Stretched out on the living room sofa, Sally pulled the blanket up under her chin and tried to relax. For the first time all morning her stomach was calm and her throbbing headache seemed to be in retreat. What had begun as a very bad day was turning better. In part, she owed Lane for that. His offer to do the food-bank shopping had allowed for her badly-needed nap.
Now, with her eyes closed, she was chuckling to herself at Lane’s anxious uncertainty, wondering whether he ought to join Marla on that errand. She could tell he wanted to help. But an hour or more spent in Marla’s sometimes dubious company, was he ready for that?
Still, Sally was forced to admit that it was a pleasing thing to see....watching as the two of them got acquainted. Each of them had struggled for too long with distressing loneliness and financial setbacks. Now, in her best matchmaking mode, she wondered if there might be enough common ground to sustain a connection.
Then, just as she settled back into her pillow there came a knock on the front door....once, then again. That was a surprise. No one ever knocked at her door.
Her scruffy trailer, in an even scruffier trailer park, was unpromising enough to discourage even the boldest salesperson or solicitor. They were generally looking for more affluent prospects. True, Marla sometimes knocked once, before pushing the door open and coming inside. Lane, on the other hand, never bothered with even that formality. So who could it be, messing up her chance for an extended nap?
Off the sofa, toward the door....moving slowly.... Sally was still grumbling at someone’s thoughtless intrusion as she tugged on the door knob. An instant later she broke into a weak, but obviously genuine smile.
“Good morning, Robert,” she said, making no effort to hide her surprise. “What brings you calling so early in the day?”
He stood in the doorway, hands in his pockets, bundled up against the cold. “I’m on my way to the Mission House. Maureen has a project for me. I stopped to see if Lane would be able to lend a hand.”
Pulling her housecoat tighter, Sally’s reply was interrupted by a sudden awareness. “It’s freezing out here,” she said. “Come inside. I’ll bet you haven’t been warm all morning, have you?”
Robert stepped into the tiny, but toasty living room while Sally explained, “Lane’s not here. He went to the food bank with Marla. Have a seat, please. Take a few minutes to get warmed up. There’s some coffee going. Let me get you a cup.”
One sip, then another. He sat holding the warm cup in both his cold hands. “Look,” he finally said. “I shouldn’t have barged in on you like this. It looks like I might have woke you up. I didn’t mean to do that.”
“You didn’t. I was just a little slow getting up and around this morning. But I don’t mind. In fact, it’s kind of nice to have company for a change.”
“And Lane is off shopping with Marla?” That was enough to earn Robert's mischievous grin. “That’s kind of surprising. I’ve watched them at dinner and during our card games. I thought I’d noticed something of a chill there, like it was an arm’s length sort of thing. Near as I could tell they both seemed a little hesitant.”
“Well, the truth is he was doing me a favor. But who knows? Maybe it’s just a matter of them getting to know each other.”
“I suppose that’s possible. Though I’ve never heard Lane say he was in a big hurry to try that again.”
Setting his cup on the end table, Robert was ready to make another point. “By the way, I wanted to thank you for a really good time the other night. It was the best evening I’ve had in a long time. Good company. A great meal. Good fun. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
“A good meal? Are you serious? It was Mac and cheese for heaven sakes. And hot dogs.”
“Hey, don’t knock it,” he laughed. “Everything about it was first class. I suppose if I was appropriately grateful I’d offer to return the favor. But I’m afraid my penthouse wouldn’t measure up.”
“That’s not necessary. You’re certainly welcome to stop by anytime. Remember that when it gets really cold.”
Sally paused, reflecting on her unsubtle invitation. Was she being too obvious? After all, she hardly knew him....though of course he was Lane’s friend. Then, setting that formality aside, she turned to her own low-keyed observation.
“As for my brother, I know he can get kind of silly when he goes off on one of his causes, like that ‘empty house’ thing.”
“He did get caught up in that, didn’t he?”
“Yes he did,” Sally nodded. “But that’s the way he is. I remember his first wife calling him Crusader Rabbit. It seems like he can’t help it. He has this fixation on making things right.”
“I think I could tell that,” Robert nodded. “Especially when he was talking about the woman he met at the fitness center....the one who’s involved with the City Council in some way or another. He’s met her once, for all of ten seconds, and now he’s ready to go asking for her help.
“That’s where we’re different, he and I. I know all about the stuff he’s talking about. I’ve lived that life up close and personal. But his Crusader Rabbit approach just isn’t me. I guess everyone has their own way of dealing with things.
"Sounding off, trying to change a system that doesn’t give a damn what I think, has never appealed to me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have my own way of doing things.”
