wonderful story, brought to life by characters which are introduced perfectly and developed well. A touching story, a humble story with a reasonable, happy ending."
On the night of November 9, 1989, Manfred Welk lay in his East Berlin Stasi prison cell singing The Police State Blues, a personal composition.
Lord, here I am in jail,
Yet another day,
These walls ‘n’ bars that hold me,
Ain’t never goin’ away.
Manfred sang in English, doing his best to twist his pretzel-thick German accent into a Mississippi Delta growl.
They put me here five years ago…
Sent me away for life,
All ‘cause of an evil woman,
That witch I called my wife.
Gave that woman ev’rything,
Ev’rything that money could buy,
And how the hell does she thank me?
She turns me in for bein’ a spy!
Manfred was accompanied on harmonica by his cellmate, Billy Tuxton, late of Manchester, England. Billy stood on his cot and looked out the cell window as he played. On the other side of the Wall, he could see the bright lights of West Berlin. Freedom, fraüleins, fornication and foaming beer, all but close enough to reach out and touch. And tonight it looked like the whole damn town was having a party. The sight made Billy’s heart break.
He wailed on his mouth harp as Manfred moved on to the next verse.
You know you can’t trust women,
They’ll always turn you out,
And, damn sure, stay away from mine,
‘Cause she’s one real sour Kraut!
Manfred smiled as Billy’s playing faltered momentarily. That last line always made the little Engländer laugh. Then both men revved it up for their big finale.
But one thing I got to tell you,
One thing I gotta say,
Won’t always sing
These police state blues,
I’ll get outta here some way…
If they lock me up forever,
I’ll live forever and a day,
Yeah, they can lock me up forever,
I’ll live forever and a day!
Manfred and Billy belted out a reprise, giving it their all.
This was invariably the point at which the guards banged on their door and shouted at them to shut the hell up — just to let them know how long forever really could be — but tonight there was no interruption. Confronted by the unexpected quiet, Manfred and Billy fell silent of their own accord. They looked at each other and then at the cell door ... waiting ... wondering.
Had the guards developed a taste for the blues? Would Manfred and Billy hear polite applause for their performance? Had the guards deserted their posts?
Not knowing what to expect, Billy glanced back out the window, and he started to tremble.
“Bloody hell, bloody hell!” he shouted. “Would you look at this?”
“What?” Manfred asked, bounding to his feet.
Billy turned a stunned face to his cellmate.
“The Wall ... it’s bleedin’ open!”
Manfred leaped up onto the cot next to Billy. He braced himself on the cell walls, his arms around Billy, so his great weight wouldn’t collapse the cot. The two of them watched as a huge throng of people flooded out of the East and into the West.
Where were the border police? Where were the dogs? Where was the gunfire?
Even more amazingly, people flocked the other way, too, heading to the East. As the groups merged, people embraced, danced, drank. By the hundreds, by the thousands. Right out in the street. In East Berlin. What would Marx and Lenin think?
Billy looked at Manfred, anxiously.
“Tell me you see it, too. That it isn’t some bloody hallucination.”
Manfred smiled and nodded. He draped one massive arm around the little Brit.
“It’s real, Billy ... the Wall’s open. We’ve outlasted the bastards. We’ve won. ”
Billy smiled back, hugged Manfred and then turned his gaze back to the window, tears running down his cheeks. Manfred took another look at the glorious spectacle, too. He was sure that he and Billy would be free soon.
He returned to his cot, lay down again and resumed singing.
Not the blues in English this time, but a lullaby in German.
As if there were a small child nearby.
Chicago, October, 1990
Round Robin Phinney presided over the main counter at Screaming Mimi’s Deli with a carving knife in one hand and a serving fork in the other. At five-eight and pushing two hundred and thirty pounds, Robin didn’t look like someone you messed with at the best of times, and especially not when she was holding sharp-edged steel. But at Screaming Mimi’s, everybody went after everybody. It was expected. It was how the place got its name.
In the thick of the lunch crowd, Tone Morello was going after Robin right now.
“You ever gonna get it through your fat head, what my name is?” Tone asked.
