On the Square
Brenda Murphy © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Dale filled her coffee thermos. The scent of the dark brew had her wanting to linger over another cup. She tightened the lid. “You riding the bus today?”
“Nah, Chip’s coming to pick me up. We have a cross-country team meeting.” Noah slid the omelet he was cooking onto the plate. “You sure you don’t have time? You can have this one, Mom. I’ll cook another for me.” His round face and solemn dark-brown eyes were fixed on her face. He lifted the plate and waved it in her direction.
Delicately browned, perfectly cooked. The aroma of melted cheddar cheese and butter filled the small kitchen. The omelet tempted Dale even more than the coffee had. She sighed and cursed herself for agreeing to an early morning appointment for an estimate. Dale grimaced. Cowed by the insistence of the woman who called for the estimate, her oldest, Seth, had made the appointment outside of business hours. Afraid to turn down work. Knows we need the money. If it works out.
Dale tucked two peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwiches into her cooler, wrapped an apple in a napkin, and placed three battered and scruffy water bottles around the sides, spacing them evenly. She shut the lid and bungeed the ancient metal relic of a cooler shut. Please let it work out.
The concern in Noah’s voice drew Dale from her thoughts. “Nothing. I wish your brother would’ve talked to me before he scheduled this. I hate to talk to people before I’ve had my coffee. And who the hell needs to meet at six in the morning for an estimate?” She peered out of the window at the sky, barely pink.
“Someone in a hurry? Like maybe you should be. Or you’re gonna be late.” Noah smirked as he shoved aside stacks of paper and clutter before he placed his plate on the table. He pulled a chair out, sat down, and flipped his napkin out with a flourish.
“Damn.” Dale took two steps over to Noah and mashed a quick kiss to his forehead. “Don’t forget to tell Thomas to pick up Grandad’s prescription and have a good day at school.”
Noah scrubbed his hand over his mouth. “I will.”
Dale snatched her thermos and her lunch cooler off the counter as she bolted for the door.
The large black pickup truck roared into the parking lot, kicking up a fine spray of dust and small gravel. Mai ended the call she had been ready to make to cancel the estimate appointment and shoved her phone back into her pocket. She frowned as a layer of gray dust settled over her polished black wingtips. Tinted windows prevented her from seeing inside the truck. With a snap of her wrist she straightened her collar, leaned back against her car, and crossed her arms over her chest. She tapped her foot and pursed her lips as she contemplated how much she was going to enjoy telling the yahoo in the truck what she thought of their driving skills. A warm-up for what she was preparing to tell the contractor who didn’t think her time was valuable. She didn’t do business with people who were not punctual. This town has not changed a bit. Still on country time. She snorted thinking about the ridiculous lengths she had to go to get the idiot on the phone to agree to a timely appointment.
The scuff of boots on gravel on the opposite side of the truck made her look up.
“Sorry I’m late.” A tall woman in faded jeans and work boots rounded the front of the truck. A thick tan work belt with a multitool pouch clipped to it held her jeans up over her curvy hips. She tucked a metal clipboard under her arm and stuck her hand out to shake.
“Who are you?” Mai didn’t take the woman’s hand. “I had an appointment with a general contractor for an estimate. Dale Miller?”
“That’s me.” A flash of irritation flew across Dale’s face as she withdrew her hand and stuck it into her rear pocket.
“You’re late.” Mai studied the unapologetic woman in front of her. Thick honey-blonde hair streaked with gray brushed her shoulders. A head taller than Mai, she had broad shoulders and a trim waist. Her pale-blue undershirt set off her golden-brown eyes. The sleeves of her flannel overshirt were rolled back and displayed well-muscled forearms.
Dale rocked back on her heels and glanced skyward before bringing her gaze back to Mai’s face. “I am. And I apologized. This is outside of our normal hours for estimates.”
“And I wasn’t…”
Dale cut her off. “And you weren’t expecting a woman.” She swept her hand through her hair. “You know what. I’m not certain I’m the best person for this job.” She turned on her heel and walked away from Mai, head high and shoulders rigid.
