“Hi Frank, Lois here, got a minute?”
A diesel engine in the background drowned their voices, then closed down slowly with a whining noise and she tried again:
“Frank, it’s Lois.”
“Hello Lois. What can I help you with?”
“Straight to the point, Frank. Waste unit just screamed and died! Know it’s late Friday but I’m having a grill party tomorrow. Any chance you could look at it for me?”
“What make’s your grinder, Lois?”
“King something, I think.”
“I’m down at the O’Brien place. I’ll call in on my way back.”
“Great, thanks a lot Frank!” shouted Lois, as the engine started up again.
No other service firms had answered on a Friday afternoon. Calling Frank was a desperate last-minute impulse that she almost regretted. Frank and Lois went to the same school, but she was a couple of years older. She was once married to Billy, Frank’s older brother, so he was her ex brother-in-law. She hadn’t seen Frank since before the break-up four years ago. In her late thirties, Lois was a fifth-grade teacher in Smithville, eastern Nevada near the Utah border. She had grown up nearby and came back home after teacher training. Now Lois lived in Newton, a small residential town in the Snake Valley, Utah, not far from the Great Basin National Park.
Frank was a loner, taking over the old family ranch himself when Billy moved away after the divorce from Lois. Their two sisters also left, for marriage and the bright lights of Vegas. He was not interested in ranching so most of the land was rented out for grazing. He kept a pair of horses in the barn, that’s all. Frank was a mechanic, the local fixer: plumbing, electrics, pumps, irrigation, farm machines, you name it.
It was late afternoon when Frank was done with the pump at O’Brien’s. He brushed the brown dust from his clothes as best he could and started his truck, an old ’99 Ford. On the way he called in at the ranch to pick up some tools and spares. The dog was happy to see him, but whined when Frank drove off again. He hadn’t given Lois a thought since her and Billy separated, and was surprised when she called. She lived in a small house near the river, fifteen minutes away. He found the road, lined with poplars and willows along the river bank. Driving slowly he tried to remember what the house looked like. There it was, set back from the road on a large plot, a green two-storey clapboard place with white shutters and windows. There were about ten other houses along the road, her neighbours, many with shiny new cars in the driveway.
Lois opened the door when she heard the deep growl of the Ford’s tired old engine, but almost stepped back inside when she saw the dusty old truck. Too late, Frank was already half way up the drive carrying a heavy toolbox. He took off his battered hat and dropped the toolbox on the porch with a dull thud, uncertain how to greet her. She kept her distance.
“Good to see you Lois. How you keeping?”
“It’s good Frank, that is apart from the unit!” she said with a nervous laugh.
“Let’s have a look then” said Frank, business-like, to cover up his uneasiness. “Lead the way”.
Lois headed quickly for the kitchen, leaving Frank to follow with his toolbox.
“Here it is”, she said, “just ground to a halt.”
“How long you had this one?”, asked Frank.
“Well, Billy had it put in ……” she started to say, without thinking.
“Let’s have a look” said Frank, pretending not to hear.
“Can I get you anything Frank?”
“No, I’m easy thanks Lois.”
He turned away to hide the sudden warm blush in his cheeks, and opened the cupboard under the sink, located the power switch and switched the grinder on. The machine started with a whine but then suddenly shut down.
“Doesn’t sound too good does it?“ said Lois, hovering near the kitchen door.
“We’ll see, have to open it up and take a look”, said Frank, “could be jammed.”
“Say if you need anything.”
“Mmm” said Frank, turning back to the cupboard again to disconnect the power and grab a wrench to open the unit.
Half an hour later Lois heard the familiar sound of the grinder running, and then the clang of tools when Frank dropped them back into his toolbox.
“That sounds good,” said Lois, as she stepped into the kitchen.
“Good for a few years if you look after it,” he said, holding up a handful of sticky brown goo, mixed with bones and old string. It’s the bones from all those grills, jam the blades.”
“Have to be more careful what I put in there then, won’t I!”
“Where d’you want this?”
“Uugh! I’ll get a bag and put it out back.
