He didn’t know why he’d answered the call. It was thirty minutes after closing. He pressed the phone to his ear and looked around at all the cans and drums of paint, at all the brushes and rollers and tubes of caulk, making sure he’d restocked everything. The small storefront, with its square shape and concrete walls, felt like a cell. “Bown Crossing Paint and Decorating, this is Nick, how may I help you?”
“Yes, hello,” the caller said. “How are you, dear?”
“It’s been a day,” Nick said. He’d been forced to let his help go at the start of the stay-at-home pandemic order in Idaho, before the stuck-inside workforce began running him ragged with tinted primers and deep-based topcoats for loose-end D-I-Y projects. “The store’s actually closed for the night, but can I help you with something?”
“I hope so. You see, that’s why I called. I need your assistance, your expertise.”
“Go ahead,” Nick said.
“It will only take a few minutes of your time, I promise. Yes, in and out you will be. You see, I have this problem with my bathroom ceiling. How should I describe it? Yes, it’s peeling for one, and, well, cracking too.” She paused, trying to catch her breath. “When you come see it, dear, you can advise me of the remedy.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Nick said.
“My name, dear. It’s Tweet. Yes, it will only take a few minutes. You see, I need your expertise. I promise to make the trip worth your time and effort.”
“Tweet,” Nick said. He felt funny saying it. “You’ve called a retailer, not a contractor. We sell paint products and offer color consulting. Right now, during the pandemic, we’re limited to phone orders and curbside pickup. We don’t make house calls.”
“Surely you make house calls.” Her wheezing was getting louder. “Yes, you must.”
“Unfortunately, we don’t,” Nick said. “But I can recommend great contractors hungry for work. They’ll be happy to take a look at your ceiling and give you a free estimate.”
“Yes, I know all about them. You see, that’s why I called you, Nick. Poor Tweet has had some very bad experiences with contractors and the like.” She was becoming very short of breath, puffing into the receiver.
“I wish I could help,” Nick said. He wondered what all the puffing was about. It didn’t sound like the Corona cough he’d read and dreamt about. It sounded like she couldn’t take in or exhaust enough air — almost asthmatic.
“But you can. Yes, you can. In and out you will be.”
Nick didn’t know how to respond. He didn’t even have a mask to go out in public. He’d donated the last few respirators and dust masks on the shelf to the urgent care clinic down the road.
“Do you have a pencil and pad handy?”
“Yeah,” he said. It was a lie.
“Yes, good. Now, are you familiar with the route to Idaho City?” Nick knew the thirty-five mile stretch well. His favorite destination was just south of town — The Springs — a place where he could soak for hours after sunset and not feel alone amidst whispering couples and old friends catching up. The town was a paint splatter off Highway 21, nestled in a conifer forest, en route to Lowman and the Sawtooths. “Nick, are you still there?”
“Yes, ma’am. I know where it is.”
“Have you forgotten already? Call me Tweet.”
“Sorry,” Nick said. As strange as she sounded, he couldn’t help but wonder what she looked like. Her voice did not sound young or old, but somewhere in between. Whenever she talked, he pictured a small yellow bird struggling to fly.
“Wonderful, and are you familiar with Old Biglow Road, just shy of downtown? You’ll have to cross Mores Creek on a timber bridge and wind up the hillside. That’s where you’ll find me and my cabin, at the top of Old Biglow. Number 12. Have you got that, Nick?”
“I’ve got it,” he said. He hadn’t written a thing down.
“I’ll expect you within the hour. Drive careful, dear.” She hung up abruptly and the silence surprised Nick. He studied the receiver before hanging it up. He switched off the overhead lights and double-checked the locks on the front doors. Outside, it was a Friday night ghost town. Only two cars parked along the main drag, one grabbing takeout at the burger joint and the other at the Italian restaurant. He waited for two spandexed road bikers to pedal past in tandem, headed home from the Boise River Greenbelt, then climbed the stairs to his flat above the paint store.
