A longtime corporate communications manager and closet fiction writer, Dawn Ronco now revels in writing as her primary focus. Her award-winning short stories are featured in her 2019 collection entitled Limited Time Offer. Her first novel, a page-turning family drama entitled Unintended, is due out this spring. Check out Dawn’s website for “Snippets” of her writing.
Celine finally gave up trying to go back to sleep. She sat up in bed and groped for her trifocals, then found them hanging around her neck on their silver-and-turquoise lanyard. Thankful she hadn’t bent them in her sleep, she peered through the smudged lenses. The clock shone 4:53 a.m. “Ugh.” Sleep had come so hard since she’d turned 80. She wiggled bony feet into slippers and stood up, her oversized Truck ‘n Cluck T-shirt unfurling to her knees. She hobbled through her living room in darkness. After thirty years living in her condo at #109 River Bend, she easily found her way to the kitchen, where she reached to turn on the small lamp on the counter. The sound of water splashed into the silence as she filled her Mr. Coffee and scooped Maxwell House into the basket. While the coffee brewed, Celine sat down at the table near the kitchen window. She’d chosen her end-unit condo exactly because of this large, side-facing window that looked out onto the quiet path that led back to the deep woods by the river. It faced her neighbor’s unit in building next door, just forty feet across the path. In daylight she would have had a clear view of the path and Mariela’s condo. But with more than an hour before any sunlight would begin filtering through the trees, she saw only her own dim reflection in the glass. Her breath caught. She sensed something moving outside, close to the window. She froze, moving only her eyes to search the murky path. Dark on dark, a shadow slid away toward the woods. She felt her heart pounding through her T-shirt, stroked her long white braid. Slowly she stood and reached to turn off the little lamp so she couldn’t be seen. She made her way to the coat closet and felt around for the rifle, finally grasping the cold barrel. If what she’d seen was anything more threatening than a deer or a raccoon, she’d pop it with her .22. She crept back to the kitchen, gun in hand. Celine watched through the window. Watched the dark path, the dark woods, the dark windows next door, behind which Mariela and her daughter slept. She saw nothing, heard nothing except for the faint click of her coffeemaker’s thermostat. “For Christ’s sake, calm down,” she told herself. Slowly, the gray light of early morning began to brighten the leaf-strewn path. All lay still and empty. Celine calmed enough to ease the rifle out of her hands, and after a moment, she poured herself coffee. With her Mexican blanket under one arm and the .22 under the other, she took the coffee out to her front porch. The night had been the coolest of the season, and steam rose from the mug as she set it on the tile-top table next to her wicker chair. She sat down and wrapped herself in the blanket she’d bought in Cancun years before, liking its woven patterns of green and yellow and black. She reached for her lighter and Seneca Reds. If there was ever a time she needed one of her beloved cigarillos, it was now. Celine supposed the shadow she’d seen could have been a person. The back yards of the River Bend condos fanned out along the curve of a North Carolina creek that flowed through shallow woods just close enough for residents to hear its trickling from their decks. The woods grew thicker behind Celine and deeper still behind Mariela’s building. Occasionally over the years, Celine had seen teenagers cutting through her path to the woods. She assumed they’d come from a neighboring development, assumed they’d snuck back to the woods to smoke pot or fumble around under each other’s clothes. Not her concern, and harmless enough. But in the middle of the night? Celine sipped coffee and puffed her cigarillo. How had she become an old woman worrying about a boogeyman? If her knees hadn’t finally given out a few months earlier, she might still be running the Truck ‘n Cluck, carrying dripping mugs of beer in one hand and baskets of chicken in the other. She might still be laughing with the regulars to the sounds of country music and exploding applause for a team scoring on the overhead TV. She’d be so tired from standing on her feet all day that she’d sleep all night, every night. She wouldn’t have been awake to see whatever it was she thought she’d just seen. Celine took a puff of her cigarillo and savored its calming effect. * * * Later that day at #103 River Bend, Slade stood on the back deck of his condo, leaning into the outdoor closet. He searched shelves of paint, bug killer and anti-freeze until he found the half-quart of blue exterior latex. He’d used the first half when he’d built the River Bend Book Box three years earlier. Despite some skepticism, the Homeowners Board had allowed him to build the little library-on-a-post. It soon had become crammed with books and beloved by residents. Slade himself had read all three Louis L’Amour paperbacks, after not having read anything in years. Paint and brush in hand, he limped up to the Book Box near the road entrance to River Bend. Its ocean-blue siding had turned chalky over the summer. Slade had chosen to paint the box at this particular time on a weekday because Mariela would soon come home from work and stop at the mail station next to the Book Box. And because he’d admired Mariela’s long, straight black hair and her bright dark eyes that snapped of smarts and impatience and zest for life. And because Slade was trying to reclaim zest himself and hoped she, also single and also apparently in her midforties, might help. He figured it would take just an hour or so to give the Book Box a fresh coat of paint, leaving plenty of time for him to eat a quick supper and make it to his meeting at seven o’clock. * * * Running errands about a mile away, Gray drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as he sat third in line at the traffic light. A hairy, bedraggled man he’d never seen before stood at the street corner holding a cardboard God Bless You sign. The man’s face appeared sunburned. He wore clothes too big for him, or possibly he’d become too thin for his clothes. Gray watched him smile hopefully and unhappily at the driver of the first car, eyes pleading. He couldn’t imagine how desperate and isolated the man must feel. Certainly his own sense of loneliness couldn’t compare. Gray no longer had Janie to greet him when he arrived home, but at least he had a home — an aging condo along the river, but a palace in