tagNovels and NovellasReplacement Therapy Ch. 01

Replacement Therapy Ch. 01


Chapter 1: All Our Past Times

There was no "Bernie." It was just a made-up name from long ago, and no one remembered its origin. "Backstreet Bernie's," however, was a sacred watering hole for me and a number of the locals. Nick Kleinhof was bartender during most afternoons and evenings. He was also the owner, and as you soon discovered, no one ... I mean no one ... messed with Nick.

He was built like a brick shithouse as the saying goes, and more than once I'd watched him bounce some drunken clown out of his place without breaking a sweat. It was one of those life's-lessons that stuck with you. It was also one of the reasons that I liked Bernie's as a place to hang out. Nick was my kind of guy, not to mention the possessor of the universal bartender talent of being a good listener.

I was sitting in my customary place at the bar, drinking my customary dark ale. We'd long ago agreed neither of us would bring up the subject of my divorce and the distancing of my two sons. It was still raw after two years, and I wondered if I'd ever get over it. I'd gotten over my ex-wife, Georgia, quite quickly. But missing the boys was another matter entirely.

Terry and Matt were eleven and nine respectively, and I wondered how often they thought of me. We had been surreptitiously in contact by e-mail, but there was little else in the way of communication. Phone calls were met with excuses that the boys were in bed, or out playing with friends, or some other reason they couldn't come to the phone.

My ex-wife and her new husband had promptly moved two thousand miles east to Chicago as soon as the divorce was final. With me left in Yuba City, my financial state wouldn't permit me to visit the boys very often, and Georgia made sure that any attempt to do so would be thwarted by a variety of inconveniences. It was her transparent attempt to isolate me from them. That and the idiotic cascade of gifts that her new husband, Leonard Saunders, plied the two young guys with to keep them from missing me. As if it was all about toys.

Despite all that, I still heard from them telling me about their new lives and the wonderful house and goodies that Leonard had provided. Georgia made no bones about the fact that she had "traded up." She had generously left me the house, complete with mortgage, along with what little savings we had. She made it clear there was nothing from her "old life" that she wanted other than the boys.

She had met Leonard at some work function, and his seduction had begun almost immediately. I was blindsided by her unexpected announcement that she was leaving me and taking the boys with her. I was also reminded that the lawyers handling the divorce would see me in the poorhouse if I was stupid enough to contest it. God bless our courts and family law systems.

Georgia was an attractive woman who spent quite a bit of time each morning making sure she was just that. She had gained some pounds with the birth of our boys, but nothing most women would worry about. She was not gorgeous, but had always been attractive. She looked her thirty-five years, but no more.

Leonard was a slick, graying, predator, seven or eight years older than my ex-wife. Twice divorced I'm told, but a clever enough businessman to amass a substantial nest egg, and had the skills to add to it. I never did quite figure out why they had to move away, but that's what happened almost immediately when they were free of me.

The whole thing had come about so suddenly, that it took a while to comprehend what had happened. I had no clue that she was cheating on me, but obviously she had been ... and for some time it would seem. I was the clueless husband, easy meat for a guy like Saunders. I wondered if this had been his first conquest of a married woman. I also wondered if Georgia knew what she might be letting herself in for. Once a cheat, always a cheat, as my friend Johnny Gordon would say; after the fact of course.

So ... back to Nick. I was discussing the various people problems I was having at the office. I was both office manager and de facto computer geek at Big Valley Box, a mid-size corrugated container manufacturer supplying cartons mainly to the central valley fruit and vegetable packing houses. It was a successful company, and I had worked my way up in the organization to office manager, despite the fact that I was neither an accountant nor a business administration graduate. I was pretty proud of my accomplishment, but apparently Georgia thought it was no big deal.

My problems lay within the staff, and particularly the female staff. There was some hostility between a couple of the women, and I suspect it related to their choice of men; both of them wanting the same one. My problem was made worse by the fact that both of the women were valuable employees, good at their jobs. I was trying to figure out how to separate them from each other, yet still have them both working in my department.

Nick, the consummate listener, had been paying attention while he wiped down some glasses fresh out of the washer. I had learned to give him time and not try to rush a comment from him. Quick answers weren't his forte. At last, he stopped and turned to me.

