I snapped the last towel in front of me and smelled the fresh laundry scent wafting up from the thick cotton. I quickly folded it and tucked it onto the shelf in the huge linen closet, taking care that all the stacked towels were folded the same way and lined up perfectly. The owner of the house was very vocal on how she wanted things to be done and how they should look. The last time I worked in this house, she was put out because the linens were put up “sloppily” and she liked “clean, straight lines” when she opened her closets and cupboards. I just nodded and said, “Yes, ma’am,” but fumed at the pettiness. Currently, the woman was down by the crystal-clear pool giving the evil eye to the pool man who painstakingly maintained it. I guess she really had nothing better to do than incessantly pick over petty details.
I took one last look at the immaculate towels and closed the folding door. The rest of the massive bathroom sparkled, the odor of cleaners gone and only a hint of freshener lingering in the air. Hopefully the lady of the house would finally be impressed during her “inspection.” I gathered the last of the cleaning supplies and left, careful not to leave any footprints or marks of my presence behind. The master bedroom was elaborate with dark, heavy furniture, and the hall to the ornate sweeping staircase was filled with expensive-looking antiques. I was being extra careful not to touch anything. Not all the homes in this million-dollar neighborhood of Biltmore Forest screamed ostentatious, but this one did. I spotted Maria working at the counter in the state-of-the-art kitchen.
“All done, eh, Lori?” she asked as she wiped her hands clean from the vegetables she had been preparing. Maria was the housekeeper and cook for this wealthy family, but the gigantic house was more than she could keep up by herself. The Hispanic woman had to hire extra hands weekly and paid in cash since the turnover was so high. I’d been here three times already, but I had a feeling this would be the last. Most of the housekeepers in this elite neighborhood who hired extra hands paid in cash, and I’d gotten work from several of them over the last two weeks since I got stuck in this town. One only had to go to the local coffee shop to pick up the quick cash jobs from the notices tacked to the board inside.
Maria glanced through the large kitchen window at the lounging mistress of the house and frowned. She pulled an envelope of money from her pocket and handed me my day’s wages. “If I need you again, I’ll call you.”
“Thanks, Maria. And thanks again for the referrals.” I took the sealed envelope and tucked it into the back pocket of my worn-out jeans. Just by the look on her face, she wouldn’t be calling again. Some of the rich here were good people, and others were flat-out snobs. Maria worked for the latter, and the owner wasn’t satisfied last time with my towel-folding abilities.
The older woman pursed her lips. “My cousin, Constanza, has a cleaning service and is always looking for good help.” She held out a slip of paper with a phone number written on it. “I told her about you, so if you call, just tell her I sent you.”
I thanked her and then went out to the ancient GMC Safari I had recently purchased. It was made sometime in the 1980s, had balding tires and a transmission that was going bad, but it still ran well enough to get me from place to place, and the owner was fine with a cash sale. My last car had also been old and cheap, and had died a slow death. It had finally given up the ghost and left me stranded in the North Carolina mountain city of Asheville. I was forced to dip into my money stash to buy another one. The sale had to be under the table—no dealerships, no bank financing, no papers—so my only option was Craigslist and someone willing to take cash. If I was ever pulled over by the police or involved in a wreck, I was screwed. Buying the minivan meant I had to stay in the area for a while, working the cash jobs to replenish my depleted funds before traveling again. I’d been up and down the east coast for the better part of a year, doing nothing more than surviving. If I could hang on just a few more months, and if all went according to plan, I should be free and clear. My traveling would be over and I could finally settle somewhere and get my life back.
I tore open one end of the envelope and pulled out eighty dollars. No tip, of course. It’s amazing that some people who have such riches at their feet are so tightfisted, and other people who barely had enough themselves would share whatever they had in a heartbeat. I tucked the money into the hoard of bills I kept in the side pocket of one of my backpacks and mentally tallied them up. At this rate, I may have to spend the rest of the fall around Asheville, working wherever I could as long as it paid in cash.