Robin gave him a brief look while continuing to carve paper-thin slices of rare roast beef with a precision a brain surgeon would envy.
“Now, Ant–knee, don’t be that way. Be nice. I might give you a little something extra.”
Robin batted her eyelashes and made a kissy face at Tone.
Tone stuck an index finger down his throat.
“You know what your problem is, Robin?” he said. “You’re terminally hard up. You couldn’t get a date if the dog–catchers’ convention came to town. ”
Tone had spent the better part of a week thinking that one up.
It got a chorus of oooohs and aaaahs and uh–ohs from the lunch crowd. They knew this was going to be a good one. Robin replied without bothering to look at Tone.
“Yeah, that’s my problem, all right. Yours is you’re thirty–seven years old and you still wear a training condom on little Peter. That’s your problem, Ant–Knee.”
Several of the male customers groaned in sympathy for Tone. The women hooted and howled. Which wasn’t music to Tone’s ears. He considered himself quite the ladies’ man.
Robin served Tone his sandwich with a smile.
He didn’t have time to think of a new line, so he fell back on a reliable old one.
“How would you know how big I am? You ain’t seen it, and you never will.”
“Don’t have to,” Robin said. “It’s those dainty little hands and feet of yours. They give you away.”
Tone was not a small guy at six–one and one eighty–five. He was darkly handsome, too, even if it did look like he had his hair done at Jiffy Lube. And he actually was a big hit with a lot of the ladies. But he did have unusually delicate hands and feet, and he was sensitive about them.
Robin knew it like she could read his mind.
She said with glee, “Small here, small there ... gotta be small everywhere.”
“It’s the nose that tells the size,” Tone said, hoping to salvage some pride.
Tone had an emphatic Roman nose.
“Well,” Robin conceded, “I have heard that you give good nose, Ant-knee.”
This time even the men joined in the laughter. It was too much for Tone to bear. It also brought him back to his original point.
Red faced and tight lipped, he said, “My name’s not Ant’ny, it’s not Anth-o-ny, it’s not even Tony. I’m Tone. Tone Morello. I had my name changed legal. You could look it up in the TV Guide, or wherever they keep the list of official names. Or you could just let it finally sink into that fat head a yours, you know.”
Tone wanted to deck her.
Except Robin still had an eight-inch knife in her mitt.
He knew she’d use it, too.
As it was, she slapped her forehead with her free hand and said, “Yeah, what a fathead I am. How could I forget a name like Tone Deaf? No, wait, that’s not it.” Robin made a show of thinking hard. “Tone Arm? Dial Tone? No, I know, it’s Tone Mo-ron-o ... Aw, heck, it’s just Ant-knee.”
Tone wasn’t as dumb as Robin made out. He knew when he’d had enough. He took his sandwich over to Mimi at the cash register and asked for a bag so he could have it to go.
Robin turned to the crowd of people still waiting to order lunch.
“All right,” she said, “who’s next?”
Screaming Mimi’s Deli, just west of North Michigan Avenue, just north of the Chicago River, occupying a long, narrow, street-level space at the corner of a building with landmark status, in the 38th year of a 99-year lease, served a purpose above and beyond offering highly spiced, fairly priced food to hordes of office workers, bicycle couriers, meter maids, retail clerks and cops. It gave everybody a chance to blow off steam. You could come into Mimi’s and say anything you wanted to anybody else who was there. At the top of your voice if you liked.
Patrons at Mimi’s were served by three counter people. Manny Tavares, an unrepentant ‘60s leftist, handled political arguments. Judy Kuykendahl held forth on women’s liberation and sexual polemics. Round Robin Phinney, at center stage, took on all comers. On any subject.
Each counter person could hand the customer his order over the top of the counter, or could step forward into nooks between the display cases, and plunk down the plate of food on a chest high shelf no more than a foot from the idiot he or she was shouting at. It was, however, considered bad form for any employee to spray saliva on the order. Unless the customer had done so first. These nooks were known as the in–your–face spaces.
In the interest of preventing actual mayhem and total anarchy, there were some house rules. Mimi posted them on the back of the cash register just inside the entrance. They were:
— Money talks, all else walks.
