Novels

Layers of Being ( part 4 )

December 14, 2016

In Case of Accident, Wear Clean Underwear

I left the dishes in the sink that night. Marta, my cleaning woman was coming in the next day and insisted I leave the dishes for her even though it wasn’t a bother to knock out a few dirty plates.

“You men never clean them right,” she complained. “That dishrag is not a magic wand. You have to feel the plates with your fingers to be sure they’re clean. You could grow things on some of your dishes, John. I’m surprised you haven’t gotten sick yet.”

Marta Vilozny had been my cleaning woman for the past five years, attending to the little extras I managed to miss or procrastinated about. She loved to complain but never threatened to quit, accepting the hopeless condition of my life as her burden to bear. She liked to think of her work as a solution to the problems of the world, a clean dish or cup bringing an end to war and peace to the world. I don’t believe it was her nature to be arbitrary, just thorough.

Her husband worked as a truck driver, often away on a long haul. They would have had enough money if he didn’t have a gambling problem. He loved to play the horses, shoot dice and bet on almost any kind of game from Pop Warner football to professional hockey. In spite of his weakness, Marta worked to keep the home fires burning and the family fed. Strangely enough, she never complained about his habits to anyone, her staunch dedication not allowing it. In Freiburg keeping a secret was impossible, though everyone knew, holding her in high regard for her efforts.

When she arrived the next morning I got the usual complaints from her.

“Why are you still not dressed,” she barked. “Lounging around in your pajamas and robe doesn’t strike me as a man of much value, idle hands and all that sort of stuff. A man needs to be dressed if he is to have a productive day.”

“Marta, I’m retired, remember? If I wanted to, I could sleep until noon. I might just decide to do that some day. And for god sakes it’s only 6:30. I didn’t even get up that early when I was working.”

“That may be so, John,” she continued a lengthy lecture in the offing. “I’m up at 4:30 every morning. My house is in order by 5:00 and then I relax until 5:15. Then I go to work. You sit wasting time drinking coffee in the morning. Coffee! I heard too much coffee will give you cancer. You don’t want cancer, do you? And that doesn’t include those nasty donuts, which will surely give you a heart attack.”

“I read the same article Marta. Not all of the researchers agree about the coffee thing. So until they do, I’ll drink all the coffee I want. If I die of cancer, you can say ‘I told me so’. As far as my donut, that’s no concern of yours.”

This drama replayed itself out once every couple of weeks. One could not fault her for her work ethic; she loved to work. I think I understood why her husband enjoyed being on the road so much and was surprised he didn’t drink. Of course the real reason he hadn’t acquired the bad habit was an ulcer, perhaps aggravated by Marta. I wondered what a man would see in the very ample woman, Marta.

“Marta, I wondered if you could start coming in once a week instead of every other week,” I said waiting for another argument to flair up. “I just took in a boarder and may get a second one soon. You don’t have to touch the boarder’s room just check the bathroom to keep it from getting out of hand. The rest should be okay.”

“Yeah, I heard from Nora, you have a boarder. Some young, silly girl from what she says. I’ve already put you on the schedule,” she added wiping down the kitchen counter. “You know that means more money, right? Extra day means, extra work.”

“Yes, of course,” I said surprised Marta knew anything about the boarder. “The girl seems nice enough to me.”

Yeah, yeah,” answered Marta. “Hippie girl, crazy. I read about them. But it’s your business, not mine. You make the mistakes, not me.”

I knew it would be a waste of time to argue with Marta. Once she had set her mind to something, there was no changing it. And I had to consider there was the possibility she was right.

 

Jenny left early saying something about registration at Wyandotte. She accepted a cup of coffee but turned her nose up at the toast I had made.

“White bread?” she said in disgust. “Ugh! How can you eat that stuff? Do you have any ideas of what that does to your colon? Pure junk for your body.”

I didn’t know and didn’t ask.

I decided to stay clear of Marta and putter in my garage, my sanctuary, my place to think without interruption from Marta or anyone else. Every man in life has such a place, be it a den, playroom or garage. My refuge was the land of broken things to be fixed, the nocturnal fairies never visiting my garage in the night to repair everything.

I never parked my car in the garage choosing to use it for a shop and repair station. The old Packard never complained and it gave me a hide-a-way to ponder my next project. I needed to fix another lamp for Jenny’s room. There was one but it didn’t give off much light for the large room. I knew replacing a small part would only take a few minutes. Perhaps I might find something else while in this fix-it mode.

Starting a project in my garage was an affair of finding everything first. The lamp was easy, sitting cooperatively near the front of my pile. The tool search required a degree of memory and luck. The screwdriver was somewhere in the pile of things on the workbench. I remembered buying a new light socket for the lamp but couldn’t remember where I left it.

 

Maybe I left it in the kitchen when I put the groceries away, I thought. I do that a lot.