“What do I owe you Frank?” asked Lois when she came in again.
“This late on Friday I don’t charge, not out of working hours.”
“I made some coffee, come and sit down and have a cup.”
Frank hesitated a second. “Just let me wash up first.”
It was only then that Lois noticed he had dirt up to his elbows. “Of course! You can take the towel hanging there”. Frank scrubbed his hands at the kitchen sink and dried them quickly, leaving a brownish stain on the towel.
He sat down opposite Lois at the round pine table. There were two mugs of steaming coffee and a plate of cookies waiting. Frank pulled a chair out from the table to make room for his long legs, putting some distance between them.
The cold milk flowed more freely than the conversation. Lois crept up in her chair and looked at him with her big green eyes. She saw a tall, solid-bodied male with wary, dark brown eyes and a slow smile. He was weather-beaten from working outdoors, with uncombed brown hair and big, rough hands.
Frank felt troubled, He still thought of Lois as Billy’s wife. Her shiny black hair was pulled back in a ponytail with a straight fringe, in sharp contrast to her pale skin, which looked like she kept out of the sun. Lois was slight, with thin, elegant fingers and expressive hands, which she used to emphasise her point when she spoke.
“What were you doing at the O’Brien’s?” asked Lois, trying to break the ice.
“Pump at the wellhead, took all day to fix” replied Frank curtly.
Lois asked questions, too many, thought Frank. About work, old schoolmates, the ranch. He felt uncomfortable and made to finish off his coffee quickly and escape. He tried to wind up the conversation, giving Lois some advice about the grinder.
“More coffee, help yourself to cookies?”
“I’m good, Lois, thanks”.
She raised the matter of payment again
“You must let me pay you, Frank, at least for your time”.
“I don’t charge family”, he replied, which sounded pompous when he heard it himself.
Lois laughed, “I guess we still are family, sort of. But then you’re welcome to a family dinner tonight, here at eight. ”
She saw again the slight hesitation in his face.
“It’s just dinner together instead of eating alone, Frank, just to say thank you. And don’t you bring anything!”
Frank smiled slowly: “Eight is OK! Enough time to feed the animals.”
Driving back home Frank admitted to himself that he had always liked Lois, but as Billy’s wife she was off limits. He realised that they had never really talked before, except to pass the time of day. It was quiet and empty at the ranch. He checked the stables, fed the dog and took a quick shower. Lois was right, it was lonesome to eat dinner alone, which he did most days. Out working he grabbed a bite to eat on the move. Then after a long days’ work it was relaxing to eat by himself, with the dog and a beer for company, but lonesome.
He couldn’t say no to Lois now, even though he felt uncomfortable about it. And it was a free dinner. He felt warm as he climbed into the truck again, but maybe it was the quick shower. He drove off in a cloud of dust, before he could change his mind.
Lois’s street looked different in the evening. There were lights on in most of the houses, outside in the gardens too. The driveways and street were packed with cars. Frank guessed Friday night was party night here. He found a space outside Lois’ driveway. The truck looked out of place there – but so what, he thought.
Lois must have been waiting in the hall because when Frank walked up the drive she was already on the porch.
“Truck parked outside twice in one day, said Frank joking, “Neighbours gonna talk!”
“Only if it’s still there in the morning!” said Lois with a cheeky grin. “Come on in, dinner’s ready.”
“Mmm, just like Mom’s real home cooking.”
“Make yourself at home, Frank!”
They sat down at the pine table, now hidden under a dark green tablecloth. The lights were low, and candles flickered from the counter.
“You’ve been busy, Lois.”
“Well, I have the grill tomorrow for colleagues from school, so I thought we could get a head start.”
“Appreciate you taking the trouble.”
“Good of you to fix the unit. Let’s eat now before it gets cold! What d’you want to drink?”
“Grill needs a good cold beer!”
“Done, Bud all right? I’m on a red run myself” said Lois, fetching the beer and a bottle of wine that was already open.
