Unconditional, p.17

Unconditional, page 17

 

Unconditional
 


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Elliot Bauer’s truck was old, an ’02 Dodge Ram he’d gotten when he traded in his car, but it was roomy and dependable. Fortunately, roomy enough for all the hardwood flooring they would need to do Sally Bazolli’s floors. After stacking them in the rear, Josh watched his friend return the cart back to the sidewalk in front of Lowe’s. His best friend was excited about the job—and collecting the last two-thirds of the money—but he was more interested in talking about Valerie.

  “Well, I’m really happy for you, man,” Elliot was saying. “I’d be happier if it was me. Nah—just kidding! I’m not jealous. Much.”

  He had permitted Josh to drive his truck there. He dangled the keys in the air, offering them to his friend, but Elliot shrugged.

  “Eh, you can drive,” he conceded. “Unless you’re tired.”

  “No, I’m good. What about Kylie McCoy?”

  “Who’s that?”

  “Kylie. You know—Valerie’s best friend. Ever think of asking her out?”

  “Oh, yeah! We could pretend we’re in one of those chick flicks, where the guy’s best friend goes out with the girl’s best friend, and then they all get into these crazy misunderstandings together.” Elliot laughed and hopped into the passenger seat. “No. This is real life. Real life doesn’t work like that. Besides, there’s that little weight issue between us.”

  Josh turned the key in the ignition. When nothing happened, he put his foot on the brake, put the gear shift into Neutral, and tried it again. This time the truck’s roar calmed down to a healthy purr. The pickup was getting old and temperamental, and definitely needed to spend some time at the mechanic’s shop.

  “She’s not that heavy.” He found himself defending Kylie McCoy. “I think she’s a pretty girl—”

  “Oh, I’m not saying she’s got the weight issue. Kylie’s chubby, but chubby’s cute. Give me a woman who’s shaped like a real woman, some curves. I like that.” He switched on the radio. “No, I mean me. I’m the one with weight issues. Some girls, especially the curvy ones, have problems with slim guys like me. And she’s a really pretty girl.”

  Josh grinned and pulled carefully out of the spacious parking lot.

  “You won’t know unless you ask her,” he advised.

  “Nah. I’m okay on my own. Let me tell you somethin’. That business, you know, about how there’s someone out there for everybody, that’s a lie. So stupid.”

  “How do you know.”

  “’Cause. I know. There’s nobody for me. I can look at a girl like Kylie McCoy, but I can never touch her. Besides, she’s a store manager. She makes more money than me. No looks, no meat on my bones, no money. I’m not exactly a catch.”

  “Kylie is the assistant manager. You really think she makes that much?”

  Now Elliot didn’t seem so certain. “I—I’m guessin’ she does.”

  “Maybe not. You make a decent salary. And why is that such a big deal, anyway? Why can’t men and women get past all that stuff, about who makes more money? We’re worth more than what our paychecks value us at. To God, we do.”

  “God?” After staring at Josh, Elliot chortled. “God’s cool, so He would look at us as more. But you should’ve seen the last girl I tried to go out with. Look, I know you’re the Christian and you read the Bible and all that, but this is a messed-up world, Josh. God doesn’t measure us like that, but people do. The last girl I tried to go out with came out and told me she’d only go out with me if I was good-looking and I made a six-figure salary.”

  “That was her. Don’t think everybody’s like that, Elliot.”

  “Everybody is like that.” Setting his jaw stubbornly, Elliot slouched in his seat, arms folded across his chest. “Hey, weren’t you worried about telling Valerie about throwing away almost three years of your life in jail? You thought that would count against you. Everybody’s not Valerie.”

  “Actually…she doesn’t know yet.”

  Elliot’s eyes widened. “What? She doesn’t know? You didn’t tell her?”

  “Uh…no.”

  “Let me get this straight. You asked her out, asked her to be your girlfriend, but you didn’t tell her about your past?”

  Josh sighed and shook his head. They were coming up to Shannon Drive, where Sally lived, and they needed to deliver the materials. He and Elliot would be working throughout the following Friday and Saturday to get the job done.

