"Property Values" remains one of my favorite attempts at the fancy prose mode. It's a mode I associate with gay writers of a particular generation (Saki, Firbank, E. F. Benson) and PostModernists (say, Nabokov and Garcia Marquez) who appropriated its fun and frivolity to address all sorts of "difficult" material.
Click here for more excerpts from INTERESTING MONSTERS
featured as one of the best short story collections of the Fall 2001 book season by The Washington Post Book World
"This is experimental fiction meant for wide audiences -- very accessible and entertaining. It is also queer fiction that has grown up past adolescence; it's affectionate and funny, but reasonable."
-- City Pages (news and arts weekly of the Twin Cities in MN)
There wasn't anything short of a shantytown shack that Claudia Ferrier had not scouted as a property that could benefit from her skills as a realtor. That some of these dwellings had people still living in them who had no intention of relocating was another matter altogether. Such were her ambitions that, at a wake for an acquaintance's mother, she asked the bereaved if the departed's lovely four bedroom house was going to be up for sale.
In that booming year of 1988, Claudia operated out of Mireya, the medium-sized city that served as a hub to the west coast of Puerto Rico. Her mother rode shotgun as she drove around the nicer neighborhoods of the area, and around neighborhoods with major gentrification potential, often late into the night. They looked for For Sale and For Rent signs the way some people look for guavas in other people's backyards -- with stealth and no intention to be neighborly. Of course, she was all pulpy sweetness when she called the phone numbers posted on oak or mahogany doors, or on the steel grillwork that enclosed most self-respecting upper middle-class porches. And people always took her calls. This was how she came to represent other people's properties. Sometimes buyers contacted her before she had a suitable property available. She would do her field work and find them one.
Her wardrobe was never short of style or brand-name designers, for this hustling of buyer and seller, in a seller's market, made for more than a decent living. Especially since she charged a fee to both buyer and seller. Claudia Ferrier had not heard of any regulation of this practice in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and nobody had openly questioned her business methods. Before she swooped onto the scene, most people had handled real estate issues without a middleman. By the time she attempted to discourage Dean Rodriguez from acquiring a home, Claudia had gained a reputation among the cognoscenti of Mireya as a relatively harmless nuisance whose greed and malfeasance was tolerable. Harsher opinions saw her as the ambulance chaser of real estate agents.
The old - landed - gentry - turned - professional - money women's auxiliary -- the cognoscenti di tutti cognoscenti, really -- met for breakfast once a week. Three times a month, lavish breakfasts were held in the privacy of one of the social-club members' houses. Thick potato and onion omelettes, guava or mango jelly-filled confections dusted with the finest powdered sugar, crisp yet flaky pastry fingers filled with sweet cheese would accompany conversation whose intimacy and warmth belied the snobbery accorded to the group's members by the larger social whirl of the town. Gossip did pass between the ladies, of course, but it wasn't all frivolous. The group had a hand in all kinds of fund-raising for worthy causes, got involved in library drives and literacy campaigns, and took care of the housebound elderly and infirm who had no extended family to look after them. They played canasta with Spanish playing cards; they had an unspoken, ongoing "top-this!" competition involving breakfast comestibles. They wished their children to marry into one another's families, and always planned major social events around their core group. But they were, actually, very sweet and conscientious in a cautiously progressive way. They tried to better themselves and their town, and they were sincere.
Once a month, though, the breakfast club met in a restaurant or a coffee shop. Claudia, knowing that these people were the shapers of good taste and public opinion, desperately wanted to become a member of this elite. After all, the group included the wife of the town's most prestigious architect of luxurious houses and apartment buildings, the wife of the most reliable and well-liked appraiser of land value and property, the wife of the financier who approved most of the loans that went into the large-scale building of homes, besides the wives of doctors, lawyers and sundry professionals at the top of their fields, all of whom invested in real estate. A lot of business was done inside this group. Claudia wanted to be part of it. But she knew that a bald-faced request to be invited to the group would lack propriety. So, on Thursday mornings -- their usual meeting time -- she would check all the possible breakfast venues, hoping to casually pop in to say hi at the table, be invited to sit down, and stay in all morning. And then, pop in often enough to feel she had arrived and invite them to breakfast at her place the next week.
