One summer day when Alicia’s bedroom ceiling cracked open and a strange man burst through, no part of her body—not her dimpled buttocks, not the freckles on her ample breasts, not her thighs, moist and heavy as thick slabs of honey cake—nothing was covered except for her feet and calves in her knee-high, laced, black boots.
She and the man screamed in unison as he crashed onto her bed, knocking against her. She yanked her blanket up to her chin. Debris streamed down, narrowly missing them. If only she could jump up and flee, but she was naked and jittery; her body throbbed with pain.
The stranger rolled to the bed’s edge, then stood up slowly, groaning. He wiped off his filthy black cargo pants and T-shirt and blinked several times, seeming stunned to be in her bedroom. His arms were heavily scratched. Hesitantly, he maneuvered with fancy footwork around the plaster, nails, and shingles.
“Who the hell are you?” she said, clutching her blanket beneath her chin.
He coughed, pulled a tissue out of his pocket, and spat into it. “Chicago’s Mr. Fix-It,” he murmured.
“I talked to Jerry this morning. Where the hell’s—”
“Jerry’s at lunch. I work for him. Tony, that’s me.” He eyed the ceiling rupture that was about the size of a sewer lid and grimaced.
Some Mr. Fix-It! The roof might be about to crash on her; she pictured herself mashed and mangled. The room had already been a catastrophe; cluttered with books, perfumed with decades-old potpourri, and the wooden window frames, with their fraying velvet maroon curtains, splintered at the edges. And now she was under a thin blanket, naked and vulnerable, with a busted roof above! How much of her body had he seen before she’d pulled up her blanket? No obvious indications flared; he didn't leer lasciviously. Or, like Steve, who she'd divorced eight months ago after five years of marriage, lecture her on being fat. Alicia, you’ve gained twenty pounds since we tied the knot. Your arteries are going to clog from gorging on doughnuts.
That stung. She loved eating; Steve only nibbled. She loved sex; he might have been a monk once they’d tied the nuptial knot, and she’d packed on the pounds. What a switch from when they’d dated, and he’d liked to paint her naked:You’re like a woman in a Renoir painting. Was that a compliment or an insult? After she’d gained weight, he hadn’t yearned to view her or anything to do with her—her notebooks filled with sketches of imaginary creatures, her dreams and desires.
Now Tony was picking up plaster, and nails scattered around the room.
“Mr. Fix-It,” she said, “is the whole roof about to cave in?”
“Nah! The opening’s from one weak spot.” He pointed at himself. “As soon as the guys get back from lunch, I’ll fix your roof.” He paused and studied her. “You’ll be okay,” he said. “Remind me, you’re?”
“Alicia.” She was about to protest that she wasn’t okay, but Tony told her that he needed to rinse his face and hands and go examine the roof. Just chill. He’d be back in a flash. He turned and left.
She took a few choppy breaths then attempted to push herself up, but her back was out of whack. So here she was: naked, under a ceiling hole, and stuck in a bed that had been a marriage gift from Steve. He’d made it himself. He’d owned a saw. He could have sawed the bed in half if he'd wanted, and most nights, he seemed to want to. They had been eager, yet devastated and sad, to be free of each other. The last few months of their marriage, they were like roommates; he’d slept in the extra bedroom. They passed in the hallways like aliens.
She’d been trying to meet men since she turned forty-five a few weeks ago, but her days in a children’s library didn’t provide for many dalliances. She felt as discarded as a bin of romance novels destined for the dumpster. Anything empty or with holes—the letter O, the zero, the round Oreo cookie shells after she’d licked away the inner cream—made her weep. On a freezing night last January, after signing the divorce papers, she’d taken off her gold wedding band and shoved it in the bottom drawer of a basement cabinet. She rubbed the dust from her eyes and glanced at the curtained bedroom windows. This morning, fully clothed, she’d watched men climbing up and down the ladder next to the windows, toting tools up to repair the leaky roof. Muscled and hairy, they made her heart race, until she drew the curtains, undressed, then jumped into bed to read Wild Times, a book of erotica she kept on the nightstand.
She’d felt aroused, yet safely unseen, with the curtains pulled. Not like how her teenage friend Cecily had been when boys were climbing up her house, hoping to peer in through her windows. That thirteen-year-old striptease artist had undressed down to her bikini bottoms behind curtained windows, opening and closing and opening the curtains to flash her breasts at the boys. She seized their attention through a series of surprises, what she chose to show—or not. Alicia had remained fully dressed. She considered Cecily to be a slave to the boys’ desire and praise. The boys took liberties, too. Cecily would joke, with a raspy laugh, that they’d feel her up under her swimsuit in one of the boys’ swimming pools. Alicia was a plump girl who boys didn’t care to see. She wasn’t invited to the pool until Cecily said she wouldn’t go unless they included Alicia. So they invited Alicia once, and never again, after she asked a boy if his kisses tasted like the juice of pomegranates and he said he’d never kiss a weirdo like her, and she tugged off his swim trunks. He laughed at what he thought was a joke until she tossed his trunks over the white fence surrounding the pool, leaving the boy bare and furious and screaming as she fled.
