Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: A Reluctant Partnership, Pt. 3

The summer dug in its heels and often seethed with heat, so that languishing on the patio was only good in morning or evening. Not that Jeanette languished much, what with her calligraphy projects, currently five in various stages. She was content to work at least 4 hours a day. The nature of it enabled deep meditative moments within the larger design and details, the beauty of it appearing beneath her pen as it slow-danced across paper.

But Lenny craved the outdoors and socializing, so he took off for hours some days, gone to who knew where. Sometimes he alerted her to plans if they were going to make and eat dinner together. Other times he slipped away, came back quietly is her head was bent over her desk. He was not such an intrusive roommate, al thing considered, she grudgingly admitted.

But if he was there he dove right into conversation, as always.

“I was thinking, I painted the bench a sage green, so why not yellow for the patio table and chairs re-do?”

She had been listening to a book at the time but she noted his mouth moving, so took out the ear buds. She gave Malloy a pat on his big furred brow, noting his tongue dripping saliva onto the floor. She had to ignore some things. He licked her chin, which made her shudder.

“Lenny, yellow screams at you, don’t you think? A blue house, a green bench–now add yellow? Make them sage green, too.”

“You have to admit yellow is cheerful. Maybe I should’ve pushed for a yellow bench, then…” He took off his Oregon Ducks cap and ran a hand over his sweaty face. “But whatever you say, Lady Boss.”

“Oh, stop it. I appreciate it, but too much alteration is…. too much. I can get you a big canvass for you to paint if you love color so much.” Her eyebrows rose involuntarily at the thought of him making any serious art.

Stroking his chin, he nodded. “I might try that. My grandfather was a painter. Well, he painted signs and such–still, he was good at it. I liked to watch him, hand him brushes. He managed a farm supply store but made signage on the side. he wanted to teach me but I had little patience for it, I was just his admirer, his steady hand and careful ways, but my dad would have nothing to do with that business. I sort of regret not learning from him, now.”

She didn’t answer, as it would keep him talking on and on about his grandfather, nice man that he likely was. It was too hot. She moved to the slider door. It was warm even with air conditioning–though she liked to keep it less cold than more. Lenny thought that odd when the whole purpose was to chill out in A/C. She opened the slider, gazing at the bench and then the table, and went out. He rummaged in the refrigerator, found his leftover ham and cheese sandwich, then joined her.

“Sage green, that’s final– for now. Do you really want to paint?”

“Okay,” he said and took a large bite. “I never tried it except for little projects. I like creating things, you see. I’m not just a factory worker.” He focused on eating, slipping a bite or two to Malloy under the table.

She emitted a little huff. “Of course not, I never intimated such a thing… Anyway, I’ve decided to go on a walk with you as suggested. The woods are cooler now. I do miss those trails some days. Might as well get back to them.”

Lenny was swallowing but the food stuck for a second. He’d asked her countless times to walk with him–he liked to share nature with others, why not Jeannette? She was so used to being alone; it had made her sort of crusty. He thought he had gotten fusty but since the pandemic-caused layoff, he realized he truly enjoyed more people, places and activities than he had had time for before.

“Well, one more thing settled, Malloy. Tomorrow morning, three of us go walking.”

******

Jeanette entered a kind of dream state as they moved deeper into trees. The greenness covered her, seemed to enter her pores by osmosis. It was disorienting. But each step brought her closer to an easier surrender. It was the heat, she told herself, many strong scents permeating the air, or her allergies leaping to life. But in fact, she was becoming more enchanted by earth and sky, plant and animal life. Lenny knew much about these things so he talked, explaining, for example, differences between Queen Anne’s lace and its poisonous look alike, water hemlock. His voice almost blended with the surroundings–full of nuance, light and shadow, a rumble of earth’s underlying energy brought to the surface. It was soothing to her ears, unlike at the house when he talked voluminously, sometimes without particular direction.

They dawdled by a tinkly creek, its musical flow steady and sweet. He stood with hands clasped behind his back, and beamed all around as if he had found a secret garden and was introducing it to her. They saw fat skittish rabbits scurry off, a garter snake rippling between grasses; heard vesper sparrows, juncoes, tanagers, woodpeckers and she thought she heard a Cooper’s hawk call out. Lenny agreed. It thrilled her that she remembered. But other than his identification of things–she let him go on, despite the fact that she’d lived behind these woods for twenty years–they were quiet, their footsteps light.