(Mimi didn’t believe in sharing her income with American Express, Visa or Mastercard. And don’t even think about personal checks. Hers was strictly a cash business.)
— No fighting: fists, food or otherwise.
(Altercations were limited to battles of wits; words were the weapon of choice.)
— No four-letter words, foreign or domestic.
(Mimi was a great fan of the late Bill Veeck, who had believed that common vulgarisms are a sure sign of a limited intellect and an even more stunted vocabulary.)
— No obscene gestures, especially Italian.
(Mimi called these “four-finger” words, even if you needed only one finger.)
— No Travis Bickle evil eyes.
(Mimi had seen “Taxi Driver” and had decided that anybody with a lunatic stare or who even said “You talking to me?” funny would get the heave-ho.)
— No producing offensive body odors.
(Only because a couple of clowns had made this rule necessary, going after one another with a series of noxious emissions and exhalations. Mimi had never imagined people could pass gas and belch at will. At a place where people ate, for God’s sake.)
— No ...
(The last rule was deliberately left incomplete to indicate Mimi’s freedom to impose further rules as she saw fit.)
All of these edicts were upheld by Mimi’s enforcer of the week, one of the cop regulars at the deli. The job rotated every Monday, with the cop getting free lunches for his trouble.
If you broke one of Mimi’s rules, you were gone for good. There were no appeals. She’d even put your name on her no-carryout list, so you couldn’t have your lunch delivered, either.
Within those limits, everyone and everything was fair game. Customers would jump on the deli staff. Employees would slash right back. Each group could and would do battle within its own ranks. Alliances between cliques of customers and staff formed in one instant and were betrayed the next. Demonstrations of quick, scalding wit were rewarded with laughter and applause. The slow, the dull, the meek and the weak were eaten alive. Which always made everyone else feel good as they headed back to work.
Mimi Greenblatt was the ringmaster.
Round Robin Phinney was the undisputed heavyweight champ.
This, of course, made Robin the target for every wise guy, young and old, who walked through the door. Her current opponent was David Solomonovich. At age 14, he was some kind of a genius. He spent his mornings at the University of Chicago and his afternoons at his father’s nearby lab doing some kind of consulting. He stopped into Mimi’s every day well after the lunch hour rush for a carryout sandwich. He said he timed his arrivals so he could go mano a mano with Robin and not face any distractions. The truth was, David was small for his age and tended to get stepped on in a crowd.
David kept bragging to Robin about what it was he studied and what kind of work he did, and she kept forgetting. Intentionally. Which drove David crazy. Robin knew this of course; it was her way of keeping an edge on him. David might be smarter than Einstein, but Robin was as wily as Machiavelli. It would be a while yet before he’d be a real challenge.
There was one problem David presented for Robin, however. In the time honored tradition of eccentric geniuses, he could behave erratically. As proof, he seemed to be developing a crush on Robin.
Today, he greeted her with, “Hey, Robin, how’s my main bad mama?”
“Your nanny letting you wander off campus again, David?” Robin asked. The neighborhood around the U. of C. was predominantly African-American. “Or are you watching Mod Squad reruns after school?”
“I work after school, as you very well know,” he said stiffly, his pride wounded, “and I’ve been self-sufficient since I was two.”
“Great, I’ll get you a plaque for your office. What’ll it be, kiddo?”
David looked at Robin slyly.
“I’d like some tongue.”
Robin shrugged and nonchalantly stuck hers out at him.
“You know that’s not what I meant,” David said, turning red.
Manny grinned at David’s discomfort; Judy gave a frown of feminist disapproval; Mimi laughed out loud. The deli owner thought David was precious. She often put a free cookie into his carryout bag. That drove David crazy, too. He glared at Mimi. She put a hand over her face, but kept laughing.
Robin decided to indulge in a rare display of mercy. After all, David was young, and he was brilliant. She didn’t want him to grow up and become a mad scientist or something.
“You want calf tongue, David?” she asked. “On rye? With the usual stuff on it? I have to think that’s what you were talking about. Not that a handsome young guy like you, someone with a lot of class, would use some slimy lounge lizard line on an old battle-axe like me.”