the scheme of things. He had his 401k and his Social Security. And he had neighbors who needed him the way colleagues had relied on him at work before he retired. Whenever a leadership opportunity had arisen, he’d fallen into the role. He could discern the big picture, assess a problem and think through solutions without drama. That’s how he’d landed the presidency of the Homeowners Board and kept it for the past few years. He frankly enjoyed being needed. Did anyone need this poor man with the cardboard sign? Gray pulled a ten-dollar bill from his pocket as the light turned green and the traffic began to move. The cars behind him would just have to wait. * * * Slade watched Mariela’s bright yellow Honda Fit careen into River Bend. It was a no-nonsense, get-there-fast type of car that seemed exactly the right vehicle for her. As he’d planned, the Book Box was half-painted, so she couldn’t miss the difference the fresh paint made. Mariela emerged from the car. “Wow, Slade, that looks great,” she said as she stuck her key into her mailbox. “The paint had faded, y’know? I like to keep it looking good,” Slade said. He wore blue jeans and a form-fitting white T-shirt, the outfit that had become his uniform at work. More than once, flirty customers had admired his muscular body and said so as he and Felix had hefted quartz countertops into place. He enjoyed the flattery and thought the white shirt helped project a clean-cut image. “I should read more,” Mariela said, nodding toward the crowd of books in the box. “But who has time? Forty-five hours a week at work, worrying about Luisa...” She flipped through mail. “Junk. Junk. Junk.” “What do you do at the bank, exactly?” Slade admired her orange jacket, its gold buttons, the way her hoop earrings glistened against her dark hair. “Branch manager, three branches. Today, we had a bad fraud case.” “That happen a lot?” Mariela looked up. “No, thank God. But you can’t trust anybody, you know?” Slade worked up his nerve as he stood watching her, paintbrush wet with blue in his hand. The late afternoon sun shone on her smooth skin. Even with her lipstick partially worn off, she still looked good at the end of the day. “So how about let’s do something fun?” he ventured, throat tight. He knew it was a risky suggestion, she being a respected professional while he ... Her black eyes flashed, her head cocked. To Slade’s relief, she suddenly smiled. “Like what?” A strong breeze whipped the fall leaves into a dance, and a cascade of orange and yellow whirled through the air. “How about the music festival up in Blythe this weekend? I dunno if you like bluegrass — I dunno if I do, either,” Slade laughed. “But I’d like to find out. And there’s some arts and crafts, if you like that. Smoked brisket, craft beer.” “Well, damn, Slade!” Still she smiled. “I’m in!” He smiled back, chest expanding as Mariela got back in her car, waved her mail at him and drove off. * * * Errands finished, Gray drove into the River Bend complex and admired the Book Box with its fresh blue paint. He pulled into his parking space and waved to Celine, who sat on her front porch wearing a denim jacket and smoking one of her skinny cigars. He’d begun to worry about the tough old bird, who’d seemed to become more frail since she’d sold the Truck ‘n Cluck. He missed the leftover chicken she’d sometimes brought him. For his supper tonight, he’d stopped at Harris Teeter and picked up a ready-made dinner of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. He hung his jacket and cap on the hooks near the mirror in his front entryway. Its oak finish had been rough and the glass cracked when he and Janie had found it at a collectibles shop in Asheville. He’d replaced the glass and she’d antiqued a green finish on its frame. He saw himself in that mirror now, his posture stooped and what remained of his gray hair shaggy. He straightened up and resolved to get a haircut in the next couple of days. Pink & Gray is what he and Janie had planned to call the shop they’d never opened. Because she’d been Janie Pinkham, a crafter extraordinaire even in her early twenties when they’d met. Over the years, they’d had so much fun discovering finds like the antique mirror and crafting new things from old, that they’d resolved to make it their second career. Gray put the meatloaf dinner in the microwave and pressed 3. * * * More than thirty people crowded the Fellowship Hall at the Unitarian Church, a space Slade found inviting despite the building’s imposing stone structure. Rope lighting strung beneath the crown molding cast a homey light. Years ago, when Slade had walked into his first meeting here as a clean-shaven, muscle-bound Army vet, he’d expected to find a ragtag group. They were drunks, after all. But instead he’d seen the likes of people he might encounter in a grocery store line: a young blonde woman in workout clothes and running shoes, a square-jawed man in a business suit poking at his phone, a couple who both had long gray hair and many pounds to lose. Some of the faces had changed over the years as newly sobering people arrived and others fell off the wagon, but they still looked grocery-store regular. Anonymous. Sometimes, of course, a shaking, life-worn person would slide into a seat near the back. Someone who’d hit rock bottom, as Slade had. A ruined person who’d drunk to deny the ruin or at least dull the pain of having been rejected, burned, abused or unloved. Or having witnessed deafening, body-exploding death. Tonight, Slade looked out at the crowd and saw two of these. A wet-eyed black woman and a skinny man with sun streaks in his hair and beard had showed up spottily over the past few weeks. Like so many others, they’d slid out now and then for a smoke. So far, they’d always come back inside. “My name is Slade,” he said into the microphone. “I’m an alcoholic.” * * * Gray’s phone rang at seven o’clock the next morning. Mariela began speaking before he could say hello. “We have an issue,” she said. “Somebody went under Celine’s house last night. I swear to God, I saw him.” She spoke breathlessly in her fast Hispanic staccato. “Well, I don’t know if it was a him, but it was a somebody.” “What do you mean, under her house?” “In the crawl space, Gray. It was around midnight, and I was up yelling at Luisa, who was still gaming on that iPad. She had the lights off thinking I wouldn’t know, but mothers know. So I went into her room. She had her shade only partway down, and I thought I saw something moving over by Celine’s. I made Luisa turn off the iPad so we’d have pitch black. I saw a shadow move. Then suddenly I could see a dark square where Celine’s crawl-space door is. That told me someone had opened the door. Then it disappeared, as if someone had closed it. I’m telling you, Gray, we have to do something about this. You’re the president of the HOA.” “Doesn’t Celine lock her crawl space?” “I asked her that a long time ago, and she said, ‘What’s to steal but bunch of cheap Christmas stuff?’ So, no, she doesn’t.” “Have you told her?” “About the guy? No! She’s eighty-something years old! I don’t want to scare her. But we should call the police, don’t you think?” “Maybe,” Gray said. “Let me think about it a little.” “I need to go to work, but you text me, okay? I’m a nervous wreck over this. I have a fourteen-year-old daughter to protect. You can bet I’m going to keep watch tonight.” * * * Gray saw that Celine’s car was gone. He had lived next door to her long enough to know she went to Wal-Mart on Friday mornings. He grabbed a flashlight and went out his back door so as not to be observed by neighbors across the street. He turned right to cross Celine’s back yard and head for her crawl-space door, which was on the opposite side of her condo, facing Mariela’s. The air felt cool and smelled fresh, and he heard the river splattering over the rocks in the distance. Birds twittered. The crawl-space door beneath the kitchen window was about three feet square, easily tall enough for a person to enter, and short enough to indicate no one could stand up inside. The door was closed, its hasp hanging loose. Gray inspected the path near the door, but the thick scattering of leaves made it impossible to discern anything, certainly not footprints. He tugged at the door, which had swelled and sagged over the years, sticking in its frame. Still, it opened fairly easily, emitting the musty smell of damp clay. Crouching, he shined his flashlight. As in his own crawl space, thick plastic covered the floor. Just inside the door to one side sat two green plastic bins with red handles, but otherwise, Gray saw nothing. He got onto his hands and knees wishing he were younger than 68 and shorter than six-foot-two. He felt the lumps of hard clay and random stones beneath the plastic poking into his knees. The furnace scared him when it turned on, its aluminum plenum shuddering. He crawled in deeper and looked carefully into the far corners, shined his light up between the floor joists, where he discovered a few cottony spider webs. Nothing in the emptiness seemed disturbed or amiss. Nothing seemed to have been left behind. Gray had learned Mariela could be excitable. She’d run for the Board two years earlier in protest of the overgrown trees that made messy deposits on the roofs. She’d sworn that under her leadership as a Board member, the tree canopy would be raised and clean roofs would prevail. The facts and the budget, though, had tamed those aspirations, but not her ball-of-fire approach. This was why Gray made the decision not to call the police unless more concrete evidence emerged to support what Mariela thought she saw. He texted her to report his inspection and his decision. He imagined her shaking her head and heaving out a breath in disgust. * * * Closing time on Friday couldn’t come soon enough for Mariela. A teller had given notice that afternoon. Then a customer had come in screaming about overdraft charges he’d earned faithfully month after month for more than a year. To top it off, she and her staff had had to move their cars so the parking lot could be taped off for sealing and restriping over the weekend. When her daughter asked if she could sleep at a friend’s house that night, Mariela loaded Luisa and her purple backpack into the car and drove her there before even changing out of her work clothes. She planned to blend herself a batch of frozen margaritas and lie around on the sofa watching TV for the rest of the night. Mariela knew there was no use arguing with Gray about what she’d seen at Celine’s the night before. As usual, the big, lovable guy was so damned calm and reasonable he’d made her wonder whether she’d imagined the whole thing. Despite that, she planned to sleep in Luisa’s room that night and keep her eye out the best she could. At 7:00 p.m. she began her Forensic Files binge, a habit she knew couldn’t be good given her constant worry about something horrible happening to Luisa. A worry she knew originated more than thirty years earlier when something horrible had certainly happened to Mariela herself. Like the neighbors on Forensic Files always said, after the fact, “He seemed like such a nice guy.” A nice guy like her father’s white-grinned best friend who’d bought her a CD player for her twelfth birthday and raped her on her fourteenth. Such a nice guy her father hadn’t believed her, until he heard the results of the doctor’s exam and then curled Mariela into his arms. When he’d left the hospital, he’d punched the dientes blancos out of his best friend’s mouth. On the TV, a forensic scientist was talking about how paint has a distinctive chemical composition, and that made Mariela think about Slade and his paintbrush and her date with him in the morning. Although she’d served with him on the Homeowners Board, she hadn’t gotten to know him very well because he spoke only when he had a strong opinion. She hadn’t thought about him or anyone else as a romantic interest since the divorce. But Slade seemed like a good enough guy — clean-cut and barrel-chested like somebody’s sergeant. And he walked with a limp, so maybe he had been. Why not go to Blythe with him for bluegrass and brisket? On Forensic Files, they’d just identified the killer when Mariela heard her front doorbell ring. She found Celine standing on her doorstep holding a six-pack of Coronas and a bag of Fritos. “I saw you packing Luisa off,” Celine said. “I thought you might want some company.” “Sure.” Mariela motioned apologetically at her sweatsuit. “Come in. You want a margarita?” “I figured it was BYOB if I was inviting myself over,” Celine said, raising the six pack and stepping inside. She smelled of cigars and cool night air. Mariela’s thoughts went immediately to the movement she’d seen outside Celine’s condo, the dark square she’d been sure was left by the open crawl-space door. But Gray had checked it out and said there was nothing out of place. At this point it felt wrong to mention any of this to Celine, who had no idea there was anything to worry about. Mariela would keep watch tonight though, just to make sure. Between swigs of Coronas, Celine told Truck ‘n Cluck stories. About the brawl that broke out between one rig driver and another over a woman who’d two-timed them both. About the Chicken Eat-Off when a tiny man ate four whole chickens plus one drumstick before barfing it all up. About the