If I had not been doing this very same thing for the past thirty years I might think it a form of senility. Marta so kindly reminded me about the elderly having difficulty remembering things. She claimed that I would be much better off if I placed everything back in its proper place. Honestly there was no proper place for my tools only new resting places where I could remember using them last. Another refuge for missing items was the kitchen drawers, full of projects I never got to because of this well-know hiding-place.

I locked the backdoor when I went to the garage, a habit unnecessary as there is no crime in Freiburg. I smiled at this small caution wondering why. I had to go around to the front, patting the old, faithful Packard in passing. There were memories attached to the old car, bits of rust showing through the dull black paint. There was a small dent in the passenger’s door, a hard kick by Elise many years back. A sharp edge on the door had snagged her good nylons and she vented her anger on the door. I couldn’t blame her and filed down the offending metal edge. There was a fine crack in the side rear window where Edward crashed his bike. He was stunned but not seriously hurt, the Packard sustaining the worst of the impact. On the velour back seat there was a brown stain from Annie’s bloody nose. The poor child suffered from nosebleeds until she was seven. I could never get the stain completely out.

How could I ever get rid of this old car? It’s as much family as my children. It’s like a picture album in a sense. A lot of memories were had in that car.

 

I could hear Marta banging around the upstairs as I passed the threshold of the hall doorway. She was saying something in Polish, I didn’t understand and was sure I didn’t want to. She heard me and leaned over the top landing, something pink in her hand.

She scowled at me and barked, “What kind of young woman wears these kinds of things?”

She held up a pair of very brief pink girl’s panties with two small cherries stenciled on the front.

“You will never catch me in such things. These don’t cover anything. What kind of girl do you have living here?”

“Marta she’s just a young college girl. I barely know anything about her except that she’s a vegetarian. I don’t know what young people wear and would rather not. Where did you find those? You didn’t go into her room, did you?”

“No I didn’t,” she returned still indignant. “The young woman had this thing and others like it hanging all over the bathroom drying, equally improper, I might add. You should see these things, disgusting. Postage stamps with strings attached, that’s what they are and in many colors. What’s wrong with plain white? White underwear is all I ever wear. That’s what a proper woman wears. I will say this for her; at least she cleans them. I always tell my family to wear clean underwear in case you have an accident. What will the doctors and nurses think of a person is wearing dirty underwear? They would not treat them very well; that’s for sure. But with this underwear, it may not matter. Cherries indeed!”

“Just put them back Marta. I’ll remind Jenny to remove her things from the bathroom when she gets back.”

The thought of Marta’s ample bottom in a pair of very brief pink panties with cherries on the front made me burst into laughter, tears running down my cheeks. I managed to hold back until I got to the kitchen, where I dropped to one knee shaking, laughing. I doubt Marta would have appreciated the humor of my vision; not that the woman couldn’t use an occasional chuckle herself, though she preferred being on the serious side of life.

It did occur to me that I had a near child under my roof; Jenny’s age seventeen when I asked her. She skipped a grade in elementary and was a year ahead of her age group. Jenny had also received a scholarship to the university, paying for most of her books and some of her lodging. I only found out about her age, because she needed to have me fill out paperwork acknowledging her as a minor. The state was very strict about minors living on their own. I thought it was strange that she didn’t stay with her parents, in spite of their differences. Knollwood was only thirty miles down the road, hardly a long commute to Wyandotte. Then again, that old Volvo would not make the distance for many more miles.

 

I decided to have another cup of coffee on the porch ignoring Marta’s objections. The lamp could wait; the day was far too nice to be cooped up in the garage. I made a mental list of things I needed to do and quickly, dismissed most of them as non-essential. I guess the one thing I discovered in the few months of retirement was how many thoughts passed through my head. Before I had always thought of things at work, the children, repairing leaks in the roof as well as other housebound tasks. Now I just considered life, for the first time.

I mentally listed the events of the times, Vietnam, President Johnson, hippies, burning draft cards, protests of every kind. My son, Edward was fortunate to escape the draft. He had a severe hearing loss in one ear, which gave him the rating of 4F. Damage to the ear was permanent from a high fever as a child, saving him from a war gone wrong. I don’t think anyone was happy about the war, though most preferred not to share an opinion. News clips of the fighting showed many young men wounded or dead. The boys in those film clips all looked very scared. Who wouldn’t be?

Freiburg had a list of our local boys killed in action on a brass plaque at the VFW Hall. It was taken down every so often to add another name or two, Freiburg not exempt from the grief that touched so many Americans. President Johnson said he wanted to pull all the soldiers out. For a good many it was not going to be soon enough. More names would be added to the plaque before it was all over.

 

A familiar face came into view, smiling. “Well, well, John you look entirely too comfortable. There ought to be a law against that,” chided Myra. “Some of us poor folks have to work for a living. How ya been, John?”