Robin was thirty-nine.
The boy looked at her and said, “You’re not so bad ... or so old.”
He meant it, too, Robin knew. He was paying her as sincere a compliment as his shaky young ego dared. That was what troubled her. She could handle all the hostility in the world without batting an eye. Simple affection, even when it came totally misplaced from a young boy, scared her.
“You want that sandwich, David?”
“Yeah,” he said. As she bent to work on it, he started to tell her about what he was doing these days at school and on the job.
Robin cut him off without bothering to look up. “Boring.”
“It is not. Superconductivity is utterly fascinating. Our new composite materials are getting closer to working at room temperature.”
“So’s the fish I’m thawing for dinner.”
“The work I’m doing is going to affect every facet of your life someday.”
“David, my life is boring, and so is your work.”
He continued to argue with Robin until Mimi reminded him of the time and sent him packing with a free cookie. Which he may have resented, but was smart enough to take.
“I think you’ve got a new young beau,” Mimi said to Robin.
“Great. As soon as I develop a taste for child molestation, I’ll whisk him off to my boudoir,” she replied.
The two women sat in Mimi’s office at the back of the kitchen. It was 2:30, the time at which the deli closed; it opened at 7:30. The staff started at 7:00, and cleanup lasted until 3:00. Mimi had decided long ago that eight hours a day were long enough for anyone to work. But she and Robin worked only seven and a half. They left the cleanup to the rest of the staff. After all, Mimi was the owner and Robin was buying her out.
The plan was that Robin would complete the purchase over the next two years, making the final payment when Mimi turned sixty-five and retired. Mimi finished tallying the day’s take. She banded and stacked the bills by denominations and put them in a bank deposit bag. She sealed the bag and put it on the floor next to her desk.
“Another good day,” she said. “Thank God people always get hungry.”
“Yeah,” Robin answered without enthusiasm.
“What?” Mimi asked. “You’re letting a little boy’s puppy love bother you?”
Robin rolled her eyes. “It’s not David. I can handle him like anyone else. It’s my house.”
“What about it?”
“Just about everything about it. I’ve got to go home and wait for a plumber because the garbage disposal’s all gummed up. It happened this morning just before I left for work, and I can just imagine what my kitchen’s going to smell like. Last week it was the plumber again when a pipe burst, and while the guy was down in the basement he said he wasn’t an expert but thought it looked like I should have my wiring checked.”
“I thought you had all that stuff done when you bought the place,” Mimi said.
“I had most of it done when I bought the place,” Robin corrected, “ and that was seventeen years ago. Two years after I started here.”
“It’s been that long that we’ve been together?”
“My, how time flies. I’ll be gone before you know it.”
It wasn’t clear to Robin whether Mimi meant retired or dead. She didn’t seem too happy about either prospect.
“The problem is,” Robin said, “if I keep having a lot of expenses with my building, I’m going to have to dip into the money I’m putting aside for the buyout.”
That returned Mimi’s focus to the present.
“Oh ... that’s not good.”
“Tell me about it. I might have to take a second job.”
That was definitely not good. Not for Mimi. She couldn’t have Robin, her star, working in somebody else’s deli. That would be like a gourmet place having its chef moonlight. No, that wouldn’t do at all. And it wasn’t like Robin could pick up some other kind of part-time job, not with her personality. Mimi didn’t see her selling shoes or doing telemarketing.
At the same time, Mimi was counting on having Robin buy her out, counting on the money. It would be a pain to find another buyer now, and she couldn’t see Robin working for a new owner. She really couldn’t see selling her deli to anyone but Robin, for that matter. There was a tradition to carry on.
“Don’t worry,” Mimi told Robin, “we’ll work something out.”
“Of course, we will,” came a male voice.
“You bet,” said another.
The second voice belonged to Sergeant Stanley Prozanski, the cop who escorted Mimi to the bank everyday to deposit her receipts. He was under strict shoot-to-kill orders in the event anyone ever tried to grab’s Mimi loot.
Though she’d never admit it, Mimi considered Stan her fella. He was due to retire soon, too, and everyone was sure that when the time came he and Mimi would go off somewhere warm together. Mimi patted her hair and smiled at Stan when she saw him.