panicked trucker who rushed in and relieved himself into a beer mug when he saw the bathroom was occupied. Mariela and Celine laughed hysterically as Forensic Files played in the background. The Fritos bag lay flat and they’d both had too much to drink when Celine got quiet. “So Mom,” she said, stroking her long braid. “There’s something you need to know.” “‘Mom’?” “Yes. You need to know because you’re a mom,” Celine said in her raspy smoker’s voice. “Okay.” “Luisa is a beautiful young girl. Looks just like you. Fourteen, fifteen?” “Yes, fourteen.” Mariela muted the television. Bloody crime-scene photos flashed silently. “She walks in front of the window in her underwear.” “What? She wouldn’t do that!” “Printed bra. Tiny purple panties. She needs to stop that, trust me.” Mariela felt her anxiety rise and her heartbeat quicken, despite the tranquilizing effect of the tequila. Now she thought about Luisa having lowered her shade only halfway and wondered whether the shadow she’d seen had been a boyfriend, or worse. Maybe someone Luisa had been texting or contacting online to come over. Someone for whom she’d been modeling her lovely young body. “Mierda!” She grabbed her phone and punched Luisa’s number. “WHERE ARE YOU?” she yelled when Luisa picked up. “Mom, will you relax? I’m at Peyton’s house. You brought me here.” “Who else is there?” Mariela hyperventilated as Celine went outside for a smoke. Luisa answered in sarcastic teenage fashion. “Uh, Peyton, her brother… her mom.” “Let me talk to her. Peyton’s mother.” Peyton’s mother got on the phone and explained the girls had been trying the fancy new hair removal device she’d ordered on QVC. It had a light on it and made your face so unbelievably smooth that makeup glided on beautifully. No, no boys had come over, and not to worry — she had an app that would track Peyton’s phone so she’d know instantly if the girls snuck out of the house, or whatever Mariela was worried they might do. Mariela’s breathing had calmed by the time she hung up. She resolved to talk to Luisa as soon as she returned, then poured the thawed remains of margarita into her glass. Celine came back in from her smoke break. “Did I ever tell you about the Mug Slide we had at the Cluck?” she asked. She began telling of a contest where whoever slid his mug farthest down the bar without tipping his beer over the edge would win two breasts a week for a month. They laughed until the Coronas were gone and Celine went home. Mariela stumbled to bed. * * * Saturday morning brought a sunny October sky and a temperature of 62 degrees — perfect, Slade thought, for a day at the music festival. He’d barely slept the night before, thinking about the way Mariela’s face had broken into a smile when she realized he’d asked her for a date. After alcohol had decimated his marriage, Slade had had several one-night stands with similarly afflicted women. But all that ended when he’d finally sobered up and realized he hadn’t had much to offer a woman who’d managed life better than he had. He’d worked hard to fix that, landing the job with the stone company and keeping it longer than any other. He’d advanced from installer to fabricator to estimator, quickly learning software modeling. Slade hadn’t missed a single payment on his used Tacoma pickup, the newest vehicle he’d ever owned. And half his rent was going toward the purchase of his condo. He carried his four-year AA medallion in the pocket of his jeans to remind himself that sobriety was more valuable than any amount of money. Both of them were ready early, Slade the gentleman driving four doors down to pick up Mariela, she leaning against her porch rail in slim-fitting jeans. He noticed she’d curled the ends of her hair. Mariela talked throughout the half-hour ride to Blythe, complimenting Slade on his immaculate truck, describing some contraption women used to shave their faces and arguing that people who sit around ordering junk from QVC should get a life. She told him how well Luisa was doing in school, despite the hours she spent on her iPad. Did Slade have any children? No, he told her, he and his ex-wife had divorced before they’d made any decisions about that. When they arrived at the festival, Slade bought them each a cup of hot cider, and they walked around the tented booths that offered welded-metal artwork, dog adoptions and hand-woven scarves. While Slade looked at some intricate wooden boxes, Mariela shopped at a jewelry booth. “Whaddya think?” she asked when she rejoined him. She wiggled her head to show off new earrings. “Lemme see,” he said, reaching to brush her hair out of the way with the back of his hand. It felt as silky as it looked and smelled just-shampooed. He touched the dangling earring, a very-Mariela arrangement of colorful beads and slivers of silver. “Very pretty.” He wanted to say “like you,” but thought it was too soon. “Thanks. You like these wooden boxes, huh?” “Yeah. Look at this.” He picked up a smoothly curved box and swung out its two shallow drawers. “I’d like to try and make these. I have some of the tools …” Mariela turned to face him. “Don’t try. Just do it. You can.” After that, he held her hand. They sat on metal folding chairs and shared a beef brisket sandwich too huge for one person. They listened to the plucking of banjos and clicking of spoons — sounds Slade enjoyed more on this bright fall day than anytime time he’d heard bluegrass before. At one point, the fiddler’s tune was so infectious they stood up to dance on the lawn with a crowd of other people. Slade didn’t tell Mariela any further details about his personal history. She seemed to be taking what he was offering, and he didn’t want to blow it. * * * Gray worried he’d be derelict in duty if he simply dismissed Mariela’s claim. He decided on Saturday to take a walk along the river and back through the woods to ensure nothing there looked amiss. He swished through leaves as he made his way down to the river’s edge. Sticks crackled underfoot as he entered the woods, a mix of pines, poplars and oaks. He followed the path he’d worn on his countless walks since Janie died. Over those couple of years, he’d identified every newly fallen branch, counted the mushrooms growing on stumps and watched old logs decay. He came upon the familiar place where two spindly pines had fallen onto a chest-high boulder, creating a shallow lean-to that faced away from the river. Gray walked around it and was surprised to find, in a crevice of the rock, a bar of soap still patterned with the rings of recent bubbles. Spread over a nearby limb in the dappled sunlight was a beige hand towel. Someone had washed in the river. Under the leaning pines he saw a clamp-top