Mark swung his leg out of the car and braced his crutch tip on the pavement. He used the crutch and the driver's door to boost himself upright, then slammed the door firmly behind him and continued around the car.
His chair was in the trunk, atop two plastic bags of groceries. It was a beauty - sleek, tubular frame, bicycle-style wheels canted inward at the tops, contoured seat and a minimal padded backrest for lumbar support. He'd paid a pretty penny for it, and it had proved worth every cent.
He unfolded the chair with the ease of long practice and set the brake before he sat. From there, it was easy to exchange his crutch for the groceries.
One of the bags caught on the trunk latch and tore. He unhooked the plastic and tried to sweep both bags into his lap, but the torn one hit his stump, bringing tears to his eyes and widening the rip. Before he could secure it, a shower of cans spilled onto his lap. Three tumbled over the edge and hit the pavement.
One of the cans settled politely on its bottom. The second rolled neatly to a stop on the grassy verge. The third, clearly a maverick, landed on its side, found the slight incline of the driveway and began to roll.
Mark debated whether to roll after it, and decided he'd probably lose the other groceries in the process.
"Come back here, you son of a bitch!"
As if it had heard him, the can picked up speed.
At the bottom of the drive, the can hit a loose pebble and spun out. Mark grabbed his wheels and started after it, only to stop in disbelief as the can wound up at right angles to its original path and bounded down the sidewalk, heading for greener pastures.
The can slammed into the upturned sole of a scruffy pink sneaker. Mark had time to notice that the foot in the sneaker was attached to a fairly shapely leg before a hand swooped into the picture and corralled the runaway.
"Hey!" Mark's rescuer turned out to be a rangy, rawboned woman, her cheerful face surrounded by a strawberry-blonde friz. She grinned and waved at him. "This runaway part of your herd, Cowboy?"
He couldn't help returning the grin. "It surely is, ma'am. Thank you for rounding it up."
"Sure thing." She tromped up the drive, legs swinging in slow, easy strides beneath the frayed edges of her cutoff jeans. "I was coming this way anyhow." She held out a hand, the arm liberally spattered with freckles. "Sheila Connolly. I live next door." She jerked a thumb toward the split-level bungalow on the right.
Mark nodded. "I've seen you coming and going. " He took her hand. "Mark Johnson." They shook, her grasp warm and firm.
Sheila swept her hand at the other loose cans. "You want me to round up them other two?"
He appreciated that she'd asked. Too many people were too ready to jump in and do things for him, whether he needed help or not. "That'd be great. I mean, I can come back for them, but-"
"But no sense making an extra trip when I'm standing right here." She bent and retreived the cans, her loosely buttoned top giving him an excellent shot of freckled cleavage.
He wrenched his eyes back to her face. "Thanks." He considered the cans. His lap was already piled high. He'd just drop them again on the way in. He reached up and grabbed the hank of rope dangling from the trunk lid, pulled it down and closed the trunk gently. "Just set them on there."
"You sure you don't want me to carry 'em in for you? Save you a trip."
He hesitated. "The place is a mess."
Sheila waved that off. "Honey, I raised two teenagers. A little mess don't scare me none."
Mark liked this woman already, and he didn't even know why she'd come. "Right this way, then, but don't say I didn't warn you."
The living room was controlled chaos. Sheets of plywood leaned against the exposed framework of one wall, next to a tidy stack of gypsum wallboard. A pair of sawhorses occupied the middle of the room, supporting a partial sheet of plywood and a circular saw. The subfloor around the horses was snowed in under drifts of sawdust interrupted by occasional larger scraps.
Sheila laughed. "Now, when you said it was messy, I pictured dirty dishes and piles of laundry.
"Naw." Mark wheeled around the sawhorses, neatly avoiding the debris. "I have a word for that kind of mess: obstacle course."
"Well, I guess so." Sheila followed him into the kitchen. She stopped short and whistled when she saw it. "You've sure got this fixed up nice."
Mark looked around, trying to take in his surroundings with a fresh eye. Walnut cabinets, cheery white appliances. Adjustable counters and a sink that could be pulled down to wheelchair level, or raised to standing height. His reacher stood ready by the pantry, incase he needed something off the higher shelves. "I better have. It's what I do for a living." She cocked her head at him, and he went on, "I buy a house, restore and remodel it, and start all over again. My niche is accessibility."