On this momentous morning, she finally found the group breakfasting at the coffee shop of the chichi department store in town, the place with the best teeny-tiny cupful of strong, bitter coffee.
"What a coincidence!" Claudia said, hovering over the table, to the few who looked up from the group to acknowledge her presence. "I was just coming over here for a quick bite to eat before showing a house to a very nice couple...and I find you all gathered here!"
"Well, it was just a matter of time," said Olivia, the wife of the reliable and well-liked appraiser. Claudia had had the opportunity to become acquainted with Olivia when her husband did a small appraisal job for her. "The world is a handkerchief, isn't it? How is your mother?"
"Fine, fine," Claudia said, still hovering, her hand suggestively holding onto the back of an unoccupied chair. "With her usual aches and pains. But she's such pleasant company, not a burden at all. She makes my life so much easier, truly. She really helps out with my business."
"Well, it's nice to hear your mother's doing well," Olivia said. "So nice of you to stop and say hello." Olivia smiled politely but not widely, and turned to speak to another member of the party.
Claudia hovered over the table, at last reaching the point where she could no longer bear the embarrassment of being ignored, when another voice rose up to her from the coop.
"Actually -- Claudia, isn't it ? -- maybe you could sit down for a bit and give me a little help with something."
Luisa, the doctor's wife... What an opportunity, what an opening! Claudia quickly swept to her side.
"How could I serve you?" Claudia asked.
"I've been looking for a house for my son, and I am at a loss as to how to help him."
"But you, you know so much about houses! Surely you don't need any help from an arriviste like myself!"
"Oh, but Dean is so fussy. He was a fussy eater as a child," Luisa said.
"Was he?" Claudia said. "Poor thing."
"You see, his tastes are...extravagant and specific, and I haven't been able to locate something he'd like. He's looking for a castle in the air, and I haven't been able to please him. And I'm going on a trip to Europe very shortly, and won't come back for two weeks or so, and Dean wants to move in before Christmas... Could he call you for help? He doesn't like stucco. Everything I've seen has stucco."
"Something must be wrong," Claudia said to her mother while driving around in the middle of the night. They were driving through San Sebastián, a small town to the northeast of Mireya, on their hunt for signage. "Luisa could not possibly need any help from me. Luisa, the wife of the head surgeon of, at last count, three hospitals in the county, is a canny investor. She must make as a landlord at least as much as her husband. And she's sold locations downtown to fast-food concerns, and owns parking lots and houses on the best locations in town."
"Who gave you this information?" asked her mother.
"Town records, registered deeds and such," she said. "It's all written down in paper, if you care to find it. Anyway, I just don't get it. What would she need me for? All the signs indicate that I'm being taken advantage of."
"Maybe she's doing you a favor, out of kindness."
"Hah! I don't need her noblesse oblige," Claudia said. "But at least she's giving me business -- "
"That's all that matters, doesn't it -- Stop!" her mother said. "I think I saw a sign."
They backed up.
The house had a few patches of faded paint which had once been a rather fetching kingfisher blue. A cement base held up a wooden structure, two floors high. The long, wide porch ran from the side of the house that opened to the side street and around a rounded corner to the side that faced the main thoroughfare of the town. The porch was framed by lovingly fluted columns and intricate, leaf-shaped lattice work, some of which had fallen sideways onto the floor. The front doors had wooden slats that opened and closed to let light and air in, and on the second floor the windows that faced the side street were made in a similar manner. The top story opened up to a small balcony above the porch. The roof was flat, like most roofs in the tropics, but the edges curved out slightly, embroidered with sinuous, florid arabesques, joining at the corner of the street to meet a horn of plenty that poured forbidden fruit.
There was no stucco on the house. No stucco whatsoever.
"What a trashy little house," Claudia said.
"Shall I write down the number?" her mother asked, pen and paper ready.
"No," she said. "Who'd want this? Only to tear it down. And who wants to live near the center of town anymore? To live near the transvestites who hang around the plaza at night? Forget it. This has no potential. Let's go near the mall, property values are higher there."
The next morning, she got a call from Dean, Luisa's son.
"Thank you so much for taking my call," Dean said. "I don't want to impose on you and on your friendship with my mother, but I need help finding a house for myself."
