I considered the house finished. Michael didn’t.
And of course he was right. The whole side facing the garden—in other words, the side we never saw because we never went into the garden because it was such an unmitigated disaster—was unfinished.
And by unfinished I mean it consisted of a wall of unpainted cinderblocks adorned with exposed plumbing.
You might say I’ve always been a tad too focused on the obvious, the flashy, the decorative, to fully appreciate the importance of the underlying structure. And you’d be right. That was Michael’s department.
But once he pointed out the possible negative effects of leaving the house unfinished—creeping moisture, foundation deterioration, termite infestation…
…(yes, apparently Puerto Rican termites will munch their way even through unprotected concrete)—I was an instant convert.
How soon can we get it done? I asked, now gripped with a sense of impending doom. Come on, admit it—creeping moisture does sound pretty bad.
Michael looked philosophical and said we’d ask Jane to get some bids.
Within a month (lightning fast by Puerto Rican standards) we had three bids. One was staggeringly high, one suspiciously low. But the third seemed just about right.
We asked Jane to arrange a meeting with the contractor to coincide with our next visit. Before the meeting Jane sketched out a few ground rules. “Please, let’s just have one person speak for the group. Humberto doesn’t speak a word of English so he’s bringing along his cousin to translate. I’m afraid lots of chatter will just confuse him.”
She looked at me as she said this.
A guy could develop a complex.
“Fine,” I said.
“So Michael will do the talking?”
“Sure,” Michael said, not looking any too pleased by her bossy tone.
“And another thing,” she went on. “Whatever you do, don’t mention windows.”
We waited for the other shoe to drop. “Windows?”
“The windows on that side of the house. Humberto and I had a little disagreement about them the other day. He claims he can’t work around your old windows. He wants to sell you new ones.”
“I don’t think we can afford that right now.”
“That’s what I told him. But he’s pretty persistent—I’m sure his mark-up is hefty and he wants the extra cash—so he’ll probably bring them up again today. If he does, just ignore him.”
Fifteen minutes later Humberto arrived with two sidekicks in a truck so dilapidated the Beverly Hillbillies would have taken one look and decided to walk.
All three smiled a lot and nodded very energetically when spoken to. It was unclear if they understood one word but it was an impressive display of goodwill all the same.
At the conclusion of what felt like unnecessarily lengthy preliminaries, we wandered into the side yard and stared up at the three-story unfinished wall. It looked like a huge task to me, but Humberto’s cousin Roberto (the Translator) appeared unfazed.
“Easy job,” he said, flashing a mouthful of gold teeth in my direction.
“Really?” I asked. I could hardly believe he considered this job easy.
“Si,” he smiled again. “It’ll go just like that.” And here he snapped his fingers sharply to demonstrate his point.
We’d heard this before from contractors who ended up progressing at such a glacial pace that we forgot what the project was or who was doing it (or how much we’d promised to pay them) before it was finally completed, often by a second party dragged in by Jane at the last minute when the first guy simply disappeared or, in one lamentable case, went to prison.
In any case, it was an intriguing line of thought, but when I opened my mouth to continue our conversation Jane gave me a look that said, in no uncertain terms, to knock it off.