“Still trying to get used to staying home every morning,” I said admiring the lovely woman before me. “The only problem I have is the lack of excuses for not fixing things around here. This old house needs some TLC. I guess I do too, at times, though I’m not complaining. Right now I’m steering clear of Marta. She’s in a mood today. You know how that is. I’m surprised to see you around at this time of the morning. No work today?”

 

Myra was 52 but looked ten years younger, walking a lot and exercising everyday, touting the many benefits of yoga. A young yoga instructor had moved into Freiburg a few years back, offering classes. She did this remarkable pose during the 4th of July celebration in town, which brought many to her studio afterwards. None of the townspeople would ever achieve that complicated pose but were impressed nonetheless. Myra had been a convert long before that. She liked working on challenges for mind and body, yoga being one of them.

As much as I hate to make comparisons, Myra had always been more attractive than Elise. At the time, I fell for Elise without reservation, Myra being too young for me to consider. The sisters were great friends and we spent many family outings in later years together. Holidays and weekends were filled with the three of us laughing and joking; my two children convinced us adults were utterly crazy. Perhaps those crazy moments were what we needed, then.

 

“Inventory,” answered Myra. “Jake swears someone is stealing bags of feed; plus someone isn’t keeping accurate records of what we’ve been selling for the past three months. We’re missing close to fifty bags according to the records. He’s mad as hell at everyone except me. It’s probably Jake’s fault anyhow; the bookkeeper claims he forgets to write up tags all the time. I’m inclined to side with the bookkeeper. So you could say I’m sort of staying clear of Jake until his tirade is over. The poor guys are taking a beating with Jake’s rotten disposition today. It could also be this weather. As warm as it is, I can feel fall coming. Smell it in the air?”

“You say that every year, Myra. Of course it’s coming. Just need to look at a calendar to tell that.”

I paused enjoying the sight of Myra smiling back at me, she, possessing a magic I couldn’t explain. Myra had the ability to charm anyone. She surely charmed me more often than not, succumbing like a cat to a bowl of milk. I shook off that train of thought, trying not to dwell.

“Did you hear my latest news?” I announced with authority.

“You mean about the young hippie girl?” she returned.

“Geez! Does everybody know? I suppose the word is out about the pink panties with the cherries on them too?”

Myra put her hand to her chin her elbow leaning on the railing of the porch, mischievously amused. Her smile grew wider and brighter with mention of this small bit of personal information.

“Do tell, John,” she teased. “I think I’d like to hear about these pink panties with the cherries unless this is a personal thing between you and the young hippie girl. I know how it is with an older man and some young thing,” she said fluttering her eyes. “I mean…you never know.”

“Oh Myra, you know better than that,” I responded. “She’s a little girl and I don’t know anything about her underwear. Really! It seems like everyone in town knows more about what’s going on in my house than I do. I swear Nora Dunning puts listening bugs in my house.”

“Let’s hope not,” returned Myra coyly. “Remember our Christmas dinner last year, just the two of us? Now that would have really been something to listen to, curl a few eyelashes in this town. You were more than just a little jolly, if I recall. Nora would have gotten an earful then. Of course, I wasn’t exactly behaving myself either. Ho, ho, ho!”

“Come on, Myra,” I whined. “I had a weak moment and a little too much wine; you know how much alcohol effects me. It just happened and it’s still embarrassing.”

“It was a little surprising when your neighbor came by and asked is everything was okay. I didn’t exactly fight you off either, John. I never have which I think suits both of us. Besides, it was kind of fun. Relax. It’s almost the 70s. You don’t think I expect you to do the honorable thing and all?”

She laughed, covering her mouth to hide the fact.

“Good grief!” she continued. “I can’t imagine being married or living with anyone. I’ve been by myself for so long, getting used to the idea would be a monumental task. Besides, my cats would hate it. My kitty babies don’t like to share.”

I squirmed when Myra mentioned our tryst on that particular holiday. Luckily my neighbor was very discreet about what he had heard, though his hearing is not acute enough to worry much about specifics. Myra and I have been lovers on and off over these past years, my loneliness contributing to my lack of control when it came to her. She is not bothered by it because her view on sexual matter are considerably more liberal than mine.

“Well, my conduct was highly questionable,” I apologized. “We’ve crossed that line so many times. I know we promised to keep things, uh, friendly. I just feel so alone during the holidays. It hasn’t been easy with Elise gone.”

“If you must know,” Myra began her eyes leveling with mine. “Our little encounters over the years were Elise’s idea. You don’t think she was oblivious to your needs, John? My sister felt awful about you ‘doing without’ as you might say and I never viewed it as an indelicate chore; I rather enjoy our intimacy. I have no ties; you’re a nice looking guy and I warmed to the idea before Elise passed. She and I talked about this for more than a year. So you’re not being unfaithful. We’re family and I was the logical choice for Elise. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Enough,” I insisted. Myra was not uncomfortable talking about our intimacy; I, on the other hand found it slightly sorted and best left unsaid.

