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The Best of 2013

Naked Grief
by Arthur Chappell

Sister
by Robert Buckley



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By Aspire
Parking in the 60's
Nice Ass


By B.K. Bilicki
Penny's Worth
Someday
Long Goodbye


By G. Gregory
Fuck Mountain
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By J.T. Benjamin
Wilberforce The Cunning
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Different strokes
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By Richard V Raiment
Honeyed Tongues
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By Robert Buckley
The Night the Stars..
Corner Booth
Waking Katie...
The Long Ride Home
Leah And The Eagle
The Shades of Gray
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Wait Along
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The Courtyard
Its Been Going Around
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Jumper
The Last Thing You ...
Compassion
Coffee
Julie's Ankles
Angel

The Courtyard
by Robert Buckley © 2006



Arnold stepped back to inspect his mirror image. He still liked to dress, no occasion necessary. It was a matter of style and class, concepts long-faded from the modern world, he thought. A neatly pressed, summer-weight ivory suit and a crisp white shirt, silk embroidered vest, and a hat trained just right to complement the suit. His shoes gleamed with a high polish; he polished them himself, though at his age he lamented the passing of the neighborhood cobbler with shoe-shine service.

 He smiled at himself, still a straight-backed six-foot-one, not stooped like many men his age. He touched the brim of his hat with the silver-tipped walking stick as a way of salute. Then he frowned as the weather report came over the radio. It would become humid later in the day, and he tended to perspire heavily. He decided he would take a cab to the cemetery rather than make the round-trip via public transportation. He envisioned himself wrinkled and wilting on the way home and sighed.

He called for the cab, then he stepped into the hallway, turning to lock his door. Sunlight poured through the cathedral windows at one end of the hall and reflected off the polished floor creating an ethereal gleam. He squinted into the glare as a figure made its way through the illumination. It was Ricker.

He reached up and pinched the edge of his hat brim as a gesture of greeting, but old Ricker just sneered and tottered by. Arnold caught an intense whiff of body odor as the man passed, his faded brown fabric shoes shuffling with each step. He winced at the yellowed, short-sleeve shirt Ricker wore and the trousers, which were a nondescript brown, cuffs high above his scrawny ankles, and the waist pulled high, almost up to his armpits.

Arnold shrugged and continued toward the elevator, but when Ricker entered it he decided to ascend the stairs. The box was too close to spend any time inside with a man who had sworn off deodorant since the death of his wife.

Ricker was already in the lobby when Arnold emerged to await his taxi. He caught the hushed conversation of the fretting retirees who gathered with him. Ricker, of course, was leading the chorus of doom.

"They'll put us all out, that's what they'll do."

"But, they just can't put us out," Mrs. Califani replied. "Not if we're paying our rents."

"Rents? The rents are going to go up. None of us will be able to afford to stay here. They got rid of rent control last year."

Mr. Poole, his voice barely more than a whisper, said "Well, maybe we're grandfathered."

"Yeah," Pekins added. "Hey, why don't we ask Mr. Arnold; he's a lawyer."

"Forget him," Ricker hissed. "That shyster would probably charge you just for asking. You know you can't trust that guy."

"But," Pekins demurred, "He seems like a nice fella. I've talked to him before."

"Pekins," Ricker yipped. "You'd be better off trying to move in with that son of yours that you're always bragging about, the one in Georgia."

Pekins shrugged. "Well, Josh and Mary would be glad to have me, but they don't have much space, you know, with the two boys and a baby on the way."

"Yeah, just as I thought. Kids don't got much use for you when you live too long."

Arnold continued to let on he hadn't heard them, and gazed past the lobby door. He recalled some weeks after settling his dad into elderly housing so many years before.

"Dad, so how do you like the place?"

"Aw, the place is all right, but I can't stand these old bastards."

Arnold had laughed at the time. "But Dad, you're an old bastard."

His father had chuckled wryly. "Yeah, well these people are miserable old bastards, and they didn't get that way just on account of they got old, they were mean and miserable all their lives."

Now Arnold smiled. Dad would have loved Mr. Ricker.

The taxi pulled up and honked. He stepped through the door, leaving his neighbors to ponder their future.

*               *               *


Mount Auburn was as close as the rich and famous could come to taking it all with them. It was filled with ostentatious monuments to ostentatious lives. The tombstones and monuments read like a Who's Who, and the place was more like a private park than a cemetery. He had the cabbie leave him at the main gate. He didn't bother checking with the office, but strode into the magnificently landscaped necropolis with nothing but a clipping from the old Herald Traveler to guide him.

The Major's funeral had been covered by the newspapers of the day. The Traveler's article included a photo of the tomb. It resembled the entrance to a small stadium, or perhaps the bow of a ship.

Arnold continued to walk the grounds, stopping to enjoy a pair of hovering hummingbirds sipping at honeysuckle. Then he spotted it. He didn't approach for some moments as he pondered why he had come. He hadn't gone to her funeral because he wasn't welcomed, and he certainly hadn't attended the Major's because he had no use for him. He'd never visited her grave before; he was not one for visiting graves anyway. What was there, after all? Grass and sod? Bones beneath?

But he had dreamt of her these past few months—frequently and vividly. He walked slowly, but deliberately toward the monument. A bronze statue of the Major stood at the front. It was smaller than he had imagined. Walter Jansen Peckering looked like a sour, wizened, old man. Arnold couldn't help but grin. He inspected the statue for the artist's signature, but he found none. Too bad, if he were still alive he would have sent him a note complimenting him; he'd captured the essence of the man.

Behind the statue set into the wall were bronze initials.

Arnold turned and faced the statue. "You egotistical bastard. Couldn't you afford more of a tribute to your own children than a set of initials?"

His eyes scanned the sets of letters from left to right. JFP had a small weathered flag set into a hole in the granite. That must be her brother Jay, the one who was killed in Korea. LKP had to be her brother Laurence, the one who "disappeared" somewhere in the Chilean Andes. She always suspected he just ran away from the old man. KMP also had a flag set next to it. That was Knowlton. His demise was a mystery, but it was believed it had something to do with his work with the CIA during the Missile Crisis.

Finally his eyes settled on ASP. He smiled at what her initials spelled. A bit of Cleopatra, he thought, if Cleopatra had wheat-blonde hair and pale blue eyes. Then his smile faded and a tight knot of sorrow twisted in his chest. He looked toward a distant fountain and was transported to that early summer day when she first gave herself to him.

She was driving him to Groton where her father was being honored for donating a pile of money he'd never miss. Whatever they were going to name for him, he would insist it be the Major Walter Peckering ... hall? Auditorium? Dormitory? Privy? Whatever. "Major," for a man who'd never been in the service. It was an honorary title he acquired by virtue of his membership in the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company.

They got lost, probably around Ashby or Ashburnham, driving aimlessly from one country road onto another until she had thrown up her hands and said, "Enough! I'm hot."

He had been enjoying the ride in her convertible, watching her, her hair all blonde streamers in the wind. But she pulled off the road and gleefully pointed toward a pond within a grassy meadow. She hopped out and ran down the bank stopping just long enough to reach behind her and unbutton the green and yellow print sundress. She let it fall off her shoulders; she then dispatched the bra and pushed her panties down her pale legs.

He stood astonished, his eyes darting to all sides looking for anyone who might be nearby. But there was not another soul in that rural eden.

"C'mon, what're you waiting for?" She beckoned him with her arm, her small breasts lifting and jiggling with the motion, then she turned and her pale behind like a beacon enticed him to strip and follow her.

She plunged into the water and he, less gracefully, tumbled after her.

They swam, splashed and played in the warm waters as he grabbed her limbs and she tried to escape. Touching her naked flesh had given him an aching hard-on. And he blushed furiously when she clasped her arms around him and pulled him close to kiss him; her thighs captured his rampant cock between them.

"Oh, dear," she laughed. "I think I caught a fish ... a very long, very firm fish."

He could barely speak. "For the love of ..."

"Hmm, feels like a swordfish. I wonder what it would be like to be skewered by such a creature."

"Skewered?"

She took his hand and led him to the bank. They emerged from the pond like the first lovers on earth. She lay on the grass, her body glistening in the sunlight. She lifted her hands and curled her fingers, beckoning him to lie on top of her. Her legs spread as he trailed kisses over her breasts and shoulders. She reached beneath him and grasped his cock, guiding it toward the gate of her cunt.

