When the doorbell rang, Shelley looked at the grandfather clock, wiped her mouth and hands with her napkin, placed her plate in her lap, and with one fluid motion reversed and turned her wheelchair out from the kitchen table. She rolled (the term she most often used to reference her method of self-propulsion) to the sink where she placed the plate to be loaded in the dishwasher later. It was 8:45 a.m. The showing was early, but Shelley appreciated the potential tenant’s punctuality. It would provide her the opportunity for an informal interview before her husband Hank showed them the upstairs apartment.
Shelley and Hank had lived in the three-story Victorian for eighteen years. They found it by chance and bought it on a whim, only half suspecting the amount of time, money, and energy it would take to restore it to its original elegance. They did it though, and when they were finished, they applied and succeeded at having their home included on the National Register of Historic Places. It was a whimsical and inviting house, with a center octagonal tower anointed with the original blue heron weathervane, two gables facing South and East, a wrap-around veranda with scalloped cedar siding, and lots of windows.
As Shelley rolled towards the door, she looked out the sidelights at the waiting applicant who was looking down, brushing the front of her dress with her hands as if to smooth the wrinkles. When Shelley unlocked the bolt and opened the door, the woman looked up and then down to Shelley and smiled. The sun was behind the woman, silhouetting her and hiding her face in such a way that Shelley barely noticed that familiar look of surprise, pity, and shame she so often encountered when meeting new people who did not know she used a wheel chair.
“Hi, I’m Jolene Jennings. I have an appointment to see the apartment,” the woman said as she held out her right hand.
Shelley shook her hand and rolled back to open the door. The woman walked past Shelley and into the open two-story foyer, looking up and around taking in the house with her eyes. Shelley took the woman in as well. Shelley guessed her to be in her late thirties. Her long auburn hair was in a loose braid that hung down over her right shoulder. The woman was tall with a thin build, defined calves, and long arms. She also had hourglass hips and large breasts, which Shelley considered the ideal feminine body type – the kind of body that men typically liked and women typically wanted for themselves.
Now inside, the prospective tenant turned to Shelley and smiled, her face lit by the warm white morning sun, and Shelley was immediately struck by her beauty. The woman had large deep-set aqua green eyes. Her nose wasn’t small, but the bridge was thin and straight, and she had full lips that framed her white straight teeth. She wore makeup, but it was light. Her ivory skin looked untouched by the sun, except for a few light brown freckles across her nose and cheeks. Shelley wondered if the woman was of Irish descent and imagined her walking on the cliffs along the Atlantic coast. Shelley never questioned her own heterosexuality, but she was able to appreciate a beautiful woman, and this woman standing before her was a beautiful woman. Shelley suddenly thought of Hank, and she knew he would find her beautiful too. She wondered if he would be attracted to her and how much, and if she wanted a woman like that living in her home. That thought transfixed Shelley for a moment, and she realized she had lingered too long and they now stood in awkward silence.
The sound of footsteps coming down the hall interrupted the silence. Hank turned the corner, his eyes met Shelley’s then went to Jolene where they lingered long enough for Shelley to know he too was struck by the woman’s beauty.
“This is Jolene Jennings. She’s here to see the apartment,” Shelley said.
“Yes, of course,” Hank said, as he shook Jolene’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Jolene had a firm confident handshake, something Hank admired in people. Jolene squeezed Hank’s hand and looked confidently into his eyes and smiled. Hank noticed her hand was warm but not sweaty, and he felt a buzzing sensation in his arm that went down to his thighs. It was a warm electric feeling he recognized from years ago, and he let go of her hand, cleared his throat and lowered his eyes to hide his embarrassment.
“Thank you. The house is beautiful. I can’t wait to see the apartment,” Jolene said.
If the woman had seen or noticed his heightened reaction to her touch, she didn’t show it. Shelley had felt the change of energy though. After so many years together, she could sense the slightest shift in Hank’s mood or anxiety level, and since the accident she noticed a heightened awareness in the unspoken, as if her loss of physical ability was transferred to an increase in metaphysical awareness. On numerous occasions, she told Hank she felt herself a better judge of character since the accident. Her gut feeling, the one that tells someone when something isn’t quite right, was stronger as well. She now felt in her gut that something wasn’t quite right, but instead of heeding the warning as she had preached to friends and family, she swallowed it. She let her pride and disgust at the idea of being the jealous wife type supersede the anxiety. Shelley just smiled at them both, first at Jolene then at Hank, pretending to have noticed nothing.
“Let’s go upstairs. I’ll take you up the side stairs, which are the apartment’s main stairs. I’ll show you the apartment and the deck. It’s a three-story deck connecting your floor, our main floor, and the basement area, which looks like the ground floor in the back. We share the backstairs. You’ll see when we get out there. It’ll make more sense then,” Hank said.
Shelley noticed Hank was rambling a little. Hank was what Shelley would describe as a man of few words. He only rambled when he got nervous. Hank opened the front door and held it open for Jolene, motioning her out with his right hand. Jolene turned to Shelley, smiled and said, “We’ll see each other soon, for the paperwork, right?”
“Yes, if you like it. We can get all the paperwork started as soon as you come down,” Shelley said.
Jolene nodded her head and turned and walked out the door. Hank turned to Shelley and gave her what she felt was a forced smile, and she watched as Hank cautioned Jolene to watch her step on the loose porch board that Shelley had been asking him to fix for the last month. As Shelley watched her husband and the beautiful stranger walk around the corner of the veranda out of site to the side stairs, she felt her face get hot. Shelley stopped and examined her feelings as her therapist had taught her do so many years ago. Shelley struggled to name the emotion she knew she hadn’t felt in years, and she let out a little gasp when she finally realized, it was indeed jealousy and possibly a twinge of fear. After acknowledging the emotions, she physically blew them away as if she were blowing out candles – another tip she learned from the therapist.
“Hank loves you,” Shelley whispered to herself.
Hank led the way up the steep wooden stairs. He moved a little faster than normal, with a bounce in each step, the way a younger man may tackle the stairs. He paused for a moment and looked back at Jolene and said, “Watch your step.”
As he looked back, he noticed she was picking up the skirt of her dress as she took each step, being careful not to catch the hem on the stairs. He noticed her painted toenails and how small her ankles were. He could feel that buzzing again, this time near the top of his thighs. At the landing, he stopped, pulled the key from his front pocket and opened the storm door. The break in activity allowed him to catch his breath and wait for the buzzing to go away, but it didn’t. Jolene stood three stairs below him, and when he looked down at her, he noticed the line of her cleavage and the roundness of the tops of her breasts. He could see just the tiniest bit of lace on her bra. The buzzing got stronger and was now accompanied by the sensation of warmth in his groin. He quickly looked away and hurried to open the door. He wanted to change the scene, subdue the warm buzzing, and hide his embarrassment. Hank held the door for Jolene as she entered and looked around. He inhaled her scent as she walked by, being careful to breathe as silently as possible, but he wouldn’t look at her.
Hank stood near the door and Jolene explored silently and smiled at what she saw. The furnished apartment was even nicer than the pictures. The living area was open concept with a large island separating the mostly white kitchen from the dining and living area. The dining table was an old farmhouse table with a bench on one side nearest the wall and two mismatched antique wood chairs on the other. Three lanterns hung over the table for a rustic chandelier. The living area’s focal point was white brick fireplace with a reclaimed wood beam mantel. A jute rug anchored the oversized white upholstered sofa and mid-century leather accent chair. The only bathroom was painted in the lightest seafoam green with white beadboard wainscoting, and a large clawfoot tub with a shower fixture. The bedroom had a queen-sized bed with a repurposed barn door headboard and two chalk-painted end tables. It had everything she needed and was decorated to her taste.
