Arlene Comes to Visit

by Ruth Z Deming

                She would have been in her mid-eighties and sent me an email through my neighbor Nancy across the street. She wanted to come and visit.

                Arlene had visited Nancy many a time. Why did she want to visit now?

                Nancy told me Arlene had breast cancer and was getting treatment. Undoubtedly, she wanted to see her former house before she died.

                Do we all have wishes like that?

                "Bucket list," it's called.

                I absolutely adored my home and felt like a little girl living in a huge house. My two children had flown the coop, thank God, and I had a couple of grandchildren that didn't particularly like their "Bubby."

                Chilled me to the quick, but you can't force people to like you.

                When I originally viewed the Welsh Family home, I fell in love with the house the moment I entered.

                My real estate man, Norman, sat out in the car. He was fairly sure I would reject the house. He and I had visited dozens.

                Mais non! Both she and what's-his-name - oh, Donald - who died of complications of Parkinson's years earlier.

                As a spiritual person, or so my grown children, Sarah and Dan tell me, I nearly fell to my knees when I sat under the cathedral ceiling. Beams that floated high up as if we were in a sacred space.

                Arlene was the boss.

                "How would you like our green couch? We don't intend to bring it with us to the retirement community in Florida."

                "No thanks," I said quickly, about the hideous couch.

                After I'd purchased the house and explored all the grounds nearby, I visited a little woods behind the house and there was that hideous couch, sitting on its side among the brambles and berries and snakes in the little forest.

                God damn her.

                "Coffee or tea," I wondered about her visit.

                In the bright green kitchen - yes, I left it that color - I brewed Maxwell House Coffee in its always recognizable bright blue can.

                Matching cups I did not own.

                What with the children breaking things I poured myself half a cup in a Harry and Meghan wedding cup from 2018. Look at the journey they'd been on. Leaving their homeland and then the tragedy of a still-born child.

                Cradling my cup, I looked out the front door.

                How would she arrive?

                Taking a sip and veering through the plants on my window sill, I saw a yellow cab pull up to the driveway.

                Like the grown woman I was now - seventy-seventy years old - I stepped outside into the bright sunshine. It was autumn. A man in a blue uniform and cap helped Arlene from the cab.

                I forced a smile.

                "Come in, Arlene," I said.

                She looked nothing like I had imagined. Ever seen the film "Sunset Boulevard" with Gloria Swanson? She was made up like a hussy, a call girl, a fool.

                Looking across the street, I wondered if Nancy knew she would arrive today.

                Arlene peppered me with questions before we walked inside.

                "My hedges! What happened to them? They looked perfect!"

                And then, "The gorgeous red bud tree! Where is that!"

I started to say it died, a natural death, but never got a chance.

                "Look," I insisted. "Do you want to come in or not?"

                She held out her arm and we walked up the sidewalk and into what was now my house. My parents had bought it for me. Nearly two hundred thousand dollars.

                The house was perfumed with coffee.

                Arlene, who looked almost exactly the way I remembered her, stared up at the cathedral ceiling.

                She laughed.

                "Well, I see you've kept that," she said. She led us into the kitchen. Quickly she took a seat at the maple-colored table. I had put placemats down that I bought in Paris, France. They had designs of different colored peacocks.

                I plopped a cup of coffee in front of her.

                "Good to the last drop," I joked. Or perhaps I was seething.

                "And I suppose you've ruined the bedrooms, too!" she said.

                "Yes, I suppose I have," I said with muted voice.

                She put her head on the table and began to cry.

                "You have no idea how difficult it is at my age living alone at Dubarry Retirement Home near Orlando. "

                She lifted up her head and looked me in the eyes.

                She reminded me of Margaret Thatcher, who ended up with no friends at all.

                I put my hand on Arlene's. She had on bright red nail polish, slightly chipped, and asked her, "Is there any way I can help you?"

                Here she laughed again.

                "Would you let me move in? After all, this house once belonged to me."

                I held up one finger meaning, "Just a moment."

                I walked upstairs and went into one of the bedrooms. The one that once was Sarah's. I was mildly embarrassed that much of my furniture had once belonged to my Aunt Selma. Several things were in the narrow drawer.

                On a single page was a typed document on which I had written How to ride the train downtown. For some strange reason, after I became a home owner, I developed several phobias, including how to ride on a train.

                Another was a writing award for Five thousand dollars from the Peer Gynt Foundation.

                Finally I dug out the Deed of Sale.

                Carefully, very carefully, so I wouldn't fall down the stairs, I showed Arlene the Deed of Sale.

                She sniffed.

                "Yes," she said. "I have the same one back in Florida."

                Then, her master stroke. Or "showstopper" as it's called in plays and musicals.

                "I shall stay overnight."

                Was there an ounce of doubt in my mind? Could I tolerate this woman and put her - where? - in the guest room with the red-checkered couch I bought at Gamburg's in Hatboro?

                Would I suggest she stay across the street at Nancy's house. Nancy, too, had lost her husband, a wonderful man who had helped me with my gardening.

                Don't pawn off unlikeable people on friends.

                "You may use my phone," I said, "to call a cab."

                Then I left the kitchen and sat in the living room reading The New York Times. As usual, I had great difficulty doing the crossword puzzle.

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