So while the shadows grew long and the light turned orange, red and gold outside the Lavender Lady, inside her walls finally held all my earthly possessions and most of my closest friends. Filled with satisfaction and surrounded by the physical manifestation of our labors – disassembled furniture and boxes – we sprawled eating pizza and drinking beer (which again is the traditional “thank-you-for-helping-me-move-house-even-though-we-are-past-the-point-in-our-lives-when-this-is-fun” fare). Feeling free and breezy under the influence of nostalgia (the beer helped) we reminisced about all the horrible hovels we resided in during our twenties, and the peculiar people we shared them with.
Here are the highlights:
Me (slowly picking off layers of pizza toppings): The guy who made up his own religion declaring the name Pete all powerful. Wednesdays were his sabbath and he wouldn’t do chores if he happened across the name on any day of the week. Meaning if someone said Pete, if he saw it in print (which was a problem since there was a giant billboard down the street advertising Pete’s Potato Chips) or a picture of a famous Pete popped up – he’d hunker down in his room to “worship”. Which entailed smoking a lot of weed and listening to jazz records featuring Pete Fountain. We never saw that security deposit back, a tornado couldn’t air out that room.
Sarah (a still mortified co-worker): My college roommate’s boyfriend decided to pee out the window one evening because Julie, his girlfriend, was taking too long in the bathroom….unfortunately someone was sitting next to the open window below and got a real surprise. They both fled when the shouting started – which left me to plead ignorance and then innocence by trying to demonstrate the leverage and physics required for me to perform said feat through a screen. Could have wrung their necks.
Beatrice (rolling her eyes at the memory): I roomed with a girl who loved my curls so much she snipped a few off one night while I slept. When I woke up and she was sitting at the kitchen table bobbing them up and down like some kind of demented fishing lure. Her defense? She only cut a couple off at the nape of my neck – not the really good ones around my face. Wasn’t that considerate? I can’t swear she didn’t made a voodoo doll from them when I moved at the end of the month, but I did sprain my ankle a week later…
Dourwood (laughing and poking me in the leg): I roomed with this girl who would get into constant arguments with the fridge, toaster, house plant, door…then would try to pass it off as “rehearsing lines” for her improve group!
I felt compelled to hit Wood in the shoulder at this point and everyone laughed (I was in an improv group…). With an air of dignity, “I no longer tread the boards.”
“Tread the boards! Ha! You just don’t want to admit you talk to yourself!” Wood laughed (as did everyone else, he easily avoiding my second punch). His phone buzzed. Looking at his watch he got to his feet and drained his beer, “Well I am off. Laney’s out front.” Getting to my feet I started to invite her in when Wood shook his head, “She can’t come in. Her Mom’s with her.”
When one person sets out, others usually follow and soon after our cozy pizza party broke up. When I’d seen the last of my friends out (I will not recount their giggled reminiscence of me doing “improv”, apparently I am caught talking to myself more than I knew) I shut my new front door. Smiling I turned and leaned against it, surveying my new living room (the upstairs of the Lavender Lady may be too stately to incorporate such an ordinary room, but the basement is not) when I spied a bit of macabre in the corner of the room…
A wood framed box with a glass front sat propped up against the wall at the end of a line of bookcases. I simply couldn’t believe my eyes, how did I miss him? He watched while I approached his box. While I scanned his bones nestled in the forest green lining, finally meeting his eye sockets – I blinked first.
Beatrice: “His name is Harold.”
Me: “Harold? Looks like he had a rough life.” All but five ribs were cracked, broken and/or splintered. His left eye socket was scored and broken. The rest of his bones sported a number of unusual nicks and gouges, which didn’t look organic in origin.
Beatrice (unsuccessfully in keeping a straight face): “I won him.”
Me (rolling me eyes): “Where? From where, eBuy? Did a test crash dummy get tired of a human stealing his job?”
Beatrice (laughing now): “No, a publisher raffled him during a convention, for a historical thriller – a find clue to the killer in the bones – sort of thing. Harold came with an advanced copy of the book.”
Me (still inspecting his many extra bits): “Harummph. So they really let you walk off with a real skeleton?”
Beatrice: “I liked him. I don’t think they expected anyone to really want to take him home – but they couldn’t really object when I did. Hey let me help you clean up.”
With that she walked down the hall towards my room, I followed my attention divided between Beatrice and the many parts of Harold.
Just this once I don’t think I am the weirdest roommate in the house.
I blame Indiana Jones.
