My Last Tenants

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“Those’re my last tenants standing against the wall, looking as if they were alive,” my aunt remarked as she held the album open for me to view its contents. There were several color photographs on the page, so she pointed that specific one out for me. “There, standing beside the Crown of Thorns as if painted. I call that plant a wonder, now.”

Two women, not young but not old either, approaching middle-age, one with longish, the other close-cropped hair, the one dark and likely dyed the other natural and going to grey, were captured for all time in the picture, half smiles on their faces although they could just as well have been smirks. They stared at us from the stiff black cardboard page to which Kay had turned. They wore faded blue jeans and Pendleton shirts and on their hands gardening gloves. They stood against the backyard garden’s rear wall and must have just turned to face the camera because they looked as if they were not quite posed. The view of the brickwork behind their backs was so wide the shot had to have been taken from a considerable distance, at least as far away as the lip of the rear cement patio just outside the sliding glass kitchen doors.

It was early afternoon and we were being oh, so civilized, having tea, my aunt and me.

“I really liked them at first,” Kay said with her elongated Midwestern twang. “That’s Ellie,” a parchment finger rough with age picked out and hovered over the woman on the left, “and that’s EllieSue.” The finger worked its way up, then down the height of each woman’s body in an odd little caress.

Aunt Kay continued in the peremptory tone I knew too well. My father, her brother, could direct his voice the same way when he desired. It usually meant he was about to say something he thought should stick. This was a sibling similarity of speech which always threw me and I had an immediate unconscious reaction. It made me want to rebel and take my own opposite course of action no matter what sage words followed.

“I warned them to be careful with that garden. I wanted everything left just as it was, just as I planted it, and they said, ‘Of course Miss Katherine’ like my students used to say when they wanted to please me. That rings hollow after a while, you know.”

Kay’s hand drifted down the page and settled on a different color image of the garden. She rested two fingers on the picture in a manner I can only describe as fondly tender. Whereas I saw nothing other than the photo of a rather large begonia, Aunt Kay obviously saw something much more. Her heart was too soon made glad by memories.

I do not qualify as Katharine’s favorite niece. That honorarium is reserved for another of my cousins which I have always attributed to the fact that she is Katherine’s namesake. My cousin Kay is a mother now, with a Master’s Degree but no thought of using it, merely raising children. She once confided in me, probably because she thought that since we are the same sex I would understand and agree or at least sympathize with her, that she aspired to nothing greater than having babies. So it struck me as somewhat peculiar when she and her husband with their perpetually growing family was not the beneficiary of our aunt’s home instead of me and Vince.

Maybe they never asked.

Kay’s last tenants were gone now and I was living in the old house, the place we had visited time and again when I was growing up and she and Dad were still on speaking terms. I had an odd feeling playing hostess to her. It wasn’t the fact that I was paying rent, although that still seemed strange. However, it was at moments like these when I accepted her as a guest in the living room that once had been hers and where I had played on the carpet so many times as a child, it was as if she were still living there and I was the visitor again.

Vince and I had turned to her out of desperation. We had been evicted from our house in the city, had learned the hard way that one income is not enough to support a mortgage and two people. We rented for a while but had to give up the apartment to relatives of the landlord. Rent control allows that. Doesn’t seem right.

Anyway, when Vince learned over Thanksgiving from another of my cousins that Aunt Kay’s house was suddenly available, he wanted it in the worst way. He said we should jump on it and insisted I ask her for it. It was the pecking order I resented. He knew her well enough; he could have just as well spoken to her directly.

I made the call and did not really expect her to say yes. Perhaps she felt kindly disposed toward me since I had taken the time to visit her once in the retirement community where everything was taken care of for her. The cafeteria served three meals a day, a staff physician checked on her regularly, there were plenty of Filipino girls who changed the sheets once a week and a chauffeur if you really wanted to go into town.

I swear, I’ll shrivel up and turn into a prune if that’s where I end up.

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