Why hadn’t she availed herself of all this more the last few years? Because teaching had worn her out. Week-ends required more labor without her ex-husband to help, and when she retired, she wanted to do what she loved and rest and not be bothered by compulsory conversations or additional agenda. Still, here she was. They were. And it was a sort of revelation–despite passing others on the trails, or hearing cars in the distance, or sweat streaming down the back of her light cotton shirt, it was good. She needed to walk more, explore again more of what lay beyond her closed door.

After twenty minutes they came to a meadow with tall, silky grasses. She spotted a brand new bench; she had enjoyed a pause there when it was still splintery, long ago. They sat down in the shade of a mammoth white oak and she pulled two bottles of water and two bananas from her rumpled paisley backpack. Offering one each to Lenny, they then satiated their thirst and hunger. She noted wild roses stirring in the breeze as their perfume came to her and Lenny. He got up and picked one to sniff more closely, then handed it to her. They chatted about nothing of note, then fell silent again, eyelids drooping under the veil of early summer heat.

A sudden country song filled the quietness, and Lenny pulled his phone from a back shorts pocket.

“Lenny here.” He pressed his ear closer, his eyes widening. “Wait, slow down– just what exactly happened?” he barked, sitting upright, ear pressed closer.

Jeanette sat forward, alarm shaking her from reverie. Was it something or someone at his house? His best friend?

“Oh, no. When was this…? Where is he now? And what do they say? What does that mean? Hold on, I can’t understand–yes, alright then…” He wiped beads of sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, took a long intake of breath. Let it out. “Yeah, yeah, of course. I do want to come! Give me a half hour and I’ll get back to you!”

Lenny turned to her, his face drained of color, void of calm.

“That was my brother, Joe. It’s Willy–remember, my nephew? A terrible car accident. I’m getting a plane ticket to Pittsburgh.” He grabbed her forearm.

Willy, the nephew who was like a son, and always would be.

She grabbed his arms in both of her hands and they sat there a moment, face to face, Lenny’s eyes alive with fear, hers wide open. They got up and took off at a fast pace, Malloy running between them.

*******

Lenny let her know when he arrived safely. Then it was 2 days before Jeanette got a brief update via text. Multiple organs injured, head injury, badly broken leg, fractured pelvis. It was bad. But he was alive, so far. Intensive care, a group of specialists working on things. He couldn’t see him, of course; no one could due to the pandemic. It was hell to not see him. He and his brother, Joe, and sister-in-law, Ellie, were holed up at Willy’s house with his wife Meredith, their two kids. It all was just crazy. He’d text her again tomorrow if he could.

She found herself unable to concentrate well, losing her place in her calligraphic work, starting chores, then stopping halfway through. Malloy and she sat, listened to the radio, then slouched out to the patio, then returned indoors where they watched television together, Malloy’s head on her bare feet.

Lenny texted again late on the fourth night. “Long night here, can’t sleep. They’re still assessing things, keeping him going. They can fix. thank God, the pelvis, leg. Can they fix kidney and pancreas damage? Will his heart ever calm down? Can he even respond much? No new answers. My brother is a wreck, his only son….Willy’s kids are freaking out but his Meredith is a strong mother to them…Hug Malloy for me. Give him treats, walk him, of course– please and thanks.”

She said of course she would, hung up. Gulped down a small lump in her throat. Got on her knees and hugged Malloy.

*******

So walk they did, just around the neighborhood, mostly, at least twice a day. When he whined at the slider door, she opened it and he romped a bit, did his business, lay down in the cool grass under the trees’ great, leafy branches. Once she found him under the bench, another time, he was sitting on it as the sun went down.

She sat beside him, stroking his long back. “I know I’m not the guy you want. But we do alright, don’t we? It’s family, you know–for Lenny, it’s all about family, and almost anyone can be family.” She laughed softly at that. “But this time it is blood ties, you know, and that’s big. His pack. So we will just wait it out until he gets back.”

Malloy held her eyes with his deep brown ones that never looked miserable or empty but, rather, calm, perhaps often wondering, and simply kind. Could a dog be kind? Malloy had had a good teacher in Lenny; he had been raised right.

As no doubt suffering, beloved Willy had been.