“I love it. It’s beautiful,” Jolene said.
“That’s all Shelley. She’s the interior designer. I just put the furniture where she tells me,” said Hank.
“She has good taste,” Jolene said.
“Let’s look at the deck,” Hank said as he made his way toward the French doors and unlocked the door.
Hank held the door open for her with his right arm outstretched. As she walked by him, he smelled her again. Like Shelley, he liked that clean herbal smell. He thought maybe it was lavender. Jolene stood with her hands on the railing and looked out at the manicured backyard.
“Can tenants use the backyard too?” Jolene asked and then laughed a little, embarrassed by what she thought sounded like a silly question. “I mean, would you and your wife mind if I sat and read on that bench under the oak tree sometime? It’s so tranquil back here.”
“Of course, you can,” Hank said, immediately worrying he had sounded too eager.
“Do these stairs lead to the backyard?”
“Yes, like I was saying inside, our deck is directly below, at the first landing, then the main deck and gate to the backyard below that.
Shelley turned to Hank and smiled. “Well, I’ve seen all I need to see. I’ll take the apartment. When can I move in?”
“It’s not occupied as you can see, so as soon as all the paperwork is complete, she’s all yours.” Hank and Jolene smiled, and their eyes met for a moment. Suddenly, Jolene was aware that she and Hank were alone, and the intimacy was simultaneously uncomfortable and enjoyable. She realized she hadn’t shared a moment of excitement with a man in some time, and she had missed it. As Hank turned to open the French doors and held it open for Jolene, she observed him for the first time and found him attractive. Hank had blond hair with a bit of grey around the temples. He was tall, at least six feet, with a strong build. He wore work boots, khaki cargo pants, and a short sleeve T-shirt with a picture of a blue heron and the words Blue Heron Construction printed on the pocket. She noticed his tan arms and large biceps and deduced that he often worked outdoors. She also guessed he owned the construction company. When she found the apartment advertised in the Memphis real estate catalog, she was intrigued by the fact that the apartment was named The Blue Heron Flat. Now, as she walked past him in the doorway, she was slightly self-conscious and aware of an energy put off by his body. She looked down and did her best to make herself small, so she would not touch him accidently. She looked at the gold wedding band on his hand and reminded herself that a married man was the reason she was renting a furnished apartment 500 miles from her home. Once inside she stood in the living room while Hank locked the French doors, and she waited for him again outside as he locked the front door. She looked forward to going downstairs to his wife.
After locking the door, Hank watched her walk down the stairs in front of him. For a moment he wondered if he wanted this woman occupying the space above him and Shelley. Her presence almost felt like a beginning or an end to something, and it made him uneasy. Hank was relieved to be going downstairs to Shelley. He didn’t want to be alone with this woman any longer, and all of a sudden, he missed Shelley and wanted to see her smile. He always felt that Shelley’s smile wasn’t just something someone saw, it was something someone felt, like a wave washing over you, pushing away any and all things that came before that moment away.
Shelley was in the office getting the application and background check paperwork ready when she saw them walk downstairs. She had been listening to their footsteps above, knew the prospective tenant had seen every room and the patio, and anticipated their arrival downstairs.
“How did you like it?” Shelley asked when Jolene and Hank came back inside.
“Like I told your husband, it’s perfect. I’d like to rent it and move in as soon as possible.”
“Great. Here’s the application and background check. You’re welcome to stay here and fill it out or take it with you and email me a scanned copy. It usually takes about three to five business days for the background and credit check to come back. The deposit is $750 plus the first month’s rent.”
“That’s fine. I’ll take it with me and send to you by lunchtime. It was nice to meet you,” Jolene said. She smiled and made it a point to look at Shelley first then Hank.
Hank closed the door behind her, and when she got to the sidewalk, he asked Shelley, “What do you think?”
“I think she’s very pretty. What do you think?”
“I meant about the apartment,” Hank answered as he walked to the hall tree to get his binder and hat.
“I know, I’m just stating the obvious, so it’s out there. I think it’ll be fine. I’m guessing she’ll pass all the checks, and we’ll have ourselves a new tenant.” Shelley smiled and Hank walked over and kissed her. Her smile had had the effect he wanted – it pushed everything, including the new tenant away.
Two weeks later, Shelley made a loaf of zucchini bread then cut a bouquet of white hydrangeas from the bush that cascaded over the railing onto the porch. She put the flowers in a mason jar with a blue gingham ribbon around the rim and wrapped the bread in parchment paper and tied it closed with the same ribbon. She did this for all the new tenants they had over the years. She had thought for a moment she would forgo the welcome gift for this particular tenant but being unable to come up with a reason which satisfied her, she quickly got to work. All day, Shelley waited for the woman to walk down the exterior steps, so she could give her the flowers and bread herself. There was no elevator or ramp to the apartment, and since the accident twelve years prior, Shelley had been unable to leave the confinement of her state-of-the-art wheelchair. She was usually content to let Hank deliver the welcome gift, but not this time. Shelley spent the better half of the day waiting for the new tenant.
For the first time she could remember, she was disappointed to hear Hank’s pickup truck rumble in the driveway. She left the flowers and bread on the hall table. Hank walked in the door, put his keys up, and bent down to kiss his wife of twenty-two years on the forehead.
“I’ve got some flowers and my zucchini bread ready,” Shelley said.
“Let’s put them in water, and I can take them up tomorrow,” Hank said. He wanted to shower before seeing the new woman but did not want to say that to his wife. The day the woman moved in, Hank had arrived home when she was trying to carry a rather large box up the stairs, and he had insisted she let him carry it. In the South, early September rarely offers reprieves from the heat, and this September was no exception. He had been drenched in sweat on the worksite that day, and he was embarrassed by the smell of his own body when he took the box from her. He had apologized for it, and mercifully, she had smiled and said, “You? It’s probably me you smell. I’ve been moving all day in this heat.”
They both laughed, and again, it felt to Hank and Jolene that they had shared a moment together.
“The shrub blooms never keep long, Hank. Just go ahead take them up now. I had hoped to see her on the porch or outside sometime to give them to her myself, but she hasn’t left the apartment today.”
Hank looked down at his paint-covered hands and thought about how he must smell. He had been on an outside job all day in the sun and heat.
“You look fine, Hank Douglas Malone,” Shelley said, immediately wondering if Hank had heard the same jealousy in her voice that she heard. “Here, take them on up. I know she’s home. I can hear her walking around all over the place up there.”
“Oh, so you’ve been spying then, Shelley Melissa Malone,” Hank said. If he had heard the jealousy, he did not let on.
“It’s one of the many perks of paralysis – wheelchair accessible first floor apartments, so you can hear every move an upstairs tenant makes.”
Hank pursed his lips and breathed audibly from his nose. That was his involuntary response to Shelley’s paralysis humor. After the accident, Shelley quickly came to the point of being able to laugh at herself. It was both a coping mechanism and an act of mercy. In the hospital, Shelley noticed that even close friends and family seemed to feel uncomfortable around her, but if she made a joke about the paralysis, it put people at ease. Shelley remembered working with a woman at the University who was wheelchair bound. Shelley felt she always treated the woman differently than their walking colleagues. When Shelley was in the woman’s presence, she bounced between feelings of sympathy for the woman and contempt at herself for feeling sorry for her. Shelley never fathomed in only six years she too would be bound to a chair, but she did know that she would never want anyone’s pity. Shelley was proud, and laughing about regular catheter maintenance, the inability to control her bowels, special creams and powders to prevent bed sores, and the occasional sex with her husband she could no longer feel, helped her retain that pride.
