I could hear the old jeep winding up the trail. I knew the sound of it as I had heard it often enough in the last nine years. It wasn't going to get here and the driver, if it was who I thought it was, would know that too. I heard it spinning its wheels and get stuck in the mud hole that was always present at this time of year. I knew now that it was someone who had never driven up to the cabin before. The mud hole was a good half mile from the camp. Who could it be and for what reason would they be coming here at this time of year?
I had walked up from the backside of the mountain and had only arrived fifteen minutes before I heard the vehicle. I thought I would examine whoever was coming here before I made myself known. I stepped around to the side after shutting and locking the door. I waited for nearly a half hour before I could see a woman climbing along the trail. When she got to where a vehicle could be turned around she paused. She must have realized then that this was a strictly late summer and early fall trail.
She stopped and surveyed the cabin that was up hill from where she was standing. Christ, she didn't even have a carry bag or backpack, just a handbag. Most likely containing makeup, something women couldn't do without. Must be she wanted to see where the road went and started forward without thinking. Damn, now I would have to help get the vehicle out. It had to be done before dark, too, as it was impossible to back up the quarter mile from the mud hole to where it could be turned around.
Slowly she made her way up the path, up the steps and across to the locked door. I was surprised when she reached into her purse and pulled out a key and unlocked the door. She must have something to do with the person that owned the cabin with me.
Calvin Winslip and I had purchased this land nine years ago and over the years we had built this two-room hunting camp. The joke was on us, for any game stayed down in the lower reaches of the mountain. It was a great place to get away from it all. I got away from my wife and Calvin just wanted a place to relax. He had never married. Hell he didn't need to for he was a handsome devil and had all the women he wanted.
I wish I had gone that route, for I was now divorced and paying support for two kids that I couldn't even see when I wanted to. I eased around to the back door and cracking it slightly, I peeked in. The woman had sat down in a chair at the table and was sitting with her head bowed. Rousing up just a little, she opened her bag and pulled out a gun that looked like Calvin's .44 magnum and laid it at hand on the table.
I could hear her sniffling and then start to sob. Very carefully, I crept softly behind her and just as she reached for the gun, I picked it off the table. She must have had her eyes closed for she didn't realize it wasn't at her hand and she fumbled around. Not finding it, she gave a startled squeak and whirled out of her chair, tipping it over.
I stood facing her with the weapon behind me. Tears totally stopped now, "Who are you?"
"I'm Milo Burns, but Miss, I think it is me that should be asking who you are. You come into my cabin and," I paused, "what were you going to do with that gun, anyway? It almost looked like you were going to use it on yourself."
"None of your business what I planned. Besides I own half this cabin so you can't tell me what I can or can't do."
"Well if you're going to mess it all up with blood and guts and leave me to clean it up, I can tell you, you can't do that. And as far as owning part of this property, Calvin Winslip and I are the registered owners and you don't look like no Calvin to me."
She was strangely silent and then she started blubbering, "Calvin is dead. He was killed in Iraq a little more than two weeks ago." She couldn't say more because she was crying so hard.
"God no! Not Calvin. I knew his unit had been called up, but I didn't know he had been deployed yet. Where do you fit into this? You're not his sister."
I caught something she said through her hiccups and tears. "Wife."
"Are you saying you are his wife?"
She nodded. I looked more closely at this woman. Maybe she wasn't a dog, but she was far from the level of beauty that I associated with Calvin's women. And here she tells me she is married to him. I hadn't spoken directly to Calvin since Christmas and it was now June. I had been tied up with my own problems so it wasn't surprising that I didn't know about him being married. He had e-mailed me in February that he was being called up. That was the last word I had from him.
I straightened the chair and led her to it and pushed her down. I moved across the room and sat on the other side of the table facing her. "Tell me about it."
"My name is Ashley. Calvin and I were childhood sweethearts and we broke up when high school ended. I have always loved him and I guess he found that he loved me too. I saw him at Christmas time and we reconnected. When Calvin received his papers that said he was being called up, we became real serious and we were married Easter weekend. He shipped out a month ago. Two weeks later on his first exit from his compound, his Humvee was hit by an IED and he was killed. He never knew that we were going to have a baby." She couldn't continue speaking as she was crying too hard.
I let Ashley settle down before I asked, "Were you really going to use the gun if I hadn't grabbed it?"
"Are you still planning on doing it?"
"Hey, I'll do it for you." I pulled the gun from my belt, checked to make sure the safety was off and pointed the gun in her direction. There was a look of horror on her face. I pulled the trigger and the gun fired. Ashley toppled over onto the floor. I got up and felt for her pulse. Satisfied, I found a piece of plastic and spread it out on the bunk. I picked her up and laid her out, straightening her legs and putting her arms at her sides. I built the fire even though it was June, and I knew it soon would be hot in here. I made several trips out to the little water pipe that was our water supply, bringing back enough water to fill the tub that I had on the stove. It took two hours to bring the water to the temperature that I needed.
I went over to the bunk and shook Ashley. "Ashley, wake up. Come on, wake up."
Her eyes opened and she blinked. "I'm still alive?"
"Yeah, still alive. You fainted and have been sleeping for awhile. Look I think facing death and thinking you were going to die, made you pee your pants. I've heated enough water for you to give yourself a bath and maybe wash out your underwear. I'll give you my spare jeans to put on as I guess you weren't planning on needing a change of clothes. I mean who needs extra clothes if they know they are going to kill themselves and Calvin's baby.
