Matthew Lickona 1:14 p.m., May 24
Renting Annie (a short story)
My husband, Scott, is a financial genius. Not because he’s made us millions, but merely because he’s made us a thousand so far. And that’s enough to keep us happy. At least for another few months here in La Mesa.
Scott did it by putting a price on the contents of our lives. Literally. Everything in our house that could potentially be useful to someone for something, it was all for rent, all on the table, la mesa, open for offers: tools, books, kitchen appliances, children’s toys, bikes, our guest room, car, anything you wanted, even ourselves (he’d included an add that offered “A friendly husband or wife, or both, for companionship, for exchanging ideas, debate adversaries, for market research, cooking tips, tennis partners, chess adversaries, quilting instruction (wife only), wardrobe advisors, sparring partners (husband only), whatever you want that doesn’t require nudity or illegal activities” – thankfully, we’ve had no takers on that one yet.)
He’d heard about the phenomenon online, in a story on a progressive lefty website, maybe Mother Jones or Alternet, or maybe that TalkLeft site he’s been spending so much time on lately. Collective consumption is what some are calling it. A reaction against the half century of blind corporate consumer culture that has brought the country to the brink of collapse. A new attempt to remake community in the digital and social networking age. Mostly it was about making money from the crap cluttering our existence, in an economy as dying as any we’d experienced in our relatively young lives. For people like Scott and me, in our mid-thirties, home ownership isn’t even a dream, it’s dead and buried barring a miracle resurrection. Scott brings in decent money with his grant writing, and I’ve been subbing part-time in the public school system, biding my time until our son is in full time kindergarten and I can try to get a permanent teaching gig, so we are doing fine comparatively, but it will never be enough to justify gambling on a house these days. Especially in southern California, but I’d feel pretty much the same way if we lived in Iowa. Because that’s all it’s become now really, for most normal people: pure gambling. Still, it makes me sad to think our son will never live in his own home, that we’ll never have that physical nest-egg like previous generations. Sometimes I tell myself we’ll get there, but I don’t really believe that. While never too worried about money, we’re never really free of worry either. With a little extra cash (this month’s six hundred bucks is our best month of three by far), we can at least enjoy a few marginal luxuries, like a weekend in a hotel at the beach, or a nice dinner downtown, or a summer science camp for our son.
Scott started out by putting ads on Craigslist, then branched out to a few person-to-person rental websites that have cropped up, and it took him little time to start fielding offers and watching our PayPal and credit union accounts grow fatter. Several people had rented the lawnmower, someone else the spare TV that was sitting in the garage, and two people had paid good money to rent our backyard and barbeque for birthday parties last month – a backyard that we also rent, by the way. A quarter of our rented garage, as well, is currently sublet to a professor who is out of the country doing research, his meager belongings tucked next to our sleeping bags and other camping stuff. Forty dollars for nine months, he’d offered. Scott countered with fifty and the deal was done. We’ve made money on many other things, as well: a woman from Canada rented our old Volvo for three days, a college kid regularly rents Scott’s old laptop, my pasta maker fetches fifteen bucks a night, and we’d made a hundred dollars renting out our son’s old crib and baby toys (some of his current toys he’s also volunteered to rent, though whether he can part with them if the time should come, we shall see). Just yesterday, in fact, an older man from El Cajon paid ten dollars to use our shovel, rake and hoe for two days. “I have a real bad gardening Jones,” he said. “Just came over me. But I know it won’t last.” Hopefully it will.
There’s been little to nothing that hasn’t seemed capable of making us some spare change. It was surprising to me at first, but increasingly made sense. Things are changing. People are desperate, for extra money, and for something new, for an escape from all things multinational and predatory. So I greatly appreciate the politics and the extra money from Scott’s rental obsession. My only problem came when Scott had to leave town for a few days on a job. It doesn’t happen often, maybe a few days every three or four months, but this is the first time he’ll been out of town since the rental store has opened for business. Scott has handled all the rental transactions until now, dealt with all of our “customers.” Now I would have to, if the opportunity should arise. And it’s the last thing in the world I want to do. Meeting and greeting strangers appeals to my personality about as much as torture. I’d rather have toenails extracted, which I told Scott as he was packing for his trip to Denver.