******

One morning she plugged in the coffee pot and made coffee. Malloy’s long nose sniffed deeply of the aroma as it dripped into the carafe. She poured a small mug of it and put half and half in it and a little sugar and carried it it onto the wrought iron patio table. She sat down and took a sip and spit it out.

“Tell me. Malloy, how do people drink this dreadful brew? I have to make my tea now.”

Malloy grunted and stretched out on the still-cool flagstones.

When she came back with tea, she left the mug of coffee at the place opposite her. As if he was coming back shortly from his early morning breakfast with his best friend, smiling and carrying fresh pastries or bagels for them to nibble on.

******

On the eighth day, Lenny texted as she was making a snack of apples and cheese for herself, and bits of cold chicken for Malloy.

Her phone dinged and she read: “Pelvis surgery went well two days ago. Willy is responding better to interventions. His heart rate is steadier, lower. He can nod a bit, blink and tries to talk but part of his face was fractured so he can’t talk…he may look different, but who cares, he gets surgery for that. And the leg in two days if all goes well enough. Wires and tubes, they say, doing their work. Joe and I are spending more time together than we have in twenty years…sad, huh? But good, too. He’s so shook up. I have to go, Ellie needs me to do an errand.”

Usually Jeanette responded with something like: “Thanks for update. Keep your head up. Willy is in my thoughts, hope for the best for him and your family. Malloy is just fine.”

But this time, she wrote: “I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you, for all. I’m saying a prayer each day. Malloy misses you, I can tell, but he likes our woods walks. Hang in there, Lenny, just hold onto hope, okay?” She felt as if tears were possible as she said these things, and it felt strange.

He answered: “The woods, good! I can use all the prayers you got. Glad Malloy misses me, but glad he is with you.”

“Willy will get better, I can just feel it.”

“Yeah…he has to.”

Feel it, why did she say that, what did that mean? It might not be true. It was up to the doctors and Lenny’s nephew. Willy had to strive the best he could to stay alive. So many factors went into recovery from a catastrophic accident. But she meant it. And believed it. For Lenny’s sake, if nothing else. He just could not lose his nephew who was like his son.

That’s when she knew. Their partnership meant something. Lenny meant something, after all. She’d never expected an unknown, down-on-his luck tenant to become an honest-to-goodness, real-as-life friend. It was something to wonder over. A sudden good fortune. But with that came everything else, too.

******

After that, they texted two-three times a day, check-ins about Willy’s progress and how the family was faring, and what it was like in Pittsburgh in June. Sometimes they chatted about what they were watching on Netflix, or what her work was currently, how he had projects on his mind for when he returned, especially her yard if he could have at it. The city he described sounded quite marvelous. She’d visited Pittsburgh once in her late thirties, and recalled a sense of progress, the beautiful setting against steep hills and its two large rivers.

She looked forward to their talks. But it was a surprise when he called one morning, two and a half weeks after the terror of severe crisis had waned just a bit. Willy was beginning to make some tangible progress, and surgeries and treatments seemed to be working.

Lenny was keen to talk about a botanical garden he’d visited. His descriptions enthralled her and he sent pictures to her phone.

“You should see this place, one of the prettiest I’ve seen. Not that I’ve been to many but I sure would like to take a tour of more. You would love it, so lush, colorful, and the orchid collection and the butterflies! It’s very old, too, still going strong. What a paradise.”

Just to hear the pleasure in his voice made her feel better. “You went with your family?”

“Naw, alone. I let them be more, now. Joe and Ellie just went back to work. Meredith as you know took leave from her job, is home with the kiddos. I’ve begun to ping pong between the two houses a little. I think I’ll give it a few more days, see what’s happening with Willy. But they say he looks better–I can’t imagine when he came in–and every day brings a small improvement, so far. They saved the kidney; the pancreas will take more time healing. Special nutrients are helping, too. He’ll be there awhile.”

She could hear him clear his throat, cough.

“I’m so truly sorry this happened to Willy…I can’t say it enough. You and your family must worry every minute.”

“Yeah, a drunk driver, didn’t tell you that before.” His voice cut the space between them, then diminished. “Thank goodness he made it, though. The other guy, unfortunately, did not…”

“Oh.”

She could think of nothing more to add; the silence fell hard between them and held. She decided to break it.

“Well, at least during this time Malloy has gotten more comfortable with just me. Though he whines on your bed at night, it is heard to hear but he barks at me to take him for walks. Drags his leash over when he’s good and ready. So off we go!”