At the hospital, just weeks after the accident when the doctors confirmed she would never walk again, or have children, Shelley was joking with the night nurse as she emptied her catheter, about never having to clean another toilet again. Shelley would joke, and Hank would cry. He had cried softly and quietly at her bedside while she slept the first few days, and later he would excuse himself to go smoke a cigarette off hospital property and go sit in his car and bawl. He couldn’t joke then. Hank mourned the loss of the life he and she had planned. He was too angry at the world for doing this to her, and he was too sad for them to make jokes. Hank eventually got to the place where he could smile and appreciate the wit in the remark, but he never joked himself. He knew he never would. He would never find humor in his wife’s condition and the condition of their life.
Hank knew he had lost the battle over the flowers, and he would take the warm bread and blooming shrub to the woman upstairs. Shelley had smiled, and all his resistance faded. He would be their scout, inspecting the new tenant, and seeing what she had done to the apartment so far to make it her own. Hank and Shelley did this with every tenant, but this time it felt different to Hank. He had seen her things the day he had helped her carry boxes and flower pots up the stairs. He felt this reconnaissance mission unnecessary and somehow intrusive, but he didn’t tell Shelley he had helped her carry things up the other day, and now he felt as if the opportunity to tell her had passed. He would just knock quickly and he wouldn’t go in. He would give her the flowers and bread and go.
The tenant opened the door wearing black leggings that accentuated the curves of her muscular calves and thighs and an oversized Ole Miss sweatshirt. Her hair was in a high and loose bun with wisps of her auburn hair touching her neck, and she wore black Wayfarer-framed reading glasses. She wore no makeup, and she looked comfortable and effortlessly beautiful.
Hank smiled and presented the flowers in one hand and the bread in another. “Sorry to bother you, Miss Jennings. It’s a welcome gift, from my wife,” Hank said.
“You aren’t bothering me, and call me Jolene, Mr. Malone.”
“Only if you call me Hank.”
“Alright then, we have a deal. And, thank you. Tell your wife I said thank you. The hydrangeas are beautiful. Are they from the shrub out front? I was secretly coveting these.”
“Shelley takes pride in them that’s for sure, and her zucchini bread is something else too. The zucchinis are from the garden.”
“I’ve been admiring that garden ever since I got here. I can’t wait to try it.”
Hank couldn’t shake the feeling they were talking about more than the bread and flowers and he was feeling self-conscious about his appearance, so he said, “Well, enjoy. I’ll let you be. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight.” Jolene smiled and stared at Hank until he turned to go down the stairs. She started to shut the door when Hank turned again.
“If there’s anything you need, with the apartment, don’t hesitate to let me, I mean to let us know. You have our cell phone numbers on the magnet on the fridge. That was Shelley’s idea – the magnets with the contact info. To make it easier, you know.”
“Yes, I do still have the magnet and I’ll for sure call, if I need anything. Thank you again. Tell your wife, thank you again.”
“Shelley, her name is Shelley.”
“Of, course. Tell Shelley I said thank you.”
Hank waited until he heard the door shut and he was four steps down before he exhaled. Being around that woman affected him physically in ways he had not experienced since he and Shelley first met. The physical sensations coupled with the guilt made him feel tired. He wished he had never brought up those flowers and seen her in those leggings and sweatshirt.
Shelley was waiting for him when he came back through the front door. “Well?”
“I just gave her the gifts and came back down. She told me to thank you,” Hank said.
“Oh, okay. What did she say though? What did y’all talk about? Did you go inside?”
“No. She told me to tell you thank you, and that she’s been admiring the azaleas since she moved in.”
Shelley knew that he had not gone inside. She had listened for his footsteps above. She had heard Hank walk up the stairs to the apartment landing. She heard the tenant’s footsteps go to the door, and she heard the door open and remain open for a little longer than what it would have taken to simply deliver the gifts. She had heard their muffled conversation but couldn’t make out the words. She wondered what they had said to one another, and she got angry at herself for wanting to know. She also wondered how long this tenant would stay. All of a sudden, the house felt small and the apartment too close.
Living in a duplex, which was once their single-family home, provided a sense of intimacy with the tenants Hank and Shelley never anticipated. They decided to rent the top floor out to supplement the loss of Shelley’s income, and they both experienced the paradox of simultaneously enjoying and disdaining the close proximity – the sharing of the walls, the yard and driveway. The past ten years, the tenants had come and gone. It seemed there was something about the second floor of that Victorian that attracted the nomadic types. There had been an adjunct professor in search of a faculty position wherever it would take him, a newly married couple both fresh from previous divorces on the road to their new life together, the jazz drummer who did not find their small town conducive to his gig-to-gig lifestyle, the single mom with two small kids who was always looking for something better and less expensive, and now the beautiful auburn-haired woman, who seemed, to both Shelley and Hank, to have appeared out of nowhere, as if she was conjured from their own wishes and fears. And, she was different from the others. She had lined the deck with terra cotta pots, planting a dazzling array of annuals and even perennial flowers. Shelley had watched her plant the flowers, mesmerized.
Shelley had been in her raised garden. Hank constructed it for her five years earlier. Hank built the troughs up high enough so that Shelley could water, tend, and harvest her garden from the ease of her chair. Her upper back and shoulders always ached from leaning over, but she enjoyed the pain and feeling of accomplishment and independence. She loved that garden, and she loved Hank even more for it. She often told friends it was one of the most thoughtful and loving gifts Hank had ever given her.
Shelley was weeding the fall greens beds when she caught sight of the tenant on the deck. Out of the corner of her eyes she saw a flash of light. She turned toward the house and saw a sparkling mist, illuminated from behind by the early soft white sun. A spray of tiny drops of water glinted and moved back and forth like a shower from the deck. Some of the tiny drops of water seemed to catch and ride the warm breeze. The new tenant had the long water hose, not her own, but Shelley and Hank’s, pulled up to the deck. She was watering the many pots of flowers she had planted. Shelley stopped what she was doing and watched as the tenant moved effortlessly across the deck with the hose, her silhouette obscured by the light and water.
“I guess she means to stay a while,” Shelley said out loud to herself. The words came out almost like a whisper, as if she was confessing a realization she was just now coming to grips with.
As Shelley stared, the tenant turned with the hose toward the bushes by the fence below, the old butterfly bush and Shelley’s roses, and proceeded to give them a generous drink of water from the hose. Shelley had not expected that, and she straddled between being grateful and mad that her morning watering was being done for her. She told herself it was a thoughtful gesture from someone who was just trying to help, and that she should be grateful, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that the act was presumptuous and intrusive. Shelley thought how dare this tenant water someone else’s flowers. How dare she assume she could take care of those roses? Shelley meticulously cared and deeply loved those roses. She and Hank had planted them the year they moved in the house. The roses were their flowers, “their babies,” as Shelley and Hank had often said.
Shelley grew angry despite her best efforts. She noticed her heart rate increase and knew she was losing a battle with her emotions. She blew out through pursed lips counting, one, two, three, four, and envisioned the poison and destructive emotion floating away. Then the last of the shower of sparkling mist fell to the ground like a blanket being spread. Her attention was again drawn to the tenant she could now see more clearly. She wore workout clothes. A tank top and sports bra, and tight short leggings. Shelley watched her skip lightly down the stairs with the end of the hose in her hand, the muscles in her legs flexing. Shelley felt a pang of jealous resentment that shocked her. She blew out that feeling hard and fast, and decided to take charge of her emotions by taking charge of the situation.
