“Working through lunch again, I see.”
Looking up from my desk, I saw Bill standing in my doorway and holding a bag of takeout from my favorite Chinese restaurant, so I smiled and said, “You’re the best ex-husband a girl could ask for.”
I knew a lot of people thought our friendship was odd.
So it was a good thing I’d stopped caring what people thought about me a long time ago.
But I was glad he was there for more than just the food he’d brought with him and asked, “How did it go this morning?”
I’d loaned Gran’s car to Eric to use to go to his meeting with Bill that morning, so they could go over his case. And after hearing his version of events, I was really hoping the charges against him could get knocked down to a petty vandalism charge.
He might even get away with only doing some community service, if he paid for the damages he’d caused.
“It went well,” he replied, handing me the container of sesame chicken and a napkin.
I didn’t think Bill could eat anything, if there wasn’t a napkin available.
He would be one of the first ones to go if there was a zombie apocalypse.
He and Eric were so different, it was funny to think I had crushed on one and married the other. But each of them had their good points.
And their bad points.
At the moment, Eric’s only bad point was his low self-esteem. I understood that it was probably hard for him to have to rely on someone else for anything, but that didn’t make him a bad person.
He just had a run of bad luck and been given an even worse hand to play with.
The deck had been stacked against him from the moment he’d been born.
“After hearing Eric’s side of things, I think we can plea this down to petty vandalism,” Bill offered, proving our marriage had worked on some level, with the way our thoughts were usually aligned with one another. “Maybe if he pays for the damages, he can get community service and time served.”
We hadn’t discussed it, but I suspected Eric’s finances weren’t in the best of shape. After taking him to his motel to pick up his stuff and seeing he didn’t have much in the way of belongings, I doubted he had the money to pay for much of anything.
And offering to loan him the money would surely just be another nail in his low self-esteem coffin.
But thinking about it all is what made me make an off the cuff remark, by saying, “I stopped by and spoke to Tray Dawson this morning on my way to work.”
Looking up at Bill to see if he recognized the name of my hometown mechanic, when he nodded I went on to explain, “He’s willing to give Eric a trial run and if he likes his work and his work ethic, then he said he would hire him full-time.”
I was excited to get home and tell him about it. He’d been doing a lot around the house and had already performed a small miracle with the front porch.
I doubted it had looked that good when it was first built.
But even so, I knew he was anxious to be working again. I also knew what a bad idea it would’ve been to have offered him a small salary for all of the handiwork he was doing around the house and yard.
With Eric, I would have to pick and choose my battles.
And that was one I didn’t want to touch with a ten foot pole.
“So, Eric will be staying around here for the foreseeable future?” Bill asked.
Once he patted each corner of his lips, with his napkin.
On each side.
Smiling at his familiar little idiosyncrasy, I tried to force away the mental images of a terrified Bill, attempting to pat at the corners of blood covered zombie mouths, while they chomped their rotten teeth at him.
I was sure it would be the way his death would come about.
“As far as I know,” I answered. “We haven’t really talked about it.”
We’d only been living together for three days.
And two nights.
And not in that way.
Eric still seemed a little shell-shocked at everything he was going through, so I hadn’t pushed him for much information about anything. Seeing the look on his face at the animal shelter, when he’d mentioned his mother’s passing, I knew he was conflicted about it.
I couldn’t blame him.
She might have been a piss-poor mother, but she was his piss-poor mother.
I understood family loyalty and to me, the fact he cared about her at all was just another sign that he was a good guy.
Looking a bit conflicted himself, Bill tilted his head slightly and attempted to sound casual when he said, “Eric mentioned that he was staying with you.”
I couldn’t really tell if he’d posed it as a question, so I nodded – with my mouth full of sesame chicken, it was my only option – but I damn near spit it all out when he added, “Do you think that is a good idea?”
Chewing the food in my mouth, like some zombies I was back to picturing, I swallowed it down and stared back at him hard, sounding just as hard when I answered, “Yes.”
“But Sookie,” he began, using that tone I remembered all too well from when we were married.
Like he knew what was best and I should just nod my head and let him make all of the decisions because he had a Y chromosome.
It was a trait that – when combined with my stubborn trait – had been the cause for many of our arguments before we’d gotten divorced.
I wouldn’t stand for it then and I would be damned if I would stand for it now.
Something he could likely see on my face because he sat back in his seat, just as I leaned forward in mine and said, “Don’t you ‘But Sookie’ me. I appreciate what you’re doing for me by helping out Eric, but that doesn’t give you the right to interfere in my life. Don’t make me go down the hall and file for a name change.”
I’d do it in a heartbeat.
I’d bitch about the hassle of changing everything else back to my maiden name, but the bitch in me would only feel righteous.
We were both stubborn like that.
“I’m only worried about you,” he huffed and added in a bitchy tone of his own, “Do I have a right to be worried about my ex–wife and friend?”
Damn him and his sensibilities.
After Gran had died, Bill was the only family I had left. Even though we weren’t legally family members anymore, our divorce had only ended our marriage.
It hadn’t changed the label I still put on him.
He was my family.
He’d even given me another family member in the form of Judith – as weird as that may be to some – and soon I would have the equivalent of a little niece or nephew too because of him.
It made it impossible for me to stay mad at him.
“Yes,” I huffed in return. “You have the right to be worried for me, but there’s no need. Eric is a good guy and an old friend. I’m worried about him, so I’m just helping him out.”
“He seems nice enough,” he hesitantly agreed. “But how well could you know him after so much time has passed? Don’t you feel the least bit uncomfortable living with him?”
But not in the way he meant.
Coming home to find Eric on the front porch, wearing nothing but a sheen of sweat, low slung jeans, and a tool belt, admittedly made me uncomfortable.
