When the camel cricket jumped up and landed on my glasses, I knew I had officially been told to get out of his crawl space.
Knocking him away, I went back to probing the wood with my knife blade. Given the age of the house I was not surprised when it sank deep into the wood. That it didn't do it more often was the shock. Moving a few more feet towards the back of the house I saw where someone had been here before me and replaced a part of the floor. All the new black iron pipes gave me a good idea of why.
That and a filthy pile of broken porcelain that had once been a toilet.
Edging around this, I kept checking the floor joists. I knew from my walk through that several places had a lot of sag occurring. The almost total lack of supports under here was mostly to blame for that but all this spongy, wood didn't help.
"You all right under there?"
Shining my light towards the voice, I saw the homeowner standing in front of the small doorway, blocking most of the light. I grinned as an idea came to me. Having spent most of the morning with her I knew she had a good sense of humor. I pulled my dust mask out from my face.
"No. I think I've died, and you're going to have to crawl in here and drag me out," I called out in a feeble voice.
"Well, I'm sorry to hear that," she called to me after a moment. "I'll have to get about a thousand Glade Plugins to hide the smell of you rotting. Because I'm here to tell you, there is no way in hell I'm crawling in there after you."
"Nope. You just get to rotting in there, Stan."
As I saw her move away I chuckled, put the mask back and shined my light around. When the black widow spider, sitting in her ragged, corpse-filled nest came into view, I thought Natalie might be on to something. With a sigh I went back to work.
If it was fun to do they wouldn't have to pay you so much, I thought to myself as I tried to keep my head out of the dusty tangle of cobwebs between the joists. The powdery ground under my hands kicked up moldy-smelling dust with every movement. I looked like the kid from the Peanuts who walked in his own dust cloud. What was his name?
Pigpen, I remembered. Great. I looked like Pigpen.
Over to one side I heard the floor joists creak as she walked back into the house. I listened as she crossed the kitchen, turned down the hall and walked toward the bathroom. Just as she was over my head I pounded on the floor under her feet with my fist.
Her shriek was clear even to me. She stomped her foot on the floor and sent down more dust.
"Damn you, Stan!" I heard her muffled yell from above.
"Stop dancing up there!" I gave the floor another hit then, chuckling, and went back to work. I heard her make her way back down the hall and figured she was coming back outside to give me the back of her tongue. When she stopped halfway to the backdoor I had to admit to being disappointed.
Then, in a few minutes, I heard the toilet flush.
I couldn't help the laugh as I realized that I must have scared her so badly she had to go pee. When the shaking laughter finally stopped I had made my way to nearly to the back of the house without finding better wood. Found a lot of strange things piled up in that back corner, but no better wood above.
Then the cricket was back. On my nose this time.
Wetting a rag from the cooler on the back of my truck, I washed the better part of the dust off the back of my neck and face, then my hands. I gave the bald top of my head a pass after wetting it again, then tried to get the dust out of my ears. Tossing the rag on the truck next to my shirt I tried to blow dust out my nose. Using a finger to close one nostril I gave it as hard a blow as I could, then repeated on the other side.
"What is that?"
I looked up to see Natalie studying me with her arms crossed over her breasts. It hit me that she was perhaps a little too thin, and she looked tired. Well, this was a big job. She studied me with her head tilted to the side and her dark brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail.
"Sorry, my nose is full of dust," I apologized.
"Not that. The tattoo." She sounded curious. "I'm a little scared of needles, but even if I wasn't, I can't imagine having that much work done."
Glancing over my shoulder, I could just make out the upper corner of my tattoo. It's been so long since I got the back-piece done that I tended to forget it was there unless I caught sight of it in a mirror. Given the reasons I have for it being there, that I ever forget is a shame.
"Got it so I wouldn't forget something," I explained vaguely, not wanting to talk about it. I picked up my clean extra shirt I had brought along and pulled it on to hide the old ink. I looked up seeing her looking at my chest as I buttoned it up. Her eyes snapped to my face, but she didn't look away. I smiled and picked up my notepad from the truck bed, then I sat down on the tailgate. I patted the area next to me, but she shook her head. "Okay, good news or bad news?" I asked.
