Jess stepped into the empty house; she owned it now. Or maybe it owned her. She didn't know yet. Too many payments ahead to be sure. The moving-truck carrying the bulk-of-what-was-left-of-her-life had not yet arrived. She complained out loud about how she had ended up in this run-down neighborhood.
Sure, she had been living alone for years in a so-so two-family house on a mediocre side street, but her landlord had sold the building and the new owner wanted both floors. Jess wondered if this unmarried son who needed it was on drugs and would drop that second floor and his family into despair. She didn't know and would never find out because she would now live across the street from a tattoo parlor and a thrift shop with uneven white misspelled lettering in the window: "usd close cheap." Cheap was all she could afford.
At least her so-called new house had indoor plumbing. The front yard could have fit inside a child's sandbox. The once-white siding sat on a smog-dirtied, heavily traveled state route. "I deserve better," she muttered. The floorboards squeaked as she moved into the hallway; they mocked her.
The previous owners hadn't left one curtain or blind on a window. At least a huge oak tree in the center of the yard saved her from open view into the living room.
Her realtor had grown less friendly by the time the bank had closed on the buy. "The previous owners have re-glazed the tub, re-finished the floors, and done every inspection you requested. You got a fantastic price. There is no need or time for further changes."
Jess had suggested that someone remove the jungle in the back yard. She didn't know plants, but thought poison ivy vines could easily hide in the tangled mass that climbed the back wall.
The moving van pulled up outside. On time. Jess had the feeling that even after her furniture and rugs were settled she could still expect some form of emptiness. Jess would sleep on the couch until her new bed arrived. A double, occupied by a single person -- possibly indefinitely.
Even her eighteen-year-old daughter, Maura, had chosen to live with dear-old-Dad -- a year after the divorce. Jess rarely saw Maura after that. Conversations with her daughter tended to be clipped and superficial.
"Refrigerator," a man, with a belly that mimicked the fifth month of pregnancy, announced.
"Around the corner," Jess answered in the same curt tone. He smelled as if he hadn't bathed in weeks. She was certain her mother would comment later. Her mother had met the movers at Jess's second floor flat. Jess wanted to be ready at the house before the truck arrived. She tried to sigh out memories of her original home: a family with a mommy, daddy, and a girl who grew up to be a senior in high school ... without her.
The sight of the man's belly triggered another memory. She wouldn't let it rise to consciousness. Besides, the thought seemed out of context, bizarre. Why should I remember that now?
The man's partner arrived. Slender, but smelling just as nasty. "Where do you want the rug?"
"Front room. Where else?"
"Suit yourself. By the way, some guy just dropped off a girl, said she was your daughter. She's standing outside."
As if Les couldn't come inside. I doubt his legs are broken.
She stuck her head out the door. "In here, Maura!"
"Be right there." But Maura waved with enthusiasm in another direction, toward the yard next door. She had the kind of personality that made friends with a pit bull trained to fight. However, Jess couldn't see where Maura's wave was aimed, and she certainly couldn't hear a bark.
Before Jess could go to the door to check out what was going on, the slender man said, "We got a couch, chairs, and a slew of boxes. So where do you want them?"
Jess thought she knew exactly how everything should be positioned, but the furniture didn't fit. After they were rearranged, Maura sauntered into the house.
"So, who were you talking to?"
"The girl next door. Cousin of a friend."
"Small world." Jess's tone could just as easily have said, dust cloth or pass the potatoes. Her voice was flatter than wallboard.
"So what do you want me to do first, Mom?"
"You can help me unload the boxes I have in the car."
"As long as I don't have to unpack your undies," she whispered toward her mother's ear. "By the way Dad gave me some money to take you out for lunch. Later."
"How kind of him," Jess said allowing the sarcasm to rise as if it were water boiling in a too-small pan.
"Well, he's trying."
"Trying as a verb or adjective?"
"Mom, let's just get you settled. I can't make things right between you and Dad."
"There's more to it than you know."
Maura leaned a box against the car and dropped her head against it. "Uh, too much information."
"I would never talk about that!"
The moving men finished sooner than Jess expected. Efficient? Maybe, but she hated to think about how much this was costing her. She let out a long sigh. At least she could be glad the stink was out of her house.
"Dad said he could pick me up at six ... or I could stay longer, if ..."
Maura turned away as she opened a box marked kitchen items. "Mom, this gets weird. Do you know that? I hate feeling like everything I say could start an argument. That's why I decided to live with Dad. A long time ago. But, I've been thinking a lot lately. Remembering."