Dale turned and rested her hand on the hood of the truck. “Why? You’ve made your mind up. I’m not going to waste my time. Or yours. Good luck with your project.”
Mai looked down at her shoes before returning her gaze to Dale’s face. “That’s not what I was going to say.”
“Right.” Dale arched an eyebrow. “I’ve been in this business too long to be scolded for being late. I don’t schedule appointments this early because I don’t like talking to anyone at this unholy hour.”
Mai laughed. “How have you stayed in business?”
Dale walked back over and stepped close to Mai, invading her space. “Because most people in this town recognize business hours are business hours and don’t expect special favors.”
Mai held her ground. “Special favors? I asked for an early appointment. It’s not my fault whoever answered the phone doesn’t know your hours.”
Dale clenched her fists. “My son knows the hours perfectly well. He was trying to be nice. He said yes to accommodate your schedule. Which, apparently, is way more important than mine. Good day.” She spun on her heel and stomped back to the truck.
Mai chewed her lip as she desperately tried to ignore how much she liked the way Dale’s ass looked in her jeans and failed. “Hey, wait.”
Dale yanked the truck door open and tossed her clipboard inside.
Mai sprinted around the truck and her shoes skidded on the gravel lot. She caught herself on the truck hood and narrowly avoided bumping into Dale. “Hey, please stay. I’m sorry we got off on the wrong foot. I’ve had too many folks be rude to me because I wasn’t what they expected. Please. I’d like you to at least look at the project.”
Dale turned to her and the delicate scent of lemon verbena wafted from her, undermining Mai’s determination to keep to the business at hand.
A rueful grin crossed Dale’s face. “No. I’m sorry. You’d think I didn’t want the work. I’d like to see what you want done.” She tilted her head and met Mai’s gaze. “Do you mind if we have coffee first?”
Mai held out her hand and Dale shook it. “Bring your thermos.” She tilted her head toward the silver flask. “Come on. We don’t have to talk until you’ve had another cup.”
Mai pulled a set of keys from her pocket as she stood in front of a graffiti-covered gray door set in dull-red bricks. Deep gouges and scratches surrounded the keyhole. She inserted the key, wrestled with the lock a moment, and then shoved her shoulder against the door. It opened with a loud screech. A dark-gray smudge bloomed over her white shirt where her shoulder had contact with the door.
The door opened on to a storeroom. Wire shelves leaned haphazardly against the dirty-white walls. The smell of dust and decay wafted out, laced with the unmistakable scent of some recently dead rodent.
Mai covered her mouth and nose with her hand. “Ugh, that smell.”
Dale snagged a broken brick from the parking lot and used it to prop the door open. “This will help.” She shrugged at Mai’s raised eyebrow. “At least a bit.”
They had entered through a kitchen area and now were in the front of the restaurant. The front windows were painted over and the interior was dim. Thick gray dust and bits of plaster were scattered about the floor. Dale wiped a layer of fine debris off the pass-through counter and placed her thermos on it.
“You want some?”
“No, I’m good. I had mine after the gym.”
Of course she did. Dale swept her gaze over the Mai’s dapper form. Dale guessed Mai was younger by a few years than her forty-two. Tailored black pants and a crisp white shirt with sharp creases draped her frame. A large silver watch wrapped around her slender wrist. Her precisely tapered fade completed the image of a successful young butch about town.
Determined not to dwell on her worn jeans, paint and wood stain-splattered work boots, and basic ten-dollar mom haircut that underscored their differences, Dale focused on unscrewing the top of the thermos. She slammed it onto the counter, tipped the bottle up, and let the smooth taste of the medium roast soothe her. Cheap haircut notwithstanding, Dale didn’t mind cutting corners, but she wasn’t going to suffer bad coffee.
She studied Mai from under her lashes. A flash of disgust crossed her face and Dale assumed she would have preferred she sip her coffee from the cup, but she wasn’t paying for Dale to have manners and Dale certainly didn’t have time to care what a customer thought of her behavior. But she had given Dale a second chance after most folks would haven’t. Get it together. For fuck’s sake, this job could make our year. Don’t blow it.