A moment later Sally had taken Robert’s claim as an invitation to her question. “And what is that....your way of doing things?”
Picking up their cups, Robert was off to the kitchen to empty the last of the coffee pot....half a cup for her, half a cup for himself.
“My thing?” he repeated as he returned her cup. “I suppose it’s about helping out. Making myself useful when that’s all I have to offer. In fact, I guess that’s the other reason I’m here this morning.”
“The other reason? You mean besides seeing Lane?” He must have heard the wary wondering in her voice. What did he mean, she wondered....'the other reason?'
“Yeah. It was something more than just seeing Lane.”
His intense, slightly-mysterious tone was drawing Sally in, until with a quiet grin he explained. “I owe you for a couple very nice meals. More than that, I’ve had the chance to visit and socialize....that’s something I’ve missed more than I realized. I really enjoyed that part of it. Which in turn got me thinking about your frozen pipes.”
“My frozen pipes?”
Perhaps by then Sally was creating her own answers, reasons why Robert’s visit might be about “more than just seeing Lane.” If so, she was probably concentrating on something more personal than ‘frozen pipes.’
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” she replied.
“Like I said the other night, I don’t have the tools to fix your pipes if they break again. And since people are saying this winter could be a hard one, frozen pipes just might happen again. I can’t fix them. But what I can do is install what they call ‘heat tapes’ on the pipes, to keep them from freezing in the first place.”
“You can? I’ve never heard of ‘heat tapes.’ Is that hard to do....or too expensive?”
“It’s really easy. You wrap the heat tape around the pipe. Then, when the weather turns cold you just plug it in to an electrical outlet and bingo....it keeps your pipes from freezing in even the coldest Tanner weather.”
“And you could do that?”
Robert was telling himself to slow down. He mustn’t be overselling what he could do. Because in fact, his grand idea came with one embarrassing caveat.
“The thing is," he continued. "There’s no way I could come up with the dollars to buy the tapes. Especially if you want to do both your place and Marla’s. But once we have the tapes I could do it all in an afternoon.”
“How much would it take?” Sally too was taking a mental step back, telling herself she should have known there would be a glitch. Why was it always about money....not enough money?
“I’d have to go under the trailers to see how much exposed pipe there is,” he continued. “These places are pretty small. It shouldn’t take too much tape. Probably thirty or forty dollars would do it.”
Sally was doing the mental math....calculating costs, weighing his estimate against the previous winter’s plumbing costs.
“Forty dollars," she said. "To save what might be a two hundred dollar repair bill, for each trailer? That sounds like a pretty good deal to me. In fact, it’s so darn good that I’m thinking we ought to throw in something extra.”
That was enough to bring a question to Robert’s face. An instant later she was providing her own answer. “By this weekend our pantry will be restocked. We’ll have everything we’d need for a really special ‘heat tape’ party. Something even better than Mac and cheese and hot dogs. Would that make it easier to go crawling around under the trailer?”
“Wow.” He was nodding his approval. “Heat tapes and dinner, along with another night of TV and pinochle. With maybe a chance to win this time. That sounds like a deal to me.
“I’ll tell you what,” he added. “I’ve got a few bucks stashed away. Why don’t I invest in a bottle of nice Oregon wine. It’ll be the cheap kind. But it’s still pretty good. That would make it a real party, wouldn’t it?”
“What the heck are you doing out here?” Robert asked as Lane approached the Job Market wall. It was seven forty-five Friday morning, the first time all week Lane had ventured out so early. “I thought you’d given up on the Market. I hope you’re not expecting to get hired. Things have pretty well dried up. I’m about ready to give up on it for today.”
“It’s not about work. Not today,” Lane replied, reminding himself that he had come looking for an even more-unexpected outcome. For two days he had played and replayed his unlikely scheme, wondering if there was some way he could possibly pull it off. Sometime in the middle of a sleepless night he had decided he must try.
“I’m hoping to see that lady I was telling you about the other day. The one who’s the lawyer for the City Council. I want to talk to her. I know she comes to the fitness center some mornings.”
“Are you still on that ‘empty house’ kick?” Robert’s half-laughing question was punctuated with an eye-rolling sigh. “Man, don’t you realize you’re not going to get anywhere riding that horse? Especially with someone from the City Hall. Remember, they’re the ones who made the rules you don’t like.”
“That means they’re the ones who can change them. Right?”
“But they won’t. You’re forgetting who they work for, who they answer to. If you think it through.......” Robert stopped short, captured by the sight of her coming out of the fitness center, walking toward her car.
A second later Lane saw her too. Without waiting to hear the last of Robert’s wisdom, he was half-running across the parking lot to intercept her.