Ten Years Ago…
A U-Haul, three pickups, and two cars pulled up in front of the house at 241 Holly Circle just as Richard Stephens pulled his mower from the garage and checked the gas reservoir. A man about his mother’s age climbed down from the cab of the U-Haul and called out, “Okay, Ruth! What first?”
Finding Ruth? Easy. She turned at her name and left the side of another young woman to meet at the back of the truck. With all the noise, he couldn’t hear what she said, but her gestures hinted that they’d unpack the rental first. The other young woman overheard and called out.
“Hey! We’re doing this one first!”
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When Ruth glanced his way, Richard jerked the starter cord on the mower and vowed he’d buy a more up-to-date one as soon as he could afford it. His next casual scan of the goings-on across the street showed Ruth reaching for a box out of the back of the van.
No one would accuse her of being old-fashioned. Not quite. Certainly not like that new author who’d moved over onto Sycamore. He’d seen her in everything from what he assumed was Victorian all the way back to those dresses that made everyone look pregnant. Except for her, of course. That Hartfield woman never looked pregnant.
But something was off… different. Maybe it’s that the woman’s “messy bun” just wasn’t messy or maybe it was the skirt that hung in folds around her knees. That’s probably it. Who moves in skirts?
That was a question he shouldn’t have asked. Something rolled out of another box and the hop, skip, jump maneuver Ruth did showed that Ruth most definitely “moved” in skirts—quite well, in fact.
And she’s probably married to one of those guys in the pickup.
By the time he’d finished his yard, they’d emptied a good-sized dent from the U-Haul. Jokes reached him. Laughter. The other young woman—Ava, he thought the name was—complained that the furniture was too shabby. The oldest man—U-Haul driver, told her to leave her sister alone.
Just as he moved to shut the garage door, Ruth stuck her head out hers. “You don’t have to like it, Ava. It’s my furniture. I happen to love that I don’t have to write a check for it every month.”
Once inside, Richard jumped in the shower to remove the grass that already caused him to itch and pondered just which of the three younger men was her husband. The one guy had to be too old. That left two. Based on Ruth’s comment, Richard guessed the shorter Latino man with the immaculate-looking but much older truck.
They wouldn’t own that other one without even a license plate yet. Not if they just bought a house. Not her.
As he dug sandwich meat, lettuce, and tomato from the fridge, Richard bemoaned his lack of food supplies. However, as he replaced them, five rows of sodas leftover from a game night a couple of weeks past did the trick for him. He loaded them into a cooler, grabbed a frozen gallon of water, settled it in as well, and carried it across the street.
Ava met him at the door. “Hi!”
“Thought you guys might be ready for something other than water.” He hadn’t meant to do it, but the words just tumbled out as Ruth appeared behind her. “I’m Richard from across the street. 240. Need help? I’ve got a few hours.”
Ruth leaned past Ava and held out her hand. “Ruth Berry. Nice to meet you.” She pointed to her sister. “This is my sister, Ava.” One by one she pointed out Phil and Rita Berry, Marc Ortiz, Dale Bettendorf, and Sawyer Delman.
At least those were the names he thought he heard. Once her parents had been identified with the same last name, and a surreptitious glance at her left hand found it bare, Richard hadn’t paid quite as much attention as he should’ve. He did, however, remember to shake hands all around, and when he said, “Very happy to meet all of you,” he meant it.
When unpacking became overwhelming with its constant need for decisions about what would go where, Ruth pulled out a small notebook and began taking notes of things to be done.
Paint kitchen cabinets—that white is awful.
Find dining table.
Save for new flooring.
Remembering Richard from across the street and the yard that desperately needed a mowing, she added that to the list, too.
Half a second later, she added another one.
Buy or rent lawnmower.
She’d asked her parents just how much money she might need to purchase all the little things that people forget they need until they didn’t have them. Her father had recommended a thousand. Ruth had saved fifteen hundred. Now it didn’t seem like that would be enough.
Maybe he’ll let me rent his mower for the rest of the season. It might be worth it to do that and buy one then with the savings of buying off-season.
It would give her an excuse to say hi again.
That thought did it. All hope of accomplishing anything vanished at the memory of him bringing over sodas, unpacking all of the vehicles, and trying to convince them to let him take everyone out to dinner. He’d refused their invitation, though. I wonder why.
She draped a cardigan over her shoulders and looped the arms in front. Outside, the last of summer’s fireflies sent lovelorn telegrams to each other. Crickets chirped. And somewhere, a toad bellowed out his opinion of the whole thing.
Lights shone across the street—in the living room window and on the porch. If she hadn’t thanked him twice already, Ruth might have marched over and done it right then. Pride demanded she wait. He’s just a guy and he’s not going anywhere. And if by some blessed gift of Providence he doesn’t have a girlfriend, he’ll either get to know me and like me or he won’t. That’ll be that.
