Chapter 1: All Our Past Times

There was no "Bernie." It was just a made-up name from long ago, and no one remembered its origin. "Backstreet Bernie's," however, was a sacred watering hole for me and a number of the locals. Nick Kleinhof was bartender during most afternoons and evenings. He was also the owner, and as you soon discovered, no one ... I mean no one ... messed with Nick.

He was built like a brick shithouse as the saying goes, and more than once I'd watched him bounce some drunken clown out of his place without breaking a sweat. It was one of those life's-lessons that stuck with you. It was also one of the reasons that I liked Bernie's as a place to hang out. Nick was my kind of guy, not to mention the possessor of the universal bartender talent of being a good listener.

I was sitting in my customary place at the bar, drinking my customary dark ale. We'd long ago agreed neither of us would bring up the subject of my divorce and the distancing of my two sons. It was still raw after two years, and I wondered if I'd ever get over it. I'd gotten over my ex-wife, Georgia, quite quickly. But missing the boys was another matter entirely.

Terry and Matt were eleven and nine respectively, and I wondered how often they thought of me. We had been surreptitiously in contact by e-mail, but there was little else in the way of communication. Phone calls were met with excuses that the boys were in bed, or out playing with friends, or some other reason they couldn't come to the phone.

My ex-wife and her new husband had promptly moved two thousand miles east to Chicago as soon as the divorce was final. With me left in Yuba City, my financial state wouldn't permit me to visit the boys very often, and Georgia made sure that any attempt to do so would be thwarted by a variety of inconveniences. It was her transparent attempt to isolate me from them. That and the idiotic cascade of gifts that her new husband, Leonard Saunders, plied the two young guys with to keep them from missing me. As if it was all about toys.

Despite all that, I still heard from them telling me about their new lives and the wonderful house and goodies that Leonard had provided. Georgia made no bones about the fact that she had "traded up." She had generously left me the house, complete with mortgage, along with what little savings we had. She made it clear there was nothing from her "old life" that she wanted other than the boys.

She had met Leonard at some work function, and his seduction had begun almost immediately. I was blindsided by her unexpected announcement that she was leaving me and taking the boys with her. I was also reminded that the lawyers handling the divorce would see me in the poorhouse if I was stupid enough to contest it. God bless our courts and family law systems.

Georgia was an attractive woman who spent quite a bit of time each morning making sure she was just that. She had gained some pounds with the birth of our boys, but nothing most women would worry about. She was not gorgeous, but had always been attractive. She looked her thirty-five years, but no more.

Leonard was a slick, graying, predator, seven or eight years older than my ex-wife. Twice divorced I'm told, but a clever enough businessman to amass a substantial nest egg, and had the skills to add to it. I never did quite figure out why they had to move away, but that's what happened almost immediately when they were free of me.

The whole thing had come about so suddenly, that it took a while to comprehend what had happened. I had no clue that she was cheating on me, but obviously she had been ... and for some time it would seem. I was the clueless husband, easy meat for a guy like Saunders. I wondered if this had been his first conquest of a married woman. I also wondered if Georgia knew what she might be letting herself in for. Once a cheat, always a cheat, as my friend Johnny Gordon would say; after the fact of course.

So ... back to Nick. I was discussing the various people problems I was having at the office. I was both office manager and de facto computer geek at Big Valley Box, a mid-size corrugated container manufacturer supplying cartons mainly to the central valley fruit and vegetable packing houses. It was a successful company, and I had worked my way up in the organization to office manager, despite the fact that I was neither an accountant nor a business administration graduate. I was pretty proud of my accomplishment, but apparently Georgia thought it was no big deal.

My problems lay within the staff, and particularly the female staff. There was some hostility between a couple of the women, and I suspect it related to their choice of men; both of them wanting the same one. My problem was made worse by the fact that both of the women were valuable employees, good at their jobs. I was trying to figure out how to separate them from each other, yet still have them both working in my department.

Nick, the consummate listener, had been paying attention while he wiped down some glasses fresh out of the washer. I had learned to give him time and not try to rush a comment from him. Quick answers weren't his forte. At last, he stopped and turned to me.

"Why don't you sit down with them, both together at the same time, and see if they will spit out what it's going to take to make them happy. You might not like the answer, but at least it might tell you what your chances are of a reasonable solution."

