I hadn't paid a lot of attention to the "For Sale" sign on the house next door until the moving van showed up early on a Thursday afternoon in the middle of June. The moving company was owned by my high school buddy Dave, so I wandered over to see if, as was often the case, he was doing any of the actual moving. I was dressed in the running T-shirt and jeans that I usually wore when I didn't have to go into the office, and it had been a few days since I'd shaved.
"Hey, Bob," I said to one of the movers as headed toward the house with a box. "Dave here?"
"Hey, Bill," he smiled back. "No, we had two people call in sick today, so we've only got four of us for two moves. Dave's with Jimmy, so Mikey and me are here. It's been a long day."
I poked my head into the back of the van to see who was moving in (so I'm nosy, sue me). Dressed as I was, it probably shouldn't have surprised me to have a lamp thrust into my hands.
"That's an extremely valuable lamp," said the woman who'd given it to me. "It goes in the upstairs front bedroom. Don't break it."
I got a quick view of long, blonde hair, a great body poured into a brand new pair of expensive jeans, and a real nice rack. Exactly the kind of woman I'd been dating ever since I'd made my fortune and moved into this swanky neighborhood. Most of them had been just as warm and friendly as this one. I shrugged and walked toward the house. I wasn't busy, Dave was a good friend, and this was a new neighbor.
"You helping us out?" Bob asked with a grin on his face as he headed back out. "You're a lifesaver. Mikey and I were both going to have to push back our dates tonight."
"It's probably easier than arguing with that lady in the truck," I said.
"The blonde?" he asked. "Tell me about it."
"This is an extremely valuable lamp," I said solemnly. "I'm going to try not to break it. Always nice to have a new neighbor, huh?"
"I don't know if she stays with the place or not," Bob laughed. "Her mom's your new neighbor. A real nice lady."
I came face to face with her mom about half an hour later, and almost dropped the box I was carrying.
"Mrs. C!" I yelped.
"Willie!" she smiled.
"Actually, I'm tryin' to go by Bill now," I smiled as I put down the box and hugged her.
"All right, Bill," she said. "I'm trying to go by Marcia now."
"It's a deal, Marcia," I said. "And where's Mr. Colley?"
"Mr. Colley passed away," she said, waiting two beats for the look of sympathy to spread over my face. "Just before he was about to finalize the divorce that would have let him share all the savings he'd managed to hide with the little bimbo he was dating."
We looked at each other and burst out laughing. I'd lived next door to the Colleys over ten years ago. From the time that I was in fifth grade, along with the Colleys' beautiful daughter Heather, until they suddenly left after eleventh grade, Mrs. Colley had been one of my closest friends. It's not that my parents weren't great, but I found that I could talk to "Mrs. C." about anything. I still remembered the afternoon when I had confided to Mrs. C. that I was thinking about asking Heather to the junior prom.
"Don't," she said abruptly.
"How come?" I said, pained that she might not think I'd be good enough for her daughter.
"Because she's not the right girl for you," she answered. "Even if she said yes, you'd be miserable. Trust me, the right girl will come along. Jennifer's going into ninth grade next year, you know."
Well, that was a big non sequitur. Jennifer was the younger of the Colley girls, and when the Colleys had first moved in, 8-year-old Jennifer had marched into my yard one day with a pack of cards, dealt us both a hand, and asked me if I had any jacks. Since then, we'd played cards together every Friday night. Whenever I was dateless, that is. In other words, just about every Friday night. Always the same game. And always with the same start: "Got any jacks?"
The first time she did that and took my card without putting down a pair of jacks, I pompously informed her that she wasn't permitted, under the rules of the game, to ask for a card that she couldn't match.
She had looked back at me with one of those "all right, idiot, let me explain this to you slowly" expressions that girls apparently learn in the cradle.
"So I have one extra card now," she'd said, "and you have one fewer card, and your complaint is what?"
A long pause followed.
"Exactly," she'd concluded. "Now shut up and play."
Jennifer was also a tomboy who, from that day forward, had always pestered me to let her play in our neighborhood softball and soccer games. So, the idea of Jennifer's being the "right girl" had never occurred to me.
"Jennifer?" I asked.
"When the right girl comes along, Willie," she smiled enigmatically, "you'll know it."
Then she gave me one of those looks.
"Just try not to blow it."
I snapped out of my daydream and remembered my manners.