I can wait.
Despite her self pep talk, Ruth didn’t buy it—not one bit. He’d watched her… just like she’d watched him. He was intrigued—just as she was. But there is time. Plenty. Why rush anything?
And with that, she took off down toward the corner. A nice brisk walk would settle her nerves enough to take a shower and go to bed.
Two streets over, however, an elderly man shuffled down the road, hands in his pockets, hat on his head. He smiled as she approached. “Evenin’.”
“Hello! I’m new here.” It wasn’t the easiest thing to do—just put yourself out there with a stranger—and maybe it wasn’t the smartest, but Ruth had a feeling that she just might be able to outrun the old guy. “Ruth Berry.”
“Mason Dickenson. I live over on Holly Circle.”
“So do I! Just moved in today. Across from Richard Stephens. Do you know him?”
Inwardly, she winced. Could you be more obvious?
“Sure do. Fine young man. Brings me treats now and then. I think he’s convinced I don’t eat or something, but he’s getting to be a decent cook in his attempts to fatten me up, so I let him think.”
“Oh, I hope he decides to fatten me up. I’m afraid my meals are rather redundant and very simple.”
“I’ll drop a hint.”
“Wait, no!” Grateful for darkness to hide a blush she felt spreading, Ruth settled herself. “I didn’t mean that. It was just a joke.”
The man offered an arm. “Care to walk back with me, or are you on your way somewhere.”
Never had she received such a gallant invite, and never had she been happier that she accepted it. Mr. Dickenson told about playing in the street as a boy—back in the thirties! “I was born in that house, see. Lived there my whole life. I’ll die there, too as long as my memory holds out.” Before she could respond he said, “Who are you again?”
“Ru—oh. You got me.”
‘Figured it wouldn’t work again in a few days. A man has to take his chances while he has them.”
At the corner, he pointed out a tree in front of one of the houses. “They planted that one right over the old one a tornado ripped out in ‘53. It took out Mrs. Ayerson’s little laundry shed, too. She was so proud of that thing. It’s the only time I ever heard my mother say a spiteful thing. She set down our chicken casserole that night with such a flourish!”
Ruth couldn’t help but watch Mr. Dickenson’s mustache twitch and flutter with his huffs and puffs as he told about his mother’s mini-tirade. “Then she said, ‘Pride goes before a fall,’ the Bible says, and I’d say she’s a perfect object lesson for it. I heard that shed fell into a field in Brant’s Corners.”
Her heart warmed at those words. “Oh, are you a Christian, Mr. Dickenson?”
“I am not.” He gave her hand a squeeze when Ruth failed to repress a dejected slump of her shoulders. “But never fear. I don’t hold it against those who are.—most of the time, anyway.”
As they neared her house, he pointed out Richard’s place. “Now Stephens, he’s a good egg—Christian, too. He’ll have you going to church with him if you give him half a chance.”
“Well, I planned to go anyway.”
“Still, you could walk together…” If she didn’t know better, Ruth would have sworn he winked at her in the dark. “Or, come winter, he could give you a ride.”
As much as she needed to put a stop to that train of thought, she couldn’t. Richard stepped outside to put something in his mailbox, saw them, and waved. “Hey, there. I see you met my favorite neighbor.”
Mr. Dickenson called back before she could respond, “I sure did. She seems swell. I shouldn’t like her, being knocked off my top spot and all, but who could begrudge a pretty girl like Ruthie here.”
Somehow, even with the implication he’d tossed out there, Mr. Dickenson’s words charmed and welcomed rather than embarrassed her. She’d figure out how later. “I think I should say thanks, but I’m not sure to whom.”
Mr. Dickenson gave her a rather startling eye waggle. “I said you were pretty. I think me.”
“She is pretty, but according to you, I said she was my favorite neighbor. There’s stiff competition for that title in this neighborhood.”
“I’m not dead yet!”
“And I’m still here…” Ruth nearly giggled. No one could call the deep, almost throaty sound a giggle, but there wasn’t another word for it.
At his gate, Mason kissed her cheek and promised to bring her some of his famous banana bread. “I’ve got two just about perfectly ripe.”
That left Richard to walk Ruth home. Not that she was complaining, of course. A glance his way told her he didn’t seem to mind, either. “Mr. Dickenson seems a nice man.”
“He’s the best. Has great stories about Fairbury—they go back to the late twenties.”
“Wow. All those years in one house.”
At Ruth’s house, Richard lingered. “I walk over to First Church at nine-twenty when the weather’s good. If you planned to go or would like to…”
It wasn’t that he’d invited her or even that it meant a nice long walk with him in the morning. No, something in the way he seemed to hold his breath for her answer did it. Ruth Berry fell hopelessly in like. “I’d love that. Thank you for including me.”