“I’d rather talk about something else, my new tenant for instance. I’m not sure how to go about the unusual request she’s made; she doesn’t eat meat. I have no idea what to feed her now. She’s sort of a hippie, I think. I can’t continue to feed her mashed potatoes and spinach every night. Any ideas?”

“Hmm! Hippie girl, that’s what I heard,” Myra declared with another questionable smile on her face. “I’ve heard some things about them, communes, free sex and all. You sure you don’t know anything about those pink panties?”

“Now, now, she only a baby. The thought never crossed my mind,” I objected. “She’s a student at the university; just a kid trying to be cool, as they say. And I don’t think she likes me very much. You should have seen the way she looked at me, when I was eating my chicken stew last night. You would think I was eating the family dog. She spouted off with something about chickens being people. Gads! I may have to eat in my room from now on.”

“There’s an easy enough solution, John. I’ve seen a couple books at the bookstore on vegetarianism. You could pick a couple up and see what they say. I even bought one myself. Good ideas, actually, healthy food and easy to prepare recipes. Jana at the yoga studio told me about them a few months ago. Really not bad food if you know how to season things. I’m sure you can handle it.”

A loud noise at the door diverted our attention away from the conversation. Marta was dragging out a couple small carpets to put on the railing. Periodically, she would beat the carpets to get the dirt out. She did not feel the vacuum did an adequate job.

“Hello, Marta,” greeted Myra. “I hope we’re not in your way.”

“Oh, the lovely Miss Myra. Nice to see you,” returned Marta. “Not to worry. I’ll beat on these after you two visit. At least the man managed to get dressed before noon, though he needed some encouragement,” she added pointing at me.

She continued, admiring Myra, “I’d say you look right at home on this porch, natural like. Like you belong. Yes, I’d say you look perfectly natural there.”

The hint was not missed and I glared at Marta with disapproval. Marta was not to be intimidated. She went on as if I wasn’t there.

“I swear you get younger looking every day. I’m afraid I was never blessed with a pleasant face and your figure,” she chimed. “All that exercise must keep you very fit. A good man would swoop you up and make you a wife. Quite a catch at that.”

Marta turned to me adding, “But some are too pig-headed to know a good thing when they see it. They are too busy with broken things in the garage and young girls, who wear shameful underwear.”

Marta swiveled around, leaving before I could rebut her comments.

“Some day I’m going to fire her,” I muttered under my breath.

“Cut it out, John. She’s just trying to be helpful. Marta is like all the other people in this town trying to do a little matchmaking. She feels it’s her duty in life, a compulsion you might say. There’s an unwritten law about single men in Freiburg. Available single women as well as the married ones hate to see a man living alone. They think it’s unnatural.”

Myra tilted her head to the side in thought and wonder. She was quite lovely in that pose. Come to think of it she looked good at any angle. That small fact was my downfall.

“I thought about marriage a couple times,” she continued. “I could have been married a few times if I wanted to. Just weren’t the right fellas or where I wanted to go. I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a house-frau. Men want that and a mom to take care of them. I’m afraid I have enough trouble taking care of myself. Selfish, I suppose.”

“Really?” I said. “There have been men interested in you enough to ask for your hand? You never said anything about other men. I had no idea. Who? When?”

“That’s none of your business,” she fired back a smirk on her face. “Some were very sweet, some were from out of town. I went camping with one over a weekend, once. He was nice but more interested in drinking beer than paying attention to me. None of these guys had that spark I wanted in a man. There was one man who caught my attention. I was rather fond of my second cousin from Oregon. His perpetual bad breath and social awkwardness curbed any ideas of love, however. I guess the timing was never right for any of them.”

“Gosh, I had no idea Myra. I’ve never seen you with anyone and assumed there weren’t any romantic involvements. Is there anyone now or should I ask?”

“It’s still none of your business Mr. Millereton, but no. Younger men are not interested in me and ones closer to my age want a woman who will pick up their dirty clothes and baby them. Not my style, John.”

Myra stretched, a hint of humor returning to her voice. “So tell me. What’s this thing about shameful underwear? I am intrigued. You have a kinky side I don’t know about?”

“Never mind,” I groaned. “It’s one of those Marta things. The woman is so nosey. She thinks my new boarder has disgraceful underwear, not that it is any of her business or mine. The girl is young and I guess experimenting with doing girl stuff. I really don’t want to talk about that either.”

The phone in the hall rang in the entry. I could hear it above all the noise Marta was making and jumped up to answer it. Myra leaned back in her chair, sipping her black coffee delighted with the playful topics of the morning. Myra did have a relax mode, which balanced her fiery quick wit and intelligence. I often felt like a bug in a jar being viewed as part of a science project, she shaking the jar and watching. But there was never any malice in Myra’s observations.

 

“Hello,” I answered. There was a long pause. No one spoke nor was there any background noise. I wondered if I had a bad connection. I was almost about to hang up when someone spoke.

