Picking Up the Pieces
Chapter 1: Meeting Amanda
"Can I help you with that?"
Brian turned to see a man carrying a small child. He had been taken by surprise, and didn't respond immediately.
The man was wearing a plaid coat and a stocking cap. The child was dressed in a snow suit. "Let me set Amanda down," the man continued, opening the door to the small house and telling the child to wait there.
Welcoming the help, Brian hopped onto the truck and pushed the box springs into the man's waiting hands.
"I'm Harry Mendon. We live next door," the man said as he waited for Brian to jump to the ground and lift his end of the box springs.
"I'm Brian Driver, thanks for the help," Brian spoke for the first time.
Harry had to speak twice to make the little girl understand that she was to move out of their way. The two men placed the box springs on a waiting bed in the larger of two bedrooms. Brian smiled at the little girl as they went back outside for the mattress. She grinned, sheepishly.
When they had the mattress placed on top of the box springs, Brian and Harry stood back to admire their work.
"It's going to be better than sleeping on the floor," Brian quipped.
Amanda was straining to see what had captured the two men's attention. Brian lifted her into the air, and dropped her on top of the mattress, making her fall onto her back, laughing.
"How old are you?" Brian asked the little girl. She looked up at him, puzzled.
"She'll be two in March," Harry said. "She doesn't talk yet, but you can see that once she does, she'll have a lot to say."
"I can see that," Brian said, depressing the mattress to make the little girl bounce on the bed. She grinned up at him, enjoying the attention he was giving her.
"We came over to invite you to have supper with us," Harry said.
This took Brian by surprise. He was apprehensive, but what the hell, how would he have managed the mattress without the neighbor's help? "Thanks, Harry, I could use a home cooked meal."
"It won't be much, but the wife is a good cook. Come over any time," Harry said as he lifted Amanda off the bed.
Brian followed his neighbors outside, and watched Harry hoist Amanda onto his shoulders. He must have said something to the little girl because she waved goodbye to Brian. He waved back.
It was an hour later when Brian knocked on the Mendon's door.
Amanda didn't have a word for what she felt toward the man entering the house. In fact, Amanda didn't know any words. She knew she liked the way he'd bounced her on the bed.
"My, don't you look nice. Is that a new dress, Amanda?"
Amanda was captivated by the way the man spoke to her, grinned at her, and made her grin back. She liked the way he said her name. She raised both arms in the air, wanting to be picked up. Brian bent down to oblige her, and suddenly she was looking into his eyes.
"She's quite taken by you, Brian," the older man said.
"Are you taken by me, Amanda?" the man asked.
Amanda didn't understand either of them. All she knew was that she felt the same for the man as she felt for her mama, or her 'gramps' or the lady known as 'ma.' She expressed her feelings in the only way she knew; she kissed the man on the cheek.
The kiss was interrupted by the sharp tongue of a young woman that appeared out of nowhere. "I'll take her," the woman said, extracting Amanda from Brian's arms. "Dad, take his coat."
"Brian, this is our daughter, Margaret," Harry said, stepping forward to help Brian with his coat.
"It's nice to meet you," Brian said to the young woman, but she was already retreating to the kitchen, with her daughter in her arms.
Margaret (Peg or Peggy) Mendon Stover did not share her daughter's attraction to the new neighbor. She would endure him for her parents' sake, but she was not inclined to be more than distantly hospitable. She didn't much like the way he'd captured her daughter's adoration.
The meal was simple, but hot and delicious. In addition to a heaping bowl of beef stew, Mary, Amanda's grandmother, had baked home-made bread, still warm from the oven.
Talk centered mainly on the neighborhood. Brian was all ears, concentrating on remembering the names of who lived to his east, the Browns, and on the other side of the busy road. But when Harry asked probing questions about his background, he was evasive. Why he had purchased a small, run-down house on ten acres was no one's business. He wasn't even sure why he had signed a twenty year mortgage for a structure that was barely livable.
He did, however, reveal that he was a recent college graduate, and was working in an entry-level position, taking customer calls in a support center. He used the job as his reason for relocating to the northeast from half way across the country.
Brian's attention was drawn to Amanda, who was seated in a high chair directly across the table from him. Her mother was trying to feed her, and when Amanda only wanted to exchange grins with Brian, Peggy glared at him. He got the message and concentrated on his stew.