"I can't wait," she pleaded. "Please."

He slid into her wet depths, pushing slowly until he could push no more and his balls jostled against her anus. Together they found a rhythm as he thrust and she met each thrust, then she crossed her legs behind his thighs and pulled him more deeply into her.

He didn't want it to end; he would gladly die inside her. In that moment he knew she was all he wanted or would ever want.

"I love you," he cried, then grunted.

"No-no, shhh ... don't love me ... just fuck me."

Fuck? Then it was an ugly word, but the way she said it, with a sigh and a whimper, it sounded as if it had slipped from the lips of an angel.

Then his thrusts became more desperate and he felt the roiling in his balls. She cried out and raked her nails down his back, and he launched his fluids into her, one spasm after another until he had emptied himself.

He rolled off her and she cuddled against him. Together they dozed in the warm sun. When they woke they were surrounded by indifferent cows.

They were in no hurry to get dressed. Groton was a write-off and the day was not one to waste. He had her lie on her tummy while he licked her thighs and nibbled her behind, and trailed kisses up her spine.

She mewed under his attentions. "Ohhh, yes, Mr. B. Andrew Arnold ... my ravisher ... you've turned me into quite the content harlot."

"Hmm, not a strumpet?"

"Strumpet! Oh, I love that word, I love being your strumpet, Mr. Arnold. I'm naked and at your mercy and I'm feeling so, so wicked."

He laid his hand across her ass—a gentle slap.

"Oww, and did I mention what a brute you are? Now that I've surrendered my maidenhead, cruel sir, the least you could do is tell me your first name."

"It's B."

"It is not ... tell me. If you do I'll tell you anything you want to know, all my darkest secrets."

"Okay, it's Benedict."

"Oh my gosh ... Benedict Arnold?"

"It would seem my parents hadn't thought that one through."

She laughed, then wiggled her behind for more attention.

"Now, tell me the truth ... why did you tell me not to say I love you?" he asked.

She shrugged and tugged a blade of grass. "I don't know ... I don't want to hurt you."

"You don't love me?"

"Yes ... I do ... but ..."

"But what? I want you; I want to make a life with you."

"Marriage? Babies?"

"If that's what you want ... just tell me you'll spend your life with me."

She rolled over to face him and he couldn't help but take one of her nipples in his mouth. She moaned as he released the bud and looked into her eyes.

"My father ..."

"What about your father?"

She shrugged again. "He's lost all his sons. I'm all he has left. He wants the firm to continue after he's gone ... it's to be his legacy."

"Legacy to whom?"

"I can't let him down. We have to wait, darling. Just a few years, once everything is settled and my father knows he can—he can die and know it will go on."

"I've never wanted anyone before. I want you so much."

"A few years ... I promise."

*               *               *


He hadn't thought to bring flowers. With difficulty he knelt, kissed the tips of his fingers, then touched them to her initials.

He stood and turned toward the gate. He boarded the trackless trolley that took him to Harvard Square, and then the subway back into the city.

The walk from the station was hot and beads of sweat dripped from his brow. He could feel his clothes become clingy and damp. But his thoughts again turned to her, and her final days.

She had agreed to move in with him by then, but she still would not marry him. It didn't matter to him as long as they shared their lives. He worked for a smaller law firm but the work was steady and the rewards more than adequate. She had taken the helm of her father's brokerage firm as he had wished her to do.

The illness came upon her quickly and it was unrelenting. The Major was cursed to live to see all his children die, but it was a curse that cut Arnold more deeply.

He was inconsolable, but pulled himself together to attend the wake. The funeral parlor was packed with political and financial power, and it was in front of that audience that the Major confronted him.

"You have no standing here!"

Arnold was so taken aback he could not speak at first.

"I know what you want. You want to steal what's mine—what I built. You fouled my only daughter with that aim, and I will not let you—damned lawyer! Vulture!"

After the Major's tirade, one could have heard a feather hit the carpet.

Finally, Arnold found his voice. "You miserable son of a bitch. I came here to mourn your daughter, but you, you selfish bastard, all you can do is whine about losing another heir. Damn you. I hope you live a long time—long enough to see it crumble."

He turned and strode away. The Major croaked the last word: "Ruthless!"

The irony was that the old man's epithet became his reputation. He was sought after as a relentless legal competitor; the man who almost finagled the Peckering financial empire out from under the Major himself. It was bullshit, of course. But the legend brought him clients and wealth.

He never got to see her in her casket, and he thought that was a good thing. He didn't want to remember her like that. When he did think of her, it was always of that day, by that pond, surrounded by those dumb cows.

*               *               *


He was withering in the humidity as he approached the building. He craved an ice tea, or perhaps a gin and tonic. A white pick-up peeled up to the curb beside him. He glanced at the advertising on the door: Urban Edens—Specialty Contractors.

A young woman hopped out from the driver side, stepped around the truck and into his path without giving him any notice. His breath caught as she walked toward the front door. It was her legs that grabbed his attention first, long and lean and tanned. They rose from a pair of tan work boots to the frayed edge of denim cut-off shorts that revealed the half-moons of her ass cheeks, winking at him with each cant of her hips. She wore a white hard hat but two wispy fringes of hair trailing down her neck revealed her as a brunette. A white, sleeveless tee was partly tucked into her shorts and partly hanging over one hip.

He thought to call to her, but she disappeared through the oak and glass door into the foyer. He made his own way to the door and stepped inside. She afforded him a glance and just a hint of smile, and then turned her attention to the rows of buttons and names of tenants. Her finger hovered over one and pressed.

His eyes fell to her breasts, which jostled freely beneath her tee. Their pale crescents peeked through the armhole.

"He's not home," he said.

She turned, and her lips curved into a perfect 'O' before she said, "Excuse me?"

"Arnold—he's not home."

"Oh? Well do you know ...?"

"I'm Arnold."

"Oh ... well, good to meet you." She held out a hand.

He took it and said, "You're with P.L. Darby?"

"I am P.L. Darby. You can call me Lauren."

Her head cocked slightly. "Is there a problem, Mr. Arnold? I can give you references."

"No, none at all. You're just ... so young. But very highly recommended."

"I'm 27, Mr. Arnold. I learned the job from my Dad, who did it nearly forty years. I've been in business for five years."

"No need to sell me on your abilities or the quality of your work, Miss ..."

"Lauren."

"Yes, Lauren. Anyway, come with me and I'll show you what I have in mind."

He held the door to the lobby and gestured to her to enter. Ricker was still holding court with several of the other tenants. Arnold wondered if he had been yammering all the time he was gone. They hushed as he escorted the girl to the elevator.

She was a few steps ahead of him when he heard a woman's raspy whisper: "Look at that girl—why her behind is practically falling out of those shorts."

"Never mind her behind, her boobs are showing," another said.

"Must be a call girl," Ricker hissed. "And a man his age—guess he thinks he can buy anything."

Arnold winced and hoped the girl hadn't heard. But when she reached the elevator she turned and a wry smile curled her lips.

"I'm sorry," he said. "They're a bunch of old farts without anything else to do."

Lauren shrugged. "Doesn't bother me, if it doesn't bother you. I like to be comfortable when I work. Do you think I look like a call girl?"

Arnold cleared his throat and looked down and to the side. He felt the heat rise in his cheeks and amazed himself that she made him blush.

He poked at the button to call the elevator. He turned when he felt a feathery tap on his shoulder.

"Mr. Arnold?"

"Mrs. Ginty. What can I do for you, dear?"

"Mr. Ricker ... well he's been saying the new owners will want to put us out, raise our rents. He said they won't let me keep my cat—use it as an excuse to evict me. You're a lawyer, could they do that? I can't lose my cat, he keeps the loneliness away, you know, since my Danny died. They won't let me have him in the public housing ... I just don't know what ..."

"There, there, Mrs. Ginty." He took her hands and patted them. "No one is going to force you to give up your cat, or hike your rent."

"But ... how do you know? Mr. Ricker ..."

"Mr. Ricker likes all the attention you folks give him, and the only way he can get you to pay attention to him is to tell you all sorts of gloom and doom stories. He, frankly, doesn't know what he's talking about. Now, you listen to me, you have nothing to worry about."

The elderly woman seemed to take comfort in his assurances. "But, Mr. Arnold, how do you know?"