Lenny laughed readily. “Good job, both of you.”

“Yes, I agree,” she said. They wrapped up the conversation with their respective weather reports. It was a signing off they did each time they connected.

******

“Lenny?” she said as she answered her phone. She and Malloy had moved into bright sunshine as they left a meandering wooded trail and she put on her new aqua sunglasses.

“I might just come back. But I hate to leave them. But what else can I do? Kinda in the way now. None of us can go to see Willy, just daily updates. Then, yesterday we finally got to see him on a video call, and again today for a few. He looks…Jeanette, he was so good looking– but he’ll be alright. It looks like he’s starting to heal much more. He can’t talk, jaw wired shut, but he seems to get all we say. We just yak at him for ten minutes. A total relief to finally see my nephew… Joe and Ellie are working to keep sane, I think. I’m at loose ends, spend time each day with Willy’s Meredith, bless her, she’s a good gal, and I play with the kiddos. We swam in their great swimming pool a few times–dang, he worked so hard to get where he has gotten… They all seem some better. There’s hope, a continued, slow progress. I should let them live their lives, not have them fuss over me, which they do. I don’t want to be overstaying my welcome.”

She imagined him worrying each night as he tried to sleep, wondering if Willy needed him to stay even though he couldn’t be with him. If he’d done enough, if he could do more. She saw how he was like that, mindful of others, putting others first more often than not.

She had lain awake often, herself, thinking of the situation and everyone affected. It impacted her more than she’d expected. She didn’t know them, had known Lenny three months. But how upset he was about Willy, how brave he had been to get on the plane, offer his help, face the bleak unknown.

Feeling his absence, if she was honest, though it took her awhile to figure out that was the discomfort in her own home.

“Maybe ask them if they need you there now? Maybe you can go back later when he gets home, help out more then.”

“That’s a very good idea, Jeanette.”

When they hung up, she got back to her calligraphy, more settled than she had been in a long while. She loved her work, how it blossomed into more than she planned, the words scrolling elegantly across the pages as she gave her all to each stroke.

He called an hour later. “They said to go on, they’re managing now that Willy is improving, and they’d love to have me back another time.” But he sounded sad if somewhat relieved. “I guess I can do video chats with him when he’s unwired. I’ll tell him farewell till next time– and I definitely will be back.” He paused, then added, “But man, will it be nice to be back in that familiar bed.”

She laughed at that. “Sounds good. I knew you’d do what was best. Malloy will be happy.”

“Yeah, ole boy, sure have missed him. It’ll be good to be home again.”

Home? She repeated that in her head and aloud a few times after they ended their chat. He said it. She guessed it had become true, then. How odd a thing. How it touched her. And unnerved her– but that feeling vanished as soon as it arrived.

******

She put the medium-sized portfolio bag on the end of his bed. It was stuffed with painting supplies–brushes and tubes of gorgeous colors and disposable palettes and small canvasses, along with a couple of books about painting with acrylics and watercolors.

And closed his door again. He’d be walking into the house in about one hour.

******

He’d roughhoused with Malloy awhile, they were both way beyond pleased. Then put away his things, and came out pf his room with the art supplies in hand, mouth wide open. She smiled and waved his thanks away, taking their drinks and a cheese plate to the patio.

“Well, here we are, back on this dull but loved patio. How did we get so lazy that this is our daily thing? I have to get at it, paint this table and chairs. Maybe we should plant more flowers, how about zinnias, they’re pretty when they get tall, colorful. And we need to find more trails to walk–hike that is, if I can ever get you to be more adventurous. Plus, I was thinking of having a barbeque soon. Invite my buddies, you invite yours, we’ll cook up some burgers and franks, maybe barbecued chicken! Sound good, Malloy? Yes? Of course you can have a taste!” Lenny rubbed his exposed belly and looked up at Jeanette. “Alright by you?”

Jeanette gawped at him. He was surely back, bigger than life. Overflowing with plans to put into motion, to push ahead. Anxious to make the days and nights peppier, more interesting–as if life wasn’t interesting enough already. But he added an extra bit she had missed too long.

Zing. Pizazz. Oomph.