"Most people want the bad news first. Let's do it the other way." Natalie's eyes darted to my shiny head, then back to my eyes. "I've had enough bad news dumped on me lately. I'll take a small change."
I had to resist the compulsive urge to run my hand across my head. It's been ten years since I shaved it all off, but I still feel like everyone's judging me by my thinning hair.
"I didn't find any sign of termites." I told her, making a check next to my talking point on the paper. The four more under those sat like coiled serpents waiting to strike. I felt like shit when she cheered up.
"Well, that is good news." She smiled, then closed her eyes and took a very deep breath. I had to strain to keep my eyes on her face as her breasts swelled. She opened her eyes. "Okay, I'm ready for it. What is the bad news?"
"You have four major structural issues with the house that have to be fixed." I nodded as she mouthed the number in disbelief. "Yep, four. I can only fix three of them."
"What's the one you can't fix?" she asked.
"The rock foundation is shot. There are places where the mortar around the sandstone they used is as soft as cornbread. That sag in your back bedroom corner? That is the foundation beginning to collapse."
Now she took the offer of a seat on the tailgate. Holding her elbow she used the fingers of her left hand to rub at her eyes. My eyes went to her glasses hanging from their tiny gold chain. They swung between her breasts, given them an occasional soft bump as she moved.
Never been envious of glasses before.
"Okay. Okay, I knew there were going to be major problems. So I need a mason to fix the foundation?" she asked after a moment of pinching the bridge of her nose.
"Bit more involved than that but, yeah." I hedged. I'd never felt so bad about telling a client about work that needed to be done.
"So, what are the other three?"
I looked at the notebook and pondered the order I had listen them in. She liked the good first, so I took the least worst.
"That sag in your roof? Someone took out a support wall when they opened up that living room. You have to have some kind of support column or beam put in to carry that weight." I ticked that off but left it only half-marked. "We will have to support the roof, cut out some of the warped wood, jack everything up till it's where it should be, then put in some new timbers." I finished that mark and moved my pen over to the next.
"Lovely. Next?" she asked.
"The bathtub in the upstairs bathroom leaks. From the looks of it, it's been going on for years. It's rotted out the two-by-fours in the wall under it. If you filled that tub up and got into it you could end up in your dining room."
"Oh wonderful. Remind me to have guests over for that." She shook her head and gave a tired chuckle. "It has to be replaced, right?"
"Yes. The wall torn out, the floor around the tub replaced and that leak has to be stopped." I tapped the pad with the end of my pen. "I can recommend a plumber."
"I already know a good plumber, thank you, though." Her eyes went to my tablet. "That's two, what's the last one?"
Leaning back against the inside of my truck bed, I ran my hand over my goatee smoothing it out. I took a deep breath wishing I didn't have to tell her this. My eyes drifted over to the pink camellias on the side of her house. They were in bloom, despite the frosty mornings of the last month. When I looked back at her, I could see she was waiting for the answer I didn't want to give.
"Your ground floor is gone. Over eighty percent of the support beams holding it are dry rotted completely through. That's why the floors feel so spongy when you walk. The sub-flooring itself is okay, but those beams are shot."
She didn't respond at first. Instead she covered her face with her hands and took some deep breaths. "That's going to be expensive, I take it?"
Flipping to the next page, I pulled out the estimate and passed it to her. She put on her glasses, read it, and her jaw dropped.
"I also gave what I think is a best guess estimate for the foundation work. I may be off by a bit, so don't take that number as gospel. I'm not a mason."
She folded the estimate and fanned her face with it. She let her glasses drop to her chest.
"Jesus, Mary and Ralph," she said.
That took me back. "What?"
"Sorry." She gave a little smile. "Had a teacher in school who used to say that. Apparently 'Ralph' meant you weren't taking the Lord's name in vain. And I could get away with saying it in front of my grandmother."