“Would you have gone anyway?”
“I planned to, yes. But it’s much more enjoyable to walk with someone than alone, don’t you think?”
He hadn’t meant to say it aloud. That much she could be certain of. Still, the murmured words, “I didn’t until now” reached her ears just as he added, “I’ll see you in the morning, then. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.”
Just like that, he crossed the street and disappeared, obviously embarrassed. The fireflies had said goodnight. Crickets even stopped chirping, and the toad had likely given up on more crickets for dinner. Still, Ruth went inside, found the journal she’d unpacked with her Bible, and pulled a pen from her purse.
Today, I moved into my first home and met two handsome men who couldn’t be more opposite. I suspect I might have fallen in love with the one had I been born sixty years ago, so instead, I think I might just lose all sense and reason thanks to the other.
Aside from Sunday church, walking back when he just “happened” to be heading home as she got off from work at the library, or meeting out front to get the mail or do some minor, unnecessary bit of yard work, Richard semi avoided Ruth.
As a freelance writer, his work could be feast or famine, and his current project had only two more chapters to go before he could call it done. A memoir of a barely literate World War I veteran who had fought with Sergeant York, the book couldn’t be harder to write. He had to take the man’s words and find a way to keep them authentic while making them comprehensible. Not as easy as one would think.
His reward for finishing would be to ask Ruth out. He’d start with coffee. Her mutual interest, he didn’t doubt. A few times, she’d even flirted back when he’d had the courage to try a little of it himself.
The two chapters became one. Then two pages. Then one. The last paragraph. The last sentence. The last word—the one he’d promised would be last. Courage.
It was fitting. Despite expecting her to say yes, asking still churned knots of doubt in his gut. But the manuscript was done. And asking would be a challenge as much as a reward.
“No time like the present. Just call and blurt it out. Go!”
Richard hit the arrow down until it landed on Ruth’s name. The phone rang. She answered—something about her voice was off, but she had been coughing the previous night. “Hey, Ruth. I just wondered—I mean, I got done with that project, so—well. I wondered if you’d like to go get coffee tonight or tomorrow. With me.” Of course, with you, you idiot! Who calls and asks if someone wants to do something and then says, “Great! I’ll let all your friends know so you can have someone to go with!”?
Harsh, cold. Ruth sounded… angry! “No, Richard. I wouldn’t like to do that.”
“Oh.” He swallowed the lump of disappointment that formed in his throat and added, “Maybe another time, then.”
“Actually, no. Don’t ask me again, Richard. If you do, I promise it’ll be the end of our friendship. Goodbye.”
Richard stared at the phone, wondering what he could have said… what he could have done.
Maybe she’s having a bad day. As if to reassure himself, he said it aloud. “That’s probably it. And if she’s coming down with something…”
The words reverberated in his mind… over and over. So when he rounded the corner later that evening, and nearly slammed into Ruth on her way back from the store, it took everything he had not to ask what he’d done to offend her.
But Ruth sounded normal. Happy. Happy to see him. She smiled and apologized for not asking if he needed anything. “Ava was mad at me because I wouldn’t try to set her up with this guy from The Assembly, and I just needed out of the house.”
He swallowed hard. Is it a date if I ask if I can walk her back? Richard decided he’d fight that idea if she tried it. “I just needed to clear my head. It was a disappointing afternoon for me, too.”
You have to ask that? Richard could see she really didn’t get it, so he fumbled, hoping his explanation would change her mind. “Well, I got done with that memoir, so I—”
“Oh! That’s wonderful! I’m anxious to read it. Let me know when I can preorder it for the library. That’s one we’ll definitely want on the shelf. But why would that be disappointing?” And before he could answer, she did it for him. “Well, it might be like saying goodbye to an old friend. I can see that…”
At home, Richard stood at his living room window, hands in his pockets, watching out over the street. Ruth paused by her window… and waved. He waved back. When she disappeared, a lump filled his throat. “Okay, Lord. I’m more disappointed than I expected to be. So, I’ll give her a couple of weeks to get over whatever it was, okay? But please, let her understand when I ask again. Give me the courage to ignore that ultimatum.” A moment later, he added, “Help her get to know me enough to trust me. That’s all we need. A little more time to know each other. I can be patient.”
A new idea formed as he stood there, watching, praying. Richard jerked his couch out from under the window and shoved it toward the entryway. He stalked down the hall to his office, grabbed the inexpensive Mission-style desk he’d bought at a box store, and carried it out. He set it under the window and grabbed his laptop. Set up there, it looked perfect.
And he could watch to see her come home at night.
Now… where do I put that couch…