There were worse places than this beautiful, eclectic city. The scenery itself was breathtaking, and it was almost a requirement to stop and look at the colors of the surrounding mountains. Asheville had a lot of support for local businesses and artists. There was a plethora of homegrown produce in the farmers’ markets, many microbreweries, and a huge variety of handcrafted items from local artisans. There were street musicians busking around the downtown square, colorful sculptures, and other quirky bits I found appealing. I’d explored a bit when I ended up here a couple of weeks ago and was able to fit right in with the folks who lived here, making enough contacts to find the type of work I needed to get. Yes, there were worse places for me to end up.
I’d been spending the nights in different places, sometimes a discount motel room, sometimes in my van at a campground, and sometimes just wherever I could park safely. If I was going to stick around, I needed to find something cheap and longer term, but no lease. Hotels were out. Tourist season was year-round, so the prices were too high even at the really shady places. I drove to the library and used their free computers to do searches for month-to-month room rentals in the local papers as well as Craigslist.
An hour later my eyes were starting to cross. There were plenty of rooms available but not nearly as cheaply as I hoped. The ones in my price range were still way higher than I was willing or able to pay and still be able to replenish my funds. One ad finally caught my eye.
Room for rent: Above detached garage. Private bath, separate entrance. Some furniture but no phone, no cable. Rent is 400.00 a month, cash money or taken in trade with work around the house and yard. Might need some heavy lifting and running errands. Prefer a single female. No parties. No drugs. No drinking. Serious inquiries only.
A barter system? That could be a really sweet deal, but it really depended on the work that was required. I scribbled down the number and went to get a coffee at a nearby coffee place. I winced a little at the price. Almost three dollars for a simple black coffee? I was really getting bad about pinching pennies until they screamed in agony.
After getting my coffee, I sat down and pulled out my phone. The woman that answered the phone sounded nice but in a no-nonsense kind of way.
“This’s Martha. What can I do ya’ for?”
My cheap Tracphone crackled a bit, and the sound was faint, but it still worked well enough.
“Hello, ma’am. My name is… uh… Lori Matthews, and I’m interested in the room you have. I’m a hard worker, and I don’t party at all. I’m mainly interested in what kind of bartered work you’re wanting?”
“We need someone to do some light housework ’n some yard work and some gardenin’ work. Maybe some babysittin’ sometimes. My grandson does most of the heavy stuff, mowin’ the grass and trimmin’, but he don’t do no flowers or the daily gardenin’. He works nights mostly, so’s me ’n my sister takes care of his baby girl when he’s out ’n we could use some extra hands.”
Housework wasn’t a problem and neither was gardening. I wasn’t too sure about childcare, but beggars can’t be choosers. This sounded like the break I was hoping for and I needed to jump on this offer quick.
“No problems with anything. May I come by and look at the room sometime soon?”
“I got a man coming later tonight to look but I’d’ruther have a woman here. You got time to come see it now?”
Her thick Southern drawl was hard to understand as she rattled off the address. I managed to get directions and found myself driving to a secluded area in Woodfin, just north of Asheville. Without a GPS, I had to rely on verbal directions from the barista and Martha. “Jus’bout a mile past the big crooked tree that overhangs the road, you’ll make a right on the gravel road afore you get to the lake” were apparently acceptable Southern guidelines for directions to finding this cheap room.
Somehow, I managed to find the place.
It was perfect! Hidden at the end of the gravel road and surrounded by tall trees was a plain ranch-style house with several storage sheds, a barn, and a two-car garage with the promised room above it. I noticed a chicken coop next to the garage with a number of the birds strutting and pecking the ground. Behind the structure was a fairly wide creek that burbled along, probably one of the tributaries of the French Broad River that was fairly close by.
The woman who answered the door look like a wizened elf. Her body was tiny and wiry and her face was covered in wrinkles. She wore pink capris and a bright yellow flowery shirt. A wide straw hat with fake daisies on it crowned her head, and gardening gloves were on her hands.