Brian had a second cup of coffee with the blackberry cobbler that was served for dessert.
"I drive a truck for a living," Harry offered.
"I saw the truck," Brian said, attempting to act interested.
"I make short runs all over the state, but I refuse to be gone overnight," Harry continued.
"I don't blame you," Brian agreed, smiling appreciatively at Mary when she refilled his coffee cup.
Except for Peggy, his new neighbors were being mighty neighborly. Brian wondered why.
Here it comes, he thought when he saw Harry move his chair back from the table and take a deep breath.
"Every so often, I hear about distressed goods, a store going out of business or a truck turned over."
Harry laughed. "Remember the turkeys, Meg?" he asked, looking at his daughter. She responded with a meek smile.
"I got a call about this truck full of frozen turkeys. They were strewn all over the highway. There wasn't anything wrong with them, most of them anyway. Meg and I picked up one hundred and twenty of them, and the company gave us a receipt to show that they weren't stolen. Those turkeys cost us twenty-five bucks and ... how much did you end up clearing, Megs?"
Peggy let her attention be drawn from her daughter long enough to glance at Brian before saying, "I don't remember, Daddy. We gave some to a homeless shelter. I think we sold the others for over four hundred."
"See what I mean, Brian? I get called to see if I'm interested, and I hate to turn them down, but sometimes we can't get there in time, or we're not capable of removing the goods in the specified time limit. That's where you come in. Would you be interested in giving us a hand the next time I get a call? It could be lucrative for all of us."
Brian was speechless. So this was what being neighborly was about. He didn't know if he should be furious or grateful for being offered the opportunity to make some extra money. He could certainly use it. "Sure, I would be interested," he mumbled, hoping he wasn't getting involved in something illegal. Where do you dispose of one hundred and twenty-five frozen turkeys?
That was all that was said about the lucrative venture.
Peggy, having given up on her daughter eating more, was cleaning Amanda's face and hands.
"Here, you take her," Peggy said, surprising Brian by plopping the little girl in his lap. "You're the reason she wouldn't eat anything," she added, sounding annoyed.
Brian thought he saw a smile cross Peggy's lips as she began to clear the table. Was she warming up to him? But his attention was drawn to Amanda, who was squirming to get comfortable in his lap. She reached up to put her finger on his lips. He opened his mouth, and she laughed when her finger slid inside.
"You're going to have to start eating everything your mama offers if you want to be a big girl," he said.
Amanda just looked at him, grinning. He continued to talk to her while Mary and Peggy cleared the table. She fell asleep in his arms, only waking briefly when her mother came for her.
Brian thanked Mary for the meal, and left while Peggy was putting her daughter to bed.
Harry walked out into the night air with Brian, remarking that it looked like snow as the two men shook hands. Brian turned his flashlight on, and made his way across the frozen ground, between the strands of barbed wire fence, and to his small house where he enjoyed the first night in his new bed.
That was Monday. It snowed on Tuesday, and Brian didn't see or hear from his neighbors until Thursday night. Actually, it was Friday morning when he was awakened by someone banging on his back door. He was still half asleep when he got to the door.
"Dress warmly. Do you have boots?" Peggy was saying, shouting really.
Brian was dazed, not comprehending what she was saying. "We got a call. There's been a train wreck. Dress warmly. We'll wait," she said, starting to walk away. She turned back to see him looking at the truck. Harry was sitting in the cab. She made a shrugging gesture for her father's benefit, and returned to push Brian toward his bedroom.
He began to wake up when he realized that a woman was searching his closet. He was dressed only in his jockey shorts. Peggy was busy looking through his closet, tossing corduroy pants and a pair of boots his way.
"Where are your socks? Do you have a sweater or something?"
Brian pointed to a suitcase where he kept his socks and underwear as he stepped into the pants.
Peggy opened the suitcase, found a T-shirt, sweatshirt and two pair of socks. "Put these on. Is that your only coat?" she asked, pointing to the overcoat he wore to work. He nodded before pulling the sweatshirt over his head.
"It will have to do. Don't worry. With what we make tonight you'll be able to replace it," Peggy said, tossing the coat on the bed.
After making sure he had his keys, she pulled him toward the truck.
