tagRomanceThe Perfect Pieces Ch. 01

The Perfect Pieces Ch. 01


Author's note: Chapter 1 of 13. Thank you Tim413413 for selfless editing. Thank you Lori for talking me out of not throwing this away. If it sucks, at least I have someone to point at and say 'It's her fault.' That is too much pressure. If it sucks, it's my own fault.


Treasure hunting is my favorite pastime. Some people like antiques, some cars and others collect stamps. I could think of no better way to spend my Saturday morning than digging through the scrap glass bins at Stained Life. Finding the perfect pieces was a challenge, especially when you didn't know what you were looking for. Ideas were always running through my head, most disappearing before my eyes saw the first piece of glass. Those ideas were weak. It was the ideas that came from the perfect piece of glass that actually saw cutters, foil and lead.

"Finding anything, Mark?" Tracy asked. She was a lovely, big woman. She lived to cut glass and specialized in tiffany-style lamp shades. Boring work to me, but her designs were unique and quite beautiful. She had owned Stained Life for the five years I had been coming in. Five years and one hundred hairstyles. This morning, I noticed she had run highlights through her straightened hair and pulled it back into a ponytail, cinched with a red ribbon. She had left a finger-thick set of strands on each side of her face. They curled perfectly and flowed to her chin. Though she was bigger than most men, the curls and her smile added a sweetness that made her approachable.

I recognized her question as rhetorical. She knew I didn't need any help. "I like the curls," I said, running my finger down the side of my face.

"Thank you," she said brightly, "I thought they might take a few years off." We had known each other long enough to say just about anything. We had never had cross words or even a small disagreement that I could remember.

"They're charming, Tracy," I said, smiling. I meant it. As a confirmed loner, she was probably the closest thing to a local friend I had. People usually irritated me, but not Tracy. We had something in common, stained glass, and little desire to involve ourselves in each other's lives. Friends, with no emotional commitment beyond the now. Always a pleasant visit and one of the reasons I gave her all my glass business.

"The Glassworx in Harburg went out of business," Tracy said, still a little flushed from my 'charming' comment. I liked making her happy. "I picked up their unsold inventory. If you want, you can have first dibs." My eyebrows went up of their own accord.

"Oh..I want," I said, with undisguised desire. Tracy smiled and waved me toward the storeroom. She had known my answer before she asked. The room was solid function. Shelves of inventory along one wall, and sturdy thick-legged tables down the other. Atop the tables were different sized boxes, obviously from a hasty move.

"That's all the glass," Tracy said, waving at the boxes, "careful, some of it may not have been packed well." She grabbed an empty box and handed to me. "Have fun." I thanked her as she left the storeroom.

The mother lode was before me. Undiscovered glass in cardboard treasure chests. Methodically, I started at the box all the way to the left. I wasn't going to miss a sheet. The first box was filled with scraps, leftover glass from projects or accidental breakage. I found wispy red scraps. Waves of white blended into the red by an invisible wind. Some were from the same sheet and others a slightly darker or lighter shade. The offsetting shades and delicate blends would look perfect. I saw soft flower petals in glass. Something I could definitely work with. I transferred the reds to my box.

The other boxes contained standard full panels. I ran across a gold-hued panel. The gold clouded into an almost rust color as it neared the edges. It gave depth if it was cut right. An image formed in my mind. Red flowers and a hummingbird with a golden breast.

I was deviating from my contract work. The images I was seeing didn't come with dollar signs. They were simply for my pleasure. I knew my paid work would suffer if I brought home the new glass, but I put it in my box anyway. They were perfect pieces. The obsession took over every now and again. My life was always better for it. Customers suffered in the delays, but happiness was important. I knew I would be cutting flower petals that night.

I spent a lot of time in the back room. I found a few streaky blue panels that would be perfect for wings. Other panels useful for contract work. Most weren't terribly different than what I could find out front. The olive greens I found were less translucent than I normally worked with. Slightly richer, leaning toward the opaque. They would make the flower vine contrast with the reds, gold and blues. It was late afternoon by the time I had gone through the last box. I had also set the contents so they were easier to examine for the next person - my present to Tracy.

