Ted Gnarles called the Sunshade company and had them stop by for a free estimate on what it would cost to cover the back yard, all but the last ten feet in front of his privacy fence. All the houses were built with those fences in this part of the world, and Ted was glad of it. He was 85 and some days he just didn't want to have the hassle of having neighbors peek over the fence to see if he was still alive. I bought this house and paid for it, the old man thought. I think that if I up and die in it, it's my right to do so. At least until the taxes come due, and then they can come clean me up. He wanted the last ten feet to get the hot sun, because his tomatoes got planted there every year, and if they didn't get enough sun, the blossoms wouldn't set worth a dang.
And darned if tomatoes weren't one of the few things in life he could really enjoy any more.
"I don't want a total block of the sun," Ted told the whippersnapper they sent to look over the project. "I just want to cut the edge off the sun, and block the view from my neighbor's upstairs in case I take it to mind to lie out in the afternoon in the all-together, if you catch my meaning."
"Yes, sir, we can put up a Sunshade that will be nearly opaque to the neighbors, and give you an SPF of about 50. You won't have to take it down in the winter because water won't bother it -- the rain will just clean if off nice for you and be ready for you in the spring. And it's mildew-resistant; our company has a fungicide built right into the fabric." The young boob withdrew a cell phone from his pocket and pressed a button. "Yah, Hank, I've got an area fifty feet by thirty to cover with Number Four Sunshade. Supports every ten feet, what's that going to come to at forty nine cents a square foot of 'Shade and ten forty nine per post?"
Ted scratched at his beard and itched for a pen and paper to figure it out. All the kid had to do was multiply fifty feet by thirty feet, and then multiply that by forty nine cents. There would have to be twenty four posts ...
"Sorry, Mr. Gnarles, Hank has to answer another phone call, he'll get right back to me with the estimated cost."
"Does your price on the Sunshade per foot and per post include labor?" Ted asked him, combing the mussed spots on his beard with his fingers.
"Yes sir, it sure does."
Ted hobbled back into his house, and snatched a paper pad usually used for grocery lists. He scribbled numbers, multiplied them, then added them. He went back outside.
"Sounds like it ought to cost about nine hundred ninety-three dollars and ninety-six cents," he said to the younger man.
"What, Hank? You got it? Okay, let me write that down. Mr. Gnarles, the price would be nine hundred ninety-three dollars and ninety-six cents."
"That's what I just said. You have to call someone else to find out a cost per square foot?"
The mere punk laughed. "Yeah, Hank sure knows his way around a calculator. So that's our estimate. Can I get you to sign here that you've received our offer?"
"Yes, I can. When can you fellas get the job done?" Ted scrawled his name across the bottom of the estimate, his knuckles looking pink where the bones had gathered arthritis over the years.
"Oh, you're ready? Let me call Hank back, I'll find out when the next crew is available."
Next thing you know, he'll have to call Hank to ask if it's time for him to go to the bathroom, Ted thought irritably. He can't figure out how to multiply, he doesn't know what the company's work crew is doing -- why did they give him a job? Just because he has a full head of hair and talks loud? I could do his job, even with my hip replacement and these thick glasses. And I wouldn't have to call Hank every couple minutes to see if I had a box of tissues in the truck in case I had to pick my nose.
"Ohhh-kay! We can be out here next Thursday to set the posts, and the following Monday to cover the yard with Sunshade. How does that sound, Mr. Gnarles?"
"Hunky dory," Ted told him. "Then I can set out my orchids. Orchids need some bright light, but they don't like the scorching sun. Heat doesn't bother them too much, so they'll do just fine and dandy out here once that screening is up."
"You're into orchids? That's cool. Is that what all those big pots are for?" The kid was writing up the work order for the next week.
"Hey, son, I love exotic plants. By June I'll be out here with my shrubs and a mister and a nice light tan to cover my liver spots. Maybe I'll entice some young chick in her sixties to come give me some sugar in between naps."
The sales rep laughed out loud. "Here you are, Mr. Gnarles. I just need that signature one more time, there, by the 'X'. You're on your way to a healthier, cooler back yard." He shook Ted's hand, already looking over his shoulder at the gate that led to the street.
Ted closed the gate behind the lout, and put the lock on it. He shuffled into his house in his worn slippers and climbed the steps to the second floor. Lined up in three rows by the back window were twenty one little plants in styrofoam cups. They had nice thick stems and bushy little leaves like many-fingered hands. "Did you hear all of that? You and the orchids get to go outside to play next week. You're going to love it."
Tenderly he nipped the topmost set of leaves off each plant to encourage thicker foliage. On his way back downstairs, he tossed the picked sprouts into his mouth and chewed them. Then he poured a soda over ice, picked up the bag of potato chips, and settled into his recliner to watch the latest news.