In my lady bits.
Not that I would admit to that.
But just because he’d admitted to being sweet on me when we were kids, didn’t mean he felt the same way now. And the last thing he needed was me lusting after him, when he had so many other things he needed to worry about.
And the last thing I needed was to think he might be returning any interest I showed in him out of some ill-conceived notion he would need to return the sentiment in order to keep a roof over his head.
Besides, like Bill had just said, I really didn’t know him all that well now and for all I knew, he had a girl waiting on him back in Texas.
Although, I would think he would’ve mentioned the hypothetical her when he’d said he wasn’t sure what his future plans were.
At any rate, I pushed the images of Chippendale Eric out of my thoughts – and just barely kept myself from fanning my face with my hand at the memory – before slapping on my church-face when I looked back at Bill and acquiesced just a smidge, “I don’t know him as well as I once did, but I’m a good judge of character.”
After spending the last twelve years in a courtroom, I could spot a shady character from a mile away.
Eric may have had some darkness in his past, but he was far from shady, so I added with a tone of finality in my voice, “Eric is a man of good character.”
Staring back at me, I was readying my mental dukes to verbally duke it out with Bill some more, seeing his lips begin to twist up with what I thought would be his next argument.
But I ended up laughing out loud instead, when he jutted his chin at me and only said, “You have a little sauce there on the corner of your mouth.”
Using my napkin, I was still laughing when I patted the corners of my lips – three times – on each side – and saw the relief cross over his face before he finally relaxed in his seat, so we could finish our lunch in peace.
Pulling up the driveway later on that night, I found Eric sitting on the front porch swing and smiled wider seeing Bubba in his lap.
He was a big old tom cat and black all over, who had clearly seen better days. One of his ears was missing a huge chunk, likely bitten off in a fight with another cat long ago, and his face and body were littered with old scars, with his tail permanently bent at an odd angle.
He was a mess.
I was instantly smitten.
But even with his obvious battle wounds, he was clearly a lover.
And with his obvious battle wounds, he was clearly not a fighter.
At least not a good one.
Eric had only shaken his head and laughed when I picked him out, saying something along the lines of me having a ‘type’ of stray I was drawn to.
He wasn’t exactly wrong.
But he didn’t need to hear me say that, so I got out of the car and smiled with, “You two are getting along well.”
“I’d say something crude right about now that had to do with cats – sort of – and the kind that I seem to attract, but it isn’t really polite conversation to be having with a lady, such as yourself,” he smirked back at me.
Did he just make a pussy reference?
Mine just swallowed hard, so I would say so.
Figuring it couldn’t hurt to chum the waters a bit I cast out my baited hook by saying with a smile, “Don’t hold back on my account. I hear things in the courtroom that would make you blush. Nothing shocks me anymore.”
It was true.
Some people had no sense of time and place.
And how a courtroom wasn’t the time and place to talk about who was fucking whom and in what position and place, so that was why they felt they were perfectly within their rights to have beaten either the fuckee’s or fucker’s ass.
Sometimes, I felt more like Jerry Springer than Judge Susannah Compton.
Taking the seat next to him on the porch swing, he smiled back at me and only said, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
He left my hook dangling.
So I tossed that bait and slid another type onto the hook, casting it out again by dropping into the conversation, “So, I spoke with Tray Dawson this morning. He owns the only garage in town now and he said he’d be willing to give you a trial run. If he likes your work, then you’ll have yourself a full-time job.”
Slumping down in his seat, he looked a little dazed and only said in a soft voice, “Sookie…”
But the way he’d said my name had me channeling a bit of my earlier self with Bill – and chuckling on the inside that no matter how different the two men in my life were, they could still get the same reactions out of me – as I argued back, “Don’t Sookie me, Eric. The only thing I did was speak to the man. The last time I went to church, I heard from that loudmouth Mrs. Fortenberry that Tray was looking to hire someone. He’s a little overwhelmed at the moment because of all the work he’s been getting lately. He recently started working on tractors too, so sometimes he has to go out to whoever’s farm to do the job and he said he could really use another person at the garage.”
Not wanting him to think he was only getting the opportunity because of me – because that couldn’t be further from the truth – I added, “If you had wandered in there on your own looking for work, I’m sure he would’ve given you the same opportunity. It has nothing to do with me.”
“It has everything to do with you,” he argued back softly, while reaching out and squeezing my hand for an all too brief moment.
I felt the cold seep into my skin the moment he let go, in spite of the balmy weather, so I sounded warmer than I felt when I turned to him and gave him my best – and final – argument.
Figuring we could use a change in topic, I looked around and smiled at the work he’d done that day, saying, “Gran would’ve hugged you to death, if she were here to see what you’ve done with the yard.”
He’d not only cut the grass and picked up all of the stray branches that had been lying around from the last storm, he’d mulched the flowerbeds and chopped some firewood too.
Thinking what he must have looked like at the time he was doing it all, I was sorry to have missed it.
“It’s nothing,” he shrugged, clearly uncomfortable with my praise and instead focused on Bubba, who had yet to even acknowledge my presence.
So rather than argue the point, I picked a different – more childish – point to argue over and playfully accused, “You stole my cat.”
“Not on purpose,” he grinned. “But Bubba and me are kindred spirits.”
Unable to ignore the bait now dangling on his hook, I smirked and reached over, lightly cuffing the backside of his head, while I corrected, “It’s Bubba and I.”
“Some things never change,” he grumbled with a small smile and rubbed the back of his head.
But I would beg to differ.
Something – whatever this thing between Eric and I was – felt different.
Or maybe more like changing.
I just couldn’t be sure if I was the only one who felt that way.
I supposed only time would tell.