“But it’s love.” Eileen laughed at her own words, using her shoulder to hold the telephone to her ear. She hunched over the jigsaw puzzle and pecked at the pieces with her knobby fingers like she was browsing through chocolates. “That’s what she’s telling everyone,” she said. “Can you believe it?”
Owen walked to the kitchen window and stared out across the way at the Donnelly’s roof, the third time doing so since being yanked from sleep that morning. It was the ridiculous noise of it all, the incessant pounding and sawing since well before seven. The man knelt with his back to Owen, reaching the hammer practically to his shoulder blades and bringing it down with a force that sent echoes like gunshots.
“A poet, apparently,” Eileen curled into the phone. “The boy writes poems and rides a motorcycle. He doesn’t even own a helmet.”
Owen watched as the man straightened up on the roof and slipped a hand into his belt, into the purse-like pouch that hung loose at his side.
“I have a good mind to go right on over there,” he said.
Eileen lowered the receiver and pressed it to her breast. “What are you saying?”
“Look at him up there,” he sniffed. “Would you look at him? Like he’s king of the world or something.”
Eileen sighed and put the phone back to her ear. “Oh it’s just Owen,” she said, “being Owen.”
He walked over to the card table and the half-built portrait of the waterwheel and the scatter of blue and green along the perimeter. Eileen would be in here most of the day, floating between the puzzle and her soaps and the game shows. It was the way of his universe now–their universe– all unwrapped and exposed, the giant retirement gift that is the rest of one’s life. He reached over and picked up a piece with a spot of red on it and sank it into the edge of the canoe.
“Well there you go,” Eileen chirped, and Owen wasn’t sure if the comment was meant for him, or for the telephone. She brushed a hand over the picture, as if she were smoothing the waters of the unfinished pond.
The racket of a skill saw screamed across the way, and Owen jerked his head toward the sound, shooting another look out the window. “I just might go over there, you know,” he said. “Give that fellow a piece of my mind.”
Eileen put her hand over the mouthpiece. “Of course you will,” she said.
And then she went back to her phone conversation and Owen sauntered to the kitchen door, gazing across the open divide between his and the Donnelly’s house. Past the manicured lawns, cockeyed mailboxes, and oil-blotted concrete, to the blocky form crawling along the eaves of the patchy roof. He would go, he decided. Goddamn it. And so with hands in pockets, he walked down the porch steps and made his way to the other side of the street, to where the man now stood on the high rungs of the aluminum ladder, canvas trousers weighed down just below the yellow stitching of his shirt by that well-utilized leather tool belt. His hair was a windswept mane, black as tar, and when Owen called out a “Hey,” he turned in such a way that the daylight brushed a perfect white stripe straight down the middle of his head.
“Hey,” he grunted in response in a deep, sand-paper voice. He stared at Owen hard, a Dick Tracy profile with stony eyes and a jawline sketched from charcoal.
Owen considered the flap of new roofing as it draped over the eaves, an emerald green growth that seemed to bloom over the muddy, coffee-colored layer beneath it. He had words he intended to share with this fellow, words about professionalism and common courtesy. But now, as this great figure loomed some ten feet above his head, those words escaped him.
“Leaky roof?” was all he could cough out.
The man took hold of the rails and climbed the last foot or so to the top, lifting himself back onto the safety of the low-sloping roof. “If I don’t finish before the rain comes, it will be,” he said. He stretched to his full height, straining against a shirt that was clearly too small for his barrel torso, the flannel drawn tight over his arms and chest like a painting. He peered down at Owen and it was then that it took hold, that thing that Owen recognized immediately—but had not anticipated from his little window on the other side of the street.
“Wouldn’t you know it,” he stammered. “I’ve got a loose gutter along the edge of my place over there.” He nodded his chin back to his house.
“That so?” The man produced a half dozen nails from his belt and pressed them between his lips.
“Yeah. I been meaning to deal with it myself, but then I saw you over here–”
“Sure,” the guy said, without a second’s hesitation. It was as if it had been planned already. As if he wanted nothing different in the world.
And with that, Owen felt that familiar lightness in his stomach, and then he gave a clumsy sort of salute, two fingers clipped along his forehead before marching quickstep back across the street to his yard, where he circled around the overgrown holly bush to the back corner of the house. Where he took hold of the perfectly good downspout and yanked it loose from the siding with one tug.
Back in the kitchen, Eileen was at the stove now, circling the inside of a soup pot with a wooden spoon. “What did you find out?” she asked.
“He’s fixing the roof,” Owen said.
“Oh, is he? Funny, I could see that from here.”
“Yeah, well he’s coming over to have a look at our downspout,” he said. “It’s come loose.”