Typical Nick. Go right to the problem and hit it head-on. I thought about it, and after a few moments, I nodded.

"I can't think of a single reason why I shouldn't try that approach, Nick. As always, you boiled it down to the essentials."

We chatted some more as I nursed my ale, Nick being called away to serve the waitress. As I looked down the bar, I saw a woman sitting on a stool several places down from me. I didn't recognize her as one of Nick's regulars, but then I wasn't here every day, all day. What I did notice was that she seemed out of place at the bar. If she'd been in one of the booths, or at a table, she wouldn't have attracted my attention, but she was sitting at the bar.

When Nick returned, I scrunched up my face into a question mark and nodded toward the woman.

Nick leaned over the bar and said quietly, "Her last name is Michaels, but I can't remember her first name. It's an unusual one. She comes in once in a while. Just has a glass of wine and doesn't want company, but she will talk to me. She's a war widow. Her husband got killed by one of those roadside bombs. She's got a couple of young kids and she's trying to make a living sewing dresses, or something like that. I guess those army benefits don't help that much."

"So I've heard. That's tough ... a couple of kids too. That's tough."

I looked down the bar at the woman. She was absorbed in studying the wine glass in front of her. She didn't look like she was learning very much.

My visits to Backstreet Bernie's were confined to occasional after-work weekdays, and Saturday afternoons. I limited my intake to one pint, although I might have a second one on Saturday. I would arrive after work for an hour or so, and Saturday mid-afternoon for a couple of hours. It wasn't always that way. When Georgia first announced her departure, I was here almost every day, and the inevitable over-consumption of alcohol caused Nick to intervene. But Nick never did anything in a conventional manner.

At first he wanted to hear my story. It wasn't unique, apparently. He'd heard it, or something very much like it, many times before. While I was pouring out my guts in despair, he was listening and nodding and sympathizing ... up to a point. I think the popular word of the day is epiphany. I had an epiphany and didn't even know it. It occurred when Nick asked me a simple question.

"So, now that she's gone, along with the boys, what are you going to do about it?"

Hell of a question, that. I buried my head in my hands and started to list the possibilities.

"Well, I could hunt the bastard down and kill him. Or, I could kidnap my boys and take off for Mexico. Or ... or ... fucked if I know," I admitted.

"Of the two options you mentioned, which do you like the best?"

"Oh, kill the bastard ... for sure."

"Yeah. I can see that. Of course, there is a down side. You know ... running from the cops, getting arrested, tried, and convicted, life in prison ... you know ... that sort of thing."

I looked at Nick whose stone face remained unconcerned. It dawned on me then. There wasn't a fucking thing I could do. I didn't have the money to launch a legal campaign against them. I didn't like the idea of spending the rest of my life in prison, and I hated Mexico. The fact was, there really wasn't a thing I could do ... at least for now.

"Things have a way of changing over time," Nick said. "Your boys aren't going to be little forever. You're in touch with them, you tell me. That's a big something. It's a start. They'll probably want to hear about all the positive things you're going to do in the future. They won't want to hear about your misery. It ain't any fun for a kid."

I couldn't argue the logic, mostly because I didn't have a better idea.

"So, I should make like everything is just hunky dory? Life is great ... sorry I can't be there to share it with them?"

He looked at me with a sour shake of his head. "You know what I mean. Keep it simple. Little things. Tell them you miss them, but tell them you're making out okay."

I wasn't sure this was much of a strategy, but Nick was pretty good at distilling situations down to the basics. I'd be better off following his advice than trying to concoct some harebrained scheme to win my boys back. Besides, I'd sold the house and was now living in a two bedroom condo-apartment. The second bedroom was really an office and storage room. Where would they stay even if they could come here?

The only good news about getting the house away from Georgia was that the market had risen dramatically over the past six years that we had owned it. I'd never wanted to buy the thing in the first place. It was pretentious and bigger than we needed, even with two active children. But Georgia insisted, and since our combined incomes would support the mortgage, I reluctantly agreed to take the plunge.