“Annie, come on, it’s not like you’re going to be dealing with a crowd of people at the door. We have nothing scheduled right now, you might get through it without having to meet anyone. Just check the messages in the morning and afternoon, okay? If you have a bad feeling about someone, call me and I’ll put them off until I’m back. And, of course, I don’t want you renting out the guest room when I’m gone. But maybe you’ll surprise yourself.”
I never surprise myself. But I hoped he was right about the other part, that no one would inquire about any of our trinkets or appliances or extra spoons or god knows what, that I would not have to talk to any strangers showing up at my door with a few bucks and the need of our bread maker, the one we never use anyway. What Scott said about not renting out the guest room almost made me laugh, as if I ever would while he was out of town. I’d had enough trouble doing it when he was home. We’d rented it once, and in the few days before the renter showed up to spend a week on our guest futon, I’d gotten anxious to the point of panic. What about our son, I told Scott, how can we let a stranger in the house around our little boy? But Scott assured me he’d talked to the guy, that he was meeting him first, at a Starbucks down the street, before he came over. I was still not completely assuaged, so Scott gave me an article that he’d read, one of the pieces that had inspired him to embark on this rental life. In the article, a wife like me worried about renting their guest room to a stranger, only to find out the boarder was both delightful and generous. In the end, she had her faith in people reaffirmed to a surprising degree.
Good for her, I thought. But she’s not me. “You have to open yourself up to people more,” Scott told me. “That’s what I love about this renting thing, it really makes me feel like part of a larger community, not just a faceless nation or state or whatever. I feel like I’m part of re-establishing something we’ve lost.” It did not make me feel better about hosting a stranger for five days.
“You should’ve said women only,” I told Scott, ignoring the fact I’d agreed to the unisex ad weeks earlier (I was a little stoned, what can I say?). “What if he turns out to be a serial killer?”
“What if I do?” my husband replied.
I was hardly amused. But two hundred dollars was two hundred dollars, and we desperately wanted a weekend in nice room or condo in Del Mar or La Jolla, maybe even Hawaii in our fanciest wishes, and the money would add nicely to the vacation account. So I said yes, clutching our son tightly for the first few days of our guest’s stay.
His name was Gordon. He was in his mid-twenties, from Seattle, wispy of beard and cut like an anorexic distance runner; he wore the same pair of cargo pants and sandals every day, only the t-shirt changed – one of which, my favorite, featured a photo of Nixon meeting Elvis in the Oval Office, with a large caption underneath that read “CULTURE;” and while he didn’t exactly reaffirm any faith I’d lost in humanity (I have always known, after all, precisely where that lack of faith permanently resides inside of me), this young man did turn out to be harmless, remain mostly out of sight (he was in town for a computer network seminar), he loved racing slot cars with our five year-old son, Jeremy, and, most importantly, his money was in the bank. Also, my husband works almost entirely from home, so I was never here alone with our boarder for more than an hour or two, skittish lab rat that I am. Gordon’s only negative was a sort of retro-hippie B.O. that lingered like sour balsamic soy milk (he had made a point of saying, near the end of his stay, that he thought “deodorants dehumanize us in an insidious way”). His sickly tart aroma clung to the futon fabric for a good three days after he’d departed. I washed the cover and sheets twice.
“I’ll be back on Wednesday night,” Scott told me as he got out of the car at the airport. “Just do me a favor and check the message box when you get home.”
Once again I grudgingly accepted, but I doubted I would follow through.
“Bye, daddy,” said Jeremy from his rear safety-seat. “Bring me back a souvenir.”
“You know I will, buddy. And I’ll miss you so much.” Scott opened the rear door and leaned his tall body in to kiss Jeremy on the cheek, then he rested his forehead against the boy’s for a few seconds, cherishing the last moments before he left, the warmth of skin on skin. I wish I’d taken a picture. The genetics of love: their thick dark hair and sweet brown eyes mirror images of each other, copies in flesh.
“Daddy, when is Gordon gonna live with us again?”
Scott glanced at me with a smile meant to tell me, “You see? It’s all good. Relax.”
“Maybe someday,” Scott replied to Jeremy. “But I don’t know. We might have new friends stay over though. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?”
Jeremy replied in a firm tone: “I want Gordon.”
This time I glanced back at Scott and gave him a smile, of a quality that he didn’t particularly want to see.