“Uh, do you have a room to rent?” said the male voice. “I need to find a place in town, soon.”

“Yes, I suppose I do,” I answered piqued by the man’s hesitant presentation. I ran through a couple of the questions. “What sort of work do you do? Are you working in Freiburg or are you a student at the university?”

There was another long pause before the man answered. “I work all over the county, most of the time in Freiburg. Accountant, I’m an accountant. I do the books for several businesses.”

“Oh, that sounds like an interesting job, Mr. err,” I fished for a name, which was not forthcoming.

“Uh, it’s not that interesting, just numbers, everyday more numbers,” he announced slowly without enthusiasm. “Sometimes the same numbers and sometimes different numbers, but I like numbers. They are always the same, they never change,” he reported. “William is my name. William Hunt.”

“Where have you been staying, William?”

“I am living with my sister in Allendale. You know, Allendale on West 35, near you? It’s a nice place but I have to move.” he brooded in a monotone voice. “Rose, my sister got married, so now I have to find another place to live. Rose doesn’t think it’s a good idea to have me living with her now that she has a husband. I don’t understand why but Rose is always right.”

He added with uncertainty, “At least I think she is.”

“I wouldn’t know about that, William. Would you like to look at the room?”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” he answered without passion. “Maybe next week or the week after. I’ve never done this before, so I’m not familiar with the process. Do you suppose the room will be available in a week?

“Gee, I don’t know. I haven’t had any other callers today. I can’t really hold the room unless I know you are serious about it.”

“Oh,” he replied. “Maybe I should call back in a week or so to see.”

“That would be fine with me. I can’t promise anything, William. But you are welcome to see the room if it is not rented by then.”

“Yes, that seems reasonable,” he answered.

Without a parting word William hung up the phone leaving me to wonder if the conversation had really ended.

“William? William, are you still there?”

I decided William was like one of the nuts I spoke to earlier in the day. Advertising may have some advantages but leaving a phone number listed, opened up your private life to a whole new segment of people, something disturbing about William’s flat response. It occurred to me he was a troubled person with difficulty making decisions. I wasn’t sure how good a fit that might be in the house.

Myra finished her coffee and was about to leave when I returned, shaking my head. I told her of the strange conversation on the phone. She gave me a sideways glance of concern.

“He sounds creepy to me, John.”

“I suppose it might seem that way,” I said. “I don’t know the man, so I won’t make any snap judgements; he could be fine.”

She was off to the bookstore to pick up the new book on Yoga she had ordered. She promised to look for a book on vegetarianism for me while there. Myra found interesting books now and then for me. I would dutifully read them, knowing she would quiz me about them later. It was a little like giving a book report except for the grades. This was her attempt to keep me informed. Popular Mechanics continued to be my favorite form of reading material aside from the newspaper. Popular Mechanics may not give you a view of the world but it sure had neat stuff.

 

College had never been in my future, getting through high school with little or no ambition to continue my education. It wasn’t that I thumbed my nose at idea of it; college presented little interest to me, no subjects stimulating my limited interests. Of course, in those days most young people didn’t go to college like they do today. In a farming community, children inherited the land and the labor that went with it. Only a handful made the move to higher education.

I managed to miss both major wars because I was either too young or too old. The depression had been a part of my life I wanted to forget, hard times for a lot of Americans. I didn’t suffer like some. I do remember the long drawn faces of those in the bread lines and soup kitchens in the newspaper. Freiburg was almost like an island in that respect. We had little to offer anyone else and yet we had enough for those living here.

I worked many odd jobs as a young man. At the age of 27 I nabbed a job in a small market, nothing serious but steady work that paid well enough. Years later, the market was bought out by Bestway Supermarket, Inc. I was moved up to assistant manager almost immediately, my experience invaluable to the board at Bestway. They soon built a larger new store in town, promoting me to general manager. The leap from sweeping floors, removing wilted produce, to managing was faster than, even I, could fathom.

It was challenging keeping up with paperwork and employees, who might become unhappy in their work, for one reason or another. Human beings are such fragile things when it comes to emotional conditions. I was the shoulder to cry on when some woman had a turn for the worst in her life. I was the one people brought all their problems to, big and small, each expecting me to work magic. I couldn’t solve them all. I wasn’t trying to. I usually smoothed over the problems and managed to get them feeling better. They were plain folks who needed a sympathetic ear. I didn’t do much but listen.

Someday I will have to write a book about all of it. It’s a silly idea, I suppose, since I lack the formal education to take on such a literary project. Everyone knows that writers are well-educated people with years of experience. A few scribbles about their father’s life might amuse my kids, though.

My children seem to be happy in their single lives. Edward is married to his restaurant and Annie is wrapped up in her painting. Sadly I doubt either will ever experience the joy their mother and I had. Maybe their delight takes a different course; one that I don’t understand. I can’t say they are any less happy than I was. Different kinds of happiness would be an interesting thing to write about. I’m afraid I don’t know much about that, since I only know one kind of happiness. What would I say?