“Yes, it is alright with me. As long as you leave me in charge of detailed planning and we execute things together. Just because I missed you a little, don’t get big ideas of huge changes and sudden good will spread all about. And I’m not about to have a man push me around again, you know, I am perfectly able minded and self-directed. I was thinking the other day that we’ve managed to become friends and I’ve missed you a little despite our differences and a certain lack of interest on my part, so let’s not–“

“Wait, you missed me?” He leaned over the table toward her, reached for a hand which she pulled back.”You missed me. Well, feeling has been mutual, Jeanette, my friend.” He patted her hand, anyway, then sat back again and held both palms up to the treetops. “But try to take over here? Never considered it! Why, that would be disastrous, I’d be out of house and home, and Malloy and I would be running back to my poor old place with tails between our legs. No, ma’m, we’re going forward arm-in-arm. If that suits you, that is.”

She raised her iced tea glass and he raised his beer bottle, clinked them together.

“And here’s to Jeanette MInthorn, who has the gumption and generosity to get me art supplies. Me, soon officially a painter!”

“Yes, no excuses. I expect you may have talent, the way you talk about beauty and color and–“

At that he got up and went over to her. Put an arm around her shoulders. He couldn’t help himself, he squeezed her close to his side so that she had to say, “Enough! Don’t you push the limits, Lenny Grimes! You might still be on semi-probation as a roommate!”

He doubted that, but he just sat back down with nary a quip. He was so glad to be back, and they talked until both of them–more accurately, he– ran right out of words. For the time being.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: A Reluctant Partnership, Pt. 2 (of a 3 pt. serialization)

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.”

“Well then–“

“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.)

Running Late at the Jolie Cafe

He was at long last good and tired of waiting for her. Not just the past 22 minutes, but all the times he had sat in restaurants even if mediocre, on benches at parks in a spectrum of weather, at charming cafes tucked away in a district like Little Paris where he was waiting, or even at home with take-out cooling on the wobbly table they’d spotted in a thrift shop. It was his habit to wait, he’d been good at it ever since being a contemplative child in the country, where all around him things took their own time, quite apart from what his battered pocket watch stated. It was her habit to keep people waiting as she did one last thing, booked two appointments at once or was compelled to stop on the street to save the rabbit that got loose from somewhere and was about to mowed down by a skateboarder. So it wasn’t just Timothy who paid for her lateness; each person had stories to add. But it felt like it when it happened again. She knew this was unacceptable, surely.

Madeline was flat-out in a rush, energetic about everything but over-engaged with life, that was the problem. It had been one of the issues when he’d interviewed her for the vacant spot as apartment mate. The first being she was female which, when she proffered full cash for the first month, he promptly forgot. It was a large vintage-style apartment close to city center; Timothy had lived there two years and did not want to give it up after his original roommate exited for the paradise of New Zealand. Most people he’d talked to couldn’t part with the hefty sum despite their excitement over wonderful views of the river from the front windows and from a small balcony at back, colorful storefronts and ongoing activities.

“I like to quiet things down by eleven at the latest.”

“Even on week-ends?” Madeline had asked, shocked.

“I sometimes work on week-ends.”

“Yes, but I hold on all week long for Friday and Saturday nights, like most people.”

“I’m a web designer on the side, if you recall. I work on week-ends often, just as when I’m at the office being a cog in the techie world during the week.”

She half-frowned, more a vague, acquiescent look of knitting together her eyebrows and tightening her lips, which were brilliantly glossed. He couldn’t quite stop looking at her lips. They were like two bright flags waving under the pier of her nose, rather too long for her face. He found her a bit funny but kept his face empty of telltale ripples.

He considered the bathroom sharing, how much space she might take up. His vanishing friend, Evan, had used half of one drawer for all his essentials. They had never tripped over each other’s stuff unless there  had been a big sports night with friends, beer and crunchy snacks.

“Are you saying you have restrictions on when I can be up or make any sort of noise? Do you snore?”

He looked away, narrowed his eyes at the wood floor. Who was she, questioning him? But yes, he did snore, that had irked Evan until he’d found good ear plugs. And also, he was a periodic insomniac so could get up a few times.

“I see how this is, my friend, so good luck with finding someone who fits all your needs.” She started to rise form her chair.

“No, wait, we’ve just begun. I really need an apartment mate. Tell me more. Basic info about your own lifestyle, is that okay?”

