Monthly Archives: March 2012

Mrs. Finley #20: Fool!

Joe and Ella stood and gathered up the garbage from their lunch and retraced their steps down the flagstone path through the little forest of rosemary, lavender and yarrow.  In the distance I heard their fading footsteps, her heels, his shuffling runners, swallowed by the closing of the alley door that separated the property from the sidewalk.

I creaked with pain as I struggled to my feet.  Once I had gathered up my tools and the few as-yet-unplanted bulbs, I staggered to my front porch like an old man twisted by time.  My hands walked over each other along the banister of the porch steps, taking over for legs unsteadied from my stint as an eavesdropping quadruped, while my elbows, pinched against my body, held the trowel and the bulbs and the empty plastic soil bag blackened with the memory of its cargo.

A willpower stronger than physical distress sped me through my front door before Joe or Ella had time to get too deep into their house, in the event that one of them, dumb enough to tip a hand while having lunch above the yard of the victim of their plot, smartened up on the walk back home.  Then he or she goes to the back of their house, draws the curtain and shoots a paranoid look at the front of my cottage for signs of human presence.

I anticipated this and knew I needed a bare stage to make better my response and strengthen my own strategy for dealing with the Nematodes.  So I pulled on the banister and dragged my crippled sticks of legs up the steps and into the cottage with relative dispatch.

Then I was in and the door was shut and the curtains drawn, just as it always looked when I was away.  I dropped the garden tools on the floor and stumbled to my little bedroom, just large enough for a queen-sized bed and one small table, with two narrow avenues of hardwood floor between bed and wall.

The floor planks were showing the barest beginnings of a detectable warp from the water that had evaporated from the basement lake, as they began to curl in memory of the shape they had when they were living trees and water flowed through their trunks and branches.

I lay on my bed and stretched till the physical pain of my ordeal had largely subsided.  Then I stood on the warped planks in my bare feet and stretched, till my accustomed strength and spring returned to legs and feet.

I lay back down on the bed with an open book beside me but I could not read.  My torment took many forms.  I was, of course, furious, but also numb and embarrassed, and, worst of all, wracked with fear that I had been trapped.

That damned victim’s role, a role in life I have been forced to play again and again, is a role I never savored, never milked for the sympathy it might evoke in others, a role that I have, at every turn, attempted to reject in the face of circumstances that thrust it upon me.  And yet, here it was again.

I wanted to kick myself.  Had I revealed my presence to the Nematodes, yes, I might have been accused of eavesdropping, but I also would have snuffed out their plot before it was hatched.

Their embarrassment would have far exceeded my own, had I risen and poked my head through the Chinese lantern blossoms and said, “Gee, and here I thought we had a more candid basis for relating than this.  I am rather hurt to think that you would consider such a thing.  And, by the way, I do have a photocopy of that note I wrote you about the flooded basement.”  (I did not, but how would they know that?)

With this mere act of rising, even on weakened knees, I could have squelched the plot.  My fists pounded my thighs but this vented only a small portion of my self-condemnation.

William, you fool, you fool.  And you claim you want to avoid the role of the victim — now look at you.  Fool!



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Mrs. Finley #19: Cash

What held my righteous rage in check was the fear that if I rose too quickly, my legs would buckle and send me crashing to the walk before I had a chance to express my umbrage.  A good thing, too, as there was more to learn about the Nematodes’ plot against me.

Ella responded.  “Yeah, maybe, but then we got this bitter guy around who resents the hell out of us.”

“So.  He’s not going to like the vibes around here, either.  He’ll be gone in a month.  Guarantee.  Meanwhile, we try to dress up this deal as just this legal thing our lawyer wants us to do ‘cause it’s like in the lease, ek cetera.  You know, we show him all this sympathy, give him some crap about how we could like think of him as a potential co-owner of the cottage, you know, very vague, with all this, like, if our lawyer gives us the okay, then maybe in the future when things settle down we can like work you in with some consideration for what you paid.  You know, shit like that.  Just to deflect, you know.  I mean, it’s like impordant we do this.”

I would have winced at his butchery of language had I not been clubbed by the stunning evolution of Joe’s plot.