“Hi,” Shelley called, as she began to roll herself up the paved path through the yard. “Thank you for watering my butterfly bush and roses.”
“Oh, hi,” the tenant had said, slightly startled. She had not realized Shelley was down there, or that she was being watched.
“Yes, I really appreciate it, but it’s not necessary. I have a watering schedule, and I like to water the roses at the soil level. It keeps them from getting rot,” Shelley said.
“I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
“It’s ok,” Shelley lied.
“I hope you don’t mind that I borrowed the garden hose. I was taking way too many trips with the watering can. I need to buy one. I love having a lot of pots on the back deck,” the tenant said, pointing up to her menagerie of clay pots and new plantings.
“No, I don’t mind,” Shelley lied again. “How is the apartment working for you?”
“Oh, I love it. It’s just the right size and layout for me, and it’s beautiful. Hank said you decorated the interior yourself.”
Shelley bristled at the sound of her husband’s name spoken so freely by this woman she barely knew, but she managed to smile and say, “I did. Thank you.” Shelley felt the sudden urge to get back inside. Her heart rate had quickened, and she felt hot. “Well, I’ll let you get back to watering; I have some things to do inside. If you need anything, you can call us anytime, or just knock.” Shelley didn’t wait for a response; she rolled her chair forward to the woman in front of her who moved to the right to get out of her way. Shelley felt as if she was going to have a panic attack in front of this woman who, as if they were friends, had just so freely spoke of Hank.
“I will. Thanks again,” the woman called after Shelley.
As Shelley made the turn and up the ramp to the porch, she caught another look at the tenant. She paused and watched the woman roll up the excess hose with the crank on the hose reel. Shelley took deep breaths and scolded herself for having such a physical reaction to the tenant.
As Shelley rolled into the house, Hank walked in the kitchen and grabbed a coffee mug from the cabinet. Seeing Hank brought Shelley back from her thoughts and pulled her up from those waves of anxiety she was fighting. Hank always had that effect on her. His mere presence calmed her, brought her into the present and away from her fears. She credited him with saving her from the hell of her own mind after the accident. She’d be dead if not for Hank. Friends and family had marveled at how well she had taken the accident and the news that she was paralyzed. They complimented her strength and remarked on how she could joke and laugh at her situation, but inside she had been near drowning. The jokes and dark humor were only life preservers keeping her from sinking to the bottom of a dark and violent sea of pain and fear. Hank was the hand that lifted her from the water every time. She had loved him before the accident, more than any man she had ever known. After the accident, she needed him more than she had ever needed anyone.
“Been tending your garden?” Hank asked as he bent and kissed her on her head.
“Yeah. I saw the tenant too. She’d been gardening too. She’s planted a lot of pots on the deck and she watered my roses.”
“That was nice of her,” Hank said as he was looking for the flavored coffee pod he liked.
“It was, but she watered them from the top deck. They’ll get rot, if she keeps that up.”
“I’m sure Jolene didn’t mean any harm. She was trying to be nice.” Hanks use of the tenant’s first name surprised Shelley.
“Well, I asked Jolene not to water them anymore.”
“What’s that about?” Hank turned and looked look at Shelley, furrowing his eyebrows a little.
“I just didn’t realize that you and Jolene were on a first-name basis now, that’s all.”
Shelley expected Hank to tease her about being jealous. She was hoping he would, but he didn’t.
“You’re being silly, Shelley. We’ve always been on a first-name basis with all the tenants.”
Hank’s statement was true, but his tone didn’t make her feel any better, and she hoped she was being silly.
“You want coffee?” Hank asked. Shelley gave Hank a tight-lipped smile before nodding.
“I’m going to do some reading on the porch after I clean up the dishes,” said Shelley.
Shelley read on the porch a little longer than she had anticipated, trying to fool herself into believing she wasn’t waiting on the new neighbor to come down. She wanted to prove she was really being silly. For the last half chapter of the crime novel, she had to go back and reread every other line, because her thoughts would wander back to the image of Jolene haloed in sunlight, making herself right at home among Shelley’s beloved double knockouts and fragrant plums, and saying Hank. The images came first, then came the feeling of guilt and shame at the attention and time she was expending on this woman. Before she’d go back and reread the lines she had not absorbed, she would ask herself, Why am I being like this. What is wrong with me?
After the third or fourth cycle of anger, shame, and guilt, Shelley snapped her book closed, folded the blanket she had on her lap, and unlocked her wheelchair wheels. Then she heard the door at the second floor apartment close and heard light footsteps ambling down the stairs. Shelley caught herself trying to look normal. She held the book up as if reading. She waited and listened and heard the jangling of keys that no doubt ignited the silver Volkswagen convertible that had been sitting in the upstairs apartment driveway. Shelley had admired the car since Jolene moved in, noting the freedom and the fun it evoked. It was a beautiful September day with warm sunshine and a cool breeze. Shelley imagined Jolene would drive with the top down, to anywhere she wanted to go. It was the kind of freedom and fun Shelley hadn’t really enjoyed since before she crushed two vertebrae. Shelley had owned a convertible in her twenties. Now they had a van with a wheelchair lift.
“Hello,” said Jolene as she turned the corner. The word was soft. Her voice was airy, pleasing to Shelley’s ears, and Shelley couldn’t help but smile.
“Hi there,” Shelley said, immediately regretting the enthusiasm.
“I’m glad to see you. I realized this morning I never thanked you for the flowers or the bread. I love white hydrangeas, and I told your husband that I’ve been admiring the bushes since I got here. Well, before that, actually. I saw them in the pictures on the real estate site. The bread is great too. I had some for breakfast this morning. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome. We do that for all our tenants. I love to bake.”
“Well, again thank you. I put the hose up.”
“You can use it any time. We probably should have run a hose spigot up on that second floor for the tenants. We never thought about that.” Shelley glanced over at Jolene’s car in the driveway and said, “I don’t mean to keep you. I’m sorry.”
“Not at all,” said Jolene. “I’m not overly excited about running all these errands – the DMV, electric company, and all that that comes with moving. It’s always such a hassle.”
“It is a pain. I guess that’s one reason we haven’t moved in twenty years,” said Jolene.
Shelley watched Jolene get in her car, back out of the driveway, and drive down the road until she was out of sight. Then she closed her book, opened the door, and rolled herself back into the downstairs foyer. When Shelley was inside, she inhaled and exhaled deeply, confident she had been, as Hank had said, being silly.
That afternoon, Hank came in from work and called out, as he always did, “Hey!”
Shelley came in from the kitchen to the living room and answered back as she always did, “Hey!”
Hank leaned down, and Shelley tilted the right side of her face up for the kiss that Hank always planted on her pronounced cheek bone. Despite the sedentary lifestyle a wheelchair had forced on her, Shelley retained the willowy build that Hank had found so beautiful so many years before. Shelley’s small frame was part genetics, part her efforts to remain as least burdensome as possible. She loved to eat decadent food, and when she could run, she never thought twice about it, but ever since the sixth day at the hospital, when the doctors told her she would never walk again, she secretly resigned herself to remaining small, whatever the sacrifice, so Hank could lift her.
Hank was not a small man. He was six feet and one inch tall with what Shelley’s late father had described as a corn-fed build, but Shelley could picture the toll transferring her to the bed, to the shower, and to her shame, the toilet would eventually take on his body. So, after her discharge and the doctor’s blessing to get as much upper body exercise as possible, she began working her arms with light weights, which she progressively increased. She spent hours practicing transferring from her chair with the day nurse while Hank was at work, until she could successfully take a shower, empty her bladder, and take a bowel movement without assistance. The day she got herself from her chair to the toilet, emptied her bowels, cleaned herself and transferred back in the chair unassisted was the most rewarding day of her life. She often mused how the injury changed her perspective. She hated her predicament and admired her own strength because of it, and it was a paradox she learned to accept.