Dale turned away from Mai and surveyed the space. Red plastic-covered booths lined one wall of the once popular restaurant. Some of the seats bled stuffing on the floor where the vinyl had ripped. A dozen four-top dark wood tables and chairs were scatted about the area in various states of disrepair. The walls were bare, and wires hung about the faded outlines of framed art long since removed.
“I want to get this back to operating condition.” Mai walked about the space as she spoke. “I want to do an open kitchen plan and go back to the original brick.” She pointed to the linoleum covered floor. “There are wide board hardwood floors under here. I want to rip all this up and have the floor refinished.” A wide smile crossed her face. “I want it to have a retro feel, industrial lights, bright colors.” She walked to the front of the restaurant and spread her arms wide. “I want to build a bar here with space for twelve.” She walked back to Dale and pulled a folded sheet of paper from her shirt pocket. “Can you make a bar like this? With the different colored wine bottles as part of it? So the light shines through them?”
Dale studied the drawing. “Sure, if my friends and I start drinking now we should have enough to do it.”
“What?” Mai peered into Dale’s eyes, her forehead furrowed.
“Oh. Right.” Mai carefully folded the printout and tucked it back into her pocket.
A silence as thick as the dust settled between them. As Dale sipped her coffee, she scanned the ceiling and studied two large holes which exposed the lath and beams above the kitchen area. “What’s upstairs?”
Mai lifted her shoulders and squared them. “Apartments.” She raised her gaze to the ceiling. “Two apartments. One with two bedrooms and an efficiency apartment. I want to open the space. Make it one large apartment with two master suites.”
“Building this old it was most likely one space to begin with.” Dale lifted her hand and pointed to the exposed lath and the beams. “We’ll need to make sure the beams are sound before we do anything upstairs.” She tilted her head back and took another large swallow of her coffee.
Mai pursed her lips. “Do you think you could salvage the ceiling?” She gestured to the copper ceiling over the front dining room.
“Maybe.” Dale took another large swallow of her coffee, its warmth and caffeine setting over her like a balm. Mai walked the length of the dining room and peered out of the front windows with her hands in her pockets. Once Dale had finished her coffee, she capped the thermos and set it aside before she picked up her clipboard. After taking her pen from her shirt pocket she waved at the ceiling. “How do you get to them? Interior or exterior stairs? Might as well start at the top.”
“Interior.” Mai led the way to a narrow doorway off the back of the kitchen.
Dismally faded multicolor plastic beads hung in the doorway. Some of the dusty strands were missing and broken beads were scattered over the narrow stairs. Mai swept her hand out and down to clear the cobwebs in the doorway before she stepped back and away from the opening. Dale pulled her pocket flashlight out and lit the stairs. “Have you been up here?”
“Not in years.” Mai’s voice was soft a sharp contrast to the brash woman who had pissed Dale off when she had first arrived. It was the same soft tone Mai had used to convince her she should stay for the estimate.
Dale turned to Mai. “We ate here all the time when I was growing up. I never knew there were apartments. How long’ve you owned this?” She squinted at Mai. “Are you related to Pop and Mama Li?”
Mai dropped her chin to her chest. “My parents.”
Dale chewed her lip. “Sorry, I didn’t recognize you. Didn’t you go to high school with my baby sister?”
Mai snorted. “Yeah. And don’t worry about it. I left home at nineteen. I haven’t been back in years. Why would you know me?”
“Weren’t you on TV? Had a show? Or something?”
“Yeah. I was.” Mai’s expression shuttered.
Dale took the hint and bit back the thousand questions her mind served up after Mai’s revelation.
Mai glanced at her watch. “We should get moving. I don’t want to keep you.”
“The steps look okay but stay a bit back and watch your step.” Dale moved up the steps, checking each one visually before testing it with her weight. She kicked a mouse carcass to the side. Mai’s grunt of disgust echoed in the stairwell.
The steps led to a landing with two doors, one hung haphazardly off its hinges. Dale righted it and wedged it open before she stepped inside. The wooden floor creaked loudly. The room was dim, and Dale shone her light across the floor before shining it upwards. Large water stains and loose plaster hung from the ceiling.
