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The Steps

by Rebecca Monroe

 

“Hey, Sharl!  Sharl!”

Sighing, she shut the lid on the washer. Dave was home. “Yeah?”

“Come on out, there’s someone here I want you to meet.”

Great. A day of housework, her day off, so she hadn’t bothered to clean up. Well, his new buddy was just going to have to think Dave had an ugly slob of a wife. She went out, stomach clutching at not just the sight of some car mechanic friend but a car mechanic friend with a female. Damn Dave!

“Steve, Tina, this is my wife, Sharl. Sharl, Steve and Tina. Steve’s got a 55 Chevy Apache he wants me to help him restore.”

She resisted the urge to wipe her hands on her jeans before offering it. Tina looked like she sold real estate, or bonds or maybe expensive jewelry. Pants suit immaculate (pants still creased!), hair perfectly waved without the odd curl that stuck out the way her own hair was fond of doing. Makeup but so lightly done it looked natural. Sharl sighed inwardly. Too bad Dave had introduced her as his wife. She could have passed herself off as the day cleaner.

Tina took the offered hand, feeling the firm grip. She’d heard about Dave’s wife.  Worked full time, gardened, and ‘knows darn near as much about motors as me’. Crap. Why hadn’t Steve warned her they were stopping on the way home? She felt like some gussied up Prima Dona. Sharl’s hair was naturally wavy – mussed just enough to give her face character. The face wore no makeup and didn’t need any. She was one of the awful women that could wear whatever she wanted and look stylish. Brown eyes confident and radiating intelligence.

“You two ladies get acquainted. Come on, Steve, I’ve got some parts catalogs we need to look at.”

 

Sharl watched Dave vanish toward the garage, friend in tow. She remembered now. He’d spoken about Steve and his wife, Tina. Tina ‘was’ in real estate. Successfully. The mother of two and pretty. Tina radiated womanly grace that she, herself had never had. She’d always been one of the guys. Women like Tina still knew the art of being female but had added the touch of independence. Sharl had worked with enough of them. They were usually nice, made her feel her voice was too deep, her eyebrows too shaggy, and her clothes too casual. They wore nylons and dresses the way she wore jeans. Well, the mother part was going to kill them anyway. She and Dave had elected not to have children. Invariably those that chose to keep the little demons would start raving about them. End of interesting conversation. “Would you like some coffee?” She wanted a beer but couldn’t remember if they drank or not.

“I don’t want to interrupt,”

“I was just putzing around.” Putzing. Great, Sharl, use the educated vocabulary!

Tina followed Sharl through the immaculate hall, to the dining area, then the kitchen. Every room was tastefully decorated, simple, clean – a glass table in the hall with a gold statuette of an angel on it, a centerpiece on the dining room table that looked crystal. The kitchen table even had placemats and a flower arrangement. In her house, rooms seemed to grow ‘stuff’ no matter how many times she cleaned. She racked her brain for what Sharl did for a living. Had Steve ever mentioned it? They didn’t have kids, lucky people. It was a bit of a consolation; part of the reason Sharl’s house could look so Better Homes and Gardens while hers just resembled the garden part.

“Go ahead and sit down, I’ll only be a moment.”

Tina sat at the kitchen table, watching as Sharl made coffee, wishing she could have a glass of wine or beer or something. The last client had been a killer – wanting to see home after home without really letting her know what he was looking for. She didn’t want to visit. She wanted to zone out, put her feet up and let her mind wander; a hot bath maybe, with the door locked and headphones on until she wrinkled.

 

Sharl finished making coffee, trying to stifle the pang of irritation that her housework was on hold for who knew how long. What if they stayed for dinner? Dave was like that. Once he got going with someone with the same loves, time stopped and she’d learned not to wait up. She envied him his social attitude while cursing it as well. She had nothing planned. One couldn’t feed guests hamburger that had better be cooked well because it was the last in the package.

“I’m really sorry for interrupting your afternoon. My car broke down and Steve had to pick me up.” Tina hoped Sharl wouldn’t ask about carburetors or starters. The interior workings of a vehicle were about as interesting as reading an insurance policy’s fine print.

Sharl turned in surprise. Had she been slamming things?

“I know when I get a day off, the last thing I want is drop in company,”

Sharl relaxed a bit. This might not be horrible except now she felt guilty. “From what Dave told me, you work seven days a week.”

Tina smiled. “Not full days and not always. What is it you do? Steve never really said.”

“I’m an office administrator.” Sharl put coffee and the necessary implements on the table before sitting down.

