Ben H. Winters



Book I


“Hey, Al. Come look at this one.”

Susan Wendt studied the screen of her MacBook while her husband, Alex, paused the DVR and walked over to the kitchen table. He read the Craigslist ad over her shoulder and delivered a quick verdict: “Bull crap.” He cracked his knuckles and scootched behind her to get to the fridge. “It’s total bull crap, baby.”

“Hmm. Maybe.”

“Gotta be. You want?”

He held up a Brooklyn Lager by the neck and waggled it back and forth. Susan shook her head, scanning the Craigslist ad with a slight frown. Alex opened the beer and went to crouch beside her. “It’s one of those where the broker lures you in and then goes, ‘Oh that place? That place got taken yesterday! How about this one? Rent is joost a leeeeedle beeeet more expensive.…’ ” He slipped into a goofy gloss on the thick Brazilian accent of the most recent broker to take them on a wild-goose chase through half of south Brooklyn. Susan laughed.

“But wait,” she said, pointing at the screen again. “It’s not a broker. See? ‘For rent by owner.’ ”

Alex raised his eyebrows skeptically, took a swallow of the beer, and wandered back to the TV.

Their apartment search, now two and a half months old, had been her thing more than his all along. He felt that their current place, a one-bedroom-plus-office-nook off Union Square, was perfect. Or, if not perfect, then at least perfectly fine. And the idea of moving, the logistics and the packing and the various expenditures — it all made him want to tear his own head off. Or so he rather vividly expressed it.

“Plus,” Alex had argued, “I’m not sure this is the time to jack up our rent.”

Susan had been calm but insistent: it was time. It was time for Emma to have a proper bedroom, one that wasn’t a converted office nook; time for Susan to have a place to set up her easel and paints; time for Alex to have a real kitchen to cook his elaborate meals. “And rents are a heck of a lot lower than they used to be, especially in Brooklyn. Besides, Alex,” she had concluded, making a blatant appeal to his vanity, “you’re doing really well right now. Come on. We can just look, right?”

Alex had relented, and “just looking” rapidly escalated into a full-on search. Every evening that summer, after Emma had her bath and went to bed, while Alex settled in for his nightly dose of god-awful reality television, Susan trolled Craigslist and and the Times real estate section, entering rents and square footage and broker’s phone numbers on a master spreadsheet dotted with hyperlinks. On the weekends the family tromped from open house to open house, from Fort Greene to Boerum Hill, clutching cups of deli coffee and informational folders from Corcoran, pushing Emma in her bright-pink Maclaren stroller.

They’d found places they loved for way too much, places in their price range that they hated, and, for occasional variety, places they couldn’t afford and hated anyway. Last weekend they’d schlepped all the way to Red Hook, riding the F train to Smith and Ninth and then the B61 the rest of the way. The apartment they’d seen there, a converted artists’ loft on Van Brunt Street, was Susan’s favorite so far. It was footsteps from Fairway, cater- corner from a hipster bakery famous for its salted-caramel tarts, and featured a master bedroom with a thin slice of East River view.

But the apartment was forty-five minutes from the city, and with no utilities included it was just north of their budget.

“We really can’t push it on price,” Alex said, shaking his head. “Especially with you not working right now.”

Susan had smiled tightly, hiding her deep disappointment at his veto. She’d been increasingly and painfully aware, as the apartment search continued, that she had little leverage on the question of cost. It was true — she wasn’t working just then, a state of affairs Alex had totally supported, but it didn’t give her a lot of leeway on rent. She carefully transcribed the details of the “for rent by owner” Craigslist ad into the spreadsheet on her MacBook. They hadn’t even looked in Brooklyn Heights, because — well, what the hell for? No one was renting two-bedrooms in the Heights for under four thousand dollars a month, recession or not. No one except (Susan copied the name carefully from the ad) Andrea Scharfstein, who was offering the top two floors of her Cranberry Street brownstone: “1300 sq. ft., 2BR 2B, d/w, ample closets.” All for a startling $3,550.

“Thirty-five-fifty?” Alex snorted, fast-forwarding through a commercial break. “Bull crap, baby. Guaranteed.”

When Alex, Susan, and Emma arrived on Cranberry Street a little before their scheduled appointment at 10:30 the next morning, Andrea Scharfstein was waiting for them on the top step of her front stoop, reading the Sunday New York Times and sipping tea from a big yellow mug with the WNYC logo blazoned on the side. As they approached, their pink stroller bouncing over the uneven slate of the sidewalk, Andrea folded the newspaper and stood squinting down at them with her hands on hips: a thin and frail old woman with a big cloud of curly steel-gray hair, wearing a sixties-fabulous peach sundress, a gauzy taupe shawl, and big chunky bracelets on both wrists.

“Look at this! Right on time,” she said approvingly, glancing down at her watch. Susan unbuckled Emma and scooped her out so Alex could fold the Maclaren. “I like you people already.”

“Hi!” called Emma, climbing the tall steps with an exaggerated, marching stride, clinging to the banister. “I’m Emma.”

“Of course you are, dear! And a lovelier specimen of Emma I’ve never seen. Did you pick your name?”

“No!” Emma giggled. “My mama and dada picked it.”

“Good for them. My name is Andrea.”

Alex followed Emma, steadying her with a hand at the small of her back, while Susan lingered at the bottom, taking in the facade. The house at 56 Cranberry Street had steep concrete front steps, ascending from a little black wrought-iron gate to the oversized front door, which was painted in a rich and pleasing orangey red. Surrounding the stoop was a front garden, overgrown with azaleas, crab grass, and small flowering trees. The house itself was red brick, with wooden shutters framing neat lines of windows, three per floor. There were window boxes, growing what looked like herbs, in the windows of the first-floor apartment — Andrea’s apartment.

I bet it has pressed-tin ceilings, thought Susan, and then — suddenly, fiercely— I really want to live here. She teased herself as she caught up with Emma and Alex at the top of the steps.

Down, girl. You wanna see the inside first?

“You folks move quickly, I’ll give you that,” said Andrea Scharfstein, shaking their hands briskly. “You called maybe five minutes after I wrote that ad. Or what am I supposed to say? After I ‘posted’ it. Anyway, ten minutes, at the most.” Andrea’s hand in Susan’s was dry and papery. She spoke quickly, with a voice that was thin and the slightest bit gravelly, like she was on the verge of a cough. Beneath the bushy mass of hair, her face was a map of small lines and spots — from her face and body, which was slight and stooped, Susan would have put Andrea at seventy or older. But there was a sharpness and snap about her movements, a vigor that defied her physical appearance.

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