Claudia was properly flattered by the fact that he called her his mother's friend. All that worry for nothing! "I am here to serve you," she said. "Where are you calling from?"
"Upstate New York."
"Oh! Maybe you can help me improve my English. I've always wanted to be a polyglot. Shall we speak English?"
"Sure," Dean said, switching tongues.
"What an enchanting young man!"
"I'm not so young, Doña Claudia."
"Call me Claudia," she said. "Well, your mother tells me that you are looking for a home."
"Not just any home," Dean said. "I've driven Mom crazy. You see, I've made my living in antiques and collectibles, and I'm...retiring, so I want to keep some of the things I really like...and I can't just place all my things in a place that doesn't go with them. My mother sent me snapshots of these houses that, well...they're a bit too modern."
"Not exactly. I'd love a townhouse with a turn-of-the-century feel. You know, classy yet exuberant. Like...how do I explain it to you? You know, like an Aubrey Beardsley illustration."
"I am not familiar with her."
"Him," Dean said, "I guess. Anyway...you know Art Nouveau? Toulouse Lautrec?"
"Oh, yes! I can see it now. Art Nouveau. Very decorative."
"That's it. I want a house with that feel."
"That's going to be difficult."
"But oh so worth it...I don't know, I'm very picky with details."
"It's going to be difficult to find a propriety like that."
"It's the kind of property I'm looking for. Price is no object. But I am a little short of time, and I'd like to move down to the island as soon as possible."
"A townhouse, though? Maybe it is too large a place for one person."
"Don't worry, I'm going to share it with someone. We both need lots of space. And I expect to have lots of houseguests over from the States, and have my family stay over for weekends..."
"Ooh, a friend? You have someone living with you?" What a piece of gossip! She hadn't heard that Luisa's son was living with someone. Maybe a wedding was in the offing? Surely she would be invited now.
"Well...yeah. My partner...He used to restore houses on the side, so if the house needs a lot of work, not to worry. Mark likes a challenge."
"Partner?" That killed the wedding idea.
"Yeah. We met when I was buying pieces for a house, and he was restoring it. We've been...business partners and friends since. He's gone back to the music business -- he's a record producer -- but he still does a little rebuilding work here and there. Me, I just buy things, but he makes them."
"Maybe your friend can do some work for me...for some of my clients. You maybe have not heard, but the Luna section of Mireya is being redeveloped. You know, it was once a nice neighborhood...well, the latest is, the wealthy young, they take these old house and remake them to their taste. So now it's becoming a nice neighborhood again, though, for my taste, it is too close to the university..."
"Maybe you can find me something of that sort?" Dean asked.
"Let's see what I can do," she said. "Anything else you have in mind?"
"I want a nice big porch, and please, no stucco!"
The first thing that Claudia noticed when she saw Dean was how thin and sickly he looked. Then she saw how tenderly Dean and Mark argued about who would carry a small piece of luggage out of the baggage claim area. And she noticed how they touched, casually flaunting their desire for each other.
As she stood by the Plexiglas divider which separated the arriving from the receiving, she decided to pretend she was waiting for someone else. Dean had homosexual AIDS! And he brought his fornicator with him! She didn't know how to hide herself and wished she could make herself invisible. However, she forced herself to continue smiling and looked at a young couple who had arrived on the same flight as if they were the ones she was waiting for. She kept looking at them while the plot came to her in a flash: Luisa was giving her what she herself did not want to deal with. A homosexual son! Of course, no one would like to sell or buy from degenerates. That's why Luisa dropped him on her. She wouldn't look like she approved or abetted him; her reputation would be clean. But Claudia wasn't about to do Luisa a favor that would dirty her reputation. Look: Claudia sells houses to degenerates. Look: Claudia brings down property values. Look: Claudia brings the horses of the apocalypse to your neighborhood --
Claudia pretended not to hear.
"Excuse me, Doña Claudia?"
Claudia had never been put in such a situation. Yes, life had ugly things, but she thought she left them behind when she left South America.
"Doña Claudia, it's me, Dean."
"Call me Claudia," she said turning around, a wide toothy smile on her face.