A ten year old me wanted nothing more than to roam the earth with Professor Jones (as I called him because I’d be a student, not a love interest) finding idols, grails and such things. So to prepare I did my best to research archeology; books, techniques and principles. Since Aunt Pearl could not be persuaded to take the annual family vacation to the Amazon (too many bugs), Egypt (too hot) or Ireland (who wants to see a bog?), I started excavating locations within my proximity – to help hone my “critical eye” (I was ten and this made total sense). I dug holes in the back yard, beaches, parks and occasionally at school – cataloguing everything I found buried and at what depth. When the authorities (parental and otherwise) figured out it was me digging – and not a rogue band of pooches – my work was curtailed.
My ambition didn’t even break stride.
I went to work with food. Nothing that wasn’t labeled a scramble, hash or came from a crock pot was safe from my analytical examinations. Lasagna, sandwiches, pies & cake – no meal featuring these items escaped my painstaking attentions (my Aunt forbade the use of a magnifying glass at dinner when I started telling everyone what her secret ingredients were). The food which drove my Aunt Pearl to distraction, however, was pizza.
I was meticulous and methodical. Starting with the top layer, meat – which if it was good – I would announce to everyone that there was something here worth digging for (didn’t matter if anyone was listening, I was to focused on my “research project”). Even if it was bad, I could continue on – I was a hungry ten year old kid and this was pizza after all – but I would narrate it a bit less. I think Aunt Pearl tried for a while to order pizza from Don John’s which wasn’t as good as Don Pedro’s, but my Uncle put a kibosh to that “nonsense”. I would pick the veggies off next, then I would then peel the cheese off (extra points if it came off in one sheet), then I licked the sauce off the crust, and finally finishing off the slice by rolling it up like a sleeping bag and gnawing on it. I did this with each and every piece – every time we ate pizza – dinner achieved new levels of obnoxiousness only a naive ten year old kid can muster (really, it only bothered my Aunt; my Uncle thought it was funny. I think this is why he started bringing a pie home every Friday). I wasn’t trying to be obnoxious. I was simply honing my scientific skills as best I could since my spade had been taken away (Uncle also didn’t mind my digging either, since it meant less lawn for him to mow).
This weekly event finally spawned a rare compromise from my Aunt. I could excavate my first slice to my heart’s content without her commenting – IF – I ate the rest like a normal person. This compromise quickly devolved into bargaining session which spanned an entire dinner (where my Uncle sat back trying not to burst a seam) until I did agree to limiting my scientific pursuits to the first slice. I also won my spade back! I could dig in the garden provided I helped weed it – with supervision (btw I think it is why my Aunt lobbied for a pool – less yard for me to dig up). My cousins sat awestruck at my audacity.
So why are my dinner time shenanigans important?
Pizza. Pizza is the key here.
Because when friends help friends move house they are fed pizza and beer as the reward for their extra effort.
It’s the law.
Some people swear by Chinese food, others go for giant sub sandwiches and some provide liquor and chicken wings.
I am a traditionalist.
Rolling down the window of sickly pumpkin colored hybrid, “Talking on your phone again?” The opening salvo.
Returning fire, I gestured with my phone, “Sure looks that way.” I opened my email, hoping the glowing screen and obvious inattention would spark the idea of leaving me alone.
No such luck, “Well, could you follow me to the cottage? I have some work to do.”
Seriously, he wouldn’t lift a finger for me unless something caught on fire or froze and now he’s Mr. Fix-It? Pulling patience up from my socks, “Ben, it’s after five, couldn’t it wait until tomorrow? And shouldn’t you be giving your dad a call? You know he wants weekly updates, I am sure he’d like to hear how the cost saving measures went.” Hoping my invoking of the Dad card or my current unemployment status would make him leave (petty I know, but the man was leaning on my last nerve).
Funny thing, Ben wouldn’t look me in the eye. Maybe he did feel bad about letting me go. Normally he’s too focused on his goals to notice other people. “Dad and I switched update days. So since I am free to put in some time tonight, I want to get the new hot water heater installed. I will need your assistance to finish tonight.”
Got that wrong.
Diverted by indignation of his expectation of my participation in the installation I went on the offensive, “Ben, I don’t work here anymore. And my lease, which runs through the end of the month states all non-emergency repairs need to either be completed or halted at the end of the business day, five.” Yes, I reread my lease after he delivered the eviction notice. Ben wouldn’t do anything unlawful, but annoying? Absolutely.
Changing tactics he huffed, “I would have expected more dedication from you.”