“Have fun in Denver,” were my parting words to him. We forgot to give each other a kiss. That never happens.
* * *
“Mommy, have you checked the computer yet? Maybe Gordon wants to stay over again.”
Jeremy’s words make me cringe, as I head into the kitchen to make lunch for the two of us, maybe some leftover pasta shells with marinara and fake veggie ground beef.
“Aren’t you hungry? You have to be, you’re a growing boy. Let’s get some good food in you so you can grow bigger than daddy by the time you’re twelve. Doesn’t that sound fun?” I say this to him to distract him from the computer and Gordon. It doesn’t work. He tilts his head of dark curly hair, his innocent brown eyes boring through me.
“You promised daddy you’d check the computer. You should check it now.”
I huff. “How about we go get bean and cheese burritos at La Salsa? Frijoles y queso. You love those more than anything”
He will not be swayed. “I want Gordon.”
Five minutes later I’m on the computer looking at three messages from people who want to rent our crap.
“Is there a message from Gordon?” Jeremy excitedly asks.
“Sorry, sweetie, there’s isn’t. But someone wants to pay thirty bucks to rent daddy’s drill and jigsaw for few days.”
“Why would somebody want to rent a jigsaw puzzle? You can buy them for not that much, can’t you?”
“It’s a tool, baby. A kind of saw.”
“Oh. Is that the saw they use to cut up the puzzles into all their pieces?”
“I never thought about it, but maybe it is. My little genius.”
I tickle his tummy as I glance at the other two messages. The first is from a woman named Juliette, who wants to rent our spare microwave, the one we got as a wedding present and never even took out of the box, our original working fine to this day. We could sell it, I suppose, but Scott is all about renting right now, reuse, utilizing our inventory to the greatest degree.
The last email is from a guy named Mel, who, strangely I think, wants to rent my sewing machine for a week. Fifty bucks he’s offering. I don’t like it. It’s not his offer, it’s the fact that it’s a him at all. I’m not handing my prized Singer, given to me by my only aunt, to some dude I don’t know. Call me sexist, I don’t care. It’s like my other baby. Now, if a Michelle, or a Trudy, or a Gwen, if a name like those had inquired, well, it might be a different story. Might. But Mel? Not a chance in hell. I wasn’t keen on Scott putting my machine on the rental list in the first place, this only re-hardens my resolve. Mel sounds like a con man’s name, or a football coach’s. He isn’t getting my baby.
* * *
“Mommy, they’re here! I see them walking up to the porch!”
“Shh!” I hush Jeremy. “Be quiet, let’s pretend we’re not here.”
“Because I don’t want to talk to any strangers right now. I put the saw and drill outside the door with a note. They already paid us anyway, it doesn’t matter if I talk to them.”
“How did they pay us already?”
I whisper. “PayPal. Shh.”
He frowns and remains quiet. Crouched behind the kitchen counter, we listen as footsteps approach the door, pick up the drill and saw, then pause, no doubt reading the note. Then the doorbell rings. Dammit.
Jeremy whispers to me. “What if they have to ask us something important?”
“They can email it.”
“What if you left the wrong thing for them?”
Jeremy frowns again.
Our customers finally take their goods and walk away. I stand up, as does Jeremy, and he looks up at me, confused.
“Do we really have to do that every time?”
Sadly we probably will, considering my current mood. Fifteen minutes before Juliette is supposed to come by for the spare microwave, her money already in our online account, I lug the appliance out of the garage and put it on the bench on the porch, next to the front door. I leave exactly the same note I’d left with the tools, the only difference is the word “microwave” in place of “drill and saw.” This time I decide, on the fly, to take Jeremy on a walk around the block. I don’t want to crouch behind the kitchen counter again like a shut-in freak, nor should my son be forced to. So we take his new bike, training wheels freshly attached, and get out of the house quickly. At the end of the block, I turn and catch a glimpse of an overweight woman, in an egregiously stretched out jogging suit, placing our microwave into the back seat of her SUV. As she drives away in the opposite direction, relief leaps from my lungs.
When I don’t want to meet people, I really know how not to. But I got the stuff rented, I’d kept my promise. Mostly.