"I'd like to see the baby when it is born, but if you are still bent on killing yourself, I'm leaving the gun here on the table. If you do it, would you please step out the back door and not mess up the cabin. I'll be right outside in front and you can call if you need anything." I laid the gun on the table. It was her decision and I honestly hoped she had given up on committing suicide.
I went out and sat on the top step. I could hear her stirring around. Suddenly the gun went off behind the building. God, no! I was so sure that I had at least stopped her long enough for her to change her mind. I ran around back expecting to see her writhing and dying on the ground.
"There you son-of-a-bitch, two can play this game. You thought I did it when the gun went off, didn't you? I thought I was going to die when you pointed the gun at me. I still ought to shoot you for making me pee my pants. How much longer do you want to keep this up?"
"I'm done if you are. Christ, you almost made me have to take a bath too." I went back to the front of the cabin and resumed my seat. Before long I was chuckling to myself. That is until I remembered that Calvin was dead and this woman loved him so much she didn't want to live without him. I was hoping she was beyond that now and especially for her unborn baby's sake.
"Would you come in now, Milo? Where do you want to throw this water?"
We worked together cleaning up and as it was near evening, I opened my backpack and laid out what food I had brought which consisted of mostly bacon and eggs and bread for toast. I had a gallon of milk to soak up the box of cold cereal and to mix with the bottle of brandy I had thought to include. "If I eat up your food, you won't be able to stay as long as you planned."
"No, but if you had carried through on your plans, I wouldn't have been able to stay at all. I'm glad my stay here has been shortened by just a little under the circumstances."
"You know Milo, Calvin talked about you all the time. He said you had some strange ways and weren't always happy, but you were the best companion a person could have. I think I know what he meant. I mean when you pointed the gun at me, suddenly, I didn't want to die."
"That was the point. It is like when people are young, they say, 'when I reach 75, I've lived long enough, ' but when they get there, no matter how sick and in pain they are, they think, 'maybe I'll make it to 80.' You just reached 75 today and decided you might like to see 80."
"You are so right." We were sitting at the table across from each other and when we both looked up, there was something being nurtured deep in our minds. A bond maybe?
"Let's sit out on the porch. We have to go out the back door and around to the south end of the cabin. There is just enough room for two chairs and we can look down into the valley. I think the moon is full tonight and will be coming up just as it gets dark. It's quite a sight."
We sat there and it was just as I said it would be. Nothing needed to be said and nothing was. About a little after ten, I said, "I'm pretty tired. I think I'll go in and go to bed. I'll sleep on the top bunk. You can either go in first or I will."
"Milo, you go first. I want to stay out just a little longer. And Milo--thank you for everything."
Ashley was shaking me at daylight. "Milo, come see the sunrise. I opened my eyes and it is just peeking up. It is coming up fast so hurry."
I smiled to myself. Ashley had evidently not come to bed at all, sitting out and watching the moon and then the stars pop out. Now she was being treated to the most wonderful vision of all. Seeing the sun at this time of day was like being born again. I joined Ashley. Again she referred to yesterday. "I could have missed this. Thank you so much." When the sun had fully risen, I went in and started the bacon frying.
After the few dishes were washed and put in the cupboard, Ashley said, "I guess you want to know what brought me to the point yesterday to decide to kill myself." In a way it was a question, but I thought it was more of a plea to be heard.
I went for the plea theory. "Yes, of course I would. You might listen to me someday, for as I'm sure Calvin told you, I'm not always the happiest."
"Fair enough, we can bare our souls and be the better for it. I do need someone to talk to. Cry on your shoulder, if you will. First Milo, look at me and you can see I'm not the prettiest woman there ever was. It didn't help when I overheard my father say to a colleague of his, that if his daughter was in a whorehouse, she would starve, for I would be the last to get any business because of my looks. That hurt.
"I have had most every material thing I ever wanted. My grandmother settled money on me so I have always been popular with my peers because of that. I never tried to fool myself of why I was so sought after either. In high school I was always in the 'in' crowd. Calvin dated me, but I always felt it was strictly one way on the love train. I never was the clinging type and I guess I never made the depths of my feelings known to Calvin. He told me when we met again last Christmas, that he wished I had. He said I came off as not really caring, when in actuality, I would have died to have him love me back.
"I went on to school and have become a well-respected prosecutor. My love life was almost nil up until Christmas when I ran into Calvin again. I was more open this time around and welcomed his advances, telling myself if I couldn't have all of him, I could at least enjoy a part of him. Surprisingly, he came to love me very quickly and as deeply as I loved him. We had a short engagement, for from the first date we were making love just as a married couple would.
"Now he is gone. I'm still rich, I'm still homely and now I'm also pregnant. I feel the only chance I have for a satisfying life from now on is to buy a husband. I know that rarely works and I need my self-respect to hold my head up and look at myself in the mirror. Calvin had given me directions to the camp here, so I thought the perfect solution would be to come here, cry a little and take the easy way out."
"Changed your mind a little since yesterday morning when you started out?"
"More than a little. You have mentioned the baby a few times. Right now I'm awake to the fact that I almost committed murder on Calvin's baby. How could I have been so stupid?"
"I guess your priorities have changed. This is good."
"They wouldn't have if you hadn't been here."
"But I was here, so we don't need to go over that again. Are you going to sit down and rethink your life now?"
"Yes I am. Hey, I have had a man that I loved and one that loved me. If I never have that again, so be it. Maybe if I smile a little more people will look past my countenance and see the real me."
