What a Little Wood Can Do
Lily emerged from the steaming bathroom spreading earth scents throughout her apartment to discover that the snow was taking an intermission from falling and that Sarge’s boots and coat were gone. Pulling on her own boots she ventured into the hallway and to the front door where several older children were waiting for Rosa before going out on the front porch for some relief from being indoors. Stepping out on the porch with them, she surveyed the neighborhood of old buildings amidst nearly five feet of new snowfall on top of the previous three feet. The porch floor was nearly a foot lower than the snow drifting along its edges. A twelve-foot long two-inch by eight inch water-warped board stretched out from the porch where the steps normally would be located. Several more followed it, laid end to end on top of the snow. They made a dark brown streak to nearly the other side of the street where other boards, thick cardboard boxes and anything else that would serve, branched off at right angles. She recognized the boards as having come from Rosa’s basement. On both sides of the street people were continuing the path in other directions. While she was watching the growing efforts to create the makeshift walkway, Rosa came outside and stood beside her. “Okay Lily. Now we know one thing about the big man.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that, Rosa?”
“Watch me.” Rosa faced the children then pointed at them and then at her own eyes.
Lily watched Rosa walk down the length of the first board and back. Then, explaining by showing for the children observing her from the porch, Rosa took hold of Lily’s hand, stepped off the board and promptly sank into the snow up to her thighs. Her boot clad feet were not making contact with the ground under the snow and she couldn’t take a single step. With Lily’s help, Rosa managed to extract first one foot then the other using the board for leverage. It was perfectly clear to the children that they’d be stuck if they tried walking off the boards.
“He know how to walk on water.” Rosa winked and stomped her feet on the board clearing the snow from her legs and effectively packing the snow down about an inch and grinned. “Not Lily’s snowshoes. But not bad.”
Lily considered telling Rosa what else the big man thought he knew he could do in regard to her home’s shifting foundation then thought the better of it. Best to not to raise hopes with nothing more than a diagram and a story about an eccentric artist. She watched the older children begin traversing the boards and realized Rosa had brought them out partly for the purpose of pounding down the snow. The sky was still overcast with low hanging gray clouds. There might not be sun for several more days. The city plows were not going to make street clearing runs to this part of Falls any time soon. This much snow was not going to clear out before the next deposit arrived.
Hugging her arms, Lily scanned the transformed landscape for some sign of Sarge’s tall frame. She walked out on the boards to see what was going on further down the block where a group of men was gathering near a partly burned abandoned house. She still hadn’t seen Sarge anywhere when what remained of the wide tar shingle siding on the burned house began appearing in pieces that extended the walkway further along the street. With a start she saw a large section of the abandoned house’s north facing wall suddenly descend onto the snow with a loud whoosh. Immediately it was set upon with a chainsaw wielded by a member of the Watch. Wondering what was coming next, Lily didn’t notice Mrs. Cho carefully walking towards her on the boards until the tiny woman wearing a formless dark green coat which covered her from chin to ankles stopped and smiled up at her.
“He say: too hot. You take. Thank you very much.” Mrs. Cho handed Lily a gray bundle that she knew to be Sarge’s long coat.
Lily thanked Mrs.Cho who waved a delicate little green gloved hand then returned back the way she’d come along the boards from her home next to the abandoned house. She considered going all the way to where the group of men were apparently tearing apart the abandoned house piecemeal until she saw how much trouble they were having moving through and over the snow around the building. Taking a deep breath she quickly walked lightly over the boards to get to the building where Esther and Anton lived. She stepped from the last board onto the front porch and found Esther opening the front door for her.
“Hey Lily! Get in here, girl. What you doing prancing around out there without your coat? It’s nicer out there than it’s been in like forever, but it ain’t that nice.” Catching Lily around the shoulders, Esther hugged and hauled her further inside at the same time.
“Hi Esther. What’s the thinking with that abandoned house? I saw Little George down there with a chainsaw just now.”
“I didn’t catch much of that spur of the moment action ‘cause I was on the phone with JJ at the time. Sounded to me like it mainly a wild hair thing for a bunch of muscle to blow off some steam in between nasty weather shows. I mean, how much wood right for fireplaces can there be in that thing after all this time?”
Lily shook her head. “I have no idea. There could be other things though. Depends, I guess, on what they’re looking for.”
“I read that. You want to come have a read of the board?”
“Yeah. Figured I should while I could. Otherwise we might be talking it all over the phone.” Lily walked with Esther into a square room where the walls were covered with large sheets of paper containing the Neighborhood Watch’s information lists.
“As far as I know, right now we’re all up to date on all heat checks. Food crew is out as we speak doing door to doors for pantry needs. I figured that was a priority since with those boards out there we can get things out while the getting is easy. I don’t know how long those will be useful, but for now they’re doing the trick in my book. You see anything I’m missing?”
