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     Meglio tarde che mai. 

     Better late than never. It was the story of my life, or at least I hoped it was, because that meant there was hope for me yet.

     Throwing down my pen, I ran a rough hand over my tired eyes and leaned back in the chair. It squeaked on its casters, the sound loud in the small trailer that served as my site office.

     The saying had come from nowhere, nothing prompting it. It was something I remembered my Nonna saying often when I was a child, and it had run right over the pretty memory I’d been entertaining of that morning in the diner, when one of heaven’s own dark angels had swanned in and dropped gracefully into a seat across from a blond man built like a cedar. He was not someone I particularly wanted to mess with, given his size, and I’d tried to keep my eyes on my plate. Despite myself, they kept drifting back to the gorgeous woman who placed her breakfast order in Portuguese before engaging the blond man in serious conversation punctuated by easy laughter.

     “Holy shit.” Terrence breathed the word heavily, clearly drinking in the same spectacle I was, and I elbowed him so sharply that he barked out the curse again.

     “Watch it, Rivas,” I said under my breath. “We’re in the presence of a lady.”

     “No lady, boss,” the man said, shoveling an obscene amount of scrambled eggs into his mouth. “Goddess.” The word came out all garbled, along with some pieces of egg.

     Rivas was onto something, I thought, my eyes darting around the diner to tabulate the jealous looks from the few women and the open, hungry stares of every man in the room–every man but the blond one sitting across from her. 


     I picked up the pen again, my eyes crossing as I tried to make sense of the numbers swimming in the columns. I was exhausted. I’d been running at full tilt the last several weeks, trying to oversee a huge casino project in a neighboring town while booking future jobs, squeezing in small ones that my guys could take under the table and off the clock, something that kept them loyal to my crew because they knew I was looking out for them.

     Life was a lot harder these days. I’d lost my business partner, and though I’d been surprised to find I’d been carrying the majority of the workload already, it was the psychological blow that hit the hardest, as our parting had been at his prompting.

     Now this business, the only one I had left, was all well and truly on my shoulders, keeping my crew of thirty gainfully employed, busy when they had free time so far away from their homes, out of trouble with the law and their girlfriends or wives.

     “Jim.” There was a tap at the door and I looked up to see the blond man from the diner, two enormous cups of coffee in his hands.

     I stood quickly, throwing the pen down again and taking one of the cups of coffee as he offered it, reaching out with my other hand to shake his. “James, actually. No one calls me Jim or Jimmy anymore, except my asshole brother and maybe my mama, but that was on her good days.” I winced a little. Sometimes my mouth ran away, and that was a conversation I didn’t have with strangers.

     “Michael,” he said by way of introduction, settling his huge frame in the single too-small chair across from my rickety old desk. “I caught you and your boys in the diner this morning, getting a good eyeful of my friend.”

     “Not your lady?” I asked, saying a quick prayer to all my favorite saints that the woman was well and truly unattached and available.

     “No.” He chuckled as if that was something really hilarious. “Not my lady. She’s become a good friend though, and she sticks like glue.”

     Maybe that was a warning.

     “You here to warn me off her?” I asked, slowly sinking back down into my chair and eyeing him a little suspiciously as I popped the top off the coffee cup and steam billowed into the air.

     “Nope.” He swallowed half the word as he brought the coffee to his lips, wincing. “Came to ask if there’s a way to pencil in a project.”

     Where this guy had gotten his information was entirely beyond me. 

     “I realize what I have to propose is probably far beneath your typical scope of operation. It’s a big project to me, but probably won’t be to you.”
    “Spit it out, then.”

     “A gift for my wife.” He choked a little when he said it. “Ex-wife. Long story.”

     “Ok.” I leaned back in my seat and kicked up my feet on the desktop. “I like long stories and you caught me at a moment when my brain needed some entertainment to keep from eating itself. So…tell me about the ex-wife and this gift. I’m curious.”

     It was two hours later when the man left my trailer, our coffee long gone, and we’d diminished my secret stash of cheap bottom-of-the-desk-drawer whiskey by a couple fingers, something that helped him speak with more emotion. He had more animation as he detailed the long plan to win back his wife and give her the ultimate gift.

     “You, my new friend,” I’d said as I digested the ornate plan, “are hopeless.” 

     His face had fallen just a little.

     “By that, I mean you’re a hopeless romantic. But lucky for you, I like a good sob story–got one of my own, if you can believe that–and there was a time I needed a fairy godmother. So yeah, I’ll move some things around. I can rope in some guys who have the time to spare. Can’t guarantee we can pull this off as fast as you’d like, but the promise of overtime pay has been known to work miracles.”

     The big man laughed delightedly. “Fairy godmother. That’s what Gemma calls herself.”

     Ah, so that’s my girl’s name. I startled, shaking myself sober. “Gemma?”

     “Yeah.” He grinned at me. “The woman you’re going to make hopeless cow eyes at for the next couple weeks before you get the guts to ask her out.”