"It could happen that way. Go for it." Ashley went back over her life and filled in the blanks. She was an eloquent speaker and could paint a picture of what her life had been like. Parts of it were sad and those around her hurt her often, but I felt she was overly sensitive and said so. People seldom set out to really hurt a person and often it is the perception of the so-called victim who finds the hurt coming from their own mind. Ashley gave instances and when I tried to reinterpret them for her, she saw what I meant.
Ashley's way of thanks was to say, "Calvin said you were wise and he was right. Why didn't I know you years ago?"
Lunch consisted of cold cereal and a small mixed drink of brandy and milk. Mine was mostly brandy and Ashley's was mostly milk. I reminded her that alcohol wasn't good for the fetus. "How long are we staying here?"
"We'll have to leave right after breakfast tomorrow morning because the food will be gone. We have to pop your vehicle out of the mud. It is Calvin's jeep isn't it?"
"Yes, he said it knew the way. I wish the jeep could have told me about the mud. I buried it."
"Not too much of a problem. We will just grasshopper it out."
"What do you mean?"
"I can't explain it. I'll show you tomorrow. I have everything here to do it with anyway. Don't feel too bad about the mud hole. Calvin buried it at least four times that I can remember."
"Milo, I've told you about my life. Calvin said you were an unhappy person sometimes. Do you want to tell me why?"
"Sure, why not. First I want you to know I'm only four years older than you and Calvin. I know I look years older than I actually am. All I ever wanted was a wife, two kids and a good job to support them. I have had all of that and all at the same time, too. Now I don't have anything or at least anything I can call mine. I'm divorced from my wife. My two kids, aged six and seven, are with her and I had to sell the business and my home in the divorce settlement.
"When I think back to our life together, I wonder if my wife ever loved me. I think I was a starter husband for her and that was her intention from the day she met me. I never knew that she was planning on dumping me or that she already had my replacement waiting in the wings. That fact didn't surface until after the settlement was finalized. Children weren't in her plans, but when she asked for an abortion to terminate her pregnancies, I objected so strongly she went full term with them.
"What hurts the most, I don't really know how much love she has for them or if she is using them as pawns. The final decree says I'm supposed to have the kids for a month which is coming up in two weeks. Right at the present I don't have a home to bring them to, except this place here. I came up yesterday to try to figure out how I am going to manage. My wife knows there are no facilities and is going to object if she finds out I am bringing them here, so this place is out."
"Why did you have to sell your business? Calvin said it was a fast food franchise, I think."
"It was. The thing of it was when we bought the franchise, I borrowed $50,000 and Jean put up $5,000. I had to admit that money of hers is what made it possible to purchase the franchise, so in the eyes of the law she was entitled to half. I borrowed in my name so I was responsible for the note and she wasn't. The house went the same way. My child support isn't too heavy for I don't have much, but it will go up when I find a job. All of the assets I had left, I put into the hands of my attorney and he is paying the child support out of an annuity he bought for me with the money."
I was becoming dejected the longer I explained my situation.
"So where are your wife and children now?"
"She is remarried and the kids are with her in her new husband's home. He has three children, but they are older than mine by ten years or so. I often wonder how his kids like it with stepsiblings in residence. I'll find out in a couple of weeks when I get them--if I can."
"Who did your ex-wife marry?"
"Some attorney by the name of James Burgess."
"Oh shit, I know him. I don't know too much good about him either. I can't imagine a woman dumping you for him."
I laughed. "He must be pretty bad for you to feel that way. Remember I'm the guy who you didn't know 24 hours ago. Since you've met me, I've fired a gun at you and made you pee your panties. You were sure I was trying to kill you. And I gave you the chance to carry out your plan to destroy yourself after that. Yeah, I'm a really good guy."
"Yes all that, and you've fed me and listened to me and let me cry on your shoulder. You've also shown me the error in my thinking. And you took me out and sat me where I could see the most beautiful sky in the universe. Not once have you said I was wrong, you let me come to that conclusion on my own. Yeah, you're bad, you are."
"It wasn't me. It was there in your mind all the time. You just had to pause and find it. Well maybe I'd like to take credit for the pause."
"Okay Milo, I know all about your troubles. What about you? What can you do? Other than operate a fast food restaurant. Can you cook, can you keep books, weld metal, you must have a hobby or something you can capitalize on? You've built this place, so maybe it's carpentry. How about going to a trade school and learning to do something different?"
"God Ashley, you make it sound easy. That is great, but it takes money and I'm broke, remember?"
"How is your credit? Did that go the way your marriage did? For some reason I feel you still have excellent credit."
"It is okay, I guess. My attorney said I could file bankruptcy, but I paid all of my bills instead. The only asset I have left is this place and my half is only worth about eight thousand and that would be stretching it."
"It is worth a lot more than that. I am never going to sell my half and I'm hoping you won't either. If you need to raise some money and need to tie this up to do it, come to me first. We can work out something. This place is part of something good that has happened to me and I'll never ever let it go."
The evening activities were the same as last night--the moon came up and the stars came out. I went to bed first, but couldn't go to sleep as soon as I had last night. About an hour after the moon was up, I heard Ashley come in and crawl into the lower bunk. It wasn't long before I could hear her sobbing quietly.
"Are you okay?"
"Yes I'm fine. I was just thinking my baby will never have a daddy. As long as you and Calvin were friends, I was thinking of asking you to be an uncle. Would you do that for me?"
"Of course I will. Thank you for thinking of me." I was smiling when I finally slept.
