Novels

Layers of Being (part2)

August 22, 2016

Spider web

Though the story starts out with a lot of things of the past, we move forward, change a stressful thing for John.

Bob McMurtry

Phone Calls and Interviews

After placing the ads in the newspaper and at the university billboard, I did not expect any immediate responses. These things take time and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t hear anything for a week or so. Bestway Supermarket advertised weekly specials, which I had to list with the newspaper as the manager. Bargain shoppers waited for the newspaper ads, a different thing altogether. I doubted people paid much attention to such things as rooms for rent. Yet even before the ad hit the newspaper I got my first call.

“Hello,” I said pleasantly.

“Yeah, hi,” returned the caller. “I’m callin’ about that room ya got. It says you got a big old house with lots of room. Does it have enough room for a pool table? I got this cool pool table and need a place for me and it.”

“Uh, I don’t think that will work very well,” I returned a little concerned about the kind of person I was talking to. “With the bed and the dresser I doubt you could get much else in there.”

“Oh, no, it’s okay. That’s cool,” replied the young male voice. “I’ll just sleep on the pool table, done it before, a little hard but it’s cool. Don’t need all that other stuff. Oh yeah, I don’t have a lot of dough either. I wondered if ya would take a trade instead of cash for the room. I can get my hands on a nice stereo or good watch. Just tell me what kind ya like.”

I ended the conversation by thanking him for his interest. It was a discouraging call if only the first one. I didn’t worry though; it was early and I was sure boarders better suited would call. It did suggest that I might have to adjust to others life styles. I had never considered that. A couple hours later I received another call from a woman looking for a room.

“Hi, my name is Tonya and I need a room for a couple weeks, maybe more. I never know how long I’m gonna stay anywhere,” she droned into the phone. “Oh yeah, I got this big dog too. You take dogs, right? He hardly barks at all and hardly poops or pees in the house unless I’m gone for a long time. I think he gets pissed-off when I’m away; that’s what the vet said. Funny, huh? By the way I might be out of town for a few days. There’s a cool rock concert near my old boyfriend’s place. Mind watching my dog, Bruno while I’m gone?”

That call met with the same response as the previous. I was wondering if all the people out there were nuts. The rest of the day followed with as many crazy calls as before. One fellow even wanted to rent the room but was going to use it as storage. He refused to tell me what he was going to store, claimed it was cool. I got the impression it was not something I wanted to know about and turned the young man down.

Another young man wanted to rent the room for a weekend fraternity party. It was a small fraternity and needed a place for their monthly beer bust.

At about 8:00 PM I left the phone off the hook, avoiding the continuing weird calls. My patience was wearing thin and my sensibilities were being assaulted by the people’s strange requests, pet dogs, snakes and even a goat mentioned.

 

That night I slept fitfully, nightmares of big dogs defecating on my oriental carpets and the police raiding my house for stolen property and illegal substances. The dreams wandered into rock and roll concerts with gyrating, young women and young men without shirts, while a man was beating his guitar on the stage making an awful noise. The dream-concert moved upstairs in my house where fraternity brothers spilled beer and urinated in inappropriate places. I was beginning to wonder if renting rooms out was a good idea. Will I dream of things like this every night?

I couldn’t sleep and rose at 5:30 in the morning, sounds of screaming guitars and barking dogs lingering in my brain. I made my coffee and some scrambled eggs, waiting for the morning paper to hit the porch. The day was waking slowly, the sun creeping over the line of modern homes a few blocks away. My house was one of the few, which was old and on a well-established street. The houses in the distance were cracker boxes with so many square feet, a living room, family room, three or four bedrooms with zero interesting features. The yards were the size of postage stamp, each house crammed close together. I felt sorry for people who bought these.

Some years ago an investor had tried to buy up all the property on this block hoping to build high-density housing in its place. It was becoming a popular thing in many of the cities where the price of land had skyrocketed. In the space of three houses they were able to build five to six family units. High-density housing didn’t make any sense in Freiburg. There was vacant land all over the place and at attractive prices. I refused to sell, as did most others on the block. The three homes that were bought by the investor were later resold when the project bombed. It would have been sad to see this block go the way of all things, no soul, no life and no history, just a collection of poorly constructed two-by-fours nailed in the shape of a square.