“You the woman that called me ’bout the room?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m Lori Matthews. Nice to meet you.” I reached out my hand for her to shake.
She took one glove off and pumped my hand twice. I was surprised at the strength.
“Nice ta meetcha too.” She turned and yelled into the house, “Carol! Tenant’s here! I’m heading over!” She closed the door abruptly before the other occupant could answer. “Daylight’s a’burnin’. Come on up to the garage and see the room.”
She strode off briskly toward the back building. “There’s steps. A mite steep but ain’t too bad. Iffen I can handle ’em, Imma sure you can.”
There was an outside staircase that was rather steep leading up to the room. The door was unlocked, and Martha simply opened it and tromped inside, her work boots echoing in the space. It was one big room, with a queen-size bed on one side, an old box TV on the other, and an area set out to be a kitchenette. There was a small bathroom with a shower stall, sink, and toilet. It was very plain but functional and just what I was looking for.
“Ain’t much to look at, but it’s clean. Ain’t got no cable TV. Got satellite for the big house and maybe can run you a line out here iffen you want it, but you’ll hafta pay the extra,” Martha informed me as I looked around, walking on the worn ’70s green shag carpet. There was a bit of a musty smell, but nothing I couldn’t stand for a short period of time. The way my life was now, I just needed a place to crash between jobs, not a home. Someday, I hoped I would have a home again.
“Before you say anythin’ bout the room, lemme show you the garden. That’s the main help we need.” She tromped back outside, grunting and leaning heavily on the railing next to the steps. “I don’t get around like I used to and watching my great-granddaughter takes a mite outta me. My sister’s up at the big house too, but she’s older ’n me. Garden path’s over yonder.” She pointed to a bridge leading across the creek. “You drive an ATV? That’s what it takes to get there now. I used to walk it every day, but my knees is gettin’ bad. Come on.”
She opened the garage doors, revealing two four-wheelers, one of them with a giant barrow behind it, and a variety of other gardening equipment. She gestured at one and expertly mounted the other. I’d never driven one of these before, but it couldn’t be too hard, right?
I stalled it twice before I was able to get it going over the bridge. I followed Martha up a well-worn incline path, through a thick tree line to a long, open clearing. I was stunned by what met my eyes.
When she said garden, I was thinking a few plants, bulbs, and flower beds to maintain. This was a field full of green rows of vegetables. I saw hills of yellow squash and zucchini, racks of pole bean vines, rows of tomato cages, lines of corn stalks, and other vegetables I couldn’t identify by sight. It was overwhelming, and I could see why these ladies would be interested in trading help to maintain this monstrosity.
“Been growing a garden all my life. Puttin’ up beans ’n’ maters ’n’ such, selling down to the farmers market over at the college. My last tenant was a man, but he didn’t last too long. Said I done worked him too hard ’n he couldn’t keep up.” She sniffed and peered at me with her piercing eyes. “You think you can? Rent is four hunerd dollars a month, but iffen you’ll help out, say around ten hours a week, I’ll give you the room an’ some board for half. If it turns out ya work more ’n ten hours, I’ll knock off an extra hunerd or so.”
Two-hundred-dollar rent or less just for helping work a garden? I would’ve been stupid to turn that down. “Yes, ma’am, I can keep up, no problem.”
Martha grunted. “Got daylight left. Might as well get started. I needs them yella squash plants harvested some. ’Bout done for the season. You can take a couple for your supper t’night. Bags are in the back of the ATV. When you got ’em filled, come up to the big house an’ I’ll show you where the root cellar is. Mind fillin’ out a contract? Name and numbers ‘n such. I ain’t gonna file nothin’ ’cause it costs to make a record down to city hall an’ I think it’s a waste a’ time, but we got a tenant a while back that took some stuff and we didn’t have no way of findin’ him. He was ‘bout as sorry as you can get. My grandson insists on it, but he don’t have a say in who I let stay here. It’s one of them just-in-case papers. It keeps him happy ‘n outta my hair.”