Mimi’s hair was pink, an unusual shade to be sure, but it was even in tone and her roots never showed thanks to a weekly trip to the beauty parlor. She, herself, liked the color of her hair, saying it set off her emerald green, contact-lens-enhanced, eyes. Mimi believed in doing everything she could to look young. Everything that didn’t involve exercise, dieting or surgery. She believed greatly in the powers of cosmetics and clothing with a high elastic content. Her approach to youth pleased her. She said that in the right light she could pass for forty.
To which a wise-guy in the deli had once replied, “Yeah, the right light. A firefly at five hundred yards.”
The wise-guy had been banned within a week after Robin, having seen that Mimi actually had been hurt by the crack, had provoked the joker into calling her a woman’s least favorite four-letter name ... the one that rhymes with punt.
Stan had said that if he’d heard the guy make either slur he would have shot him. Robin privately doubted that, but Mimi didn’t. Stan’s lunch was always on the house.
The other man who’d entered the office was the only man in Robin’s life. The only man she truly loved, her father, Dan Phinney.
“Hi, Daddy,” she said.
And for the first time all day Robin smiled.
Robin knew it was ridiculous, but she couldn’t help it. Every time she saw her father she felt like a little girl again. She almost expected him to sweep her up into his arms and take her out for an ice cream cone. Robin also suspected that her father still saw her the way she was when she was a child. Happy and pretty and slim.
He had never spoken one critical word to her in his life. Even after her dark, shining hair had been chopped to a dull no-style style, her sparkling blue eyes had turned dark and cold, her long slender shape had been armored under eighty pounds of hard fat, her father’s love for her had remained constant, unquestioning and complete.
Robin felt she would die when her father did.
Which he recently almost had.
Which was why she couldn’t let him help her with her problem.
“I’m still pretty handy, you know,” Dan Phinney said as he drove his daughter home. “And I’m not an invalid.”
“You had a major heart attack, Daddy. Less than a year ago.”
“So does that mean I can’t do a little plumbing and wiring for my girl?”
Dan Phinney had been a building inspector for the City of Chicago. An honest one. He didn’t have to spend his retirement looking over his shoulder and worrying that some vengeful prosecutor might be about to indict him for past sins. In fact, he’d taken his job so seriously that he’d taught himself all of the building trades he’d once inspected. He both knew good work when he saw it and he could do it himself.
“Daddy, you know what the doctor said. You’re lucky to be alive.”
Dan turned to Robin and said, “Aren’t we all?”
Robin looked at her father. His question was more than rhetorical. Robin stifled a response with razor wire on it. She was a different person with her father.
She said, “Yes, Daddy, we are. But I’m still not going to let you crawl around my building, busting a gut and killing yourself.”
“I found that building for you, you know.”
“I know. I’ll always be grateful. And guilt won’t work, either.”
Dan Phinney laughed.
“Okay, okay, I give up. How about I just front you the money you need?”
“Why not? I’m going to leave most of what I have to you anyway.”
“Daddy, I want you to live long enough to spend every penny you have.”
Dan Phinney sighed and put a hand on his daughter’s leg.
“You mind if we pick up your sister before I drop you off? She needs a ride today, too.”
Robin said that was fine, and then she smiled wickedly.
“What?” her father asked, seeing Robin’s expression.
“I was just thinking. You want to help me? Persuade Nancy to come over and muck out my garbage disposal.”
Robin and her father both laughed at the idea.
Robin’s sister, Nancy Cassidy, was everything Robin was not. She was petite, blonde, married and the mother of two grown boys. She was three years older than Robin but looked five years younger. Unlike Mimi, Nancy’s formula for staying young consisted of granola, tofu, eight glasses of water and vigorous exercise daily. Not that Nancy didn’t help her natural hair color along with a few bottled highlights. But most of her good looks came from a fortunate gene pool and the fact that Nancy was in control of her life.