* * *
“Why didn’t you respond to the message about the sewing machine?” Scott asks me on speaker-phone later that afternoon, when he calls to say his flight made it to Denver without crashing to earth or bursting into a fireball mid-air. Not that I’m a worrier or anything. I’m in the kitchen, finally making our lunch, now essentially an early dinner.
“I didn’t respond because I don’t want to rent my sewing machine to some strange guy named Mel.”
“Did you look at Mel’s profile? Upper right on the screen?”
“No, I didn’t. Why does it matter?”
“Because Mel is a seventy-five year old woman.”
I remain defensive. “And you trust that?”
“Well, I looked at her photos and read reviews of folks who’ve rented to her, and they all say she reminds them of their grandmother, so sweet and nice.”
“Fine,” I tell him, feeling like an idiot, “I’ll get in touch with Mel. But I still don’t know if I’ll be able to lend out my baby.”
“I already did it for you. The payment’s already in our PayPal kitty. She wants to pick it up in an hour.”
Sometimes I hate my husband. Not in a bad way. Not much.
“I really wish you’d have told me earlier.”
“Why? So you could back out?”
“Listen, you did the other two rentals just fine, one more and you’re clear. A little chit chat with an old lady, how hard can it be?”
Jeremy enters the kitchen. “She made us hide behind the kitchen counter before, daddy! She left the stuff on the porch for the people to take!”
“She did, daddy!”
I can feel the sigh Scott exhales from Denver. “Annie, is that true?”
I consider lying, but quickly choose not to. “Yes, okay? But only once. The second time I took Jeremy out for a walk, he rode his bike, and when we came back the microwave was gone. Okay? That’s just how I feel like doing it sometimes.”
“I’m only saying—“
I get him off speaker phone and pick up the receiver.
“Look, you’re the one from the normal family, you got raised right, I didn’t. I’m all messed up with people, you knew that when you married me.”
Scott takes another of what have been, in our seven year relationship, hundreds of patient moments of silence with me.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “I wish I wasn’t so dysfunctional sometimes. But I am.”
Another moment, his tone so patient and loving it pierces me, as it always does, this is why I love the man. “I just think it might be best to show Jeremy a different example, a better one. You don’t want him crouching behind kitchen counters when he’s grown up, do you? Hiding from the world?”
Of course I don’t. “No.”
“Then maybe just think about it next time.”
I look at Jeremy, who is now pretending to fly around the room as if he were a raptor, gliding on wings of arms. “I will. Next time.”
Scott chuckles, which I don’t like at the moment. “Tell me something. How the hell do you deal with all those new kids when you sub at school?”
“They’re kids. Children. New kids don’t bother me. It’s their parents. That’s why I’m kind of worried I won’t want a permanent teaching gig when Jeremy goes to school full time. I just like the kids, I don’t want to have anything to do with the parents. As a sub, I pretty much get that. Sort of, in a strange way. You know?”
I’ve never so precisely voiced it before, or forced myself to organize the thought at all, but there it is. I am going to be a lifetime substitute teacher, I can see it now: kids only; adults sign in at the front and maybe I’ll talk to you later, if I have to, which I usually won’t.
“Well,” replies Scott, “things change, you never know.” That’s my husband, so level, so calm, so Scott.
“Believe me,” I tell him, “I know how things change. I’m the one who never lived in the same place more than a year and a half as a kid.” I say this, as I usually do, with more bitterness than necessary. He understands already.
A short and familiar pause ensues. Scott is so goddamned patient so much, I can hardly believe it’s genuine. But it is never anything but.
“I love you, Annie. And I’m yours forever.”
He always knows how to say it, and when to say it. Again, this is why I married the man.
“I love you, too. And I’ll let you know how it goes with Mel.”
“Thank you. Let me talk to Jeremy a bit before I have to get to this meeting.”
Jeremy flies to the phone and grasps it with what he says are his talons. Where did he learn such a word? As I make our pasta, Scott and Jeremy laugh on the phone. Jeremy is still pretending to be a bird, speaking in peeps and chirps. I love kids. It’s their adults I usually can’t stand.
* * *
The knock on the door an hour later is faint, and I have no trouble believing it comes from the hand of a woman in her seventies. I hesitate for the briefest of moments, which Jeremy jumps on.
“We’re not hiding behind the counter again, mommy!”
Of course we aren’t, I reassure him. I take a yoga breath, then I move to the door and open it. Standing before me is Mel, who looks as far from that name as a human possibly could. She introduces herself as Melody Joseph.