Every last smidgen of food was consumed at breakfast. Before we were ready to leave, I rummaged around in a box behind the stove and got out four short poles and four light, but strong chains. "I keep these here for getting vehicles out of the mud. We have to carry them, but they will fit in my backpack just fine. I'll hide them beside the trail and bring them back up the next time I come." Ashley was about to ask how they were used, but remembered that I said it was hard to explain and it was easier just to show her.
When we got down to the mud hole, I could see that Ashley had driven right in but didn't get too far before all four wheels were spinning. The jeep had settled in some, so it was going to be messy getting it out. "You watch and see how I do this. You may have to do it yourself sometime."
I put one pole down beside the left hand wheel so that it stuck out in front and back about four inches. I took the small chain and passed it through the holes in the wheel and hooked it as tight as I could. I did the same to the left front wheel. Next I went around to the right side and did the same, except I made them as vertical as I could. "Give me your key and I will back you out."
Ashley stood off to the side and watched as the wheels turned, the poles went down into the mud and jacked the jeep up, first one side and then the other, all the while jerking the jeep backwards. The minute the rear wheels reached solid ground, I undid those two poles and backed up until the whole vehicle was where the tires could gain traction. "This works best on a jeep because the fenders are not down over the sides of the wheel. Where wheels are covered with fenders you can only have the pole sticking out on one side and have to be careful not to let the wheel go all the way around, or you will rip the fender off. Still going slow and being careful, it can be done. The jeep, with its four wheel drive, helps a lot too."
"Where did you ever learn a trick like that? It is amazing."
"My father told me about it and he heard it from my grandfather. Back when the roads were mostly dirt and unimproved, ways had to be found to get out of mud holes. I can just visualize a bunch of car owners talking about how to unstick their cars 80 or 90 years ago. This way seemed to work the best and the principle still stands. Henry Ford even approved of it when he was shown how good it worked."
"It sure does work."
I hid the poles and chains under some nearby brush and Ashley gave me a ride the rest of the way down the mountain. When we reached the bottom, I showed her where my car was parked and where the path began I took to reach the cabin up on the mountain.
Standing by my car and ready to get into it, we both felt awkward and didn't know what to say to each other. "Milo, my life has changed in the last couple of days. I feel as if I have been reborn. I haven't asked, but where are you staying?"
"I'm crashing in a friend's basement until I find something."
"I feel like I ought to do something for you, but I don't know what. Would you let me have your friend's address so I can keep in touch?"
"Sure, I don't mind." I wrote it out on a piece of paper. "That is right next to where my home was for several years. It is a little depressing living there, but I try not to dwell on it." I had a word for her too. "Ashley, if you get to feeling blue, would you call me and we'll hike up the mountain?"
"I'll do that, but count on me not waiting until I'm blue."
For some reason I wanted to hug Ashley, but felt that would be too forward, so I just shook her hand. When our vehicles hit the blacktop, Ashley was gone like a big-assed bird. The jeep was an early edition, Korean war, but Ashley drove it as if it had just left the factory. For two miles mud flew out of the tire treads or off the chassis where it had settled into the mud and clung there. I came up to her five miles up the road where a trooper had her pulled over. I tooted when I went by. She was an officer of the court, so she would make out just fine I was sure.
That night lying in my bed, I thought over the two days that had just passed. I was pretty pleased with what had transpired. It had solved none of my problems, but if Calvin was looking down, I felt he would have been pleased by my actions. I went to sleep thinking that.
I was sitting in the living room with my friend and his family two days later. It was just after dinner and everyone was relaxing. His front doorbell chimed. His son answered it. "Is this where Milo Burns is staying?"
Mikey replied, "Yes it is."
I knew it was Ashley. Before I could get out of my chair, Mikey had led her into the living room. "Hi Milo, I've been thinking about your problem and I may have a temporary solution. Can we go somewhere so I can tell you about it?"
"Sure." I made introductions and told Patrick and Linda that this was my friend, and Calvin's widow. Before we got into her car she asked which place I had lived at formerly. I pointed it out and she admired how nice I had made it. I bragged some, because I was proud of my landscaping abilities.
"You did all of that yourself?"
"Yes and I had plans for doing more, but I ran out of wife." I chuckled when I said this. Ashley flashed me a smile. "How did you make out the other day? I saw you parked beside the road talking to someone when I went by. You didn't get a ticket did you?"
Ashley's face flamed. "No, I got off with a warning, but I have promised to drive the speed limit from now on. It was kind of foolish of me. It is like you cautioning me about drinking alcohol. I wish I had someone like you with me all the time to tell me what is right and what's wrong. Damn, that didn't come out right. What I meant was--"
I broke in with, "I know what you meant. Just someone around to stop a person from doing foolish things. We all wish that. It happens to me too often." I think she was grateful she didn't have to explain further.
"Milo, you know I'm pretty well off. I own a two acre lot in one of the better sections of the city. It is a narrow lot that fronts on two different streets. I live in one house just off one street. There is a large building that fronts on the other. On the lower level there are three garage spaces that are used for storage. Over them there is a two bedroom apartment. The facilities are all installed, but turned off. If you need a place to have your children for a month, I can have the utilities turned on."
"What about the cost? I can't afford very much."
"I know that and I'm not suggesting you stay without paying. I need some things done around the grounds. The building you are in, although livable, needs upgrading. I remember Calvin saying that you did all of your own repairs. If you would fix up the place that you will be living in and maybe do some yard work, I will pay you what I would pay someone else to do it. I would be more comfortable having you there than some unknown renovator doing the work."