"Don't get chummy and I won't either," she said, as she slid into the bucket seat. The door was barely closed when Harry stepped on the gas, and they were flying down the long, snow-covered driveway.
Harry was wearing the same plaid coat and stocking cap that Brian had seen a few days ago. Peggy was dressed in boots, jeans, sweatshirt and a denim jacket. On her head was a bandana.
Brian wondered what time it was. He was aware that his ass was rubbing against Peggy's, but he tried to ignore the feeling it was giving him. He tried to concentrate on the possibility of being stopped, and the fine that would be levied for not being able to fasten the seatbelt.
"Did you bring your checkbook, Brian?" Harry asked.
Peggy turned to look at him, and seeing the blank stare on Brian's face, answered for him. "I didn't think to tell him to bring it, Daddy. It took long enough to get him dressed."
Brian thought he detected the hint of amusement in her voice. He wondered if she was annoyed by the way their asses were rubbing against each other.
"That's okay. I'll pay for both of you," Harry said. "You do have five hundred bucks, don't you, Brian?"
Brian didn't answer. He couldn't remember the balance in his checking account, but he was pretty sure it was below five hundred dollars. Nor could he remember how much cash he had in his wallet. He felt Peggy's eyes upon him.
"Yeah," he answered. What am I getting myself in to? Oh well, I'll go without lunch until ... when's payday anyway?
Brian estimated that they had been on the road for half an hour when he heard Harry dialing a number on his cell phone. "We're on our way. Don't let anyone else near it. What's the car number? Seven-one-eight-five?" He repeated the number before he hung up.
"Can you remember the car number, Honey?" Harry asked his daughter.
"Yes," Peggy said, folding one leg so as to rest her heel on the seat next to Brian's leg. This action pulled her butt down, slightly, to rest against his thigh. The vibrations of the truck were making it increasingly difficult for him to keep from becoming chummy.
It had been some time since he'd been this near a girl. Try as he might, he couldn't ignore her. He found that her indifference toward him was a turn on. He was relieved when they stopped next to car number 7185.
A representative from the railroad met them, explained that they were entering the wrecked car at their own risk, and made them sign a waver form that indemnified the railroad of all liability. Harry paid the man his asking price, one thousand dollars, and they went to investigate the contents of the boxcar.
It was turned on its side, having slid into a ravine. The distance from the road where the truck was parked to the rails was about ten yards, and the place where the boxcar rested was another ten yards, down a steep incline.
Brian was able to pull himself onto the side of the car, and with the help of a bar that Harry retrieved from the truck, break the padlock, and move the heavy door open, about three feet.
Harry tossed Brian a flashlight. "What did we win?"
"Teddy bears," Brian answered, pulling a carton through the opening. He opened the box, and handed one of the bears down to Peggy, who looked it over, approvingly.
While Harry returned to the truck, Brian pulled cartons of teddy bears out of the car. Harry came back with a hand truck and a few sheets of plywood, which he used to cover wet spots on the path leading from the boxcar to the truck.
Brian handed the cartons down to Peggy, who stacked them three deep, and Harry wheeled the stacks of boxes to the truck. Each carton contained eighteen teddy bears, and although they were not heavy, reaching up to receive them was awkward. Brian was impressed by the stamina Peggy displayed.
It wasn't long before the collection of boxes on the ground was way ahead of Harry, who was already huffing and puffing. Peggy offered to spell him, but he wouldn't hear of it.
Then, when Brian had to climb down into the boxcar and toss the boxes to the side of the car, the stacks of boxes on the ground dwindled. Realizing that he was sweating, he removed his overcoat. They worked at a brisk pace until Harry said he had a full load.
"I'll need the keys to your house, Brian," Harry requested, and when Brian resisted, "We're going to need a place to store this load out of the weather."
Brian reluctantly handed over the keys to his house. Harry left, and Brian was ready to go back to work when Peggy asked him to help her up. The way she said it reminded him of the way Amanda raised her arms when she wanted to be lifted. He reached down, and after a few failed attempts, she fell laughing on the side of the boxcar.
He went below and tossed the boxes through the opening. Peggy spread them neatly on the side of the boxcar.
"Water!" Brian shouted with alarm.
"How bad is it?"
"I can't tell. My flashlight is giving out," he shouted.
