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When I Had Nothing



     It was too hot out for anyone in their right mind to be stripping shingles off a roof and I stepped outside with a cold beer in my hand, a fresh slice of lime sunk to the bottom. It was after five anyway, and I wanted a good look at the guy my new next door neighbor said was “the most deliciously troubled eligible bachelor in town.” Then behind her hand she grinned and said, “And the most stand-offish asshole you’ll ever meet. But you look like a girl who likes a good project.” She’d gestured toward my derelict house.

     As I’d been called worse things, even quite recently, I decided to get an eye full of the man who’d arrived at an ungodly hour and tipped a ladder up against my house. He was up on the roof even before I’d had coffee and from my current vantage point, all I could see was that he was shirtless and sweating, ropes of muscle twisting as he maneuvered his body to strip off another line of shingles. 

     Yes indeed, the view was just fine.

     “You must be thirsty,” I called up, craning my neck and shading my eyes with one hand. Thanks to my mother, the professional trophy wife, I knew better than to squint.

     “Nah,” he called back over his shoulder without looking at me. “Got a cooler of water in the truck.”

     “I’m surprised you don’t have someone to help you–that’s a big job.”

     “Can’t afford someone to help me and besides, I’m perfectly capable.” He sounded grumpy.

     Well, that was that.

     I waited in the shade of the sycamore on the front lawn, sipping my own beer while the cicadas put up their terrible racket. They were far louder than the sound of the shingles crashing to the ground. 

     Maybe if I stared at his back long enough, he’d get uncomfortable and come down. In the meantime, staring at him wasn’t a hardship.

     It was another fifteen minutes before I heard him grunt from the other side of the roof: “There...finally.” 

     Since the ladder was on the back of the house, I didn’t see him descend. He walked around the side of the house, tools in his hand, pitching them easily into the open bed of his truck. They clattered and skidded across the bed while he stripped off his sweaty shirt, grabbed a folded towel from the cab and vigorously toweled his chest and hair, then pulled a clean t-shirt over his head.

     Thankfully, I remembered to close my mouth just before he looked up, which was right around the time my brain stopped working entirely. 

     And that was it: I must have a head injury. 

     Dropped on my head at birth or something, because the only thing running through my overheated brain at the moment was how to get my hot little fingers all over those muscles. 

     Holy flexing gloriousness. 

     “Lady, you know you got four layers of shingles on that damn roof?” he growled, finally moving toward me.

     “There’s not much I know about this house yet,” I said haltingly. Language felt entirely new and my cheeks felt hot. I’d just imagined licking him. “It was a foreclosure, so I had some idea of what I was getting into–I just expected the worst–and the roof is definitely the worst.”

     He shook his head while looking at his feet, but I got the distinct impression he was shaking his head at me, like I was the town idiot.

     “This is the old Jacobson place, from what I’ve been told.” He looked back up and I forgot my name when I saw his golden-brown eyes. “Everyone knew it was a tip. Probably cheaper to tear it down and start from scratch.”

     Shit. The last thing I needed to hear.

     “Doubt I can afford that,” I said, extending an arm to offer him the rapidly-warming beer.

     “Thanks.” He glanced somewhat askance at my hand, but he didn’t reach for it. “I don’t really drink much.”

     “Uh...ok. Religion, or personal problems?” I asked stupidly and he looked away for a second.

     “Personal experience, if you don’t mind.” His response was short, the words clipped. There was a muscle in his jaw that ticced two or three times when he said it. It was clearly meant to make me feel like I was overstepping, and it did. 

     Setting both bottles on the ground, I moved a few steps closer and held out a hand. “Natalie,” I said, and he looked up at me quickly, like I’d cursed at him.

     “Thomas.” He shook my hand like the physical contact was detestable and I wondered if he was afraid the cooties on my hand would jump over to him and infect him with my rudeness.

     There was something unusual about this man, all right. I thought of the days spent trying to get him to return my call. The estimate that had shown up in my mailbox–I’d not seen a soul even though I’d been home all day long–had been astonishingly low. It occurred to me that for some reason I’d still hired the man to do the job without ever having met him. (I blamed the attractive estimate.) 

     Right now his body language was telling me the only thing he wanted to do was get into his truck and get away from me as quickly as possible.

     “Well Thomas,” I said, leaning over to retrieve both bottles, “it was nice to meet you in person. Let me know if there’s anything you need while you’re up there tomorrow.” I pointed toward the roof. “I generally work from home, so it’s no trouble.”

     He nodded, but he didn’t respond and he was walking back toward his truck before I could even start for the front porch. I stood watching as he turned over the engine and pulled a tight three-point turn to drive away. 

