The last deafening thump judders to a halt. I step out into ringing quiet to survey what's left of my backyard.
Lying off to one side in neatly stacked piles like carpet samples are pieces of sod, removed to expose a large area of hard packed earth just outside the French doors leading to the study. The far edge of the rectangle is punctuated by three four-foot-deep 12" holes, each centered precisely over my spray-painted markings.
I whistle admiringly. "You do good work."
"Thanks." Eileen beams up at me, broad face reddened from exertion as she fastens the hydraulic auger to the trailer hitch of her pickup. "Should put you a good six-eight inches below the frost line. You know, it's not every day you can get your holes drilled by a Bush Hog." She winks, patting the manufacturer's mark on the yoke of the machine to remove any suggestion of impropriety and to make absolutely sure I know she's not flirting.
Not that there would be any question about it. Riding shotgun and looking completely incongruous in the one-ton Chevy is her girlfriend Pamela, who rarely goes along on on-site jobs but kindly makes an exception for me.
I know from previous experience that if I so much as shake Eileen's hand the little shrew will be out of the truck faster than Speedy Gonzales on crack to harangue her.
Eileen hands me my invoice, nodding toward the temporary bunker of squat blocky bags. "You need any help pouring that concrete?"
"I think I can handle it. Sure it'll cure in this weather?" Winter was showing signs of letting up, creating a primordial soup in the gutters out of snow runoff, thawing dog turds and the various bodily contributions from neighborhood winos, but it was still pretty cold out.
"That's air-entrained IIIa; throw in a little extra cement and some calcium chloride and it should set up fine. Just hose out the drum when you're done and I'll pick up the mixer tomorrow. The ledger's flashed and caulked, so you're good to go."
"Okay. Thanks for everything."
She waves out her window in response. As she drives off, I can hear Pamela's nasal voice shrilling over the rumble of the diesel engine, no doubt catechizing the litany of my faults.
Take a number and join the line, babe.
Shit, these bags are heavy. Maybe I should've taken Eileen up on her offer -– when she was unloading the truck she'd tossed them around like throw pillows.
I finally get the first batch into the portable mixer and straighten up slowly, in stages. Despite the chill in the air, I'm sweating heavily. Already there's a twinge in my neck and a clawing tightening between my shoulder blades.
While the mixer is ruminating, I take a drink from the hose, letting the plasticky-tasting water rinse away some of the accumulated grit. The front of my shirt gets soaked but it feels good even in the weak spring sun.
"You charging admission for the wet t-shirt contest?"
I whip my head around quickly. Too quickly: a wave sloshes up my nostrils. Recovering from a fit of coughing and sputtering, I wipe my nose on my sleeve and appraise my audience.
Brunette. Pretty, with an open face, blue eyes. Medium height. Baggy khakis, oversized maroon U of C sweatshirt. Backpack slung over one shoulder and parked on a canted-out hip. Young but not undergrad young, maybe mid-twenties. And definitely checking me out.
Bad timing, kiddo.
"Depends on if you want in as a judge or as a contestant," I find myself saying.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. I came over to see what all the racket was." The voice is pleasantly low, amused.
"The noisy bits are mostly done. You live around here?"
Her lips quirk, revealing dimples like little parentheses carved around the corners of her mouth. "Like I could afford this neighborhood. No, my advisor lives up the street. I just like looking at these old houses."
"I haven't seen you before."
"Transferred in January. I was finishing up my Master's at UIUC before that." She tilts her head. "You do a lot of work in this area?"
I frown involuntarily, then glance down, taking in my white-faded jeans gone through at the knees, my battered steel-toed Wolverines, my drenched gray NYPD shirt with its halfway detached collar band. Ah. "Actually, this is my place."
A shift in assessment plays over her face, flirtatious mood instantly extinguished. "Listen, I'm sorry, I hope I didn't say anything that offended you -– "
"But it was all right as long as you thought I was the hired help?"
"That's not what I meant." She blushes, a pleasing effect with the peach blossom skin.
Be nice, Legaspi. "Hey, don't worry about it. Warped sense of humor."
"Okaaay." Uncertainty makes her seem even younger. "So what are you doing with all -– " she waves to indicate the wreckage of my yard, " -– this? Looks pretty serious."
"Putting in a deck."
I shrug. "Basic stuff. My friend just finished most of the hard work."
"Right. The rest is a piece of cake. What are the giant rabbit holes for?"
"Footings for the load-bearing posts." The girl's still standing there, hands on hips, hasn't budged in the last few minutes. "Say, any chance you could give me a hand? Just for a little while?"
She looks surprised, then pleased. "Sure. I should warn you, though: on a competence scale from Gilligan to Martha Stewart, well... let's just say I would never have gotten off the island."
"Martha has hordes of minions to do her bidding. I'll settle for just one, as long as she can follow instructions."
"Really?" Slowly the dimples reappear. "You don't seem to be the type that requires obedience."