"Could I look at it first? I just want to be sure this isn't a make work job for me."
"Trust me, there is work enough that needs doing. I was taken to the cleaners one time by a carpenter and had to have the work done all over again by a different one. Now I have been leaving things until they can't wait any longer."
Ashley lived on the other side of the city and it took almost forty-five minutes to reach her home. "This is where I live. It is the worst looking house on the block. We will park here and walk across to the other building. That will give you an idea of what needs doing. First you have to fix up the other place to give you a decent home to live in and then you could start on this empty space between the two buildings."
We walked through the cluttered garage spaces on the first floor when we reached the building. There was furniture of every description, and many old appliances, too. "All of this is still good. My grandmother liked a change every so often and this is where the old stuff ended up. The apartment upstairs is empty so pick out anything here you want to use to furnish it."
I climbed the stairs behind Ashley and for the first time I had some thoughts about her and how she was put together. I stopped halfway up and turned to survey the layout below me. No way was I going to lust after this woman, Calvin's widow. She didn't need to cope with that. Besides, what was I? Whatever I was it wasn't anything she would be interested in.
I heard the door unlock and Ashley enter. I then went on up. The place was bare. It needed paint and paper and new tile in the kitchen and bath. The fixtures were of an older period, but of quality. Renovators were begging for reproductions, but these were originals and priceless. The beautiful pocket door casings enhanced the whole effect, as did the matching window casings. There was a crown molding framing the ceilings. The kitchen had a chair rail circling it. "God Ashley, this is beautiful. Are you sure you want me to live here?"
"Yes, of course I do. Let's go back downstairs and talk about what you think can be done with the place. I am a firm believer in having a plan. You can estimate what it is going to cost and I will set up an account you can draw on. I've been thinking about what I am going to pay you. Carpenters and their helpers get about five times minimum wage. I'll pay you that, but you have to pay me half of the wage for leasing the apartment. If you are still here at the end of the year and I am satisfied, I'll give you a bonus."
"That seems very fair. One question, is this a forty hour week, or is this for as many hours as I want to work and be productive at it?"
"You get compensated for every hour you work. I know you most likely worked sixteen-eighteen hours operating your fast food franchise, so work whatever you are comfortable with."
"May I start tomorrow?"
"I anticipated you would want to. We will stop up at the house and I will give you the account book. This is just for materials and any help you need to hire to get done what is needed. The utilities are going to be turned on in the morning. If you want a phone, you can get that yourself. Your wages will be paid out of my own accounts."
We walked back to the house and I was invited into Ashley's office. It was lined with law books. Her desk was cleared of clutter, and I looked at her pencils when she left to make coffee. Every single one was sharp. My father often told me you can tell a lot about a person by looking at the tools of his trade. In Ashley's case the sharp pencils indicated how together she was. I remembered she was ready to end her existence. But again I thought she wasn't going to mess up the place she was familiar with, she was going to mess up a place far away. I'd have to think on this some more at another time.
It was late when I returned to my basement bedroom. When we pulled up in front of the house, Ashley asked, "Excited about your new job?"
"More than you know. I want to thank you for providing me a chance to raise myself up again. Also, for being so careful to make sure you do nothing to go against my sensibilities. That is what I like most about you. If you had said, hey I have a place you can live in free of charge and use it until you get on your feet, I would have turned it and you down. This way I have my self-respect and I truly need that right now. So thank you."
I clasped her hand and went into the house. Pat and Linda were curious and interested in what was happening. I explained and they were happy for me. I had been in their cellar for several weeks and I knew they were not unhappy that I was leaving. Guests that stay and you don't know when they are leaving, wear on the host until they try to think of ways to get rid of you. Pat and Linda hadn't reached that point yet, but they would have.
I was excited. I had a job and I was pretty much working for myself. Sure I never would get rich, but if you are doing something you enjoy, it doesn't matter. And the address I had. Wow! In this section of town addresses meant something. Wait until my ex-wife had to mail me something, she would roll over with envy. Now if I could only have my daughters living here with me, my life would be just about perfect.
When I reached my new home early the next morning, I walked entirely around it. It set back from the street a goodly distance. The driveway circled the building with the entrances for vehicles on the side away from the street. The drive itself was of finely crushed stone although weeds had grown into it. That street side was very plain with few windows and must have been considered an eyesore by the neighbors. I went inside and up the stairs. I measured this and that and contemplated what I wanted the apartment to look like when I finished.
It was time for one of my friends to be up so I called and asked if he would swap vehicles with me today as I needed his truck. "You working?"
"Yeah, I've gone into the renovating business. I have to get some paint and paper and stuff at Home Depot."
"Good, I knew you would find something to do." I had always helped my friends and now I was calling in the favors.
I was the first customer at the building supply store and I was there for over three hours. Returning to my new home, I made room for everything I had purchased in one of the bays by piling some furniture together. I then swapped back my borrowed truck for my car. When I went upstairs, the electricity, the gas and the water had been turned on. I started by washing the ceilings and I was finished with that by one o'clock.
Hungry, I went down the street until I found a deli. The prices were high because of the neighborhood I was in, but I bought a submarine sandwich, some milk and a pack of twinkies. Back again, I hunted around in the second bay and found an oak kitchen chair. I sat out in the sun and ate my sandwich and then leaned it back against the wall and took an hour's nap.