Now, I was going to be the beneficiary of that market. It looked like I could make at least a hundred thousand dollars clear after the sale, and retiring the mortgage. It was one of those tiny little bright spots in an otherwise dark period in my life. The condo was a foreclosure and needed a lot of work inside to repair the damage from the previous drug-addled owners. I had the skills, and I could do the work. The down payment and fixing it took a large chunk of my savings, but it would be worth it. I could re-mortgage for a considerable sum if I really needed cash.

Oh ... I took Nick's advice and sat the two women down, and in as blunt a fashion as I could manage, asked them what the hell it would take to get them to co-exist in a civilized fashion. They looked at me, then looked at each other, then burst out laughing. What the hell?

"Okay, you two. What's going on?"

"We were arguing over which one of us was going to date you first," Marilyn said, still giggling.

Now that, I didn't expect. "Are you serious? You cause me no end of grief and it's about which of you gets to date me?"

They looked pretty sheepish when I put it that way. "Yeah," Sandra answered.

"Did it ever occur to you that I might not want to date either of you?" I asked, almost raising my voice.

They looked at each other in shock. Apparently it hadn't. Sandra was the only one to respond. "But ... we thought ... you know ... I mean ... with being alone and all ... maybe..." They both seemed completely surprised that I might not consider them date material.

"Look, ladies. I'm your boss. It's against company policy for me to fraternize with employees ... especially if they are in my department. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but there isn't going to be any dates with me. Understood?"

They nodded, looking crestfallen.

"I'm flattered, though. It's good for a guy's ego that two very attractive women think I'm worth the effort. It's just a shame it can't happen," I said, hoping I hadn't badly bruised them.

They smiled in return and I was fairly certain I had resolved my most pressing personnel problems.

I wasn't lying, either. It was good for my heavily damaged ego to have women arguing with each other on who would get the chance to go out with me.

The next time I saw Nick I relayed the story and we both had a good laugh over it.

It was a couple of weeks later when I was sitting in my usual place at the bar, paying slight attention to a baseball game on the TV when I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I turned and saw a woman standing beside me, and it was apparent that she wanted to talk to me. She looked familiar, and it took me a moment to realize it was the war widow who came into Bernie's now and then.

"Yes, ma'am?" I smiled.

"Uhhm, I'm sorry to bother you, but ... Nick tells me you know something about computers," she said shyly.

"Well ... yes ... to some extent I do."

"He said you might be able to help me. I have a problem with my computer, and I can't afford to lose it for a week or so while it's getting fixed. Also, I'm on a really tight budget, so I can't spend a lot to get it fixed. I was wondering ... that is ... if it wasn't too much trouble ... if you could have a look at it."

I looked at her carefully. No make up, but a clean, lightly freckled face, clear blue eyes, pert little nose, strong chin. I'd seen her body in profile previously. Very feminine, but not outrageous. Probably five foot six inches or so. Dark brown hair, cut short. Altogether, very nice.

"Well, what seems to be the problem?" I had to start somewhere.

"It won't boot up. It just sits there and I can hear the hard drive grinding away, but nothing happens. I really need my computer to run my business. All my records and customer lists are on it."

"Okay. I can't promise anything, but why don't I have a look-see. Maybe it's something simple. Let's hope so, anyway."

She breathed a big sigh of relief. "Thank you. I really appreciate it. I'll give you my card. It has my address and phone number. When do you think you could look at it?"

I glanced at my almost empty glass and turned back to her. "Now's as good a time as any. How about I meet you at your home in twenty minutes?"

"Oh ... wonderful. Thank you so much." She walked down the bar and thanked Nick for recommending me. I wasn't so sure. I was just hoping I had enough know-how to help her. The last thing she needed to hear was that her computer was dead and had to be replaced.

She left in a hurry to get home, while I finished my beer. Nick cruised down the bar to me.

"I told her you could be trusted and wouldn't do anything to upset her. Am I right?"

I looked at him, shaking my head. "You have doubts, Nick? Shame!" I grinned. "She's as safe as she can be. I'm harmless. She has enough trouble without me giving her more."

Nick nodded and smiled. But I knew I would hear from him in a big way if I tried anything that Mrs. Michaels didn't approve of.

I arrived at the little bungalow about ten minutes after she had gotten home. I knocked and I could hear little kids hollering that someone was at the door. It wasn't until she opened it that I could see two cute little kids, a girl and a boy, standing beside their mother, wondering who I was.