"My dear, I'm a cunning old lawyer." He patted her hand again and then turned just as the elevator opened. He took Lauren's arm and guided her inside.

When the door closed and the car began to rise, Lauren said, "You sure are smooth, Mr. Arnold. You haven't told those people that you bought the building?"

"I did it through a trust. I want to remain anonymous."

"Was it true, what you told that lady?"

He looked at her and frowned, one eyebrow cocked high. "By today all the tenants will receive letters from the trust. They'll be told there will be no rent increases during their tenancy. In some cases, such as Mrs. Ginty, their rent will be cut substantially. And she will certainly be allowed to keep her cat."

"How about that old crab there ... Mr. Ricker?"

"He too ... especially him."

"Why? I have the feeling you don't like him much."

"Just to shut him up." He turned to her and grinned, a perfect devilish grin.

Lauren laughed out loud.

The car stopped and the doors opened. He led her down the hall to his apartment. Again he held the door for her.

She noted the sparse furnishings, a large sound system but no television. He led her to a table covered with blueprints and plans.

"Here ... you see? This building was supposed to be a premiere residence, but the Depression hit before the developers could realize their plan. They had planned for an elegant garden courtyard, with a fountain, shade trees."

"It looks more like a cocktail patio. I could recreate it, or rather, construct what they had in mind. Or ..."

"Or what?"

"Create something unique."

"Such as?"

"My company is called Urban Edens, Mr. Arnold."

"Eden, eh? I'll be satisfied with a cool place to enjoy a summer day."

She drew her finger across the top of one of the blueprints. "What does this mean?"

"It's what I intend to name the building."

"You want to give the building a name?"

"All buildings had names at one time. Back when a building was an individual creation, and not a prefabricated box you set into the ground. This building was supposed to be called the Briarwood, but I have another in mind for it."

"Anstis? I've never heard that name before. It's—unusual. Almost as unusual as Phoebe, but way sexier."

"It's a very old name. You don't see it much anymore ... except in cemeteries."

Then he looked at her and a crooked smile creased his face. "P.L. Darby—Phoebe Lauren?"

This time he made her blush. "Oh, you are smooth. I can't believe I gave away my deepest darkest secret. Well, if I agree to take this job, you'll have to tell me what the B in B. Andrew Arnold stands for."

"Will you take the job?"

"It won't be cheap. I'm selling something special."

"The price is no object."

"Then I'll take it. What's your first name, Mr. Arnold?"

"Benedict."

"Benedict Arnold? Wasn't he a traitor?"

"He crippled himself for a cause, and got nothing but contempt for his sacrifice."

"So, I guess that means I can trust you?"

"You have my word. And in a day you'll have my name on a contract."

They shook hands. He showed her downstairs to the front door and they shook hands again. He smiled as the pale rounds of her ass winked at him again as she turned to leave.

*               *               *


At precisely 7:30 a.m. the buzzer rang in his apartment. He put the percolator on the stove and shuffled in slippered feet to the intercom.

"Yes? Hello?"

"It's Lauren. I need to see that courtyard of yours."

"I'll buzz you in. Wait for me in the lobby."

He dressed quickly and hurried toward the door, stopping to return to the stove and kill the flame beneath the percolator.

As the elevator doors parted he saw her. She'd modified her outfit somewhat: khaki shorts that didn't reveal more than her thighs just above her knees. The work boots were the same, but the tank top had been replaced by a pale blue denim shirt that tied just below her breasts leaving her midriff bare. Her belly button? He wondered if he dropped a pebble into it how long it would be before he heard it hit bottom. The thought caused him to grin.

"Hi," she said. "Do I look funny or something?"

"Huh? Oh, no, I was ... just thinking of something."

"This is Paulo."

A tall, lanky man stepped from behind him. He hadn't noticed him when he stepped off the elevator, despite the fact he was over six feet. His skin was a deep, roast coffee color.

"Paulo's going to take some measurements."

"Oh, of course." He shook the man's hand but felt vaguely annoyed at his presence.

"So," Lauren said. "Lead the way."

"Yes, come with me."

He led them through a door and a narrow corridor that ended with another door. He fumbled for a key, then tried to push it into the lock, which stubbornly refused to be penetrated. Lauren's companion tapped his shoulder and then produced a small can of WD-40 seemingly out of thin air. He took the key from Arnold and sprayed it, then sprayed the lock. He nodded as if to suggest he try it again.

Arnold slid the key in with no difficulty. "These doors are not used often. No reason to."

They stepped into harsh sunlight that reflected off a rectangular expanse of concrete.

"Ouch, this sure is ugly." Lauren squinted. "Any access for vehicles?"

"There is a driveway." He pointed toward an arch.

"Might be just high enough to get our equipment in here. Eventually we'll need a crane, though."

"A crane?"

"For the trees," she said.

Paulo went about measuring the area with a simple tape. As he did sounds jumbled from his lips.

"What's he saying?"

"I dunno, I don't speak Portuguese."

It took him no more than five minutes, then Lauren punched a button on her cell phone and handed it to him. Another rush of Portuguese, then he handed the phone back to Lauren.

"Hi, Rita. Yeah ... yeah ... okay."

Lauren put the phone away and took a block of note paper from a pocket in her shorts. She wrote a figure on it and handed it to Arnold. "Still want to do it?"

"How soon can you start?"

"You're sure? That's a pretty hefty figure. In fact, I think it's more than I ever estimated for a single job."

"Tomorrow?"

"Okay, you got a deal."

"I'll put that figure in the contract. You can fill out the details. I'll have already signed it."

The worry warts had already gathered when he led them back through the lobby. Ricker was holding center court as usual.

"It's a damned trick. We can't believe what's in these letters. I ain't signing mine."

"Well, I'm signing mine," Mrs. Ginty said. "They cut my rent by $400 and they said I could keep my cat. How did they know I have a cat?"

"Me too," Pekins added. "I mean, about the rent. And it says I can live here with no increase for as long as I want."

"I think it's wonderful," said Mrs. Califani. "And I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth."

Arnold could hear the grumble in old Ricker's gut. He had nothing to say. He'd been shut up.

Arnold grinned, so did Lauren.

"Gee, no remarks about your call girl this time. I'm disappointed."

Paulo had already exited. Arnold held the door for Lauren. "See you tomorrow."

"The jackhammers will start at 8. You better warn the folks."

*               *               *


Arnold returned to his apartment, relit the flame beneath the percolator, and pondered how to fill the rest of his day. Perhaps a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, or the Gardner. He poured a cup of coffee and sat in his favorite chair, idly stirring the brew.

His mind wandered, and then he envisaged Lauren. She stood with her back to him, then slowly, sensuously, she slid her shorts off her hips. Her behind was a pair of pale globes, but her legs and back were tanned to a nut brown. She crossed her arms in front of her and lifted her top over her head.

Arnold shook the vision from his head. "Damn! What the hell is the matter with you? She's ... she's young enough to be your ... granddaughter."

But the vision had changed. Instead of Lauren's tanned skin, he saw—felt—a pale, peaches-and-cream back and derriere. His hands slid around her waist then up to caress two small breasts. He sat like that a moment, clutching thin air.

Then he did something he hadn't done in a long time. He unzipped his pants and closed his hand around his cock.

She stood naked for him, just behind his eyelids, up to her knees in the pond. He began to stroke himself slowly; he wanted it to last.

All the sensations of loving her came back in a rush. When the euphoria passed and he came back to reality, cum oozed over his fist, and a tear trickled from his eye.

*               *               *


That evening he posted notices throughout the building about the construction. In the morning the building sounded like a war zone replete with automatic weapons fire. The jackhammers pulverized the concrete relentlessly throughout the morning. Finally the workers broke for lunch. The silence was palpable.

He peeked into the area and saw Lauren inspecting the chunks of concrete scattered about like a bomb had been dropped dead center. She wore green shorts, cut very close to her groin and a bright pink tank. No sign of a bra. Arnold took note of the workers' smiles and leers as they devoured their boss with their eyes. If Lauren was aware of their lascivious looks, she didn't appear to care.

Just as the men returned to their work, she bent over and took a can of soda from a cooler. She lifted it under her tank and rubbed it over her belly and then her breasts. The men's jaws dropped all at once, so did Arnold's.