I laughed, but then we both got serious.
"It's a very old house," I said. "This thing is what, a century at least?"
She nodded, folded the estimate in half again and tucked it through the front of her blouse's cleavage and under the edge of her bra.
"More than that; going on two centuries. My great-grandfather's grandfather built it with his two brothers just after the Civil War. They built that one across the street there." She pointed to a larger house opposite, and even a quick glance showed the extensive work done there. "There was a third one, next to that, but it burned down in the late fifties. I think my grandfather replaced the wiring in this place after that happened."
"Yeah, your wiring, well most of it, looks like what they did in the early sixties. Not my field but I would recommend having an electrician come give it a look. Do you trip breakers often?"
"I don't know. I had to replace a few of the fuses when I first got here." She shrugged.
"Fuses? Oh, great. Yeah, an electrician would be a good idea." I gave the old bald head a rub. "I take it you intend to live here?"
"For a while, at least. I'm partly moved in already." She pointed to a stack of empty cardboard boxes sitting by the backdoor. "I figured I'd at least stay while the work was done. It's not exactly a vacation, but I needed a change of scenery." She paused and I wondered what had happened, but then she continued, "I haven't been here in a while but the house has been in my family so long I can't imagine selling it, even if I don't live in it myself."
"That's a good thing." The idea of what a mortgage bond company would charge to place this house on the market sent a shudder through me. "Natalie, I'm going to be honest with you. Stop moving in. The house is just a step or two away from being condemned. The amount of work that has to be done is going to make living here all but impossible."
"I don't have a lot of options, Stan. I can't afford to rent a place, keep my stuff in storage, and get this work done." She looked at the old house, with its too many windows and sagging roof line. "I had kind of hoped this old place would be a fresh start for me. Uncle Jimmy left me a bit and I have some savings but..." Her hand went to the corner of the paper that stuck out her cleavage. "I can't pay for half of this."
My eyes stayed stuck to the paper when she moved her hand away.
"There might be a way to work around some of that," I said after a moment.
She gave me a wry grin and raised one eyebrow. "Thanks for the compliment, Stan, but I'm not at the point of sleeping with someone to get work done on my house." She tapped the estimate. "Not even for this much."
I looked her straight in the eye. "That wasn't what I meant." Angry and not fully understanding why I hopped off the tailgate and started gathering up my tools.
I turned to look at her when I heard the soft apology. The expression on her face drained the anger away.
"Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to jump to conclusions, but you were staring at my chest and then you said that. I know you were kidding, but I've been in situations where the guy wasn't. So." She took a deep breath and toyed with a strand of hair that had escaped her ponytail. "I'm sorry. Please, I need your help. What can I do?"
After a second, I nodded to both accept her apology and make a silent one of my own, then looked at her. I noticed that her eyes were right on the edge of tears. I felt an almost overwhelming desire to take her in my arms and comfort her.
"Well, what I was going to say is that there is a lot of work here you could do yourself." I held my hands up to forestall questions. "I mean, not all of it, but the more you can do, the less you have to pay someone else."
"I'm not a carpenter. I know which end of the hammer to hit the nail with but that's about all I know." She shook her head, her dark brown hair swaying. "I couldn't begin to rebuild this house."
"I can teach you. It's hot, it's hard, it's dirty work, all true, but it's not all that complicated to do. Well, some of it takes a bit of experience to know what to do when and in what order but ... I mean, it's not rocket science." I lifted my tool bag and set it down in the back of the truck. When she got up I closed the tailgate and turning, leaned my back into it, enjoying the cool feel of the metal hitting every aching curve.
"Why would you teach me to do work I would otherwise have to pay you for?" she asked after a moment. "That doesn't make a lot of sense."
"You're going to be paying me to teach you. I won't charge as much to just show you how to do something, and then check that you did it right, as I would if I had to do it. I can show you how to do a project, let you get it done then come back, look it over and leave you with a second one to do."