Nick snapped on the single bare bulb in his small apartment and searched the refrigerator for something to eat, but all he found were two cans of Dagger Falls and a soggy carton of leftovers. He grabbed an IPA and flopped down on his futon sofa, which doubled as a bed, then awakened his laptop on the coffee table. After logging in to his dating website, he found his inbox empty. Nancy, the curly blond he’d asked out four days earlier on a Zoom date, had still not returned his message. With all of her playful profile pictures, he figured she’d received better offers.
Nick shut the laptop and triggered the TV with its remote. The cable-box hummed and his stomach growled. He cracked open the beer and flipped through the channels, avoiding the President’s daily briefing, but drained the can and switched off the television when he couldn’t find anything appealing. He missed baseball on the tube, all the games and stats and replays to fill up his nights. He thought about the caller’s voice and her strange way of speaking. A close-up picture of his black Shih Tzu, Ebony, hung on the wall behind the dusty TV. She’d been gone almost two months, and he tried not to think about how much he missed her snorts and walks to the river. He thought about awakening his laptop again to search for rescues at local shelters but knew he wasn’t ready. Then, thinking he might just go for a drive and get out of the house, he stood and reached for his keys.
He drove north on Highway 21 in his pickup with the windows down and the cool mountain air swimming through the cab. In the distance, through patches of spring clouds, a copper sun broke through the tree tops. The light glinted against the driver’s side window, making it difficult to see, until he pulled off the highway and crossed the timber bridge spanning Mores Creek.
As soon as Nick parked in front of the little metal-roofed cabin with bacon board siding, he thought about leaving. In fact, he couldn’t figure out what the hell he was doing in front of her place. He’d taken the drive for the fresh air and change of scenery, he’d told himself, and now here he was, kicking open his door, trying to catch a glimpse of her shadow beyond the drapes of the big front window.
Nick climbed the front step and rang the doorbell. He’d tied a handkerchief around his neck and pulled it up over his nose and mouth. Something fluttered behind the front window. The bandanna made him feel scandalous, like a thief, even though face protection in public had become the new normal throughout the world. When there was no answer, he rang a second time. After knocking, he pulled down his mask and turned to leave. But halfway to his truck, the deadbolt unlatched.
Instead of a bird-like figure, Tweet was the largest woman — the largest human being — he had ever seen. She stood in the shine of the tawny porch light, dressed in blue jeans, moccasin slippers, and a green buttoned-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Those arms, he thought, and those legs. Never had he seen a body so full, so ready to burst.
“Right on time. Come in,” she said, waving one of her massive limbs. Her puffy cheeks were red, her broad forehead sticky with sweat.“I didn’t expect you’d be wearing a beard, not from your voice on the telephone. Yes, I imagined you clean-cut.”
Nick searched for something to say. “I didn’t expect you to have eye-glasses,” he said. “Or red hair.” He tried to act normal, but he felt like a child in her presence. Even though she wheezed like an old woman, she seemed little older than him. He could hardly make eye contact with her.
“Come in, dear. Come in,” she said. “The bathroom is down the hall.”
“Should I take off my shoes?” Nick asked. There were vacuum lines in the beige carpet. Colorful oil paintings and grainy black-and-white pictures hung in ornate frames on the white walls and the solid oak furniture glowed with polish. A citrus scent hung in the air.
“Yes, only if you want. That’s very kind of you. A gentleman you are.”
Nick undid his laces and slid out of his shoes, then walked down the narrow hallway and found the little bathroom on the right. He switched on the light and inspected the ceiling, which was badly cracked and peeling and would require scraping, taping, texturing, priming, and an enamel topcoat. Too much moisture, he figured, and no vent-fan.
He found her in the dining room, sitting at a table smothered with dishes and pots of food. It looked like a Thanksgiving feast.
“You must be quite famished, what with working all day. I told you I would make the trip worth your time and effort. Yes, sit down. You can tell me all about the remedy for the ceiling while we eat.” Her eyes grazed the table and she started wheezing again. At the opposite end of the table, directly across from her, she’d prepared a place for him: a glass, a plate, silverware, and a cloth napkin.