Back to work, I ran some masking tape over the crown molding in the kitchen. There was no need to cover the floor, for it was going to be retiled. I rolled the whitener on the ceiling and waited for it to dry to see if it needed another coat. It didn't. Next I headed for the bathroom. I took paint cloths and covered the fixtures and whitened the ceiling. I used a washable soft rose paint on the walls. Tomorrow I had some border of embossed gold and a darker rose for trim to be applied. I had inspected the shower walls again and had passed them as okay for the time being. The grout needed cleaning and there were a couple of places that the tiles were loose. I missed this when I looked the first time, so I would have to hit a hardware store. I installed a linoleum on the floor. Someday I would tile the floor--if I stayed here very long.
At nine in the evening I decided I didn't want to start any new project. I stopped at a KFC's and ate on the way home to my basement bed at Pat and Linda's. Tomorrow I would dig a bed out from the stuff packed away in one of the bays. That is if I had the ceiling and the walls finished in the smallest bedroom that I had picked for my own. When I reached the house, I just waved at Linda but stopped to ask Patrick if he could stop by my new apartment and help me move a bed and bureau up the stairs. "Bring Linda so she can pass on what I am doing."
Five a.m. I put up the screen on the ceiling to hold plaster and at five-thirty I was opening a bucket of mud. What I was trying to do, I had only done once before. It had turned out pretty good, but I knew I could do better. The biggest problem was balancing the amount of compound plastered to the screen and to get the design in before it was too stiff to work. I should have hired a helper, but I wanted this to be my project and mine alone. Why was that? I wanted to impress Ashley. I had bragged about my home and what I had done there and I wanted to show her I could do the same with this home she had given me access to.
The ceiling was finished at noon. I left for the deli. I was really hungry today because I hadn't eaten breakfast. It took two subs to fill me up. I was aware that I was pushing myself, but I only had ten days to have everything ready for my two little girls. I'd do anything for them. Tomorrow I was going to get a cell phone so I could talk to them. My nap ran over and I didn't get back to the bedroom until two o'clock. Putting paper on walls was something my father had showed me and I worked with him several times. I knew I was supposed to strip the previous paper off, but it was still bonded tightly. The only reason for changing it was because it was outdated. Besides I wanted it to complement my newly designed ceiling.
Patrick showed up at six p.m. with Linda and their two young ones. "I'm not ready for you yet. I've got to roll up the old rug and put down the new one."
"How long is that going to take?"
"Twenty minutes or more."
Linda was walking around and then started playing tag with the kids while she waited. "I'll help with the rug. Hey buddy, this is a pretty exclusive neighborhood you've arrived at."
"I know. I can't believe it myself. If it wasn't for Lindsey and Marie, I wouldn't be here."
"What do your two girls have to do with your being here?"
"When I met Ashley I was worried about the kids coming for a month as I had no place to live with them. I couldn't ask you and it wouldn't have been right anyway."
"Why didn't you say something? Linda and I would have put you up in a motel or something."
"Come on Patrick, I've imposed on you long enough. Things are just coming together for me for a change. It won't be long before I have a little money and then I'm going to do something nice for you and Linda."
"Yeah, like you really have to. I can think of at least a half dozen times when I needed you to help me. We aren't even yet and most likely never will be. Let's get that rug up and get the new one down. Where is the furniture we have to move?"
"Behind that door in the second bay. It will take a few minutes to dig it out." I pushed the door open and Patrick looked in.
"Hey Linda, you want to see some antiques? Would you take a look at these that Milo has to furnish his apartment with? There is even one of those hall trees you have been searching ages for." He turned to me. "You better watch out, Linda may be stealing it."
"Will not. It is beautiful though. Lucky you."
Patrick and I got the old rug rolled and down. It was nothing special and I had left it until I was finished so I didn't have to lay down drop cloths. I used Ashley's money to purchase the Turkish rug to replace it with, but intended to pay for it myself. It wasn't real, of course, as it was machine made. I loved the colors and it brought out the accent of the paper I had used on the walls.
The rug actually had the brightest colors in the room. If you were lying in bed, you wanted to see restful. When you put your feet on the floor, you wanted to be woken up. Therefore the color splash. I would know in a few minutes what the effect would be. This was why I had asked Patrick to bring Linda.
The bedstead was a walnut four-poster and had hand carvings on both the headboard and footboard. I wanted it when I first saw it, but I worried if modern mattresses would fit, so I had measured it carefully. It was fine so this was the one I would use. There was a matching dresser and armoire. The closet in this bedroom was so small that it was almost ineffectual, so the armoire went in front of it. I picked out a straight chair. Sometime I might want to have it recovered, for the gold brocade was worn in several places.
I placed everything carefully and called Linda to come up and look. It was a good thing that the two kids did not come up with her. She was known to swear on occasion. "Fast fucking food. You did that for how many years and you can do things like this? You are a decorator of the first class. Oh Milo, this room is beautiful. The four-foot rose detailed into the ceiling plaster and the paper with the little embossed tea roses just go together so well. Have you done any more?"
I showed her the bathroom, which to me was nothing special and then I told her of the plans I had for the living room and the other bedroom. As Patrick and Linda were leaving, she asked about the rug with the bright colors and I gave her my thoughts. "I knew it worked but I didn't know why. I think you've got it. I love it!"
The other room I finished the next day. I did this one in light blue. Bluebells on the ceiling and accented bluebells for a figure in the wallpaper. The floor covering, I went conservative and ordered an off-white wall-to-wall. There was a pair of twin brass beds in the storage and a matching pair of painted dressers. The effect was just right for a little girl's room. I know Lindsey and Marie will love it. This room had a fair-sized closet which didn't need any attention at all. (Thank God!)