He didn't know that she had a cell phone with her until he heard her talking. "Dad, Brian says there is water coming in to the car. Bring us some flashlight batteries when you come back ... I'll tell him."
"He says to try and salvage all we can," she said, looking into the darkened space below.
Brian looked up, trying to visualize what she looked like, and thinking, she called me Brian. She knows my name. He went to work tossing the damp cartons to the surface above.
Harry returned with flashlight batteries and a thermos of hot coffee. Brian and Peggy took a break to enjoy the coffee while Harry began wheeling the stacks of boxes to the truck. It didn't take long to load up and for him to be gone.
Brian was down below again when he heard something drop. He flashed his light in that direction, and was surprised to see Peggy.
"I wanted to see this for myself," she said, as a way of explaining her reason for surprising him.
She helped him move the boxes from the far ends of the car to the center, and then he helped her climb above.
They had the boxes for the third load stacked next to the road when Harry returned. The sun was coming up, and it was easy to see what they were doing. It only took a few minutes to load the truck.
"Go with your dad. I'll stay here and finish up," Brian offered. She refused, saying she preferred to stay. There was still a chill in her voice, but it gave him a warm feeling to hear her say she preferred to stay.
They moved the last load of cartons to the road. Peggy called her father, who was on his way back to the site.
"He said we'll have to put the rest of them in the barn," she said when she hung up.
"The barn leaks."
"He'll cover them with a tarpaulin."
Brian nodded, somewhat in awe at the way Peggy and her father connected.
"Why did you buy that place?" she asked.
Brian wondered if she was beginning to loosen up, or was she just curious?
"I've been renting a room and taking my meals out since I took the job. The owner offered me a price that I can afford. I guess I yearned for some space."
"Mr. Bennett was probably happy to get rid of it," she laughed. "He owns a lot of real estate around town."
"He financed it at a reasonable rate. It saved applying for a bank mortgage."
She nodded, accepting his reasons for buying the deplorable house and acreage next door to her parents' home. He was curious, too.
"Why do you live with your parents?" he asked, realizing immediately that the question was far too personal. He was ready to make an apology when she spoke.
"I got snookered. My husband committed suicide and I didn't have anyplace else to go."
"Are you sorry that my husband took his own life, or are you sorry that I was left alone in the world?"
"I'm sorry that I asked the question. I had no right."
For a moment he wondered if she had heard him. She was looking off in the distance. "The authorities ruled it an accident, but I know better. Matthew Stover let his car stall on the tracks just as an oncoming train was arriving. He died the next day, leaving a large hospital bill, and no insurance.
After a year and a half, I've only managed to make a small dent in the hospital bill. That's the reason I need to sell these bears and make some money."
Brian waited to see if she was going to say more. When she didn't, he asked. "Seeing that boxcar turned on its side must have brought back morbid memories?"
"What about your husband's parents? Won't they help with the hospital bill?"
Peggy flashed a spiteful frown. "They blame me for what happened. They say it was my fault."
She was near tears, and Brian wanted to comfort her. "That's nonsense. Don't they know you have a beautiful daughter who needs her grandparent's love?"
Peggy shook her head, and Brian knew that was all she was going to say on the subject. Anyway, they were interrupted by a man who stopped his car and got out.
"What do you have there?" he asked.
"Teddy bears. Would you like one for your daughter?" Peggy asked, opening one of the cartons for him to see the size of the bears.
"How much for a box? I have several granddaughters, and they have friends."
Peggy glanced at Brian, who was recovering from shock. She had just admitted that her husband had committed suicide, and now she was giving a sales pitch. "What's eighteen times five, Honey?" she asked.
"Ninety," he answered without hesitation, reeling from being called Honey.
"I'm not paying that much," the man objected, moving from one foot to the other, like he was contemplating leaving.
"They would retail for nine-ninety-five," she argued.
The man looked around, shaking his head. "This isn't retail. You paid what, fifty cents each for them?"
"Okay, okay," Peggy relented. "How about three dollars each? That would be ... what?" she asked, looking at Brian.
"Fifty-four," he said.
"I only have fifty on me," the man said.
"What do you say, partner? Shall we give him a break?"
Brian nodded his agreement and the deal was struck. Peggy pocketed the money, and the man left happy to have purchased eighteen teddy bears for less than three dollars each.