“But call me Mel if you like,” she adds. I don’t like, but I’ll get over it.
She is wearing loose pleated jeans, baby blue v-neck top under a beige cardigan sweater. Her gray hair is “done,” in a manner that demands bi-weekly sessions under a bonnet dryer. The wrinkles on her face are neither prominent nor particularly deep, but her eyes are sunken, a melancholy shade in her quiet gaze.
“Where did you come from?” I ask her as she enters.
“Not very far at all, dear,” she replies. “Just off Baltimore, close to Lake Murray.” Jeremy is in the family room, building something spectacular, he assures us, out of Legos and wood blocks and other stuff. It might take him hours, he concludes.
“You build yourself a whole city,” I tell him. “Whatever that genius mind of yours can conjure.”
“So precious.” She beams at my son as if he is her own.
“I never liked Melody,” she says as I lead her down the hall, toward the closet where I keep the sewing machine.. “It sounded too girlish for a tomboy like me, so I’ve been going by Mel since 1939.”
But I couldn’t do it for her. She was Melody to me.
“Your son is just adorable, by the way,” she says as I pull the machine out of the closet. “Such a joy.”
“You should see him when he’s hung over.”
What am I doing saying this? My sarcastic-self needs to know its time and place.
But she laughs, Melody Joseph laughs. Seventy-five years old and she thinks the joke about my five year-old being schnockered is funny. God bless her. And I believe in no God but death.
“Oh, I’m sure he’s a handful sometimes, but they always are, and I should know. Shouldn’t cancel out the love and joy though.”
And she should know. What does that mean? I don’t ask. “Well, here she is,” I say, removing the cover.
Melody looks at the sewing machine, but her mind suddenly seems fixed on some other object, something more human, less tangible.
“It looks fine, dear,” she tells me, so I put the cover back on. “I’m just glad I take those computer classes at the senior center, or I’d have never found you.”
“Good for you. You should be proud of yourself. Too many people don’t want to learn new things. I have that problem myself.”
“You? Oh no, you’re such a pretty, bright young lady. I’m sure you do just fine.”
I could not suppress my amusement. “I’m glad you’re sure, because I never am.”
“You’re just about her age, too. How old are you, dear?”
“Thirty-six. Do I look older?”
She doesn’t answer my vain question, mouthing the age back to me: thirty-six. “She’s only twenty-six. Imagine that.”
Melody collects herself. “It’s nothing, dear, I’m just talking to myself. Batty old lady.”
But there isn’t a thing, as far as I can tell, that is genuinely batty about her. “Let me put it in your car for you,” I offer. “It’s pretty heavy. Are you going to have help getting it out when you get home?”
“Oh, thank you, but I’ll be fine when I get it home. I’m stronger than you think.”
She’s probably right, I sell everyone short. I’m the weakling, after all, hiding behind counters, avoiding whenever I can. When I get the machine into the back seat of her old Ford station wagon, I turn to see her looking at me with an expression of subtle dismay.
“Are you alright?” I ask her.
She looks away, as if emotion is biting her, but then she returns her gaze to me. Her eyes look close to watery, and I can’t avoid them. “You know, dear, I have to be honest with you. I really didn’t need to rent your sewing machine.”
I don’t know exactly what she means. She looks away again.
“In your ad, you talked about having a husband and wife for rent, for various things, and even though I know it was sort of a joke…but you mentioned talking and exchanging ideas, and that’s…that’s really what I need. More than anything.”
Uh-oh, it’s finally happening. Someone wants to rent me. But I panic for a second, I want to run, to crouch behind that kitchen counter again. Melody Joseph doesn’t need a machine, she needs a fellow human being. And she could not have picked one more uncertain or self doubting.
I start to speak, uncertain what will come out. “Honestly it was kind of a joke, my husband is just so excited about this renting thing he’s been on…”
I’m such a jerk.
“I thought so,” she says, barely. “Never mind, dear. You just forget I said anything, and I’ll have this sewing machine back to you in a week.”
She is moving toward the driver’s side of the car.
But I can’t let her go.
“Wait, it’s okay, the ad was real.”
She seems lacking in faith. “You don’t have to say that, dear. I’ll just be on my way.”
