She brought the car to a stop and leaned back in the seat; closing her eyes
to rest her head for a moment. The drive though only ninety minutes had been exhausting. Had she known how much traffic there would be on a weekday afternoon she wondered if she would have made the trip alone?
Compared to bearing a child the drive had not been that bad, she thought. She opened her eyes and looked around. Beyond the sea wall the water was kicking up small whitecaps that spilled half way up the beach depositing uprooted seaweed and bits of trash. Just being here made up for the last ninety minutes in the busy traffic.
What's he doing here? He looks old and forlorn. But so must I, she half laughed to herself. She opened the car door. It made a creaking sound; he turned and saw her.
"Let me help you with that." He was hovering like a seagull at a clambake; she had only had time to open the car trunk.
"Vinnie," you startled me. She straightened and looked into his face. He had changed. The lines in his forehead were deeper than she remembered. Why doesn't he do something about those eyebrows?
He was already lifting the single suitcase from the trunk. "You brought Jack's tools," she heard him say.
"That's all right Vinnie, just bring the case." She opened the car door to the back seat to retrieve a basket and turned to her neighbor. "Please," she added while slamming the door. Had he been looking he would have seen the decisive expression on her face.
He wasn't. "I'll bring them," he called after her. "You wouldn't want to drive around with this heavy case in your trunk."
"Damn him," she thought to herself while searching for the key to the porch door.
She unlocked the door to the enclosed porch then hurried to unlock the door to the house itself. She sat the basket of food inside the doorway. He was there, damn him, right behind her.
"Just set the tools here," she made a waving jester toward the wicker rocking chairs that lined the porch. "I'll take the suitcase."
She walked through the dark cottage, rolling up a window shade on the way to her bedroom. It was still dark as shutters blocked the light. She sat the suitcase on the bed and went back to retrieve the basket. He was still there on the porch.
"Thanks for the help," she said, ready to close the door.
"I'll take the shutters off for you," he said nervously. It was almost a question.
"That's not necessary, I'll do it later. That's why I brought the tools," she added.
"It's better if I do it," he argued. "I know where everything goes."
Infuriated, she raised her voice, "You don't know where things go, you've never been under this house, Jack would never have permitted it!"
Afraid that she would begin to cry, she quieted. She tried to think how long it had been since she had spoken this way, out of control. They stood in silence listening to the waves breaking 30 yards away.
"I didn't mean anything by it, Helen. It's just that I know how Jack operated around here, same way as me."
"I know you didn't," she softened.
Two years of dust had collected on the sheets that covered the few pieces of furniture. She switched a table lamp to 'on' but nothing happened.
The electricity was promised for today but was not yet on; she lit two candles and set about sweeping and dusting. There was no water to mop the floors.
She could use bottled water to make a cup of tea if only the stove was working. It wasn't.
She heard his voice from below. "Turn on the faucets, let it run for a few minutes."
She shook her head as a knowing smile crossed her lips. That's what Jack would have said, she mused, 'let it run for a few minutes.'
The faucet coughed, there was a rush of air followed by a reddish colored slush that soon changed to clear cold water.
"Try the one in the bathroom," the voice came from directly below where she was standing. "I'll light the hot water heater and furnace as soon as the power comes on."
'Damn him, how does he know my every move, ' she thought. She had not given thought as to how much was involved in turning things on. Those under-the-house chores had always been left to Jack and she had always taken care of the upstairs. She had however thought to call the electric company to have the lights turned on. 'How did he seem to know that?' she wondered.
Soon she heard the growl of a power tool at the kitchen window. She raised the window shade and there he was, holding a shutter in one hand and a battery powered screw-gun in the other. There was a foolish grin on his face.
'Damn him', she thought. That's where Jack always started; he knew I needed light from the window to put the groceries away. She heard the sound of his ladder being hoisted at the side window. With moistened fingers she doused the candles.
"Won't you have one of these cookies?" She held out the round tin, expectantly.
The table had been cleared except for tea cups, a half full bottle of wine and the cookie tin.
The offer had come on the spur of the moment. "'Supper' will not be much but I can open a can or two; you're welcome to stay," she had said. "It will be my way of paying you for what you have done." He had insisted on fetching the wine; a rich burgundy that she had pretended to enjoy.
The meal was more than grub from cans. The basket had contained a loaf of French bread and a slab of cheese. She had opened a can of beef stew which she servedin large bowls; the larger portion ladled into his.
She had watched him break off a piece of bread and dip it into the stew. His hands, she noticed, were clean and his hair had been combed; 'that's why it took so long to get the wine', she thought.
After a false start or two the conversation started to flow. Soon they were sharing glimpses of their lives. 'Did Carolyn ever marry that sailor?' 'Where did Eddie end up going to graduate school?' 'Do you recall the name of that girl he brought here that summer?' 'I didn't know Peter's wife had twins.'
She poured more tea without asking as was her habit. "Vinnie?" she started, then thought better and silenced herself.
His stare captured her attention.
"I hate to ask this," she began. "Do you think we can have that pile of fence moved? I saw it out there. It's been that way, how long?"
"I'll take care of it, I was thinking the same thing," he spoke too quickly.
"I didn't mean for you to do it." How could she make him understand that? "It's such an eye sore and," she paused in thought, "such a reminder."
"I was thinking the same thing," he repeated, "I'll get rid of it."
"How did that start? It's been so long. What was it, 1977 or 78?"
'77 I think, '78 was the second gas shortage and we were speaking again by then."
"Barely," she laughed.
"It was the stair thing, remember? We were sitting out back there, all of us were.
Jack and yourself, Nell and me and four or five of the kids. We had a little fire going and the kids were roasting marshmallows. We got into this conversation about how to fix creaking stairs. Jack's the one that brought it up. He said that was one of the things he was going to do that next week; seems you had a tread that was squeaking. So I asked how he was going to go about it and you know Jack. It set him off. He thought I was going to tell him how to do it. Before I knew what was happening we had an argument going."
"Yes I knew Jack." She said a glazed look in her eyes. "I knew Jack."
"I didn't mean it that way," he said defensively.
"I know you didn't," she said, seeming to satisfy him.