She stood there for a moment. I saw a dozen thoughts pass behind her eyes as she considered it. She let out a soft sigh. "How much will teaching cost me?"
"Well, all my other students let me sleep with them," I said, trying to keep a straight face.
After a second, with her eyes the size of saucers, and her mouth a perfect circle, I saw her catch on. Her lips pursed and she gave her head a shake. "Oh, they do, do they?"
"Only the beautiful ladies," I said, with a grin I hid, as I slicked down my goatee.
"What do you charge the non-beautiful ladies?" she asked with a laugh and an arch look.
"I don't know. I only teach the beautiful ones," I told her, letting the smile show. I let my eyes drop to her feet and trail back up to her face. I gave a silent whistle, then winked.
"Stan, you are something else," she said, laughing.
I sat at the breakfast table the next morning after a night of almost no sleep. It was one of the times I wished I drank coffee, but I never could get past the bitter taste. Tea it was, despite my fear of blowing all the fuses while boiling the water.
The sunrise was beautiful, filling the skies with ribbons of pastel colors, but I couldn't enjoy it because I kept waiting for the floor to collapse under me.
It was hard to process everything Stan had told me the day before. The house was old, I knew that. I had expected it to take some work, several months at least, and even figured I could do some minor things myself. Nothing like what Stan had said; I hadn't seen myself doing much more than assembling some furniture, maybe putting up wallpaper and painting. Some books could have helped me with a few more complicated problems, I guessed, but I knew my limits.
I had not counted on needing to replace the freaking foundation, or all the goddamn wiring. I had not counted on so much dry rot. I had not counted on "a step or two away from being condemned."
I almost wished he'd found termites instead.
Stan was right; I couldn't stay in the house and I knew it. I was stubborn but not so much that I'd stay in a house that might fall down around me. I added "look for cheap apartment" to my list of things to do. First on the list was getting a shower, which I did as quickly as I could.
I wondered where to begin looking for an apartment. Maybe I could ask Stan. I only needed a small place--a bed and a kitchen would be fine. Internet wouldn't hurt, but I could manage without it, at least for a while.
As I'd told Stan, I wasn't working right now. That had been a bad situation, and without the house, I don't know where I would have gone. When I found out about the inheritance, it was like the answer to a prayer. I'd been harassed at my job, made a scapegoat for problems I had nothing to do with, propositioned by my supervisor, and threatened with a lawsuit.
It took months to get out from under it, and although I could say I didn't lose, I hadn't exactly won, either. I was emotionally drained, physically ill, mentally exhausted, on the verge of losing my apartment, and in desperate need of a change.
Then I found out I'd inherited a house from my Uncle Jimmy, my mom's older brother. He and his wife, my Aunt Susan, had been like another set of grandparents, and were the only reason I would come back to this hot, humid place to visit.
God, I thought as I wiped my forehead with a towel, I'd forgotten how damn hot it gets down here.
After my shower, I grabbed a notebook and pen and went out to the porch, which seemed more stable than my floor, and started making a list. I liked making lists. I felt better--usually--when I could see what needed doing spelled out, and there was a certain feeling of relief and accomplishment when I crossed an item off.
The porch was my favorite feature of the house. When I was younger, I would sit on the swing or rocker and read books or listen to music for hours. Right now the swing was looking worn, but I didn't mind, so long as it didn't fall down with me in it.
Sitting there thinking I noticed the sweet smell of the flowers that were in bloom next to the porch. I didn't know what they were but their pink blossoms were beautiful. Looking up from my growing list, I noticed a deep violet color to a tree in the hedge between my house and the next.
A redbud tree? I have a redbud tree at my house.
How wonderful that sounded. My house! I smiled.
I looked up from my daydreaming when I heard a car approach, and was surprised to see Stan. I felt bad that I'd hurt his feelings, thinking he was propositioning me about the repairs, but it was a reflex from a lifetime of such things. Time to shake it off, I told myself.
