Jeanette had hailed Lenny from the side door at last minute but to no avail, he drove down the street, Malloy’s furry ears flopping in the wind. They were off to the store for bagels and lox and dog food and who knew what else. She’d wanted to add a few more things to his list, the basics. She felt he overindulged in certain things, such as butter, half and half, honey. And much of everything else. That’s what she got for renting a room to a stranger without first devising a questionnaire about criteria such as eating habits. Plus, simple agreements regarding cupboard and refrigerator space.
She’d said so a couple of weeks after he’d arrived. He’d gotten masking tape and wrote on a few strips: Lenny’s, Jeanette’s. He promptly plastered them on various shelves, checking to see if his choices were okay. But still he availed himself of large amounts of items such as butter. Did that mean there was some sort of deficiency that he had to address? A need for fat? She’d had the odd thought that it was almost like being married again. Men had a way of assuming things, and consuming things. Maybe she should have found a female roommate, after all. Too late; expectations only needed greater clarification.
He just that morning took issue with what he felt were her generalizations about people, men in particular. He wasn’t rude about it. In fact he laughed a little. Perhaps at her. How she pegged people before she knew the whole story. Well, she had good judgment, overall. His words irked her. She’d reminded him he was a tenant for a bit over three months but they didn’t exactly know one another, so no presumptuous mind reading was allowed. This was after he thought she meant one thing when she meant another about the lawn being mowed. She’d not renewed her contract with the landscaping company and the yard was looking shabby so tried to put a new plan in place.
“Well, none allowed by you, either, then. The mind reading. For the record, I couldn’t delve into your mind even if I had xray vision, no worries there.”
She grunted. Was he perhaps like her past elementary students, needing simplified explanations? “Then what about the lawn? I thought I said all that aloud–it’d be helpful if you’d mow it once a week to save money on lawn care as the landscaping company overcharges plenty. That’ll even save you money on your rent over the course of months.”
“I see. I deducted that you were thinking it over, not locking in a decision.” He looked out the window, assessing the overgrown backyard. He guessed she’d let things go because she’d just expected he’d get the mower out and have at it as if he was the yard man. “I’ll do it if you take thirty or forty dollars off my rent.”
Jeanette studied him openly. Lenny leaned against the living room door jam, arms loosely crossed, one ankle and foot crossed with the other. A stocky man, he had an easy grace that belied his bulk. It wasn’t much for him to ask, a few dollars deducted. He was at least willing to do it, a pleasant surprise. She sometimes was tired out by three quarters the way through. The yard was big, by her energy’s estimation.
“How about I will try to get it done twice a month and you do the other two weeks? And I’ll take fifteen off the rent.”
“Fifteen? Such a huge amount! But if it’s harder for you as summer gets going, you do it once and I do it three times. Never mind taking more off the rent, I suppose.”
“Well.” It sounded too good to be true.
“I mean, it’s the principle of it: I’m not an employee. I live here now. I’d do it for nothing if you asked.”
“Oh–” he lifted up a forefinger”–we made a deal. Just because I’m a man doesn’t mean I love to muck around a yard any more than you like to cook and dust.” He flashed his lazy grin. “I’ll do it early Friday,” he added as he headed to his room.
She frowned as she turned to an email about a new calligraphy project. It was going to be a hard one. But a fascinating one. But she thought, I am a decent enough cook, how would he know? He, after all, cooked his own meals; they looked passable. Dust did have a way of escaping her attention. She might hand him a dust cloth and polish sometime. Or just keep ignoring it and him.
When Lenny returned from the store, he carefully sorted and put away each item. She got a look as she filled her cup with more hot water for tea. Butter, she noticed, and half and half. She said nothing and neither did he. Honey wasn’t needed right that moment. She’d make a store run, too, didn’t she do so every week when on her own?
“And by the way– that bench in the corner of the yard? I looked it over. It sure needs help.”
“Have at it, nobody uses it. I was going to have it hauled away, ” she said, hunched over her computer.
The lawn was mowed but left at a far greater height than Jeannette would have chosen. Still, it pleased her happy to have it done at last. She’d not really appreciated how severe the yard people were, truth be told, whacking off this and that, rooting out every little thing that had the misfortune of sticking out of odd spots. They made the place look as if inhabited by an obsessive-compulsive. She was orderly but unworried about things going a bit awry. It was nature, for heaven’s sake. Character was something she appreciated, which is why her simple but attractive ranch house was blue. It had been stark white with black trim when she was married and the first thing she had done after he disappeared was get it painted.
Good thing she was amenable to some variance. Lenny was lax about his room, that became obvious fast, but it was none of her concern as long as food didn’t rot there. He kept the door shut, a relief to her. He earned the full right to privacy by paying on time his rent money. It was the second biggest bedroom, meant for children she’d never had, and if he managed to utilize every crannie–well, to each his or her own. She’d never considered how empty the room was all those years there; it was a guest room. That is, not until he brought up having a nephew as they relaxed one evening on the deck. They’d gotten into a semi-habit of meeting up in early evening and he’d start gabbing while she tried to find and savor stillness.
It was warm, and the fragrance of lilacs teased her nostrils so that she inhaled deeply several times, emitting sounds of delight. As did he. Even Malloy raised his nose in the balmy breeze.
“Nephew? One only?”
“Yeah, one and he’s like, um, a default son. My brother’s son, but that’s what it always seemed to me. Willy’s the kind of guy everyone depends on, but as a little kid he leaned on me growing up. His mom and dad, my brother, divorced, and soon he was at babysitters a lot. Joe, his dad, was often gone on business though he lived nearby. I was the available and single uncle, never got hitched, so was around a lot more. Willy runs a software business now, and likes to travel to distant shores so he’s this restless person, the pandemic cramping his style. His wife is a smart one, too. Two sweet kids. Haven’t seen them all since 2018, though.”
