IN SOUTHEASTERN NORTH DAKOTA — Imagine yourself in this state a couple of years back. It's October, and you're in a small-town bar in a county that's home to fewer than 2,000 people.
The sun has set, dinner is a memory, and among happy talkers in the only tavern in town are a few guys from Minnesota. Decked in camouflage, these are duck hunters, drawn here by the sloughs, potholes and small lakes that pockmark the area's otherwise flat, fertile soil.
A local guy, a farmer, is in the bar, too, talking to the Minnesotans, and he informs them that his 90-plus-year-old aunt has died and he's charged with selling her house.
"What do you want for it?'' one Minnesotan, Joe Unger, asks.
"The lawyer says I should get 10,'' the guy says. "But it's harvest time and I don't want to mess with it. If I could get something between 7 and 8, I'd consider it.''
A friend of Unger's, Jeff Shie — they grew up together near Rice and Maryland in St. Paul —is in the bar, too. The house-peddling farmer seems to Shie like a straight-shooter. But what kind of house costs $8,000?
"So Joe goes and takes a look at the house,'' Shie, 66, recalls, "and it's real nice. New paint. New roof. A little dated, sure. But nice. So Joe says, 'I'll take it.'
"Then he calls his wife back in the Twin Cities area and tells her he just bought a house for $7,500. And she says, 'What is it, an outhouse?'"
Now it's a recent day, and Shie and I, along with a friend of Shie's, Tom Franchino, are in the same small North Dakota town where Unger made his real estate deal of a lifetime.