Before her stood Dean, in a white long sleeved shirt, gray slacks, and wingtips. He held in the crook of his arm a winter jacket lined with the most amazing and unidentifiable fur. He looked as if a wind could lift him away. His friend Mark had the mien of yet another unremarkably cornstalk-tall American man: jeans, blue jersey shirt, Converse canvas shoes. And a ski jacket.
"It's me, Dean Rodriguez," he said, and he held a hand out in peace.
She shook it, practically trembling. She resisted the urge to wipe her hand in horror.
"This is Mark Piper," Dean said. Mark mumbled a hello and shook her hand coldly, keeping his scary grimace. "He's kinda shy," Dean whispered.
As if that mattered to her.
Now she faced the indignity of having to force herself to speak to the homosexuals while looking at them in the eye.
"Where did you get those shoes?" Claudia said.
"Schenectady," Mark said.
Claudia had had a few properties in mind before their arrival. She did not show them to the couple. While she shifted her comfy seat cover to the shotgun seat, with the pretense of making Dean comfortable -- she could burn the seat cover later and avoid contamination -- she wondered what to do. She would subtly discourage the dregs from buying anything by showing them dregs. But where would she take them? This question did not remain unanswered for long, for Claudia had a prodigious memory for properties. She recalled the house in San Sebastián. Genius! she thought. Who'd buy that filthy thing? Meanwhile, there was the matter of preparing them for a disappointment.
"Oh, it was so hard to find something to suit you!" Claudia said, practicing her English. "I am afraid that houses like the ones you like have been torn down."
"What a pity," Dean said. "I've always wanted to live in one. My grandmother had one. When I was five years old, she hired someone to wreck it and build a cement thing in its place."
"Funny how your mother couldn't find you one," she said. "She buys so many houses..."
"Yeah," Dean said. "My mother collects houses like I collect cookie jars. But well, my mother's tastes run to the conventional, and I just couldn't live in something like that."
"If you pardon me asking," she said, "why do you wish to move to the island?"
"Can I speak with you in the strictest confidence?"
"Not at problem," she said. Her curiosity was stronger than her distaste. Besides, this would be great currency in the gossip exchange.
"Well, I'm going to pass away, so I hope to spend my last few years in my native land. Mark here agreed to take a year or two off and move here with me....So it's a matter of finding the perfect place for me and all of my things."
"Oh, you are deadly sick?"
"Don't I look it?"
"Not at all! I just thought you were a vegetarian or something."
Mark, in the backseat, somehow found this awfully funny. Why, she was just being nice.
They drove by the main plaza of San Sebastián. It was a late Tuesday afternoon. Sadly, Claudia noted, there was no suggestion of the town loonies, drug addicts, drag queens and indigents that would congregate there at nightfall.
"Here we are," she said, with a slight sigh, as if this house was the best she could find. She stepped out of the car. Mark stepped out and opened the door for Dean. Now those two, Claudia thought with piercing irony, are perfect little gentlemen...
She stood in front of the house with absolute stillness and gravity, as if she were pondering a great injustice, noticing that the For Sale sign had fallen onto the floor of the porch. Mark and Dean soon joined her, looking at the house in silence.
A queer breeze flew through the shutters of the front door.
"It's perfect," Mark said.
What? She turned in shock to look at Mark smiling shyly, putting his arm around Dean.
"But...but...it is badly in need of disrepair!" she said.
"Mark likes a challenge," Dean said. "You should see what he did to our house in Ithaca. Shall we go in?"
Oh Sainted Mother, she did not have the keys. It wasn't even her house to represent. She did not know to whom the house belonged. Now her charade fell apart.
She made a show of looking through her purse. "My Lord, I forgot to bring the keys with me --"
"The door's open, I think," Mark said. "May we go in?"
"Ah, well, ah...why not?" Claudia smiled, rictus-like.
Mark and Dean climbed up the steps to the porch. With a slight push, Mark jostled the thin doors open. Inside, ceilings rose to great heights, wallpaper fell and folded over the floor, dust accumulated. Mark felt the walls and the beams of the house like a doctor palpating for unseemly bumps in glandular regions. Dean followed his own path into the house, going straight to the kitchen in the back. Claudia followed Dean, hoping to help him find something he didn't like. From the backyard there emanated the smell of guavas rotting on moist ground. In the bare and dirty cupboard, Dean found a ceramic cookie jar in the shape of a log cabin.