“You ever do a video chat?” She reached for her phone reflexively, pulled her hand back. She used it for news and keeping in touch with a couple old co-workers and even more so her best friend in Arizona.
“Not too often. I don’t know why.” He scratched his neck, swatted at a bee. “You never talk about family.”
“That’s because I don’t have any.” It came out sharp-edged; it was a jolt to be asked.
“Everybody has family.”
“Not likely true. And I don’t, so stick to your own story.”
Lenny rocked back on the chair’s back two legs a moment, set it down again with a thud. Jeanette examined the cactus plant on the table. Why was he making things personal? He tended to go in that direction so she had to head him off. It was like a tick or something; he had to get talking, right to the nitty gritty. Some people liked to lay open their private lives, they went on and on. She wasn’t one of them, never had been.
“Well, I have wondered if you had your own kids, not just students.”
Jeanette narrowed her eyes at the small potted cactus in front of her, then slid a long glance at Lenny. He looked down. After the moment had passed, he got up and went to the weathered bench that languished in the corner of the yard. Mallory lifted his head, groaned contentedly, then lay it down again.
“I can fix this up real fine. How about I sand and paint it?”
She got up and joined him, pushing stray hair from her hot face, glad he changed the topic. “What did you have in mind? Not something garrish.” She sat down on it, tested the slats of its seat. “It’s held up a long time. We used to sit here sometimes at night, look at stars. My husband–my ex–and me.”
Lenny looked at her curiously. He had little doubt she had known more carefree times, and that her marriage was…interesting. Jeanette had spirit, intelligence, passions of her own, even now. He, did, too. One was working with wood. Fixing stuff.
“That’s great. I’ve been to a couple of dark sky reserves….what an experience. Put me in my place, you know? I mean, in the universe. But as a very tiny speck…”
“We went to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in Idaho. It’s the third largest dark sky reserve in the world. No words can adequately describe it. Have never forgotten it.”
Lenny whistled at that. Malloy had dozed a bit but got up and trotted over to him, nudging a leg with his furry head. “I’d like to see it someday. We’ll both just get in the car and go, huh, Malloy?”
Jeanette got up, too, went over and patted Malloy. “You pick a few paint swatches. It might be nice to fix up it up back here. Wouldn’t hurt. I used to have a garden, too.” She gazed at the old plot that was near the cypress trees, remembering tomatoes and snap peas. Their acidic red and sweet green tastes, juicy on her tongue.
“Yeah, well, was thinking that your table and chairs need a touch up.”
She looked at the patio set. Black cast iron and glass. Worn out black. Heavy and dull. She should have dumped it all. “What color do you suggest?”
“How about yellow?”
“No, no–too much. I’ll think about it. The bench is enough for now.”
She started toward the sliding glass doors and turned. Malloy had followed her so she petted his head and thick coat a moment more. She had an urge so broke her guiding rule to stay more or less congenial but impersonal. “You should see your nephew soon and his family. Your brother. You never know.”
Lenny settled into the bench, an arm along the back, and tilted his head. It was cloudy but he could imagine the constellations up there. Pulsing and shining in the giant canvas of sky. He could imagine anything if he let his mind roam. He imagined the back yard all brightened up with lights strung, a fire pit, meat sizzling on a grill, people coming by. She had such a sweet home.
His was perched atop a sloping lot and it ended in a hollow that was flooded every winter and spring. The house was more than he could handle. It had been an investment he was proud of once, but he’d had bigger hopes than brains and it showed the years of wear and half finished projects. He’d been lucky to be able to rent it to that family. No, this was a fine place. He wondered if she knew what she had. It was a smart move to come here even for a few months. Here he felt almost useful for once since his job being axed. And he was getting to know her some even though she had barred and bolted the door to her insides. He didn’t understand that attitude. He liked people, he naturally went out to them with an open mind.
Jeannette got her thick botanical art book and retreated to her room. As she passed the small round mirror above her dresser, there she was. If she was honest, she was too lean, close to gaunt, grey hair coming in wiry and wispy, her tired eyes bloodshot too many days. She smiled at herself but was not convinced–it, too, was tired– so began to wash her face.
“He’s annoyingly nice, isn’t he?” she muttered into soapy hands. “He fills up that room as if it was made for him.” She stood bolt upright, face dripping suds and water. “But it wasn’t– he’s here for only a while.” She submerged her face again. Just helping lessen respective financial pressures. I can barely stand it when he gets personal. He is too direct. Sloppy at times. But he’s a an alright guy. Malloy, much better company, though he tracked in dirt along with odds and ends from their walks. She might go along sometime to make sure he didn’t get into anything worse. Good dog, he was.
The bench was one thing, she thought as she settled into her green wingback chair, book open on her lap. But if he started on the table and chairs what might he be up to next? It felt intrusive even though it was a generous gesture. Or seemed to be, who knew. How could it be both? She didn’t desire many changes. Her life had been run smoothly by habits and will, her own understanding. And all had gone along well enough.
Oh, but she was glad there was more butter for thick slices of toast–the best things in the kitchen were starchy or creamy– and half and half for her tea in the morning. And his coffee.
Through the wide open window came the buoyant sounds of Lenny calling out and roughhousing with Malloy. The mutt’s excited barking swirled about with his laughter. The early summer night was alive with their happiness. And it sneaked right in and settled on her.
(Note: Next week, Part 3, the story’s end.)