"Good morning," he said as he came up the steps. His t-shirt hugged his body, which was as fit as any I'd ever seen from all the physical work he did. He was bald, but I couldn't imagine him being sexier with hair. I wondered again about the tattoo, but decided to ask him about it another time. No point in being nosy.
"So far it is," I agreed. "The house is still standing."
He smiled. "Were you afraid it wouldn't be?"
"Not exactly, but the things you told me yesterday made me nervous," I admitted. I shifted on the swing to offer him room to sit, but he opted to lean against a column on the porch.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to do that. I just wanted to make sure you understood how big of a job this will be. And I want you to be safe."
That was a change, I thought. Someone wanting to take care of me, even in a detached way like that. Wow, what a sap I sounded like to myself.
"Thanks, Stan. Listen, I wanted to apologize again for misunderstanding yesterday. It probably sounded a little egotistical, but I--never mind. I'm sorry." I shook my head so I wouldn't ramble.
"It's all right," he assured me. "When I thought about it later, I realized how it sounded. I didn't mean it, either. Not that you aren't pretty or anything. I mean, you are pretty, but I--" He reddened and I had to laugh.
"How about we forget about that and move on?" I suggested.
"Thank God," he said. "What's all that you're writing down?" He gestured toward the notebook.
"Lists. I always work better with lists, when I see things written down. It makes me feel like things aren't quite as overwhelming if I can get them on paper."
"What's first on the list?" he asked.
I sighed. "Find a place to stay. You're right, I can't stay here. I hardly slept last night because of what you said, and every noise I heard made me think the ceiling was going to fall in."
"Natalie, I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
"No, no, it's all right. I was letting my imagination run away with me. I have a feeling you wouldn't have let me stay if you really thought it was going to fall down that fast."
"True," he agreed, and smiled again. I liked his smile.
"Do you know where I could start looking?" I asked. "I have no idea where to look, who's reputable, that sort of thing."
"Actually, I gave this some thought myself, and I have an idea."
"Great. I like ideas."
He chuckled. "I hope you like this one. I have an apartment over my garage, and you're welcome to it. The garage is detached, and the apartment has its own entrance, so you'd have plenty of privacy. It's not huge, but it has a kitchen, a bedroom, everything you need. The garage is empty too, and I don't know how much you have in storage, but you could put some in there if you want."
It sounded too good to be true. "How much rent would you want?"
He shook his head. I was about to protest when he held up a hand. "No, please, hear me out. It's just sitting there, unused, and I had no plans to rent it anyway. The last tenant I had trashed the place, so I decided to stop renting. Now it's for me if I need it, or for guests."
"Still, Stan, you've already offered to lower the price on your work. I can't take this for nothing. I'd be using your electricity, your water, your space." It was so tempting, but I couldn't bring myself to say yes. I didn't want to feel like I was taking advantage of him.
"Look, how about this," he said after a moment. "How about you pay utilities? For the rest of it, we'll figure it out later, after the house is finished. Think of the money you'll save, money you'll need for the repairs, even if you take a loan."
"Yeah, that's on the list, too." I dreaded talking to the bank about that, but it would have to be done.
"Come on, what do you say?" He flashed that smile again.
I laughed. "All right. You've got yourself a tenant."
Next, we moved on to the house and all the work it would need.
"I made some calls yesterday," Stan said, and handed me a list of his own. "These are people I've worked with before, so I can vouch for them. But you should call them yourself, and they'll be happy to give you references. A few of them even said they knew your uncle, and they'd love to work on this house."
"Wow, that's great." People wanting to help me? Strangers? That was an unusual feeling. Knock it off, I admonished myself. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. "Thank you. I wouldn't have known who to call."
"It's a big project," he said, "and I don't mean to overstep, but you looked a little overwhelmed yesterday, so I thought I'd do a little legwork for you."
"I appreciate it, I really do," I told him.
"You have any plans today?" he asked.
"I don't think so, aside from trying to tackle some of this." I stared at my list, which still loomed large despite being written down.