"Why don't you sit down with them, both together at the same time, and see if they will spit out what it's going to take to make them happy. You might not like the answer, but at least it might tell you what your chances are of a reasonable solution."

Typical Nick. Go right to the problem and hit it head-on. I thought about it, and after a few moments, I nodded.

"I can't think of a single reason why I shouldn't try that approach, Nick. As always, you boiled it down to the essentials."

We chatted some more as I nursed my ale, Nick being called away to serve the waitress. As I looked down the bar, I saw a woman sitting on a stool several places down from me. I didn't recognize her as one of Nick's regulars, but then I wasn't here every day, all day. What I did notice was that she seemed out of place at the bar. If she'd been in one of the booths, or at a table, she wouldn't have attracted my attention, but she was sitting at the bar.

When Nick returned, I scrunched up my face into a question mark and nodded toward the woman.

Nick leaned over the bar and said quietly, "Her last name is Michaels, but I can't remember her first name. It's an unusual one. She comes in once in a while. Just has a glass of wine and doesn't want company, but she will talk to me. She's a war widow. Her husband got killed by one of those roadside bombs. She's got a couple of young kids and she's trying to make a living sewing dresses, or something like that. I guess those army benefits don't help that much."

"So I've heard. That's tough ... a couple of kids too. That's tough."

I looked down the bar at the woman. She was absorbed in studying the wine glass in front of her. She didn't look like she was learning very much.

My visits to Backstreet Bernie's were confined to occasional after-work weekdays, and Saturday afternoons. I limited my intake to one pint, although I might have a second one on Saturday. I would arrive after work for an hour or so, and Saturday mid-afternoon for a couple of hours. It wasn't always that way. When Georgia first announced her departure, I was here almost every day, and the inevitable over-consumption of alcohol caused Nick to intervene. But Nick never did anything in a conventional manner.

At first he wanted to hear my story. It wasn't unique, apparently. He'd heard it, or something very much like it, many times before. While I was pouring out my guts in despair, he was listening and nodding and sympathizing ... up to a point. I think the popular word of the day is epiphany. I had an epiphany and didn't even know it. It occurred when Nick asked me a simple question.

"So, now that she's gone, along with the boys, what are you going to do about it?"

Hell of a question, that. I buried my head in my hands and started to list the possibilities.

"Well, I could hunt the bastard down and kill him. Or, I could kidnap my boys and take off for Mexico. Or ... or ... fucked if I know," I admitted.

"Of the two options you mentioned, which do you like the best?"

"Oh, kill the bastard ... for sure."

"Yeah. I can see that. Of course, there is a down side. You know ... running from the cops, getting arrested, tried, and convicted, life in prison ... you know ... that sort of thing."

I looked at Nick whose stone face remained unconcerned. It dawned on me then. There wasn't a fucking thing I could do. I didn't have the money to launch a legal campaign against them. I didn't like the idea of spending the rest of my life in prison, and I hated Mexico. The fact was, there really wasn't a thing I could do ... at least for now.

"Things have a way of changing over time," Nick said. "Your boys aren't going to be little forever. You're in touch with them, you tell me. That's a big something. It's a start. They'll probably want to hear about all the positive things you're going to do in the future. They won't want to hear about your misery. It ain't any fun for a kid."

I couldn't argue the logic, mostly because I didn't have a better idea.

"So, I should make like everything is just hunky dory? Life is great ... sorry I can't be there to share it with them?"

He looked at me with a sour shake of his head. "You know what I mean. Keep it simple. Little things. Tell them you miss them, but tell them you're making out okay."

I wasn't sure this was much of a strategy, but Nick was pretty good at distilling situations down to the basics. I'd be better off following his advice than trying to concoct some harebrained scheme to win my boys back. Besides, I'd sold the house and was now living in a two bedroom condo-apartment. The second bedroom was really an office and storage room. Where would they stay even if they could come here?

The only good news about getting the house away from Georgia was that the market had risen dramatically over the past six years that we had owned it. I'd never wanted to buy the thing in the first place. It was pretentious and bigger than we needed, even with two active children. But Georgia insisted, and since our combined incomes would support the mortgage, I reluctantly agreed to take the plunge.

