"They'll mow the lawn for you," he said, and we parted in a mood of mutual dejection.
In a slightly higher price range we found places that were nice enough on the outside, but never, never on the inside. We began to accept that, for another few months at least, we'd have to live in drastically reduced circumstances—if we passed muster, that is. There was a lengthy application process.
"We'll be contacting your previous landlord," they all promise, after showing us their crepuscular, paneled dwellings. "And if he says you're OK, we'll take it from there."
"Sounds good," I say, rather than, "Actually, we owned a house, a nice house—though before that, I'm very sorry to say, we did rent a place from a guy who d****d us out of our security deposit, and who I therefore called a big d***, in effect, so I doubt he'll give us much of a reference."
No, I didn't say that, nor did I mention my Guggenheim or the fact that my wife is the first person in the history of her prestigious doctoral program to win the Florence Shafer Memorial Award for Therapeutic Excellence two years in a row. Instead I stood there clammily shaking hands and composing a sh**-eating epistle in my head to our former landlord.
Roughly two weeks before this dark juncture, I'd gotten a very curious e-mail. It was about seven weeks old when I read it, having been sent to my old Excite account—the one I check every other month, sifting through herbal Viagra flyers, urgent messages from exiled cousins of Sani Abacha, and the like. My correspondent, one James Kennedy in California, had read my first Slate column and professed to enjoy it. He wanted to give me ("no strings attached") a new house in a subdivision he was building in Mandeville, across the lake from New Orleans: "This is not a gimmick, not a scam," he wrote. He explained that he'd been killed recently, then revived, and thus "forever changed": "I vowed to myself after that, that I would do as much as humanly possible to help my fellow man, and make myself a better person."
It sounded way too good to be true, and never mind its superhero-origin-story overtones. I replied thanking him for his "exceptional generosity," but added that we had no plans to move back to New Orleans or its environs—and besides, he'd probably changed his mind by now and moved on (like the rest of the world, I sighed subtextually) and for that we could scarcely blame him, etc.
"I still want you to have the house," he replied. "Keep it, sell it, trade it—it's yours." Attached to this e-mail were professional sketches of the houses he proposed to build in Mandeville, circa spring 2006. They were very nice. There was no orange concrete. "If you do decide to pass for whatever reason (i.e., 'Kennedy's a weirdo [so he knew],' 'I don't believe it,' 'It's a scam,' etc.), at least you'll have the pleasure of knowing that at one time during your life, someone did something to restore your faith in humanity, and God."
Throughout this whole ordeal, the kindness of family, friends, and total strangers has done a lot to restore my faith in humanity—hitherto a shaky business to be sure. (God, alas, is a goner.) And I began to suspect that Kennedy was at least sincere in his desire to help. Besides, I enjoyed corresponding with him: He had a lot of advice about what to expect from Chase Home Finance once we let them know that we didn't intend to spend 30 years paying off a mortgage on an abandoned house. When I mentioned our rental woes, Kennedy researched the local market and recommended a number of places out of our price range. He was happy to pay a year's worth of rent in advance, he said, which would enable us to keep paying our mortgage while we waited to see how, if at all, FEMA could help us.
We were still swooning over the prospect when I was e-mailed by another Slate reader. This one was a notable poet and critic who teaches at the University of Florida (and prefers not to be identified). He mentioned my Cheever biography and said he had a funny story to tell me about Cheever's time at the Iowa Writers' Workshop 30 years ago.
"By the way," he added, "I assume you're well set up with housing while you're forced to stay in Gainesville; but I'll mention that we are off to England for eight months in mid-December and our large Victorian house will be available at a reasonable rent. Nice yard, quiet neighborhood (the Duck Pond), lots of room. ... I'm terribly sorry for your losses."
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