"Only when it comes to concrete. Everything else is negotiable."
She's smiling outright now. It's a nice smile. Goddammit.
"Why not? Anything to avoid working on my research proposal." She sets down her backpack. "If I'm going to be your minion, we'd better introduce ourselves. I'm Lori."
"Kim." Absurdly, we shake hands, and then I get back to work.
Careful not to disturb the position of the batter boards at the corners, I tie lengths of mason's cord to nails driven into them and the ledger, outlining the deck's dimensions. Pulling out my measuring tape, I check for square. Bang on five feet at each of my marks. Damn, I'm good.
Tamping and leveling firmly, I shovel gravel into each of the holes and then fit in sections of Sono tubing, leaving a few inches sticking up above ground. I set the delivery chute into place and let the stiff mix ooze in, rodding it carefully to consolidate it. When the hole is nearly filled I grab a J-bolt and work it into the form's center.
"Okay. Hold that directly under the plumb bob."
"The hanging-down thingie."
"Don't get all technical on me now. How did you learn to do this, anyway?"
I smile wryly. "Mostly by experimenting on my parents' house when I was growing up. There wasn't a square foot I hadn't had my hands on by the time I left."
"They let you do major construction work on their house?"
"Always easier to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission, you know. But my projects usually turned out well, so unless whatever I was working on was a complete disaster, they pretty much let me do what I wanted. Keep your hand here."
Squatting on her heels to hold the J-bolt in place while I screed the concrete level, she squints up at me. "Disasters?"
"Don't want me to find out about your feet of clay?"
"Not quite so soon."
The dark blue eyes are glinting. "What happens when people realize you're only human?"
"Then I leave. Don't let that tilt past vertical," I snap, a little more sharply than I'd meant.
Easy, girl. "The first major catastrophe happened when I was twelve. There was this beautiful old red oak tree in the back. This thing was huge: seventy-five feet tall, reaching out in every direction, with lower branches that spread out nearly flat. It was perfect, and over Christmas break I decided I was going to build a treehouse in it."
One corner of her mouth tugs upward in anticipatory irony. "Let me guess. It fell out of the tree with you in it and you were grounded for a month after you got out of the hospital."
"Not quite. The tree fell out from under me -– the bole was rotted to the core. I did have to go to the hospital but I didn't get punished. Dad said that breaking my arm was lesson enough for not realizing a deciduous tree shouldn't have leaves on it in December."
"Tough love, huh?"
"Mm... benign neglect, more like." I wheel the mixer over to the next foundation hole and start loading a new batch.
My back is on fire and my arms and legs are already starting to feel rubbery. At this rate I'm going to need massage therapy and chiropractic adjustment every day for a month.
"Yeah, I'll bet you always move like Katharine Hepburn with the DTs."
Despite myself a sharp bark of laughter erupts. The girl has some teeth.
We work in silence for a while. By the third hole she's got the routine down, and in a surprisingly short time we're finished.
Lori brushes off her hands, leaving gray streaks on her khakis. Flushed, she tugs her sweatshirt over her head and uses it to mop her face. The light blue shirt she's wearing underneath is damp where a small belly nudges against it. She notices me looking. "Never lost the Freshman Fifteen," she says, patting herself, obviously comfortable with the soft roundnesses of her curves. Not to mention perfectly aware that I find them more than a little appealing. "What next?"
"Ground cover to keep out the weeds." With Lori's help I position a huge sheet of heavy black polyethylene film, cutting holes to fit around the concrete footings. There's only the one shovel, so she perches on a pile of lumber to watch while I spread gravel to keep the film in place. "What's your thesis?" I ask, mainly to keep my mind off my too-rapidly fatiguing muscles.
"Prosopography of Audata the Illyrian and her daughter Kynnane."
"No kidding." I lean on my shovel. "Philip II's first wife, right?"
The blue eyes widen slightly. "There's some debate about whether she or the Elimean princess was the first, but that's the one. I'm surprised you've heard of her. Most people say, 'Who the what?' "
"Well, I'm not 'most people.' "
Lori grins, a little crookedly. "I got that impression, yeah. So what do you do? Aside from large-scale home improvement, that is."
"I'm a psychiatrist."
I stop shoveling again, give her my blandest look. "What, you don't believe me?"
"Let's just say this doesn't exactly fit with my idea of someone who deals with the life of the mind."
"Maybe I'm on vacation from that life."
"Are you? On vacation?"
"Something like that. Why do you ask?"
"It's the middle of the afternoon on a weekday. You should be out on a golf course somewhere, or making cryptic notes while someone deconstructs the erotic dream he had about his mother after eating one too many late-night burritos."
"That's a myth, you know."
"Psychiatrists and golf. Not all of us have cushy schedules and expensive hobbies."
"No, some of you apparently have masochistic ones. Now what?" she asks as I finish with the gravel.