"How about I take you over to see the apartment? You can check it out and if you like it, we'll come back and get your stuff."
Why not? I thought. What other choice did I have if I wanted to stay in the house? I needed the house, I realized. Somewhere along the line it had become more important to me than I'd known, but I had to do what I could to fix it, and maybe I could sort myself out as well.
I nodded, and went to lock up the house--my house.
As the door swung open, I felt my heart sink. Damn it, Stan, you could have cleaned the place up a bit first, I thought as I felt her looking past my shoulder.
"Well, it's not the Ritz, hell it's not even a Motel Eight but--" I began.
"But it's a place that won't fall down on my head in the middle of the night," Natalie said with a smile.
She bumped my arm and I let her past me and into the apartment. I watched her give the place a once over. I gave her one at the same time; I mean, fair is fair.
I tried to guess her age, but gave up. Somewhere in her late thirties, or maybe even early forties, same as me. She put on a cheerful front, but seemed to carry stress around with her. I wondered why. I could see the tension in her eyes, but figured a lack of sleep accounted for some of that.
"The kitchen all works," I told her. "The fridge has been unplugged so it may be a bit unpleasant. There's nothing in it and I did clean it out, but you know. There's a washer and dryer down in the garage, and they worked last I checked. There's the cable hook up." I pointed at the black wire coming out of the wall by the floor. "You should be in range for my wifi. I'll give you the password so you can get online."
I pointed to the back corner. "It's a bit small but you have a shower." Walking over, I flipped on the light, but it didn't come on. Figures, I thought. "I'll get you a bulb."
"I can get that, Stan. Believe it or not, I can change a light bulb," she said with a laugh.
"I didn't offer to change it for you, I was just going to get you the bulb." I winked, then opened the door to the fridge and immediately closed it. As the stale odor hit my nose, I looked up and saw her smiling at me. "And some spray cleaner."
She laughed, a pleasant, honest sound I liked to hear.
"So, will it work?" I looked around. "I know it needs a bit of a cleaning, but--"
"I know how to clean," she said. "I spent a few summers as a chambermaid at a motel, so I definitely know cleaning. Also, if you noticed, I just about had my house cleaned up before someone showed up and tracked dirt through it." She gave me a wry grin.
"Yes, I did notice." I returned grin for grin. "You had everything all nice and clean. And soon we're going to go over and start tearing out the plaster in three rooms."
I laughed at the dirty look she gave me.
All in all it only took about four trips, back and forth, to get her stuff from out the house and into my garage. I had expected there to be more, but then remembered she'd said she had things in storage, and that she'd only been there a little over a week. She hadn't had time to unpack much, which was a blessing for us at the moment.
When we rounded the corner for our last trip to the house, I saw a truck sitting in her driveway. The different types of pipe stuck out the top rack told me it was a plumber's truck even before I saw the stenciled sign on the side. An older-looking gentleman got out as I pulled in next to him.
"That's Tom. I went to grade school for a year with one of his sons," she told me. Natalie opened the door of the truck and called his name as she got out.
I watched the plumber as he smiled at Natalie. She gave him a quick hug. When his eyes cut to me the expression changed. Not much, but I saw it; I had expected it. I got out of the truck and walked over to join them.
"I'm glad you could come. Tom, this is Stan Duncan. Stan, this is Tom Marlowe." Natalie moved to his side, her hand on his elbow.
"Nice to meet you." I offered my hand in spite of what I saw in his eyes.
"Likewise." He shook my hand but his tone said he was far from pleased to be meeting me. His handshake was firm. Almost too firm, as if he wanted to test my grip. I decided not to play that game, and the moment I turned his hand loose, he looked away from me.
"Girl, what have you done got yourself off into?" Tom asked Natalie.
"A money trap, from the looks of it," she said with a sigh. "Stan looked the place over yesterday. He said the bathtub on the second floor has been leaking, maybe for years. Can you fix it?"