As the evening progressed the drink flowed. Lois noticed that Frank gradually became seemed more at ease, more talkative and funny. It was not only the beer. He seemed more relaxed in her company, prepared to talk about personal things such as the family and being alone on the ranch. Frank started to look Lois straight in the face, instead of out of the corner of his eye. The wine warmed Lois inside and she also felt more at ease with him in her house.
“What’s it like living alone on the ranch, the old family home?”
“Don’t think about it much really. Meet people all day on my travels. Work all round the county. Then there’s the horses to look after, and I do some hunting with the guys. ”
“Don’t you ever feel lonely?”
“Work all hours, mostly alone, but don’t really feel lonely. Evenings and nights can be long, specially wintertime. How about you?”
“Almost four years now since Billy moved out. It still feels empty in the house. I try to keep busy, but weekends and nights can be lonesome. I’m surrounded by people at school, then there’s all the families round here. In a way it’s more lonely when you’re living amongst families, with kids and all their parties.”
“I miss family, Billy and the girls now they’ve moved on. Nobody left to talk to about the ranch, the future and things.
“Most of all I miss sharing a bed, you know, just being held tight before falling asleep, and then not waking up alone,” said Lois. “That more than the sex…”
“Mmmm.. At least you had some years with Billy. I’ve mostly slept alone, except for the dog of course”, said Frank laughing…
“Frank, don’t get me wrong but how about you staying over tonight? Just lie with me for a while and hold me. I’d like that!”
Frank looked surprised: “Two lonely souls in the night!”
“Just to feel the comfort of being held. Anyway, you can’t drive with all that beer inside you!”
Frank, laughed out loud to hide his shyness: “Thought you were very generous with the beer, Lois.”
“It would mean a lot to me Frank, just to lie close for a while.”
“I’d like that too,” he said quietly.
They sat in silence for a while, nobody wanting to make the first move. Lois emptied her wine glass and stood up to blow out the candles. Frank cleared the dishes, piling them up on the sink.
“Leave that,” said Lois, reaching for his hand. They made their way upstairs, slowly and a bit unsteady.
“Your turn first”, said Lois, pointing to the bathroom.
When Frank returned he found Lois already sitting on the bed, wearing yellow Simpson pajamas and with her hair down.
“Birthday present?“ asked Frank.
“No, Christmas”, she said, laughing, “from the kids at school. You usually sleep in your clothes then?”
“Dog hid my pajamas” he said laughing too, and slowly slipped out of his jeans and shirt. He lay on the edge of the bed, stiff and uncomfortable. Lois turned down the lights.
“Come closer, won’t bite Frank”, she said softly. The bed creaked and she rolled towards him. He moved closer too and she snuggled up to him, head on his shoulder. Lois’ hair had a mild flowery fragrance which Frank liked, but couldn’t place.
He hoped she didn’t hear the thudding of his heart, but Lois just sighed and laid her arm across him. Somehow her fingers got entangled in the carpet of curly hair on his chest. He didn’t mind, liked being close to her- An unfamiliar warmth spread through his body.
Lois relaxed, the smell of fresh male sweat making her feel safe. Gradually her breathing deepened and slowed down a little. Frank started to relax, forgetting the numbing feeling in his right arm. She would probably roll over soon, he thought, pulling up the covers and letting the beer take over.
It was still dark when Frank surfaced again, shivering. Lois had rolled away, taking the covers with her. He turned and looked at her sleeping soundly, long hair spread across the pillow. She looked contented. Frank was tempted to join Lois under the covers, to wake up warm next to her. He lay there looking at her for a while, listening to her steady breathing. He was afraid he wouldn’t know how to handle things when she woke up. He found himself looking for an excuse to escape. Then he remembered what Lois had said: “Neighbours only take notice if a car’s still there in the morning!”
Frank rolled quietly off the bed and tiptoed out of the room, grabbing his clothes as he went. He pulled on his jeans and shirt in the hallway, found his boots and jacket and slipped out of the door. The porch creaked as he stepped outside. It was early, raw. Night mist from the nearby river was still hovering over the manicured lawns. Frank pulled on his boots and stood silently, in two minds: to sneak back inside to Lois’ warm bed or make a run for it. He pulled his jacket tight and made for the truck, standing there alone on the street looking lonely, just like Frank. The engine was sour, needing some coaxing before it turned over. He didn’t want to wake Lois, but you can’t sneak away quietly with a ’99 Ford .