metal box he recognized as a military ammo can. He looked around but saw no one and heard nothing but the trickle of the river and the caw of a crow. To unclamp the box would be to invade someone’s privacy. But certainly, Gray reasoned, the ground underfoot belonged to the Homeowners Association. As president, he had every right to open it. Inside he found three folded pairs of Jockey underwear, a Chapstick, some nail clippers and a blue paperback book titled Mustang Man by Louis L’Amour. A maple leaf stuck out of the book, as if marking a page. Gray re-clamped and replaced the box and continued his walk to the River Bend property line. Finding nothing else unusual, he circled back. But what he’d found was so interesting he resolved to ask Mariela whether she’d seen any strange movements last night during her watch. * * * It wasn’t until Peyton’s mother dropped off Luisa late Saturday afternoon when Mariela remembered she was supposed to have kept watch for the crawl space intruder. Between too much tequila and Celine’s hilarious stories, she’d totally forgotten. Now the sight of her young, beautiful daughter crushed her with guilt. “Okay, here’s the question,” Mariela said, once Luisa had settled onto her unmade bed and begun painting her toenails with purple glitter. “Why do you keep your window shade only halfway down?” She nodded toward the large window. Luisa extended her left foot and wiggled her toes, admiring the polish. “Um, I dunno. I’m lazy?” “Lazy?” “I left the shade up to let the fresh air in. But when it got colder last week, I closed the window and was too lazy to close the shade.” She started painting the toenails on her right foot. “Do you have a boyfriend?” “What? I guess we’re switching subjects. Okay. A boyfriend? I’m trying.” Mariela’s riveting eyes dug for a more satisfying answer. “There’s a kid in my American Studies class that’s really hot. We talk. But he’s pretty shy and I don’t want to seem desperate, so I’m just like, y’know, waiting to see what happens.” “Why are you parading around in front of the window in your underwear?” Luisa looked up, a twisted look of disgust on her face. “Parading? Honest to God, Mom, who’s gonna see me except that old lady over there? Celine.” “Don’t do it. Keep that shade closed.” “What, did she tell you she saw me? I swear it only happened once, like maybe last week. I forgot it got dark so early when we changed from daylight savings.” She extended her feet, all ten toes aglitter. Mariela got up and pulled down the shade. “Keep it closed, Luisa. I mean it. You never know what kind of perverts might be creeping around out there.” “Jeez,” said Luisa. * * * Mariela hadn’t expected Slade’s text on Monday afternoon, so soon after their first date, but she smiled at his suggestion of a Netflix movie at his place after supper. Fresh vacuum tracks showed on the beige carpet in Slade’s living room, which was furnished only with a faux-suede sofa, a floor lamp and a wooden trunk that served as a coffee table. They began a discussion about what type of movies they each preferred — she, political thrillers and true crime; he, science fiction and action flicks. They playfully argued the merits of each and as it turned out, never watched any movie at all. Instead, they talked through two bags of microwave popcorn and a six-pack of Diet Dr. Peppers. She told Slade work stories, one of a sixty-five-year-old woman who’d come into the bank with fat, yellowed newspaper. The woman had hidden nearly four thousand dollars between its pages. “She said she’d been saving up to leave her husband, but he died before she got the chance! It wasn’t funny, but —” They both burst out laughing. Slade shared a work story, too, about the wild-eyed woman with spiky red hair who started hollering when she saw him and Felix approaching her house with her new countertop. “Take it back!” she’d said, refusing to accept a countertop with a big hole in it. “I was as polite as I could be without laughing,” Slade said. “I said, ‘Ma’am, that hole is for your sink.’” He and Mariela howled. Slade just squeezed Mariela’s shoulder and didn’t try to kiss her as she left. But she fell asleep wondering how that kiss would have felt. She hoped she’d find out soon. * * * Early Wednesday morning, Gray opened his door to a breathless Mariela, who was on her way to work. She thrust her phone at him and said, “See? It wasn’t my imagination!” The first photo he saw on her phone, taken in early morning light from her window facing Celine’s place, showed the thin form of a man who, still stooped, appeared to just have emerged from Celine’s crawl space — its short, square door was still open. In the next photo, he was turning back to close the door, showing a blur of bearded face. In the last, he was upright, striding toward the woods. Gray recognized the man from his beard — it was the man he’d handed a ten-dollar bill when he’d seen him at the street corner holding the cardboard sign. Probably the same person who kept underwear in an ammo box and washed in the river. The person who was now Gray’s problem. “Now can we call the police?” Mariela demanded. “He’s trespassing and God knows what else.” “He’s homeless,” Gray said. “I saw him begging at the intersection up the road.” “I get it, Gray, and I feel sorry for him, but he can’t take up residence here at River Bend.” “You go to work, Mariela. Let me talk to Celine. Then I’ll call the police. We’ll have a Board meeting tonight at my house to debrief. 7:00. I’ll let Slade know.”
But Gray didn’t talk to Celine and didn’t call the police. Uniformed officers with guns and clubs on their belts hadn’t seemed like the right solution. He reviewed what he knew to be true: That a man had apparently slept under Celine’s house, more than once. He hadn’t disturbed or taken anything. He apparently washed in the river. He spent time reading, so he wasn’t illiterate. More likely bored and lonely. And probably addicted to something. But not criminal. Gray reasoned a warm, protected sleep was likely the only reason the homeless guy had entered the space to begin with. The temperature overnight on the two nights in question had hung in the forties. He spent the afternoon searching the River Bend Bylaws to learn whether crawl-space sleeping was actually prohibited. While the Bylaws contained no such prohibition, there was the simple matter of trespassing, which Gray learned via the internet was a Class 1 Misdemeanor.