 

I pulled a chair onto the front porch enjoying my one vice, coffee and a jelly donut. The Holey Donut produced an abundance of donuts daily but no other baked goods, the shop under fire by the Lutheran pastors in Freiburg, who didn’t like the name of the donut shop claiming it was sacrilegious. He did not see the humor in the name. He lacked the ability to see humor when it came to religion and a few other things. Actually, most people smiled when confronted with the title of the donut shop.

My jelly donut was a little stale having been bought the day before but still quite tasty. Raspberry filling was my favorite, custard my next. Eating a donut in the early morning without benefit of real food first was an ancient issue with my mother warning me not to eat desert before the main course. Middle America was not built on eating deserts first she would add. Desert will only spoil supper. On the other hand, wouldn’t supper spoil desert?

But we were a practical people with rules in this part of the country. In regards to the donut issue, I suppose I was a rebel in my own way. It was only a donut, after all. I had given up smoking years before and drank one or two drinks during the holidays, hardly enough to claim abuse of the substance. I had no tolerance for alcohol and needed to seriously limit my drinking to begin with. There are only so many things a man can give up before becoming bored with life and himself. My jelly donut ritual will persevere as long as I take a breath and the sun rises each morning.

Shortly afterwards at breakfast my eggs had been uninspiring, filling the need to eat rather than titillating the palate. A small dab of strawberry jam on my toast was my second desert coupled with my second cup of coffee. In the distance I could detect the clicking noise of the paperboy’s bicycle. I had offered to fix the clicking noise, which emanated from the pedal hitting, the misalign kickstand. The paperboy, 13 declared he did not notice the clicking. Young people tended to overlook things like that; I supposed they focused on other things and treated small irritations as if they did not exist. One day I’ll have to grab that boy and set him still for a minute or two so I can repair the bike. But this day was not the day. I was still vacillating over the idea about pulling my boarder ad.

While reading the paper in the dim light of the early dawn, I heard the phone ring.

 

Damn! I should have left it off the hook, I thought to myself unhappy with the defilement to my morning ritual. I wonder what time it is?

 

I wasn’t going to answer it; then it occurred to me the call could be from Annie, who managed to call at the weirdest hours. Being on the other side of the world gave her permission for the odd timed calls. The wood screen door creaked and slammed behind me as I passed into the front hall. The stairs created a convenient pocket where a small ledge supported a black phone, my only phone. It was times like this I wish I had listened to Edward about putting extensions in other parts of the house. My chats with Annie often had me sitting on a hard wood bench in the hall for more time than I cared.

A young voice, not unlike Annie’s spoke on the other end. “Hi, do you still have that room for rent?” she questioned. “I just started Wyandotte, you know the university, and I need a place to live before the semester begins. The ad says it includes some meals. What exactly is that about? Continental breakfast or something?”

“Well, no continental breakfast and the room has not been rented yet. Actually I am reconsidering the whole thing; I’m not sure I want to do this anymore,” I replied without great explanation. “If I were to rent it out, it would include supper with the possibility of pancakes and eggs now and then on weekends should you be so inclined. I gave up on waffles a long time ago. They never come out right and I lose the first two every time.”

“Gee!” she lamented. “Too bad. Sounds like the kind of place for me,” disappointment evident in her voice. “There’s just nothing available in this crummy town.” I took exception to the word crummy when speaking of my town, my home but continued to listen. “I can’t afford to drive my car back and forth like the other kids. The guy at the garage told me the car might last another year if I baby it. Then it’ll need a new engine and the works. I can’t afford to do that.”

Against my better judgement I asked, “Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself, like you name for instance? That is generally a good way to start. I might reconsider, reconsidering.”

“It’s Jenny Jacobs. The kids at school used to call me JJ,” she began with enthusiasm. “My mom and dad hate the nickname and won’t even call me to the phone when someone asks for JJ. They just say there’s no such person at that number. It really pisses me off. Wouldn’t it piss you off too?”

“I don’t know,” I said slightly put of by her easy use of questionable words. “No one has ever called me JJ or anything but my name. So Jenny, where are your folks? Do they live near by? I would think they would help you find a place. I’m surprised they haven’t.”