“What a wreck.” Dale photographed the ceiling with her phone and then entered the room. A dirty orange-and-gold couch sat along the north wall next to a brown leather recliner with a torn seat. She moved through the living room to a narrow kitchen that held a two-burner stove.
A window with cracked panes of glass gave view to the alley. A refrigerator stood open, its shelves bare. Just past the kitchen area was a bathroom with a corner sink, a shower, and toilet. The bedroom held a double bed frame and six-drawer chest missing two drawers. The closet door was open to reveal tattered floral wallpaper and rusted wire hangers.
Worn orange shag carpeting covered the floor. Dale mentally added up the cost of reconfiguring the space, as well as cleaning and repairing the kitchen and dining area.
“Are you sure you don’t want to demo the whole thing and start over?” Dale scribbled notes on her estimate sheet.
“No. Do you want to see the other apartment? Or is it too big a job for you?” Mai shoved her hands in her pockets.
“Not too big. We can do it. But you’re talking a huge investment. At least eight months and that’s if the permits go through and without any surprises, like if we run into large amounts of asbestos. Did you have an idea beyond opening up the space of how you want it configured?”
“It needs to be accessible. I have rough sketches and a folder of ideas I’ve been collecting.”
“Send those to me. I can draw up some plans for you to review. All renovations have to be compliant. Did you want to hire an architect? Or designer?”
“Do I need to?”
“No. I can produce plans the city will accept after the city engineer signs off on them.”
“Good. That will save money, right?”
“It will.” Dale led them back to the apartment kitchen. She opened the cabinets under the sink and shone her flashlight on the plumbing. “Most of this pipe is galvanized and it runs into copper. It’s more than likely going to leak like a sieve when we turn the water on. We’ll have to tear it all out. Some of the wiring is the original knob and tube, and it will all have to be replaced as well.” She glanced at the ceiling. “With all this water damage my guess is the roof is in bad shape. We’ll replace that first to give us a dry place to work.”
Mai crossed her arms and scowled at Dale. “Is anything salvageable?”
Dale stood up and leaned a hip against the counter. “The bricks are in good shape. The framing seems sound for the most part. And you have some nice fixtures that can be reused.” She bent down and flipped back the edge of the rug and pointed to the hardwood floor. “These floors will clean up.”
“What about opening the space? My parents made this into two apartments after my grandfather came to live with us.” Mai pressed her lips together in a thin line.
Dale pointed to the wall where it joined the ceiling. “If this isn’t a supporting wall then it shouldn’t be a problem to open it up.”
“That’s good.” Mai walked over to the kitchen area and looked out of the window over the sink. “Downtown has changed a lot. How long will it take before you get me the estimate?”
“It has.” Dale tapped her clipboard with her pen. “And I’ll need to get up on the roof to look around and take some measurements. And I have to get my roofer out to assess the roof and run my other subcontractors through here. And I’ll need to draw up plans for you to approve before I can finish the estimate. Four weeks at the outside, maybe sooner.”
Mai tilted her head. “You think I’m crazy? To try to reclaim this?”
“No. Not now. I mean not now that I know who you are.”
Mai snorted. “Right. After looking at this I think I’m crazy.” She kicked at the rug and flipped it back over the floor. A puff of dirt wafted up.
Dale gripped her clipboard and scribbled Mai’s name at the top of her page of notes. “I’ll run my plumber and electrician through here this week and get the roofer out as soon as I can. I’ll figure cost and materials, write it up, and send it to you. What is the best email for you?”
Mai pulled a silver card case from her front pocket, extracted a card, and held it between two fingers, offering it to Dale. “This my personal contact information. How soon?”
Dale took the card and shoved it under the clip. “It will take at least two weeks to get the estimates from the others. I can start work on the plans as soon as you send me your ideas. Do you have a timeline for when you’d like this completed?”
“As soon as possible.” Mai stared at Dale. “Of course.”
“Of course.” Dale unhooked her tape measure from her belt. “I need to take some measurements. If you have other appointments, you can go. I’ll lock up behind me.”
Mai crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t have anywhere to be.”
“I didn’t know your name was Dale. Ida never called you anything but Dee.” Mai held the end of the tape measure in place.