"So has Heather been ordering you about like the real movers?" Marcia smiled.
"Oh," I said, my mouth hanging open. "I guess I should've figured that out. But I didn't recognize her at all. Nothing. Isn't that strange?"
"Going through three husbands in ten years can give you a few extra wrinkles, even at age 30."
"And I haven't asked about –"
"No, you haven't," she smiled again. "Jenny will be here around seven tonight. She's a schoolteacher down in Richmond and she'll be driving up as soon as school's done today. It's the last day of classes. She may be moving up here, too, after Heather and I get settled."
"Is Heather moving back?"
"For a few years, she says, until she figures out what she wants to do with herself. Or meets another rich husband. Although these pre-nups she keeps signing don't let her keep much when the marriages go bust."
For the next fifteen minutes, she filled me in on what had happened to the family since they had moved away. I told her everything about my life, including my parents' deaths only two years apart. It felt just like Mrs. C had never left; I would have been happy to remain there all afternoon, except that Heather blew in. I opened my mouth to say hello, but Heather froze me with a look and turned to her mother.
"Mother, you know we're paying them by the hour, don't you?"
"Actually I'm paying them, dear."
"Whatever. If you want to pay them to talk, I guess that's up to you. Did you get a look at that fucking mansion next door?"
"I guess I'll get back to work, ma'am," I said, nodding to Marcia.
"Thank you, young man," she said with a smile.
I helped the guys for two more hours until, around five o'clock, a tan Saturn pulled into the parking lot. I happened to be at the truck just then, and she walked right up to me.
"Hi, I'm Jenny Colley," she said. "Have you seen my mom?"
"Upstairs, I think," I murmured, stunned at what the tomboy had turned into. In truth, I'd begun to find her attractive at the beginning of the summer that the Colleys left, after her mother had pointed her out as potential date material. But now she was something special. She didn't have her cheerleader sister's figure, and her shoulder-length brunette tresses weren't as brassy as her sister's, but God, what a beautiful woman. Besides, I told myself, I was past the blonde cheerleader stage now.
"Thanks," she said.
I hoisted the next box and followed her into the house.
"Hey, mom, you guys here?" she yelled from the bottom of the stairs.
"Jenny?" Marcia yelled down. "We're up here."
My box went upstairs, so I followed her there, too.
"You're early," Marcia said.
"School ended at one," Jenny said, "so I got an early start."
"Oh, well, I'm afraid you're on your own for dinner then," Heather said. "We thought you were coming later so I only made reservations for two. And you know how crowded Portofino's is."
I was about to butt in to say that I thought that Portofino's would be delighted to have another paying customer, when her mother wheeled around and butted me in first.
"Well, I'm sure Bill would be happy to take you out for a bite," Marcia said.
I looked at the three women: Marcia smiling, Heather sneering, and Jenny looking a little doubtful.
"Oh, no," Jenny said. "I'll find something."
"It'd be my pleasure," I said eagerly.
"Go ahead," Marcia said to her daughter. "He's a perfectly nice young man."
"Mom's apparently willing to pay the movers to chat in addition to moving the occasional box," Heather interjected.
Jenny gave her sister a long stare and then turned to me.
"I'd love to," she said, as much to spite her sister as to accept the dinner invitation, it seemed.
"Great," I said. "I'm Bill. I'll be here around six-thirty."
"Jenny," she said, offering her hand. "I guess you already met Heather, too."
I gave Heather the most insincere smile I could manage while I shook Jenny's hand. "Six-thirty then."
We finished moving their stuff in, with Mrs. Colley smiling at me the entire time. She obviously had her reasons for keeping my identity a secret, so who was I to argue? The woman had never steered me wrong before. I walked back to my house, showered and shaved, and took a quick tour through my closet. Using my most basic dressing criterion - cleanliness - I selected a nice pair of slacks and a blue shirt. After one final check in the mirror, I headed down to pull my baby out of the garage. I had a very sedate and expensive-looking Lexus that I used most of the time, but my "fun car" was a restored 1967 MG Roadster convertible. I carefully backed out of the driveway and drove the 175 feet necessary to park it in front of Marcia's house.
"Hi," Jennifer said, answering the door. "You know, you really don't have to do this. I'm more than happy here by myself."
"No," I said honestly, "it really is my pleasure. You must really trust your mom, though, to let her set you up like this."