Just before 7:00 that night, Gray set out napkins, lined up bottles of water and placed a dish of mini-pretzels on the dining room table. He was glad to have company coming. When he answered the doorbell, he caught the unexpected sight of Mariela smiling up at Slade and Slade looking tenderly back. Slade and Mariela? Once they sat down, Gray began. “I call this meeting to order. We have an issue.” He watched Mariela write down the time in her secretary’s notebook. “Apparently a homeless man has been sleeping under Celine’s condo.” He saw Slade drop his head. “So did the police come out, or what?” Mariela demanded. “I didn’t call the police.” “WHAT THE HELL?!” Mariela exploded. She batted fingers at her phone to bring up the pictures, then shoved it at Slade. She glared back at Gray. “I’ve seen this guy twice, and you DIDN’T call the cops?” Slade let out a sigh as he looked at the pictures. Mariela pointed fiercely toward her condo. “I have a fourteen-year-old daughter. I don’t need some derelict creeping around right next door!” Gray went on to describe his inspection of Celine’s undisturbed crawl space and his discoveries down by the river. “A Louis L’Amour novel, some underwear, and some nail clippers. And a bar of soap, recently used, and a hand towel. This guy may be homeless, but he’s no criminal. I couldn’t bear to call the police.” “Well, who else are we gonna call?” Mariela’s beaded earrings jiggled. “I called the city,” Gray explained. “They told me there’s a shelter, but it’s always full, and they said many of the people who need it won’t use it. It’s a church-funded thing, and people don’t want to sign up for Jesus when all they want is a warm bed.” The only sound was the scratching of Mariela’s pen as she stroked vigorous notes. “That paperback book? It’s from the Book Box,” Slade said finally. “I’ve read it.” “So he’s using our Book Box and sleeping here? We have to tell Celine, and we have to call the police. How else can we assure her she’ll be safe? How can I be sure Luisa will be safe?” “Okay,” Gray said. “Let’s get Celine over here and tell her. Then we’ll call the police. I think they should come in the wee hours of the morning when this guy is likely to be in there. Maybe they can just move him along without arresting him. Mariela, can Celine stay at your house tonight?” “Yes, of course.” “Okay,” Gray said. “Take five and eat some pretzels. I’ll call Celine.” * * * Slade had recognized the sun-streaked hair and beard as soon as he’d seen the picture on Mariela’s phone. He’d seen the man slink into the back of the Fellowship Hall a few nights earlier while he was giving his talk. The guy had sat with his head in his hands for most of the meeting, until Slade wrapped up his story and said, “Whatever you do, keep coming back.” At that point the bearded man had looked up, tears streaming down his face, and Slade had known exactly how he felt. As they waited for Celine to join them, Mariela’s words some derelict thundered in Slade’s head. Of course she’d think that. Why wouldn’t she? A few years back, derelict would have described Slade perfectly. Maybe he’d set his sights too high when he’d imagined a relationship with Mariela. Maybe, despite the Higher Power and the Twelve Steps, a broken person would always be broken and never healed, never back in the world with normal people, never in love … Slade suddenly heard Celine’s low, scratchy voice: “You sure it’s legal for me to be here?” Gray guided her into an empty chair. “This is an official Board meeting, right? And I’m not on the Board. But shit, maybe you’re citing me for something?” The old woman looked around, eyebrows raised. “No, nothing like that,” Gray said. “But we have a situation you need to know about.” Celine glanced at each of them for a clue. “We don’t think there’s any danger,” Gray told her, “but we believe a homeless man may have spent a night or two in your crawl space.” Celine’s nostrils flared, and she clutched her chest. “Oh my God! I told myself I was a crazy old woman, but I really did see something!” Slade watched Gray place his hand on Celine’s shoulder. “Mariela said you can stay at her place tonight. We’ll call the police now, but we didn’t want to do that until we let you know what was going on.” “So you actually saw him?” Celine asked, hands and voice shaking. “I have pictures,” Mariela said, and volunteered her phone. Celine looked at the first picture then slid her finger to bring up the second. She looked closer and clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh my God, Piper… ” she mumbled. Slade saw her tears. “You know him?” “He was one of my truckers. Sat at the end of the bar, all by himself. Where’s Bull?” “Bull?” “His bulldog. Ugliest sonovabitch you ever saw, but Piper loved him. Took him all over the East Coast in his rig.” She sniffed. “He had a little studio apartment at that place behind the Ramada, where they let him park the rig.” Gray nodded. “But he’s homeless now, or …?” “I dunno. I heard he’d lost his rig, which didn’t surprise me much. The drink ruined him, if you ask me. He got free chicken off me for a long time. But after a while I told him, ‘Piper, don’t look at me to serve you another beer.’ I didn’t see him after that.” Celine shook her head and blew her nose into a napkin. “Aww, Piper.” All fell silent at the table. Slade had expected Celine to be terrified at the thought of a down-and-out stranger sleeping in her crawl space, but he sensed more sadness than fear. “So he knew where you lived?” “Oh, no, I don’t think so. The Cluck is on the other side of town! No, my guess is he moved away from there to find somewhere out of the public eye to live, like the woods behind us. That’s what homeless do.” Gray moved the conversation forward. “Celine, we can’t —” “Of course you can’t allow it,” Celine said, calmer now. “Oh, Piper.” “I’ll talk to him,” Slade said suddenly. The others looked at him in surprise. “Slade,” Mariela said. “This guy needs a detox center or methadone or something.” “Probably. But —” “I just want to call the police,” Mariela asserted. “They encounter these low-lifes all the time, don’t they? They’ll know what to do.” Low-lifes. Yes, that’s fair, Slade thought. He hesitated as he watched the somber faces for further reaction. Certainly Gray would want Piper to be removed from the property. River Bend couldn’t have respectable, tax-paying homeowners sharing their hard-earned space with such a person. Before he’d even thought about it, Slade blurted out, “He can sleep under my house.” Mariela’s mouth dropped open. Gray cocked his head. Celine raised her eyebrows. “Seriously?” Mariela looked at him with the challenging black eyes that had so attracted him over the past couple of years. “Seriously.” “Why would you do something like that?” she asked, squinting at him and shaking her head. Slade considered how to answer. He was a different person now than he’d been for most of his adult