Dale made a notation on her paper. “I didn’t like my name much as a kid.”
Mai thought back to the girl Dale had been in high school. She remembered her in short skirts, perfect makeup, and tight blouses displaying a cleavage that left Mai speechless. Dale had been a sophisticated senior when Mai was a scrubby freshman.
She flushed when she remembered her ridiculous attempts to engage Dale when she drove Ida and Mai to basketball practice. The image of Dale Mai remembered bumped up hard against the rough around the edges woman dressed in old jeans and boots who knelt across from her, oblivious to the dirty floor.
“Did you marry that guy? What was his name?”
“Let go now.” Dale waited for Mai to release the tape before she pressed the button and rewound it. “Bill. I did.”
Mai avoided Dale’s eyes, wondering at the clipped tone in her voice. “Kids?”
“Three.” Dale’s voice warmed and she sat back on her heels. “Boys.”
Mai rose and brushed the dust off her pants. “Wow. A house of men.”
Dale snorted. “The cat’s female for what it’s worth.” She moved to the large front window. “Help me with this?”
Mai took the end of the tape measure and held it next to the frame.
“Hold it to the inside.” Dale held the tape taut as she read the numbers. “Stay there, we’ll get the outside measure next.” She scratched a note on her estimate sheet.
“Does your Bill work in construction as well?” Mai fiddled with the end of the tape measure as she waited for Dale to finish her note.
“What does he do now?”
“Pushes up daisies as far as I know.”
Mai frowned. “Sorry?”
“He walked out when my oldest was seven.”
Mai sucked in a breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
Dale swept her hair back with her hand and met Mai’s gaze. “It’s okay. The boys and I are fine. Hold the end to the outside now. Tight to the edge of the sill.”
They measured the window in silence. Mai searched for something more to say and failed to come up with anything that didn’t sound trite or stupid. Dale went back to work, her face a mask of concentration as she sketched the dining area.
The sun was full up when they locked the door to the building. Dale walked ahead of Mai. She stopped at her truck and rested her foot on the bumper, turning her knee into a makeshift desk. She scribbled furiously, her forehead wrinkled as she worked. Her jeans pulled tight across her thick thighs and displayed her ass to perfection. Dale placed the clipboard on the hood of the car. She swiped at her forehead with the back of her wrist before she removed her flannel shirt and hung it on the side mirror.
Mai stared at her smooth skin and well-muscled shoulders. Her gaze wandered over Dale’s perfect collarbones and then down to the subtle swell of breasts that pushed against the sides of the tank top. The rib-knit clung to her body and displayed the curve of her hips as it disappeared into her jeans. Dale pulled the shirt free from her jeans and bent to wipe her face.
Mai caught a glimpse of creamy white skin over Dale’s hip when she lifted the hem. Dale straightened.
Mai bit her lip and forced herself to look into Dale’s eyes. “Um, is there anything else you need from me?”
“No.” Dale tapped Mai’s business card. “Is the phone number here correct? I’ll need to call you to set up the estimates for the plumber and the electrician. Do you have the specs for the kind of cooktops and ovens you want? Do you want the same size walk-in refrigerator and to keep the same configuration for the dishwashing station?”
“Yes.” Mai’s voice squeaked. “Sorry, yes. The number is correct. And yes. I can email you the specs and my sketches.”
Dale picked up her clipboard, pulled a card from under the clip, and passed it to Mai before sweeping her flannel shirt off the side mirror. She hooked it with her finger and draped it over her shoulder. She squared her body to Mai. “Thank you.”
Mai frowned. “For what?”
“Not letting me fuck this up and giving me a chance. I was an ass when I showed up. If you decide on me as your contractor, I’ll be on time and not be such a jerk.”
Mai tilted her head. “We all have bad days. I’m happy you decided to stay.”
Dale stepped back. “I’ll be in touch.” She opened the door and climbed into the truck.
Mai turned and walked to her car. She waited until Dale left the parking lot before she turned and pulled her one suitcase and sleeping bag from the back of her car. She clicked the lock and walked back to the battered door and her new home.