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Mrs. Can't-Fix-It's Maintenance Triumph

For a month every summer, we close up our Iowa home; load our van with clothing, my computer, and our two cats; and drive to Bellingham, Wash., where my husband's grown sons live. There, we rent a furnished apartment in a large, well-tended complex.

I love this hiatus from household mechanical muddles, carpentry conundrums, and plumbing problems. Lacking aptitude for home maintenance, I'm an apartment-dweller at heart. Conversely (and fortunately), my husband, Ken, is a home-owning handyman extraordinaire who actually feels adrift without his usual roster of repair projects. So during our month away, my Mr. Fix-It has fun helping his do-it-yourself sons with their home improvements.

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One morning this summer, Ken drove out to Mike's fixer-upper farmhouse to assist with a flooring project, leaving me to a long day of solitude.

Floor repairs were afoot at our apartment complex, too. The manager had notified us earlier that workers would be resurfacing our building's exterior walkways and stairwells. Access to our unit would be limited, the notice said. But having no comings or goings planned, I'd paid little heed.

However, at 11 a.m., when I opened the door of our third-floor unit to embark on a leisurely constitutional, I found a layer of fresh black goo covering our entryway. A faceless laborer called from somewhere below, "It's still sticky, but you can come out. Later, once it's painted, you'll have to wait."

No problem, I thought absently. The going seemed good, so I tiptoed across the tacky surface, then trotted down the stairs.

After jogging around the neighborhood for an hour, I returned to my building, where I was met outside by a young maintenance man.

"The sealant dried fast, so we painted your landing. You can't walk on it until about 5 p.m.," he said, adding, "You were notified, right?"

Sweaty and disheveled, I realized that, thanks to my earlier nonchalance, I was now stranded for the afternoon cashless and carless, nowhere to go and no way to get there. Had he been here, not even my handy spouse could fix the fix I was in.

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Then the maintenance man (whose work-shirt patch tagged him as Rich) asked, "Did you leave your balcony door open?"

I had, just a few inches, for the cats. Indeed, gazing upward, we could see their furry visages peering through the balcony railing.

Rich said, matter-of-factly, "I have a ladder in my truck."

As I considered the plan this implied, my old fear of heights surged anew. Yet a quick climb was all that stood between me and the rest of my day. My pragmatism (and pride) soon overruled my apprehension. I assented to the proposed ascent.

Rich paged his assistant, who promptly appeared toting a rattly extension ladder. Positioning it on the soft grass, Rich extended the ladder upward until its top rung clanged against my third-floor railing. Then he leaped two feet into the air to bat the ladder's mid-span clamps into place. After giving it a final hard rattle to verify its soundness, he turned and looked at me expectantly.

Eyeing the wobbly apparatus, I hesitated. A long moment passed. My feet seemed mired in invisible goo. Rich frowned. Then, his features softening, he offered to ascend ahead of me and steady the ladder from above as I climbed.

Great idea, I gushed, buying time. But quick as a cat burglar, Rich was up and over the railing, once more contemplating me skeptically, an unlikely Juliet to my reluctant Romeo. (The cats had long since retreated to the apartment's interior.)

"Come on, lady," he urged, adding with a smile, "Just don't fall. We've got other things to do today."

THERE was no turning back. I proceeded to climb, Rich's assistant holding the ladder more or less steady beneath me.

I quaked; the ladder wobbled; I continued, not daring to pause lest I freeze on a middle rung. When I reached the top, somewhat sooner than I cared to, I negotiated the railing clumsily but rapidly, anxiety nipping at my heels as I stepped gratefully onto terrace firma.

Heart thumping, knees trembling, I thanked Rich, who merely shrugged, then vaulted over the railing to descend the ladder in a single smooth slide. Collapsing it back to carrying dimensions, he and his desultory sidekick departed quickly, as if rescuing middle-aged damsels from domestic distress was all in a day's work.

Over dinner, I told Ken I had experienced the height of carefree apartment living that morning. I pointed out that while I'm not good at dry-walling, hammering, or plumbing, I'm highly skilled at maintaining my composure.

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