"How much did we pay for them?" she asked Brian.
"I make it ten cents each, but there's the sweat equity, and we don't know if we will be able to salvage the ones that have water damage."
"Not a bad night's work," Peggy laughed before becoming serious. "Don't read anything in to my calling you Honey. That was only for show. I'm soured on all men, and I don't expect it to wear off any time soon."
"Don't worry. I'm soured on all women, too."
Peggy took on a look of shock and concern for a second, but Harry's arrival disrupted their talk, which suited Brian fine. They loaded the truck and started home.
Brian wondered if it could be his imagination, but Peggy seemed more comfortable sharing the seat with him. He knew he'd elevated her curiosity by his remark about being soured on all women.
"I'm planning on wholesaling these bears at a dollar-fifty each if that's okay with you guys," Peggy said when Harry was backing the truck up to the barn.
"Ask Brian. I have no say in this. I'm just helping," Harry said.
Brian was having trouble holding his eyes open. He grunted his agreement that a dollar-fifty was okay with him.
"Are you going to work today?" Peggy asked as they were getting out of the truck.
"I have to," he said, not thinking an explanation was necessary. He'd only been on the job for six months and still had lots to prove to his manager.
"Go take a shower. We'll unload the truck," she said in a commanding voice that he could not refuse. He headed for the house, only to be greeted by a wall of cartons. He had to turn sideways to navigate his way along the narrow path that Harry had left him to get his room.
He would have liked to stay under the warm water all day, but duty called. There was no sign of Peggy, her father or the truck when he left for work. He vaguely remembered that Harry had the keys to the house. Oh well, he had a spare set.
Somehow, he made it through the day without falling asleep while talking to customers. During those brief moments when he was not taking a call, Brian amused himself by remembering the long night before. He recalculated his estimate of the number of cartons they had transferred from the boxcar to Harry's truck. The cost of ten cents per bear could be off by a few cents either way, depending upon how many bears had taken on moisture and would need to be discarded. Still, at a dollar-fifty per bear it would come to a tidy sum. He wondered where Peggy planned on unloading that many teddy bears.
Someone in the break room mentioned seeing scenes of the train wreck on television. "The scavengers reminded me of sea gulls, grabbing what they could. It was disgraceful!" she exclaimed.
"I saw that too," Brian said, neglecting to say that he had been one of the scavengers, and witnessed the scene first hand.
When he arrived home that evening a strange car was parked next to the house. Expecting the worst, he rushed inside. Peggy was sitting at the kitchen table, talking on her cell phone. It sounded like she was giving directions to his house. She ended the call quickly.
"Do you know that your refrigerator was empty?" she asked, accusingly.
Brian just stared at her.
"Why don't you have a phone?"
He opened his mouth, but was distracted by the empty space in the next room. The wall of cartons had receded, noticeably.
"Here," she said, handing him a beer. You look like you can use it."
He accepted the beer and tipped the bottle back before asking, "Did you get any rest today?"
"Yes, I also went shopping and ordered a phone for ... what are you looking at?"
"Has anyone told you that you're beautiful today, Mom?"
This caused her to stop and ponder; should she scold him for saying that she was beautiful or for calling her mom? It must have dawned on her that he was accusing her of acting like his mother.
"You're being ... impertinent."
"Did you sell some of the bears?"
She pushed a metal box across the table. "Count it while I make something for you to eat. You must be famished. Will scrambled eggs and toast suit you?"
This was too good to be true. She'd shopped, and now she was going to make scrambled eggs. He nodded and began counting the money.
Brian wrote $1404.00 on a piece of paper, and closed the box just at Peggy set the plate of eggs and toast in front of him.
"Oh, here's the fifty bucks the grandfather paid for one carton," she said as she added the bills to the box. She opened two more beers and sat down to have one of them.
They discussed business while Brian ate. "We need to pay my dad back for the check he wrote," she said.
"We should pay him for the truck and his work last night," Brian added.
"He won't take it. All he wants is his thousand dollars."
Brian ate quickly, and then he told Peggy about the lady in the break room saying they were like seagulls. She laughed, and took his plate to the sink. He watched her wash the plate and silverware.
"You deserve more for the sales work you're doing."