life, but he knew how easily the growing affection between him and Mariela could fade away, along with her respect. He felt her eyes on him. And Gray’s. And Celine’s. None of them knew. He took a deep breath and spoke quietly. “Because … ‘There but for the grace of God go I’,” he quoted. “Yeah, I count my blessings, too — every day!” Mariela said. “I’m thankful I have a home and a daughter, and meals every day. But that doesn’t mean I’d let —" “Well, I would,” Slade said. “Because it could’ve been me… In fact… it was me.” Mariela’s mouth dropped open in understanding. He looked at her black eyes and the bright lips he’d planned to kiss at just the right moment. He wondered now whether she’d ever want him to. “There’s bottled water here,” Gray said. He reached across to distribute the bottles, nudged the half-full bowl of pretzels. Celine said, “I need a smoke.” Mariela excused herself to the bathroom. Gray opened his tablet and studied the screen. Slade wondered whether he’d done the right thing, tipping his hand. After he and the others at the Unitarian Church had protected his anonymity all this time. What did his neighbors think of him now? He took a swig of water. He could hardly believe what he’d just volunteered for. Drunks were trouble, he could attest to that.
“He can’t sleep under your house,” Mariela said simply when she and Celine returned to the table. She wouldn’t look Slade in the eyes. He knew she was sad for what she and he had almost found, but just lost. “Actually,” Gray said, pointing a finger at his tablet. “With Slade’s permission, I think he can.” He explained he’d looked up state law earlier that day, and he read from the screen: “Trespassing is entering the private property of a landowner or a legally permissible occupant, without their permission or by violating clearly posted signage stating no trespassing.” “We don’t have No Trespassing signs,” Celine said. “But it said ‘without their permission,” Slade said, “If I give Piper my permission, then he’s not guilty of trespassing.” Mariela, who’d yet to look at him, glared at Gray. “Is the HOA going to allow him to do that?” “We can all exercise rights within our own private property. But as president of the HOA, I think we should insist on some restrictions. Unless we want to implement a community regulation that prohibits it entirely.” Mariela raised her hand. “Would we even have to? People can’t legally occupy a space without running water or bathroom facilities anyway, can they?” “He wouldn’t actually be living in the space,” Slade said. “Just sleeping there so he doesn’t freeze.” “What do you think, Celine?” “I don’t have a vote, Gray. I’m not on the Board.” “But what do you think?” “I don’t know. When I knew Piper, he wouldn’t have hurt a fly. But I don’t know any more. My life’s upside down these days.” She rubbed the veiny back of her hand. Gray sat back. “Let’s sleep on it,” he said. “Celine’s had a shock, and emotions are running high. Slade, please think about exactly what you’re volunteering for. And Mariela, think about what restrictions might make Slade’s suggestion work.” Mariela blew out a breath. “So you’re not calling the police?” Slade asked Gray. “Because that will end this whole discussion. They’ll cuff him and charge him. There’s nothing to prove he’s anything but trouble.” “No, don’t call them,” Celine said, grasping Gray’s forearm. “I’ll be okay at Mariela’s for now. But I wish I could lock my crawl space. I don’t even have a padlock.” “I have one in my storage shed. I’ll put it on for you,” Slade said. Mariela wrote ‘Meeting adjourned at 8:12 p.m.,’ then got up and left. * * * Locked inside Mariela’s condo on the sofa that night, Celine tossed and turned, worrying whether the squeaking leather would keep Mariela and Luisa awake. She worried about what was left of Piper, the sweet man who’d sat night after night at the end of her bar at the Truck ‘n Cluck. She didn’t know whether he’d just recently lost his apartment or been wandering the city for months, begging for money and searching for wooded hiding places to lay his head. It broke her heart. * * * Mariela didn’t sleep, either. She played and replayed in her mind the way Slade had reached to touch her new earrings at the bluegrass festival, the way they’d danced on the lawn as if they’d danced together a hundred times. He’d laughed when she’d overturned the first batch of popcorn onto his freshly vacuumed carpet. He’d playfully whipped a dust buster from the closet like a pistol from a holster. She’d been impressed when he’d told her how quickly he’d moved from installer to fabricator to estimator at work. But why hadn’t she questioned why a smart man in his mid-forties would have started at the bottom to begin with? Now she knew. She didn’t want to know. Maybe Slade was like her father’s friend with the white teeth, a nice guy until the horrible truth came out. Mariela finally fell into a dream state, her mind mixed up with the cottony smell of Slade’s T-shirt, Luisa’s glittering toes and blue paint on a brush. * * * Slade had just left a white-brick home with a soaring foyer and a living room bigger than his entire apartment. He’d measured for black Italian marble to top the kitchen island and replace the counters. The homeowners were ready to drop fifty grand to give their ten-year-old kitchen a new look. Slade’s own countertops were covered in worn Formica. Until this moment, he’d actually felt proud of his kitchen — his own kitchen in his own place. Now he felt the old shame and self-doubt returning. They’d started to creep in overnight when he’d tried to sleep after seeing Mariela write “Meeting adjourned” in her notebook. Adjourned, over, done. Back at home he showered and began the mental preparations for the Board meeting that night. He’d steel himself for a possible “no” to allowing Piper to sleep under his condo. And a probable cold shoulder from Mariela. He stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around his waist. The bathroom mirror had fogged. He wiped it with the hand towel and faced his reflection. He read aloud from the paper list of affirmations he’d taped to the mirror. He’d recited them hundreds of times since a fellow recovering veteran had convinced him that speaking was believing. “I’m sober and clear-minded,” he told the graying, muscular man in the reflection. “I’m strong and able-bodied. I’m gainfully employed and responsible for myself.” He wiped the mirror again as it began to re-fog. “I like myself and others like me. I care for the people in my life.” Slade was ready for the meeting. * * * “Okay, I did my homework,” Mariela said, opening her laptop at Gray’s dining room table. She didn’t look at