"I concentrate on mobility issues - doorways large enough for a wheelchair, even in the closets, turnarounds, step-in bathtub, adjustable-height shower. But I throw in other things when I can, like contrast doorframes for folks with low vision, smoke alarms that flash as well as beep. A lot of accommodations are pretty inexpensive, you just have to think to put them in
"So you get everything perfect, then you turn around and move out."
Mark shrugged. "I get bored."
"Nothin' wrong with that." Sheila looked around again. "What do you do about the stuff you can't reach? Like painting the ceilings?"
"What any other contractor does - bring in subcontractors. I've got a couple guys coming over this weekend to help hang that wallboard piled out there." A sudden impulse made him grin roguishly. "But you'd be amazed what I can reach with the right tools."
She caught his eye and grinned back. "And do you have the right tools?"
He raised an eyebrow. "I have excellent tools. And I keep them in good working condition."
She nodded slowly. "Bet you know how to handle 'em, too."
"You know it."
An understanding caught and held between them, a pleasennt tension neither was in a hurry to dispel.
Finally, Sheila chuckled. "Actually, it was your other tools I came over to ask about. I was hanging some shelves and broke my eighth-inch drill bit. You wouldn't happen to have a spare I could borrow until I can run out to the hardware store tomorrow, would you?"
"Probably. Let me check." Mark led the way to the living room, gliding to a halt in front of the row of plastic cases lined up behind the sawhorses. He flipped one onto the makeshift table and opened it. The case contained a collection of drill bits, each neatly stowed in its proper compartment. He selected one and held it out to her. "This should do you. If I'm not home when you bring it back, just leave it on the table outside the front door."
She tucked it into her back pocket. "Will do. Thanks much." She held out her hand, and they shook again. "Pleasure meetin' you."
Scott Petersen was a wiry man with a ready smile, his white teeth set off by skin almost as dark as the three black coffees he carried. The hair of his temples was flecked with gray, but he moved like a man half his age. He showed up promptly at eight, and he and Mark sat on the front porch to drink their coffee in the cool morning air while they waited for the other member of their crew.
By half past, Mark was getting antsy. "Brewer did know it was this weekend, right?"
Scott shrugged. "He did when I talked to him last night." He lifted his head, looking at something across the lawn. "Company coming."
"Company" turned out to be Sheila, in a slightly darker pair of cutoffs and a green t-shirt with a beer company logo. She carried an aluminum pie plate. "Howdy! Saw you sittin' over here and thought I'd bring this by while it was fresh. Sort of a 'welcome to the neighborhood' thing." She handed the pie, which turned out to be apple, to Mark and pulled his drill bit out of her pocket. "Thanks muchly for the loan."
"Thanks for the pie." Mark balanced the pastry on his lap and tucked the drill bit into his own pocket. "Sheila, this is my buddy Scott Petersen. Scott, my neighbor Sheila Connolly."The two murmurred polite greetings and shook hands. "We're just waiting on one more before we get going." As if on cue, his phone rang. He handed the pie to Scott. "Here, hold this, would you?"
He rolled off a few feet to take the call. When he came back, he was shaking his head. "Well, shit." He glanced at Sheila. "Sorry." She shook her head and waved off the apology. To Scott, he added, "That was Brewer. Fell off his bike and hurt his wrist. Could be sprained, could be broken. He's at the doctor's now. But he won't be hanging any wallboard this weekend." He thought for a moment. "Next weekend?"
Scott shook his head. "Got drill next weekend. Weekend after?"
"I'm out of town that weekend." Mark drummed his fingers on the wheel of his chair, thinking. "We could do it the weekend after that, but it puts me way behind schedule. Think we can get it done, the two of us?"
Scott rolled his eyes. "Yeah, but it'll take for-fucking-ever." He shot Sheila a guilty glance. "Sorry."
She snorted. "Believe me, I've heard worse." She tapped her foot. "Mark, I can hang wallboard."When Mark hesitated, she caught his eye, a challenge in her bright green ones. "Tell you what: If I mess it up, I'll pay for new supplies and a crew to put it up next weekend. If I get it right, you owe me dinner."
Mark grinned and nodded at Scott. "What about him?"
.... There is more of this story ...