     Not a look. 

     Not a wave. 

     Kind of an asshole, really.

     I let myself back into the house, grateful the ceiling fans stirred the air. I was glad they worked at all, considering the shape the house had been in when I pulled the moving truck into the driveway and unlocked the front door. A tip, Thomas had said, and that was generous.

     It had been three months, but I’d managed to clean the cobwebs and paint a few of the rooms. The floors were rough and battered, but I liked the distressed look of a well used hardwood floor, and after cleaning and waxing them I put down the few big rugs I’d brought with me from my previous home in Boston. 

     The roof, however, made it known shortly thereafter that it was in even worse repair than my home inspector had indicated, and when I borrowed several buckets from my new neighbor to deal with the downpour happening in my bedroom, she mentioned Thomas. “Bit of a case, that one,” she’d laughed gently, her crisp northern accent a piece of home in my new town, where everyone had a drawl that went on for days. “But you won’t find anyone who does a better job, and he’s fair. That’s more than I can say for most people.” 

     She helped me haul over more five gallon pails, two at a time, and her eyes traveled quickly around the house as she followed me up the stairs. “I’ve always wanted to see the inside of this house. It looks like you really have your work cut out for you.”

     I ducked my head a little. She had no idea how much work I’d already put into the place, and I had only some idea of how much was left to do. I was used to having a team, but I’d left my design practice behind in Boston, sold to my longtime assistant. I was handy enough, but most of my DIY skills came from stubbornness, bravado and YouTube tutorials rather than actual experience. Documenting the process just happened to be a large part of my livelihood. As it turned out, people found my misadventures hilarious and I wasn’t too proud to capitalize on that.

     She helped me push my bed to the only corner of the room that didn’t seem to be experiencing monsoon season. “I have a nightlight in my guest room; I’ll bring it over after dinner. You’re going to need one in here in the middle of the night with this mess.” 

     Before she left, Gerry whipped out her phone. “Give me your number; I’ll text Thomas’s number to you and he’ll probably be out in a couple days to look at your roof. He’s the best choice, since that big racket over in Mobile will take the shirt right off your back and they won’t do half as good a job.” She blew out an irritated breath. “Ask me how I know.”

     I cocked an eyebrow at her. Her sales pitch for the guy was impressive enough. He was either a real sob story or God’s gift to homeowners, and I couldn’t decide which. Gerry didn’t look like the type to fall for either, with her razor-sharp bob and her plain, dark clothing. 

     That’s how I found myself, one week later, standing in my living room with a warm beer in my hand. I contemplated pouring it down the drain before I thought better of it, popping it into the freezer for a few moments. 

     Waste not, want not.

     There was a mountain of mail sitting on the kitchen countertop. It was one I’d been neglecting for several weeks and I eyed it suspiciously. There were no overly large envelopes, though I wasn’t sure whether that was a good sign or a bad one. I’d been expecting a process server or a large packet of documents to show up for weeks, but maybe Ahmad was waiting for me to file first. My lips curled up derisively at the thought. 

     He can go fuck himself. 

     I was suddenly, tremendously tired. 

     Living the life of a home and lifestyle blogger seemed like a sham when I looked around at the house I’d lived in for twelve weeks. There wasn’t great lighting, thanks to small windows, of which there weren’t nearly enough. 

     The rooms were small and boxy, all the electrical fixtures terrifyingly antique. 

     When it rained, which seemed to happen often, I walked around the house wearing heavy rubber gardening gloves, hoping they were enough to keep me from getting zapped when I flicked off a light switch. (So far, so good but I was probably, literally, playing with fire.)

     Finally completing my mental tour of the house and fetching the slightly cooler beer from the freezer, I walked into the small living room and plopped down on my favorite leather sofa. I flicked on the TV, trying to lose myself in the upbeat home improvement shows that followed one after another on my favorite cable channel. Usually they were an inspiration, but tonight I felt defeated. I spent most of my days feeling like I was underwater, trying to surface just long enough to draw another breath. Just enough to keep me going a little longer. 

     I guess having the Aubusson ripped out from under you will do that.

     Dinner was a pint of my favorite ice cream, as it had been with increasing regularity, and finally I had to admit to myself that my pants were not shrinking. My new and significantly more sedentary lifestyle, combined with shitty eating habits and a healthy topping of depression, was making me fat. 

     This was not where you were supposed to be at forty. 

     I groaned, dumping the container into the trash and slotting the spoon into the dishwasher. It joined the rest of my silverware drawer, already in the dishwasher, and I grimaced when I realized it hadn’t been run in a week. 