“I should probably get going,” he said.
“Nonsense, a man like you needs to eat a good meal from time to time. Yes, you’ll eat and be out the door in no time. Sit down, dear. Yes, you must sit down. And do take off that kerchief. We’re both healthy individuals. Anyone can see that.”
Nick didn’t know what to do. He’d completely forgotten about the slack bandana around his neck, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d stood in front of so much fragrant food. Two red tulips stood in a tin vase beside the pots. His stomach was empty, but why would she want him to stay and eat? She seemed far from dangerous and yet he had the feeling he was walking into some kind of trap. He scanned the room before taking a seat.
Tweet summoned her body to move; she started serving the meal with those arms, like freckled slabs bursting out of her sleeves. He watched the flesh surge and jiggle as he unknotted the bandanna and stuffed it into his pocket.
She opened a pot at the center of the table. “Don’t they look delicious, dear?”
“What are they?” Nick asked. There were three of them and they looked like tiny turkeys bathing in a buttery sauce.
“Why, quail of course.”
“Quail,” he said. “I’ve never tried it.”
“The old sportsman down the hill, he’s always bringing them up to me. Yes, he knows how much I love them.” She plopped one on his plate and juices ran down the golden skin of the bird. “I’ve stuffed them. Yes, they’re filled with morels, leeks, and garlic.” Tweet added more food to his plate: several globs of mashed potatoes, a pool of thick gravy, steamed broccoli, and six or seven cherry tomatoes. She wheezed and licked her lips before loading her plate. Then she filled their tall glasses with milk from the refrigerator. Nick watched her sit, settling that body of hers between the wide armrests on her chair.
Without warning, she started to eat. At first she used the silverware, but the utensils only seemed to get in her way. She eventually dropped them on the table and started to tear the quail with her hands. The wheezing turned to huffing. Nick tried to act like he wasn’t watching, but he couldn’t avert his eyes. She paused to drink the cold milk.
“I love the quail,” he said.
“I knew you would, dear. I just had this feeling that you would love them like I do.”
“Everything tastes wonderful.” He drank some milk. “Really, this is some meal.”
“Thank you, Nick. How kind you are. This is one of Tweet’s specialties.” She picked up one of the quail thighs and ripped the meat off of the bone. “Tell me what you like to cook, dear. What’s your favorite dish?”
Nick couldn’t remember the last time he’d cooked something that didn’t come out of a box or can. “I eat out most meals. Takeout these days.”
“I see. Yes, it takes time and practice just like anything. And it’s terribly hard to cook for just one person. We both know that. My problem is that I don’t much care for leftovers, and I just hate to let anything go to waste.”
“I wish I could make food taste like this,” Nick said.
“Would you like to split the last one?” Tweet rose from the table and looked at him, waiting. He was only half-finished with his meal and already full. There were only the brittle quail bones left on her plate.
“Go ahead,” Nick said. “I’m still working.”
“Yes, I think I will,” she said, carrying the bird over to her plate. “You see, I just love quail. Really, I do.” She positioned a second helping of potatoes, gravy, and broccoli around the quail. Then she refilled their glasses with milk and sat down. Nick took a big swig and wiped his mustache with the soft cloth napkin.
By the time he finished eating, she’d already devoured her second helping and was waiting for him. “Care for a little dessert?” she asked.
“I don’t have the room,” Nick said. “But go ahead.”
“Yes, I think I might,” she said. She rummaged through the cupboards and returned with a box of Oreos, taking eight or nine and stacking them like tires on her plate. One by one, he watched her dunk the cookies in her glass of milk.
Once she’d finished, she wiped her fingers with her napkin and glanced over at the TV in the living room. “Care to watch an episode of my favorite reality show? Yes, the one where folks like you and I dance for competition. Have you heard of it? I’ve been on a bit of a binge.”
“I think I know the one,” Nick said.
“Why don’t you stay for a show, dear? We can sit on the sofa and let our food digest.”