  “I couldn’t do it,” he confessed. “I tried to tell her. Whatever I started out with, she misunderstood and thought I was going to break it off with her. Which, you can’t break up if you haven’t agreed to date each other, but now we are, and I still haven’t told her.”

  “That’s really confusing.” For a few minutes, Elliot was quiet, bringing out a stick of gum from his pocket. “Do you have to tell her?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Well, it shouldn’t even come up again. You being in jail. So rather than rock the boat, maybe you should just let things be.”

  “No, I can’t do that. I have to tell her the truth. I don’t even want it to come up somehow and then she finds out I held back something from her. That would kill her trust in me forever. No, I have to tell her. Just have to find a way to do it.”

  Without losing her. Josh felt his stomach tighten at the thought of that possibility.

  He hadn’t wanted to think about that. Besides the fact that since the night before, he’d been too preoccupied with that joyous, elated feeling he’d had, ever since he and Valerie declared their feelings for each other.

  Yet the question of revealing his secret to her wasn’t far off. Just because things between them were going fine now and he was able to put off thinking about it didn’t mean the problem had gone away. His prayer before going to sleep last night had been: Lord, please give me the words. And by the time I say them, please let Valerie see me for who I am now, not who I was before. I’m in love with her, Lord. Please forgive me for delaying this.

  As he was pulling into Sally’s driveway, he saw both her Chevy Tahoe and a very familiar-looking, black Nissan Rogue right beside it. Josh narrowed his eyes at the car’s Jersey plates, trying to recall the number.

  “Doesn’t that look like…?” he began.

  “It does. That can’t be it, though,” Elliot insisted.

  “You sure? Looks a lot like it.”

  “No. Can’t be it. Please, God, don’t let that be it…”

  Elliot was praying? Now Josh was really nervous. He stepped out of the car first and pulled off his sunglasses to inspect the Rogue ahead of them.

  “Elliot, there’s a little Hawaiian hula dancer bobble-head doll on the dash. You sure that’s not it?”

  One of the two-car garage’s automatic doors slid open slowly. Standing there in front of a John Deere riding lawnmower was Aaron Dunovant. He was dressed in black cargo shorts, a short-sleeved navy blue T-shirt and flip-flops. Flexing his muscles, he stood with his legs spread slightly apart.

  “What’re you two guys doing here?” he barked.

  “Hey, Josh—that’s the car,” Elliot joked, though his voice shook slightly from nerves.

  “I asked you a question!” Dunovant raised his voice.

  Josh cleared his throat. “We’re doing a job here. Sally hired us.”

  “No, you are not doing a job here. Sally’s my mother. Maaaa!” he bellowed over his shoulder, instantly returning his attention to them. “We don’t need your services. Now get that old heap of metal off my property, Bauer.”

  Elliot straightened up. Evidently, he wasn’t nervous enough to lose a side job that would pay both him and Josh well, nor did he savor hearing his beloved pickup being called an “old heap of metal.”

  “You mom hired us,” he pointed out. “We just got the materials—”

  “We’re dropping them off,” Josh interrupted. “And then we’re coming back next week to do the job.”

  “Yeah?” Dunovant stepped right up to him, their chests only inches apart. “Over your dead body, Coleman.”

&
nbsp; Josh’s lips stretched into a taut line. The adrenaline was racing through his blood, while at the same time his hand formed a fist at his side.

  Lord, I’m sooo tired of this guy. Please don’t let me hit him, Lord. I can’t afford to hit him.

  Right then the door in the garage leading into the house opened. Out stepped Sally in her peasant top, denim skirt and sandals.

  “Yay! My contractors brought my future floors!” she sang out cheerily.

  Dunovant swirled around to his mother but said nothing, turning again to glare at Josh.

  Elliot went on, completely ignoring Sally’s son. “Sally, you want everything out here in the garage or out back in your shed?”

  “Honey, put it all in the shed, if you don’t mind.”