"Come in, please," she said. "I'm sorry, I don't know your name. I'm Yolanda Michaels. These are my children, Deanna and Kirk."

"I'm Aaron Prentice. Nice to meet you all." It was an awkward moment as we all stood in the entranceway.

"Are you going to fix my mom's computer?" the little boy asked.

"I hope so. I'll try," I answered, smiling down at him. Both of the children were neatly dressed and clean. I shouldn't have been surprised. It mirrored their mother. "You can watch, if you want," I suggested, wondering how smart that suggestion was. At that moment, I was thinking of my own boys and how much I missed them.

"Just make sure you don't bother Mr. Prentice, children," she cautioned.

She led me to her little corner of the dining room where the PC was located. It was a pretty simple setup, with an aging cathode ray tube monitor and a cheap inkjet printer. I looked at the front of the tower, and it was an early Pentium.

"Have you had this unit a long time?" I asked carefully.

"No, only about a year. I bought it used. I couldn't afford a new one."

I nodded my understanding. I began the process of unplugging and disconnecting the cables from the tower. I spread some newspapers on the dining room table, then placed the tower and the monitor on them. I plugged cables in once more, turned on the power, and waited. And waited. And waited.

I could hear the hard drive turning, but there was no activity on the screen. I shut the unit down and pulled out my mini-tool kit. A half hour later, I was pretty sure the motherboard was pooched. I brought my laptop in from the car and linked it to the monitor just to be sure. The monitor was still working, but the image was pretty poor. I wouldn't want to be working at this station for any length of time.

It was time to give the lady the bad news. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Michaels, but I'm afraid your motherboard has a major problem. It won't be fixable. Since that's the guts of the machine, I'd say it has passed its useful life."

I could see her face fall in resignation. It was the last thing she needed to hear. I felt like hell, and I began to try and think of ways to make this problem go away. Then, like the light bulb going on over the cartoon character's head, I suddenly knew I had a solution. At least, a temporary solution.

"Maybe there is something I can do to help," I said quickly, trying to stave off tears and despair in this poor woman. "I have a laptop at home that isn't being used. I can transfer your data from your hard drive to the laptop, and you'll be back in business. You can use it for as long as you need to. I've replaced it with a newer version, and I just use it for emergencies. I can always borrow one from the office if I need one. This way, you won't be out of business. Will that work for you?"

"I can't pay you for that. I wish I could, but I just don't have any funds right now. All my money is tied up in fabrics for my home business."

"You won't owe me a thing, Mrs. Michaels. It's a loan ... no charge. I'm just glad I could help." I looked at her and could see the relief on her face. "I'm going to go home and get the laptop now and come back. It will take me a while to download your hard drive onto my unit, but by later this evening, you should be back in business."

"Oh, thank you Mr. Prentice. You're a life saver. I was so worried I couldn't run my business without the computer. That would have been devastating."

"Yeah. I'm sure it would have been. However, you should be backing up your files to disk each night. Are you doing that?"

"No ... I'm not. I didn't know I should, or how to do it. Can you show me?"

"Sure. We'll get that done tonight too. I'll only be a few minutes getting my laptop and be right back."

I headed out the door and quickly drove to my condo. I'm not sure why I felt this "rescue" was so urgent, but I did. I grabbed the now outdated ThinkPad unit and a box of CD RW disks. I was sure she wouldn't have any. Less than twenty minutes later I was knocking on her door once more. She answered and ushered me in. She had just finished putting the children to bed.

It took a while to download the hard drive into a partition that allowed me to leave my programs on the unit. Her needs were simple and took up very little space in today's terms. When I turned on the unit and watched the screen light up, I could see what a huge improvement in the visual quality the laptop offered. Mrs. Michaels could see it too.

"Oh ... wow. Look at that! It's so bright and clear. This is going to spoil me for that old monitor."

I smiled as I watched her work toward her programs. She had been using an old version of Windows 2000, now long obsolete. I had Windows XP on the laptop, but she would need a brief tutorial from me. In the meantime, she was going through her files to make sure everything was there. Luckily, nothing had been corrupted by the failure of the motherboard.