Really? The loyalty card? Wrong play. Planting my hands on the hood of the Princess, I leaned towards him. “Ben, until four days ago, I worked here for over eighteen years. You let me go to finance one of your projects. Fine. But I am not going to give you free labor for improvements you should have made to my cottage years ago.”
Retreating he puffed, “Well if you refuse to help, I will do it tomorrow.” With that last wild jab towards my conscience he pulled away, leaving me alone in the dark (dusk doesn’t last long). Leaning against the Princess I discovered that I felt reluctant to return home at this moment. The word “no” didn’t always seep into and saturate Ben’s brain and I didn’t want to get roped into a cottage improvement project. Even the chill spreading through my bones and the tingling of my toes on this clear autumn night could not propel me forth.
“I could convince him to leave you know.” I smiled when I herd his voice, the man in the sleek grey suit leaning next to me could indeed pull such a feat off. Joseph sounded bored with the very idea; I knew better. I rolled around his idea in my mind, but the sugary coating of it dissolved too soon and left nothing but the sour center which sucked the sweetness away.
I leaned my head back and stared at the stars while mirroring his dispassionate tone, “I am not sure you could. He’s sunk a lot of money into two large projects that I know of and I’m not sure he really can afford to live outside Nevermore.”
Turning towards me, “It wouldn’t take much.”
Rolling my neck so I could look him in the face, “It would leave Nevermore without a Caretaker, the Residents alone and wouldn’t guarantee they’d rehire me. But I appreciate the thought.”
“Well, the offer is a standing one. Just ask.” I smiled, he nodded then departed. A man of few words, Joseph.
An involuntary shiver wracked through me, convincing me that I should head home. Winding my way through the lanes, trees and gravestones, I stopped when I turned the last corner to my cottage – Ben’s hybrid stood in the drive and every window in the cottage glowed with light. Did he think I’d fall for this obvious flanking technique?
Stupid. Adult. Behavior.
Turn the other cheek my ass. Should take Joesph up on his offer. See how he liked my end game!
Thankful of the Princess’s small turning radius I decided to hit the Rusty Hinge for dinner and a very aggressive game of pinball instead. Just as I completed the maneuver and pressed the go pedal, I thought I caught sight of Joseph watching the cottage out the corner of my eye. Of course when I looked back it was only old Hugh standing there (Hugh Grunbaum providing a perch for crows since 1953).
Nope. Not worried about that at all….
The advert which gave me the idea of driving for FLYT! I get to be a professional driver…though I think my skills are more on level with Herbie The Love Bug than Lewis Hamilton (sadly).
(You remember Herbie The Love Bug, the 1968 Disney film with Buddy Hackett? No? Well, check it out post-haste if you’ve never seen it – it’s fun!)
(photo credit here, words are mine)
The sunset this evening looked much like this one? Should have whipped my camera out – perhaps Little Ben would have taken the hint….
Fortunately the call to Wood finished way before the silver Audi in front of me pulled to the curb. While I love books, and my major form of investing is tied up in paper, glue and string, I didn’t think there was much money to be had in selling them – even if Pulp (where Beatrice worked) was the largest independent on the West Coast.
Why, you ask, am I curious about her income? You need to understand that in our metropolis very few structures, monuments or companies are older than Nevermore. I had a sneaking suspicion this Lavender Lady (the house was a pale lavender with purple trim and a green door) was one of the few – I wasn’t hedging my bets here. The Lavender Lady resides in Old Town where the trees lining the streets are close to achieving old-growth status and yards are large enough to required a couple full time gardeners to maintain. My entire cottage would easily fit in the Lavender Lady’s main floor – with room left over for a nice kitchen, cook’s nook and parlor (this kind of house doesn’t have anything as common as a family room). She even sported a white picket fence and a trellis over an odd gate with creeping roses climbing over it (pale yellow if you’re wondering).
Other than greeting each other after we parked Beatrice was quiet, leaving me free to crane my neck while I followed her. She veered away from the front door onto a narrower walk which led around the side of the house, down a flight of stairs. “We are almost there.” I think she felt the need to reassure me, since this couldn’t be the short way. Finally we turned the corner and then I knew the LL was older than Nevermore. The Lavender Lady must occupy four full-sized lots, and I am saying four circa 1830 sized lots, and it was beautiful. The dominant feature was a massive oak tree in full autumn glory, much to the delight of several scurrying squirrels. The smell of flowers, decaying leaves and fermenting berries filled my lungs while a faint prickle ran across my curling toes – interesting. “Impressive” was the best description I could come up with for the LL. The complicated gate mechanism made more sense now – developers might be proving a nuisance.