 

It’s Only Natural

It took several days for Jenny to completely move in. I heard her working busily in her bedroom, painting and decorating the place to her liking. She flashed the material for the drapes at me looking for approval of some sort. It didn’t matter whether or not I liked it; sure she had made up her mind before asking. So I smiled and sanctioned her choice of imported Indian yardage, colors very foreign to my humble abode. The print of a lotus blossoms on the colorful background was hardly anything I would choose to use anywhere else in the house. But it was her room and I had agreed, giving her a blank check to do as she pleased.

“It’s cotton, a natural fiber,” she informed me. “All my clothes are cotton. Feels good on my skin. It breathes. With this stuff on the windows the whole room will breathe. Cool, huh?”

I’ve seen a lot of people and animals breathe, never experiencing clothing or a room, breathing. The girl was a little odd but I delight in her enthusiasm for breathing material. Frankly, it had been a long time since I had seen youthful exuberance like this. The experience was refreshing yet a little scary at the same time. One has to wonder how far this exuberance will go and how much breathing everything will require. Chickens with names and breathing rooms presented a different perspective I was unaccustomed to.

I began to become a little concerned when I spied Jenny in the kitchen getting a drink. The various paint colors staining her clothes were shocking to say the least. Purple, red, orange and many bright colors dotted her cut-off jeans and madras shirt. Was my master bedroom being transformed into brothel or a hippie head shop?

Curiosity got the best of me. I climbed the stairs in dread anticipation of what I might find. Jenny’s door was wide open; her windows open to air out the paint odor. My eyes scanned the room from right to left and back again. The calm, pleasant beige, which I found so peaceful and inoffensive had been replaced with a color, I later found out, was called mauve. The moldings were a shocking purple edged in orange, red and striking shade of green. I was so taken in by this transformation I did not hear Jenny come up the stairs.

“Cool, huh!” she announced proud of her creation. “It was hard to find some of these colors. Man, that hardware store is living in the stone-age. All he had was white, off white more hideous beige, pink and a nasty looking blue. Yuck! No way, man! Mr. Olson had to special order a couple of these colors for me. He was really a sweet man about it, showed me all kinds of color chips. Thanks for letting me do this. My parents would have never allowed it.”

Had I unleashed the hidden talents of an oppressed teen or given her license to mutilate my poor old house? I swallowed hard trying to find the right words.

“Okay, yeah, interesting colors,” I said still too shocked to express what I felt. “I hope the strong smell doesn’t bother you.”

“That’s okay,” she chirped. “I’ll crash in one of the other rooms with my sleeping bag if it gets too bad. It’s okay to do that, isn’t it?”

“Sure, they’re all empty.”

I descended the stairs considering my agreement to let her redecorate. Next time I will have to make a point of approving colors before my home starts looking like a circus. We learn by making mistakes along the way. I will not repeat this one in the future.

 

It is my house after all, I grumbled to myself. And I do have the right of refusal, though it would have been a shame to squash a young girl’s dream.

 

I looked back at Jenny, who continued to squeal over her innovation. A part of me saw the excitement in Jenny’s eyes and was warmed by the thought I was responsible for her joy. That isn’t a bad thing, mauve and mayhem.

 

The paint really isn’t that bad, I though. I can always repaint the room in the future, adding another layer to this house, her purple legacy hidden. It will always remind me of the squeal Jenny made; and I suppose I’ll look back at this and laugh some day. There needs to be laughter in a house, the sign of happy moments important to us all. Mine has just acquired laughter and the ability to breathe.”

 

My first real vegetarian meal consisted of curry tofu, brown rice and black beans. Freiburg was hardly the clearinghouse for exotic or international foods. The curry was hard to find and very limited. My knowledge of Bestway Supermarket made the experience slightly easier, the store having a section called “International.” The contents on the shelf consisted of Mexican, Chinese and a few obscure foods generally canned and often dusty from disuse. I remembered one small area, which had curry, an exotic seasoning for the average Freiburger.

The market only had curry in stock because of a woman in the Freiburg Women’s Association requested it for a progressive gourmet dinner party. We stocked the item for her and it was never used after that. The woman received mixed reviews regarding the culinary concoction, a few asking for the addition of catsup to make it palatable. Freiburgers tended to eat simple fare, foreign seasonings not a big draw.

The market also carried one brand of tofu, shipped from miles away. The wave of health consciousness had almost reached our small community. It was rather expensive and used by a half dozen folks in town, Myra included in that bunch.

The book Myra’s suggested gave me about thirty easy recipes to choose from. It had other useful information about alternate choices and numerous substitutes for meat. It clearly explained the differences between vegetarian and vegan diets, the latter quite a challenge to work with. I was relieved to hear that Jenny had not opted to be a vegan, her love for cheese and ice cream overriding the need to eliminate all animal products from one’s diet. I was relieved not to have to draw that line.

