She’s here again, Sherry Dean, the realtor, said to herself, as she watched the woman step into the living room. Pressing her left palm flat on the dining room table, a careful fan of house flyers displayed next to her, Sherry lifted one finger and then the next to count the number of open houses she’d staged so far, realizing that she needed to continue with her left hand. Seven. This woman had come and toured the house during every single one.
Sherry watched out of the corner of her eye. The woman was too thin, with that emaciated look all the young women had now. Sherry understood that the thinness came from not eating enough and she wanted to tell these girls they looked awful, no matter what they thought. Of course, Sherry had her own issues with food, always on one diet or another. Not eating this or that, having heard that cutting out sugar or fat, carbohydrates or in-between-meal snacks, would rid her of those unwanted pounds like magic. Once in a while, Sherry lost a bit. She loved how that weightlessness felt, while admiring her new figure in the full-length mirror, as if she’d suddenly become a different person.
The woman seemed to take longer today. She hadn’t even left the living room. As happened during every other open house when this woman appeared, Sherry noticed she wasn’t young. Today the woman had her blond streaked hair pulled back into a ponytail. And that, along with the weight, made Sherry think that perhaps the woman was in denial about how old she’d become.
This was not the only time Sherry had tried to figure out the woman’s story. At first, she assumed the woman was like any other person who came to an open house, either a potential buyer or a neighbor curious about the value of her own house. There was, of course, one other type, those interested in seeing the inside of other people’s houses. Sherry liked to think of this group as the gawkers, or if the house was big enough, the jealous. Most of these people lived in the neighborhood, but others just had a love of houses.
The second time the woman showed up, Sherry saw it as a sign. The woman was considering buying. Sherry took this as a cue to talk with the woman a little more. Instead of staying put at the dining room table, waiting for questions to come, Sherry joined the woman in the kitchen.
“The owner has done a complete remodel,” Sherry said. She had noticed the woman running her hand across the shiny black granite counter. “Everything is brand new.”
“Yes,” the woman said, and gazed at Sherry. It surprised Sherry to see that the woman appeared to have been crying. Sherry had no idea what the emotion was about, but wanted to break the mood quickly.
“The range is dual fuel,” Sherry said. “Gas burners. Convection oven.”
Not content to leave it at that, Sherry twisted the knob on the front left-hand burner, as if she needed to prove the existence of gas.
That afternoon, Sherry returned to her seat at the dining room table and waited for the woman to come by and discuss an offer. But, suddenly, the woman was standing at the open front door. Without a word, she quietly slipped out.
Sherry chalked that up to another lost sale. She wasn’t sure why—the price seemed right, the house move-in ready. But selling had gotten so tough, since the bottom dropped out of the real estate market.
In a normal year, Sherry would not have staged more than one or maybe two open houses. A property like this, she thought, walking from the living room with its gleaming oak plank floors to the kitchen right out of House Beautiful to the charming little half-bath at the back, would have been snapped up at the start. Why, in the old days, the calls would have come in moments after the listing went up.
Sherry missed those days, the excitement every time she had a new house, watching the bids come in across the fax, each one higher than the one before. Numbers scrawled onto those crowded sales agreements made Sherry feel like a star. Those numbers said to her, You might be divorced and your kids gone, but you are a successful businesswoman.
She had read all the bestselling business books, sitting in bed with a yellow highlighter, coloring key passages she came back to again and again. She also studied what the other realtors did. That top Windermere agent scattered fresh flower arrangements around the house and the Coldwell Banker broker made a place look colorful and homey, with the use of carefully placed throws. It was all about helping a buyer picture herself in the house—and Sherry always tried appealing to the women because weren’t they the ones who decided? In the old days, Sherry’d had a real talent.
These days, no one seemed able to picture themselves in any of Sherry’s houses. The gimmicks just didn’t work. Prices came down. Each time Sherry had to paste up a PRICE REDUCED sticker on the sign out front, she felt like a failure. Wasn’t she the realtor who touted herself as an experienced listing agent that always got the price right? Hadn’t she lectured clients about the damage of pricing too high, and then having to put a PRICE REDUCED sign out front, a signal of damaged goods? Now, nearly every price was too high. No matter how hard she tried, Sherry couldn’t seem to get it right.