“How was work?” Shelley always asked.
“It was fine. One of the guys had to leave because his kid got sick at school. That’s why I’m a little late,” Hank said.
“You’re a good boss, Hank,” Shelley said, thinking of the children she never gave him. She squeezed his hand and let it go quickly.
“How was your work? Did you get much done today?”
“Some. I read for a while this morning. I chatted with Jolene too. She drives a convertible.” Shelley immediately regretted mentioning the convertible.
“I saw that,” was all Hank said.
Shelley had had a convertible, a red Volkswagen Rabbit, short and squatty, sporty without any pretention. The car suited Shelley’s personality, Hank had always thought, and he always loved seeing her drive up in that car, top down, sunglasses on, and a ponytail. She looked cool in that car, like the kind of girl men wanted to date and women wanted to be friends with. Hank missed that car and that girl.
“You hungry now? I started some stew this afternoon. It’s ready whenever,” Shelley said.
“Yes, let’s eat now,” Hank said as he leaned to look out the window at the driveway. Shelley wondered if he was looking for Jolene’s car. She wished she had never brought it up. She might be being silly, but she was jealous. She had not been jealous for Hank in years. He never gave her any reason to be. He was a devoted and loving husband before and after the accident. She had known he was mad for her when they started dating, and the fire lasted well into the marriage.
It wasn’t until the accident did sex slow down. The accident abruptly ended it, like hitting a brick wall at sixty miles per hour. But Hank never complained. The first order of business was letting her body heal, then her spirit. He was patient and attentive to her needs. There was only one fight where he yelled that he needed more than what she was giving him. Shelley cried and apologized, and Hank apologized for losing his temper, and asked could they at least try more, because he missed her. Shelley went to see a therapist every other week and discussed the issue with her. The therapist agreed that Shelley and Hank could and should try to be intimate more often. It would help their marriage. After that, they made slow and steady strides, but it was never like it was before, and both of them knew and seemed to accept that. They settled into that new normal. Hank would say, “We’re not twenty anymore,” and Shelley would smile, but she knew it wasn’t just age.
Hank and Shelley ate in the living room on TV trays, so they could watch the baseball game. They ate in relative silence apart from the announcer’s voice and the roar of the crowd. After dinner, Shelley started getting ready for bed and took her crime novel with her. When the game was over, it was late, and Hank brushed his teeth and tried not to wake Shelley while he took off his pants. She wasn’t sleeping though and sat up on her elbows, and told Hank she loved him, and missed him. Hank understood her request, smiled and said, “I hope I have the energy.”
Shelley assured him by throwing back the covers on his side of the bed and saying, “I have faith in you.”
They both laughed and Hank crawled in bed next to his wife who wasn’t wearing anything besides a T-shirt. Seeing his wife naked from the waist down, excited Hank, and he felt that familiar heat. They made soft, slow love. Hank, as always, was careful not to put too much weight on his wife’s pelvis and legs. They finished and kissed each other one last time on the lips. Hank got up to get Shelley a warm washcloth, and as he waited for the water to get hot, his mind drifted to the woman upstairs, and he admonished himself for thinking about her while he made love to his wife.
The next morning, Hank gave Shelley a kiss, grabbed his keys and lunch, and started to the truck. As he closed the door behind him, he heard footsteps coming down the stairs and looked up. She was beautiful – ivory skin, bright eyes so deep emerald he could make out the color from where he was standing. Her wavy auburn hair looked like flames when it caught the morning sun. She slowed a little as she realized he was there. Hank put his lunch box in his left hand and waved slightly to her with his right. Hank remembered he had thought about her last night and realized he was blushing, and he prayed she couldn’t see the red in his cheeks.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Morning,” Hank said.
Hank realized he was lingering a little too long and said, “Well, I’m off to work. Have a good day.”
“You too,” Jolene said.
Hank got into the truck and started it up and sat for a second thinking about the way he felt and why. She was a beautiful and pleasant woman, and she caused a reaction in him he never saw coming. He shook the moment of introspection off and put the truck into reverse. He noticed Jolene getting into her car, and he watched her for a second out of the corner of his eyes. He realized he was trying to appear like he wasn’t looking, which made him think of Shelley, so he looked up and saw the curtain in the window move. He wondered if she had been watching, if she knew.
From the window, Shelley could see Hank and Jolene’s conversation, but she could not hear it. She watched Hank for signs of flirting but saw only restraint, which made her even more uneasy. Jolene was smiling and looking away every so often, and she didn’t like that. Now, dread was growing inside Shelley’s gut, making her feel physically heavier in her chair. When Hank looked up, she was embarrassed and dropped the curtain panel as quickly as possible, but she knew he saw her watching them, and she felt shame. Just yesterday, Shelley had convinced herself that there was nothing to be jealous about, that she was being silly. Now there was a tightness in her chest, and a heavy fear that she had been wrong.
Shelley bathed, got dressed, and logged on to her computer. She had three classes of papers to grade. If she got started early and kept her mind on her work, she could finish and enjoy her weekend, but her mind wandered. She kept thinking of Hank and Jolene, and she found herself inventing scenarios in which Hank and Jolene were secretly meeting, and she would find them and confront them. She went over in her head what she would say when she saw them. “I should have known,” she whispered out loud, which startled her when she heard her own words.
The anger in her voice frightened her, and she was jolted back to the reality of her work and her faith that Hank was still a faithful loving husband, and that he and this woman had done nothing wrong. Shelley pushed herself from her desk and went to the kitchen for more coffee. She sat by the Keurig while it heated, and despite how she tried, she couldn’t stop from wondering what Hank was doing at that minute, and whether he was thinking of her or Jolene.
At that very moment, Hank was having his coffee with a guy on his crew while they waited for the materials delivery to the worksite. They made small talk, but the guy was new and Hank didn’t know him well, so their conversations were limited to weekend plans and the Tigers game coming up. Hank didn’t care for small talk, and he didn’t like idle time on the site either – too much time to think about things other than work. His mind kept going back to Jolene, and then to Shelley, and then to his guilt. Hank silently cursed himself for being disloyal to Shelley in his mind. They’d been married for twenty-two years, and he had been infatuated with Shelley the entire time, even during the darkest years after the accident – the pain, depression, hospital bills – Shelley had remained that shining star he couldn’t believe he had caught. That made his preoccupation with this new person that much more bewildering. He wondered why was he distracted by her, why did he catch himself hoping to see her, why did his heart race when he did see her? Hank thought back to the days when he had first met Shelley and remembered this is how he felt with her. It was instant unyielding infatuation.
Hank was staring into space when the materials arrived at the site. The rumble of the flatbed roused Hank from his internal reflection and state of guilt. He was glad to get to work and have only work on his mind. He decided he would work through lunch.
Shelley made Hank’s favorite dinner that night – grilled chicken wings with mashed potatoes and corn and tomato salad. She had made it for him the first year they were dating, and Hank had later told her that that night, as he ate the food she had prepared for him, and saw her suck chicken gristle off the bone, like his own mother, that he knew he wanted to marry her. Shelley had felt silly buying the needed items at the grocery store. She knew this was her way of asking for forgiveness for being jealous and stupid, but she wouldn’t tell Hank that. He would wonder what the special occasion was, and she would lie.
“Oh, it’s just because I felt like making something sweet for you,” Shelley told Hank as he took off his work shoes at the door.