“My parent’s live in Boringville Knollwood but we don’t get along very well,” she reported. “I know it’s not that far from here but I can’t live in that house with all their stupid rules. They expect me to be in the house by 10 o’clock at night. None of the college kids crash before midnight, so unreasonable and uncool. I bet neither of my parents had rules like that when they went to college. Rules, rules, rules are all there is in the world. I think there are too many rules in the world. Don’t you think so?”

I wasn’t sure we would ever get to the meat of the conversation but felt obligated to answer.

“Well, I think some rules are important,” I muttered almost in apology. “The world would be in chaos without rules. I don’t think you’d like it any other way. Wouldn’t it be terrible if people drove cars anywhere they felt like, any side of the road? A lot of people would get hurt or worse. Just to let you know, I do have some rules here for my boarders, if I decide to rent the room, of course.”

“Oh, God!” she exclaimed in total astonishment. “Are you one of those with a hundred house rules, kind of guys? I’m not sure I could handle that. I believe in being free like the constitution says. We’re not free in this country, ya know, fascist government. We live in an immoral country where the stupid government thinks we need to fight in some God forsaken place. Warmongers and fascists run this country, that’s for sure. Controlling power freaks!”

I waited for her to breathe and the opportunity to respond. I remember being young once, seeing the obvious fix with things wrong in the world. The world lived beyond the town limits, like a different country. Soon those fixes were idle words when applied to my everyday life. Freiburg was the world to me, a quiet oasis where we were polite and neighborly. Everyone followed the rules and no one the worst for it.

“No, I just a few simple rules so we don’t get into each others hair. Your business is your own,” I answered before she could remount her soapbox. “There are three rooms available and you will have to be considerate and share things like the bathroom. It’s your responsibilities to keep the bathroom and your room clean. Supper will be at a six o’clock sharp; otherwise you’ll be on your own. At night I lock all the doors but everyone has a key and will have to lock up when they come in.”

“Oh,” she answered surprised. “Those don’t sound so bad. When can I come by and check it out? Of course, that’s if you’re still planning to show it to me. I got the whole day off but there aren’t very many places to see. Listen to this dumb ad. Room to share for female only $40 a month. Can you believe that? I’d have to share a room with some weird stranger. She could be a royal bitch. I’m not sure I can handle that. Well, what about an address?”

“Uh, okay I suppose you can see it now, if you like. The address is 411 Magnolia Lane. It’s about half a block from Sycamore Road on West Central Hill. It’s the only gray house on the street. Do you need directions?”

“Naw! I know where Sycamore is and Freiburg isn’t exactly New York City. I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes if my car starts.”

“Oh, good,” I said wondering if I made the right decision to do this thing. “See you in a little bit then.”

 

I had almost forgotten how adamantly opposed young people were about the war in Vietnam. They had every reason to be upset since young men had to serve without choice and young women were left to worry about their husbands and boyfriends ever coming back. President Johnson had just announced this year about cutting back the troops. It was encouraging but not enough to make everyone happy. The army was still sending men every day, the unfortunate shipped back in coffins. Cutting back did not eliminate the need for fresh replacements. It pained me to think; far too many boys found their end on foreign soil never to live the life they should have.

Freiburg was a pretty conservative place; people generally waved flags and supported the decisions of our government, right or wrong. Civil unrest sent people from other towns and cities into the streets protesting the government’s decision on the war. Secretly, I agreed with these people but stayed neutral because of my job and community. No one in Freiburg rocked the boat, why should I? I will have to watch my step with this young girl, Jenny. The young are too easily fueled by rebellious talk and idealism.

Jenny With the Light Blonde Hair

As soon as I hung up the phone, I regretted my decision. This girl, Jenny exuded the same enthusiasm as my daughter but also some radical ideas I was not used to. I suppose I could always turn her down if necessary, feeling like a heel knowing how hard young people struggled these days. I folded up the newspaper and replaced my chair to the inside of the den. It occurred to me to tidy up a bit. I’m not particularly a messy person but I do manage to leave clutter here and there. My clean up was designed to emphasize one of the rules I set down. No one leaves anything lying about the house.