The next day my hands and fingers were sore and as I had been working over my head, I had a stiff neck. I didn't want Ashley to think I was goofing off, so I gave this day to her front yard. She had some lovely shrubs, but all needed pruning and shaping. Completing this, I edged her walk, digging the grass away to more clearly define it. I did this both on the sidewalk and the walk up to the front door. I discovered that one of the posts that held the railing up the steps was very loose, so I straightened and strengthened that.
Her blacktopped driveway seriously needed painting and waterproofing so after I had done the edging, I painted it. I found a sawhorse in the garage and placed it at the street end. I left a sign on this not to use the driveway until six p.m. As I was picking up my tools, an elderly lady came along the sidewalk. "Young man, come here, I want to speak to you."
I walked over to see what she wanted. "I've watched you all day. You work harder than anyone I have ever seen. What company do you work for?"
"No company. I'm on my own. I'm kind of a handyman. I met Mrs. Winslip a few days ago and have been doing some things for her."
"What can you do besides yard work?"
"Just about anything. I have been doing painting and plastering in her other building behind this one."
"You charge a lot?"
"Mrs. Winslip agreed to pay me carpenter's wages. I think I'm worth it."
"How much are you going to charge for what you've done right here?"
I glanced at my watch. I had been here about eight hours. "I'm going to bill her for two hundred dollars, plus the cost of the paint for the driveway. She gets that for what it costs."
"I'll give you an extra five dollars an hour if you will come and do some work for me."
"I'm sorry, I've signed up long term with Mrs. Winslip. She has just lost her husband, you know."
"No, I didn't. She hasn't been married very long. I met her husband once and liked him. What happened?"
"He was killed in Iraq. He was a friend of mine."
"She never said anything. Oh, I must tell her how sorry I am. To think this had to happen and you are such a nice person to be here for her."
"I don't think feeling sorry for her is what she needs. What she needs is a friend she can talk to. I come from a different type of community. I have friends up and down the street for a couple of blocks where I used to live. We support each other when something bad happens and have a party when something good happens. If a family is having personal problems, we don't take sides, but other than that we are there for them."
"Do you have a family?"
"I did. Now I only have two daughters. They will be visiting with me in a couple of weeks. You may have a chance to meet them, for they will be here while I am working."
"I would like to meet them. I'll watch and if I see them, I'll stop over."
"I'm sure they will enjoy meeting you as much as I have."
"Aren't you a sweet young man."
I knew Ashley would be home soon and I wanted to leave before she arrived. Why? Who knows. Sometimes I felt awkward around her. Maybe because I felt so much gratitude for her giving me a way to get back on my feet. I didn't get away in time. I was pushing my wheelbarrow back across the lot when Ashley came rushing up beside me.
"Hi stranger, how's the job going?"
"Fine, really fine. I've been working on the apartment for three days now, mostly on the ceilings and had a crick in my neck. I thought I would goof off for a day."
"Goofing off, bullshit! You've done a week's work on the front of my house today. I'm impressed."
I chuckled. "You aren't the only one. The lady across the street watched me and offered me more money to come work for her."
"You didn't accept did you?"
"Nope. I said you were a friend of the family and I had a long-term contract with you. She does want to meet my kids though, when they come to stay with me."
"Which lady are you talking about?"
"I don't know her name, but she is about 85 I would guess. She is real friendly." I gave Ashley more of a detailed description.
"That must be Mrs. Hamlin. I wouldn't call her friendly. She has lived across the street from me for several years and we haven't spoken ten times."
"Ashley, have you gone over and spoken to her? Calvin did. I had to tell her he was dead. Tears came to her eyes."
"But things like that aren't done here. People keep to themselves."
"I don't know. They just do."
"Why don't you change them? Think back when you learned that Calvin had been killed and it tore your world apart. If you had gone and shared your grief with Mrs. Hamlin, you wouldn't have taken Calvin's gun and tried to kill yourself, would you?"
"Okay, you've escaped, but what about someone down the street. What if another young mother learns her husband has been killed and there are neighbors all around her, but no one comes to console her. She may not have a Milo Burns right there at the right time. What then?"
"Damn you Milo, you make me think too much. What about you?"
"Hey, when Jean told me she was leaving me and taking the kids, I felt like you did when you lost Calvin. I went over and cried on Patrick and Linda's shoulders and it wasn't long before all my neighbors knew. Several stopped by just to say hi. It helped a lot and that saved me so I was there to save you when it was necessary." I had enough of this. "Hey, the deli down the street has great sub sandwiches. Let's go get a couple? You might meet the neighbor whose life you're going to save someday."
"I go by there every day, but I've never bought anything. Okay, let's go for it. Besides I want to see what you've done to my house."
"I wasn't going to show you until I had the living room done, but I guess I can stand it if you can. If you had waited one more day you would have really seen some progress."
When we entered the deli, three of the clerks shouted, "One Italian sub coming up, hold the pickles, load the black olives, mayo on the side. Milk and twinkies to go. Who is the lady with you?"
"This is the lady I'm working for. Tonight she is inspecting my work. If she likes it, I'll be in tomorrow for the usual. If she doesn't, I'll be in asking for a job. Ashley, meet Karen, Pete and Bill. What are you going to have?"
Ashley's face was red. I embarrassed her, not from what I said, but because in her world, attention was never drawn to a person. She struggled out with, "I'll have the same."