“I need to get going.” Nick scooted back from the table. The food, like alcohol, had dulled his senses and made him clumsy. Dinner had been incredible, but sitting down to watch a reality show was out of the question. “I have to get up early and open the store.”
“Yes, you’re right. I understand. I never meant to keep you so long, you see, but it was nice to share a meal with someone. Truly, it was.”
They stood and walked towards the front door. Nick felt incredibly full, almost sick, as he slid into his shoes and bent over to tie the laces. When she opened the door, they moved out to the little covered porch. It was dark and brisk outside.
“When will you return to fix the bathroom? Isn’t that ceiling just awful?”
Nick had forgotten all about the bathroom.
“I trust your judgment, dear. Yes, of course I do! I can’t pay much, but I promise to make it worth your time and effort. You know that, don’t you? Surely, you must know that.”
“I know,” Nick said. What else could he say? He wasn’t a contractor; he was a retailer. This wasn’t essential business, and there was no reason he should be standing so close to a stranger without protection. “Thank you for the wonderful meal,” he said, extending a hand out of habit before taking it away.
Tweet giggled at the retracted gesture. “Come now,” she said, and then she closed her eyes and opened her arms like she’d been nailed to a cross. She waited, her red hair fanning on a current of air.
Nick didn’t budge at first, but then slowly he moved forward and wrapped his arms around her. Her soft, damp skin overwhelmed his body. It was a strange, almost wet feeling. He settled his face against her creamy neck and held on to her firmly, feeling a sense of fullness he had not known in a long time. She smelled like fresh cut flowers.
“Yes, good,” she said, holding him tight. She stroked his hair with those fingers, wheezing a little, but it was a different kind of wheezing.
They stayed like that for a while before Nick unlocked his pickup. She watched him go, her weight resting against the door frame. They waved goodbye.
Nick drove back to Boise with his headlights beaming. He drove dazed, not fully aware of the lines on the asphalt, until he popped up the lip of the drive behind the paint store and hiked the stairs to his apartment. His stomach rumbled with food as he opened his last can of Dagger Falls and collapsed on the futon. He opened his laptop and clicked on the link to his dating website. His inbox was empty. After logging off, he reached for the TV remote and fired up Netflix. He searched for Tweet’s dancing show and picked a random episode.
He sat there in front of the television’s glow and thought about all the things he didn’t understand. On screen, there was a squatty man dressed in a tuxedo and he was dancing with a tall woman in a flowing ivory dress. Audience members were standing and cheering. She was a good twelve to sixteen inches taller than the man in her heels. They were moving beautifully to soft string music, doing a waltz or the foxtrot or some other kind of ballroom dance he didn’t know about. If he’d stayed at Tweet’s, he imagined she would’ve explained everything to him in detail. Maybe she would’ve even taken him in her pillowy arms after the episode, their bodies pressed together, to show him the steps?
Nick closed his eyes and rubbed his belly. The beer was making him tired. Sundays were his only days off from work. But he had nothing planned. Maybe he’d scrape and mud the ceiling this coming Sunday? It would take another Sunday to sand and prime and finish with an enamel topcoat. He thought about the feasts they would eat and, afterwards, hugging her soft skin. He thought about how good it felt to touch and hold someone close. And that strange, almost wet feeling.
“My old man and I share a love for Tim Gautreaux’s blue-collar short stories. Lately, while catching up over the phone, dad’s been celebrating the language and characters and humor in Welding With Children, Gautreaux’s second collection. Now I’m re-reading the book, which is almost as good as his knockout debut collection, Same Place, Same Things. But I’ve already re-read that book two or three times.”
Kyle Bilinski has worked as a painting contractor, delivery driver, flight attendant, commercial estimator, building plans examiner, and manned plumbing and electrical will-call counters. The subject of work in literature fascinates him, as do his wife’s freckle clusters and the tremendous snorts from his fourteen-pound Shih Tzu. His writing can be found in places like The Baltimore Review, Blue Cubicle Press, BULL, Eckleburg, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, and Slag Glass City.