Now, I was going to be the beneficiary of that market. It looked like I could make at least a hundred thousand dollars clear after the sale, and retiring the mortgage. It was one of those tiny little bright spots in an otherwise dark period in my life. The condo was a foreclosure and needed a lot of work inside to repair the damage from the previous drug-addled owners. I had the skills, and I could do the work. The down payment and fixing it took a large chunk of my savings, but it would be worth it. I could re-mortgage for a considerable sum if I really needed cash.

Oh ... I took Nick's advice and sat the two women down, and in as blunt a fashion as I could manage, asked them what the hell it would take to get them to co-exist in a civilized fashion. They looked at me, then looked at each other, then burst out laughing. What the hell?

"Okay, you two. What's going on?"

"We were arguing over which one of us was going to date you first," Marilyn said, still giggling.

Now that, I didn't expect. "Are you serious? You cause me no end of grief and it's about which of you gets to date me?"

They looked pretty sheepish when I put it that way. "Yeah," Sandra answered.

"Did it ever occur to you that I might not want to date either of you?" I asked, almost raising my voice.

They looked at each other in shock. Apparently it hadn't. Sandra was the only one to respond. "But ... we thought ... you know ... I mean ... with being alone and all ... maybe ...." They both seemed completely surprised that I might not consider them date material.

"Look, ladies. I'm your boss. It's against company policy for me to fraternize with employees ... especially if they are in my department. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but there isn't going to be any dates with me. Understood?"

They nodded, looking crestfallen.

"I'm flattered, though. It's good for a guy's ego that two very attractive women think I'm worth the effort. It's just a shame it can't happen," I said, hoping I hadn't badly bruised them.

They smiled in return and I was fairly certain I had resolved my most pressing personnel problems.

I wasn't lying, either. It was good for my heavily damaged ego to have women arguing with each other on who would get the chance to go out with me.

The next time I saw Nick I relayed the story and we both had a good laugh over it.

It was a couple of weeks later when I was sitting in my usual place at the bar, paying slight attention to a baseball game on the TV when I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I turned and saw a woman standing beside me, and it was apparent that she wanted to talk to me. She looked familiar, and it took me a moment to realize it was the war widow who came into Bernie's now and then.

"Yes, ma'am?" I smiled.

"Uhhm, I'm sorry to bother you, but ... Nick tells me you know something about computers," she said shyly.

"Well ... yes ... to some extent I do."

"He said you might be able to help me. I have a problem with my computer, and I can't afford to lose it for a week or so while it's getting fixed. Also, I'm on a really tight budget, so I can't spend a lot to get it fixed. I was wondering ... that is ... if it wasn't too much trouble ... if you could have a look at it."

I looked at her carefully. No make up, but a clean, lightly freckled face, clear blue eyes, pert little nose, strong chin. I'd seen her body in profile previously. Very feminine, but not outrageous. Probably five foot six inches or so. Dark brown hair, cut short. Altogether, very nice.

"Well, what seems to be the problem?" I had to start somewhere.

"It won't boot up. It just sits there and I can hear the hard drive grinding away, but nothing happens. I really need my computer to run my business. All my records and customer lists are on it."

"Okay. I can't promise anything, but why don't I have a look-see. Maybe it's something simple. Let's hope so, anyway."

She breathed a big sigh of relief. "Thank you. I really appreciate it. I'll give you my card. It has my address and phone number. When do you think you could look at it?"

I glanced at my almost empty glass and turned back to her. "Now's as good a time as any. How about I meet you at your home in twenty minutes?"

"Oh ... wonderful. Thank you so much." She walked down the bar and thanked Nick for recommending me. I wasn't so sure. I was just hoping I had enough know-how to help her. The last thing she needed to hear was that her computer was dead and had to be replaced.

She left in a hurry to get home, while I finished my beer. Nick cruised down the bar to me.

"I told her you could be trusted and wouldn't do anything to upset her. Am I right?"

I looked at him, shaking my head. "You have doubts, Nick? Shame!" I grinned. "She's as safe as she can be. I'm harmless. She has enough trouble without me giving her more."