"My mom's great," she answered. "If Heather had suggested you take me out, I'd make you sample all of my food first. Am I dressed all right for wherever we're going?"
She had on a very simple pleated skirt and a white silk blouse.
"Depends on whether you can eat without spilling your food," I smiled. "I was thinking of going to Annamaria's, the other Italian place here in town."
"I'll change," she said. She returned moments later in an even more beautiful deep red blouse.
I pulled into the parking lot of Annamaria's, the restaurant that had replaced Portofino's as the "in" Italian place in town. There was already a small crowd in the entrance as we walked in.
"No, sir," the maitre d' was saying as we approached. "I'm afraid all of our tables are reserved tonight. I'm very sorry."
A very well-dressed couple turned away in disappointment and it was my turn.
"So no luck, huh?" I said.
"No, sir," he answered coldly.
Shrugging, I turned and led Jenny out of the building.
"What was that?" she asked.
"What was what?" I parried.
"The winking and the nodding and the eyes going back and forth," she said.
"Oh, well, there are nights with no tables, and then there are really nights with no tables," I said. "Tonight's just one of the ordinary no tables night."
"So where are we going?" she asked.
"You don't mind eating near the kitchen, do you?" I smiled as I led her down an alley on the way to the parking lot.
"No," she said hesitantly.
"Good," I said. "We'll be a little close."
She was still puzzled as I knocked on the first door we came to.
The same man who'd turned us away at the entrance opened the door with a grim look on his face.
"Tony," I smiled at him.
"Beell," he said in a very heavy Italian accent.
He stepped aside to let us in, the first time I'd ever been in a silent Italian kitchen. Normally, there's enough talking and yelling and general food preparation noise in Annamaria's to drown out all but the most determined conversation, but now there was nothing. Everyone had stopped and turned to look at us.
"What?" I said. "A guy can't go out on a date?"
"Sure he can," said the woman standing at the stove over a pot of sauce. "The Olympics happen every four years, too. And everybody stops and watches. Here, taste."
As everyone returned to work laughing at my expense, she silenced my retort by shoving a spoon in my face full of the wonderful tomato-based sauce that the restaurant specialized in.
"Mmmm, wonderful," I nodded.
"Oh, my God," said Jenny, who'd had the next spoonful presented to her a little more daintily. "This is incredible."
Tony led us over to the kitchen table where, for a hefty premium, the restaurant would occasionally permit a group of four customers to eat in the kitchen and watch the staff prepare dinner. He quickly cleaned it off for us and set up two place settings. As soon as he left, the sauce woman, Annamaria herself, came over with three glasses and a bottle of wine. Pulling up a chair next to mine, she poured us each a glass.
"So Bill doesn't bring many dates here?" Jenny asked her.
"He used to," Annamaria said. "Blonde hair, red nails, gold jewelry, boobs out to here. We let him know he could do a lot better than that. Until today, he hadn't brought anyone here for, what, two years, Bill?"
"So he hasn't dated in two years?" Jenny asked.
Annamaria gave Jenny a quick appraisal.
"Well, he hasn't dared to bring them here," she grinned, before turning to me.
"You're doing much better now," she said, before suddenly whacking me on the arm with the back of her hand. "Now why don't you introduce us?"
"I'm so sorry," I said. "I thought I had a non-speaking role tonight. Annamaria Colapietro, this is Jennifer Colley."
There followed the usual round of "Oh my Gods" and "I don't believe its," during which both women jumped up and reached across me to embrace each other before returning to their seats. Finally Jenny turned to me, her eyes bright.
"Annie and I were friends in the eighth grade when we used to live here," she said.
"Yeah, what happened that summer?" Annamaria said. "One minute we're talking about our plans for the next year, the next minute you're gone."
"I know," Jenny said ruefully. "All of a sudden, my dad pulled up everything and we moved to Richmond. It was all very secretive, and we weren't supposed to tell anybody. God knows why. Anyway, I finished high school there."
"And now you're back?"
"Mom's back. I don't know what I'm going to do yet. I've been teaching English for the past five years, but I kind of want a change."
"So you could move back here. Date Bill for a while, find a nice guy, get married, and on and on."
"Very funny, Annie," I said as she grinned at me.
"I could," Jenny said. "But I think Heather's going to move back, too. She just got divorced from her third husband. And I had enough of living near her back in Richmond. I didn't have one boyfriend who couldn't keep his eyes off her, and she loved every minute of it."
