Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: A Reluctant Partnership, Pt.1.

She was not interested in a roommate but, then, neither was he. Life, however, has a way of upending sure plans and then you have to improvise. Jeanette Minthorn wasn’t good at that. But Lenny Grimes was, and that was to his advantage he’d realized.

When Lenny first lost his job at the factory, it was the last thing on his mind to move and learn to live on a bit of a shoestring. He knew several there who looked their worst fears in the face due to the pandemic–either they got sick or lost their jobs, too–but they had wives or adult children to help out. Even if reluctantly. But Lenny had never been married. He’d been partnered up twice but by fifty-seven, he’d settled into a more companionable routine with Malloy, his terrier mix buddy. All had gone along without incident for a good decade. And then, not. His supervisory position was one he had fought for and enjoyed when promoted from floor work to the floor plus a closet sized office. So when Lenny put his few bits and pieces into a cardboard box and trudged out the door, it was not without grave disappointment, if he also understood the boss’ drastic action. Who buys appliances during a pandemic? Their orders had shrunk miserably. He retreated but with expectations of getting rehired soon somewhere. It was a kick in the pants when it didn’t turn out that way. His aging tri-level house–too big and in need of repairs, just too much to deal with at the moment–had to be rented out. He was not sharing a place with a family of four, the father being fifteen years younger, an optimistic and handy guy who was able to work from home, as was his wife. Their two boys, under ten, were polite enough. It was a quick deal, then he answered an ad looking for a roommate to share a house. May as well not fight reality’s vice grip.

Jeanette lived on a wide, sunny street with a dead end, at which she lived. It bordered a county park, so solitude was the norm even if voices drifted over her back deck. There was a trail bordering her back fence with a tidy line of emerald green cypress; privacy was complete. She had retired early two years prior, so not working had become more the norm. A teacher of elementary aged students, it was a relief to finally clean her desk, turn off the lights and close the door. Education had not exactly prepared her for managing as well as instructing rowdy, unique, inquisitive, demanding children. Though it had been an expansive experience, it had not been her first choice. A few of her younger, single cohorts felt teaching children was good training for having one’s own. Jeanette found it only emphasized her inclination to remain childless. Being married thirty-four years had been enough to handle. Jeanette had tried so hard. In the end, he’d left in the night. Their mid-century, three bedroom, three bath ranch (soon painted blue, cedar accents added later) house had remained hers and at times she found it no longer useful. But could not let it go yet. It wasn’t quite paid off, but she increasingly wanted to downsize. To move on….somewhere else. She determined that renting out a room a couple of years could get her there faster; the sooner she got out from under such upkeep, the better. She turned sixty-four recently and though she felt strong and alert, she also felt the threats of merciless time at her back. And at her neck, as she’d finally noticed in the mirror with a stunned double take.

When Lenny Grimes presented himself as the seventh possibility, she gave in from sheer exhaustion. Never had she imagined it so hard to root out undesirable renters, to pinpoint one who was not only trustworthy but independent- minded. She had little patience for someone carrying the baggage of neediness. Only someone who was self-directed, moderate in habits and a full adult would align with her temperament. Malloy, Lenny Grimes’ dog, was not a bonus, but neither was it a breaking point. She’d lived with one then another dachshund in her marriage, but they’d been more her husband’s doting pets. The last had left with him and fare thee well. Once imagining herself a cat person, it was a passing fancy–she never even got to the animal shelter.

She was quite relieved when they both willingly shared proof of having recently tested negative for Covid-19 and being fully vaccinated. They agreed that they lived carefully out in the world. They seemed quite good risks on the health front in a treacherous time.

Neither of them was the least bit bothered by living with the opposite sex. It wasn’t as if they had any antipathy; they were simply indifferent, especially after meeting one another–they each were entirely not their types. In the beginning, they avoided each other, overall. It wasn’t hard. Lenny went off masked and chipper to the harbor to meet up with a friend or buy a paper, coffee and a simple breakfast at his favorite food truck, Breakfast and Extras–an old habit, he’d said. Jeanette was used to sitting in the breakfast nook, gazing out the picture window into the back yard with a magazine, scrambled eggs with chopped turkey sausage and strong black tea.

They might see one another off and on during the day, but beyond a few neutral if friendly words, nothing else transpired. She was a calligrapher who always had a project going. He was a walker and an enthusiastic reader of earth science and woodworking books, and left to go camping for three days–she didn’t ask where, he didn’t offer info–perhaps two times a month. It worked out well enough for both.

One May morning after he’d been there six weeks and two days, Jeannette languished at her spot: her deck. She was pulled up to the glass-topped table with a half-full mug of tea. She’d been slow to start, and sunshine spread itself over oak trees and a big magnolia, the last of raindrops glistening and fat on leaves and blooms. She had little urge to move faster. Sometimes being in the middle of moments slow like molasses was the best place to be. But she had not expected or looked for company as she heard blissful birdsong, welcomed a pervasive peace that lay on her as light hands on her shoulders.

