We could hardly believe our ears. We weren’t going to be allowed to see one whole floor of a house we were on the brink of buying.
Michael spoke up. “What’s the story?”
Armando looked sheepish. “The owners don’t have the keys. You see, they rent it out to their son-in-law. Recently they had a small misunderstanding with him, and after the fight the son-in-law asked for their set of keys to his apartment. They haven’t been down there in weeks themselves. Frankly, they’re a little worried about what he’s up to.”
This didn’t sound encouraging. “So even if we buy the house with part of it unseen, there’s a chance the son-in-law might give us trouble when it comes time for him to move out.”
Armando looked at me as if I’d taken leave of my senses. “Absolutely not,” he said with a mixture of scorn and amusement.
“Their son-in-law is my brother. He would never stand in the way of my commission.”
“If he’s your brother, why can’t you ask him to show us the downstairs?”
“It’s a family matter. I don’t want to interfere.”
We tried to reason with Armando but he was immoveable. He obviously wanted to make the sale (which, as previously noted, set him apart from most of the other agents on the island), but he didn’t want to become embroiled in family politics.
“It’s very complicated,” he said over and over again, all but wringing his hands.
“I’m sure,” Michael agreed. “And so is buying a house you haven’t had a chance to inspect.”
Armando nodded glumly. He looked lost. Then a sudden light appeared in his eyes. “I have an idea. Why don’t we go down and look through the windows?”
As tempted as we were to refuse this wacky proposition, we agreed. What else could we do?
The windows were filthy, but it quickly became obvious that the interior was even filthier. By standing at various angles and craning our necks in all sorts of unnatural positions, we were able to discern a long, shot-gun living room, a falling-apart kitchen, two small bedrooms and a decrepit bath.
Everything appeared to be in the worst conceivable condition, as if someone had purposefully mistreated and distressed it. Clothes were strewn everywhere, the sink was piled a foot high with crusty dishes.
It made the set of Rent look like Shangri-La.
“My brother is not very neat,” Armando volunteered in a small voice.
“I guess not,” I replied, trying not to sound overly judgmental. Hey, I’m not my brother’s keeper either.
In a sense, the utter and complete decrepitude of the place made our decision easier. It was obvious that the whole floor would have to be gutted—not one single thing was salvageable, as far as we could tell.
Whether we got inside or not was purely academic now. In fact, I found myself quietly celebrating our good fortune in not having to traipse through the squalor.
“And the bottom floor?” I asked, steeling myself for yet another rebuff.
“Ah yes, I have the key.”
He led the way down yet another set of external stairs—none of the house’s three floors was connected internally at any juncture—onto a third arcaded walkway, lower and smaller than the two above but still boasting a crisp, serviceable view down to the water.
Three metal doors opened off this passageway, the two on either side opening onto a small, cell-like bedroom furnished, it would appear, by the same deranged decorator as the floor above. The middle door led to a truly nightmarish bathroom painted blood red.
A short, aimless stroll around the overgrown side yard revealed even more dispiriting news—this side of the house had never been properly finished and consisted of unpainted cinder blocks and exposed plumbing.
Michael’s face fell further still.
Disconsolately, we made our way back up to the top floor again, where Señor Tio and his nice wife were waiting patiently, their fried fish languishing stinkily on the counter.
“Muchas gracias,” I said, extending my hand to Señora Tio.
From nowhere a tall girl with dark, bushy hair appeared and positioned herself about three inches from my face. “Hola!” she screamed.
I had wondered earlier about the “challenged” daughter and decided she must be away. Guess again.
Startled as I was, I produced a smile. “Hola,” I replied. “Como estas?”
She stared at me for a moment, then emitted a long, braying laugh. “Funny man,” she said.
Michael took my elbow and steered me toward the door. Clearly he had had enough. “We’ll be in touch,” he said. “Buenas tardes.”
And we were off.