“JJ did the med checks?”
“Yesss, she did. Everybody’s set. Mr. Pantini has enough insulin for at least a week. So that’s a relief. Here, I’ll put JJ’s info up there while we’re at it.” Esther wrote in the square box for indicating date, time, initials of who had done what and when.
“Looks great, Esther. I don’t think you’ve missed a single step.”
“Oh I know I missed something, Lily.”
Lily looked at the lists again then at Esther in confusion. “Like what?”
Esther nodded and pointed at the gray bundle Lily was holding against her chest. “Like that. Or to be more precise, what was inside that coat when it came here looking for my Anton.”
“Oh you mean Sarge.”
“Oh yeah, I mean Sarge. Lily, that man is way too big to be just something Karen’s cat dragged in for claw games. I thought Anton was yanking my chain for giggles and grins when he came back from his speech lesson and said there was some major tall dude, excuse me, that’s putting it nicely, but I am not going to repeat his little slip up in regard to his word choices, hanging in your place. Then this morning I’m in here dotin’ my ‘I’s and crossing my ‘T’s and next thing I know Anton goes to answer the door thinking it’s someone on the pantry crew come early, but it ain’t. It’s your Sarge.”
“He isn’t my Sarge.”
“Hell he ain’t, Ladyfriend. He got heart beat written all over him. Why else he over here stirring things up with Anton? Not like Anton needs any help gettin’ stirred. He stir himself just fine ninety-nine percent of the time. Why you lookin’ like that, Lily? Get over here and sit down.” Esther pulled Lily over to the old leather imitation couch by the window and gently pushed on her shoulders to get her to sit down. Sitting next to her, Esther stopped talking and waited for Lily to speak.
“Esther, you know how you say just being kind can get a person in a world of trouble?”
“I know.” Esther looked at the way Lily was holding Sarge’s rolled coat and began wondering what exactly was going on in her friend’s mind.
“I think maybe that’s what’s happening with Sarge.”
Esther waited for Lily to say more. When she didn’t, but hunched over with the coat tight against her chest, Esther decided it was time to get very direct. “What’s been happening with this Sarge, Lily? He got you between a rock and a hard place somehow? Or you got you between a rock and a certain place?”
Lily shook her head, flung herself against the sofa back and tossed the rolled coat on the floor where it promptly unrolled to reveal his sweater and shirt were part of the package. Lily looked at the clothing then at Esther then back at the coat, sweater and shirt lying on the floor. “What’s that about, Esther? Huh? What kind of man goes out in this weather and takes off half his clothes?”
“A fine looking physically fit man that’s what kind, Lily. A man working a healthy sweat hauling boards out of a damp basement for people to get around on top of hard packed deep snow on before it gets a lot deeper like it’s supposed to be fixin’ to do sooner than previously expected.” Esther watched Lily’s eyes widen with her weather news.
“You got to be kidding. Esther tell me you’re yanking my chain about more snow coming already.”
“Why you want me to tell you that, Lily? Hmm? You read yourself since that man been hanging in your place?” Esther leaned towards Lily and sniffed her hair. “Oh yeah, the good home people stuff. That’s what I’m talking about.”
“Oh stop it, Esther. I barely know the man. The only reason he’s at my place is because, as we can all see,”Lily turned and gestured at the window half covered with snow “ he’s stuck here just like the rest of us. No streets. No taxis. No buses. No cars. No snowplows. Just snow.”
Esther’s keen ears caught the sadness in how her friend spoke the word snow. “I read you now, girlfriend. It ain’t the man that’s your problem. It’s the snow reminding you of home.”
“There is no more home.” For a few moments Lily twisted to look out the window at the snow drifting in the five foot wide space between the buildings.
“Yeah, true that be. But I suspect it sure is looking enough like home right here now. That’s messing you up from readin’ yourself concerning this man.” Esther waited for the other woman to speak again. When it was clear she wouldn’t, Esther did. “Wait, how’d this Sarge come to hang in your place anyway, Lily? Like I said, he’s too big to be Karen’s cat dragged toy. How’d he get there?”
Lily groaned. “I invited him in late Friday night. This was after we saw Volpone together at the Orpheum. Remember when I told you and Rosa about the guy who followed me out of the bar with the egg specials to get a date?”
Both of Esther’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “This Sarge is that guy?” Esther stared hard at Lily when she nodded. “Excuse me, Lily dear, but when you shared that intel, you said nothin’, absolutely not a thing about the man who ran you down on the street for a date being one fine piece of man candy. I would have remembered that intel. Hell, Rosa would have remembered that for me. Details would have been demanded concerning that fact. Oh yeah, Lily, there be a telephone line between Esther’s house and Rosa’s house and there ain’t no charge for the calls direct. Only piece of on target intel you laid out was the height fact. Though there be considerable more of that fact too than expected from intel you shared. While there be considerable less beard and stache in sight too, as in none. Do tell Esther that your eyes are in normal working order regardin’ the visual reality of this man you are refusing to lay claim to in any manner even though you saw fit to invite said sugar man into your personal space directly after one date.”