“Then, once he’s gone, we’re out from under rent control.  We raise the rent up and get some yuppie to move in at the new rate.  We need a little cushion.  Things are so tight.  We’re cash-poor now.  Granted, it’s prolly temporary, okay?  But we are cash-fucking-poor and we will get destroyed if we don’t recognize it and do something about it.”

“Hmmm.  I don’t know.  He’s sort of a nice guy.  I’d kinda hate to–”

“He’s a snob, Ella.  Don’t tell me you didn’t notice that.  You just like him ‘cause he listens to you.”

“What do you mean, a snob?  So he’s educated.  Does that make him a snob?”

“A snob.  Like, it’s always ‘William.’ I’ve never known an adult officially named William who didn’t go by Bill or Will, even Billy or Willy.  Snob.  Sure sign.  It would be like me calling myself ‘Joseph.’  And he shows off his vocabulary every chance he gets, and he listens to classical music.  I mean, like exclusively.  How fucking uncool.”

“Oh, come on Joe, get real.”

“Yeah, that’s great.  Defend him.  Now, where do we get the money to redo the foundation of his cottage?”

“Hmm.  I don’t know.  I gotta think about all this.  Maybe we gotta do it like you say, like, maybe it is a necessity or we lose the cottage and maybe I could sorta be okay with it, out of necessity.  But I don’t like this ‘snob’ talk.  I don’t want to do it just because you feel weird around him.  Is it maybe a tiny bit that he has been at work this whole time, while you–?”

“That’s bullshit.  I can prove it’s bullshit, too.  Like this:  he even rubbed me the wrong way back when I was ten times his worth, even what he’s worth now with this inheritance from his uncle.  Twenty times, at peak worth.  Twenty.  And I thought he was a snob then.”

“Really Joe, please, I don’t care.  I just don’t want it to play a part in our decision.  I gotta think about it.”

“Okay, you think about it.  Think real hard about it.  Why did Lou Bovelli insist we put that in the lease?  Remember?  All the wicked jokes in Lou’s office when he explained the lease to us?  Well, the joke’s over.  This is real life, and push has come to shove, and it’s like our fucking survival.  Is that why we paid Lou Bovelli the big bucks?  To ignore him?”

Ella offered Joe no rejoinder to this.

So we are going to go to war.  My lawyer, Fergus Devlin, duking it out with this Lou Bovelli.  I wondered if Fergus knew him.  Legal circles run small in medium-sized cities like San Francisco.  Maybe there was hope.



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Mrs. Finley #18: Slug

Joe was the first one to speak.

“There’s no way we can afford to have a contractor come in and fix the basement.  The best estimate I got was just under 20k.  The best!”

He took a bubbling drink into his gullet, where it splashed and gurgled and lubricated his throat for more words as he entered the topic without segue.  I took this as an indication that I was witness to the resumption of a debate suspended only while they devoured their lunch.

“Sure,” he went on, “we could get a loan, like you said, a second on the big house, or on this one.  But I am not bringing home a paycheck.  Everything is so fucked up now.  The world’s all fucked up, with 9/11, Bush, the economy mismanaged by Wall Street idiots.  I’m worth a lot to this culture, you know?  It’s totally weird and fucked up how there’s no work for talented people.  It’s really fucked.  It’s going on fourteen months or something that–”

“–eighteen,” interrupted Ella.  “Eighteen months.”  Then, holding the floor with this arrest of his passionate testimony, she gave out a theatrical and weary sigh to signal Joe that the novelty of his unjustly-put-out-of-work tape had long expired.

Her sighs succeeded in herding him back from self-pity.  After a capitulating groan, he rallied, proposing other tactics to restrain their monthly expenses.

Ella argued that his assumption he would not find work was pessimistic.

Joe countered that he was being realistic.  He mentioned several cases in their circle of acquaintanceship to drive home his point, while she sighed louder and louder till, at the fourth instance, the sigh turned into, “Yeah, yeah, well, believe you’re like them, or believe you’re not like them and get something going.  Like that new prospect.  That could work out, Joe, don’t you think?”