The worst part of my rules is that I have to follow them too, I thought removing the stack of papers on the kitchen chair. This sweater and coat on the couch don’t look good. And the breakfast dishes need to be done. This is harder than I thought. Sigh!

 

I felt a little awkward inviting a stranger into my house. Saying no, if it wasn’t a good fit, was going to be hard. Elise had always told me to be myself, say what was on my mind and be honest. It was easier said than done since I worked so close to the people of Freiburg. Telling Mrs. Gillian that she was crazy wasn’t an option, though she still believed the Russians were sneaking poisons into our produce. That was my professional situation, requiring diplomacy. The young girl was another matter. So how bad could this young girl be?

 

I wondered about Knollwood, a smaller town than Freiburg. There was little crime in these towns; most of them used the county sheriff instead of a real police department. In Freiburg we sported a police department of five full-time officers. All five were never on duty at the same time often never in the daytime. But a quick call brought an officer if you needed one, which was infrequent.

I think their primary job was to arrest the drunks on Friday and Saturday nights. They were pretty evenhanded about it. They brought a few regulars home to sleep it off or kept them in jail until the morning, the doors of the cell often left unlocked. That way a few wives were spared the humiliation of their husband’s drinking and disorder. Or were the inebriated spared the wrath that would surely come? Aside from stolen candy, broken windows and barking dogs, Freiburg’s finest had little else to do except clean their guns or cars, ammunition used for practice only.

It was likely Jenny Jacobs came from a decent family, not being exposed to the crime and negativity of larger communities. This whole part of the country, Middle America was like this. People obeyed the law, voted Republican and went to church on Sundays. Children got into mischief and were reminded of their civic duty in the community. Doors were seldom locked because we were of an honest stock.

 

I had dried the last dish when I heard the jingle of the doorbell. The house never had a real doorbell. None of the older places had such sophisticated devices. You had to grab the bell knob on the door and twist it. It was a little like the bicycle-bell on a kid’s bike, except not as musical. I traveled the distance from the kitchen to the door in less than a minute before the raspy ring, sounded again. I twisted the doorknob noticing how loose it was becoming.

I need to take that knob apart someday and fix it. There’s always something in this place that needs fixing. Not today, though, I mused.

This was not a time to contemplate repairs. I needed to interview a person, a stranger and decide if she will be my new tenant. I had interviewed employees for Bestway Supermarket many times before. But this was another matter. I knew all the right questions to ask when it came to supermarket employees. I felt nervous about it. This girl wasn’t seeking a job. She was looking for a room, a place to reside while honing her skills as a student and future citizen.

The rattle of the doorknob and the squeak of the hinges revealed a very young girl, a slip of a thing, sandy blonde hair, skinny as a rail and dressed in a collection of colorful clothing, which did not necessarily match. Her multi-colored skirt hung straight to the ground, her peasant blouse decorated with embroidery and many small organizational pins, many, I did not recognize. I was sure she did not belong to all of these organizations since some were male oriented. One of the dominant pins was the, ever-popular peace sign. She had placed it on the front of her knitted cap. Love and rainbow pins were stuck to either side of that. Her face was heart shaped, eyes covered by rectangular, pink, rimless sunglasses. It made her eyes look bloodshot. Colorful scarves were tucked into the waistband of her skirt giving the impression of a belly dancer or gypsy.

My first impression left me dumbstruck. I confess I stopped breathing for a few moments as I took in this vision of youth with mismatched attire. It was a uniform of sorts, not the kind of uniform one might see in a private school or in the military. The young girl was dressed in the uniform of the anti-establishment movement, which was closely associated with hippies.

I had had young teens in my house before but none had displayed such bizarre clothing and decorations. It was true that we had our beatnik era, the black clothes and facial hair reserved for a handful in Freiburg. Annie and Edward never showed much interest in the garb or bad poetry of that generation. The ‘beats’ tended to stay in small clusters allowing membership to those professing a desire to get off the merry-go-round of life, what ever that meant.