  Dunovant finally spoke up. “Ma, you actually hired these guys to do the floors? Didn’t I tell you I’d do them eventually?”

  “Yes, honey, you did. You said you’d do them eventually…two years ago.” Sally motioned with a slicing motion of her finger across her throat. “I’m done waiting, Aaron. Getting my floors done next week. Now please let these young guys do their job and don’t get in their way.”

  “Don’t get in their—Ma, can I talk to you?”

  Josh turned and headed back to the rear of the truck to fetch the flooring. He and Elliot exchanged amused glances. Elliot snickered under his breath, stopping when Josh gave a stern shake of his head.

  “Don’t,” he admonished. “I don’t want Sally mad at us.”

  “Sorry. It’s just that,” Elliot whispered back, “Dunovant looks like, any minute now, he’s gonna throw himself on the floor and throw a tantrum.”

  “Let’s hope that’s the worst thing he does.”

  They were left in peace for a good quarter of an hour or so, while they carried the hardwood floor planks and other materials out through the garage to the backyard shed. Dunovant. Bazolli. Now it made sense; Sally had told them she’d remarried and she’d mentioned she’d had kids—more than just Aaron, because it sounded like there was a couple of daughters in the family, too, as well as grandkids. Who would have thought his and Elliot’s first sideline customer, who seemed like such a sweet lady to boot, would be related to a troublesome guy like Aaron Dunovant?

  Out in the backyard were the dogs Sally had mentioned. Neither the elderly Dachshund or the younger and livelier Welch Corgi did more than bark at Josh and Elliot as a greeting before returning to their enviable task of napping in the sunshine. That swing and outdoor play set near a regal, aging oak looked relatively new, as did the swimmies left on a recliner near the above-ground swimming pool. Josh smiled to himself, thinking that was a family that enjoyed their backyard, with its outdoor swing for adults and chairs around a fire pit, newish-looking grill and the table set on the deck.

  “You sure that flooring will be all right in the shed?” he asked Elliot.

  “I’d prefer the garage, but if it’s in the client’s way, I think it’ll be all right.” He sniffed. “It’s not winter. It’s made to hold up under some humidity anyway. We’re coming back on Friday, so…it’ll be all right.”

  “Good. I’d really hate to mess up this job.”

  He wouldn’t have wanted to do poorly on anyone’s job, but Sally Bazolli was a nice lady. And considering his history with her son, any problems could get blown right out of proportion.

  As they were preparing to leave, Dunovant stalked back out to the house, glowering at Elliot.

  “So that’s why you’re both taking off Friday.” He smirked. “Didn’t mention that when you asked for the time.”

  “Your mom took the time off, too.” Elliot smirked back at him, defiantly, as if daring him to do something and put a damper on his mother’s excitement. The lady was tickled pink to finally be getting her floors done. “Thursday night we’re coming to tear up the rugs. But if you need to know more, you can ask your mom.”

  Josh turned, not wanting Dunovant to see his own smirk. Elliot had said that in a slightly mocking, go-ask-your-mommy-because-she’s-our-boss-not-you voice. His best friend wasn’t a fighter. He knew Dunovant outweighed him by a good forty pounds, at least, and could mop the floor with him. But Elliot was no coward, and neither did he let anyone abuse him.

  “Hey.” Dunovant stopped Josh with a slight shove of his shoulder. “That was a real jerk move you did, what you did to Carla.”

  “Carla? The secretary at work? I got no idea what you’re talking about,” Josh scoffed.

  “Oh, no? Telling the boss that somebody went around telling your business to everybody. About you going to jail.”

  Suddenly, Josh understood. “Oh…”

  “Ohhhh, yeah,” Dunovant mimicked him. “You got her in trouble.”

  “She got fired?”

  “No, she didn’t get fired. Luckily. She’s a nice kid, but all because you had a problem with her telling one or two people about what was in your file, she got called into the office and written up for it. Not cool, Coleman. You went to jail. You gave up all your rights to privacy.”

  Squinting at him, Josh demanded, “Do you live in a parallel world or something, Aaron?”