I set the food on the table that night. I had to admit I enjoyed the fragrance of the kitchen, curry not an unpleasant smell. Jenny ate the meal without saying much. For a vocal, opinionated young woman, I found her silence peculiar. Later she informed me that she did not like curry. This vegetarian mode was going to be harder than I thought. I sat her down and had her write out all the things she did not like, so the guessing game will cease to be. From that bit of a list I drew upon things acceptable to her. She gave me a weak smile of thanks, a hint of an apology in her response.

 

 

Our Indian Summer was quite warm this year a T-shirt and light pair of trousers all I wore in the house, slipping on a regular shirt when I went out. I have an aversion to wearing summer shorts. Elise used to tease me in good fun about having chicken legs. It was true; I had very white, skinny legs, though I failed to see the chicken resemblance of them. Hidden from the sun they were as pale as a white sheet of typing paper. Exposing large areas of skin did not seem to fit our life style, Freiburgers not flaunting their flesh unless young or extremely brave.

My legs have nothing to do with my point. They have been hidden for years and will remain so without notice or comment from anyone. However, Jenny in her youthful exuberance felt quite at home wearing close to nothing during the heat of the day and early evenings. My own children, quite young at five and six, dressed to be comfortable in such weather. It was different when it was family. Some modesty is reserved for the more advanced in age. A boarder presented a different social awkwardness when it came to this small taboo.

It began one late afternoon when I was going into the kitchen for glass of water. I’d been working in the garage and decided to take a break from the heat. I casually strolled into the kitchen and noticed Jenny standing next to the sink practically naked. The very thin undershirt with several butterflies embroidered on the material, clearly outlined her small, unrestrained breasts. To make matters worse she also wore, the now, famous pink panties with the cherries. I was sure by this time everyone in Freiburg knew of the pink panties with the cherries. Even though everything was covered, it still revealed more information than necessary.

“Oh, sorry,” I apologized, turning away from her. “I didn’t mean to surprise you. I’ll come back in a few minutes, perhaps when you’re dressed.”

“That’s okay,” she responded facing me. “I was just washing a butter knife and getting a drink. I just finished making a sandwich, a little snack before supper. I hope you don’t mind. I used some of the cheese in the fridge. I’m going to sit outside and eat it on the porch. Want me to make you a sandwich too?”

“Uh, no,” I said averting my eyes. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to go outside dressed like that. In fact, its a little uncomfortable having you dressed like that in here.”

“What? You mean you think this isn’t okay?” she asked, her face registering surprise.

“It’s just skin and flesh. Nothing special and nothing exposed. Besides our bodies are only natural. We shouldn’t be ashamed of them,” she added tugging on the bottom of her undershirt, pinpointing the almost visible details of her chest.

“I think all people should be naked,” she began, like a preaching nudist evangelist “I heard about these places in California where people live in nudist camps free from all the uptight crap of wearing clothes. That’s so far-out, naked and free all the time. People are just too uptight about it. You know what I mean?”

“On an intellectual level, I might agree with you, Jenny. However, that kind of philosophy will not go over well in Freiburg. People will think weird things are going on here. People gossip.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” she reassured me. “You’re too old for people to think anything at all. You don’t really believe people will think we are having sex or anything like that?”

Two words made my gut twist and my knees shake. Age and sex were the reminders of our decaying humanity, years taking away our skin elasticity, diminishing some of our sex drive and making us forgetful. Age is unforgiving; the years march by without our approval or consent. Sex or the suggestion of sex is laced with too many taboos and no-nos, for the wagging tongues of this society. Though I consider myself a flexible person, open to new ideas and such; Jenny running around in skimpy clothes was not one I was about to allow. I was sure Myra would agree with me on this, though she did have some liberal ideas of her own.

“Okay, Jenny, let’s just say I am from a different generation and find it uncomfortable to accept your sense of freedom. I understand young people have new ideas and are ‘cool’ with a lot of things,” I continued, wishing she’d stop pulling on her undershirt. “That might be fine when you are living at home with your family but I think I’ll have add that to the list of rules.”

Jenny glared at me with disapproval. I could see she wasn’t going to give up easily.

“My mom and dad are just as weird about that,” she grumbled. “They’re so uptight. What is it about all these adult rules? Yeah, and by the way I wanted to talk to you about these other rules too. What’s this ‘no guests’ in the room, thing? No smoking or alcohol? And I thought you had a maid clean the bathroom. Do I have to keep that clean too?”

This was good a time as any to make things clear to Jenny. I was not going to have my reputation dashed because of some kid’s ideology. She will eventually move on but I have to stay in Freiburg. Gossip does not rely on facts. Small towns have a fragile network of secrecy; a word dropped here or there might suggest something a person might not wish to share with everyone in the community.