Slade. Imagining him in such a condition as Piper had confused her feelings about both of them. He sat at the opposite side of the table from her, a row of water bottles separating them. Gray smoothed his shaggy hair. “How did Celine do last night?” “She said she slept fine, but I doubt that’s true. That leather couch was squeaking all night. But I think she felt safe. And for some reason I felt safer having her there. Which doesn’t make any sense.” “We have no reason to think Piper’s a threat,” Gray said gently. “Yes, I’ve been thinking about that.” Mariela allowed herself a look at Slade, who caught her eye just before she began reading aloud from her computer screen: “He must move in and out of the space in full darkness only, so as not to be seen by other neighbors, who might be alarmed. He must use the same direct route from the woods to Slade’s crawl space, where only the four of us would be able to see him.” Slade picked up there, as if his lines followed Mariela’s in a play. “Access to the crawl space at #103 River Bend only, for overnight sleeping and storm shelter only.” He read from a piece of paper he’d unfolded from his jeans pocket. “No access to any other buildings in River Bend. No alcohol or drugs to be brought onto the premises. To prevent vermin, no food of any kind, and water only to drink. No smoking.” She saw Slade look at her. His expression and tone seemed firm but not defiant, his words compassionate but not coddling. “All personal items to be kept covered in a large bin I’ll provide,” Slade continued. “All toileting and personal care to be done off the premises. That’s it.” Mariela recoiled slightly, thinking of the urine smells in the stairwell of the downtown parking garage. It was smart of Slade to have included that condition. “What do you think, Mariela? If you added Slade’s restrictions to yours, would you agree to it?” “Only because Celine knows Piper.” “We need to add an end date,” Slade said. “Six months, max. For his own good.” Mariela began typing. “If we print that out, I could put it in his ammo can,” Gray offered. “No, I said I’d talk to him,” Slade said. “You’re going to have to find him first. He’s a pretty elusive character,” Mariela said. “I’ll figure it out.” She didn’t ask how, and neither did Gray. * * * Give, and it will be given to you, Gray remembered learning somewhere. He felt this to be exactly true the following morning. For the first time, he’d awakened not thinking about Janie, not heavy with the weight of the coming day. Instead, he thought about what he could give Piper. Again he walked the path through the woods. The leaves on the ground had grown thicker and the branches of the trees more bare, making the woods brighter. When he arrived at the boulder, he again found the soap and the hand towel. A pair of Jockeys had been slung over a low branch to dry. He opened the ammo can, where Mustang Man was now marked at page 119. From his right pocket he pulled the peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich he’d made and slid it into the can. From his left he extracted the Planet Fitness fob that had been Janie’s and slid that into the can as well. Eight months remained before her three-year membership would expire. The gym had hot showers and was just a half-mile away. * * * When Slade came home after work the next day, he found the patterned green-and-yellow blanket on the chair by his door — the same one he’d seen wrapping Celine as she sat smoking cigars on her porch. A safety pin fastened to the blanket held a Truck ‘n Cluck napkin on which she’d written “For Piper.” Perfect, Slade thought. He’d already planned to give Piper the faded chair cushion he’d used as a kneeling pad when he painted his baseboards. It would serve as a good-enough pillow, and now there was a blanket as well. He left for the AA meeting with the printout of restrictions in his jacket pocket.
Slade found Piper at the back of the Fellowship Hall that night and sat down beside him. The thin, bearded man held a Styrofoam cup of black coffee in shaking hands. Without a word to one another, they listened to the speaker. When Piper finished his coffee, he went outside for a smoke. Slade joined him under the greenish exterior floodlight. “I want to talk to you,” Slade said as the man took a deep drag on his cigarette. He took the paper from his pocket and unfolded it. “I live in River Bend, and we know you’ve been coming there at night.” Looking terrified, Piper dropped his cigarette and put up his hands. “No! No, look.” Slade handed him the paper. “You can sleep in my crawl space. There’s a blanket and a pillow. That’s it, though, and you’ve gotta follow all the rules.” The paper shook in Piper’s hands as he read. “And there’s no smoking anywhere on the River Bend property,” Slade added. “We don’t want the fire hazard or cigarette butts all over the place.” Piper nodded, refolded the paper and slipped it into his jacket pocket. From there he pulled out an aluminum chip, which he held up to Slade with tears in his eyes. “See this?” Slade recognized the 24-hour chip. He’d received one just like it after his first full day sober. “I’ve had this in my pocket every single day. Next week I’ll be 30 days.” “One day at a time, right? Good for you.” “Thank you, man.” Piper patted his pocket. “I won’t abuse this.” He nodded, then reached for his handkerchief, blew his nose and walked away. * * * Over the next many days, Slade felt no regrets for having done exactly the right thing for Piper who, from what he could tell, came and went from Slade’s crawl space as agreed. For each of those days, though, he recited his affirmations in the bathroom mirror to overcome his loss of Mariela. He’d felt her chill at the Board meeting when she’d realized he’d once fit the description of a derelict, a low-life. She’d certainly never kept company with such types and saw them all as threats to Luisa. So he understood why the truth had disqualified him. And there was nothing more he could do. No matter how hard he’d worked to sustain sobriety and rebuild his life, he couldn’t change what other people thought. Each day, Slade looked at his wet-haired self in the misty bathroom mirror. “I like myself and others like me. I care for the people in my life,” he told his reflection. And when he smiled, the man in the mirror smiled back. * * * On a cold morning in mid-November, Slade woke to the soft thump of the crawl space door as Piper closed it behind him and slipped away into the darkness. It was six o’clock, and Slade would have slept for another fifteen minutes if not for the buzz of his phone. The screen lit up with a text from Mariela: Netflix sometime? Sci-fi. I’ll bring the popcorn.