When Hank had pulled up in the driveway, he thought about Jolene. This time he let himself say her name inside his head, letting the word swim around a little, and he lingered over the long “o” and “e” vowel sounds. He hadn’t thought about her since the morning. He had worked through lunch, and the work was good for him. But now he might see her, and the thought excited and scared him. He looked up to her windows, hoping to see her looking down at him. Then his conscience got the best of him, and he physically shook his head to rid himself of the thought and opened the truck door to go inside.
The smell of the charcoal grill was familiar and comforting. He wondered if Shelley was grilling or if it was coming from a neighbor’s house. It had been five years earlier that he had come home and she was grilling by herself again. He had been a little alarmed but proud and somewhat relieved she was resuming yet another normal and independent task. She had always been the griller in the family. The accident had forced Hank to become more domestic, but he was never a great cook, not like Shelley. They had both missed her food when she was too hurt and for a while, too depressed to prepare it.
“Something smells good! What’s the occasion?” Hank asked when he opened the door. The wings on the counter wrapped in foil confirmed his suspicions.
“Oh, it’s just because I felt like making something sweet for you.”
“You’re the sweet one,” Hank told her as he crossed the room to kiss her on the top of the head. He was ashamed for having wanted to see Jolene and a little disappointed because he didn’t. “Is there anything else on the grill? I’ll go get it, if so?”
“The corn’s out there. I’m making the corn salad too.”
“Good. My favorite.”
Hank washed his hands and took a casserole pan and tongs out to the patio, taking the back steps that connected the three floors. Shelley glanced down at him while he was at the grill and saw him looking up to the second floor. It wasn’t a casual glance, like his eyes had caught something. Now, Shelley became scared her jealousy wasn’t entirely unwarranted. The back of her neck started to get warm and her breathing became shallow. She recognized her anxiety creeping in, and she immediately fought it with her yoga breathing. She took long and deep breaths, in and out of her nose, with a slight constriction in the throat, so it was louder than normal. She always felt better after about ten deep breaths.
“It was just a look. It was just a look. It was just a look. It means nothing.” Shelley repeated this with each breath. Before she got to the eighth breath, Hank was covering the dish with the corn and heading back up the stairs. When he got to their landing, she opened the door for him with a forced smile on her face.
Hank walked silently to the counter and laid the steaming corn down. “Let me take a quick shower while you finish the salad, and we’ll eat.”
Shelley began shucking the hot corn, being careful to only touch the husks she had pulled back from the kernels. She loved grilled corn. The smell and the taste took her back to her and Hank’s younger days before the accident, when they ate on the upstairs deck. It used to be their master suite balcony. Now, it was the tenant’s deck. Now, it was Jolene’s deck. Shelley wondered if Jolene had eaten up there yet, on the table that Shelley and Hank had eaten on so many times. Shelley hadn’t been up there in at least two years. Hank had carried her up the stairs to see a mess that a previous tenant had left.
The downstairs was plenty big for the two of them, and after the accident, the expense for a stair chair didn’t make sense when they considered the extra income they could make by renting out the second floor. Putting in the kitchen space was a big expense, but Hank and his crew did the work, so it paid for itself in the first six months. Then the rest of the money went towards the hospital and medical supplies bills, and the van note. Shelley had hated giving up part of their house to strangers, but until now, no tenant had ever really bothered her.
The fact that Hank never said anything about this woman’s beauty irritated Shelley. Throughout their relationship, Shelley and Hank had never been too embarrassed to comment on a pretty woman or handsome man. But Hank hadn’t said one word about this woman’s looks. While Shelley shucked the corn, she concluded Hank didn’t say anything about her beauty, because this time, he was embarrassed – Hank was embarrassed by how this woman made him feel.
Shelley heard a car door shut and then the footsteps on the back steps. Her heart raced. It must be Jolene, and if she’s using the backsteps, she would be walking right past the kitchen window Shelley was facing. The steps got louder and closer. Shelley thought about when she could run, skipping stairs, all the way up the second-floor balcony, when Jolene caught her eye. Jolene waved and smiled, pausing for just a polite moment, and then she was gone.
Shelley realized she had been holding her breath and let out an audible exhale. Her heart was still racing, and she put her fingers on her neck to feel the beats. She felt herself at a crossroad. She could close her eyes and imagine herself at the forking of the road, being pulled against her will down the path she knew would lead to trouble, maybe worse. She also knew there was nothing she could do about it. Nothing had changed that anyone could see. There was only a new tenant, a single woman now living in their home, but tenants had come and gone in the last ten years, even other single women. Shelley could not point to any particular action from Hank or this woman that signaled something was different, but something had changed. Something had changed for Shelley, and now Shelley was scared that it had also changed for Hank. He had been quieter in the few weeks since Jolene moved in. Shelley knew Hank had helped Jolene move some of her things in the apartment, which he had never done for any tenant. What bothered Shelley most was that he hadn’t told her, despite having multiple opportunities to mention it. She tried to rationalize why he hadn’t told her. The woman had a moving company with a crew of three men helping her. She didn’t need Hank. Shelley had also caught Hank looking down at her in the backyard and looking up to her windows from his truck. Shelley knew Hank. They had been together twenty-five years.
They were kids barely out of their teens when they met. They became fast friends, easy lovers and both considered the other the love of their life. She knew him, could predict his actions, finish his sentences, and read his thoughts like no one else could. Through three miscarriages, the premature deaths of their parents, and her accident, their bond had been tightened by heartache. But something was different now. Shelley could feel it. She could sense a threat to her well-being, a threat to their home. It was a sixth sense that manifested itself in her rapid pulse, constricted breathing, dry mouth and racing thoughts.
Shelley went to the guest bathroom and wet a cloth to dab her forehead and neck. She looked in the mirror and realized she was physically flushed. Hank was in the shower for a long time, she thought. She wondered if he was masturbating and thinking of Jolene. The question had popped up so quickly she couldn’t keep it out. She hadn’t been able to control it. She looked in the mirror to scold herself for being ridiculous and debasing Hank with such a thought, but when she saw her reflection, she saw someone she didn’t recognize. She was shocked at the age and visible exhaustion of the woman staring back at her. She looked as poisoned on the outside as she felt on the inside, and at that realization, she surrendered to the negative and disgusting visual of Hank pleasuring himself to the fantasy of their tenant. She was slightly younger, physically beautiful, and a little mysterious. She could walk. She was his physical equal. And, now Shelley knew. She knew she wasn’t curious about this woman. She wasn’t infatuated or taken with her. She hated her. When Hank came back into the kitchen, Shelley was finishing the salad.
“What’s wrong?” Hank asked. He could see the pain in Shelley’s face. He knew it well.
She lied and said, “Nothing.”
“You look upset,” Hank said.
Shelley wondered how she would hide this released and pulsing contempt for their tenant and upstairs neighbor. She questioned whether she actually believed Hank was guilty of anything. Even if he was attracted to her sexually, there wasn’t anything wrong with that, Shelley tried to rationalize.
The couple ate in silence. Shelley was afraid to say much, afraid that the tone of her voice or look in her eye would tell her secret. Hank was tired from work, and he thought about Jolene, and worried that too much talking would betray his guilty conscious. When the weight of the silence got too much for Shelley, she decided she had to tell him. She must tell this man, from whom she had kept no secrets, that she was feeling insecure and jealous. She took a breath to form his name, and a knock on the door startled them both. They smiled at one another for being so tense, but both of them worried it was Jolene, the most likely person to be knocking so late. Hank got up and went to the front door. He could see through the sidelights it was Jolene. Hank inhaled deeply through his nostrils, and took her image in through the glass. She was in tight faded capri length jeans and a white V-neck T-shirt tucked in only above the right pocket. Her hair was down and illuminated by the sunset. It made her auburn hair glow like fire again, and she was smiling at him.