“I work as noted in the county building handling building permit requests and such, go out with friends often enough but am not a raging drunk or pitiful drug abuser and have no pets at the moment; I do have one stuffed dog from years ago–don’t ask–named Goldie who will stay put on my bed. I like classic movies and cook some but prefer take out. I am tolerant of most tunes and love world music. I run each morning around six–well, I used to have access to a stinky gym in my other building but now I’ll run again, along the river, that should be fun! I’m a hiker and a dragon boat team racer. I have no boyfriend now and won’t be looking. I’m neat enough.”

“Dragon boat teammate, nice,” he murmured.

She studied him as he jotted notes and laughed. “You’re writing this all down?”

Timothy put aside the note pad and pen. “I took info on the other three, too. I’m sharing a home with a stranger, right?” He tried to make himself look at ease, took a breath, let it seep out. “Look, I’ll check your references and get back to you in a few days.”

“Come on, Timothy, I have the money right now and if you need a security deposit, that’s fine, too. I have to get into a place ASAP–they’re tearing the three-story down to put up one hundred-sixty condo units that will rent for some crazy price.” She looked about. ” I can afford this, it’s a wonderful place–even near my work. And I think you’re a nice enough guy, a far better sort than the third roommate we had a short time who was a bona fide slob and kept a few scary reptiles caged in his room. You’re just a little rigid…we’re workable, right? Or do you have some nutty habits I’ll run from, screaming  in fright? Because I don’t need all that.”

He cleared his throat to cover his surprise over the money as well as her dwelling circumstances and the snake handler. “Well, I’ve got my ways, but I’m not an intolerant person, just organized. Quiet by nature.  I’m a kind of studious sort of guy except for some sports on TV. I don’t get too wild, no–that’s a serious understatement…so, guess that’s it, then. When will you move in?”

It took her over two weeks to haul in possessions–not so many, just one piece at a time, it seemed to him– despite her emphatic statement that it’d be five days, max. This was his first clue about her lateness.

But she ended up being a fine roommate, paid her rent ahead of time, kept her things picked up, was cordial and lively without being intrusive. They’d found they had a few things in common, despite her opinionated frankness and his more neutral philosophizing. Despite her terribly long hot baths and his fast cool showers. Despite the contrast between her chatty friends–one of whom slept on the couch after concerts or films or drinking a few and dancing at a monthly ceili, of all things–and his two very good friends who he met out somewhere else excepting baseball and basketball season on television and playing golf a couple times a month in good weather.

And Madeline liked baseball a lot, it turned out. And thrift store shopping, going to see travelogues, volunteering for park clean ups, sitting by the river with a book and music. They had, day by day and activity by activity, just become friends. Timothy suspected this meant more to him. She had an interesting and busy life compared to his and the more she went out, the more he stayed in it seemed. He worked hard on his side jobs and saved up–he wanted to buy his own place one day. It was a relief, his solitary immersion in silence so the high ceilings echoed only with the click-click of his computer keyboard, the bright clink of ice against the sides of a tall glass of minty green tea. He nearly forgot she lived there when she was gone a couple of days, then he realized he waited for her to show up when she said she’d be home.

But she kept him waiting no matter the plans. It had irritated him so long that he felt he might blow up the minute she walked in this time. Timothy had to tell her in no uncertain terms that such lack of consideration was unacceptable. Either they should not plan things together often or she had to promise to be on time.

He settled in with an espresso and a notebook for recording ideas for his next projects. But he did love Little Paris district and the Jolie Cafe. They’d discovered it when thirsting for a great cup of coffee. That day they’d bought an antique gilded mirror for the foyer. And they’d taken home delicate apricot croissants for late night snacks and two bear claws for breakfast the next morning–though she’d been late for work so rushed off without hers. But it was that day when there was a switching of tracks in his brain, when something appeared at the edges of his sight, even though they’d said and done nothing different. She’d turned to laugh her belly laugh at something he’d quipped, long hair whipping about the planes of noteworthy cheekbones, and he saw all that light welling up inside her and haphazardly spilling over, and he felt a rush of warmth, even in the lines of his palms and fingertips, along the back of his neck, and then it paused and bloomed in the center of his chest.

He didn’t think she noticed. He was so unsure of himself with women. Even of their friendship after that.

******

He looked at his pocket watch given to him by his grandfather, a dairy man who also bred fine horses. The old man would be happy to know it stayed with him all these years, that he’d taken care to keep it running. What would he think of his work, he often wondered, of the way he’d turned his back on the family legacy and toward this city life? He’d have been pleased after he thought it over awhile, just like his dad, Timothy imagined. He checked the time once more, sighed in a rush of caffeinated breath.