     Dropping a detergent tablet into the machine, I cranked the ancient dial and prayed to the appliance gods for their mercy as I fired it up. The avocado green beast whirred and groaned and clunked, and mercifully the sound of trickling water could be heard. 

     It took very little to tighten up the house for the night. In fact, if you didn’t notice the stack of mail on the counter, or the fact I hadn’t made my bed in days, one could be forgiven for thinking the house had been abandoned. It was as clean as I’d been able to make it, though it wasn’t anywhere close to being decorated or feeling anything like a warm, welcoming home. 

     Maybe I should get a cat. 

     Yeah...I laughed at myself, because I could barely be trusted to take care of myself right now.

     Dragging myself up the stairs, I turned the taps on the bathtub and smiled to myself. I hadn’t bought the house for the neighborhood, the yard or the square footage. I bought it for the ancient, enormous clawfoot bathtub, the size of which strained the aging hot water heater each time I filled it. In hindsight, it was a really bad reason to buy a house, but it was hard to convince me of that when I sank into the tub each night.

     Cursing my shortsightedness, I wrapped myself in a robe and went back to the kitchen for a glass of wine. Ahmad wasn’t there to criticize me or to remind me that drinking was unacceptable for a woman, I thought as I popped the cork on a passable red and filled the glass nearly to the rim. 

     We had established early on in our relationship that there would forever be a double standard. 

     Well fuck him, because I wasn’t planning on moving to Saudi Arabia to live with the rest of his super uptight, fanatical family, and I never would. I raised a middle finger into the air, shaking it gleefully in my quiet little kitchen.

     I had to take a few sips of the wine before moving back up the stairs, to keep from sloshing it all over the floor and I sank back into the bubbles contentedly, lifting the glass to my lips defiantly. 

     That lying asshole. 

     We’d been so happy…at first.

     I remembered the evening I’d walked into Ahmad’s office for a legal consultation and just about turned into a puddle on the floor. I’d barely been able to get out the story of a client trying to stiff me on a large contract, I’d been so bowled over by his sharply handsome face. 

     Of course, I’d been awkward and goofy, not at all by design but by some genetic defect that rendered me stupid around handsome men, and he’d pretended to be charmed.

     He was tall and gorgeous, regal with his sharp profile and immaculately tailored suits. He looked like an Arabic Ken doll I could drop into one of my renderings, and I found that for a time my mood boards skewed progressively more Middle Eastern in inspiration. He made me stupid like that.

     He’d been so proud of the fact that I ran my own successful design firm. It was small, but clients in the greater Boston area clamored for my services and I always had more jobs coming in than I could handle. 

     We became something of a fixture in the local social scene, the petite blonde designer and the austerely handsome corporate attorney.

     I took another sip and allowed myself to revisit the snapshot my brain had taken earlier in the evening. I needed something to push my husband from my thoughts.

     Obviously Thomas was a socially inept asshole, but he was a damn fine one–a blind woman could have seen it–and I hadn’t seen such a fine specimen in a long time, according to the messages received from my overgrown lady garden.

     I tried to remember the last time I’d found a man attractive, and couldn’t. Ahmad had ruined me for all other men: graceful, seductive, attentive. 

     At first. 

     Allowing myself to think of the contractor’s wide shoulders and muscled arms made me feel a little dizzy. 

     Maybe the water was too hot. 

     He looked like the cover of a romance novel, all long dark hair and leonine eyes. Phew. 

     He could strip my roof any day, thanks.

     There were unfamiliar urges happening in my body. It had been such a long time since my husband had even been interested in touching me that I’d completely lost any connection with myself. I didn’t recognize the stirrings of desire any longer, not that they were even welcome. I’d closed down that aspect of my life years earlier, when Ahmad started working such long hours that he couldn’t be expected to do anything but sleep while he was home. 

     Many of my husband’s nights were spent away from our shared home. He was forever on business overseas or at the bachelor pad he kept in New York, since he was legal counsel for an enormous company based out of Manhattan. 

     Though he worked out of the Boston office, he was still in New York at least two weeks out of every month. But that was Ahmad: firm in his decision. He refused to move, claiming my business was in Boston so that was where we would stay. 

     It took me a really long time to realize I was a convenient excuse, providing cover for him.

     I pulled the drain plug and rose from the tub to grab the huge, fluffy towel on the floor next to my wine glass and I pressed it quickly into the curves of my body to soak up water. The last thing I wanted was for my contractor to find me sprawled out naked on my bathroom tile the next morning, dead from a slip-and-fall head wound.

     The mirror was feeling bitchy that night, sure to point out to me that I wasn’t getting any younger. There were faint lines beginning to settle across my forehead and if I smiled, I could see where the crow’s feet were going to land. 