     Well, he had me there. That was exactly what I’d do, because one did not merely approach a goddess and offer to escort her to the local watering hole. No, not a woman like that. She belonged in an expensive restaurant with proper, heavy cloth napkins and a wine list that started with three dollar signs.

     I watched his old pickup truck kick up gravel dust in the security lights flanking the perimeter of the small lot. I wasn’t sure what I’d just agreed to, but it sounded an awful lot like I’d be reconstructing someone’s farm nearly from scratch on an empty parcel outside of town. It was a weird job and a weird request. But I had nothing better to do and for once, rather than doing a big job for a faceless corporation, maybe I could put a smile on a real person’s face.

     Maybe I could help save someone’s marriage when I hadn’t been able to save my own.



     “Don’t you even give me that face. You knew I was going out and I fed you before I left.”

     Queen Sonja, my Norwegian Buhund, was a spoiled little shit and it was all my fault. She was my baby and she knew it, and she wiggled as she waited next to the door, her butt doing a little dance even though all four of her feet were firmly planted on the floor.

     I sighed, crossing the space to set my handbag on the wide velvet chair that was my favorite place to sit each morning with a huge mug of coffee, watching the sun come up, a newspaper or a book in my lap as the sun reflected off the water of the small lake across the street from my large living room window.

     The deed to the small house was in my name: three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and eighteen hundred square feet all my own, on just over two acres of land. I’d earned it the hard way too, even if I hadn’t been the one to put up the cash for it. It had been partial payment for my years of servitude to the man I’d never marry, in part because he’d never divorced his wife for me, and in part because we didn’t love each other. 

     We understood one another, and there was an enormous difference between those two things. Charles understood my need for security, something that had surpassed my need for love when I was just a child. I’d been chasing it ever since, something he could provide in abundance with both family money and the wealth he’d amassed during his years in politics.

     The deed had been a gift on my fortieth birthday, something that was followed by cars and furs, earrings and bracelets and the occasional first edition of something juicy, like something by Churchill or Teddy Roosevelt.

     The previous Christmas he’d given me a collection of Anais Nin’s works, signed by the author herself, purportedly having been from Henry Miller’s personal collection.

     There was something telling to that, I thought, though Charles’s wife Marla had absolutely no interest in seducing me, as Miller’s wife had done with Anais. In fact, Marla was better about turning a blind eye. She pretended to find fulfillment in her tennis lessons and country club luncheons with some of the other wives in Albany, while Charles often made the easy drive out to Natural Bridge, where he’d built a country estate so he could spend the occasional weekend with me. It meant I had an understanding with him and with his wife, which wasn’t the typical arrangement, but Marla appreciated the companionship I could provide her husband, something that spelled her off.

     I was just an entertainment, and that suited me just fine. It means only a few of my days were spoken for each month, leaving me to my own routines just so long as I was ready to welcome him with open arms every time he escaped Albany for some “country air.”

     Sonja waited as patiently as she could while I produced a takeout container from my bag, a routine of ours each time I drove into Watertown for breakfast. I always brought her a piece of toast with an egg and two strips of bacon, something she ate right out of the container with happy little grunts.

     I’d met my friend Michael for breakfast that morning, to talk over how he might go about winning back the girl of his dreams. The woman he’d married and lost when she divorced him because he couldn’t get his head on straight after what he’d been through in Afghanistan.

     I’d appointed myself Michael’s fairy godmother because I was bored. I was a city girl, having grown up in Newark, and I’d come up in Manhattan after leaving Newark to look for work of my own, and while I appreciated the solitude of country living these days, I was still a busybody.

     Work found me when I was seventeen years old. I was approached by a wealthy hedge fund manager, the first to convince me to follow in my mother’s footsteps: to provide him with companionship in exchange for certain material possessions and considerations. He’d been generous, and I learned fast. I made sure to climb the ladder each time I left one man for another.

     Over the years I’d added a few languages to my repertoire, and I’d read my way through full libraries. I had enough free time on my hands to pursue something I hadn’t been able to afford during my younger years: an education. A way to redeem myself and, perhaps one day, make something of myself that didn’t involve the ugly word mistress.

     The people in this town and the next knew what I was. It wasn’t hard to figure out, since I seemed to have an income no one could ever match up with actual employment, and I clearly had Kept Woman hours. That meant I wasn’t on anyone’s list for lunch dates or meet-ups for coffee. 

     I didn’t have any girlfriends who invited me over for book club night, and when I dragged myself to church, women gripped their husbands just a little tighter.

     Sonja didn’t have to watch her figure, obviously, but she joined me often for dawn runs down county roads and we frequently spent hours hiking. We were creatures of solitude by habit, taking refuge in one another’s company, and as I looked around the house I’d labored to turn into a beautiful home over the past six years, there was something I had to admit to myself: I was over chasing the illusion of security. I was lonely, even in rooms full of people, and for the first time in my life I was desperate to find a person who would offer me the most precious gift of all: his heart.



Copyright 2023, Erin FitzGerald

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