She did a pretty good job of controlling her husband, Charlie, and their two sons, Johnny and Michael, too. Charlie had been Nancy’s high school sweetheart, and the starting fullback on the football team. Unlike a lot of former teenage jocks, Charlie hadn’t gone to fat. Nancy had seen to that. Robin also thought Nancy had somehow made sure that Charlie had kept all his hair, too, without a strand of it going gray. At any rate, they were still a handsome couple, and Robin was sure they still had frequent sex.
Yet another difference with Nancy.
Robin and her father picked up Nancy at the real estate office where she worked part time with Patty Phinney, Robin and Nancy’s mother, and Dan’s estranged wife. Patty sold condos, lots of them. Nancy managed the office. Nancy’s job was supposed to be a full-time position, but she never needed more than four hours a day to do it. The abbreviated schedule was made possible by the fact that nobody would dare cross Nancy or compromise any of the efficiency measures she’d put in place.
Nancy slid easily into Dan’s car, a new Chevy Camaro that he’d treated himself to when he’d found out he was going to live. She was so trim that she could glide through the narrow opening and perch comfortably on the minuscule backseat without Robin having to scoot forward.
Nancy kissed her father’s cheek and squeezed her sister’s shoulder by way of greeting.
“How are you today, Dad?” Nancy asked, buckling her seatbelt.
“Peachy,” he said, entering traffic. “Your mother ready for a divorce yet?”
Dan and Patty Phinney had been separated for nineteen years.
“Just as soon as the pope okays it,” Nancy replied.
“You know, I think I’ve been pretty patient with your mother. I’ve let this separation thing go on almost as long as the time we lived under one roof. I think maybe it’s time for a change.”
Robin and Nancy glanced at each other.
“How come, Dad?” Nancy asked.
“Well, you know, a good-looking guy like me, driving a fancy car like this, I’ve been getting a lot of looks from the ladies. Come hither looks.”
“Daddy,” Robin said, “you’re not going to give all your money to some little gold-digger instead of me.”
Robin was twitting her sister who already knew that Dan Phinney intended to leave the bulk of his estate to Robin, and professed indifference. That didn’t mean, however, that she was going to let Robin’s jibe pass unchallenged.
“Maybe you’re right, Dad. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a girlfriend, or even a new wife. I’ll talk to my pastor about what you and Mom would need for an annulment.”
Robin’s face fell. She honestly didn’t care about her father’s money, even though she could have used it at the moment. She’d always felt it was important to make her own way in life ... but the idea of sharing her father’s attention with another woman made her heart constrict.
“Yeah, Dad,” Nancy continued, twisting the knife, “you could get back into circulation, and maybe you could find someone for Robin and double date.”
Robin stared death rays at her sister. She wanted to lash back, but she couldn’t. Not in front of her father. Not with his heart condition.
So she said, “You know, Nancy, it’s been a long time since you’ve dropped by Mimi’s. Why don’t you stop in for lunch tomorrow? On me.”
Robin’s smile would have chilled a Sicilian hitman.
But it didn’t make Nancy blink.
“Thanks, but I couldn’t. All that fatty meat, all those empty calories. Not for me, thanks.”
Oooh, Robin wanted to — well, what she’d like to do was sit on Nancy. Squish her like a bug. Leave nothing but hands and feet and Summer Blonde hair sticking out. Dan Phinney interrupted this pleasant thought.
“Actually, I am thinking of finding someone for Robin,” he said.
“What?” both daughters asked at once, shocked.
“Relax, honey,” he said to Robin. “I mean, I’m trying to think of someone who owes me a few favors who could help you with your building.”
“Oh,” both girls said. When she heard what the problem was, Nancy added, “I’ll just have Charlie stop by.”
Nancy’s husband was the half owner of a heating-and-cooling business, and was almost as handy around a house as Dan Phinney. Plus, he had a healthy heart since Nancy made him eat as sensibly as she did. On top of that, Charlie was an honestly nice guy who wouldn’t mind extending himself for his sister-in-law.
It made perfect sense to let Charlie help her, except Robin didn’t want to accept any help from Nancy. Especially after the crack she’d made about Daddy finding a girlfriend.