Jenny’s petite five-foot frame looked overwhelmed by her ensemble, similar to a child hiding in a mound of clean laundry. I did recall seeing other young people about town with similar outfits, university students, I would imagine. The majority wore jeans, if not neat slacks and a good plaid shirt for most boys. Girls wore pretty dresses or maybe a sweater and skirt combination. Freiburgers did not make fashion statements nor did they adhere to faddishly dress.

“Jenny, I presume?” I uttered.

She laughed. “That reminds me of the cartoon ‘ Doctor Livingston, I presume.’ It was some guy in Africa, I think. That’s cute. Yeah, and you must be the guy I talked to, right?”

“Millerton,” I said extending my hand to greet my new guest. “John Millerton but you can call me John.” I gestured toward the hall. “Would you like to come in?”

“Thanks,” she said without ceremony, waltzing in with her backpack slung over one shoulder. “Old house, I bet it creaks at night. Reminds me of those creepy movies where a hand comes out of a closet and grabs their victim.” She continued after spinning around in the hall, “This place isn’t that creepy, though. Kinda cool. Bedrooms upstairs?”

“Yes.”

“You live downstairs?”

“Yes, I live in the back, off the kitchen,” I returned like a defendant being cross-examined. “My quarters are completely separate except for the kitchen which is a common room available to everyone.”

“Do I get to see the room?”

“You want to see my room?” I replied becoming confused at the request.

“No, the room upstairs, of course,” Jenny returned. “I don’t care about your room.”

“Oh!”

The awkward moment passed. I led the way up the stairs slowing at the first landing to be sure my charge was behind me. She was close at my heels. I continued turning to the right, reaching the top landing in a few more steps. The young girl took the steps two at a time.

My daughter, Annie counted the stairs once. It took six steps to the first landing and nine more steps to the top. I think she was checking whether we had some magic number like thirteen. Annie was always curious about things like that, counting to see how many paces it took to get to each room and even the distance to my garage was subject to her measurement inquiry. As part of her project she made a treasure map outlining the many places one might hide valuables in the house. Such imagination was rewarded with a hug, though I never bothered to check for treasure.

“Fifteen!” announced Jenny. “An odd number but okay.”

“I’m glad you approve,” I returned smiling at the similarities between my daughter and this young girl.

Jenny stood next to me at the landing scanning right and left. I could smell the mustiness of rooms long unattended. Though Marta cleaned every so often, the rooms needed to be lived-in to change the smell of the place. The doors to all three bedrooms and the bathroom were open, sunlight streaming through the windows of a couple of the rooms. I could see the dull yellow light of the afternoon accentuating the age of the paint on the walls. I might have to paint the upstairs hall some day, soon.

“Which room?” she asked. “Which room is mine?”

“Oh, actually there are three to choose from,” I said with a sweep of my hand. “The south bedroom gets the most sun in the winter. It also looks out onto the street, not much of a view. The east and west rooms get sun in the morning, but have a nicer view of the garden.”

“How can I tell all this north, south and west stuff?” she complained, wrinkling up her brow. “I can barely read a map let alone know which way is north.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I replied with a slight smile. “I’ve lived her for so long it’s just a normal thing to think of the rooms that way.”

I pointed out the rooms with their advantages and disadvantages. She walked around each room as if she were a prospective buyer for the mansion on the hill, lifting the edges of the bedspread and inspecting the window ledge. She swirled around the master bedroom like a dancer enjoying the experience of a grand stage. Her delicate movement and features reminded me of a ballet dancer, not that I had ever seen one, except in films.

“I like this one but there’s no bed in it,” she reported. “I thought the room was supposed to be furnished.”

“That’s not a problem. I can move a bed from another room. You can pick out which bed you want.”

“I want that big bed,” she answered. “The one with the blonde wood headboard and the fancy gold scroll work.”

That had been Annie’s old bedroom furniture. I remember the day she picked it out. Always the artist, she wanted something that was plain yet had some small amount of detail. She liked the gold brush strokes and claimed they were magic swans painted just for her. She never saw anything as plain; it all had animals and faces, trees and mountains, her imagination infinite.

 

Jenny said, without a hint of doubt, “So I guess this means you’ll rent it to me.”

“Uh, yeah, I suppose so,” I managed, shocked by my own words. “I wasn’t sure but I guess it will be alright. When would you like to move in?”