“It’s contract work, Ella.  No guarantee how long it will last.  And I don’t even have it yet.  The talent out there is deep.  This really sucks.  This really does suck.  And even if I do get it, we ought to sock away some cash just in case Drew sues.”

“He’s not going to sue.”

“He could.”

“Well, then I’ve got the worst fucking little brother in the whole world!”

“Yeah, poor you, your life sucks, too, OK?  But what we gotta do is get ready for it, or we’ll be screwed.  Like it or not, we gotta face the fact that we’re cash-poor.  OK, it’s prolly, like, temporary.  Meantime, the winter is coming and the heavy rains could be back in like six weeks.  Any day now we could have a big storm blow in.  We could lose the cottage’s foundation before the winter is over, the way that basement floods.  It’s a lake down there during the rainstorms.  I mean, I get someone to put in a sump pump that works, and the wood’s still gonna rot ‘cause it’s been so wet for so long.  You know how wet?  I found an old cup with the handle broken off that someone, before William, I think, left in a corner of the basement.  Half-filled with water and a slug was living in it.  We lose that foundation, we’re fucked.  We lose the cottage, we lose the rent.

“Now, we do have that clause in his lease that makes him liable for the damages if he doesn’t let us know of some problem ‘in a timely fashion.’  So you find the note he wrote about the flooded basement.  When was that?  Like six months ago, the end of winter, wasn’t it?  You find the note and you get rid of it.  Tear it up in tiny pieces and burn ‘em.  It’s handwritten.  There’s no way he made a copy of it.  He’s not that kind of guy.  And he just told me his uncle left him 80k.  He can afford it.  And we can’t.  It’s only fair.”

What?  What clause? I asked myself.

There would be no more Nasty Thrill for me.  Rather, I was overwhelmed with an urge to rise up and shout, “Hey, you creeps!  I just heard every word of your stinking plot.  Every word!  You assholes!”



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Mrs. Finley #17: Cold War

As Joe and Ella’s noisy lips slurped away their thirst, and my own mouth grew more desiccated with each gasp I brought in, more and more I envied their freedom to guzzle from their bottles.

Food was unwrapped.  They ate and talked, mostly about the food.  I could not make out all of their speech, as the words took on a sluggish incoherence, mingled as they were with half-masticated burrito or sandwich fare.

On my side of the fence, I sent down a delicate swallow whenever I could gather enough moisture from my mouth to give relief to my raw and suffering throat.  Otherwise, I conquered my howling body and remained still.

For anesthesia, I treated myself to a tiny snort of my Nasty Thrill of condescension, begging my body to please hold on with the promise of greater Thrills once we were safely back in the cottage.  That snort of pleasure heated my upper torso, soon spreading to my head where it glowed into a grin.  For a fleeting moment I felt a rush of glee at the preposterousness of what I was doing.

Half-chewed balls of hastily-assembled deli food audibly went down their hungry throats with a few crass smacks from their lips.  When the chewing stopped, the air crackled with the sound of napkins pulled from the paper bag.  This was followed by one of them blowing a nose several times.

Under cover of this messy racket I was able to swallow and gasp at last.  This revived me slightly.  That I had thus far gotten away with this elated me.  But my elation dissipated in the next moment, taking my breath with it.

I was not prepared for what I was about to hear.


*  *  *  *  *


Devlin assures me now, with caution, with if-this-then-that qualifications, that it won’t be long before I can be rid of this problem.  I can now safely imagine my resident mental state shifting from a fear steeped in dire predictions to a hoped-for tranquility of post-crisis reflection.

Was that initial intuitive impulse — the innocent fingering of bulbs in a straw-filled half-barrel, an old man interfering, giving me his seasoned opinion, and me susceptible to suggestion for what reason I do not know — was that moment a juncture?  Did that moment spin me off in an excellent new direction, the end of the Great Mourning, the beginning of the Next New Thing?  I shudder to think that I may have provoked a cold war with the Nematodes for no greater purpose than to battle them for pride points.