She turned to look his way. "You deserve more for storing our inventory. Let's call it even," she said, turning back to the sink.
"Did you give Amanda one of the bears?"
She turned his way again. "I think you should give it to her. She will like that." Her eyes lingered for a second before turning away.
Questions flooded his mind. Why had she said that? Could she see that he and Amanda had a special connection? "I'd like that, too," he said.
This got her attention. They exchanged a long look, but were interrupted by a car's doors being closed.
"You should get some rest. Take the box to store in your closet. I've got one more buyer coming after this one, and then I'll lock the door as I leave."
He took the box, but turned. "Who are these people?"
"They're flea market dealers. Now go."
Brian did as he was told, put the box on the top shelf of his closet, removed his clothes and got into bed. He fell asleep immediately, but sat up in the bed when he heard the door open.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you," she said as she took the box from the shelf. "They took four cartons each so I'm adding two hundred and sixteen dollars to the cash box."
Brian watched as she placed the box on the shelf. She turned, and their eyes met. She approached the bed. "Get some rest. I'll be back in the morning," she said, reaching for the blanket to cover him.
He pulled her down, and was about to kiss her when she placed her hand on his bare chest to push herself away. She left without another word. It took Brian a long time to go back to sleep. He cursed himself for misreading the way their eyes had met. Why had she offered him the pleasure of giving Amanda the teddy bear?
He was having his second cup of coffee on Saturday morning when she entered the kitchen without knocking.
"We're business partners. That is all. Got it?" she asked in a stern tone.
"Got it," he answered. "It won't happen again."
With that out of the way, they began work. Brian brought one carton of bears from the barn at a time. They unpackaged every bear, inspecting for water damage, and repackaging the ones that were free of moisture.
Peggy made several calls, and buyers began showing up. Brian listened as she told each buyer they had to agree to charge three dollars, plus sales tax for each bear, and they had to agree to pay the sales tax to the state.
"There's nothing we can do if they don't abide by their agreement, except refuse to sell them anything else if we discover that they didn't comply," she told Brian.
At ten before twelve, she told him that there were cold cuts in the refrigerator and left. When she got back she had Amanda with her. The little girl was happy to see Brian. He handed her one of the teddy bears, saying, "Amanda, this is for you because you're such a good girl."
"You'll have to take it out of the package," Peggy said.
He lifted the little girl to his lap and took the bear out of its enclosure. She was delighted with the gift, grinning at Brian as she hugged the small bear. They watched as Peggy dialed a number.
"Mom, will you send Dad to pick up his granddaughter? Brian has work to do and she's monopolizing his time."
"Was that necessary?" he asked.
"Yes, we have work to do, unless you want to work tomorrow. I know I don't"
"You sound like you have a date tonight," he teased, and was met with a vicious stare.
"Amanda, did you hear your mama say monopolizing, like it's a bad word?"
"Don't tell her it's a bad word. She'll believe anything you tell her," Peggy said, attempting to hide a blush.
Harry arrived to take his granddaughter. They brought him up to date on their progress, boasting that very few of the bears were failing to pass inspection. Understanding that she was about to leave, Amanda kissed Brian, and then her mother. She left, clutching the bear, and grinning at Brian.
They worked through the afternoon, inspecting cartons that Brian brought in from the barn, only stopping to make a sale when buyers arrived. At five PM, the room was filled to capacity, leaving a narrow path for Brian to get to his bedroom.
As Peggy was leaving for the day, she said, "There may be one or two people stopping by tomorrow. If you run into a snag you have my phone number."
That was the last he saw of her for the better part of a month. Each night when he arrived home there was evidence that she had been there. Sometimes there would be a note, curt and to the point. 'I did your shopping. You owe me thirty-five dollars.' Other times he would have to rely on the shrinkage of inventory to know that she'd made sales.
Once, he opened the cash box to find a sheet of accounting paper with each day's transactions posted. Except for the one thousand dollar payment to Harry, all other entries were additions. He counted the bills, feeling embarrassed when the cash matched the balance on the accounting paper.
"If you can't trust your partner, who can you trust," he said to himself.
On Saturdays, he brought more cartons in from the barn to replenish the inventory in what should have been his front room.
For the first time since Samantha had given him the boot, Brian felt lonesome.