I lumbered to the front with a fairly heavy box. Maybe fifty pounds of glass. My arms cradling the bottom so the glass wouldn't break through. Tracy smiled as I approached and cleaned off a section of the counter for me.

"You were back there for a while."

"Found some new stuff, my contract work will suffer, and I blame you."

"You love it," Tracy said as she began counting the sheets. It was very good glass and I figured I was in for quite a bill. "Five a panel okay?" I was surprised at her question. I don't think a single panel would be less than ten on sale.

"That seems awfully cheap," I said, worried she would be the next place out of business.

"Twice what I paid for it," Tracy said, "you've been with me for a few years. Think of it as a good customer discount with a healthy mark up for me."

"In that case, add some 3/16th copper foil, black back," I said, trying to pad the bill for her sake.

"One MIL?" Tracy asked. I nodded as I pulled out my wallet. She went to the back wall and pulled a pack off one of the pegs.

"Two packs, please," I added. Tracy complied and added two packs of foil to my box. "Thanks, Tracy." She smiled as she rang up my bill on the register. I handed her my credit card, very pleased with the price. A successful treasure hunt. Currently, the highlight of my year.

"I'll see you next week," I said as she opened the door for me.

"I'll look forward to it, Mark," Tracy said with a soft smile. There was a twinkle in her eye that made my face warm. It sounded more intimate than friendly. I wasn't sure how to respond so I didn't. She closed the door, unphased by my silence, as I exited supporting the box with both arms. That was the second time in two years, I felt she thought of me as more than just a customer. I was flattered, but women were a pain in the ass. I had a failed marriage to prove it. There was no way I was going to hop back on that horse. Sex was poor compensation for the misery of an unhappy relationship. Never again, I had promised myself. I looked down at my new glass and smiled. All the happiness I could ever need could be found in the box.

It was almost dinner time after I loaded up and was on my way. I flipped the radio on and traveled through my stations, trying to avoid the ads. I settled on Gordon Lightfoot by default. 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald' was better than listening about new windows or the excellent deals I could get on a new Ford. I felt a little guilty tapping my foot, but if you ignored the words, the tune was pleasing enough.

I had an important decision to make. Eat now or wait until after the forty-five minute drive home. I lived out in the country, away from civilization. I escaped there after the divorce and loved the privacy. I gave up a business career, simplified my life and turned my stained glass hobby into a small business. It was relaxing and very satisfying. Neighbors were far enough away that I didn't have to worry about being bothered at all. My little slice of heaven.

I decided to grab some fast food. There was a roast beef place that served an okay sandwich with an addictive BBQ sauce. The sauce was what kept me coming back. It had the right mixture between flavor and tang that lit up the side of my tongue. I only visited town once a week, so it didn't screw with my diet too much. I would swim in the stuff if it was closer to home.

The one bad thing about fast food is the lines. I didn't much care for drive through. It took a day or so to get the smell out of the car and that's if I didn't spill it everywhere. I sighed as I stepped between the metal rails that demarcated the customer chute. Four people in front of me, and only one register open. The world would be a better place if other people would just stay home when I wanted to pick up food. I settled myself for the wait.

The lady at the register was ordering a feast. A couple of kids ran up to her and added more to the order. My irritation rose. I should have just driven home. Unfortunately, I rarely second-guessed the decisions I made. I decided to eat there, so I stayed there in line with the rest of the cattle.

The guy who went next was a special order maniac. Nothing slowed things up like special orders. I don't know why people did it. There was a 50/50 chance the restaurant would screw it up anyway. The kids who worked in these places just didn't care enough to get it correct. I listened as he described his burger toppings for the third time to the befuddled acne-faced teen on the other side of the counter. I almost wanted to go back there myself and straighten it out. I breathed deep and tried to let it not eat at me.

The man who followed Mr. Special Order had no idea what he wanted and wished to discuss the menu in depth. The whole place heard my frustrated groan. The woman in front of me turned and gave me a knowing smile. It felt better knowing someone commiserated with my pain.