“Today is good for me,” she answered. “I got most of my stuff in the car. I can pick up a few other things later. You got any hangers in that closet?”

I nodded in affirmation as she skipped toward the door. Memories of my daughter came flooding back.

Young people have such energy. Annie used to skip around the house very much like my new boarder. Wow! A boarder, I thought to myself. This is going to take some time to get used to.

 

Jenny and I wrestled the bed and dresser from Annie’s old room into what used to be the master bedroom. It was a double bed and fairly heavy. I was surprised how strong this little girl was as we maneuvered the mattress through the door. Perhaps I should say she was a young woman rather than a girl. I always thought of my kids as kids instead of adults. Teens resented being called kids; the term used today was ‘young adults.’ Jenny appeared too young to be in college an observation I made often of other kids of that age. Every year, kids seemed to be getting younger in high school and college; must be a perceptional thing.

It took a little while to get the furniture arranged in the room. Jenny had specific ideas about where things should be. I could see she also had an artistic eye for arrangement. She was delighted with the oriental carpet on the floor, saying it was ‘cool and far-out,’ terms young people used these days. She asked to turn the carpet at an angle so that it was like a diamond in the rectangular room. I had never thought of placing it like that but it was going to be her room and it did no harm to go along with her idea. She looked at the window shades frowning, the sheer curtains not quite obscuring the rollup shades at the top of the window.

“The curtains are sorta okay,” she said politely. “But the shades really suck. Do ya think you could put up drapes or something? I think they’d look cool. I could find some cool fabric from India and hang it there. The sunlight will make the room different colors when it shines through, kinda psychedelic. Cool, huh?”

She stood leaning on one leg rubbing her chin in deep thought. “You know, the color of the room is a little dreary,” she added. “Can I paint the room a different color too? Beige is so boring. I’ll do all the work myself, if you get me the paint. Okay?”

“Uh sure, I guess,” I answered with trepidation. I didn’t see anything wrong with the color of the room. Beige went with everything. Perhaps it had been a few years since the room was painted, so I gave in to her request.

“I have an account at Olson’s Hardware,” I reported. “I’ll let them know you’re coming to get paint. There’s paint tools in the garage somewhere; I’ll find them for you. I’m not sure about those drapes, though. That shade is a heavy duty one and keeps the cold out in winter.”

Jenny frowned when I offered resistance altering the shades. Her sulky expression reminded me of Annie when she didn’t get her way.

“But I guess if you get your material,” I continued. “I’m sure I can find some drapery rods to fit the windows in the garage.”

She almost leaped out of her skin with excitement, clearly winning a battle she thought she might lose. My head was spinning from all the proposed changes. I never saw much purpose in changing anything. If it was good enough before, why shake the tree? Now, I was a landlord; still not convinced I should be one.

“By the way, did you know someone parked an old wreck in your driveway?” she offered. “Some black piece of junk. I’d get on it right away, if I were you. It looks like it might leak oil.”

“That’s my car, Jenny.”

“Oh,” she answered biting her lip with a slight smile. “Sorry.”

Now I could add Jenny’s name to the list of people who hated my car. I suppose kids opinions were frank nowadays. They spoke without too much thought about what adults might think or feel. Was I much different at that age? I always thought I was. I could sense Jenny’s embarrassment but her enthusiasm never wavered.

“In that case I better move my car,” she volunteered. “I think I might be blocking you.” She added as an after thought, “Does that car actually run? I’ve never seen a car that old actually work.”

There weren’t many cars my vintage and surely few Packards on the road anymore. I didn’t answer her, looking cross-eyed at her. She avoided my gaze and dug into the bottom of her backpack extracting a billfold and envelope with money. “The rent, forty dollars, right?” she announced. “I’m pretty sure I got it all.”

Her billfold was bulging with bills, mostly ones. There was a curious picture of a leaf on the outside of the leather billfold. It reminded me of a houseplant I had seen in a magazine. Perhaps this young girl enjoyed gardening. I would have to ask her. There was room for a garden in the back. Her enthusiasm might take root in the back along with some plants.

Jenny carefully counted and then recounted twenty-five, one-dollar bills. Then she began to remove money from the envelope. Again they were all one-dollar bills. We had thirty-five dollars worth of ones spread out on the carpet, the contents of the envelop was counted out several times to be sure she had not missed one.

