The Steadfasts barged through the garage door as the familial octopus they’d become, arms and legs of varying sizes jostling to cross the threshold first.
“Gently, Blaine! Put it down gently,” Alexis bellowed after the seven year old victor who approached the kitchen counter at breakneck speed.
“Mom, Blaine pushed me,” five year old Daniella squealed, already back in hot pursuit of her brother.
The second bag landed with a satisfying crash mere seconds after the first. Alexis had long suspected that Jason insisted on paper for that very reason. She didn’t buy the environmental angle, not when the trip to and from the store was made in an Escalade.
“I won! I won,” the elder child trumpeted.
“Cheater,” his sister shrieked.
“What did I say about slamming groceries,” Alexis admonished. “And, Blaine, don’t push your sister.”
Jason propped the door open for her with his backside as he held two bags of his own.
She scooched past him with the sleeping Anne Marie in her arms. Already stocked up on groceries for the week, the colicky six month old was the ostensible reason for the redundant trip. It was the rhythm of the road they’d been after.
Tip-toeing past the carnage in the kitchen, careful to give wide berth to the flyers that were strewn all over the floor, Alexis disappeared into the deeper regions of the house.
“How many times do I have to tell you to leave the flyer stand on the coffee table,” Jason moaned, the door slamming shut behind him.
“Not that anyone’s taking them anyway,” he mumbled as he deposited his bags on the counter and began retrieving the forty nine scattered reams of high gloss photo paper. There had been fifty originally, but he’d taken one in to the office to hang on the bulletin board exactly twelve months ago to the day.
“Hey, hon,” he said as he finished up and followed her into the family room clutching one of the flyers. “I was thinking, maybe we could hold some kind of auction or something to increase the demand. Maybe raffle off tickets or …”
The thought died as he turned the corner to find a group of people seated around the sunken conversation pit at the base of the fireplace, staring at him with a tense mixture of anticipation and dread.
“Mom? Carl? What’s going on here,” he demanded.
“Hello, Jason. Please come have a seat. There’s something we’d like to discuss with you,” a stranger sitting slightly apart from the rest of the group invited, his incessant blinking exacerbated by an ill-fitting pair of bifocals. His bald head looked hot in the glow of the 1980’s vintage canned halogen lights.
“Not that I don’t appreciate the invitation to sit down in my own house, but I think I’d rather stand, thank you. What’s this all about, Gerry,” he asked, turning towards the well-groomed man in the grey slacks and pullover sitting closest to the de facto master of ceremonies.
“Just hear the man out, Jason,” Gerry answered.
“Hear him out about what? What is this?”
“This is just a group of your friends and family that cares about you, Jason. Very much,” the stranger responded.
“Oh my God. I’ve seen this on TV. This is an intervention, right,” he asked, panning each face as if he were polling the jury after a guilty verdict.
“If you want to stand on formalities, yes, this is an intervention. Really, though, it’s just a chance for those who care about you most to share their concerns and offer their support,” the stranger replied.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me. Is it about the coffee? I mean, I know I probably drink more than the next guy, but-”
“It’s not about the coffee, Jason,” his wife said from off to his left. He hadn’t seen her reenter the room.
“You’re in on this,” he asked in horror.
“I invited them, Jason.”
He stared at his wife with mouth agape, trying to wrap his mind around the scope of the betrayal.
“Judas,” he hissed.
“Your wife asked us here today because she loves you, Jason. No one is here to attack you. We are here to help. Now, are you willing to listen to what your friends have to say,” the stranger asked, his fleshy Adam’s apple bobbing beneath his double chin with each syllable.
“Not until someone tells me what this is all about,” he answered. “And where are the kids?”
“The kids are in good hands, Jason,” the stranger assured him.
The room fell into a pronounced moment of uncomfortable silence. The assembled guests looked back and forth at each other, willing one another to break the seal.
“It’s your price, Jason,” Gerry finally informed him to the room’s relief. “We are concerned about your list price.” He started to run a soft hand through his slick-backed, black hair before thinking better of it and smoothing the disturbed follicles back into place.
“What about my list price,” Jason challenged his Realtor, crossing his arms in defiance.
“It’s, um, well it’s … it’s high, Jason. It’s just too damn high,” Gerry spilled, punctuating his words with a year’s worth of frustration.
“Too high, huh? Like the Crawford’s place down the street was too high,” Jason countered.
“We’ve discussed this, Jason,” Gerry reminded him. “That comp is three years old.”
“I know what this house is worth. We just need the right buyer,” Jason said.