Lily thrust her chin out and shook her head. “He did have a full beard when I first saw him. When we met up outside the Orpheum I didn’t even recognize him without it until I heard his voice. I still haven’t adjusted to the change in his appearance. As for how tall he is, well, so sorry be Lily for not having a measuring tape handy at all times. I said he was tall.”
“You didn’t say he was Little George tall tall. That type of tall is a message all on its own. Not to mention it’s damn hard to miss. Wait, now I’m off track. Let’s get back to how this man came to be in Lily’s pad. O yes, Esther’s ears just dyin’ for this intel.”
Lily groaned but complied. “The weather was really nasty by the time the performance ended. He forced me to take a taxi ride home. I wasn’t nice about it even though he was paying for it. So to make up for being mean, I invited him in for chicken soup. It was so late by then, that it made sense to just let him sleep over. I figured he would leave in the morning. But that didn’t happen. Couldn’t happen.” Lily shrugged. “That’s how he ‘got there’ as you put it.”
Esther shook her head in disbelief. “Did I hear you say he paid for a taxi ride from the Orpheum Theater to here? You know what that cost, Lily?”
“Not exactly, since I’ve never taken one before. But I knew I didn’t have enough cash for it last night. I didn’t want to get in the damn thing because I knew it would be expensive. He just picked me up and threw me in it.”
“He threw you into a taxi? You expect me to believe that? After all your urban street defence training you let a man throw you, of all people, into a taxi? Sorry, Esther is not buyin’ that particular package as it sets.”
“It wasn’t like he attacked me, Esther. He just, just took me by surprise when he did that after I told him I didn’t have cash for the taxi. I mean, hell, even when he did it I knew he wasn’t acting with evil intent. One second I was right side up and the next I was not so much. He kept his hands to himself; except for the hauling off the feet and throwing parts.” Lily grimaced. “I’m making it sound worse, aren’t I?”
“Worse?” Pursing her lips, Esther very slowly turned her head from one side to the other. “Naw, ‘worse’ is not on my mind. Nope.” She leaned close to Lily. “Sounds like he did exactly what you wanted him to do. Sounds like Lily enjoyed not being right side up. Sounds like someone got just the sort of surprise she needs more of. Seems to Esther that this tall man would still be hangin’ at Lily’s pad even if there was no snow. Why? Because Lily’s done gone and ladled up some of her made from scratch chicken soup for him. Oh yes she has. The same soup just about half the eligible men in the Flats would like to have at least a spoonful of at Lily’s kitchen table any time of day or night.”
“Chicken soup is just chicken soup, Esther.” Lily frowned. “Besides, Sarge isn’t the sort of guy who would just stick around without being invited. He knows how to respect another person’s boundaries.”
“Does he now? Which of Lily’s boundaries has he been respecting? Hmmm?” Looking Lily over more carefully when all she did was stick her tongue out in reply, Esther’s eyes narrowed to thin slits. She considered her first impressions of the man she’d just met about an hour earlier when he’d come looking for Anton. She thought about what Rosa had told her over the phone late last night. She watched Lily pick up Sarge’s shirt and sweater and neatly fold them.
Esther appeared to start doing the same with his coat then sent a sly look at Lily who realized instantly what her friend was thinking of doing. “No, Esther. That’s not right.”
“It’s only looking in pockets.” Esther’s thinking was swiftly moving into the highway passing lane of all is fair in love and war.
“What could we possibly find out about him from whatever junk he might carry around like kids do?”
Esther shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. I never looked in a man’s pockets before. Certainly not a fine lookin’ white man’s pockets.” Lily reached for Sarge’s coat but Esther kept it out of her reach. “He’s here with us. More precisely: in your apartment with you. You said you barely know him. I think we need to find out what we can about him.”
Still Lily shook her head. “I’d rather just talk to him. Besides–” she gestured at the coat Esther was holding at arm’s length, “—would you want someone going through your purse? Or Anton’s coat pockets?
Esther looked up at the ceiling and made a pretense of pondering Lily’s questions. “I am not an axe murderer. So I wouldn’t care. I have nothing to hide.”
“Oh Esther! If he wanted to hide something he wouldn’t hide it in his coat pockets. No one would.”
“What? How do you know? You just said you never looked in a man’s pockets before.”
Esther shrugged. “I lied.”
“I don’t believe you!”
Esther kept eye contact with Lily while she slipped one slim hand into the coat’s inside chest pocket. She slowly pulled out several pieces of paper folded up together and waved them at Lily. “Maybe we find something. Maybe we find nothing.”