"An omen..." Dean said, inspecting the jar with an expert's eye. "You know they haven't made these in God knows how long. And this is in perfect shape. People just don't know what they're throwing away." He put the jar down, leaned on the countertop, and swept his eyes over the expanse of the kitchen.
"We'll take it," Dean said.
"I'll...I'll call you tomorrow to sign on the propriety," she said.
"Fabulous," Dean said. "Fabulous property."
"Property," she repeated. Fabulous, my foot.
Mark walked into the kitchen, an aw-gosh smile on his face, holding a player-piano roll in hand as if it were a treasure.
"Found this upstairs," Mark said, and showed it to Dean. "Does this mean something, or what?"
Claudia started a bonfire in her backyard with her mother's help, and threw the car-seat comforter, and the coffee cup she offered to Dean out of social obligation, into the flames. How could have she missed those signs? "Partner"? "Antiques"? "Upstate New York"? Dead giveaways. It could have not been clearer. And she was so desperate for a sale that she did not listen to her reason and patch those pieces of information together to figure out that he was a pervert. She couldn't shake off the feeling of being violated somehow, even after scrubbing herself raw with a brush, á la Karen Silkwood, to make sure there was no risk of contamination. Maybe all he wanted was to move back home to torture his family with shame. Yes, revenge, the revenge of the perverse; now that he was sick with the filth of his desires he was rubbing it in the face of his family, and making them watch him die slowly. No wonder his mother couldn't find him a home! And Claudia was caught in the web of that family's intrigue.
But no, she would not embroil herself in this. She would not lower herself to help those two find a home in her adopted country. Or would she? Could she could find a way of selling them the house, and let Luisa and her clan suffer the indignity? What would other people say! Look: what a bad mother, she had a homosexual child. Look: how her child pays her for not raising him well. Look: now she brings death and decay to our tropical paradise --
But at what cost! Claudia's reputation would look even worse. No, she would not bother to call the owners. She would call the next morning, saying the deal could not go through. Better yet, they had already accepted another offer. She would call them at the hotel where she'd dropped them off. The whole thing had so perturbed her that she had driven home with the fur-lined jacket on the backseat. She almost threw it in the fire with her things. But the fur, whose origin she couldn't place -- was it fox? sable? degenerate, for sure -- was too beautiful to throw into the purifying flames. She put on dishwashing gloves and stuffed it into the thickest plastic bag she could find. Maybe she would return it to Luisa as a sign that she washed -- scrubbed, really -- the whole dirty affair off her hands.
The next morning, Claudia called Dean with the terrible news.
"What a sad day!" she exhaled.
"So, are we closing the deal?" Dean asked.
"Ah, I am afraid that the people who own the house, well, they are already in negotiations to sell the house."
An odd silence occurred.
"Really." Dean sounded completely unconvinced.
"Yes," she said. "A fast food thing, you know, have been getting clearance to build there. And just yesterday they got a permit from town government."
Another, odder silence occurred.
"And there is nothing else available that I know of -- to your taste, of course..." she added. "Maybe you could return home, and I could call you when I find something..."
Last night's bonfire still smoldered in the backyard. The bag stuffed with the jacket lay in a cupboard in her laundry room, near and dear to bottles of bleach.
Dean took a deep breath on the other side of the phone. "Can I tell you a quick story, Miss Claudia? It just so happens that I called my mother as soon as I got to the hotel. I told her I was delighted with the house. She told me she knew the house, that a family her family was friends with not long ago owned the house, and that a bachelor uncle of theirs lived there until he died forty years ago. And that nobody had been able to sell the house since then, that someone had said the house was jinxed, or that it had a ghost or something. Now, Mom keeps contact with everyone she's ever met, and she told me to call her friends and say hi for her."
"Heh, the world is a handkerchief," Claudia mumbled.
"I phoned them up. They were delighted that someone wanted the house, and that it was someone that they knew personally. You see, I had dinner at their table and played with their kids when we were very young. They said they had fond memories of me. They said they would be, to use the Spanish term, encantados to have me over for dinner tonight and sign the papers."