A shaft of sharp light illuminated the dusty air when a cleaner Tony, with water drops shining on his eyelashes, returned several minutes later and asked how she felt. Would you like to get up? Oh, I’m sorry your back’s out of whack. Should he call a doctor? Yeah, of course, you’ll be better soon.
She was glad that he sounded matter-of-fact. Not like a man who might have seen her naked. She clutched her blanket over herself and eyed a dangling piece of ceiling plaster. “Can you take that hanging plaster thing down before it smashes me?” she said. He removed it, then scurried about, touching the walls, standing on a desk chair to examine the low ceiling. She struggled to sit upright, her eyes welling up from her lower back pain. When he turned away from the wall and faced her direction, she hoped he wouldn’t notice her tears.
But he said, “I’m the one who should be crying. I could have died when I fell. And I’ve never been married. Never had kids.” He cracked his knuckles. “And now I'm getting up there in years,” he said. “And I’ve never even been to Vegas.”
She laughed, wiping away her tears. “You don’t need to go to Vegas to test your luck. You survived the fall in one hunk.”
“Not from luck. I dance. I'm used to leaping through the air.”
“Where do you dance?”
“Clubs, clubs, clubs. I love it.”
“I used to love it. Once upon a time, I wanted to dance and soar, but now I'm too . . . well-endowed.”
“Nah! You got good stuff to shake.”
Good stuff! So he must have seen her naked and liked what he’d seen. She sized up Mr. Fix-It. He was bronzed. Probably in his early forties. Broad-shouldered. Slim at the hips. Sporting a black ponytail. Give the guy a cape and he could be a toreador.
“I haven’t shaken my stuff much lately,” she said. “I spend my days talking about Little Miss Muffet who sat on her tuffet. I’m a children’s librarian.” “Hey, I love kids' books.”
He grinned, flashing a charmingly chipped front tooth, and recited lines from “Oh, The Places You'll Go.” Alicia chimed in when he got to the line: “‘I'm sorry to say so, but, sadly, it's true, that Bang-ups, and Hang-ups, can happen to you.’” They chortled when she added a refrain about going through the roof.
She didn’t protest when he sat down at the bottom of her bed, so close she could smell his scent, like warm butter. His hands, stained and sun-toasted, the knuckles swollen and scratched, rested on the bedspread. Grasping her blanket with one hand to keep herself covered, she placed the other hand palm up, flat as a welcome mat, on the cotton spread. His fingers crept towards her, then he grabbed her hand and squeezed. A scorching current ignited and blazed between them. Oh, she was burning, burning, burning.
“But you,” he said, “you don’t have any tattoos, do you?”
“What a strange question.”
“Every girl I meet has a tattoo lurking somewhere on her. I hate them.”
“My body’s a blank canvas.”
“Hey, would you like to go sometime to the cosmic dancing place over on Belmont, where it lights up like fireworks exploding?” She gave him the thumbs up. He swatted away a fly buzzing by. Then they were silent, gazing at each other. His eyes were chestnut brown, with a glimmer of sadness. Eyes could be planets, cold and distant. Or suns with radiant warmth. His were full moons; they could cast spells, turn tides, make a wolf howl.
His voice prowled into the silence, saying he was skilled in massage. He could rub her back. She shook her head. “I could just massage your feet, eh?” he said.
The obvious did cross her mind; she was naked with a strange man. But this was a guy who liked children’s books. And she loved foot massages. She shoved her booted feet out from under the blanket. He played with the laces, releasing the knots, slipping off her boots, and then her lavender socks. “Why’d you have boots on?” he asked. She shrugged. She wouldn’t tell him that she’d started leaving them on during the day, even in bed, ever since Steve had told her that her feet were horrendous. Such irregular toes. And those awful dark hairs, couldn't you get them removed? She froze now, preparing for insults. But Tony said, “Your toes are so sensitive. And those hairs! Like psychic antenna.” She tightened her leg muscles, afraid to let go, but waves of warmth invaded, and she lay back on the bed, purring, until suddenly he jerked his hands away.
“What’s this tattoo on your ankle?” he said.
She slapped her forehead. “Oh, that thing!”
“Believe me, a big mistake.”
“No way! You wouldn’t keep a mistake on your ankle.” He stood up.
“Let me explain—”
But he’d already strode towards the door and left. Her marriage, her roof, her back, Tony—everything collapsed on her. Love would only disappoint, shelter would crack and fall apart, her body would crumble into dust without being loved.