Finally she touched the can to her cheeks, let her head fall back and took a long, slow swig.

Once Arnold shook off his reverie it occurred to him that a piano could have fallen off the roof and neither he nor the workmen would have noticed.

Lauren turned to her men. "Hey, what's everyone standing around for? Am I paying you guys, or what?"

It was a gentle, playful admonition and the men responded in kind with grins and chuckles before resuming their work.

Well, she knows how to handle men, he thought. But how can they keep their minds on their work?

He smiled, shaking his head, and then headed back to the lobby.

The tenants had gathered again, animated, talking. But Ricker stood off from the others, his head down holding a paper in his hands. Arnold walked past him toward the elevator.

"I don't get it," he heard Ricker say, as if to no one in particular.

"Excuse me?"

"I don't get it. Says here my rent has been reduced."

"Well, Sir, rather than wonder why, why not just accept the bit of good fortune that's come your way." Arnold turned and pressed the button to call the elevator.

"No one's ever done anything for me, never got any kind of break. When my wife got sick, why couldn't someone come along then and pay for the treatment she needed? Medicare didn't cover it; the lousy insurance I got when I retired didn't cover it. She died cause I couldn't pay to keep her alive. Why the hell didn't someone come along then and say, 'Hey, Ricker, tell you what, we'll pick up the tab, and you won't have to lose your wife'? I don't need a break on my rent, I need my wife back."

The old man's chin trembled. "I guess they got no use for me, now," he said, gesturing to the others. "They all think I'm full of shit."

Arnold had an urge to put his arm around the old crab. "I ... I'm sorry about your wife, Mr. Ricker. I guess we all get bad breaks ... nothing we can do about that. But, maybe we should take the ones we do get and make the most of them."

He gave in and gave the old man a gentle pat on the shoulder. Ricker nodded; he even managed a smile.

*               *               *


His surge of sympathy for Ricker surprised Arnold. Perhaps it was the old man's lament that good fortune meant little if the timing was off. Arnold had pondered that conundrum himself. By any measure he had led a successful life, with a long career that provided him wealth beyond his needs. But he was bereft without her. Finality has no remedy.

Inside his apartment he tried to put his mind to work. After Lauren and her crew departed another contractor would clean and sandblast the façade and repair the copper cornice and gutters. If only she could see it, his tribute to her.

A soft knock on his door became more urgent. He opened it to find Lauren in the hall.

"Hi, could I ask you a favor—I'm really sorry to impose, but ..."

"Anything."

"A shower?"

"A ... shower?"

"I have a date in a couple of hours; I'll never make it if I go home. I brought a change of clothes," she said and held up a fabric gym bag.

The word date struck him with a shallow thud. "Well, I suppose ... sure."

"Thanks," she said and walked past him. "Where ...?

"End of the hall."

"I really appreciate this. Damned concrete dust gets in my hair, and everywhere else."

"You'll find plenty of towels, help yourself."

"Okay ... I should make it on time—gonna take my Dad for a steak dinner."

"Your Dad?"

"Yeah, he lives in one of those assisted living places in Brighton. Likes to get away from the old folks once in a while." She giggled, then disappeared into his bathroom.

She hadn't closed the door. "Wow, great old tub. Wish I could take a bath."

He smiled and sat back down at the table with his building plans, but he could not concentrate on them. Instead he listened to the water splash and Lauren hum a tune he didn't recognize.

The water stopped and the quiet became disquieting. Then Lauren stepped into the room holding the corner of a bath towel just above her breasts with one hand, and rubbing the wet out of her hair with a smaller towel in the other.

Arnold froze. The towel draped haphazardly over her barely shielding breasts, its opposite end trailed along the floor. Her hips were exposed and remained so even after she casually flopped into a chair. Still patting the moisture from her hair she said, "God, that feels good. Hope I didn't clog the pipes with all the grit."

When she looked at him their eyes locked. Self-consciously, now, she arranged the towel so it covered more of her.

"Oh, gosh. What you must be thinking."

Arnold shared her momentary embarrassment. "Um ... what would I be thinking?"

She shrugged. "I'm used to going home and peeling everything off; I usually spend the rest of the night in the buff. Well, I might pull on a pair of fluffy socks. But, you see, I'm not much for wearing clothes."

"Oh," he nodded.

"Yeah, even when I was a little kid. I remember, dead of winter, and we'd get a snowstorm, and I must have been about five years old and I ran out in my all-togethers and made snow angels in the yard. It felt wonderful. Drove my mom nuts though, especially since I was still doing it when I was 14."

"I noticed you are rather ... nonchalant, about exposing ... um ... skin. Your men ... I don't suppose ... um ..."

She looked down at her knees and her voice became soft. "I know they look at me. But, hey, I figure it's just another perk for working for P.L. Darby."

He chuckled.

"Hey," she looked up, her grin flashing across her face. "I like my body. I don't have many what you'd call girlfriends, cause I get tired of hearing women piss and moan about their ass or their tits, or whatever. I like my body; it's a great body. I mean ..."

She stood up. "Look at these legs, and I got a great ass and my boobs are really cute. So why should I worry about showing them off? I know I'm not the prettiest girl."

"Excuse me?"

She plopped back down in her chair. The towel poured off her thighs, but shielded her sex.

"Well, look at my nose," she said, tapping it with one finger.

"What about it?"

"Can't you see? It's crooked. It veers to the left. And my eyes ..."

He strained to make out the defect.

"Oh, c'mon, can't you see? One's lower than the other. I swear, someone stepped on my face when I was a baby."

He shook his head and laughed. A clock chimed behind him.

"Oh, nuts," she said. "I'm wasting time. I need to dress."

"My bedroom ... on the right. Feel free to close the door."

She stood and winked. "I don't think I need to. You're a gentleman, Ben ... a real, old-styled gentleman—you won't peek."

"Old-styled, huh?"

"Oh, you know what I mean." She picked up her bag and retreated down the hall.

He exhaled a long sigh. What was he thinking when she said she had a date? Did he actually feel a pang of jealousy?

"What the hell were you thinking?" he whispered to himself.

She appeared again, a little black dress poured over her figure. She shook her still moist hair out, but she didn't seem to have put on any makeup. She didn't need it, he decided.

"Hey, Ben?"

No one had ever called him Ben. It made him smile. "Yes, Phoebe?"

"Cut that out. I was wondering, that picture on your dresser, the handsome guy leaning against the old Pontiac convertible—that's you isn't it?"

"A lot of years ago."

"Hey, you're still handsome. Who's the girl? She's pretty."

He worked to keep the smile on his face, but he already sensed himself slipping into the shadow.

"Well, c'mon, she's a girlfriend, right? Did you two ever ..."

"No!" he said abruptly."

"Well, she had a name didn't she?"

He saw the darkness in his own features reflected in her eyes.

"Oh, Christ ... Ben, I'm sorry, I'm just being nosy. I didn't mean ..."

Something emerged from deep in his soul; he pushed the darkness away. "It's okay ... really."

"I'm really sorry." Her voice was soft again, and tentative as a timid child's.

"It's just ... she died."

"I'm sorry. She was ... very special, wasn't she?"

"Yes ... yes, she was."

"I didn't mean to pry, please ..."

"And her name was ... Anstis."

There was something in her eyes—a benediction. It dissolved the darkness.

"This building—what you're doing for the people who live here—it's for her."

"A poor tribute, but yes."

"You're a good man, Ben."

He tried to swallow down the thickness in his throat.

"Young lady, there's a very lucky gentleman awaiting your company."

"Yup." She stood and turned toward the door.

He stepped around her and opened it for her. Then he took her hand and kissed it behind her knuckles. "Lauren, I think you are very ... very pretty."

"Oh, you are smooth. Thank you, Ben."

"I hope you find you father well. Have a good evening."

She winked and stepped into the hall.

He spent much of the rest of the evening looking out his window over the avenue toward the Fenway, enjoying a peace he hadn't felt in a long time.

*               *               *


Spring yielded to impatient summer. The days grew warmer and Lauren matched the rising temperature with her scant work attire. The courtyard was just a crater now as teams of men worked to install piping in the pit.

Lauren continued to wear shorts cut close to her groin—boy shorts, she had called them, but Arnold decided there was nothing boyish about them. She had taken to wrapping her breasts in little more than a kerchief, and her body turned a deep brown as the days and the work went on.