"How -- ?"
"The thing is -- did I hallucinate this? Or are you lying? And if you are lying, let me tell you, I'm going to get the house no matter what."
Claudia was incensed that he should dare question her integrity. "The house is mine to sell, not for you to take from me!"
"By the way, I mentioned that you showed us the house, and they had absolutely no knowledge of your existence."
"It is not proper for you to go behind my back like this! The propriety is mine to sell!"
"Propriety is theft," Dean said.
Claudia heard the line go dead, and she was furious.
Claudia immediately called Olivia, the appraiser's wife, hoping to smear things up as much as she could with the high-grade dirt she had on Luisa's son. If she put Luisa in enough trouble, maybe she would be shamed into seclusion...and perhaps her place in the social order might need to be filled...
"Ay, Olivia," Claudia said. "I know something so terrible...so terrible...I cannot possibly keep it secret any longer. Oh, the shame..."
"What is it?"
"You know, the Rodriguezes' youngest son..."
"He calls himself Dean now."
"Well... He came over to do some business with me...and, well..."
"Dean is homosexual. And he is sick with AIDS! Can you imagine, Luisa letting her son have a lifestyle like that! How could a mother let a child do that to himself?"
Today was evidently the day for odd silences.
"You heard?" Claudia said.
"No, no...I hadn't heard," Olivia said.
"Terrible, isn't it."
"Very sad," Olivia said. "Everyone embarks on a sad journey."
"Speaking of journeys, we must go on a shopping trip to the capital. I found the quaintest shoe store in the old city center. It's adorable; it's no bigger than a living room but their stock is imported and exclusive to the shop."
"That sounds very interesting. But right now I'm all set for shoes."
"We wouldn't just buy shoes. There's much we can talk about. Share. How about tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow we're having breakfast at my place."
"Yes. We're organizing a fund-raiser, and we're going to have an expert come in to help us out. He's raised funds for this cause before, and he's well known in the community, so we're looking forward to breakfasting with him."
"Has...has a chair been decided for this committee?" Claudia asked, the intricate machinery in her head spinning, spinning plots.
"Why, would you like to run it?"
"My organizational skills, if I may say so, could be an asset to the group."
"Perhaps you should offer your help tomorrow?"
"It would be my great pleasure!"
"Fabulous," Olivia said. "I'm sure you'll fit right in..."
Within the idiom of casual daytime wear for the tropics, Claudia Ferrier dressed to impress at the breakfast. The outfit she wore cannot be fully described without naming a designer or two. It consisted of a blue-green silk blouse, the slacks that came along with it as a set, accessorized with a big dark blue belt with a silver buckle, matching shoes with not-too-high heels, silver-mounted aquamarine earrings and necklace (her emeralds would have been too flashy) and a tiny little handbag that hung and swung from her shoulder by a silver chainlet. Elegant yet colorful, composed yet casual, classy yet friendly, serious yet fun: why, the outfit stood for how she wanted to be seen. She showed up slightly late to make an entrance, and be noticed, and be introduced to everyone as the glittering new member of the family.
An entrance she sure did make. The room fell into silence as the group, one by one, turned to glare at her.
Dean sat on the center seat of the table, holding up a cheese pastry in the air, Mark leaning over and whispering into his ear.
How could she save this situation? Talk, quickly!
"Dean..." she said, running over to his side, "Dean...I am so sorry, you left your beautiful coat in my car..."
"And?" Dean asked.
"Ah...What brings you here?"
"I'm organizing an AIDS benefit. And you, what kind of mischief are you up to?"
Dean smiled, a wide, toothy smile. Mark looked at her like he was about to throttle her. Claudia look around to see that all eyes were upon her.
"Oh, you know Dean, how pleasant," said Olivia, from her corner of the table. "I'm so sorry Luisa is not here to see you as well."
Claudia kept trying to ingratiate herself with Dean. "Uh...Uh...What kind of animal fur is your coat?" asked Claudia.
"It's cretin," said Mark.
Claudia visibly amused herself with Mark's remark. "Oh, what a funny American -- "
"You have no power here," Dean said. "Begone, before a house falls on you too."
Claudia left the party soon after, bursting in tears and agony. What would she tell her mother?
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