I spoke up before Tom could reply. "More like cut all the water and drain lines to it loose. We're going to have to take the floor out below it."
He gave me a hard look. "You're Mike Duncan's boy, aren't you?" His eyes and the set of his mouth told me he already knew that answer.
Hearing his opinion of me in the words he left unsaid, I decided that I didn't need to speak to him again. I just nodded. He turned to Natalie; I was clearly dismissed.
"I'll go give it a quick look-see, Natalie. Give me a few minutes and I'll tell you what needs to be done." He left her side at her confused nod and went to his truck. I watched as he grabbed a bucket of tools and walked towards the porch.
"Stan?" Natalie seemed unsure of whether she should invite me along.
Looking at her, I made myself smile a smile I wasn't feeling. My hand slicked down my goatee, then tried to brushed back hair that was long gone.
"I'll see you later tonight," I told her as I fished my keys back out of my pocket.
"Sure." She glanced from me to Tom.
My feet felt like lead weights as I walked around my truck. I could feel her gaze on me. When I cranked the truck I looked up to see that she had moved to Tom's side and was opening the door for him. As he stepped past her, she looked back at me and after a moment's hesitation gave me a wave. Even from a distance, I could see the uncertainty on her face.
After the laughter of the day, the silence on the way home was nearly deafening.
The fire in my barbeque grill had burned down to ash-covered coals that gave almost no heat. The faint smell of hamburgers hung in the air, but the blooming honeysuckle vine in the tree behind me was starting to overpower the smell of cooked meat. Lightning bugs kept me company as I listened to the cicadas singing. Their song was interrupted by the sound of an approaching car, then by the crunch of gravel at the end of my driveway. I had to shut my eyes when the headlights of Natalie's car passed over me as she pulled it to a stop in front of the garage.
I couldn't help but watch the way she moved as she walked towards me. That flash of light had my night vision shot so all I saw was a silhouette. But what a silhouette, all curves and sultry motion.
"A fire? With it this hot?" she asked after a moment of silence. That pause told me she had things she wanted to say but didn't know how to say them. Given she'd spent the afternoon with Tom, I could guess the subject.
"It's stifling!" She fanned her face. "I'd forgotten how hot it can get here."
"It's not that bad. It's a rather nice spring night." My eyes had begun to readjust so I could make out her features now. The lightning bug blinking beside her looked like it was about to land on her shoulder. "I fixed hamburgers and hot dogs if you're hungry."
"I brought all my food from the house. I'll fix something in a little while," she said. "I'm not all that hungry."
"There's plenty if you change your mind." Leaning back in my chair, I looked back at the soft golden glow from my fire. Even though I had been looking at it for the last hour I still didn't really see it. My mind was too filed with other images. Other thoughts. Old thoughts, from years ago, that Tom the plumber had reawakened.
Looking up, I saw concern, confusion, hurt feelings and more that I couldn't classify on her beautiful face.
"Tom agreed with you about the floor and the tub. He cut the water lines and disconnected everything in that bathroom. He said it's a wonder the floor hadn't collapsed already." She paused and took a breath. "Stan, he--Tom had some rather strong things to say about you. That you were a runaway when you were a teen. That you really hurt your family. That you only came back home to inherit from your father when he died. He said that your mom died not long after your father. I'm sorry to hear that."
Passing my hand across my head, I nodded. Of course he had told her all of that.
"Yeah, most of that's true." I picked up my glass and took a sip of tea. "I had one of those misspent youths you always hear so much about. Well, I guess if you never did anything wrong when you were young and dumb there wouldn't be anything to look back on and smile about. Like everyone I've got my share of regrets." I cleared my throat and changed the subject. "Can I get you a glass of tea? You looks like you're about to faint away in this dreadful heat."
She shook her head and smiled at the way I had pitched my voice to a much heavier southern twang. Natalie looked at the glass as I lifted it to my mouth to take a sip with longing but shook her head again.
"No, thank you. I need to go get settled in."