Nick nodded and smiled. But I knew I would hear from him in a big way if I tried anything that Mrs. Michaels didn't approve of.

I arrived at the little bungalow about ten minutes after she had gotten home. I knocked and I could hear little kids hollering that someone was at the door. It wasn't until she opened it that I could see two cute little kids, a girl and a boy, standing beside their mother, wondering who I was.

"Come in, please," she said. "I'm sorry, I don't know your name. I'm Yolanda Michaels. These are my children, Deanna and Kirk."

"I'm Aaron Prentice. Nice to meet you all." It was an awkward moment as we all stood in the entranceway.

"Are you going to fix my mom's computer?" the little boy asked.

"I hope so. I'll try," I answered, smiling down at him. Both of the children were neatly dressed and clean. I shouldn't have been surprised. It mirrored their mother. "You can watch, if you want," I suggested, wondering how smart that suggestion was. At that moment, I was thinking of my own boys and how much I missed them.

"Just make sure you don't bother Mr. Prentice, children," she cautioned.

She led me to her little corner of the dining room where the PC was located. It was a pretty simple setup, with an aging cathode ray tube monitor and a cheap inkjet printer. I looked at the front of the tower, and it was an early Pentium.

"Have you had this unit a long time?" I asked carefully.

"No, only about a year. I bought it used. I couldn't afford a new one."

I nodded my understanding. I began the process of unplugging and disconnecting the cables from the tower. I spread some newspapers on the dining room table, then placed the tower and the monitor on them. I plugged cables in once more, turned on the power, and waited. And waited. And waited.

I could hear the hard drive turning, but there was no activity on the screen. I shut the unit down and pulled out my mini-tool kit. A half hour later, I was pretty sure the motherboard was pooched. I brought my laptop in from the car and linked it to the monitor just to be sure. The monitor was still working, but the image was pretty poor. I wouldn't want to be working at this station for any length of time.

It was time to give the lady the bad news. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Michaels, but I'm afraid your motherboard has a major problem. It won't be fixable. Since that's the guts of the machine, I'd say it has passed its useful life."

I could see her face fall in resignation. It was the last thing she needed to hear. I felt like hell, and I began to try and think of ways to make this problem go away. Then, like the light bulb going on over the cartoon character's head, I suddenly knew I had a solution. At least, a temporary solution.

"Maybe there is something I can do to help," I said quickly, trying to stave off tears and despair in this poor woman. "I have a laptop at home that isn't being used. I can transfer your data from your hard drive to the laptop, and you'll be back in business. You can use it for as long as you need to. I've replaced it with a newer version, and I just use it for emergencies. I can always borrow one from the office if I need one. This way, you won't be out of business. Will that work for you?"

"I can't pay you for that. I wish I could, but I just don't have any funds right now. All my money is tied up in fabrics for my home business."

"You won't owe me a thing, Mrs. Michaels. It's a loan ... no charge. I'm just glad I could help." I looked at her and could see the relief on her face. "I'm going to go home and get the laptop now and come back. It will take me a while to download your hard drive onto my unit, but by later this evening, you should be back in business."

"Oh, thank you Mr. Prentice. You're a life saver. I was so worried I couldn't run my business without the computer. That would have been devastating."

"Yeah. I'm sure it would have been. However, you should be backing up your files to disk each night. Are you doing that?"

"No ... I'm not. I didn't know I should, or how to do it. Can you show me?"

"Sure. We'll get that done tonight too. I'll only be a few minutes getting my laptop and be right back."

I headed out the door and quickly drove to my condo. I'm not sure why I felt this "rescue" was so urgent, but I did. I grabbed the now outdated ThinkPad unit and a box of CD RW disks. I was sure she wouldn't have any. Less than twenty minutes later I was knocking on her door once more. She answered and ushered me in. She had just finished putting the children to bed.

It took a while to download the hard drive into a partition that allowed me to leave my programs on the unit. Her needs were simple and took up very little space in today's terms. When I turned on the unit and watched the screen light up, I could see what a huge improvement in the visual quality the laptop offered. Mrs. Michaels could see it too.

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