The tenants had become curious and frequently wandered into the worksite. Lauren would gently shoo them away for their own safety, but not before she'd exchanged pleasantries. They had become quite fond of her, though mildly disapproving at her lack of coverage.

The building would become eerily quiet whenever the crews broke for lunch. Arnold would inspect the progress then. Frequently he would find Lauren with one or more of the tenants chatting and enthusiastically explaining the job.

Then there was the Monday afternoon he found Mrs. Califani smoothing sun block over Lauren's back.

"A tan is fine, young lady, but you don't want your skin to look like shoe leather before you're even 30, do you?"

"No, ma'am," Lauren answered like an obedient school girl.

"And you really shouldn't be teasing these boys like you do."

"Teasing, ma'am?"

"In my day, ladies didn't show so much ... well, so much of themselves."

"But, ma'am, it gets so hot ..."

"Hot's the word. Now, if you we're my daughter ..."

"I'd be a very lucky girl."

Mrs. Califani stopped smoothing the lotion over Lauren's shoulders. Her hand went to her throat, and Arnold thought he saw her chin tremble.

"Why ... thank you, dear." She took Lauren's face between her hands and kissed her forehead. "Well, I better go see about my pasta sauce ... I left it simmering."

The old woman nodded to Arnold as she hurried past, her eyes wet, but a smile spreading over her face.

Lauren's eyes met Arnold's. "She's a nice lady."

"She's certainly taken a shine to you," he offered.

"Wish my mom was as nice as Mrs. Califani." Lauren stood and stretched, sunlight glaring off her newly lotioned skin.

"How's the work going?"

"The piping will be completed today."

"For the fountain?"

"The pond."

"No fountain?"

"I was thinking more of a waterfall. Hey, you told me not to show you the plans; you wanted it to be a surprise. You still trust me, don't you?"

"Implicitly. A waterfall, huh?"

"A little one."

She rallied her men back to work. They still devoured her with their eyes, but there was obvious respect too for a boss who knew her craft.

"A goddess with a hard hat," Arnold mused.

The following day a dump truck was painstakingly guided beneath the arch with barely an inch to spare. It unloaded rich, dark earth into the crater and returned three more times. Another crew arrived to smooth out the soil and place stones to mark off where trees would be planted.

It was quieter work than had gone on the previous two weeks. Arnold came by late in the afternoon as the workers were breaking for the day. He was surprised to find Lauren and Ricker chatting in the one area of the courtyard where a shadow had formed shade from the unrelenting sun. Her voice was hushed, but he could make it out clearly. She spoke to Ricker in an instructive tone.

"Just try it," she said. "And don't be a shy guy. Oh, and don't forget ..." She took something out of a plastic bag and tossed it to Ricker who fumbled it and finally clasped it to his chest.

Ricker nodded and turned toward Arnold; he tottered past with a huge grin.

"What was that about? What did you give him?"

"Seems Alvin is sweet on Emmeline."

"Alvin? Emmeline?"

"Mr. Ricker and Mrs. Ginty."

"Go on!"

"It's true. He was asking me how he should ask her for a date."

"Ricker? So what did you toss to him?"

"Deodorant." She laughed.

"Thank God."

"Hey, Ben, can I ask you another big favor?"

"Name it."

"Can I take a bath in that big old tub of yours? I feel like the dirtiest woman on the planet and I've been dreaming of a good soak ever since I saw it. I brought a change of clothes."

"Of course."

"Good, I already picked up some bubble bath." She grinned as she held up the same plastic bag from which she had retrieved Ricker's deodorant.

Arnold led her to the lobby and the elevator. The tenants who passed through all made it a point to greet her and exchange small talk. A young woman who had been known among the tenants as "the single girl with the two babies" got off the elevator.

"Hi, Maria. We still on for Thursday?"

"Lauren, yes, thank you. Then just two more classes and I get my certificate."

"Cool."

They stepped onto the elevator.

"What was that about?" Arnold asked, one brow raised.

"Oh, Maria's a nice girl. She was asking me if I might have some work for her. I said I'd teach her landscaping, but she's going to school to be a vet tech or something. Anyway, I told her I'd sit her kids Thursday. She usually has to haul them across town to her mom's. It's no big deal."

"You're babysitting?"

Lauren shrugged then stepped into the hallway as the doors opened. Arnold stepped ahead of her and opened his apartment door.

"Yuck! Can't wait to get into that tub." He watched her stride down the corridor as if she lived there. She tugged at the knot binding the fabric around her breasts. It fell to the floor.

"I'll get that," she said, as he watched her bare back disappear into his bathroom.

He sat looking out his bay windows listening to the water fill the tub. Then it stopped and he heard Lauren's long, heartfelt "Ooooooo!" as she settled into the water. He smiled at the sounds of gentle splashing and thought that he would miss her when the job was done.

He wasn't prepared for the sadness that welled up inside his chest. Perhaps they could keep in touch. He would like to take her to the city's museums, symphony, show her its hidden treasures. But no, she was a young woman; she had to have a life beyond this temporary meeting at life's crossroads. There had to be a young man somewhere in the picture.

"Hey, Ben! Where'd you go?"

"I'm right here ... do you need something?"

"No ... you just got awfully quiet. C'mere and keep me company."

"Young lady, I don't think that would be proper."

"Oh, c'mon, I'm covered in bubble stuff. Besides, I want to talk to you about the job."

He got up and walked the short corridor to the bathroom, took a breath and stepped through the opened door. He put the cover down on the toilet and sat. So dignified, he thought.

Lauren was indeed shielded by the thick layer of foam up to her collarbones. But then she raised one leg out of the water. The suds slid down her limb and she moaned, "Oh, this feels so good."

"Um, you said you wanted to talk about the job."

"Yeah, well, we're all set for the trees, but we'll need to bring in a crane to lift them over the building."

"My God, how large are these trees you're bringing in?"

"Well, pretty big ... and tall. We won't be able to back them through that arch. The dump trucks barely fit. Anyway, I have to clear permits with the city so we won't start that phase until next week."

"Oh."

She noticed his frown. "Um, I have a couple of other jobs I have to get started too, so ..."

Already he was going to miss her being around, if only for a few days. "I—of course, I understand."

Lauren sat up and he couldn't avoid noticing her brown nipples, pixilated through the translucent suds.

"Ooops." She slid back beneath the foam. "Sorry ... don't mean to make you feel uncomfortable. I just ... forget."

"Hmm, well, I never knew a young woman who was so casual about ... well about ..."

"Letting a man catch me naked?"

"Yes, well, you explained your ... um ... predilections."

"Ha! My Mom would have used another word. She just knew I was bound for Hell."

"Maybe she was just being protective."

"Mrs. Califani, she's protective. She scolds me for—what did she call it?—running around like a bollicky bambina. But my Mom, well, see ... she found religion."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I guess it happened right after I was born. Dad wanted to have more kids, but he said something happened to Mom; she got all weirded-out about sex. Then she kinda fell in with some local church. Before he knew it, she's telling him she's getting a divorce. It really hit my Dad hard, you know? He really loved her—at least, he loved the girl he married, the one she used to be.

"Anyway, Mom was determined to save me. She got custody and took me out west, hooked up with some congregation of fundamentalists. I had to go to church school. That was hell. It was beautiful country though, so every chance I'd get I'd shed my clothes and go wandering through the woods. Got caught, got punished. I don't know how I held out so long. I just lived for my 18th birthday, especially after I got caught playing doctor with a boy."

"Well, young kids are curious about each other."

"I was sixteen."

"Oh."

"Yeah, well, after that my Mom told me I was going to marry some kid in the congregation just as soon as I reached legal age. And that I better learn to be obedient and all this other crap. Can you imagine? Like it was the Middle Ages or something. The morning of my 18th birthday I packed some stuff, grabbed the money I managed to save and took a bus all the way back to the East Coast. I moved in with my Dad, and we've been together ever since—well, until he moved into the assisted living place."

"I take it your Dad is more ... tolerant of your proclivities."

"He loves his little girl." She smiled. "He let me be me, let me find my own way. I went to law school, you know."

"No."

"Yeah, but I loved the work I did with my Dad and wanted to keep the business going when he retired. I wasn't much for the lawyer gig anyway—no offense, of course."

"None taken," he chuckled.