However I still wasn’t ready to judge this book by its cover (who am I kidding? I’d live in a closet here before moving back with Aunt Pearl).
When I turned around, I found Beatrice waiting by an open door watching me take it all in, “Not as expansive as Nevermore, but for the city it isn’t bad.”
Smiling, I replied, “Not much around here is, but this is close. Big Ben’s family invested in land when it was cheap, before the city was more than a speck.” I pushed away feelings I didn’t want to feel and forced myself to sound bright, “Let’s see inside!”.
Beatrice’s apartment consisted of the entire basement of the grand house above, and while there weren’t any water stains, cobwebs or unidentifiable odors (the big three for subterranean living) – it did provide a certain je ne sais quoi. Nature vs. Nurture was all I could think of (or in this Architecture vs. Decorating) while Beatrice gave me the grand tour of the place. The kitchen, laundry and bathrooms all felt like a vintage 1940’s soap advert. The hallways and rooms were dominated by bookshelves meticulously arranged (I assume, though I am not sure by what method) – but each one had at least one shelf devoted to some sort of collection; stamps, shells, feathers, postcards and bones? If you wed a college library to a cabinet of curiosities you’d get the same feel. Each door made me think of a Phillip Marlowe detective novel; a brass door knob, key hole and large frosted pane of glass with bold gold lettering designating the room’s utility: Book Room (seriously), Washroom and such.
One pane, the last of the tour was blank. “This would be your room.” Beatrice stepped aside and let me turn the knob. Compared to the tidy array (neither cluttered or ruthlessly organized it felt like a lived-in museum. “Tidy” is the best I can do here) of furniture and interesting things this room felt like a shock – completely bare of anything, except for indents in the carpet (the sterling upside was it has its own bathroom). It was perfect.
“I can clear out some kitchen cabinets and space in the hall closet for your stuff and we can figure out how best to fit your furniture around the house. Anything else you can put in storage here on the property.” Still wandering around looking out the window and in the medicine cabinet, I assumed she was trying to iron out any future kinks or qualms I might have.
“So what do you think?”
Some lovely smelling roses peaking over the side-fence at Beatrice’s house.
I choked on my on the coffee. I was going to kill Wood – he’s such a liar – he never talked to her. Trying to compose a suitable answer in my head on the fly, while calculating the amount of money it would take to replace the titles of mine in his possession (I decided yelling at him would be more economical) when Beatrice started laughing.
“That was mean, forgive me. I wasn’t sure if Dourwood told you he tried to set us up the other night. I am glad he did, so I can clear the air – I am not looking for a girlfriend, I am looking for a roommate.”
Wheezing I nodded and waved for her to go on. Trying to listen, laugh and cough discreetly didn’t allow for much contribution to the subject at the moment. It also mitigated the relief I felt at the moment, since choking tends to drown out most everything else.
“You remember I told you about my break-in a few weeks back?” I nodded for her to continue, my power of speech not quite there yet.
“The thing is, the break-in made my landlady, Ms. Hettie, nervous – especially since I travel frequently. And when she gets nervous she gets cranky. Well, crankier. So I thought having a roommate might maker her feel more secure. I can offer a discounted rent; if you’re willing to grab stuff I send to a P.O. Box and coordinate your travel with mine, so we can have someone home most nights. What do you think?” She regarded me with a hopeful look, but there was that competitive gleam as well – like this was her master stroke in keeping the house breakers at bay. Once again I wondered if she regarded thwarting them as a competitive sport.
Working past my speculation into stupefaction, I’m not sure why I thought we were meeting but I never saw this coming. My shoulders started to relax for the first time since Ben dropped by. I swear she felt my natural hesitation of moving in with a practical stranger melting under the thought of an affordable rent or in fact simply a roof over my head. Twelve days to find a place and move into it seemed daunting, “Plus all the books you can read.” She knew her audience – I wavered, “Months before they are released.” Now she was playing hardball.
Practicality replaced surprise and the odd suspicion. Buying a bit of time I hedged, ”Can I see your place and my room first before I decide?” Making sure I didn’t commit to some dark, depressing house at the end of a dank lane. Though I am not sure I would turn it down even then (later I thought this a bit rich, since I lived in a cemetery), the specter of pleading for a place with Aunt Pearl – even short term – haunted me.
“No problem. Do you want to see it now?” she asked while she got ready to head out.
“Don’t you have to go back to work?” Mirroring her movements I put on my jacket and scarf.