“Charlie’s got enough to do already,” Robin said. “You push him too hard as it is, Nancy.” There, she’d got her dig in, and from the way Nancy’s eyes had narrowed Robin could tell she’d hit a tender spot. Better yet, Dad hadn’t noticed or pretended he hadn’t.
“Have it your way,” Nancy said blandly, having given Robin all the satisfaction she intended to.
Dan Phinney pulled the car over to the curb in front of Robin’s Near North house.
“If you don’t want Charlie to help,” he said, “I’ll keep thinking to see if there’s someone I know.”
“Daddy, I’ve already got a plumber coming,” Robin said, stepping out of the car.
“Plumbers cost money. If I think of someone, he’ll work for free.”
While Robin tried to think of an objection, Nancy slid into the front seat and pulled the door closed. Her father waved goodbye and Nancy smirked.
Robin was left standing there, not knowing what Nancy might say to her father now that she had him alone. Not liking what might be coming her way. Whatever it was.
Robin’s building was a two-flat with a basement on tree-lined Menominee Street, not far from her work, not far from Lincoln Park, not far from Lake Michigan, smack in the middle of the gentrified, yuppified Near North Side. It sat on a lot-and-a-half. Two months earlier, while she’d been weeding the flower beds out front, a guy had pulled up to the curb in a two-seat Mercedes convertible, given the place the once over, asked her if she was the owner and then offered her $750,000 on the spot for the building.
She’d told him to suck on his dual exhaust.
He’d chuckled good-naturedly, gave her a little wave to show there were no hard feelings and idled off, rubbernecking. She’d heard him call out to a neighbor down the block, and got up from her weeding in time to see the neighbor invite the Mercedes man into his building. Now, the neighbor was gone and so was his house. The yuppie had bought it and torn it down to make way for a new vertical urban palace he was having built. Robin looked at the construction site and thought a neighborhood didn’t have to go downhill to change for the worse.
Nineteen years earlier, she’d paid exactly one-tenth of what the Mercedes man had offered for her building. Even then the area had been highly regarded, but yuppies had yet to come into their own and run amok on the real estate market, and the building had been sold at a tax-delinquency auction. The bidding hadn’t been terribly competitive because the previous owner had been as negligent in his maintenance as in his tax payments. Back then, Robin had let her father repair all of her home’s most egregious faults. In fact, she’d labored right along with him, as far as he’d let her, as far as willing hands and a strong back could compensate for a complete lack of mechanical skills.
What she couldn’t accomplish inside, she made up for outside. She’d had the dead tree out front cut down. Then she broke up and dug out the stump herself and planted a wonderful little dogwood that made her heart burst with joy when it blossomed each spring. She’d rented a roto-tiller, turned over the soil, planted seed and grown a lawn green enough to make the Irish sing. She’d put in perennial beds of black–eyed Susans, daisies, golden yarrow, delphiniums and coreopsis, all underplanted with early blooming bulbs. And as soon as she was sure the last frost had passed each April, she filled in the beds with a riot of colorful annuals.
After her father had brought the building’s life support systems back to working condition, she’d thanked him with all her heart and then absolutely refused to let him do a bit of the plain old scut work. By herself, Robin had chipped away old paint, peeled old wallpaper, pulled up old linoleum, scoured all the fixtures, scrubbed every square inch, and then repainted the place top-to-bottom.
Robin lived in the apartment on the second floor, and there was a small apartment space at the front of the basement, left over from the previous owner. On the first floor, Robin created her park.
The park was Robin’s retreat. Retreat from the world, from the past, from herself. She’d started by having every non-supporting wall on the first floor knocked out. The resulting space was loft-like. Robin painted it bright white and refinished the hardwood floors from front to back. In the middle third of the floorspace, to the left as you looked at the rear of the building, Robin had a kidney-shaped piece of moss green carpeting laid. In counterpoint to this, she positioned two large plastic ovals and filled them with tan gravel. Directly in front of the living room windows she had a bi-level pond installed. The lower level was an aquarium; the upper level was a wishing-well into which she dropped a coin daily, collecting and donating the proceeds to charity quarterly.