She had slightly disheveled long jet black hair that reached halfway down her back. About a half inch of the ends of her hair was dyed purple, almost like it was dipped. Strange, since the cute crinkle in her eyes made me think she was in her thirties. I always thought of purple hair as something for kids. Her clothes looked a little worn, faded t-shirt and jeans starting to fray at the bottoms. I figured she was taking a break from yard work or something. I grimaced back at her and gained a little chuckle as she turned back to the line. My frustration amused her. It made it somewhat humorous and less taxing on me as well.

She moved up to the register when it was finally her turn. She ordered a small roast beef and a glass a water. I was thrilled with her order. Something quick and simple. Leave it to the restaurant to make it complicated.

"I have to charge the full price for the cup," the kid said, looking apologetic. I saw the lady's shoulders slump. She was silent for a moment and then leaned over the counter and whispered something to the clerk. "I can't do that, ma'am," he replied.

"I'm a little short," the woman said quietly, "you guys can't be charging for water?" The boy shrugged his shoulders and had no idea what to say to that. Too young to know how to deal with unexpected issues.

"For the love of..." I said, exasperatedly, "put her lunch on my tab and add a number 3 with curly fries." The wait had become too much. There were simply too many people in the world.

"You can't," the woman responded quickly. Her eyes were all buggy as she turned to me. I don't think she wanted my charity.

"I just did," I returned, "kind of tired of waiting." The kid was staring at the both of us, not quite sure what to do. I just started thinking I had made a mistake when the lady's eyes softened as her mind changed.

"I'm kind of hungry," she said. I could see the pain behind her eyes. The statement cost her a lot. I started to stutter a retraction then caved.

"Order what you want," I surrendered. I was just panhandled in a fast food line. The word sucker seemed to apply. She looked at me for a moment, nodded and then turned to the clerk.

"I'll have what he's having," she said and then moved to the side to let me pay. Her hands were shaking. I saw her pride stripping away. Her lower lip quivered and she quickly turned away from me. She was really hungry. My insides were doing an embarrassing dance. I was as uncomfortable for her as she was for herself. The kid was just staring at me, not quite sure what to do.

"That's two number 3's," I repeated, "and add a couple of those cherry pies." This time the kid started hitting buttons and repeating my order back to me. I paid him. The woman remained with her back to me, but her hand moved to her face. I knew what she was wiping away. I felt like crap for her. I shouldn't have stuck my nose into it. Damn my impatience.

She turned to me with glossy eyes. "Thank you."

"Um, sure," I said, trying to make it look like it was no big deal. I moved down the counter to the pick up side. She followed, taking some deep breaths to settle herself.

"Amber," she said, introducing herself.

"I'm Mark," I replied, not really wanting to go too much past that. Something told me that getting to know her would be a really bad idea. She had 'problem' written all over her. The clerk came over and placed two empty cups on the counter. Amber grabbed them both before I could move. Damn.

"What are you drinking?" Amber asked as she moved toward the soda fountain.

"Mountain Dew," I replied. If I am going to do sugar, I go all the way.

"Diet or regular?"

"Regular," I answered. I like real sugar. I make it a point to not buy soda for home. I would be three hundred pounds if I did. I watched Amber fill the cups. She went for the unsweetened iced tea. I felt strangely childish about my sugar. She handed me the soda with a smile.

"Thanks," I said, trying to figure out a nice way to split off. I could tell that getting to know Amber would be a costly mistake. The clerk was no help when he delivered both the meals on a single tray. Amber grabbed it quickly and moved toward the tables. I had no choice but to follow. I was losing control and knew I hopelessly lacked tact. I didn't want to be rude today. The day had started out so well. I had new glass after all.

Amber moved to a table next to a small blue backpack that had claimed one of the seats. I assumed the backpack was hers. It was larger than a kid's school backpack, but smaller than one of those camping monstrosities. No metal frame. It was almost bursting at the seams. I saw 'homeless' and sighed as I sat down. She ignored my wordless comment and essentially set my food before me as neatly as possible.

"Sauce?" Amber asked, all smiles and still standing. I had almost forgotten my whole reason for coming here.