No.  There must be more to all this.  Did this adventure signal a need to redeem something torn from me?  That is, would my life become ugly and painful, would it require a great deal of repair before I were then free to go on, after the Grief, toward the Next New Thing?

Was I unconsciously crafting an act of mad self-sabotage, or an escape plan worthy of a genius?  Likely both outcomes were potent in the fingering of the bulbs in the hardware store.

Perhaps soon I will be able to make more sense of what my gamble has given — or taken — from me.  My time for reflection, for pondering all of this, is, I think, coming.  After today’s long meeting with Fergus Devlin, I am more hopeful than ever that I can escape from this dilemma with only modest cost.


*  *  *  *  *


The Churls smacked their lips and blew their noses into paper napkins.  They inhaled deeply, and in so doing unknowingly brought into their own lungs some portion of my exhalations, which rose up through the Chinese lantern bush and mingled with the air they breathed.

Before I heard their plotting against me, this fact added to my amusement.  Afterward, it was as if the sharing of air with them was the same as if I had spent a night in bed with them, in sheets that had not been washed for months, sheets heavy with their foul, Nematode excretions.  For it was then that their scheme against me was hatched.



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Mrs. Finley #16: Thirsty

And so I justified my spying on the Nematodes.  I told myself that I just wanted to get to know them.  My, that sounds smarmy.  And stinks of phony rationalization.  I did have a hunger to get to know them, though.  I really did want to know why I was so disdainful of them.  Really.

It has just been a week since I had lunch with my dear friend Fergus Devlin, who is also the attorney navigating my way through this minefield of  legal problems I planted when I chose to spy on the Churls.  Devlin suggested that the reason I held Joe and Ella in such disdain was that I envied them.

Now, maybe there is something to this.  Or maybe not.  Devlin thought it would easily explain my condescension toward them.  It was, he thought, garden-variety envy of their easy wealth during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.

He argued that their fortunes, at the time I first moved into the cottage, contrasted so sadistically to my own hardened circumstances that I sought condescension to compensate for this.  He is right that those wicked twists of fate, the fire, the tragic death of a family, compounded by the loss of real estate and my reduced lifestyle, had lowered my sense of self-worth.  I tepidly agreed, though I thought there had to be more to it than this.

Fergus was not condemnatory.  He asured me that my envy, if he was right, was understandable and even pardonable.  It was only natural to feel resentment toward my more successful neighbors.  What Fergus could not explain was why I still felt that way after they were humbled by the popping of the dot-com bubble.

And anyway, what good is all this 20/20 hindsight?  Will understanding my snotty attitude toward the Nematodes explain to me why I remained silent in the garden that day?  Why I put my poor body through this ordeal?

Yes, it will, if the more salient reason that I crouched there in my hunter’s blind was simply to get that Nasty Thrill.  If it was the Thrill that kept me silent as my knees screamed out to me in protest, then I may as well say it was my need to keep lordship over the Churls, to revel in it, to use it as a foundation upon which to rebuild my worth from the grief of my losses.

That is why I write this, to understand.  And who knows?  At the end of writing this account of those events, maybe I will figure out enough that I might find for that grief the closure that has eluded me for years.


*  *  *  *  *


Moments before the Nematodes entered the yard next door, I had broken up the light brown soil hardened by the rainless summer.  While I churned loam in with the spade, I heard clicking (Ella’s heels) and shuffling (Joe’s Nikes).  These sounds rose from the flagstone path that wound through the lavender, rosemary and yarrow, getting louder.

I quickly buried the nose of the spade into the earth and left it there while my palms and knees flattened the foam pad.

Soon their shoes exploded onto the redwood deck in a madhouse rhythm jam, the clicking and thumping, the creaking vibrations of wood against wood.  The whine across the deck surface as chairs were moved to more advantageous angles.  Then the loud rustling of plastic and paper bags.

I promised my painful body that I would scoop up my Nasty Thrill for later titillation.  It obeyed me and froze.

And so I began to spy on the landlady and her husband.