“The joy of my job is the built-in flexibility. As long as I get my work done on time my boss doesn’t care when I come in.”
I asked for a to go cup and we left The Altar.
I counted myself lucky when we decided to take separate cars. It allowed me to call Wood while I followed her home (using a hands-free device, of course). He verified that as far as he knew Beatrice didn’t harbor any latent axe murdering tendencies. Or mental instabilities which would again lead her towards the aforementioned axe wielding predilections. Or general flakiness which would find her trunk filled with all my first editions, heading to New York with dreams of starring in A Chorus Line inadvertently financed by me (You laugh but my early twenties were weird and expensive). Wood assured me that these possibilities were extremely remote. The most unusual thing he knew of Beatrice happened twelve years previous and featured a herd of goats, a sorority house and the staging of an epic prank. When Wood hung up I felt reassured about Beatrice’s character, despite the goats.
The heady scents of coffee, sugar and bacon enveloped me when I entered The Altar of the Bean (or The Altar as it is known amongst the regulars, neighborhood and social media). The controlled chaos of baristas, cashiers and bakers behind the counter snagged my attention first, the pastry case came second and when I spotted the espresso machine in all its glory, I stood transfixed – I’d been absent from here for far to long. When finally I snapped out of the hypnotic reverie which gripped me, I spied Beatrice tucked in the best lit corner of the cafe reading a book with an impressively large cup in front of her.
I made my way to the marble-topped table, feeling a bit awkward. I always feel odd when meeting a friend of a another friend without said original friend there – acting as a translator or referee? You never want to put the original friend in an weird fix if it turns out you actual loathe each other (I am exceptional at borrowing trouble). Fortunately Beatrice glanced up from her book before I reached her and smiled.
“Hey. Mind if I get coffee before I sit down?” I deposited my outerwear accoutrements on the chair opposite her while she answered, “Not at all.”
“Would you like a refill?” She shook her head no and I went to wait in line. I dithered over my selection while waiting, lemon Danish? A bear claw? Croissant? Or chuck it all and get a bacon, egg and cheese on pita? I glanced back at Beatrice, sucked into her book again. Hazard of the job I suppose.
My vacillating was interrupted by the barista at the counter asking what I wanted to order – a raspberry croissant and caramel latte, please. When my order was up, I rejoined Beatrice at the table where she held up her index finger while her eyes moved swiftly over the page, “One page to the next chapter.”
“No worries.” Which was fine by me as the croissant was proving to be a challenge. The raspberry jam squished out of the end onto my chin and fingers with such precision I could only conclude the Altar some how worked out a way to turn a dollop of jam into a guided missile whose sole focus was to besmirch a shirt front. Perhaps if I light a candle and offer up a coffee bean as penance for my long absence from this holy place, my shirts will be safe again…. (Yes they have an actual altar, they’ve adopted the Greek god Dionysus as their patron. Like I said, they take their coffee very seriously, or perhaps the owners are Greek. Could go either way.).
Placing an index card in the book to hold her place, Beatrice set it aside and tried not to laugh at my struggles. I must admit the mound of napkins in front of me was impressive, but I won the day and managed to keep my shirt front free from stains.
I started with a soft pitch, “What book are you reading?” There was no cover art and I didn’t see who the author was before she put it away.
“The new Ernest Cline, due out next year. Pretty good so far.” She finished her coffee and arched her eyebrow at me. New Ernie Cline? Seriously? She’d put the book back in her bag so filching it was out of the question. Well that an our passing familiarity. I ruled out mugging her in the parking for the same reason. Curses! (You may ask why my go-to strategy for acquiring the book features a criminal element? One night of fun did not mean we were on book borrowing terms with one another – Wood and I took twenty years to achieve this level. I mean what if we stopped talking right after I lent my favorite out? Tragedy. Is theft the obvious answer? Perhaps my bibliophile priorities may need tweaking…not that I would really resorted to these methods…).
Focusing back on real life again, ”And while this is a fine book, I did ask you to meet me here for a slightly different reason.” Smiling I appreciated her directness, since the jam incident and my larcenous heart didn’t make me feel any less awkward and I was intrigued to figure out where this conversation was going. I picked up my latte and blew on it while I waited for her to continue.
“You mentioned the other night that you needed to move out your house at Nevermore rather quickly. Have you found a new place yet?” Her fingers tapped the the edge of her saucer while she spoke.
“Not yet. It’s number two on my list. Why?”, taking my first sip of coffee.
“I was wondering if you’d move in with me?”