“No, Jason,” Gerry retorted. “You know what this house WAS worth. Lotta market fallout under the bridge since oh seven. Besides, that home was fully remodeled from the ground up. Yours … could stand a little work.” His eyes darted to the imitation crystal behemoth masquerading as a chandelier in the adjoining dining room.
“That’s not what you said when you took the listing, Gerry,” Jason accused. “I seem to remember you going on and on about our indoor-outdoor carpeting when you were trying to get my signature.”
Gerry hung his head in shame. The reflection in his brilliantly polished black shoes captured an enabler’s remorse.
“He’s a Realtor, Jay. What’d you expect,” the man sitting to Gerry’s right asked. “Look, there’s no excuse for him shining you on in the beginning like that, but he wanted the business. He’s trying to atone for it now.”
“I’d expect this from him,” Jason replied, jerking a thumb towards his despondent agent, “but not you, Carl. I mean, my own flesh and blood …”
“Come off it, Jay. I’ve been telling you all along that your price is stupid, but would you listen to your big brother? Nooooooooo.”
“What do you know about housing values, Carl? You’re in pharmaceutical sales, for crissakes!”
“Doesn’t take an economist to know your house isn’t worth a hundred grand more than you paid for it back in the boom years. Gerry showed me the last round of comps. It’s ugly, Jay.”
“You can’t stand to see your kid brother do better than you, can you, Gerry? It’s just like that time with the bike. I get a new ten-speed when you were still tooling around on a hand-me-down Schwinn, and you manage to accidentally crash it into the Flanders’ queen palm. How convenient.”
“Jesus, not the bike again. It was an accident!”
“Sure it was, Gerry,” Jason snipped. “Sure it was.”
His big brother shook his considerable head and looked to the couple on his immediate right to pick up the baton.
“Bruce? Maggie? What are you doing here,” Jason wondered, taking in their presence for the first time.
“The Maguires are here as concerned neighbors, Jason,” the ringleader interjected, his glowing dome now verging on spontaneous combustion.
The elderly couple eyed each other in evident discomfort, hoping the other would take the lead. Finally, Maggie spoke.
“It’s just that Bruce is getting ready to retire, Jason,” she began. “Now that the kids are gone, we’re thinking about putting the house up for sale in the spring. It’s more than we need, and we’d really like to do some traveling.”
Gerry perked up at that, reaching into his wallet for a business card.
“That’s great, but what does it have to do with me,” Jason asked.
“We’re worried about the effect your home is having on values,” Bruce answered. “You’ve been on the market so long that people are going to start wondering if there’s something wrong with the neighborhood.”
“That’s absurd,” Jason boomed. “You’re coming down on ME when everyone else on the block is just giving their homes away? You should be thanking me! The Smiths or the Gundersons are who you ought’a be talking to right now, not me.”
“I’ll admit that I was happy to see you give it a shot when you first went on the market,” the old-timer said, scratching a suspicious looking cluster of basal cells on the tip of his leathery nose. “Hadn’t seen a price like that in ages. I thought you were nuts, but figured you’d drop the price until you eventually found the market.”
“The market is where we’re priced, Bruce. These buyers and their agents are just too stupid to realize it. If they expect us to give them our house for what the short sale and foreclosure trash is going for, they’ve got another thing coming,” Jason argued.
“For a smart guy, you sure are dumb. The market is what a buyer is willing to pay you, son,” Bruce sighed. “Look, if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for us. We still have a little equity in our place, and we need every penny we can get out of it. Figure at least thirty percent for the down payment on the condo in Sun Lakes, another fifteen thousand or so for the medical bills that Medicare won’t cover and a few other expenses, and there isn’t much left. Every day you sit on the market at that ridiculous price, our golden years get a little less golden.”
Maggie removed a tube of ointment from her denim purse and passed it to her husband. Bruce smiled his thanks and applied a substantial dollop to his angry nose. The musty aroma of wet putty filled the room.
“Not to be rude, Bruce, but how is any of that my problem? I’m holding the line here so that all of us get the prices we deserve. I’m doing you a favor.”
Maggie patted her husband’s knee as Bruce shook his head.
“It’ll be alright, sweetheart. We’ll just have to wait another couple of years. I’ll ask Agnes about picking up that night shift at the diner.”
“And what about you, Mom,” Jason asked the diminutive figure to Maggie’s right. “You can’t be in on this. You just can’t.”
A single tear started the slow journey from her false eyelash to the point of her skeletal chin, leaving a contrail of mascara in its wake.