My only near-to-detectable movement was the open-cavity respiration, and even that was more silent than the infrequent gentle breezes moving through the yards.  Drink bottles were clanked against one another and clunked upon the surface of the table, and then opened with pfft-pfft and caps tinkling to table top.  Then the symphony shifted from overture to first solo, the swallowing of liquids with thirsty gulps, the exclaiming of sensual pleasures with Mmmm, that’s so good…  I was so thirsty…  

I crouched on hands and knees, undetected.



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Mrs. Finley #15: Submerged

It would be the pinnacle of hypocrisy were I to hold against anyone a dispute they had with a family member.  I was formed in the crucible of family dispute, of family cut-off.  Far be it for me, etc.

But more damning than the furious brother was Ella’s blatant disregard of two notes I had written her, expressing concerns of mine.  I decided to err on the side of caution as to why she — or they, if Joe had any interest in the condition of the property — had ignored my warnings.

I settled on the explanation that their torrid work pace and the compensating recreations had made a prompt response too difficult.  They were distracted.  With this conclusion, I assumed an attitude of patience, thinking that eventually they would have an opportunity to call or send an e-mail.

I had sent one of these notes at the beginning of the rainy season and the other at its end, about six months before that afternoon when I found myself kneeling on the parched earth, eavesdropping on them.

In the first, I simply reported to Ella on the sad, peeling paint of my weathered cottage.  The second note I wrote in March after a week of heavy rain.  I had gone to get something I had stored in the basement and found a pool so deep that two of the concrete piers that supported the structure were submerged.  The water level was softening the wooden uprights.  I poked a hole in the crust of one of them with my finger.

A rusty old sump pump was on its side nearby, curiously on higher ground and only partly underwater, as if someone had determined that it was no longer working and tossed it aside without replacing it.

When Ella did not respond to the notes, I did not pester her.  Though I did hate to see good buildings tumble from neglect, I did not own this one, and Ella now knew about its condition.  I knew there were other good dwellings for rent in the city, and I could move, but I liked my cottage and thought it would be good to stay there for a while.

It was then that I began to wonder whether Ella’s negligence could make my tenancy there problematic.  And, if so, what form would these problems likely take?  Would my cottage collapse beneath me, or onto me, during the next earthquake?  That would not be worth staying for.

Their hectic work life did not for long satisfy me as the reason they had ignored my concerns.  Added to her dispute with Frank and Joni and the blow-up by her brother, the disregarded notes etched an ever-shifting profile.

Would she ensnare me in a fabricated dispute and bring legal action?  Devlin, my attorney friend, would help, but I could not maintain equal and friendly terms with him were I to become a pro bono case for him.  No, the avenue of litigation was one I would need to avoid.  This was before I inherited Uncle Jim’s money, and I simply did not have the war chest.

Later, when the weather dried, I re-examined the upright and it felt firm enough.  Let it alone, then, I thought, rather than get entangled with someone who might be emotionally imbalanced.

So there was more than snobbery behind my aloof remove from the landlady and her man.  Courteous but cautious distance,  with now and then some private amusement over their churlish behavior, was the plan.

As to why it seemed a good idea to eavesdrop on them, well, I rationalized to my complaining body as I held it in that tortured posture, that I was doing myself a favor, gleaning some important facts about the two of them in order to better gauge how secure and tranquil my continued tenancy would likely be.

Really, though, if truth is to be my talisman, it was primarily the siren call of the Nasty Thrill that subjected my poor body to an excruciating and growing discomfort.

The other concerns were there, more noble, more survival-based.  They were just not the primary motivation, to be ruthlessly honest about it.



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Mrs. Finley #14: Porcupine

Though Frank and Joni, the long-time tenants of the Victorian next door, had clammed up when I pried into the dispute that had sent them looking for another place — and a more expensive one, as rent control had given them a sweet deal for years on this one — they had no reluctance at all in telling me what they knew about Ella’s dispute with her brother and the deaths of the parents who were their original landlords, all delivered with juicy detail.

According to them, soon after the court case was settled, Ella and Joe moved in and began collecting rents.  They hired artisans to paint the two Victorians.  Joe was working twelve-hour days for a tech firm and Ella was employed in the same company as a project manager.  They apparently came home only to sleep, and for the occasional meal not taken in a favorite restaurant.  The properties were being neglected.  Aside from the very public exterior paint jobs, things were getting run down.