I hesitated before I answered. I wouldn’t be here long enough for it to matter. “Sure, I can sign a contract.”
She climbed back on the squat vehicle and started the chugging motor. I watched as she left the area without a backward glance.
I stood for a moment, listening to the fading motor. Just like that, I had a place to live that I could afford. I turned to the bright green garden and got to work.
* * *
Later that evening, I moved my stuff from my van to my new room. It wasn’t much, as I mostly only had minimal clothing and a few odds and ends from my previous life. The tiny kitchenette didn’t have much in the way of cooking implements, but I had a few pots and pans and enough supplies to plainly fry the few squash and zucchini I’d picked earlier. I mentally added a trip to the grocery store sometime tomorrow to get a few more things, as cooking would be much cheaper than eating out all the time. Peanut butter was a great traveling food to keep on hand, but there was only so much of it I could stand.
As I was bringing up the last load, Martha came by with a key.
“Don’t rightly have a call for such way out here, but I figured you’d want to lock up. Need you to gather the eggs tomorrow morning out the coop and bring ’em up at the big house. You done good with the squash. Need to get the ’maters tomorrow morning. Might need to thin out the turnips later this week. Taters are almost ready, too. My boy’ll get them in with the backhoe soon as the tops get browner. Here’s the contract. See you in the mornin’.”
The woman turned and went back down the steps, again without looking back. I didn’t know who decided older southern women were supposed to be gently sweet and demure. Martha was as hard and dry as the gravel in her driveway and seemed to be just as tough. The contract she handed me could barely be called one. It was nothing more than a piece of torn out notebook paper with the word contract handwritten at the top and lines on it asking for name and social security number. Not even an official signature. Just name and numbers.
I called Constanza Velasquez about doing some house cleaning work for her, and she had responded with an enthusiastic “yes-when-can-you-start?” I had gardening work in the morning and house cleaning in the afternoon, and whatever else I needed to do at this farm in the evening. With any luck, I could keep that kind of schedule and be able to get my finances back to a healthy place in no time. Then I could get back on the road and keep moving. Just a few more months was all I needed.
It was deep into the night when I bolted up from the nightmare, gasping and gagging. I threw the worn comforter off my sweaty body, not wanting anything touching me, and jumped out of bed. The room was dark except for the dim reflection of the outside dusk-to-dawn pole light that lit up the backyard. I heard nothing but the burbling of the river and the night bugs singing a low chorus of buzzes and chirps. My breath slowed down as the quiet peace of this place settled around me. I was in an isolated part of an isolated town, on an isolated mountain, living with isolated people. There was safety here.
A faint throbbing growl from a vehicle caught my attention. It was getting louder and closer, and my heart seized up at the unexpected sound. No, was my first thought as the panic climbed up my throat. I rushed to the window where I had lowered and shuttered the blinds earlier and slipped one of the blades up to see what was happening. A dark male figure was riding a motorcycle into the yard, pulling in next to my van, out of sight of the house. Both man and machine were huge and menacing, but I sighed in relief. This had to be Martha’s grandson coming home from his night job, whatever that was. A red Camaro convertible followed him and parked opposite the motorcycle and my van. The biker got off his bike and strode to the blonde woman emerging from the car. I watched as he gestured to my van and pointed to my room, shaking his head. I could faintly hear the woman’s laugh but didn’t hear her response. I watched as she shimmied back on the hood of her car, pulling her skirt up and spreading her legs wide. The biker took off his helmet, and I saw his head was completely bald, before it disappeared between the woman’s legs. I heard her squeal and saw her lie back on the hood, one hand balancing on the car and one hand grasping the back of the man’s head as he went down on her. He dropped his helmet in the grass and grabbed her hips, holding her still for his marauding mouth.
I wanted badly to look away, but I was mesmerized. The sounds of her pleasure were harsh and foreign to my ears. It had been a long time since I had enjoyed sex. A very long time, and I was feeling something I’d never thought I’d feel again just watching the raw carnality in front of me. My sex pulsed as if waking up from a long sleep.