The third time the woman came to the house, Sherry decided she had to be some sort of plant. This might have come up because Sherry’d been watching so many Hollywood movies lately. The market had gotten so slow; she had found herself with way too much time on her hands. By now, she’d seen enough movies dotted with spies and the CIA to muddle her mind, confusing her about what was real and what was not.
By the afternoon, the woman came to her third open house. Sherry had no other explanation. This time, Sherry followed the woman around, not saying much, but simply observing.
When the woman climbed the stairs to the second floor, Sherry waited a moment and then followed. She found the woman standing in the master bedroom next to the queen-sized bed, facing the window. Sherry stayed out in the hall and saw that the woman never moved, but just stood there, as if she’d come to the open house simply to be in that space.
Sherry crept back to the end of the hall and stepped down the green-carpeted stairs. Not a plant, she thought, as she took her seat at the dining room table, praying that a real buyer would show up, make a decent offer, and she’d be done with the house and this unsettling woman.
In all her years selling houses—and this summer would be twenty-five—Sherry had never experienced such a thing. Oh, a few people asked to see a house more than once. They were always couples. And they came back in the same week and then made an offer or decided that the house, for one reason or another, wasn’t right.
Before each of the next three open houses, Sherry could still muster hope that the strange woman wouldn’t appear. That hope, however, was short-lived. Moments after she set the Open House sign next to the yard, unlocked the front door, spread brochures across the dining room table and sat down, the woman arrived. As much as Sherry wanted to believe she still could create a meaningful life, the woman stepping into this house, which refused to sell, was a reminder that the talents she’d relied on for years might no longer be enough.
On the woman’s seventh open house, Sherry finally made a decision. It was time; she said to herself, so emphatically that she feared she’d uttered the statement out loud. She had reduced the price three times, or as Sherry hated to admit, slashed. Yes, slashed. At nearly thirty percent off, the owners were practically giving the place away. And still no one wanted it. Perhaps this was a cursed house, and the devil had sent this woman to torment Sherry. Things just couldn’t get worse.
Sherry pushed her chair back from the dining room table and stood up. Even getting to her feet felt like an effort. Didn’t everything now?
Sherry had once loved open houses, taking pride in the staging and display, as if each house was one of her children. Now, she dreaded open houses, feeling as if she was on display. Naked, middle-aged and flabby. And no one wanted her. People came to look, and without a word, walked away.
In an hour, Sherry could fold the Open House sign in the parking strip, slide it into the trunk of her car, and gather up the smaller signs with the red arrows from the street corners. She needed to do something now. It was bad enough that after seven open houses, there hadn’t been one single serious offer. But to have this woman come to all seven open houses simply to look was more than Sherry felt she should have to handle.
Sherry knew she would find the woman in the master bedroom, so she crossed over to the living room and began to climb the stairs. Halfway up, she thought she heard someone crying.
She hesitated, trying to quiet her breath. The only other sound was the hum of the oversized, subzero stainless refrigerator.
Sherry climbed the rest of the way and crept into the master bedroom. The woman was standing a few feet from the window, looking out.
“It’s got a nice view there, don’t you think?” Sherry asked, and the woman flinched.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” Sherry said.
“Oh,” was all the woman said, and then she turned to look at Sherry.
Suddenly, the woman raised her right hand. She ran the back of her hand across her eyes. Sherry thought, yes, her eyes were red and swollen. She had been crying.
“Look,” Sherry said, surprised at herself, knowing she was about to say something totally out of character. “I’ve seen you here at every single one of my open houses. Are you really interested in this house?”
She didn’t wait for an answer before going on.
“You know, I’m not putting these open houses on for your enjoyment. Maybe you don’t have anything better to do with your life—and I’m sorry about that—but I’m here to make a living.”
And then Sherry shouted.
“I’m trying to sell this house. Don’t you understand?” she screamed. She could see now that the woman was trembling.
The air in the room seemed to throb. Sherry turned away from the woman and let her gaze fall out the sparkling clean window onto the lovely lawn. It occurred to Sherry that she’d never gone out there and walked the stone paths or sat down on one of the two wooden benches. At that moment, the sunlight was striking the crimson tea roses, making them look like tiny beating hearts.
She would, Sherry decided, tell the owners it was time to take the house off the market. Like her, the house had grown tired and needed a break. They could bring it out again the following spring, as if the house were new again.