Jess pulled a plastic silverware divider from the box. "Good stuff or bad? Or should I ask?"
"Great stuff. I had chicken pox the day our class was going to the science center. I'd been looking forward to that day for weeks. And you sat with me. All day. Played games. Read my favorite books. Then you traded off a day of work and just the two of us went. Your feet hurt by the time we got home from the center.
"Another time this kid in the neighborhood was going to give me a turtle, the biggest thing I had ever seen in my life. I thought it was part dinosaur. He told me to feed it some lettuce with my bare hands. You had just come out to work in the garden and heard him. Boy, did you ever give him the what-for. You got the broom, stood a distance away, and then took it and gently directed the handle toward the turtle's mouth. It went for that broom as if that handle were course one at a turtle banquet."
"The snapping turtle. Yeah. That kid was a mean hot wire. But that was a long time ago. How old were you anyway?"
"I don't know. Before fourth grade anyway. Then something happened -- you weren't my best friend anymore."
"Sometimes life throws you a wrench." Jess opened another box. "But I'm sorry it turned out that way. Really."
"Sorry. That's not something you say often."
"And don't expect to hear it too many more times."
The doorbell rang. It sounded like clapping seals. "Now there is something I didn't think about checking before I bought this house," Jess said.
"Maybe you can get a bell that plays 'I hear you knocking, but ...'"
"Who the heck could be at the door?" Jess asked.
"I've got an idea, so I'll get it."
Maura opened the door. A young girl of about thirteen and a tall man with dark hair stood outside. "Yup, I was right!" Maura said.
The man carried a box. "I noticed you didn't have any curtains. These will work temporarily. At least they are clean. And my daughter and I brought you a housewarming gift. It's on the front porch. I'd be glad to plant it for you, just show me where you would like it to go."
"A gift?" Jess stood confused.
The girl opened her mouth, but the sound wasn't clear. She and Maura spoke to one another using sign language.
"Come on out to the porch, Mom, let's look."
"Oh my, a rose bush. Yellow, moving toward a dark pink around the edges. Lovely. Please thank your wife for me, too."
"My wife died two years ago."
"I'm sorry," Jess said. Sorry twice in the same day. She looked at the back of her hands as if they suddenly interested her. She realized she really was sorry. The sudden turn toward softness took her off guard, a guard she had maintained for a very long time.
"If you would like I could clear out those weeds in the back. They've been there so long I'd bet the roots are oak-tree deep."
The girl signed to Maura again. "She's saying these are Peace roses. I'm thinking we could use their vibes."
"Well, I've got to go to a meeting," the man said. "But here's my card with my phone number. Call if you need anything. I understand my daughter and yours already know one another."
"Yes, yes. Thank you," Jess said.
"I'm not really sure what happened there," she told Maura after they left. "Since when did you learn sign language?"
"I took it as my foreign language choice. I volunteer at a camp for kids with special needs, too. Like it so much I've decided I'm going into special ed. Eventually anyway."
Jess touched one of the flowers with the tip of her finger. She'd missed so much of her daughter's life. Because she had chosen to live with her dad? Or was there more to it than that?
"Hope I can keep this thing blooming. The thing is ..." She sank onto the front step.
"Mom, what's wrong?"
"I've been trying so hard to forget. But then one of the movers had this out-front belly. Then you say you want to go into special ed."
"You know I lost a baby when you were ten, a little boy. But you don't know the rest of the story. I never told you. The doctor told me I was lucky because your brother's intestines were outside his body. His esophagus didn't connect to his stomach. And he had problems inside his brain. The hospital staff tried to console me by saying life would have been horrible."
"He had Trisomy-18?"
"You know what that is?"
"Yeah. I did a report on it for a science class last semester."
"But I didn't care. He would have been my baby boy. Dad agreed with the doctor. He said I was over-reacting. We should start over. But then, within months, he decided one child was enough. So I stopped talking about it. I stopped a lot of things. And everything around me turned ugly."
Maura sat next to her mother but said nothing for a few minutes. "I'm spending the night. Got a toothbrush in my purse. All I need is a floor and a pillow. Maybe we can plant a Peace rose tomorrow. Then again we could ask a mighty tall-dark-and-handsome neighbor to do it for us. I mean, I know you can't un-plant ugly memories overnight, but I could deal with a step-father who likes rose bushes and makes my mama happy ... Someday anyway."
Jess swung and intentionally missed her daughter. She smiled for the first time in a very long while.