Both of them would have appreciated Madeline–her respect for nature, exuberance, how she handled herself with confidence and humor. Grandpa wouldn’t worry so much about her penchant for forgetting time and he’d take Timothy aside to say, Have to go with the natural rhythm and order of things, no matter who or what, be patient with women, too.

Thirty-five minutes now, no, forty. He checked his phone–no messages–then slammed back the rest of the espresso and gathered up his things. He wasn’t waiting any longer.

At the cafe’s heavy front door was an explosion of motion as it was shoved open. In rushed Madeline and a waitress looked up in surprise, reached out to slow her down then stepped back, hand to mouth. Timothy’s back was turned but when Madeline uttered his name in a strange voice and grabbed his shoulders, he pivoted. He took her by the arms, lead her to his table, sat her down. He leaned forward as he took her all in, trembling knees touching hers, her jeans dirtied, torn. Words were useless but customers had begun to whisper. The waitress had run off and fast returned with wet towel in hand, the manager right behind her, both white-faced.

Madeline’s own face was a ghastly study in pain, of raw gashes and swollen pink areas that were already darkening to bruises. Blood seeped and flowed, the worst from a large cut two inches beneath her right eye. Her neck was splotchy and her hands dangling at her sides were marred by scrapes, broken fingernails that bled, too. Her rain jacket was torn and stained. Her whole body, her expression held the feel and look of horror but no tears fell. She tried to slow down her breathing and making little headway despite encouragement from the waitress, Carol, and Timothy. The manager hovered, asking repeatedly if he should call 911, then he just dialed.

“What happened, how did you get hurt–who did this?” Timothy said as he gently dabbed at blood and grime and soon giving up. He had to get her to help.

“From the bus stop I took a shortcut–I was so late!–ran through an alley I’ve taken before oh my god Timothy, two guys, a woman they grabbed and tripped me– I was–tried to fight, got up, was hit again, dragged me back down, took my purse, everything, oh no this really hurts–”

Tears then, great heaves, her hurt cheeks streaming as people gathered about or quietly exited the cafe. A siren wailed in the distance and Carol knelt down, put an arm around her but Madeline reached for Timothy so he pulled her slowly onto his lap and held her there. She buried her damaged face into his sweater-soft shoulder, wept hard. All he wanted was to carry her out of there, pick her up and take her to medical care and then home, far away from police reports and gawkers. Far from her burgeoning fear as adrenaline subsided so that the nightmare and pain came forward to assault mind and body again and again.

******

They lay in her bed as the long white curtains with tiny green ferns billowed at a half-open window. Late morning sunlight spilled over exposed skin, illuminated their eyes as he stared beyond the window into an unreal new day and she, at the most ordinary comfort of a textured ceiling. A robin sang its loud, repetitive song; cars and buses and trucks  honked and made their way to the next stop.

Madeline rolled awkwardly toward him, trying not to emit a moan but finally letting go a whimper. Her neck, head and face; arms and hands; hips and knees had been x-rayed, prodded, disinfected, stitched, butterfly band-aid patched, swathed in gauze as needed. Antibiotics had been administered since she’d been taken down in the alley. Nearly beaten. Nothing was broken; she’d sport such big bruises. Scars that might be fixed later. She’d had a mild concussion; doctors had kept her in hospital for twelve hours. The police had followed, taken her complete report, then seemed to have an idea who the attacking thieves might be. No comfort, that, not then and not in the morning. It had happened to her, it was an event no one could have foreseen, and the damage had been sustained and would remain for some time. Long after flesh and sinew healed.

“Timothy?” she whispered, one bandaged hand lain crumpled on his chest.

His face turned to hers and he held her loosely so as not to jostle or squeeze one wounded spot. He ached for her aching but had found few words.

“Can we stay right here… a long, long, long time?”

He blinked back sudden dampness at the corner of his eyes, raised his head to barely brush her quivering lips with his own.

“Forever if you like.” He put a hand lightly atop her arm, felt her warmth and his mingle. “But maybe we could work on time issues, and then there’s safety…”

“Mmm, um, good,” she mumbled then slowly draped a leg over his. “Glad that’s at least settled.”

Madeline drifted off again. Timothy knew she might mean the matter of time or safety as well as staying there forever but all the same, he had to clench his teeth to keep from shouting out in sorrow and in joy.