Several minutes later, the sun peeked in through the ceiling hole, sending warm rays towards Alicia. She opened her mouth wide, pretending she could swallow the sunshine for nourishment and strength. Her back hurt less. She sat up and stretched one arm high, holding the blanket over her with the other. From faraway a lawnmower buzzed. A voice overhead boomed, “Who’s Steve?” Up above, Tony was peering through the roof’s opening, splashes of sunshine reflecting off of his mirrored sunglasses.
“My lousy -ex.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you had a tattoo?”
“I forgot it.”
“Yo, right,” he said, waving his arms like a toreador ready to spar.
“I’ll tell you whatever I want, you jerk!”
She grabbed Wild Times from the nightstand and pitched it, aiming for his smug face. Cursing, he caught the book and disappeared. She stared into the vacant space. His behavior had set a whole new record for abandonment, before they’d even been out on one date. She felt doomed to days filled with children’s books and nights of donuts and darkness.
His allegiance to tattoo-free bodies might be an annoying, but whimsical, forgivable flaw; she’d been planning to get rid of her tattoo anyhow. She closed her eyes and pictured Tony—naked except for a dashing red cape—chasing a snorting bull. Her eyes snapped open when he called from above and reappeared, holding up Wild Times.
“That’s some sexy children’s book, eh?” he said.
“You got a screw loose, Mr. Fix-It!”
“Maybe you can screw it in.” He raised an eyebrow.
She rolled her eyes. “What is it you’ve got against tattoos?”
“My ex-girlfriend. Her body was mapped with tattoos. She wouldn’t agree to erase her old lovers’ names.” He took off his sunglasses. Shielding his eyes with his hand, he scrutinized her. “I’ve had it with tattooed ladies.”
“And I’ve had it with bossy, critical men.”
“Bossy? I just don’t want to be some woman’s latest tattoo.”
He told her that he and his ex-girlfriend had been crazy for each other until she wasn’t. He’d tried to fix their relationship but had no luck. “Those tattooed names pierced me every time I undressed her,” he said. He slipped his sunglasses back on.
Poor Mr. Fix-It, so bereft and broken. Did his eyes sting with tears beneath those dark lenses? She longed to soothe the wounded creature, to draw the spear from his beating heart.
“Hey,” he said, “you promise you’ll get rid of Steve’s tattoo?”
“Can I come back . . . ?”
She held up an index finger. “Yes, but wait in the front room. I’ll call you when I’m ready.” He agreed. She stretched her legs and arms, grateful that her pain was nearly gone.
His footsteps clomped across the roof. The back door creaked and opened, but he waited, as instructed. Her pulse quickened. Oh, she couldn't stop her fantasies! To leave behind her sterile life, wear a hefty tool belt, and work by his side repairing roofs across Chicago; to read Colette’s “The Last of Cheri” together in bed and console each other with French kisses; to check beneath his shoulder blades for invisible wings.
But first, she had one very important thing to do.
When she called to him, she was dressed in an ankle-length, satin, purple dress, bootless, seated on a velvet chair near the wall furthest from the windows. He entered, stopping short and standing there, staring. A fleeting look of disappointment crossed his face, then he asked: did she still want that foot massage?
She might, but she had conditions: he must strip down to his skivvies. Was he game? His face brimmed with puzzlement. She told him she wanted to see if he had any tattoos. He protested: “Nah! Of course, I don’t.”
“But the guys are due back in twenty minutes.”
“Are you game or not?”
“You won’t find anything,” he said. For a long moment, he shifted from foot to foot. “It’s nuts,” he said. “But, yeah, yeah, I’m game for a quick strip.”
She grinned with satisfaction. She was no Cecily; she hadn’t jumped into bed naked to play curtain peek-a-boo and give the workers glimpses. She’d wanted her own, private pleasure behind closed curtains. As for Tony, what he had or hadn’t seen was an accident and a mystery. But he had seen something of her body while he’d remained fully clothed. She would even the score. Now her gaze would paint his body, sculpt his flesh into her retinas, mold this flirtation into a work of her own art.
His skin had been tattoo-free. They repaired the roof in the afternoon. And here she was, back in her bed at twilight where she lay in her gown, only her feet were bare. Tony knelt by the side of the bed, asking once again whether he could massage her beautiful feet. She thrust out her toes, wiggling them. His hands were warm and strong and steady when he stroked her soles. She was sleepy, but her body was awake. The hairs on her arms were alert for dusty intruders. Her spine, usually remote in its bony silence, tingled. Her blood, that busy messenger, ran errands from her toes to her scalp. She sighed and imagined what she’d say when friends asked how she and Tony had met: once upon a time; he fell from the heavens; he fell from the stars.
Kathy Mirkin writes fiction and poetry for adults and children. Her short fiction has been published as a featured story in Chantwood Magazine. She is the recipient of a Highlights Foundation Writers’ Workshop scholarship and a SCBWI writing scholarship. She is working on a novel, short stories, poetry, and picture books. Previously, she has worked as a senior publicist and a communications director. Follow her at https://twitter.com/KathyMirkin.