“No, seriously, please…” I try to change her mind. “We need the money. Really. Whatever you need to talk about, I’m sure I can help some way, even if it’s just by listening.”
Why mention the money? Did I really think this is what would make her believe I was serious? Whatever the disgusting cultural influence, the rhetorical turn to finance works. Melody and I make our way back into the house, where I offer to make tea for us.
“It’s my daughter,” she says as we enter. “I can’t believe I haven’t talked to her in so long. So many years.”
* * *
Her daughter’s name is Kara. Melody won’t say where she lives, only that she’s twenty-six and out of control. Drugs, the wrong men. Nothing but bad things. Our lemon zinger tea is still far too scalding to drink.
“I just need to talk to her, one more time. Everything can be forgiven.”
“You’re right, it can.”
But could it? Did I ever forgive my sick-in-the-head, twisted stepmother? Or my father for marrying her? Or my mother for leaving us so soon?
No. None of them. Or myself. Sad, pitiful little girl.
Melody and I silently tend our teacups, our hands shaking and nervous, bobbing teabags up and down to cool the steaming liquid.
“I had her when I was forty-four,” Melody continues wistfully. “We didn’t even think it was possible, after so many years. The doctor said we were infertile. But there she was. And we had no idea what to do.”
“I’m sure you did the best you could,” I try to reassure her. “Usually people are better parents when they’re older.”
Melody shakes her head gently, disagreeing. Emotion is overtaking her.
“My husband was even older, a man in his fifties when we had her, he was in the military, I don’t think he knew what to do. I know he didn’t. It was fine when Kara was younger, in elementary school, but as soon as she hit those teenage years…he just couldn’t cope with her at all, they could hardly be in the same room. The military doesn’t work with an angry teenage girl. I didn’t work either, and I’m her mother, I’m supposed to know how to help my own child.”
We both remove tissues from the box on the table, dabbing at our increasingly raining eyes.
“It’s never easy,” I console her. “I blame myself every day for things I say and do around my son.”
Melody continues. “The first time she ran away, she was only fourteen. Home is where you’re supposed to feel safe and happy. Kara never felt anything like that. As soon as she was old enough to think about it, all she wanted to do was leave us. She used to say we were as old as her friends’ grandparents. Which was probably true, or close enough. I just feel like I should’ve done more, that I still can.”
“So you never talk to her anymore?” I ask.
She pauses, sadness enveloping her, and I regret asking the question before she can answer: “In my dreams I do.” Melody breaks down here, sobbing delicately into her withered and worn hands. “I’m crazy, don’t you understand? I am a crazy old woman.”
I’m trying not to sob along with her, but having little luck. “No, you’re not, not at all. You just needed to talk. I’m sure your daughter still thinks about you, you’re the only mother she has, and there’s always a chance that people--”
She interrupts me, softly as her age. “My daughter is dead. She overdosed. Five years ago. I’m crazy to be here bothering you. So crazy. Please forgive me.”
The sound of the dishwasher and a distant leaf blower are all I can hear. And the falling of Melody’s tears. I move to the chair next to hers and lean to embrace her more tightly and with more emotion than I can ever remember embracing my own complicated mother. We are crying as one.
“I just want to tell her I’m sorry,” Melody weeps. “I just want to tell her I’m sorry. And that I love her more than I ever showed her.”
“You’re a good mother,” I hold onto her. “I know you are.”
“You didn’t know me then.”
“Maybe you didn’t either. But I know you now. I know you now. And that’s all we have.”
I sound older than I ever have. I only hope I am helping, and not saying all the wrong things. But our embrace and shared release continue for a few more minutes, stretch a moment into a permanent landscape, a new place.
This poor woman. This aching, beautiful, lonely woman. I am soon to be her, am I not? This terrifies me. But her arms, with their bony grip, tell me no, that the only fate is age, the rest we can choose. She is comforting me as much as I am her, though she doesn’t know it. We hold each other for several minutes, a catharsis at tea.
Something in me moves, chemistry pushed by emotion.
I tell Melody she should stay for lunch, that she could share some pasta with us, but she says she needs to get moving, she has to get to her new computer class. “I’m going to learn that Adobe Photo something or other. Pray I don’t get too confused.”
“You’ll have it down in no time. Maybe you’ll meet a nice man.” I wink ridiculously at her. So stupid of me to say and do.