“It’s Jolene, from upstairs,” he called to Shelley. Hank had paused too long between her name and “…from upstairs.”
Shelley heard the pause and the purposeful insertion of the directional information. It was thrown in to minimize the fact that Hank had used her first name to identify her. He had always said, “It’s the tenant,” when one came knocking downstairs, which happened often, when you live steps away and manage the property yourself.
Only thirty seconds prior, Shelley felt relief at the prospect of confessing her jealousy. Sharing it with Hank would have neutralized it. He would have reassured her that there was nothing to be jealous of, and that he loved her, and that this was just a tenant like the rest. Shelley would have asked him if he still found her beautiful, and he would have said yes. They would have talked about it, and laughed about it, and moved on from it, leaving Jolene, the tenant from upstairs, alone, but that opportunity was gone. Hank had used the tenant’s first name, and Shelley was convinced that she was losing him.
“I’m so sorry to bother you,” Jolene said, looking at Hank. When she caught sight of Shelley at the kitchen table set with food she added, “Oh no, you’re about to eat dinner too.” The fact that Hank did not turn and look at Shelley when Jolene said that was not lost on Shelley.
“You’re not bothering us,” Hank said a little too anxiously. “What can we do for you?” He had managed to say “we,” Shelley noticed.
“It sounds silly now that I’m down here, but the light above the stove was out. It’s been out since I moved in, and I finally bought the bulb to replace it, but I can’t get the vent plate back on. I think I stripped the screws. I’m sorry to bother you while you’re eating. I was hoping to catch you after dinner.”
She looked again at Shelley as she said this, glancing up at Hank when she was finished.
“I’ll come up and take a look. I remember that thing being a little tough to get on last time,” Hank said and started to turn to grab his shoes.
“No, finish dinner. Really it can wait,” Jolene said to Hank, gently and quickly touching his elbow. Shelley became hot with anger.
“Yes, Hank, finish dinner. Then, by all means, go up and fix Miss Jennings’s stove light.” Shelley heard her words as if they were spoken by someone else. She could hear the anger in her voice, and she was certain they could too.
“I’m sorry. I should have waited till tomorrow. I just keep forgetting when it’s daylight, because it’s not an issue until it’s night. That kitchen is a little dark,” said Jolene.
The critique on the kitchen’s lighting affected Shelley more than it should have. She did quiet yoga breathing to bring her pulse back down.
“Of course, don’t be sorry. That’s what I’m here for,” Hank said.
Hank and Shelley’s eyes met, but just for a moment, because Hank was embarrassed. He had given away too much with his smile and the upward inflection of his voice. When Hank looked down, Jolene looked at Shelley.
“I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have bothered you,” said Jolene.
“No, it’s fine. It’s our responsibility to fix what’s broken. I will give you one of the magnets we had made with our number on it, so you can call us next time,” said Shelley.
“I’ll call next time.”
“Please do. Thank you.”
Hank looked back at Shelley. The tone in her voice was not new, but it was rare. She was trying to be polite, but she was unsuccessful. This was not the first time a tenant had come down to tell them about a problem, or even interrupted their dinner. This type of interruption was typical for those who owned or managed rented space. There had been a leak in the middle of the night that woke them up when water dripping down from the upstairs sink filled with dishes kept hitting Shelley between the eyes as she lay on her back. There were the six a.m. knocks on the door to change a light bulb or flip a fuse switch. Those were particularly irritating, because as Shelley pointed out, any idiot can change a light bulb. There were broken windows, stopped-up toilets, frozen AC unit coils, broken tile in the bathroom, squeaky screen doors, and wobbly railings on the back balcony – all these things Hank and Shelley had taken in stride and promptly fixed.
This was not the first time they had been interrupted during dinner, but it was the first time they were interrupted during dinner the moment before Shelley was going to confess her jealousy, and what she hoped was paranoia, by the very person who Shelley saw as the source of the jealousy and paranoia. And now, Hank would leave Shelley and go to Jolene’s apartment to help her. Shelley did not see Hank playing the part of dependable landlord; she saw a damsel in distress being rescued by a hero, and she was certain Jolene saw the same. Shelley could see the gratitude in Jolene’s eyes across the room. She only looked at Hank for a few seconds, but Shelley was certain the look carried a secret between the two of them, a secret they did not share with Shelley.
“I’ll be up in a minute,” Hank told Jolene. And Jolene looked at Shelley, turned and left for upstairs.
All of a sudden, Shelley felt hot in her face and her stomach burned. She turned back to the counter to get the casserole dish the corn had been in and carried it to the sink, where she let it drop from a distance a little too high. The clank of the dish hitting the ceramic sink was so loud that Jolene heard it as she entered her apartment. She knew it was Shelley, and she knew she was the cause.
“What is wrong with you,” Hank asked.
“You were fine five seconds ago, and now you’re banging plates.”
“Keep your voice down. I do not want her to hear our conversation.” Shelley was whispering now.
“What? What are you talking about? What does Jolene have to do with this?”
“What does Jolene have to do with what?”
“With the way you are acting all of a sudden.”
“I’m not acting any kind of way. Jolene needs your help, and you have Jolene to help, so why don’t you just go and do it.”
Shelley’s whispers were louder now, and Hank was sure Jolene could hear everything they were saying, which embarrassed him.
“Shelley, what is the matter? This happens all the time. Tenants need stuff at the most inconvenient time.” Now Hank was whispering. Hank’s whispering only served to make Shelley madder, as she felt now he was whispering only to shield Jolene’s feelings.
“I don’t want to have this conversation right now. I’m tired. Just please go fix the stove and come back down. Please come back down.”
Hank realized that Shelley was as observant and quick as she’d always been. He could never hide from her, not his feelings, not a cigarette on the way home from work, even with all the windows down, not a surprise, and not the butterflies he was now experiencing when this new tenant was in his presence. He felt guilty, but he also felt cornered and accused for having done nothing wrong.
“What else would I do?”
They were both speechless.
Shelley turned her wheelchair around and began clearing the dinner table. Hank went to the hall closet and picked up his tool bag. When he pulled the door shut, Shelley slammed his dinner plate into the sink shattering it. Hank heard the crash as did Jolene upstairs. Both knew what it was and why.
Hank knocked on Jolene’s apartment door quietly, and she answered right away.
“It’s in here,” she said, feeling instantly foolish.
Of course, Hank knew where the kitchen was. He and Shelley knew every inch of the house. It was their home, and Jolene was an outsider, an intruder, disrupting the previous peace and tranquility. As Hank inspected the loose screws for the stove light plate, Jolene stood near watching, unable to turn or walk away. She felt ashamed for having caused Shelley such discomfort, but indignant for having done nothing to deserve the reaction. Jolene had never acted with impropriety. Yes, she was attracted to Hank, but she had never outwardly shown it or acted on it.
Jolene watched Hank and wondered if he could feel the charged energy between them now – the quiet longing Jolene knew they would never act on. Jolene knew herself to be many things, but an adulteress was not one of them. She knew the pain of a wronged wife. Her own cheating, lying husband was the trigger that Jolene saw as the catalyst to her wandering nomadic life. She had left everything behind but her integrity. And even now, she knew what attracted her to this married man was his loyalty to his wife. She knew they would never consummate what they both knew was there. She could feel it exude from Hank, every time he looked at her, smiled at her, and met her eyes with his. He wanted her. Jolene knew when a man wanted her. Hank wanted her, but he wouldn’t act on it, and that made Jolene want him too.