“Thought I’d join you,” Lenny said and sat down with travel mug of coffee in hand, Malloy curling up beside his feet. “Got up earlier than usual to meet my buddy Fred at the harbor, then decided to come back–never really hung out on the deck, just a look-see now and then.”

She looked at him and nodded, a slight frown appearing beneath wispy grey bangs. “I see.” If he thought this was her private domain, he was right. Then again, he paid rent and she hadn’t said it was off-limits, had she? She ought to be considerate. Generous. She turned her lips up in an almost-smile, teeth clenched.

His eyes swept over the neatly mowed yard, moved past the cypress soldier trees–he thought of them as frozen at attention –which he had never liked much, and then the magnolia and oaks, which he did appreciate. There were almost no flowers. There may have been daffodils once, but otherwise–wait, there were four irises, lavender, standing cheerful and tall in a back corner. A saving grace. He sorely missed his lilac bushes, the towering big leaf maples. He used to garden, once. The thought triggered a happy smile.

Jeanette noticed his assessment and wanted to seem more welcoming. “You have a nice yard at your place?”

“I do, and hopefully will when I get back. You never know with children what could happen; it’s a big yard, plenty of room to romp, though.”

“Oh, you do know with children, they’ll tear up the grass and pull leaves off, make every bush a hiding hole. You likely won’t recognize it when you return.”

Lenny laughed, then saw that she wasn’t joking. “I thought you taught children for years.”

She nodded and shot him a look from under her brows, left one raised high. “Exactly.”

Was he getting friendly for a specific reason or only to pass the time? She knew he wasn’t being rude in his reaction to her teaching history–nearly everyone assumed teaching the young was a joyride or one wouldn’t do it.

Lenny sipped his coffee, looked at his watch. Time to wrap this up and revel in the great weather.

“Enjoy the trails by your house?” he asked.

“I have. A pretty woods, and a nice, open, often wet meadow. Quite hilly areas to pump blood through the panting body. Benches. Picnic tables on the far side. I’ve lived here a long while and know it well. Now it is overrun with people.” She sighed and shrugged, blue cardigan slipping off her shoulders, her hands pulling it close again.

Lenny shifted in his seat, unsure at this point how to react; she was humorous at times, but who knew when it was sarcastic? He stood up and slapped his thighs once. Malloy opened lowered eyelids and promptly stood beside him, tail wagging a little, sensing another outing. An anticipatory bark jumped out of him as Lenny took the leash from his back pocket.

“Think I’ll go exploring. You interested?”

She pulled back and gaped at him. “Heavens, no. I have a calligraphy project to begin and the morning is already underway.”

“Okay, have at it. I need my daily power walk. Keeps everything working right.”

Lenny pushed his chair back in and left. He was surprised he felt mild disappointment. Who didn’t like a walk in a park and a chat on a morning like this one? He was aiming to be a congenial tenant, better that than feeling resentful at the change of fortunes. After all, they shared an attractive house–his was more of a shambles if he was honest. Hers, well, it smelled good and decorated with things he’d never have considered. A jolt to the senses. His was “catch as catch can” and a functional background.

He tipped his baseball cap at her and disappeared around the side of the house.

“Have a good day, Lenny,” she finally got out as he trotted off with Mallory–who looked back at her, tongue lolling. She suddenly waved at him, then felt ridiculous for doing so, though he gave a yip in response.

Jeanette felt her initial mild alarm recede fully after fifteen minutes more. Why on earth, however, would he sit right down and talk with her? She hadn’t rented her generous third bedroom with an en suite in order to make friends. She got quite enough contact with people online, and managing her growing Bespoke Calligraphy business, and when making crucial runs to stores that left her worn out and obsessed with the ever-floating virus. She thought she’d left the germs back in the classroom, but no. She retired for more.

He took a sharp left out her driveway and then a right on a footpath until he came upon a post that indicated the county park was accessible ahead. He’d have to bring Fred out there. It was more tranquil than his urban house, with its constant racket of cars and passersby and the train that ran three times daily. He wouldn’t mind being on more easy terms with Jeanette; it’d make this pause in his life more bearable. But, then, a person who did calligraphy–he’d had to look that up after he’d met her and desired to live in her sweet house–was not likely a person who’d ever enjoy his company. No matter. It was a good deal for now and he was grateful.

It was time to get to work so Jeanette stood and stretched, her long, narrow body loosening and pulling taut as she reached high, albeit with effort. She had more inquiries to look over, and had to sort requested quotes and then map them out on fresh paper, inks and pens to get readied at her drafting table. A luxury she was anxious about buying and what pleasure it now gave her to work there. Who would have thought she’d get back to calligraphy at this time of life? But then, who would have predicted a pandemic of such proportions? And that she’d share her house with a man again after a decade of living alone? Clearly, she had things to learn, the first two being: one can never rule out anything, and one must develop a more open mind.

It might be a good summer despite the hollow sadness of the pandemic. Lenny and Malloy about, greater financial security and these resurrected creative impulses. But the thought of a renter-rentee kind of friendship…? That was going quite a lot too far. Business arrangements might be pleasant enough but it was still business, after all.

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