Her sigh of relief when I turned the machine over to her was audible and a pleasure to hear. She really did need my help and she really did appreciate it.

"Oh, Mr. Prentice ... thank you so much. You've saved me from so much grief. I can't tell you how grateful I am."

"You're welcome, but you can call me Aaron. If we run into each other at Bernie's, you can buy me a pint of ale in payment."

"That's the least I can do. What should I do about this old computer?"

I guess I was in a weakened condition when I said, "I'll trade you the laptop for it. You can keep the printer."

She looked at me in shock. "No ... I couldn't do that. That's not fair to you."

"It isn't about fair. You need a good, working computer. You have to keep a roof over your head, and your children in food and clothes. If this computer will help do that, then it's a fair trade." I gave her the impression I wasn't about to take no for an answer.

She blinked several time, perhaps on the verge of tears. I turned away to allow her a moment. "Thank you," she said quietly.

I nodded and picked up the tower and monitor. They would go in the office electronics recycling bin tomorrow. She held the door for me as I stepped out onto the porch.

"Thank you again, Aaron. I don't know what I would have done without your generosity. Thank you."

"You're very welcome. Glad I could help. Perhaps I'll see you again at Bernie's."

I drove home feeling better than I had in many months. When I thought about it, I really didn't need the old laptop for emergencies. It was two or three generations newer than Mrs. Michaels' old desktop, so she would see a much quicker response on the computer.

It felt good to help someone who really needed it. She was struggling to earn enough money to support herself and her family. She had been a housewife before her husband had been called up from reserves to active duty. She had no real business skills, but apparently she could sew and create clothes from patterns, and there was a limited market for that. Life couldn't be easy for her, and there probably wasn't much opportunity to enjoy any luxuries.

It was a couple of weeks before I thought of Yolanda Michaels again. It was a Tuesday, and I had dropped into Bernie's for my usual pint. It was pretty quiet at five o'clock, so Nick had some time to chat.

"You sure made a friend in Mrs. Michaels," he said.

"Oh ... good. I guess she told you about the computer."

"She couldn't get over how you would do that for her. That was a hell of a thing, Aaron. Not too many people would have done something like that for a person they'd just met."

"Aw ... she was in trouble and I could help. What the hell ... no big deal."

"That's not the way she sees it. Anyway, nice goin'. That beer is on the house."

"Thanks. I'll have to find more good deeds to do if there's a nice pint of suds at the end of the rainbow."

Nick laughed and moved back down the bar. I thought about Yolanda again. I did have that Open Office program that I could give her. Maybe when I saw what she was doing, I could help her with some other programs I had. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see her and the kids again. I was remembering how good I felt when I was in that house. I could use another "fix."

I phoned her at seven o'clock, and she answered almost immediately.

"Hi, Yolanda, it's Aaron Prentice. I just remembered I had a copy of a program that might help you. If you like, I could come over and load it on the laptop and show you how it worked."

"Oh ... Aaron, nice to hear from you. What kind of program are you talking about?"

"Well, your old Windows was obsolete and you don't have much experience with the newer one that I replaced it with. Also, you may want to do your own billing and accounting on the machine. I've got a program for that. I could come over anytime and show you how they worked."

"Oh, well ... uhhm ... I guess it would be okay. You really don't have to do this, you know. You've done so much for us already."

"To tell the truth, I need to do this to get enough credits for my Boy Scouts Good Citizenship badge," I joked.

She laughed. It was the first time I'd ever heard her laugh, and I wish I'd been there to see it first hand.

"Oh, well then, I guess it's all right. I know the kids want to see you again, so why don't you come over before I put them to bed?"

The kids wanted to see me? What the hell? "Uhhm ... great. I'll see you in a few minutes."

I was a bit stunned at what she had said, and couldn't figure out why the children would have asked for me. They'd only seen me for a few minutes when I first arrived. Did I have as big an impression on them as they had on me?

I knocked on the door and immediately heard pounding little footfalls running to open it. Kirk had just beaten his sister to the door and they both were wrestling with it to let me in. I laughed, but their mother didn't think it was quite as funny.

"You two behave yourselves. Mr. Prentice is a guest," she said sternly. They quieted down immediately, but I could see the smiles on their faces as they watched me enter.