Jolene wasn’t consciously aware of what Hank was doing under the range hood, and before she realized it, he was finished. He turned on the range light and turned around to her and smiled, his eyes meeting her for only a moment before he lowered them.
“Well, that was easy,” Jolene said. “I should have done that myself. I’m embarrassed for having called you up here.”
“Don’t be embarrassed,” Hank said.
They both lingered too long, and Hank glanced at Jolene’s apartment door, signaling to both of them that he needed to leave. Jolene reached for his hand, but thought better of it, but not before their fingertips touched. He turned to her and said, “I’m sorry.”
“No,” Jolene said. “I’m sorry.”
Hank picked up his tool bag and walked silently to the door. As he closed it behind him, he looked back at Jolene. She felt as if it were for the last time and knew that it had to be. She would pack her car and leave the next day.
Shelley was in the bathroom taking her makeup off with a warm wash cloth. She heard Hank coming down the main stairs. She had cleaned up the broken plate and put all the dishes in the sink. She had decided she would wash them the next day. She would deal with everything the next day. She didn’t say anything to Hank when he walked in. She didn’t speak when he sat on the bed and began taking off his shoes and then unbuttoning his shirt and pants. They didn’t speak as she brushed her teeth, wheeled to the bed, and hoisted herself in on her side. Shelley didn’t know what she would say or if she even wanted to speak. She lay silently, while Hank got into bed and turned off the bedside lamp. They both lay on their backs for a moment, longing for reconnection but unable to cross the impasse. As Hank drew a breath to speak her name, Shelley used her arms and core strength to roll over on her left-hand side, facing the wall, away from Hank and said, “Goodnight.”
The next morning Shelley lay in bed while Hank showered and got ready for work. She usually got up before him, but she pretended to sleep. She did not want to face him. She did not want him to see her fear and jealousy, her defeat and shame. In the night, as Hank often did, he talked in his sleep. He gave orders to his work crew, he made a grocery list, and he said Jolene’s name. He said it just once quietly, and then not another word. Shelley cried silently, trying not to shake the bed with her sobs until she finally fell into a restless and turbulent sleep.
When Shelley heard Hank’s truck pull out of the driveway, she threw back the covers. She had a kitchen to clean. She cleared the kitchen sink of the dirty dishes hoping once she finished, she would feel differently, but she knew she wouldn’t. This was not the kind of feeling that passes so easily. Something had broken in her once pure and untouched marriage. Hank had remained faithful physically, she was certain, but not in his heart. There were three people in the house now, where there had been only the two of them for so long.
Shelley was wiping down the counter when she saw something out of the corner of her eye. She looked out on the backstairs landing and saw Jolene carrying a box down the stairs. She wheeled over to the doorway where she could watch but not be seen. Jolene put a box, one of the same boxes she had moved in just a few weeks ago into her red convertible. It was a sunny mild day, but the top was up. Shelley sat and watched as Jolene came back up the stairs and down again carrying another box. Shelley knew she was leaving. She was running away.
The fear in Shelley manifested itself as a solid lump, like a tumor of multiplying hate and jealousy. Shelley had been certain Hank was faithful, but now she questioned her certainty. Shelley wondered what had happened up there in the apartment that would make this woman leave. She had a six-month lease and would lose her deposit; she probably had no place to go. Shelley desperately wanted to know what they had said to one another, what they had done to one another. As Jolene put the box in her car and turned around for a third load, Shelley threw the dishtowel on the ground and wheeled as fast as she could to the French doors leading to the patio stair landing. She flung open the door just as Jolene was making her way to the landing. She rolled quickly and forcibly over the door jamb threshold and the weight of her and the chair made the wood deck move a little, and Jolene looked up startled. They both stared, their eyes locked on one another – Jolene’s in fear and shame, Shelley’s in wrath and accusation. It was Jolene who broke the silence. “I have to leave unexpectedly. I’m sorry to not give you notice. You can keep the deposit.”
“Is he going with you?” Shelley asked. Jolene’s jaw dropped slightly in shock, and she shook her head. “Is he going with you?” This time, Shelley yelled.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Jolene said.
“Don’t take him. You can have any man you want. I’m sure of it. Just don’t take Hank,” Shelley whispered now, and she pushed her chair closer and closer to Jolene, who walked backward slowly to keep the distance between them. “Whatever’s gone on between you. I don’t care. Just don’t take my man. The only man I’ve ever loved. The only man who has ever really loved me. The only man who will ever love me.”
Jolene was now at the edge of the stair, her heels hanging over the tread. She stared at Shelley in disbelief, unable to articulate how she felt and not quite sure what to do or say. She just knew that she wanted to get away from Shelley.
Shelley was only half wrong. Jolene wasn’t taking Hank, but she was running away because she wanted him. Shelley kept coming closer and Jolene’s feet felt for the step below.
“Leave him be. Leave him here with me!” Shelley yelled and rolled her chair to the edge of the stairs with such force that Jolene startled and her right foot missed the stair below. She tumbled, lurching forward then arching her back grasping for the rail, her thumb and forefinger just touching the wood, but unable to grab hold. She fell backward, her spine hitting the wooden stair with such a force that Shelley heard it. Jolene gasped when the wind was knocked out of her. Her arms flailed as she reached for anything that would stop the momentum.
To Shelley, it all happened slowly. She could see every moment, every detail, of the fall, as if it were being played to her on a screen in slow motion. Jolene’s legs now up in the air as they fell over her head in a backward somersault, once and twice, before reaching the landing where the stairs turn to align with the house. Shelley expected her to land there, but she didn’t. She kept going. When she hit the corner of the railing, the momentum propelled her forward and to the left where the stairs continued down to the concrete patio. The drop was longer there. Jolene tumbled forward, head first. The side of her face hit the stair, and her torso folded over, so she was in a ball, and she tumbled over, not once but twice before finally landing face down on the concrete patio. Jolene lay still and silent.
Shelley was stunned, unable to move or to speak until finally she whispered, “Jolene?”
She could now only see Jolene’s legs, sprawled out in a wide V. They did not move. Shelley said this time louder, “Jolene?”
Shelley moved her wheelchair to the balcony landing and looked over, afraid of what she would see. Jolene lay completely flat, a pool of blood slowly growing around her head, Jolene’s arm contorted in an unnatural angle. Shelley watched her and waited for any sign of life. She looked for the rising and falling of Jolene’s back to indicate breathing, but she saw nothing. Jolene made no movement or sound.
Shelley gasped for a breath, suddenly aware that she had not been breathing. She looked around the yard, then to the street, not knowing what to do. She looked for someone to help her – to help Jolene. There was no one.
Shelley looked down at her own lap, and then at her hands realizing she was the only one who could help. She looked for the phone. She turned around and went back inside, this time struggling to get over the doorjamb, having to back up and try twice before succeeding. She wheeled as fast as she could until she got to the phone and dialed 911.
“911, what’s your emergency?” the male dispatcher asked.
“I think a woman is dead. She fell down the stairs. She’s not moving.”
Shelley gave the address, then hung up and called Hank. When he answered, all she said, “Hank, come home.”
Confused and a little alarmed, Hank asked Shelley if she was okay, but she said nothing. She hung up and waited for the police and ambulance to get there. It took thirteen minutes for the first officer to arrive on the scene. The entire time Shelley waited, she took deep inhales and slow exhales, acknowledging each thought and feeling she experienced. She observed them without judgement or question, watching them as they entered her mind and then float away as she blew them from her mind like she was blowing out candles. She watched the fear float away, then the guilt, and she smiled when she recognized what she knew to be relief.