After hearing this assessment, I made one last effort to find out from Frank and Joni about their conflict with Ella:  “Did they lag on repairs?  Was your place unsafe?”  But they wouldn’t bite.  I was left to guess the rest.

The dispute with the brother was only hearsay from these erstwhile neighbors till one day — I guess I had been living in my cottage a little short of a year — I walked up the wooden steps of the big house while holding in my hand, in its usual sealed envelope with “ELLA” in large, handwritten caps, my rent check, paid, as usual, on the first business day of the month.  From the house, a man in his early thirties threw open the beveled-glass paneled door.

As it banged back against the door frame, its border of stained-glass flowers seemed to shake, as if for a moment they were real flowers blown by the wind.

Bounding down the stairs past me, the guy broke into a run at the sidewalk and only came to a stop across the street, where he set his key into the door of a faded-yellow Porsche of classic vintage and shabby decline.  He opened the driver’s door and yelled back to the house.  I turned to see Ella standing, gently moving the door from the wall, petting it, as if to soothe the rattled glass flowers.  The man held onto his open car door with both hands.  He took a breath and let it out as if tongue-tied.  He started to swing the car door.  He liked this.  He swung it faster and faster, back and forth.  It seemed to pump out his rage.

“You bitch!  You’re a thief and a bitch, Ella!  Bitch!”

His hair, bushy blond, dry and coarse, seemed to go off in different ideas of how it should be.  It ended up in careless spike-like units that gave his head the suggestion of a Nordic porcupine.  I could easily imagine sparks coming from the quills standing out on his enraged head.  He slid into his sports car like a fighter pilot scrambling, and roared off as if expecting he would be airborne in a few blocks.

“My brother has emotional problems,” Ella said with a shrug as I handed her my rent check.  “He needs to be on meds.”  She said nothing further, leaving me to play around with speculations as to the origins of these disputes.  Frank and Joni, I am certain, would have told me more had they known the details.


*  *  *  *  *


Now, stiff in my discomfort from my crouched concealment, I assured myself that, no, it had not been pure snobbery but also some prudence that had opened up the distance between the Nematodes and me.

But, oh, did my body ache.  Why, why had I not merely stood up and announced myself?  This question no longer had relevance.  It was too late.  I was forced to stay in my compressed posture till they were done with their meal.



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Mrs. Finley #13: Disputes

The previous tenants in the Stick Victorian had been there fourteen years, until they had a mysterious dispute with Ella that none of them would ever talk to me about.

I learned that when they first moved in they had planted the Chinese lantern plant, and over the years they had trained it through and up and over the trellis.  The day that I worked my spade and hand-fork to turn the nutrients and the faded, tissue-like lantern flowers into the soil, the living orange and red blossoms puffed out among thick foliage on both sides of the fence.  It was there, as I gasped on all fours, that I pondered my condescension toward the Churls as the sounds of their lunch came to me, filtered through the blossoms.

It was not long before the discomfort from staying stiff on my hands and knees had me rethinking my choice to not announce myself when I first heard their voices on the stone path.  This made me wonder, and with a heavy dose of self-criticism, why I felt such disdain for these two.

Inside my quieted mind I lectured myself on the foolish ruse.  I felt shame.  I thought of those days Joe and Ella had been fairly warm toward me, days when we were cordial in our perfunctory toll payments of mild kindnesses when encountering one another on the street or on the property.

I did not hate them.  There had even been some jolly moments, like a few festive Christmas drinks shared the previous year.  I did not detest them; I just wanted to have very little to do with them.  Maybe it is the defense of a weak ego, as Dr. Mickles suggested, this protective elitism that keeps me from getting too close to low-consciousness people.  Even so, even conceding this point to the gifted (but, if truth is to be my talisman, the egregiously flawed) Dr. Mickles, I argued, as my hands grew numb, as my elbows began to cramp and my knees to ache, that there ought never to be an obligation for anyone to have to congregate with people whose consciousness deviates so grossly from one’s own.