Lily swallowed hard as she struggled with her curiosity and her own ideas about respecting other people’s privacy. “Okay. Just because of this weird situation. One pocket at a time. Everything has to go back in where it came from.”
“Sure thing, boss. Let’s dance this dance before the pantry crew gets back.” She handed the papers to Lily.
Within ten minutes they’d discovered in Sarge’s coat pockets a considerable amount of the junk Lily had expected to find, two slim paperback books of poetry by Anna Akhmatova, numerous old bus ticket receipts for travel to and from M-, lists of items neither of them could make any sense of, an old bar receipt for $325 from a place where Anton had recently applied for a job as a line cook, a small grey address book and travel agency receipts for what amounted to an all expenses paid trip for two to a posh resort in Jamaica. After they’d taken a fast inventory of each pocket, they returned to look at the travel receipts and address book again.
“All these travel reservations are for a Nora O’Mara.”
“That’s his mother.”
Esther had been thinking more along the lines of Nora as ‘wife’ or ‘main squeeze’ as she looked at all the travel receipts. “How do you know that?”
Lily continued paging through the little grey address book. “He told me about her shaving off his beard.”
“What? Was this like a mother cutting her child’s hair?”
Lily shook her head. “No. Well, maybe in her mind. But he didn’t want his beard shaved off. She just went at him with a straight razor and did it. His father held him down while she did her thing.”
Esther put a hand on Lily’s shoulder to get her to look at her. “When did he tell you this story?”
Lily sat back on her heels. “First in the taxi. That’s what I meant about being mean to him. I pushed his buttons and he gave in and told me. I got him to tell me more about it after we had soup. Then we went to bed.”
“You what?!” Esther stared in open-mouthed shock at her friend who never in the years she’d known her had ever previously given any indication of engaging in such foolish first date behavior.
“To sleep! Just sleep. Nothing else happened. Nothing happened last night either. Not that I’d have noticed if it did, because I was dead tired after studying.” Lily looked away from Esther and off into space towards the hallway for a few moments. “It was really nice waking up today and finding breakfast already made. Mark never did anything like that. It was really really good too. Sarge made pancakes, chorizo, fried potatoes and green tea. I ate like a pig. Literally. It was embarrassing. But you know how I am first thing in the morning with food. No classy lady points scored there.” Lily opened the address book again. “Esther there are a lot, and I mean, A LOT of womens’ names, numbers and addresses in this book. That’s got to be a really bad sign. So many women all in one man’s address book.”
Esther lightly kicked Lily’s foot. “That man cooked you breakfast and saw how you eat in the morning?”
Lily continued paging thought the address book, pausing to read the entries of names that caught her attention. “Oh yeah. It wasn’t like he didn’t know what was coming either. I caught him watching me eat my poached eggs at the bar. He couldn’t have been expecting formal table manners from me this morning. No way. That would have been just plain nuts, totally illogical. Pancakes are just like tortillas for stuffing with fried potatoes. Instead of Rosa’s red sauce you just pour on the maple syrup sauce. I’m getting hungry again just talking about it. There’s got to be pancakes leftover. Looked like he made a double batch of them. Mmmm. I think I know what I’m going to grab for my lunch. Would you like some too, Esther?” Lily glared at a page in the book. “Why does Claire Perkins have four xs by her name? Hmm. I wonder.”
Esther moved to kneel in front of Lily. Putting her fingers on the top edge of the address book she pushed it down until she and Lily were looking at each other eye to eye. “Those are just names in a book. We got names and numbers all over these walls. What you think some stranger come in here and read these walls would know about what’s really happening here? Hmm?” Esther took the address book away from Lily and closed it with a soft plat.
Lily watched Esther slip the grey book back inside its coat pocket. “I think we should get some boxes ready for the pantry crew.”
“Me too. Let’s dance.” Esther couldn’t wait to have a long serious talk with Rosa about their mutual good friend Lily and how the snow was knocking her just enough off kilter by stirring up memories of her life prior to her arrival in the Flats that she wasn’t quite as completely in touch with the present as her very practical self generally was on most given days. Next point they’d chat about would be the effect of this on Lily in regard to the man she’d invited into her home all on her own. Then there’d be a lengthy bit of discussion of Lily’s lack of any awareness not only of the messages she was sending his way but also her lack of awareness of the ones he was sending in her direction. Esther intended to make full use of the information that this man had not only cooked breakfast for Lily but had apparently done so knowing full well that their Lily did not consume her breakfasts like a dainty little feminine flower but with all the full court press gusto of a street basketball team intent on winning any way they could in a hostile neighborhood.
Breakfast Special, #15, “What’s In a House” https://47whitebuffalo.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/breakfast-special-15-whats-in-a-house/