I look around, running through a mental checklist. Now what, indeed. "Have to wait until the concrete cures before I can do anything else."
"Then would you like to go get a drink, maybe have dinner? Dutch, of course, though I should make you pay for press-ganging me into service."
Not exactly a shrinking violet, this one. Reluctantly I smile. "Listen, thanks for the offer and your help, but... it's really not a good time for me right now."
Lori fishes in her backpack, tears off a strip of notebook paper and lays it across one knee to write on. "Some other time, then," she says with something that looks perilously close to a smirk; her touch presses and lingers for a second as she tucks the scrap into my hip pocket. She pulls her sweatshirt back on, shoulders her pack and waves as she leaves.
Bonelessly, gracelessly, I slump against a wall and slide down, not especially caring that the ground I'm sitting on is cold and soggy and I'm starting to stiffen.
The sound of someone clearing her throat intrudes upon my near-catatonic state. Persistent little thing. "Hey, I meant it when I said –- oh. It's you."
"Thanks very much, Kimmy, I love you too." Christy's expression reorganizes into its snarkiest configuration, her mouth pursed and tugged to the side as if by a drawstring. She holds out the plastic dry cleaner's bag she'd been toting over her shoulder. "This was hanging on your front door."
"Thanks." I make no move to take it from her.
She raises pale brows. "I'm surprised no one stole it. It's a nice shirt."
Fine sheer wool, in a green so dark it looks nearly black, making pale skin glow in contrast and deepening red hair to auburn. Sleeves that have to be rolled up because the cuffs reach well past small, slender wrists. A hem that hangs halfway to the knees down compact muscular thighs.
Despite cleaning the fabric will hold the trace of a scent whose blood-soluble memory I cannot bear to contemplate right now.
"Looked like it'd been there for a while," says Christy pointedly.
Three days, as a matter of fact. Along with a set of keys that are still lying on the floor where they had been dropped, with neither preamble nor accompaniment, through my newly installed mail slot.
Christy unblinkingly scans the yard. When her attention finally circles back around to focus on me the snarkiness has been largely replaced by resignation and a tinge of concern. She takes a deep breath, in through the nose, hissing out through pursed lips. "Must've been a hell of a breakup."
"Save it, Larkin." Too many years, too much history between us to lie about it, but I try to put as much dismissal into my tone as possible.
Not that she notices. "I think I only rated a tile regrout. Nice to know where things stand in the grand spectrum. Guess it'd be overkill to say 'I told you so'?"
I don't bother to answer, summoning just enough energy to glare at her. She sighs.
"A bunch of us are meeting at Jimmy's for drinks. You want to come?"
"I don't think I'd be very good company."
"Suit yourself. Call me if you change your mind."
Christy scrutinizes me for a moment, then rolls her eyes, extending her hand. Gratefully I take it and allow her to pull me to my feet. Shaking her head, she stalks off, muttering under her breath. I can't quite hear what she's saying but I've played captive audience to the monologue before. "Pigheaded" and "fucking stubborn idiot" and other ever more flattering epithets usually figure prominently.
God, I'm tired. Even my earlobes hurt.
Face it, Legaspi, you're not a kid any more.
Most of the time, that's a good thing.
I trudge around the yard picking up tools, giving them only a cursory cleaning before putting them away in their shed. My fingers feel thick and clumsy and it takes several tries before I can snap the padlock onto the chain that secures the cement mixer to a tree.
In the utility room I toe off my boots and strip, leaving my clothes in a filthy heap on the floor. The sharp tang of sweat follows me as I stumble naked to the bathroom. My arms tremble as I undo my ponytail. Grabbing a bottle from the medicine cabinet, I shake out four Motrin and swallow them dry, then stagger into the shower, its scalding spray blasting full on. A seemingly endless stream of grime runnels away.
By the time the water starts getting cool I've begun feeling better, knots finally loosening, aches dulling. I shut off the flow just as the hot water gives out.
Trading towel for dressing gown, I automatically reach for my hair dryer, then quickly knee the drawer shut. Balefully I glower at my reflection. Jesus, get a grip.
The ibuprofen's burning a hole in my stomach, reminding me that I haven't eaten since... when? It bothers me that I really can't recall.
In the kitchen I find a bottle of Gatorade in a cabinet. It's warm and disgustingly sweet but I suck at it greedily, guzzling half of it before coming up for air.
Tossing my dirty clothes into the washer, I remember to check my pocket. I find the slip of paper, unfolding and smoothing it out on the counter.
"Lori Bergen" is written in a neat hand, along with her home and cell numbers. I stare at it, absently chewing the inside of my cheek.
"The word you're looking for, Legaspi, is 'uncomplicated,' " I say aloud, addressing the air. "You used to be pretty well acquainted with it, remember?"
Don't think, Meat, just throw.
What the fuck. I reach over and pick up the phone.
"Lori? Hi. It's Kim."