Lois woke up when the sunrays bounced off the mirror onto her bedroom wall. She rolled towards Frank, shaking the long hair out of her face, but he was not there. Maybe he was in the bathroom, or downstairs fixing a cosy breakfast. She got up and saw that his clothes had gone. Going to the window she could see that his truck was missing too. She threw herself back into bed and hid under the covers. It was so lonely to wake up all alone, and now she felt abandoned again.
Frank phoned Lois later that afternoon. An unknown woman’s voice answered, “Janice”. In the background he could hear a party in full swing. Janice said she couldn’t see Lois anywhere, so he left a message. Only later, when the party was breaking up, did Janice remember:
“Sorry Lois, I forgot, guy called Frank phoned earlier. Who’s Frank?”
“He mended the waste disposal” said Lois, curtly.
“Aha!” said Janice, with a knowing smile.
Tidying up the kitchen later that evening, after the last of her colleagues had left, Lois leaned across the sink to switch on the waste disposal. The grinding sound reminded her immediately of Frank, and the message passed on by Janice. She’d missed him and then forgot to call back. It was still not too late, but she got no signal. Probably just as well, she thought, after his disappearing act.
Lois crept up on the couch in the living room, wrapped in a warm plaid blanket, an open bottle of wine within easy reach. The sun was gradually slipping behind the trees along the river. It had been a good warm night with Frank and she had started to like him. But then he just sneaked off, leaving her all alone again. Now she felt even more lonely than before, and couldn’t bring herself to sleep in the big empty bed. Gradually she slipped into a restless sleep on the couch, only waking when she knocked the empty wine bottle onto the wooden floor. It was dark, but light outside. She got up, pulling the blanket around her shoulders, and shuffled to the window. The moon was up, a full moon, reflected on the river in the distance. She pulled back the curtains and curled up again, trying not to think of Frank.
In the ranch house, Frank was tired after a long day with the horses. He made a fire, grabbed some left-overs from the ‘fridge and settled down with a bottle of beer and some sorrowful country music on repeat. He sat in the dark watching the flames dancing around the walls. The dog joined him on the sofa, head in Frank’s lap. Lois hadn’t called, and really Frank didn’t know what to say if she did. After last night he didn’t expect her to call.
He let the fire burn down until all that were left was embers reflected in the dog’s eyes, like distant tail lights. A dying fire and sleepy dog, enough to make anyone feel lonely. Maybe Lois hadn’t got his message, or he could have missed her call. Couldn’t find his phone, probably still in the barn. He got up to fetch it, but the dog woke up and wanted to come too. Outside it was chilly, so he pulled on a jacket. The phone was lying on a shelf by the barn door, and he dropped it into his pocket. A full moon and clear sky almost felt like daylight. The dog ran off towards the river, the same one that flowed past Lois’ place. Frank followed, feeling a little sad. He had messed up with Lois. The reflection of the moon in the river was there to be shared. He forgot about the dog, thinking about how warm it had been with Lois. A loud splash diverted his attention. The dog came running, heading for home in a hurry. Frank was longing for his warm bed too.
Inside he hung up his jacket and made for the kitchen to fix some food for the dog. Then he remembered and checked the phone. Lois had phoned! Twice! And he had missed both times. Without thinking he hit reply and waited…….
Lois was still dozing on the couch. She heard the phone ring, or was she dreaming? It rang again from the kitchen. She stumbled on the wine bottle, dropping the blanket and ran to grab the phone before it stopped ringing.
“Hello”, she whispered, hoarsely.
“Seen the moon?” It was Frank’s voice.
“Yeh”, she said, pleased to hear his voice, “can’t miss a big one”.
“Wanna go for a ride?”
Lois hesitated, “I’m………..not ready”.
“Moon’ll be up for a while. I’ll be outside, down by the river. See you there.”