"Hi Deanna, Hi Kirk," I said as I watched their mother close the door behind me. "Nice to see you guys again."

"What are you going to do to the new computer, Mr. Prentice?" Deanna asked.

"Well, I have a couple of programs that I think will help your mother when she's using it. I'm afraid they aren't games, though."

"That's okay, we know Mommy needs to work on the computer. Sometimes we get to use it too," she said proudly.

"Oh ... are you on the internet?" I asked without thinking.

"No ... we aren't on line. I wish I could afford it, but right now it's not in the budget," Yolanda explained.

I wish I'd just kept my big mouth shut. Another embarrassment for the woman. It must be hard when other kids have all these advantages and don't really appreciate it.

"Do you have computers at school?" I asked, hoping to change the topic.

Deanna was nodding, but Kirk was shaking his head. "You have to be in grade three to use the computers. Kirk is just in grade one," Yolanda explained.

"Uhhm, I don't mean to interfere, but you could use your phone line to go online."

Yolanda was getting a frustrated look, and once again I had the feeling I had stepped over the line. It was time to try and salvage the situation.

"Yolanda, you could at least get your e-mail set up and be able to communicate with your customers at no charge, no matter where they were. It would save on long distance calls."

That seemed to mollify her, and she was nodding. "I haven't even attempted to try the internet. I was afraid I'd end up with charges for doing things that I didn't even know I was doing," she confessed.

"I think I can put your mind at rest. I assume you have a fixed rate on your phone for local calls?" She nodded in the affirmative. "Good, then I can easily set you up for a basic mailbox and you'll be able to send and receive messages without any cost. Setting up with a service provider is very inexpensive, five or so dollars a month. You'll be amazed at how much you can find in the way of information. With a regular phone line, it will be pretty slow, but just the same, it's all there for you."

I had brought my "junk box" of bits and pieces with me and went out to the car to get it. Within five minutes I had a splitter on the phone outlet, with a line to the phone and a second phone cord into the back of the laptop. It took a little longer to boot up Internet Explorer, but soon enough we had established a mailbox for her business.

The kids were all eyes when they saw they would now have an internet connection. I warned them that they could only use it when their mom put in the secret password. I showed Yolanda how to do that, and she was mighty relieved. I think she may have had visions of one or the other of them stumbling onto porn sites or other undesirable locations. It would be slow, but with patience they could use the internet for all sorts of projects.

I went over the Windows XP tutorial and noticed that Yolanda was using Notebook as her word processor, so I added a copy of Open Office's word processor program to her partition. I showed her the templates and fonts, suggesting she could fool around designing all sorts of forms, from invoices, to sales messages, to ... whatever. She was nodding, and if her face was any indication, she was excited at the possibilities.

The children were put to bed a little later than usual that evening. They were as excited as their mother that they would now have internet and were busy telling their mother about all the interesting sites they could visit. I waited until they were put down for the night. Yolanda had asked me to stay, and I wasn't about to turn her down.

"I didn't think I was ever going to get them to go to sleep. They're so excited about the internet. They don't remember when we had it a few years ago. You've really been a huge help, Aaron. I don't know how to thank you enough."

"Just let me keep coming around to help where I can. I'm on my own, as Nick has probably told you. I miss my boys, and I guess in a way, I'm using Deanna and Kirk as replacements. I don't mean that the way it sounds ... I mean ... they're great kids and they've got a great mom to look after them. But ... you can't do it all yourself, so I've appointed myself as the unofficial 'Mr. Fixit' for the Michaels household."

"Oh you have, have you," Yolanda said with a sly grin. "You didn't ask for my permission, Mr. Prentice."

"Ah ... well ... in the words of the old philosopher ... it's always easier to say you're sorry than to get permission."

"I've heard that. But ... I don't want you to feel obligated, Aaron. What you've done has been a godsend. I know I keep saying thank you, but I mean it, sincerely."

"I know. When I left here that first time after I brought the laptop over, I hadn't felt so good about anything in a long time. I slept really well that night, and for several nights afterward. That hadn't happened either in a long time. Allow me to enjoy the moment when I can do something to help you. I feel good about it, and hopefully you get the benefit."