“Oh dear. Can you imagine? Me? On a date? Oh heavens no…”
I tell her she doesn’t look a day over sixty, and she laughs.
I peek through the doorway at Jeremy playing with Legos in the living room. He has no idea what is, or has been, going on with us in the kitchen. I am thankful. He sees so much drama from me, I don’t want to have to explain more.
“Thank you so much, dear,” Melody tells me. “For just being here. When your friends have all gone away, or passed on, or your children have…sometimes it’s just hard. To be alone every day. Even when you’re around people. It’s just so silly.”
“It’s not silly at all, don’t you say that.”
Her tears are flowing again. “I just needed someone to hold me today. It’s been so long. I really hope I haven’t been a bother.”
I tell her she could not be further from the truth. “A gift. You’re a gift.” She reaches for my hands, her thin fingers wrapping around mine. We look into each other’s eyes for a long and comforting time.
“I’m going to make your boy a nice outfit!” Melody announces. “You email me the sizes I should make it, measure him real good, and I’ll try to make it so he doesn’t grow out of it too fast.”
I smile and give her a kiss on the cheek. Such a sweet woman. I want to take all of her sadness for her, but I know she’ll never let me, nor should she. We all carry our own. Other people just help carry us.
Our tea is now cool enough to drink. We sip in a restful state. I invite her to dinner on Sunday, the day after Scott returns from Denver. She accepts with grace unknown to those who have not spent at least seven decades toiling in this life.
“And I’ll put that sewing machine to good use,” she says as I walk her to her car. “What’s your boy’s favorite color?”
“What else? Blue.”
When she drives away in her old station wagon, she goes so slowly that there are three cars trailing her by the end of the block.
* * *
“Hey there, salesgirl!” Scott declares when I pick up the phone for his nightly call. He’s referring to me as salesgirl, he says, because Mel not only rented the sewing machine, but she also—
“It’s short for Melody.”
“Melody, fantastic, but whatever her name is, she just deposited a cool hundred extra bucks in our PayPal account.”
“For something she described as Renting Annie, one hour. I told you that ad might work. But you must have really entertained her for that kind of money. Did you have a knitting contest or something? Clean her dentures and cut her toenails?”
“Shut up, please. And you need to refund her money,” I tell him. “Right now.”
“All of it? Why?”
“Because I won’t have her paying for spending time with me. She gave me just as much, so it cancels out. Hell, I should be paying for her time.”
Scott, understanding and perceptive as ever, and sensing the slight change in me, immediately refunds the money with a note of explanation. I thank him, tell him I love him. Jeremy is anxious to speak with him, so I give my son the phone. The conversation with his father is entirely about Legos and the fortress Jeremy’s building. I know how to build those, I tell him. Good ones, too.
* * *
After joining us for dinner that Sunday, when she won over Jeremy for good with her decadent and irresistible double chocolate chip cookies, Melody now comes over for dinner at least every Sunday, sometimes two or three times a week. She’s welcome to come all seven. (I still hate calling her Mel, I don’t know why, and I must get over it. I owe it to her. I haven’t crouched behind the kitchen counter to hide from anyone, after all, since that first day I met her, though I still catch myself wanting to squat and disappear now and then.) The blue pants and jacket she made for Jeremy are lovely, he wears them all the time. She has become like a grandmother to him, which is marvelous, since Scott’s parents live in Minnesota, and my parents have been gone for years.
Scott set up a rental account for Melody, er, Mel, mostly for her late husband’s extensive collection of tools, especially his professional-grade woodworking stuff. She’s even started renting her old station wagon a few nights a week to a local rock band, who use it to haul equipment to their gigs. Scott handles most of the initial contacts for her, checking out potential customers before Mel meets them, just to be safe. The extra money is a significant addition to her extremely fixed income. I’m glad we can help her in this way, as well as others.
I’ve informed her, also, that our guest bedroom is hers whenever she wants it. Forever if need be. All grandmothers eventually move in, that’s what I tell her.
“Daddy, can you check to see if Gordon left a message and wants to stay with us again?”
And Gordon can stay too, of course, maybe on an air mattress on the floor. But for heaven’s sake, get him some of that organic deodorant, please, the stuff that smells like sage or pine needles. Hold him down and slather him with it if you have to.