  Elliot grabbed his arm. “C’mon, forget this. Let’s go.”

  “No, I’m not gonna do that, Elliot.”

  “Josh, listen to me. Forget this or we’re gonna lose this job.”

  “Well, I hope not…” Turning back to Dunovant, Josh told him, “Look, I did my time. I did two and a half years of jail time. I paid my debt to society. That doesn’t mean that, now that I’m out, I give up ‘all rights to privacy.’ Sorry the girl got wrote up, but I have as much right to my privacy as you do. The boss has to know about my driving that car after the robbery, and about the drugs, but not every coworker I come in contact with. I want to have a clean slate with people I have to work with.”

  “The boss does have the right to know.” Dunovant snickered and nodded toward the house. “Now that boss knows you were convicted of armed robbery, too. I just told my mother you’re an ex-felon.”

  “Great. Thank you,” Josh muttered.

  Lord, please don’t let me hit him. I want to hit this jerk so bad, Jesus. That’s what he wants me to do. He wants me to come across as this violent guy.

  A violent…ex-con. Yes, in fact, he had used that term to describe himself.

  But he would deal with that later. Unable to bear meeting Elliot’s gaze, he walked stiffly back into the garage. Elliot and Dunovant, who must have felt he’d done enough to hurt him by now so he was silent, followed right behind him. He only spoke up when he saw Josh knock at the door leading to Sally’s kitchen instead of going back to the truck.

  “What’re you doing?” Dunovant asked.

  Sally opened the door. She seemed subdued, not quite as cheery as before. “Yes, Josh?”

  “Can I talk to you for a minute, Sally? Please?”

  Her son mumbled a swear word. “Not without me present, I don’t think so.”

  “Just Josh right now, please.” She opened the door fully for him to enter, then closed it right in front of her son.

  He walked into the kitchen. She must have been expecting guests that night, because he noticed the slow cooker was on and she had been dicing carrots, onions and zucchini on the cutting board resting on the kitchen counter. Her kitchen reminded him of Valerie’s, so neat and inviting.

  “I know you’re busy, Sally, so I—I’ll make this short,” he said, avoiding her eyes as well. “I understand if you don’t want me in your house. Uh, I didn’t tell you about that because I—well, there’s a lot of stuff about that you don’t know about, but I won’t take up your time with it right now.

  “Just, please, don’t take this job away from my friend. Elliot’s a good worker. He’s hardworking and he’s honest. He’ll do a good job for you. He’ll do your floors real nice. Don’t punish him because of me.”

  She had been listening quietly. “Are you…quitting on me? Before you even start?”

  Josh dared t
o glance up at her face. Would his mother have looked like that, if she had lived? He would never know because she was much younger than Sally Bazolli when she died. He stared down at his sneakers.

  “No. I’m just trying to spare you the trouble of firing me. And I’m asking you to please not fire Elliot.”

  “I’m not firing you, Josh. I would have appreciated knowing—well, that.” She shook her head. “But it doesn’t really matter. I understand you not saying anything. Please don’t quit. I was really looking forward to getting my floors done. I want Elliot to do them…and you.”

  He refused to look up. His hands, thrust into his pockets, shook mildly from emotion. “You sure it’s okay?”

  “More than okay. Listen, Josh, your boss gave you a chance. You still have your job, too. You wouldn’t have it if he didn’t trust you. Josh? Honey, look at me.” She waited for him to lift his head before saying, “You have my trust, too.”

  “Okay. Okay, Sally…”

  “So I’ll expect you Thursday night, right? Not Elliot and someone else. Elliot and you.”

  “Elliot and me. I’ll be here. Thank you, Sally,” he said, his voice cracking when he said her name.

  Confidentially, she said, drawing closer to him, “And don’t pay attention to Aaron. He’s my son and I love him, but he’s got some of his dad’s mean streak in him.”

  More than some, Josh thought, but he respected Sally too much to say it out loud.

  “You don’t have to explain, ma’am. But again, thank you.” He managed a smile. “I’ll see you Thursday.”

  CHAPTER EIGHT

 
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