“You supervise?”

“Yes. Five employees.”

“That’s worse than having kids!”

Uh oh. Here it comes.

“I used to supervise employees before I went into real estate,” Tina remembered the nights she’d come home wanting to bang her head against the wall. Sometimes she’d wondered how America had managed to have any industry at all!

“It can be tough.” No kid talk? “But at least with employees I can do something about it. I imagine if you get a difficult client, it’s really a pain. You have to be nice to them anyway.”

Tina felt a flush of pleasure. Not even Steve knew the jaw clenching she went through. “You’re right.” She considered sharing about today’s client and then decided against it as she shifted her feet, wincing at the pinch of the shoes. It was more than a pinch. They hurt. She hadn’t planned on doing a lot of walking today. Before she could think about it, she indicated her feet. “Do you mind? They are killing me.”

“No! Not at all.” Sharl glanced at her own bare feet. The shoes Tina had on looked plastic and very uncomfortable. She sighed inwardly. The conversation was dwindling and that left only the weather and, “How old are your children?”

“Six and eight. Boy and girl. Do you like kids?”

The question shocked Sharl. “Well…not to own. They’re all right if they belong to someone else.” There was no point in lying.

Tina’s laughed, green eyes twinkling. “At a distance and on a leash, I know. I don’t like anyone’s but my own and some days that’s questionable.”

Sharl grinned. “Well said. I suppose if I had any, I would feel the same.”

“They actually are very good children. I oughtn’t to talk about them like they’re things. Do you like to read?” Enough with the child talk. She used that every day at work to break the ice. It and the weather. She loved her kids to death but they were only a part of her life, not the whole. She waited anxiously for Sharl’s response. The usual one was ‘oh, some. I have so little time…,’ meaning never but not wanting to admit it.

“I love to read.”

Tina felt her tiredness fade. “What do you like?”

“Everything except romances and westerns.” The jury was still out, Sharl reminded herself. If this woman loved romances…

“Me too! Mysteries are my favorite. Have you ever read Carlisle Markham? I love his stuff!”

“No. Science Fiction is my favorite. I like mysteries too though.”

“You’ll have to try Markham. I might have one at home you could borrow, if you’re interested.” Tina tucked her feet under herself, finishing off her coffee.

Sharl suppressed a grin at the tucked feet. It was something she, herself, might do. “Would you like more coffee?” What else did they have in common? Books alone could keep them busy for hours.

“If you don’t mind, maybe a little. I don’t want to hold you up too long,”

Sharl filled their cups.

“I love your plants.”

Another thing in common? “Do you have plants?”

“A few. There is limited space in our house so I can’t have too many. And A.K. I pretty much gave up gardening.”

“AK?” Sharl wasn’t sure whether she should be frustrated or amused. This woman was hard to keep talking while most people never shut up.

“After Kids.”

“I love to garden. After being stuck in an office all day, it’s my way to get outside but still be productive. Dave always plans a vacation about the time the weeds are in full swing and so the best I usually manage is playing catch-up on the weeds for the rest of the summer.”

“That’s not what I heard!” Tina exclaimed. “I heard your garden is terrific, that you even get enough to can,” Steve had told her that and she’d gone out to look at the little plot she’d once planned to grow things in – now occupied with toys and an old dog house.

They fell silent again.

Tina fidgeted and drained her coffee. “I’m keeping you from your day. I’ll round up my husband and we’ll be gone.”

On impulse, Sharl blurted. “Maybe you could stay for dinner? I know Dave will keep Steve as long as he can,” and what the hell, she could finish the house tomorrow.

Tina felt a tug of longing. Was Sharl just being polite? It’d been so long since Tina had done anything but family and work. “Let me check with Steve and I’ll have to call my mother – see if she’d mind watching the kids for a while longer.” Tina rose, rubbing her legs. “I hate nylons!”

Sharl laughed, truly delighted and suddenly glad she’d extended the invitation.

Tina returned a few moments later. “It took a clout with a wrench but I ‘did’ manage to get their attention. I think the grunt and nod meant it was a good idea. Can I use your phone? My cell phone died.”

“Sure.” Sharl handed her the remote.

Tina dialed her mother, remembering her trip to the garage. The house really was spotless. And such nice things; glass lamps, figurines of animals that looked very expensive. It stopped just short of being a show place. White carpeting! She could never own white anything, much less carpeting. “Mom…Tina,”

Sharl pretended not to listen. She got a little twinge when Tina talked to her kids. She knew by not having children she was missing something; that was the twinge. Then it would be gone and she would be glad again.