"I put clean sheets and towels up there and changed that bulb. I also gave the refrigerator a very thorough cleaning and plugged it in." Sitting back, I rolled the glass across my eyebrows to help kill the slight headache that was starting to build. "If you need anything just let me know."
I started to look back at the fire, but my eyes were drawn to the curve of her hips as she started to walk away. I quickly looked up when she turned around though. It may have been too dark for her to see where I was looking but at the moment I didn't want to take that chance.
I saw her eyes moving across my features. I wondered how much of me she could see in the dim light with only the dying glow of the fire and a few flashing bug butts.
"Really, thank you. For all of this."
I smiled, and for the first time in hours felt some of the old depression slip away.
"You're very welcome. I'm glad I could be of help. Have a good night." I told her. The cicadas had begun to sing again. Their buzzing screech provided a background to everything.
The late news had just started when I heard the knock at my back door. My bare feet felt good on the tile floor as I crossed the kitchen to the door. Natalie stood there with her hair in a style I had never seen, straight down to her shoulders. I realized it was damp; she must have had a shower. She smelled of shampoo and soap.
"Hey. Come on in." I held open the door for her. "What's wrong? Trouble sleeping?"
"No. Ah." She bit her lip and looked down before she met my eyes. "Stan, the drain in the shower is stopped up. I got a quick one, but even so, the water was building up around my feet by the time I got out."
"Oh. I'm sorry." I thought back to a year ago but didn't find any memory about that. "Um ... it must have stopped up over the last year. I know my last tenant didn't complain about it and he would have. Unless he stuffed something down the drain when I evicted him, that wouldn't surprise me. I'll call a friend of mine in the morning and have him come out here and router out the drain line."
"Sorry to be a bother," she apologized.
"No, no, not at all. I told you, if you have any problems with the apartment just let me know. I promise, I'm a nice landlord." I flashed her a grin.
She smiled and looked first down then around the room, anything but meeting my eyes or looking at me. It was then that I realized what the problem was. For the second time in two days I was standing in front of her without a shirt on. Well, this wasn't her front yard, it was my kitchen.
"I don't want to be a burden, you've been so nice already. Oh, who is that?" she asked, nodding at something.
Turning, I saw where Natalie was looking and smiled.
"That's my daughter. Rowena. That was a few years ago, she's fourteen now."
"I didn't know you had any children." Her eyes darted to my ring-less left hand. I noticed they lingered for a second on my chest before coming back to my face. "I take it you're separated?"
"Separated, yeah. Good word for it. Broken asunder would be closer to the truth. Rowena's mom, Shelley, and I divorced about eight years back. That reminds me, I won't be around much this weekend."
"That's all right. I'm going to start working on the finances since I can't do much without that anyway. Tom told me I could apply to the local Historic Society and get a builders loan, so I'll call them first. Well, he said they would loan me half of the estimated cost of the repairs." Natalie's face held a bit of a blush that I wondered about. Was it what I had on? My sweats were not exactly Chippendale pants.
"That's true. Did he mention that they do the estimate? It won't be the one I quoted you. Might be less but every time I've worked with them in the past it's always more. That's the problem, well one of them, with the Historic Society. They only pay half so to get that amount from them you have to borrow more than you intended." I shrugged. "It's not a bad idea, given your finances. They do a 'Live-in Loan' for homeowners. You don't have to pay it back unless you decide to move out."
"I'm not sure I'll take advantage of that, but I like the option," Natalie said.
"Right, so it's all but free money, except for the fact they then stick their noses in every detail of the rebuild. I've had good and bad experiences with them. Up to you." I chuckled. "It's your ear they'll be pulling about how work is being done, not mine."
"What fun." She rolled her eyes. "Anyway, that's all going to take a few days, I'm sure, plus I'm going to get more estimates on things from some of the people you recommended. I can't imagine much getting started until after the weekend."
"You're probably right," I agreed.
We were quiet for a moment, and I thought she would leave, but she said, "So where are you off to tomorrow?" she asked. "Another crumbling house to rebuild?"