After the “grass” and “soil” and “water” areas were laid out, Robin started buying potted plants and trees. She picked carefully, having done her homework. She wanted flora that would do well indoors, that would thrive without running wild, that would provide a lush, green screen against the outside world. She planted tubs of hardy dracaena, rubber trees, jade plants and palms; she bought potted Norfolk Island Pines, ficus, schefflera, coffee plant, citrus, bamboo and Chinese evergreen. She hung baskets of spider plants, trailing jasmine, grape ivy and philodendron. Adjacent to the pond she planted Baby’s Tears and English ivy. She nursed containers of New Guinea impatiens, begonias and hibiscus to bloom through the winter.
With the greening of her garden came the accoutrements. Grow lights, watering cans, pruning shears and two honest-to-God park benches bought surplus from the Chicago Park District. Robin spent at least an hour a day in her park and often quite longer. Sometimes she read. Other times she sat and thought. Not infrequently, she cried.
She wouldn’t sell her house for all the money in the world.
The problem was, it looked like she’d soon need more money than she had to keep it, and to keep it up.
Robin made $50,000 per year working for Mimi. Which sounded like a lot. Until you got done lopping off all the payroll deductions and health insurance costs. Her house payments were chickenfeed by now, but her property taxes were stupefying. And the premiums for her homeowner’s insurance were over the moon. When millionaires moved into the neighborhood the miserable cruds raised your cost of living. They drove up property values and real estate taxes soared. Everybody had to pay the added freight when a neighborhood turned chic. So Robin did. She was not going to lose her house by being late paying her taxes.
She lived simply, which didn’t bother her. She paid her bills each month and had just enough left over to make a payment to Mimi. Except now she was facing added expenses that she couldn’t afford and she wasn’t sure what she was going to do about it.
“Robin Phinney?” a man’s voice asked.
She snapped out of her reverie and saw a portly older guy in coveralls holding a toolbox. The plumber had arrived.
“Getting to be a real nip in the air, huh?”
Robin hadn’t consciously noticed how cold the fall day had grown, but now that the guy had brought it up she realized she was shivering.
“What do you say we go inside and see what I can do for you and how much money you’re going to owe me?”
The plumber grinned.
That night the nine o’clock news on the TV in Robin’s bedroom told her that the city could be in for a hard frost by early morning and showed her half a dozen animated maps explaining just where the cold weather was coming from and how bad it would be. The weatherman seemed gleeful about the prospect of frigid air arriving not two weeks after the official end of summer. Robin killed his inane image with her remote control.
She got out of bed just long enough to turn the heat up to 76 degrees, warmer than she needed but comfortable for all her plants downstairs.
Having to get up for work at 5:30 a.m., Robin usually went to bed early. Tonight she’d barely done the dinner dishes before crawling under the covers. After the plumber had cleared the garbage disposal at a cost of $60, and had advised her either to get a new one at a cost of $249 or start throwing her food waste in the trash, she’d hit bottom, unable to see any solution to her money woes.
Now, facing an assault of cold weather on her morning trip to work, she turned out the lights at 9:35…
… And woke up shaking from the cold. Even under two wool blankets and a goose-down comforter. The sky outside her window was as black as the devil’s sense of humor. Three-thirty a.m. Robin slid her feet into her slippers and pulled her robe around her. She crossed the room and put her hand in front of the heat vent.
Cold air poured out. The fan was still on, but the furnace wasn’t.
Robin took stock of herself. No headache, no nausea, no blurred vision. So there probably wasn’t a gas leak. She was cold, but she was safe.
Then a thought hit her like a slap across the face. The park wasn’t safe. All of her plants — and maybe her fish — had to be dying!
Robin started to panic, not knowing how long she’d managed to sleep with the heat being off. Certainly, under the covers, she hadn’t felt the cold as immediately as everything downstairs would have. Through pure grit, she got a grip on herself.
She raced to her bedroom closet and pulled out a huge armload of clothes. She ran downstairs to the park. She turned on the lights and her heart sank. All of her plants were turning in on themselves, shrinking from the cold. Robin threw the pile of clothes on the nearest bench. One by one, she started dressing the plants in her garments. Trying to provide them with warmth.
Praying she could save them.
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