     Well, at least my hair was still good. I wound it up in the large towel and critically surveyed my body. I was a little softer around the middle lately, but the girls were holding up nicely. My backside was firm, my thighs were tight and my arms were nicely defined from months of moving heavy furniture and boxes. 

     He can go screw himself. 

     Oh goody, my husband had barged back into my brain. 

     I cussed out imaginary Ahmad. There had been no reason for him not to find me attractive, just as there had been no reason for Thomas to look at me like I was a damn leper, and I huffed. 

     Now I was mad at both men.

     Slipping an oversized t-shirt over my head, I crawled gratefully into my enormous bed and said a prayer of thanks for cool linen sheets, crickets outside the window and the small ceiling fan that whirred furiously to stir up something of a breeze. 

     Tonight I was thankful for more, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. The only thing that came to mind was yummy muscles. 

     I snorted at myself–Stupid–and rolled over to go to sleep.




     Merciful mother of God.

     My Catholic mother would have dragged my ass to confession for the thoughts I was having about the woman who lived on Dothan Way. All it had taken was one look over my shoulder, at the curvy blonde dynamo standing in the front yard, and I had to hide behind the roofline.

     I was grumpy on a great day, and today had not been a great day. Besides, what did she think she was doing in that tight little t-shirt? Sure her pretenses were decent. 


     It was kind of her to offer me something cold to drink, but did she not realize I couldn’t stop staring at her tits through that thin shirt? 

     I had to admit to myself that just maybe that was her plan. It wouldn’t be the first time a woman had flashed me her lucky charms. 

     My brain chanted “Magically delicious,” and I slapped a hand over my face. No, no, no. Bad Thomas.

     When it came to my social graces, I’d been told more than once over the past few years that I was “possibly on the spectrum.” 

     I didn’t bother to tell people why I’d turned into such an ogre, and I tried not to place too much stock in their opinions, but it went a long way toward explaining why most people didn’t take to me easily. 

     What the hell had I been thinking, agreeing to fix this woman’s roof? 

     If it hadn’t been for Gerry, who seemed to be my biggest promoter around town, I’d have probably done one or two roofs a year. It was a holdover skill from my teenage years, when my dad insisted each of his children have a “viable skill” before they went out into the world. It just turned out that my skills set aligned nicely with the blue collar work he had in mind for me at the time.

     My refusal of the warming beer in Natalie’s hand was probably a little more harsh than necessary, but she made me uncomfortable. I’d felt her eyes on me when I changed my shirt and I was half tempted to ask her if she liked what she saw, just to knock her back a little. 

     As she leaned over to put both bottles on the ground, I thanked God I could knock out the job in only a couple days because that way I wouldn’t have to see her again. 

     Most of the jobs Gerry got me into were charity cases for poor little old ladies. The ones who fussed and baked and plied me with chocolate chip cookies and then tried to set me up with their granddaughters. You know, the ones who were always “such a nice girl,” which usually meant they were cross-eyed and living under a bridge with feral cats. But this time...well, this one sure as hell wasn’t cross-eyed, I noted with some appreciation. 

     When she made eye contact with me, her shockingly blue eyes made something zing inside and I nervously licked my lips as I watched her mouth move. She was gorgeous, all dark lashes and soft lips, and her cheeks turned the softest shade of pink when I snapped at her.

     I couldn’t get away from her fast enough. 

     When she leaned over to pick up the bottles from the lawn, my pants started to grow tight. 

     Damn it, I have to cut this short. 

     So I made a complete idiot of myself and tore out of her driveway before I could get a second look at any of the things I really wanted to see. 

     I hadn’t seen any that warranted a second look for quite some time and it really wouldn’t do, to turn into a drooling mess on her front lawn, so I’d bolted.

     Since I was already sweaty and smelly, I went upstairs to put myself through a punishing round of lifting in the front bedroom. 

     The old four-bedroom house had surprisingly large rooms and now that the house was empty, they were all mine to do with as I pleased. So now, rather than just an office in the front room with the large windows, I’d shoved the desk with all the monitors and gadgets into one corner and filled the bank of windows with machines and weights. 

     After my pathetic dinner, I spent some time working on a project on the office side of the room. 

     Then, since the clock told me it was nearly two, and because I knew Mrs. O’Shaughnessy had her binoculars out, I decided to call it. 

     I showered quickly and collapsed into bed, my eyes wide open, my arms feeling empty as I remembered yet again why my house felt so lonely. 

     Fuck, this was going to be another long night.

Copyright 2022, Erin FitzGerald

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