"I remember, though, discussing a case in class—Remy vs. Halloran Industries."

Arnold's back stiffened.

"Halloran's lawyer had pretty much torn the plaintiff's case to shreds. Everyone expected him to seek a directed verdict of dismissal. But then they settled—it was one of the largest settlements up until that time. I wondered why—until I met the great B. Andrew Arnold."

Arnold's eyes were fixed to his knees, but then he looked straight into hers. "A good lawyer has to do what's in the best interest of his client. Children were injured. And Mr. Halloran was a decent man. If he had walked away with a judgment, he would not have been able to live with himself. It would have eaten him alive."

"Yeah ... that's kinda what I thought. Here, help me up." She reached up her hand.

He took it and she stood, the soapy foam clothed her nakedness momentarily until gravity began to undress her. "I'll need to shower now."

"Yes ... of course."  He left her and began to reach for the door to close it. Then he shrugged and left it open. The sound of spraying water followed him back to his living room.

Later she emerged, her hair still damp. She was dressed in a modest top and faded jeans.

"Ben, that courtyard of yours—I'm going to make something very special for you." She smiled and then stepped through his door.

*               *               *


Arnold occupied himself with other matters, different contractors and crews of workmen. He scheduled a cleaning of the façade, and brought in specialists to restore the lobby and install new lighting. But it was otherwise quiet throughout the building, and the tenants behaved like a bunch of kids moping around at the end of summer vacation. They missed her too, and the gentle, rejuvenating electricity she brought to the place.

Several had stopped him in the lobby or hallways and asked him if she would be back. He assured them she would; there was still more work to do on the courtyard.

"But, what is it going to be," Mrs. Riley asked him.

"An oasis, dear, a nice cool and shady place to enjoy the summer days. And Miss Darby assures me it will be completed in time to enjoy most of the rest of the season."

"Oh, that sounds wonderful. She's such a sweet girl—and so capable. Doesn't wear a lot of clothes, have you noticed?"

"Yes, Mrs. Riley, I've noticed."

In the evening he sat looking out his window beyond the rooftops. The ballpark lights glared in the distance. He thought of the few ballgames they had attended, and while he was a casual fan, she was indeed a fanatic. He remembered how her hair shone golden in the bleachers, and how many a head had turned in her direction, and how even the pitchers in the bullpen vied to get her attention.

His memories of her had become so vivid, so filled with sunshine and bright colors.

The knock at his door startled him. He groaned as he pushed himself out of the seat he'd occupied for more than an hour, and shuffled toward the door.

The knock came again as he turned the doorknob and swung it open.

"Hi."

"Lauren? What ..."

"Babysitting, remember? It's Thursday—Maria just got home. I need to ask you something, Ben."

"Sure, come in." He noted her attire, modest for Lauren: jeans and a sleeveless tee, under which her breasts jostled unhindered.

"Gee, did I wake you up? Where are the lights?"

"I like it dark. There, flick on a lamp."

Lauren clicked the switch on a small end table lamp. It didn't do much to illuminate the room. She sat on the small couch and crossed her legs.

"What's on your mind?"

"Maria—she's not a tenant."

"What do you mean? I've seen her around the building—well, it must be two years."

"No—I mean, she just kinda moved in. See, she used to know someone who lived here and when that person moved out, she moved into his flat."

"A squatter?"

"I guess. Ben, she had to move out of her mom's place because she got into trouble with some people in her neighborhood—dangerous people. The poor kid doesn't really have a dime; she's trying to get through school so she can support her kids. Now she's afraid, with the ownership change, that they're going to find out she's been here all this time not paying rent."

Arnold laughed out loud and grabbed his sides. "Jesus! What a bunch of boobs. How the hell did the managers miss her? Didn't they realize they had a vacant apartment?"

"The thing is, Ben, she kinda had to do favors for the former super."

"Favors? You mean Carlos? He disappeared before the sale." Then his brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed. "What kind of favors?"

"I don't think I need to draw you a picture. In exchange he fixed it so the management company didn't know."

"I always had a feeling about that ... what a slimy bastard."

"Ben, she did what she had to do, but now she's scared, she's ..."

"Tell her to sign up for the Section 8 housing aid at the public assistance office. That'll cover her rent. Tell her it's okay."

"Thanks ... I knew you'd ... I mean, I just knew ..."

"Forget it. Just another lost lamb amongst the flock."

She lifted a brown paper package onto her lap. He hadn't noticed it before.

"This was downstairs. It's addressed to you."

"Oh?"

"Can I open it? I love opening packages."

"I ... well, what is it?"

She shrugged and began to tear at the brown wrapping. She lifted an object shielded in protective wrap. She gingerly peeled it away.

"Oh, my gosh, it's like a miniature portrait. It's ... Anstis."

Arnold reached and Lauren stood to give him the portrait that was about as large as a dinner plate. She stood to his side and peered over his shoulder as he held it.

"I ... I almost forgot. I'd seen this listed in an estate auction. I couldn't believe it. That was months ago."

The girl in the portrait sat on a boulder in a meadow. She was clad in blue jeans, holes in the knees, which she hugged together. She wore a loose flannel shirt, one shoulder covered with a spray of blond hair.

"May I?" Lauren reached for a typed index card taped to the frame. "'Portrait of Anstis Sally Peckering—artist unknown.' God, she was pretty. You must have loved her so much."

He didn't say anything. Lauren touched his shoulder, then returned to the couch.

Finally he looked up from the portrait, but he looked past Lauren.

"Old Ricker was right—timing is everything. That's what I've had, a lot of time. I think—I think you can just live too long. All that time—all so meaningless."

His eyes focused on Lauren. "Her father—oh, he was a piece of work. He thought his immortality was vested in a company, a bloodless, soulless thing that couldn't love you back if you wanted it to. She wasted what time she had—what time we had—so his company would go on. Well, it didn't—I'd be surprised if anyone even remembers it. So, he made his mark? Plenty of people make their mark—you know what, they still end up in the graveyard, and that mark fades real fast."

Lauren had drawn up her knees and hugged them to her chest. Her hair spilled over one shoulder.

"I wish ... I wish my Mom and I could have gotten together one more time. I wrote to her after I left and got settled in with Dad, but she never wrote back. We only got word last year that she'd died. I was always sorry for that. She was my Mom, after all, and I guess ... I guess I loved her. I just wish we could have said that to each other, never mind we'd never see eye-to-eye about other stuff. But it never happened. I'm sorry for that, but I'm not—that is, I couldn't do anything about that, you know what I mean?"

He sighed. "It's just the finality of it."

He lifted the portrait. "She was my wife. She never took my name; we never had words spoken to that effect, or a piece of paper to certify it. But she was my wife."

Lauren stood up and then stepped in front of him. She gently tugged at the portrait. "Can I borrow this for a little while? I promise I'll bring it back safe and sound."

"I ... suppose."

She leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. "You're a good person, Ben, but I think ... well, it seems like you're always beating yourself up, and I can't figure out why."

She patted his shoulder. "I gotta get going. Have to drive to the Cape tomorrow to scout out another job. See you Monday. And, thanks again—about Maria."

He nodded, then watched her go.

*               *               *


It rained that weekend and the gloom penetrated to the building's corridors. It seemed as if everyone had locked themselves away in their apartments. But Monday dawn broke clear and cooler than it had been.

Arnold bolted up in bed at the sound of sirens from the street below. He hurried to the window and looked down to see two police cruisers shepherding an immense crane truck along the avenue. It stopped in front of the building.

He hurriedly dressed and went downstairs. Some of the other tenants had gathered there.

"I thought they were fire trucks," Mrs. Ginty said.

"We would have heard the alarms, dear," Ricker assured her.

Dear? Arnold smiled. He went out to the street where Lauren gestured to the crane operator. She wore gray boy shorts and a cropped t-shirt, and as she stretched he knew it was just a matter of millimeters before the crescent swells of her breasts would be revealed. A detail cop's mouth hung open as he watched her impromptu choreography.

A flatbed truck hauling a large pine tree pulled next to the crane, restricting the avenue. The cop reluctantly peeled his eyes off Lauren and set about directing traffic. Arnold stayed back deciding it was best not to distract her. A crowd had gathered and as the crane began to lift the pine above the truck they became more vocal.