"Blonde hair?" Annamaria recalled.
"Red fingernails, gold jewelry, boobs out to here," Jenny chuckled before turning to me. "I didn't notice you staring at her."
"See, Annie, I'm all cured," I spread my arms out as I smiled at our hostess. "Besides, the first time I saw her this afternoon, she ordered me to take a lamp to the upstairs bedroom, and threatened to kill me if I broke it."
"Really?" Annamaria said.
"Well, with her eyes," I said.
"Bill was one of the movers at my mom's this afternoon," Jenny explained. "And when Heather and Mom went out to dinner, my mom somehow conned him into going out with me."
She flashed me a bright smile, and I turned back to Annamaria, who was looking at me with a smirk.
"Yes, he's very helpful," she said. "He helped me move into this place, and now we let him eat in here sometimes, as long as he remains out of sight of the real customers."
In fact, the kitchen table was the most expensive seat in the house, and usually available only on weekends. Her sarcasm was lost on Jenny, though, who simply looked around and said, "I can't believe this place is yours. I mean, you're twenty-seven just like me. And you own this whole restaurant."
"Well," Annamaria said, "first of all, Carlo and I own it together."
She pointed out her fiancée behind one of the stoves. Carlo waved back, obviously amused to see the way that Annamaria and Jenny were getting along.
"And second, we do have a pretty substantial debt to one of the local loan sharks."
She kicked me underneath the table as she said it, making me inhale some of the red wine I'd been sipping. As I coughed, she slammed her fist on my back.
"That's a very nice wine, Bill," she said. "Try not to waste any of it."
"Sorry," I said. "Something went down wrong."
The two women chatted for a little longer, and then Annamaria apologetically announced that she had to get back to work. She stopped back several times during dinner, though, once when Jenny was in the ladies' room.
"So you taking her to the dinner on Saturday?" she asked.
"Maybe," I said. "I suppose I'm going to have to come clean at some point."
"I don't know," she laughed. "You're dating a lot better class of woman as a mover than as a business consultant."
Jenny and I were among the last to leave the restaurant, since Annamaria insisted on our tasting a little bit of everything. By the time I'd seated her in the car and taken the driver's seat, she had already relaxed into the leather seats. As I parked in front of her house, though, I could sense the tension returning to her body.
"I guess they're home already," Jenny said. "I know I didn't leave that many lights on when we left."
"Portofino's isn't what it used to be since Annamaria opened up," I said. "So the meals don't take quite as long there."
"You mean I could have just tagged along with them and gotten an extra seat with no problem, huh?" she raised an eyebrow at me.
"I'd really like to see you again," I said, looking down. "I hope you're staying here a while."
Jenny was smiling broadly when I looked back up.
"I'd like that, too. The part about seeing you, anyway. I've got to help mom and the princess unpack tomorrow, though. Why don't you give me a call after you get off work?"
Taking a piece of paper out of her purse, she scribbled down her cell phone number. I leapt out of the car to open the door and walked her to the front porch.
"Thanks, Bill," she said, kissing me gently on the lips. "I can't remember when I had a nicer evening."
With a song in my heart, I watched her close the door and then drove back to my house. Okay, it was a short song.
I called in sick the next day.
"You're never sick," Marylou said suspiciously.
"I get sick," I protested.
"I don't think I've ever seen you sick in the four years I've worked here," she said. "I think you're faking it."
"So what are you going to do about it?" I challenged her.
"What do you think I should do about it?" she answered.
"I think you should say, 'It's your fucking company, Mister Smith,'" I told her. "'You can do whatever the hell you want.'"
"Oh, sure," she snorted. "Like I've ever kissed ass at this company. Like that would work."
I joined her in laughing. Marylou was the best hire I'd ever made.
"So we'll see you tomorrow night?" she asked finally.
"Unless I'm still sick," I told her before hanging up.
I spent the day piddling away at various projects I was working on. As much as I wanted to just get up, walk next door, and offer to help my new neighbors, I didn't want to appear desperate. At least, not as desperate as I was.
At about four, I got a call from one of my best friends, Beth Moorhead. Beth was married to the Dave Moorhead who owned the moving company I'd "worked" for yesterday. Beth owned her own dressmaking shop, and she and Dave were the parents of two kids, including my five-year-old goddaughter Alice.