“My daughter carefully spelled the rules out for me,” I said. “They are pretty standard rules, Jenny. There is another big consideration; you are still a minor in my care. You’re not supposed to drink and smoke in my home, out of the question. Besides smoking isn’t good for you and is dangerous. I hate the smell of the stuff. We might have wine on some special occasions, but that’s the extent of alcohol in this house. What you do outside of this house is your business and out of my hands.”

I could see that Jenny wanted to interrupt me but decided to curb her comments until I had said my piece spelling out a few of the other important rules.

“Any guests you might wish to entertain will have to be seen in the den. You’re welcome to use the den without me nosing in. I’ll respect you and your guest’s privacy. You can play the piano if you like, though I suspect it needs a good tuning.”

Jenny’s lower lip hung down a pouting gesture, designed to make me feel sorry for her. I could see she understood the rules but was not happy with the effect it might have on her social life. She didn’t know anyone in Freiburg, cute young girls targets for the cads looking for the vulnerable and inexperienced. It occurred to me there was another possibility I had not planned on. I hoped her parents explained all the facts of life to her. I did not want to take on that responsibility nor did I think I should.

Before another word could be uttered, the phone in the hall rang. The harsh ring was annoying even at this distance.

 

I’ll have to stick some electrical tape on that ringer to dampen the sound, I thought. Meant to do that a long time ago.

In a few steps, I was within easy reach of the offending noise. Jenny took this as a hint to spirit herself to her room where she could sulk about the rules of the house. Judging from her initial response, negotiations had not been completed. There was no doubt the subject would arise again.

 

“Is this John Millerton?” asked the male voice.

The question made me feel like I was going to be subject to a Candid Camera gag but I answered in the affirmative.

“My name is Don Hackin,” announced the man. “Hank from your local Bestway Supermarket gave me your name. You know the store? It’s on Francis and First, big store with a B on it.”

“Yes, Mr. Hackin,” I responded rolling my eyes. “Perhaps Hank forgot to tell you I worked there for thirty-five years and recently retired. I remember the place well.”

I was sure Hank told the man all the details. I felt patronized with a hint of insult by the way Hackin spelled out needless information.

“Always good to check Mr. Millerton; one must never assume. You know the old saying about making an ‘Ass out of U and Me’ assume. Let me come to the point. I need a room in Freiburg for about three or four weeks and Hank told me you are advertising for a boarder. If it is not inconvenient to rent out the room for a short period, I would like to take it.”

“Wouldn’t you like to see it first?” I questioned, surprised at his snap decision. “You might not like it.”

“Your friend, Hank said it’s a nice clean place and pretty cheap. Said you were a good guy with a good head on your shoulders. A room is a room after all, don’t need anything fancy. I only need a place to sleep at night. Don’t care much what the room looks like as long as it’s reasonable. Cost is really not an issue, however. Bestway Supermarket Inc. is springing for it. Besides, I save a little bit here and there and I can use the rest to have some fun.” he added. “The room is the going rate more or less, I assume?”

Part of me couldn’t resist my answer. “Well, we shouldn’t assume anything; you know the saying. But yes it is about par with the few places around here, I guess.”

“Of course you understand Bestway will be glad to absorb any additional fees due to the short term arrangement.”

“That’s not necessary, Mr. Hackin; the normal rate will be fine,” I said. This boarder concept was still new to me, my experience with a mauve colored room came to mind. “You don’t plan to paint the room, do you?”

“Uh, not sure why I should. But no,” he answered confused with the question.

“Good,” I said in relief. “What exactly do you do? I don’t think Bestway has ever had anyone come out to the store before.”

“It’s the times, Mr. Millerton, the times,” he responded with bravado. “We can’t stand with our hands in our pockets and expect to make greater profits. We owe it to our stockholders to stay on top. It’s almost the seventies and we need to trim the fat, get out the deadwood. That new floor tile is only the beginning of a much larger financial investment. The real drain on the cost factor is people and time. That’s my job; I’m an efficiency executive. It’s all fine and dandy to have loosely structured, backwoods management styles in the fifties. We are pushing into a new decade with new demands in business. Sloppy management makes all the employees happy but lazy. That isn’t efficient is it?”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” I replied, feeling a little irked by the accusation that I might have been previously managing the store, sloppily.

“Then it’s done. I’ll see you in a week then,” he announced. “Nice doing business with you. Good bye Mr. Millerton.”

I was left with the feeling I once had when trying to pet Louise Butterfield’s dachshund. The dog seemed friendly, wagging his tail but grabbed my shirtsleeve in an attempt to do me serious harm. There was no harm done by the dog, except for a slightly torn shirt. Hackin struck me as a little overly perky, his intentions, I suppose were the best. Maybe when he came to Freiburg and saw the operation he would see there wasn’t much for him to do. There was the possibility he might see how bad the dairy refrigeration was, doing something to remedy the problem. Still there was the problem of these new-age efficiency experts wanting to re-invent the wheel and fix something that wasn’t broken.

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