Other workmen on the roof calculated the distance needed to clear the building and signaled the crane operator. The big pine was swung out of sight as the crowd broke into applause. The truck pulled away and another took its place. This one carried several smaller, deciduous trees. They too were lifted over the building, then another pulled up—another pine. It took all of the morning and most of the afternoon before the operation was completed. The cruisers then guided the crane up the avenue.

Teams of men pounded stakes through the root balls of the larger trees as Lauren supervised. Arnold's curiosity overwhelmed him and he tapped her shoulder.

"What are they doing?"

"Trees this big—you just don't plant them like a pansy. You gotta make sure their roots are stable. You don't need one of these things toppling over onto your roof."

By late afternoon a small forest had appeared in the barren courtyard. An entirely different landscaping team had taken over, nearly all young women, who had set about installing smaller trees and shrubs and rolling out carpets of grass. Green hardhats, khaki shorts and white tees stained with dirt and perspiration made up the uniform worn by these busy sirens. Whether tall or petite, black or white or Asian, the crew of a dozen young women, their bodies lean and taut and shimmering in rivulets of sweat, had drawn a crowd of admirers among the bachelor tenants.

Arnold took note of the blissful smiles and dubbed them the lazy lechers. He approached Lauren again. "Hey, you want me to move these guys along?"

"Aw, let them stay and enjoy the view. The girls are getting a kick out of it. But, for the next few days, I'm going to have to insist on everyone staying clear of the site. When it's done I want it to be a surprise, okay?"

"Okay—if you say so."

He took another look at the lecher bench and a few signaled him to join them.

"Go ahead," Lauren said and winked.

*               *               *


For the next few nights Lauren worked with a small team of men and women. They would emerge and then disappear from the now wooded oasis like ants coming and going from their anthill.

Arnold checked by around 8:30 as Lauren had just dismissed her crew. She doffed her hard had and let her dark hair fall in tangles over her shoulder. She was streaked with dirt, her skin moist.

A heady aroma of perspiration and foliage wafted from her. She sniffed at one armpit and winced. "God, I stink!"

Stink? Arnold was awash in her scent of raw femininity and earth. He thought of how it would feel to hold her naked in his arms. He shook the thought from his mind.

"Shower?" he offered

"Yes, please."

As she stepped past him he took a long sniff. It was almost a shame to wash it off.

Lauren emerged from the shower as usual, giddy and girlish, and haphazard about covering herself with the bath towel.

"Could I interest you in a light repast," Arnold said, bowing slightly.

"Ben—are you asking me out?"

"A coffee, a sandwich, and some conversation: whadya say? I know a place close by; they're open late and they sell these amazing pastries."

"Okay—it's a date. Soon as I get dressed."

Would she be just as comfortable strolling the city streets naked? He wondered.

She took his arm as they walked the block and a half to Hank's. There he was greeted at the entrance by a large woman with a dazzling grin.

"Andy! Child, where you been? Haven't seen you since ... well, it's been a long time."

"Hello, Hank. I know, it's been a while. I missed your turnovers, though. Missed your muffins too, but ..." He patted his stomach.

Hank reached over and patted it too. "Hmm, well I see I got my work cut out for me. And, who's this pretty child?"

"My friend, Lauren."

"C'mon in honey. Like as not he'll break your heart too, but it sure be worth the ride."

Lauren cast a quizzical glance at Arnold as Hank showed them to a table. They each ordered a sandwich and coffee, but Hank insisted on a pastry tray. "A sampler," she called it.

"Hmm, what is this? Raspberry and ... something else." Lauren closed her eyes as she munched the flaky pastry.

"Amazing, isn't it? I had to stop coming in here before I weighed three hundred pounds."

She brushed a flake off her lips. "So, I take it from what Hank says you've brought other dates here. A real ladies' man, huh?"

He sipped his coffee. "A few. A man ... well, there are needs, urges ..." He shook his head and a smile crossed his face. But she thought it was a sad one.

"Ben, I hope ... I hope I didn't make you feel bad. It's not like I thought you were being—I dunno—disloyal to Anstis. She'd understand, I know she would."

He nodded and his smile widened. "I know she would too. It's okay. But ..."

"But?"

"How about you? There has to be some young man in your life—some poor, bewitched, enchanted young man."

She shrugged, smiled, and looked down at her cup. "Sure, there have been a few—well, maybe more than a few. But they were mostly for, you know, like you said, scratching an itch."

"Oh?"

"I, uh, like sex. Truth is, I really like sex. I like to play in bed. I like to play with guys. I gotta be careful, though. Guys can be so ... oh, possessive isn't quite the right word. Maybe—yeah, serious, that's it. Some guys can be just too serious about sex, you know? Like, they get all worried about whether they were as good as the last guy I was with, like they were in some competition. Jeesh, just have sex, have fun, live in the moment. Just play."

"Hmm, I suspect a lot of the men who work for you would be all too willing to ..."

"No-no-no! Never have sex with an employee. That's an iron-clad rule. Of course, it sure would be easier to get dates."

"Never ever?"

"Well ..." Her eyes focused past him. "There was one guy."

"Uh-huh."

"He wasn't technically an employee. The job was over and he was moving to Florida. But ..."

"That's a heavy-duty sigh, my dear. Who was this Lothario?"

"Aw, he was just a kid."

"A kid?"

"Nineteen. Jeesh, I was 25, older vamp robbing the cradle. But Arkady—he was from Russia—I knew he had a huge crush on me. He was tall and blond, and he was so sweet and shy, and on his last day he gave me flowers and told me he'd never forget me ... well, I invited him home."

"Sounds pretty slick to me."

"Oh, no he was not. In fact ..." she grinned. "He was a virgin. God, I had to show him just about everything. But he learned fast. Oh, and he was just so ... sweet and fumbling and ... God, I screwed his brains out."

Arnold felt a pang of jealousy, but at the same time a grin spread across his face. "Broke him in, eh?"

"Yeah. You know, I liked that, knowing I was his first. He went to work for some cousins in Florida right after that. I like to think he's a big stud down there, all on account of me."

"Yeah, getting more tail than a toilet seat."

Lauren almost spit her coffee across the table. "That's awful!" she laughed.

He laughed with her, but the shadow reappeared.

"I—I wish you could have known her."

"Anstis?"

"You two would have really gotten along—you're a lot alike, and then ... you're different. Ah!" He slapped his hands on the table. "I wish ... I just wish I could ..."

She reached over and took his hand.

"Getting late," he said finally. "Better send you home, and get these old bones to bed."

*               *               *


Arnold stirred from his slumber and lifted one heavy eyelid to peer at a pink morning sky beyond his window.

"Another day ... still breathing." He could never return to sleep once he had awakened, so he slung his legs over the edge of the bed and forced himself to stand. He stumbled toward the bathroom, then emerged to perform his morning ritual with the percolator.

The courtyard would be finished soon. Probably by that night. Lauren had not permitted anyone to enter the wooded rectangle that now graced the area that had been barren concrete.

But she would be gone, and he felt that familiar hollowness assert itself again, like a part of him was missing.

He drank his coffee and dressed casually in khaki pants and a short sleeve shirt. He retrieved a straw panama hat from a closet shelf and stepped into the hallway. Before he reached the elevator, its door opened and Maria emerged. She grinned when she saw him, and her pace increased as she approached him. She flung her arms around him and her head thudded against his chest.

"Gracias, tio ... muchas."

"Huh?"

"Lauren told me you would speak with the owners for me. I can stay."

"Well, of course you can stay, dear. Did you get approved for the Section 8 voucher?"

"Yes, and this letter ... it says it covers my rent."

"Fine, fine. Well, I guess you can complete school."

"Yes, thank you."

He gently pried her arms off him, though she was reluctant to let go. Finally he patted her hands, and said, "You're most welcome, dear. Now, I have to get along."

Minutes later in the lobby, Mrs. Califani stopped and hugged him too.

"That's wonderful what you did for poor Maria."

"Well, I really didn't ..."

"Oh, don't be modest, Mr. Arnold. We all know you work for the new owners. But, who are they? They must be wonderful people."

"They prefer to remain anonymous, dear. Now, I need to check the progress on the courtyard."

He smiled and tipped his hat as he turned.

"He's such a gentleman," he heard Mrs. Riley say as he strode toward the courtyard entry.

He found Lauren conferring with a petite Asian girl and stood back until they'd finished. The Asian girl then hefted a small pallet of flowers and disappeared behind the trees.