"Barbecue," I answered, her homelessness becoming less important as my mouth began to water. She moved off quickly. I assumed she felt she should serve if I was paying. I wasn't against it. Maybe it would make us both feel better. My opinion of her changed dramatically when she brought back six mini cups of the BBQ sauce. That's three each. One for the sandwich and two for curly fry dipping. Perfect.

"I am kind of addicted to this stuff," I pointed out as I emptied one of the mini cups on my roast beef.

"It's the only reason I come to this chain," Amber added, duplicating my efforts on her own sandwich. I smiled, chastising myself internally for beginning to like her. I decided a little roughness was in order. Something to put some distance between us.

"Why are you so hungry?" I asked. She slowed and looked at me. I kept a straight face as I reminded her of her predicament. Having no tact comes in handy once in awhile. I could see the resignation in her face as she gathered her thoughts. For a second, I think she intended to lie to me. Not that I deserved the truth, but I think I got it.

"I was in a bad relationship," Amber began, "things went from bad to worse. I had to leave everything behind." She shrugged her shoulders and lifted her sandwich up, "I will straighten things out soon." She bit into her roast beef. A good excuse not to continue. Not that I needed more. I understood bad relationships.

"Sorry," I said and bit into my own sandwich. We watched each other chew, which was uncomfortable. I had trouble letting my eyes roam away. I think we were in some kind of stubborn staring contest. She blinked first.

"I not sure when I can pay you back for this," Amber admitted, "it may be awhile before I am on my feet again." She meant it. I could see she intended to pay me back. Not how I pictured a homeless person. I dropped my paper mache wall.

"I don't want you to," I caved again, "just think of it as gift you can pass on to someone else when they need it." Me, the altruistic idiot. If she hadn't held up the line, I would have never caved in the first place. My charity rarely surmounted the occasional purchase of Girl Scout cookies. At least this way, I could avoid giving her my address.

"Okay," Amber agreed before she filled her mouth again. She was eating rather quickly. I wondered how much of it was actually getting chewed. I took a sip of my blessed sugar, dipped a fry and chewed it slowly.

"What do you do for a living?" I asked, trying to stay off the homeless and starving topic.

"I was a receptionist for a doctor's office," Amber responded, "it wasn't a great job, but steady. They liked me because I could do insurance entry as well." She seemed proud of the job as she inhaled the rest of her sandwich. I dipped another fry and chewed carefully. I noticed some light roots where her hair was parted. She had colored her hair black.

"There's a lot of doctors in this town," I pointed out. The town only had a population around 25,000, but it handled all the farms, and hermits like me, in about a 100 mile radius. She nodded her head as she started on her fries. Dip then eat. We had that in common.

"I have to get an address first," Amber said, as she began to attack the fries with gusto. She looked like she hadn't eaten in awhile. She had no desire to be dainty. I dipped another fry as I watched her eat. "What do you do?" she asked when she caught me staring.

"Artist of a sort," I answered cryptically, "used to be in business, sold metal bars to manufacturers." Boring was the word for it, though it had great bonuses when the economy was on fire.

"You look too young to be retired," Amber asked, not realizing she had a mouth full of curly fries.

"I'm not," I defended myself, "I get paid for my art." Amber's eyebrows lifted. I guess I didn't look the artist type. She continued to eat as she considered my words.

"What kind of art?"

"Stained glass."

"You mean like church windows?" Amber asked, seemingly interested.

"I've done a couple of church consignments," I said, nodding, "but mostly private work for homes." I was impressing her. I enjoyed she was impressed. Damn my stupid pride. She finished the last of her fries and drank some of her iced tea. I turned my box of fries around and gestured for her to share them with me. She smiled and dug in. I took another bite of my sandwich as she continued to eat.

"Is it hard to do?" Amber continued her questions.

"Sometimes," I replied, "it's gotten easier the more I do it. The most difficult part now is choosing the glass. Finding the perfect pieces can be a challenge."

"What? You mean picking the color?" Amber continued with an expression that made it sound like it should be an easy task. I wasn't sure I could explain it.

"Color, grain, translucency and texture all matter," I said strongly. Maybe I was the only one who thought so, but it was important to me. "If you match the wrong glass together, it will weaken the end result. It takes time to find the perfect pieces."

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