The woman keened and grabbed the man by his ears as she came, looking like she would tear them from his head. He pulled her hands off him and anchored them at her hips, still going at her as she spasmed, her head thrashing against the car’s hood. I held my breath, but it didn’t look like she was fighting. It looked like she was digging in for more and the man was obliging her. She was making a lot of noise, and I glanced at the dark windows of the “big house,” wondering if the elderly women inside would be awakened. He finally raised his head and stood back between the woman’s spread legs, opening his black jeans, pulling out his cock. He took a few seconds to sheathe himself in a condom before pushing himself into the woman’s body. She gasped and grabbed for him again, but he held her down as he pounded inside her. He was brutal, slamming into her over and over again, and she seemed to relish every moment. She came again, screaming out her pleasure. It looked rough and wild, and I should have been appalled, but I wasn’t. The man thrust into the woman one last time as he threw his head back, and his low grunts reached my ears. He wasn’t as noisy as the woman, but the way he slumped over her body meant he’d found his satisfaction too. She ran her hands over his shining head and said something to him. They laughed and shared a moment before he pulled out of her. He took care of the condom and tucked himself in his jeans as she scooted off the hood of the car and righted her tight skirt. She went to hug him, and he squeezed her back, giving her a quick peck on the top of her blonde head. They had a few more minutes of muted conversation before she climbed into her car and left. He stood in the low light watching her leave and then turned and went into the house.
I was wide awake now and buzzing from the show. Part of me was turned on and wanted to do something about it. Another part of me wanted to run like hell, leave everything I had and just escape.
I did neither.
I climbed back into bed and tears gathered in my eyes as I rolled over, curling into myself. Someday soon, I’d be free of my demons. At least I hoped so.
* * *
Table watched as Lottie drove away. It had been just a few months since he had moved back to the farm, but this was the first night in a long while that he had been able to go out and be an adult. Money was tight and time was tighter, so he would take advantage of any chance he could to get a moment of privacy. Work at the tattoo parlor was going well, his grandmother’s garden was growing huge, and his baby daughter was thriving despite being abandoned by her mother. After Lottie’s headlights disappeared, Table glanced at the dilapidated van parked in the side lot next to the garage. Martha had mentioned looking for a tenant and helper for around the farm. He thought the offer was more than generous and hoped this new guy would work out. The last one put the L in lazy and Martha soon overworked him. Table wasn’t thrilled with the idea that some random stranger would be living with his grandmother and her sister, but he knew that anyone who didn’t measure up would soon be out on their ass, and for the time being, he would be there to help enforce Martha’s farm rules. He looked briefly at the dark window of the rental room before moving to the house and entering. There were four bedrooms in the ranch-style house, all of them small but at least private, or private enough. Both Martha and Carol’s doors were cracked slightly, but Angel’s was all the way open. Table quietly moved through the tiny room to the crib that held his world. The tiny girl was curled up, her puffy diapered bottom in the air. Her face made a few movements as he stroked a finger over the velvet softness of her young skin. He had never expected to be a father until that fateful night when his life turned on itself like a mountain road switchback. His wife, now ex-wife, had shown up out of the blue at his favorite bar while he had been on a date with a woman he was interested in getting to know better. Tamara had set the baby in the carrier on the pool table along with a bag that held a few supplies in it and walked out the door, leaving Table to cope. One look at the pink bundle that was his flesh and blood was all it took for the future to turn in the most unexpected direction. Table decided then and there that he had to move back to Asheville and the farm, both for help with his new fatherhood role and to figure out his next plans. He had thought he would be moving back permanently, taking up the farm as his inheritance and raising his daughter as he had been raised, but he found himself missing the mountains of Bryson City and the club family he’d left behind.
Angel grunted and shifted in her sleep. Table smiled at the squirming bundle. No need to make earth-shattering decisions tonight. His divorce had been finalized that afternoon and he had gotten laid in celebration with a good friend from his past. Life would work itself out. He left the sleeping child and went to find his own bed, content for now.