Lauren's face brightened into a wide grin when she saw him. "Hey, Ben, tonight's the night."

"Huh?"

"I'm going to give you a sneak preview before tomorrow's dedication."

"Dedication?"

"Sure, there has to be a dedication. Tonight at around 9 p.m. I want you to come down here and just follow the path. But, don't stray off it ... you might get lost."

"Lost?"

"Well, maybe a little disoriented. Oh, Ben, you're going to love it. I gotta go help Li now. Remember, 9 tonight."

She disappeared behind the trees like a wood gnome. He stood back and gazed up at the trees. They were so tall, like they'd been there a lifetime. She had created a miniature forest.

He did not see her the rest of the day, but instead was busy fielding inquiries from tenants who had evidently determined he was an agent of the new owners. Who were they? Why had they cut their rents and promised them tenancies for life?

"Are they aliens?" old Mr. Wilkie had asked.

He was disarmingly evasive, a talent he had polished in courtrooms, but at last he had to retreat to his apartment. He dozed, but came awake with a start. It was already 9 o'clock. He hurried downstairs and out to the courtyard. A bright crescent moon hung almost directly overhead and a star tumbled off its lower tip. The sky was a deep velvet blue and the air was sweet with floral scents carried on a gentle breeze.

He stepped onto the path and entered Lauren's wooded realm. Garden lights illuminated the way dimly, but curiosity led him into the trees. It was as lush as any forest, and as he continued he was startled at the sensation that he was falling deeper into the woods.

He thought he should have already emerged at the other side, but he continued to stumble and feel his way between the dark arboreal sentries.

"This—this can't be happening. My God, I think I'm lost." The woods just didn't end.

"It's just a courtyard," he said to himself, but an unsettling disorientation had come over him. He looked up to the crowns of the trees and fixed his eye on the star dangling off the moon. He followed its course, but found he had to readjust his progress each time he stepped around a tree or shrub.

At last he found the path again, and in the distance—distance?—he heard running water, and the sounds of a human being playing in that water.

He came into a little clearing with a small grotto. Benches ringed the area. A ribbon of a waterfall fed the pond where Lauren was doing lazy backstrokes, her bare nipples pointing toward heaven. Arnold was transfixed at the sight.

Then she waved and stood up to her waist, naked and shimmering in silver rivulets of reflected moonlight.

"Well, what do you think?"

"My, God, girl. How ... I mean ... I feel like I'm in the middle of a forest. I got lost ..."

"Lost? Ben, I told you not to wander off the path ... not until you get used to it."

"Used to it? But, how ...?"

"It's like an optical illusion, except that I suppose it's a full three-D illusion. It's just the way we arranged the trees and shrubs. You can't walk in a straight line so you think you're walking forever."

"But, when I heard you—it sounded like you were far off."

"Acoustics—it's just how the sound travels through the trees."

He stepped back and sat down heavily on a bench. "My God. You did create an eden."

"You like it then?"

"It's more than I could have imagined. But Lauren, I can't have people getting lost."

She laughed. "The effect isn't as strong in daylight."

He breathed in the scents of the flowers and heard birds sing overhead.

"Night birds," she said, as she stepped out of the pond without any regard to her nakedness. "It doesn't take them long to settle in once they find to a place like this in the city."

Arnold looked at her as if he were appreciating a work of art. His eyes caressed every curve, every shadow and nuance of her taut body.

"Young lady, this is worth so much more than what I paid you."

"It was my pleasure. I—I never wanted a job to be as perfect as this one. I wanted to do it for you, Ben."

She strolled slowly toward him, and then she knelt.

"You're such a good person, Ben. But, you're so sad. You don't deserve to be sad."

"No one does, Lauren. But in the end, it doesn't matter, and deserving has nothing to do with anything. Good person, bad person, you can get the ground yanked out from underneath you and lose everything you ever cared about. Nothing lasts—neither good deeds nor bad, it all ends the same."

"I can't believe that."

Her fingers fumbled with the button on his fly. He pushed her hands away.

"No. No, Lauren."

"Yes."

"I—I won't have it. You're a young girl, a beautiful woman."

"You're a wonderful man. Let me ..." Her hands slid up his thighs.

"No, please. That's one indignity I would never inflict on you."

"Indignity? Ben, I want to do something for you ..."

"Not this ..."

She had opened his fly and inserted one hand inside his boxers.

"Let me—just tonight—let me be Anstis for you."

He looked into her eyes, unable to speak.

"And maybe ... for her too."

Her hand had found his cock and as she freed it from its confines it stiffened in her hand. Gently and steadily she stroked him.

"Tell me about her, Ben. Tell me about Anstis. How she felt, how she tasted."

His head lolled back and he exhaled a long sigh.

"Her skin," he rasped. "I miss the feel of her skin."

Lauren let go of his cock and placed his hands on her hips.

"Like this?"

His hands reached around her back as he pulled her to his chest. His eyes closed as he imagined Anstis, her hair falling over his belly, and the supple feel of her skin as he explored her soft places and her firmer places.

"I'm with you, Sweetheart," she said. "I'm always with you."

Anstis straddled his lap and guided his yearning cock into her flowing cunt, then clasped her legs around his back to draw him even deeper inside her. She was in his arms again, at long last. And she rode his cock, pressing her breasts against his chest as her hair spilled over his shoulders.

"I won't let go of you," he vowed. "I'll never let go of you again."

She giggled as she bounced, up and down, her cunt clenching his cock as she gently raked her fingernails across his back.

"I love you!" he cried.

"Then fuck me ... fuck me forever, don't stop ... don't stop."

He tried desperately to hold back his orgasm, pleading to whatever gods not to let him come. But his fluids erupted inside her lush body just as an angel cried in his ear.

His mind emerged from a warm, moist fog. Then his eyes cleared and focused on the moon overhead.

Lauren, still on her knees, smiled at him, and the evidence of his orgasm dribbled off her hand.

Was that all it was, a hand job? He smiled. But what a wonderful hand job.

"Are you okay, Ben?"

"Yes ... thank you, Lauren."

"You looked like you were far away for a while."

"I was, my dear. I was."

"She's with you, Ben. She's always with you."

Lauren wiped her hand on the grass, then stood. "Don't forget to follow the path."

Then she was gone.

Arnold remained on the bench, listening to the birds and the falling water, until dawn.

*               *               *


Arnold was startled awake by a pounding on his door.

"Mr. Arnold? You're gonna miss the dedication." It was Ricker.

He pulled on a robe and stumbled to the door. "Huh?"

"Well, it's almost 2 o'clock. Everyone's waiting for you."

He tried to shake off his confusion. "Okay, tell them I'll be there in 15 minutes."

He closed the door before Ricker even replied.

He stumbled into the bathroom and showered quickly. Now a bit more awake he dressed and set off downstairs.

Outside a crowd that included tenants but also scores of other people pressed against the wooded rectangle. Photographers took pictures of Lauren's little forest.

An arm curved around his. Lauren pressed her cheek to his shoulder. "We're being covered by three of the country's biggest landscaping magazines."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, but we're just about ready for the unveiling."

"Huh?"

"You'll see."

She led him through the crowd until he stood in front of a wrought-iron gate partially covered with a cloth. She gestured to the crowd to quiet, then she announced:

"Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to welcome you to The Oasis." She tugged the cloth off the gate and revealed a plaque, and in full-color relief, a reproduction of the portrait of Anstis.

"And it is dedicated to the memory of Anstis Sally ... Arnold."

There was a smattering of applause, but the tenants as a group pressed near the gate to gaze at the plaque. Then, one by one, they turned to Arnold, and noted the tears falling freely over his cheeks.

Ricker patted his shoulder and Mrs. Califani and Mrs. Ginty each held one of his hands.

"We had no idea, dear. You're the new owner." Mrs. Califani squeezed his arm.

"Your wife, Mr. Arnold," Mrs. Ginty said. "My, she was a pretty girl." She stood on her toes to kiss his cheek.

Then they all pressed around him, offering hugs and pats. And he couldn't speak. All he could do was look back over his shoulder at Lauren, and mouth the words: "Thank you."

_______
© 2006 Robert Buckley.  All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

Bio: Who is Robert Buckley? Read his bio on the Erotica Readers & Writers Association website.


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