When we were paying, the cashier reached across and clasped Ashley's hand. "Dear, I feel for you. My son is over there, and I worry all the time he won't be coming home. He wanted to go, so it was his decision. I'll just die if anything happens to him. Pray for me, just like I pray that your pain will pass." Tears of sorrow started in both Ashley's and the cashier's eyes.
"I will pray that he comes home, and thank you for caring."
"Milo, you brought me here on purpose didn't you? Why did she have to know I lost Calvin?"
"She didn't and I didn't tell her directly. I learned her boy was over there and I said I had just lost a good friend that I had for years. I said I worked for his widow. She saw a chance to reach out to you, so she did. By the way, you said just the right thing to her. You both feel better now, and if grief comes to her, she will know she isn't alone. Let's go eat. I worked hard today and need sustenance."
As we were going up the stairs I said, "You know we are going to be eating in the bedroom. It is the only place I have to set things down, including ourselves."
"If it was anyone but you, I'd be concerned."
"That's right, not to worry, sweet one." I changed the subject. "Go in the bathroom first. I am mostly done in there. Then look into the bigger bedroom. That is all done except for the off-white carpet which I have ordered, and I want to tint the design on the ceiling with a little color. That is where my girls will be sleeping. The smaller room I picked for myself is all done except for tinting the rose on the ceiling."
I watched Ashley open the bathroom door and glance in. Then she did as directed and went into the girls' room. I expected (wanted) some reaction. The door closed and stayed that way for maybe five minutes. Then she came out and went into the other room. Same thing--door closed--wait five minutes--door open. She faced me. "Milo, I really don't know what to say. I have no words for it. I could go in there--into either one and stay. They are beautiful. Where did you learn to do that?"
"I have done only one other, but I'm getting better all the time. I watched a real artist do this and asked questions until I got inside his mind and could see the principle behind it all. He is dead now, more's the pity. He was a genius. It gets easier. I'm really concerned about this ceiling in the living room. I don't know if I can work fast enough to keep the mud working. I need someone to be here and hand me stuff or hold a tool."
"Could someone like me be of help?"
"Certainly. Would you like to help me? I'm going to do it tomorrow."
"I need to get started by six, if that isn't too early."
"I'll be here. I'm due for a day off."
"Ashley, would you do me one favor? I need to call my ex and tell her I have a place to live that is suitable for the girls. I want to verify for sure that she is going to let them stay with me. If there is any question about the address you can speak with her. Please?"
"Sure, go ahead and call. Do you want to eat our sandwiches first?"
"No, I want to get this over with."
I called. Jean's new husband answered. "Attorney James Burgess speaking."
"Hello, may I speak to Mrs. Burgess, please? This is her ex-husband calling about our children."
"I'll see if she is available. Hang on."
I could hear Burgess talking to Jean in the background. He came back on. "If this is about the kids staying with you a month this summer, she doesn't want to talk to you."
"Now look, Mr. Burgess, I gave up the right to see my children every other weekend because Jean said it was too disruptive. She agreed that I could have them for the month of July. Is she saying that I can't now?"
"That is correct."
Ashley saw how things were going, so she took the phone from my hand. "Attorney Burgess, this is Prosecutor Ashley Nelson. I have a question for you. Do you practice family law? If you are advising your wife to withhold visitation rights from Milo Burns, I think you are giving her the wrong advice. I will state this is only my own opinion, but it won't take me long to find out if she is within her rights. Do you understand me?"
Ashley winked at me. "Fine Attorney Burgess, give the phone to your wife and let Mr. Burns speak to her. The children are the primary concern here and I want to see that they are treated the way the courts say they should be. For your information, I find Mr. Burns fully qualified to care for his children for this short period. He has a fine home to bring them into and has worked hard to provide it for them." She handed the phone back to me.
I could hear Burgess and Jean talking heatedly. From what I could gather, Burgess was urging Jean now to comply in all things which wasn't the case before. "Hi Milo, it has been quite a while since we have spoken."
"Yes it has and you have seemed to want it that way. I admit I haven't tried very hard, for my prospects weren't very good. However, those prospects have improved, and I think shortly we should return to court and have our agreements reviewed."
"If you say so. Can't we keep this between ourselves? The girls are happy with you out of their life. They never mention you anymore."
"We will see after they are with me for the month. Do you want to bring them here or shall I come and get them?"
"I'll bring them to you. That is a week from today, isn't it?"
"Yes Jean, you know it is. Now if you have paper and pencil, I'll give you the address." Ashley was scribbling madly on a pad she had picked up. I looked at it.
She had written, "Use my address."
"Jean, the address is, The Winslip residence, 400 Bellevue Avenue. Ashley gave your husband her professional name of Nelson, if he can't figure it out. You might not have heard, but Calvin died in Iraq about a month ago. Ashley is his widow."
"Milo, I didn't know he was dead. I'm sorry for you. I know how long you had been friends. Would you express my condolences to his widow?" I could hear the sorrow in Jean's voice, so I knew she was sincere. "I'll bring the girls over on Thursday morning early, if that is all right." That is the way we left it.
I turned to Ashley. "If you hadn't been right here and applied some pressure I wouldn't be having my kids in a week's time. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. By the way, Jean wanted me to express her condolences. She knew Calvin, although they never got along that well. I think she suspected he could see right through her, but I'm sure she means what she said and is sorry he has been taken from us."
"That is nice of her. If I see her I will thank her. Now take me to your bedroom and feed me."