I live on Trash-In-The-Yard Boulevard. The sign at the corner may read Jackson Street, but my description fits the area better. After my husband Ben died, the hospital bills for his cancer ate every cent we had. With my nearly invisible income, I couldn't afford the mortgage on a cardboard box, so I sold all our memories and moved to the second floor of this place. City grime from the outside reaches inside to the onion-skin-thin walls.
Now, drunken fights on the third floor occur almost every night. I'm a receptionist at the local office of Ultra Happy Foods. We serve nutrition with a smile. My smile droops overcooked noodle-style long before noon most work days.
Ben worked two part-time jobs: in several private schools as a music teacher -- finances were never his forte. I grumbled when his oldies renditions drowned out the local weather report. Now, if I could make a devil's bargain to hear him play keyboard, violin, or guitar, one more time, I wouldn't complain if the deal included a tornado that tore off the roof. I would savor every second I had with Ben's sound before it hit. If the storm wiped out the chaos on the third floor, it would improve living conditions.
A billboard at the other end of Jackson advertises: "Get Rid of Bedbugs Fast." At least they've never visited my apartment. They've been through the neighborhood. I keep the billboard company's product in my closet, just in case. The cashier stepped back a bit when she took my cash. I scratched, long and hard, on purpose. "Keep the change," I said about the seven cents she placed on the counter, as if it were a generous tip.
And yes, I have a touch of ornery in me. Although I wish I'd used less of it on Ben. Of course, he needed to play the same musical phrase 137 times in a row to get it perfect. They weren't random notes repeated in an infinite loop. They were disciplined steps that turned him into an accomplished musician. I miss them; I miss him.
At least for now I'm not alone. My granddaughter, Lane, moved in with me while she finishes her last year of college. Although I tried to talk her out of it. "Why come to this dump?"
"Because I have a car for a quick getaway and a black belt against my grandma's sarcasm."
That made me smile. Lane brings welcome company and sunshine, as well as her own brand of wit. Unfortunately, she will only be here until she graduates in May.
Ted Walters has been dating Lane for years. I've known his family since he and Lane were in kindergarten together. He called me before she got home from school last week. "I'm giving her an engagement ring for Christmas. I sure wish both our dads could celebrate with us."
Ted's father, Jack, died of a heart attack six months ago.
Rita, Ted's mother, probably won't transition well to independent widowhood. Just my opinion. She has as much money as she will ever need. No problem there. Maybe, it's just that she's nice -- into the ridiculous. She mourned a neighbor's dead pet python.
Her exceptional sweetness irritates the living daylights out of me. Yet, something real rises from her. I like her anyway.
"So, come for Christmas dinner, Ted," I say. "Bring your mother. A proposal could add elegance to pumpkin pie on chipped china plates."
"Your invitation may be just what Mom needs. Since Dad died I've been worried about her. All she eats is peanut butter on crackers or carryout Chinese. She wants help. From you. She's mentioned it to me and Lane, but is reluctant to ask."
Listening is not my forte. Of course, I went to Jack's funeral. I simply hadn't bothered to ask Rita if she wanted a word, an ear, or a casserole in the days afterward.
That evening as Lane manages to fit our wobbling star on the top of the Christmas tree, I ask if she knows why Rita wants assistance from me.
"You mean Ted didn't tell you what his mother meant?"
"No. Is there something I should know?"
"Well let's just say I wouldn't worry. You'll be fine."
When Ted and Rita arrive on Christmas Day, I play super chef to make up for the mismatched serving bowls. Rita came from a polished-silver background. She nevertheless acts as if she's never seen homemade mashed potatoes. After dinner, Ted and Lane insist on doing dishes -- so that Rita and I can talk. "But what about the ..." I wiggle my left hand at Ted.
He lifts one finger to his lips and picks up the mashed potato dish with the other.
I decide to get this over with. "The kids say you want to talk."
Rita picks at her fingernails. "You did know my Jack was a violinist. Never played in public. Well, I have this huge house for just me, and it seems hollow now -- except that I still feel Jack's music in the silence. It haunts me."
I don't understand what she's getting at, but the mention of Jack's music isn't a comfortable subject. Ben mentioned it once or twice. I remember almost nothing about it -- because I never listened.
"If I had one more person with me in my big house -- you -- someone who knew him, I could deal with the echoes. I have one CD -- Jack and Ben made it for fun. You can have it. I hate cooking for myself; I hate cooking. You are so good at it."
"The big secret is about a recording? And leaving Trash-In-The-Yard Boulevard would help you?"
"Never mind. I mean, leaving Jackson Street. You are saying that leaving here would help you?"
I look around at the place where I live. Home? Not really. It's the place I complain about. The place I see as a punishment for being less than a perfect mate.
Darn it, Ben! I'm sorry. I know it's too late ...
"Oh, I didn't tell you about why you need to have the song Ben and Jack recorded." Rita pats my arm and draws closer, unusual for her. "It's about you. Ben would laugh and say, 'She's a pip, but I'd marry her all over again.'"
"Pip, now there's an understatement." I speak the thought out loud, when I mean to scold myself silently.
"Grandma?" Lane calls from the kitchen. "Got any scouring pads?"
"Under the sink. In the back," I answer, then turn to Rita. "Maybe my expertise isn't as fine as you think if my pans need steel wool, muscle power, and a willingness to accept burned-on stains from 1988."
Rita shrugs. "I have the new fancy, stuff. Supposed to be easy care, but costs a fortune. Kind of a waste when I buy carryout. Of course, if you move in with me ..."
"I can give my mom's hand-me-downs away. Then again maybe I should recycle. They are so old, it would be embarrassing to give that crap away for litter pan use."
"Ben always said you barked a lot, but never bit anyone."
"Not hard anyway."
"I have an idea." She puts one hand over her mouth so that I can hardly hear her. "If you don't like it, stop me. Something like a yard sale, but not. Everything is free. I have more than I need, and if you move in with me, you won't need everything you have. I'm thinking spring, just before the wedding."
I glance around the small room and see a not-new-but-useful vinyl chair. Maybe. I don't have much yard.
Ted waves a dish towel from the kitchen. "We're finishing up in here."
I put one hand on Rita's shoulder. "Merry Christmas, partner. Next step, yet to be seen."