“There. If you don’t mind, I’m going to grab Steve’s car, run home, and change. I feel like this suit is cutting off vital circulation.”

“I can take you.” Sharl ran a hand through her hair. “I, uh, need to stop at the store to pick up a few things.” Like dinner.

“Are you sure?”

Oh definitely. Sharl nodded. “Just let me get some shoes on.”

While Sharl was gone, Tina put cups and spoons in the sink, set the cream, and sugar containers back on the counter. The woman’s toaster even gleamed. Tina’s had so many fingerprints on it they looked like part of the design.

“You didn’t have to do that.” Sharl came back in the kitchen but it pleased her that Tina had cleared the table; so many of Dave’s friends, and wives, just SAT there.

Tina laughed. “It’s habit. If I don’t do it at my house, we wouldn’t be able to find the table,” which also made her wonder just how clean her house was. Not, of course, compared to this place but had Steve even cleared the table after breakfast? She’d left early for work and it had been just him and the kids. Maybe Sharl would be one of those stay in the car types.

The drive allowed them to relax – gave them something to focus on besides each other and being polite. The conversation quickly returned to books, titles and author’s flew between them like lottery balls in a machine.

Sharl pulled into Tina’s driveway, careful not to bump the tricycle by the garage. The yard was kept up in a busy way; it’d obviously had some care in the last week or so but more of a taming than the neat as a pin method she usually achieved. It went with the house. It was a natural, comfortable setting.

“You’re welcome to come in but I’m afraid I’m not quite the housekeeper you are,” Tina was suddenly nervous. Sharl was going to think she was a pig. Oh well, mental sigh. It was what it was. She tossed the nervousness out.

Sharl opened her car door. “You worked today, I didn’t. You should see my place about Wednesday!”

Not with white carpet, Tina thought as she led the way. She knew what would be – windows streaked from hurried cleaning, dust bunnies crouched beneath the furniture. ‘Her’ carpeting had stains older than she was.

It wasn’t dirty, Sharl decided. It was lived in and it gave her another twinge. It felt so much warmer than her home; toy box by the couch, varying size shoes piled by the entrance. The refrigerator door was buried under drawings of stick people and ‘I love you, Mommies,’ schedules and the boxed school lunch menu.

Tina did a quick glance around. Nothing obnoxious though Steve must have had Carrie wipe the table because even from a distance she could see the waxy clots of dried morning milk. “I’ll only be a second.”

“No rush.” Sharl wandered into the living room. Tina was a picture person. Family pictures crowded the top of the TV; framed shots of kids, kids and parents, two sets of elderly people, elderly people with kids. Just the way her mother used to set up their pictures. She, herself, never seemed to get around to getting them in frames, much less hanging them.

The furniture was worn velvet, a corner of a book peeking out from beneath the couch. A cat, curled on top of the back of the recliner, had one ear cocked at her – only pretending to sleep. And yes, plants. Anywhere there was a flat space with access to light there was a plant.

“I’m ready,” Tina returned, trying to read Sharl’s face. She hadn’t completely put aside the comparison and the knowing she felt short. She wanted to make a good impression but without a couple of weeks notice, it wasn’t possible. Her own gaze saw the dusty outline where a magazine had sat, the fur in Blazer’s favorite corner, when he wasn’t on the damn recliner! “Blazer!”

His tail twitched. ‘Up yours.  You have company.  I’m safe.’

Sharl smiled. “You have a wonderful home. It’s so warm.”

“Thank you. It’s not very tidy.”

“It’s not sterile, you mean.” Sharl knew the truth. Most of the time she liked clean but it was fun to see someone else’s home and realize that maybe she was a little fussy.

They looked at each other. Suddenly Tina burst out with a laugh.

“What?” Sharl grinned.

“You’re a fanatic and I’m a slob. We’re being so careful not to say that.”

Sharl chuckled. “You like books and plants. Phooey on what our homes look like. And I really DO like it! The cat is a nice touch.”

“They have them in all the magazines.”

“How do you get him to pose?”

“He’s a natural.” Tina glared at the cat.

“I’m not a complete fanatic,” Sharl led the way toward the door.

“I could see my reflection in your linoleum.” Tina followed. “If you’re a gourmet cook I’m going to kill myself.”

“You’re safe. I was thinking pizza.” Sharl paused. “You’re a good cook, aren’t you?”

“Well,”

“Rat.”

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