She paused only briefly, cocked her head and looked over his shoulder, as if she’d suddenly heard the sound of a kitten or a baby’s cry. And when whatever thought that had grabbed her finally passed by, she went back to her soup, and Owen pulled a bowl from the cupboard and sat at the dinette table where he could easily see out the window, to the house across the street.
The fellow worked with such intention and care—an artist, really. Each piece set gently in its place. It was like watching a dance, Owen thought, the new roof slowly revealing itself beneath the man’s feet as a growing patchwork of green, from one end of the house to the other.
Eileen was in the living room now, the television blaring bells and chimes and intermittent waves of applause. Owen had washed and dried all of the lunch dishes, working there at the sink with an unobstructed view of the Donnelly’s roof. It appeared that the man was close to being finished now; only a small patch of tan was still visible around the chimney. “I ought to go back over there,” he decided. “Just to check in.”
By now the man sat with his back against the chimney and his knees were bent to his chest, as if he might simply slide right down the slope and off the edge of the roof.
“Hey,” he said, not looking up from his knees. Owen’s stomach did a curious tumble.
“Think you’ll be coming to take a look at my downspout soon?” Owen asked.
The fellow said nothing, choosing instead to just stare at those knees as if he was studying something worn deep down into the fabric.
“The ground below it doesn’t drain at all,” Owen said.
The man nodded, and muttered something indecipherable. Owen looked past him, beyond the chimney at a sky that had begun to coagulate with dense, charcoal clouds. There was a good amount of rain in those, and they seemed to be caught in the grasp of a slight but determined breeze.
Once more, Owen offered his two-fingered salute, then he took himself at a clipped jog back across the street where he circled to the backside of his house again, to where the downspout still hung slack from the siding. A crawl of electricity seemed to encompass him now, and he took hold of the drainpipe in his hands and walked backward, his shoes sinking into the sod, and the gutter strained against his weight, groaning and complaining, fighting against him before finally breaking free entirely. The full length of metal, from the one corner to the next, launched from the eaves and dropped to the ground with a crushing sigh.
“Owen!” Eileen leaned out the open living room window, her head scanning the wreckage along the base of the house.
“It just gave out,” Owen said. He planted his hands on his hips and shook his head, as if the discovery had been all his. As if he’d just witnessed the sudden collapse of a centuries-old building. The whole thing was unreal and he knew it, but here he was, and there lay the spoils. “It’s a good thing we’ve got that roofer coming over,” he said. “Any minute, now.”
“Good lord,” she said, pointing to his waist.
Owen looked down. Blood wicked from his hand into his shirt, slick and warm. He held it out from his body and the drops fell freely in a bright, red trickle from his fingers onto the grass.
“It’s nothing.” He reached up and turned his arm to better see the damage. The laceration was deep, almost black, and the blood pulsed from his palm down his wrist, inking a thin, red line all the way to his elbow.
“Get in here,” Eileen said. “Before you bleed yourself out onto the lawn.”
He stood at the basin, watching the water run pink down the drain, while Eileen laid out a surgeon’s stockpile worth of bandages and tape and various ointments all over the countertop. She sat him down in the dinette chair and took his hand in hers and held it tightly, as she intricately circled gauze around his fingers and wrist, dressing it as if she were re-attaching the whole thing to his body.
“Your friend is leaving, by the way,” she said. From outside, the growl of a pickup truck rose up from the Donnelly’s driveway, revving two, three times before leveling to a low hum.
Owen craned his neck to try and get a peek out the window. “No he’s not,” he whispered. “He promised.”
Above them, the rain peppered the roof, and the rattle of the roofer’s truck grew fainter and more distant as it drove off down the street. His wife laid the white tape carefully over his hand, smoothing it with her fingers while he listened to the rain swell to a drumbeat, and the water began to fall now in a silver curtain from the gutterless roof, down over the window.
“Oh, you silly man,” she said, brushing a hand over his cheek. Owen leaned back in his chair and pressed his throbbing hand to his shirt, the sensation marrying itself to the pounding in his chest. He had the sudden perception that he was lifting from his chair, a momentary thing was all, and he wondered then if perhaps the blood had drained from his body, or maybe it was still draining from somewhere he could not see. All the while his wife drifted through the kitchen trailing reams of red-spotted gauze like she was a ghost.
Warren Read is the author of the award-winning novel, Ash Falls (2017, Ig Publishing), as well as the 2008 memoir, The Lyncher in Me (Borealis Books). His fiction has been published in Hot Metal Bridge, Mud Season Review, Sliver of Stone, East Bay Review, and The Drowning Gull. In addition, he has had two short plays directed and produced by Tony winner Dinah Manoff. In 2015 he received his MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop. He is an associate principal on Bainbridge Island, WA.