“Oh my, sweet, sweet boy,” she blubbered before breaking down into soul-rattling sobs. “How could I have let this happen to you?”
“Don’t cry, Mom,” he pleaded. “Please don’t cry.” His lower lip started quivering as Alexis walked over and put a reaffirming hand on his shoulder. He collapsed into her waiting arms.
“Let it out,” she cooed in his ear. “Let it all out.”
Jason did exactly that. He cried openly for the first time in his adult life, purging his body of the shame and frustration that gushed forth with his tears.
“I’m sorry,” he wailed. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Hands engulfed him as Jason suddenly found himself at the epicenter of a group hug.
“It’s okay,” one voice said. “We’re sorry, too,” said another.
“So what now,” Jason asked of no one in particular when the cluster loosened, all still dabbing at moist eyes.
“Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Stephan Crawford, of Crawford and Associates Appraisals,” the previously unidentified master of ceremonies revealed. “We have our top residential appraiser scheduled for ten AM tomorrow. It’s all arranged and paid for. All you have to do is be here to let him in.”
Jason blew out the breath he wasn’t aware he’d been holding.
“You mean tomorrow? But I’ve got an appointment in the morning, and-”
“It’s taken care of, Jason. We’ve cleared it with your boss,” Stephan assured him. “Isn’t that right, Henry?”
A dour looking man entered the room from the kids’ wing with Blaine and Daniella in tow. His black on black attire was at odds with the Little Mermaid tiara that sat atop his mussed silver hair. He had the desperate look of an aristocrat who had just spent the weekend in county lockup.
“Mr. Samuels,” Jason gaped.
“Hello, Jason,” the new arrival began. “You are not welcome at the firm until this situation has been … resolved.” He chewed on the last word as he removed the undignified adornment from his angular head.
“But, sir,” Jason protested. “The Mayfair file-”
“Will be waiting for you when you get back,” his cadaverous boss interrupted. “You’re not doing anybody any good right now. Craig Tallman will handle all of your files until you get your head screwed on right.”
“Tallman,” Jason snorted. “He couldn’t hang a jury with twelve feet of rope and a stepladder.”
“And neither can you in your present state,” the senior partner countered. “The billing errors, the first year lapses in judgment … need I mention the fiasco with the character witness in the McElroy case? Put your house in order so we can get you back to your winning ways. That’s an order.”
Jason nodded his resigned acceptance.
“Besides,” the humorless lawyer continued. “We took a vote at the latest meeting of partners that you managed to miss. One more mention of your house or your lousy agent-”
“Hey,” Gerry objected.
“-and we strap you to the one-way gurney ourselves,” Mr. Samuels concluded behind arched eyebrows. “Understood?”
“Understood, sir,” Jason confirmed. “I know how difficult this has been on all of you. I know I have a problem, and I’m ready to get help.”
“Anything you need, Jason,” Stephan offered on behalf of the group. “We’re here for you.”
“I know that, and I can’t tell you how much it means to me,” he acknowledged, taking a step towards the kitchen. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m parched. Can I get anyone a drink?”
Several requests for water followed him into the kitchen.
“Well, that went about as well as it could have,” Alexis suggested, hugging her children to her hips.
Stephan glanced at his watch.
“Five, four, three, two ..”
Heads turned sharply at the sound of a slamming door. Moments later, a massive engine springing to life preceded the squeal of tires as a vehicle careened down the driveway.
“Jason,” Alexis screamed, running after him.
“Let him go,” Stephan advised.
“What do you mean, let him go,” she demanded, stopping to stare at the weary appraiser.
“He’ll come back when he’s ready.”
“But he’s sick,” she protested. “He could hurt our equity!”
“Yes, he could,” the appraiser admitted. “But he has to make the choice voluntarily. All the comparable market analyses in the world won’t do a bit of good if he is not open to the possibility of change. Sometimes an FVA has to hit rock bottom before finding the strength to accept treatment.”
“FVA,” she asked.
“Former Value Addict.”
“And if he never comes around,” she posited.
“They always come around,” Stefan assured her.
“But if he doesn’t?”
“Then we move to phase two,” Stephan informed her.
“What’s phase two?”
“You don’t want to know,” he answered.
The appraiser removed a cell phone from the holster on his belt and made a call.
“Hi, Gloria, it’s Stephan,” he announced to the person on the other end. “I’m at the Steadfast residence.”
He took a deep breath and scanned the eager faces staring back at him before continuing.
“We’ve got a runner.”