She was nodding, a slight smile on her face. "Would you like some coffee, or something? I'm sorry, I don't have any beer."

"No ... nothing thanks. Coffee will keep me awake, and that's something I'm trying to overcome."

"It's been difficult for you ... losing your sons. I can't imagine what I would do if it happened to me. I would go crazy, I think."

"I almost did. I still have bad dreams, but they're getting less and less. I haven't forgotten the boys, but I think I've come to terms with the idea that for now, I can't do anything about the situation. The law won't help me enforce the visitation rights, and they're a couple of thousand miles away, so it's a difficult problem. I'll just have to follow Nick's advice and be patient."

"Do you have any family here?" she asked.

"No. My parents live in Costa Rica. Dad retired early on a government pension, and they bought a place down there. I see them once every year or so when one or the other of us visits, but that's about it."

"My mother is nearby, thank god. At least she and the next door neighbors can baby sit for me once in a while when I need to get away for a few hours. I call them my sanity breaks. My husband's parents live in Texas, so I don't see them very much at all. There are so many grandchildren in their family that I don't think they miss my kids. It's frustrating, but I can't make them pay attention to their son's children. I know they took his death as hard as I did."

We talked for quite a while. I learned that her late husband had been very handy with tools, just as I was. He had built a workshop in the basement, and had almost finished the playroom that was destined for the kids. Yolanda had taken it over as her sewing center, but it wasn't ideal. The lighting was poor and the floor was unfinished concrete. I asked her to show me the room. In the back of my mind, it might be a project that would allow me to help once more, not to mention spend more time with the Michaels family.

When I walked downstairs with her, I was surprised. The large room was drywalled and the walls painted soft beige, the ceiling white. The floor was bare concrete, but off to one side were stacked cartons of laminated flooring. It was the "floating floor" type, with a foam underlay. I opened the door into the workshop and stopped in surprise. It was fully equipped with a table saw, miter saw, drill press, compressor, nail gun, and a variety of other tools. Some were old, and some were new. Piled in one corner was several dozen feet of one-by-four primed boards, plenty for both the base and the casing around the two doorways.

I did a little mental calculation and figured that in less than a weekend, we could finish that basement room and make it habitable for both Yolanda and the children. There were only two one hundred watt bulbs for illumination, but that was easily remedied. I had two four-tube fluorescent fixtures in my storage unit with no use for them. It would provide much more light for her work area, and still light the room well.

I was all set to get to work before I remembered I hadn't talked to Yolanda about what I had in mind.

"What do you normally do on weekends?" I asked, looking to sound out the possibility.

"Not a lot. I usually work on my sewing on Saturday morning, and then I like to get the kids out of the house if the weather isn't too bad. We go to the park, or the zoo, or to watch a baseball game. We all need a break sometime," she said smiling.

"Absolutely. So ... if I were to suggest something for this weekend, would you be willing to hear me out?"

"I suppose so. What are you talking about?"

"Well, the weatherman says Saturday isn't going to be so hot, but Sunday should be sunny. I'm going to suggest I come over Saturday morning and get to work on your room downstairs. By my estimation, I can finish the floor and do the trim on Saturday. I can install a couple of fluorescent fixtures I have at home on Sunday morning, and then we can go out to a ballgame in the afternoon. Sound okay?"

"Aaron ... what's this about? I mean ... you're willing to do all this for us. I don't really understand."

"It's simple, and it relates to what I said about that first time I was here. It's my therapy. I need it. I need contact with people, and doing things to help them. I haven't contributed much in the last two years, but now I've found a cause. The Michaels family can use my help, so here I am."

"But that's too much to ask. I feel like I'm taking advantage of you. I'm uncomfortable with all this."

"I know. I can tell. You aren't used to someone like me just barging in and insisting on doing things. But it's something that I need to do, and I know for sure that it's something that needs doing. When it's all over, the worst that can be said is that you got some work done around the house that made things better for you."

"And the best?"

I shrugged. "You've made a new friend."

"I already have that. At least, in my mind I do," she smiled.

"Well, there you go. You're already ahead. So what do you say? Saturday morning about nine-thirty too early?"

She smiled, and then she laughed. It was that laugh I heard on the telephone, and it looked even better than I imagined it would.

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Consensual / Slow /