So we were civil, and no feelings needed to be hurt.  If I held my silence now, it would remain this way.  Yes, this was how I talked to myself, quietly gasping for breath on my hands and knees under the Chinese lantern blossoms.

I reminded myself that it was prudent restraint to keep a distance from them, that there was something murky about their ethics, particularly Ella’s.  Apparently there were two known disputes Ella had been involved in:  the mysterious conflict with the long-time tenants, and another, with her brother.

I had learned from Frank and Joni, the former couple in the Stick Victorian, that Ella had inherited the two houses and the cottage a month after her parents died, just weeks apart, as is not uncommon with some old couples.  After a year spent in a court battle with her brother, her only sibling, she won sole possession of all the properties.  According to Frank and Joni, the brother came away with nothing but bills for legal services.

Better not to get too close to someone like that.



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Mrs. Finley #12: Sanctuary

Ella and Joe’s cute and arty gingerbread Victorian rose up two stories at the front end of our shared yard.  I could see it from my front porch.  All but the left side, which was shaded by a redwood tree that was not a legendary giant, but one that in urban-backyard-tree-world still made a formidable presence.

I should probably clarify here that the gingerbread Victorian was not jointly owned by the couple.  Ella was the landlady.  She and Joe were not married, though apparently they had been together for some years.  But since they cohabited that two-story home and both presumably played some parenting role in the raising of Melissa, I will refer to it as their home.

Its more modest but equally cute neighbor, the one with the deck and its trellis of Chinese lantern blossoms, were paired structures that beamed out in tandem, to the passersby on the public thoroughfare, their fresh-paint smiles, their prosperous, good-humored dignity.

At the other end of the two-story building’s deep lot, as far from the street as it could be without invading the next yard, my cottage shivered under blistered, peeling gray paint.  On the rough-weather side, the paint had been reduced to blue-grey scuffs on a rough, shingled wall.

Against this background, how rehabilitative could a few rows of bulbs hope to be?  I had not, in the nearly two years of my tenancy, felt the slightest need to plant anything in the weedy strip next to the fence that bordered the two properties.

But events had turned the end of last summer into something different.  Something in me yearned for change, even a small change like a few bulbs planted to sprout later in the gloomy time of year.

As previously mentioned, I have noticed how decisions that seem so innocuous, that seem likely to be forgotten quickly, can have the force to spin one forcefully into new directions.  How this works is a huge puzzle to me.  I will drop the subject now, rather than make a fool of myself speculating on these matters.

Suffice it to say that something, I will call it a mysterious something, compelled me to listen to the pink and peeling old man in the hardware store and buy the bulbs he promoted.  In all innocence I followed his guidance.  I even asked him if I could contradict the instructions on the sign above the half-barrels that suggested early fall planting.  It was late summer.  He said he thought I could get away with it.  It was an impulsive decision; I did not want to wait.

It was to this narrow piece of land between Ella’s two properties that I was pulled one lovely  afternoon when I did not have to work downtown.  I took an old foam pad and a hand shovel and my bag of bulbs outside into the still, warm, caressing air of a rare Coastal Bay Area summer day.  The sunshine was unusually direct, not filtered through the fog, the sunbeams not scattered by an icy wind.

I plopped myself down and pulled up the dry, dead-weed colony and prepared the soil from the loamy bag the old man at the hardware store had directed me to use.

On the property next door, just over the fence from where I knelt, there was a garden sanctuary at the end of a stone path through yarrow, lavender, and rosemary bushes.  It opened out on the deck, upon which was a table, two benches and an assortment of planters.  The latticework trellis created a secluded, outdoor dining nook.

A perfect destination for the landlady and her man to bring their deli food.  The place was vacant.  They were thus able to exercise their freedom to have a garden picnic without disturbing a tenant.  Surely William-the-cottager would not be kneeling beneath their nook.  In two years he had not done one thing to the garden.

In the false sense of security afforded by the sheltering plant life, they spoke openly, carelessly.  Without knowing that I heard them, during that lunch they deliberated quite freely as to whether or not they should declare war on me.



Graphic of ornamental element, courtesy


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