“Sometimes they stick together,” she reported. “Especially the new ones.”

Next she dumped the contents of her backpack on the floor adjacent to the pile of dollar bills. A bunch of change poured out along with several personal items, which I choose not to mention. She stuffed some of the items back into the backpack, not embarrassed by their presence. High finance was at hand as she counted out two half-dollars, six quarters and the remainder in dimes and nickels. She appeared pleased with the results.

“There, that leaves me enough to put a couple gallons of gas in the old smoking chariot,” she stated cheerfully. “I call her Harriet. I think it’s far-out to name things; you know like when people name their boats and stuff. Yep, I call her Harriet the chariot.”

Following her conversation was a true challenge. Jenny could be talking about paint, money and then her car without taking a breath in between.

“What time is supper?” she blurted out. “There are meals, right?”

“Yes, as I said before evening meals are included. Supper is at six sharp. I only have the one meal unless I happen to make extra food for breakfast on the weekends. I usually make more than I can eat, old habit I suppose. You’re welcome to share. So what kind of car is your Harriet?”

“It’s so cool. You’ll love it,” she chirped. “She’s an old funky Volvo; you know the kind that looks like a big bump like the ancient forties cars. It’s kinda old but still works sorta okay. I saved up my babysitting money for three years to buy it; and put all sorts of very cool things inside to make it pretty boss. It took me a long time fixing it up, ‘cause you sure don’t make a lot of money babysitting. My dad wanted me to get something ugly like a Valiant. Ick! No one cool drives a Valiant, old people and geeks, maybe. Everybody knows that. Guys mostly go for the big Chevys and Fords, Plymouths a nowhere car. Guys go for the fast cars too. Dumb, actually. There’s no place in Knollwood to get the cars going fast enough anyhow. And they can’t get away with racing on the highway, too many state cops.”

Jenny sucked in air to continue, “But girls are different. What ya gotta have is a VW or Volvo or maybe a VW wagon to be cool. Those wagons are so far-out. A friend of mine bought one and lives in it all the time. Goes camping and hangs out with it too. Someday I’d like to get one of those.”

I could see this monologue going on forever if I didn’t make my move soon. I didn’t want to seem unsympathetic to her coolness but I had to derail the subject before my orator of ‘cool’ itemized what was in and what was not. Undoubtedly my behemoth Packard did not make the cut when it came to cool.

“I’m afraid I don’t pay much attention to cars, Jenny. They’re just transportation to me. If my wreck,” I emphasized the last word. “Ever quits on me I might get a new car. Until then it gets me to where I need to go with some minor coaxing now and then. Have to jiggle the key sometimes when it’s cold outside.”

Jenny opened her mouth, about to comment but thought better of it. I could see the old “black beast” was not going to receive any kudos from my new tenant. Still, I found it invigorating to witness this explosion of youth under my roof once again. My children had been out of the house for many years, Jenny a small reminder of those old times. I missed my kids.

Jenny shoveled the miscellaneous contents into her backpack. Her meager possessions touched me. Her unsuspecting display of poverty tugged at my heart, reminding me of my own kids. Both Annie and Edward wanted to make it on their own, never asking for much and so proud they could do it. Jenny wasn’t any different.

“Why don’t I give you a few dollars back,” I suggested. “It’s a few days after the first of the month. Next month we’ll start with full rent on the first. Sound okay to you?” I was going to be too soft to be much of a real landlord. This was going to be tougher than I thought.

“Wow! Sure, that would be great,” she replied calculating what to do with this windfall. “You’re not a bad for an old guy, Mr. Millerton. Really!”

There it was again, ‘old.’ First it was my children who were trying to remind me of my age, padding my way to senility. Now it was this young girl, siding with my children. It appeared my Packard was going to go the same course as me, relegated to history as a has-been, old and unsightly, though I hope I wasn’t much of the latter. I didn’t take offense at the remark, however. That would have been unfair. I’m sure Jenny meant well, though her acknowledgement of age could have been left out. That is part of what young people were about, speaking their minds openly and honestly, sometimes too honestly.

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