Accommodation

Short Story by Katharine O'Flynn

Accommodation

Doreen’s son Alex wants to move back in with her. He’s in a bad way. He’s lost his job. He’s broken off with his girlfriend. Or she’s broken off with him. Whichever. He’s single now and temporarily unemployed. He needs a place to stay. He’s thirty-five years old. “It’d only be for a month or so. I’d take care of my own meals. You’ll hardly know I’m here,” he tells her.

Doreen wants to say no. This is not because she doesn’t love her son. He’s her only child, the light of her life. They get along well; they’ve always been on good terms. But in the years he’s been away, she’s grown used to the freedom of living alone, following her own schedule, doing things her way. She’d like to keep it that way. And that’s not the only reason for her reluctance to welcome Alex home. It just doesn’t feel right to her. He’s an adult; he has no health problems, no disabilities. He should be shaping his own life, independently.

“It’s not as though you don’t have the space.” A whining note is creeping into Alex’s voice.

“It’s not a question of space.” Doreen finds it difficult to express her objections to Alex’s moving in. “It just seems to me you should have a home of your own by now.” She thinks, but does not say, that at his age, she would have slept in a shelter for the homeless rather than ask her parents to take her in. Of course, times were different then, as Alex has often reminded her. There was a greater distance between parents and children. It was easier to find a job. Apartments were cheaper and there were rooming houses and hostels for singles.

Alex stretches his arms in a grand gesture. “Does one person need all this space?”

“No,” Doreen admits, “but, as I’ve said, that’s not the point here.”

“I mean to say, Mum, if you were living in a one-bedroom, I wouldn’t dream of asking. As it is, there’s my old room that you’re not using anyway.” He flings himself onto the couch, puts his feet up and waits for her to see sense.

Doreen sits on the armchair opposite and resists the urge to tell him not to put his feet on the furniture. She’s not a nagging parent. She doesn’t want to be unpleasant. On the other hand, she doesn’t want to play enabler to a layabout. If she said ‘no’ would he have to go to a homeless shelter? Of course not. He’s not a street person. He’s wearing a pricey leather jacket; he has a Toyota parked in the driveway. He has possessions: tablets and pods and electronic gadgets Doreen doesn’t even know the names or purposes of. He could sell some things or get a menial job to carry him through while he looks for something better. He could learn to lower his expectations, to economize. It would do him good.

“How about if you find a cheap studio apartment? I could help out with the rent for the first couple of months?” she suggests.

“Why would you want to do that when it makes so much more sense for me to stay here rather than to go through the hassle of a couple more moves, not to mention the extra expense?” It’s obvious that Alex has expected her to agree to his proposal, to welcome it, even. “I thought it would be kind of nice for you. It’s a win-win situation: I get a chance to build up some savings. You get the advantage of having a man around the house. I could help with chores, change light bulbs, shovel snow, whatever.”

Doreen doesn’t need a man around the house. This is a duplex. The downstairs occupant does the snow shovelling, gardening and odd jobs. They have an arrangement. And how will Alex ‘build up savings’ if he doesn’t have a job?

“How about going in with a friend, sharing a place?” she suggests. “Could you manage that?”

Alex gives her the look that means she’s asked a stupid question. “That’s for college kids, twenty-year-olds on their own for the first time. My friends are all settled in already.”

That’s exactly her point. He too should be settled somewhere. He’s had a young man’s freedom. He’s had his first job, and his second, and his third. He’s had apartments and lived with a girlfriend for almost two years. How many attempts does it take for a man to get on his feet and stay there, she wonders. Of course, it’s a known fact that men mature more slowly. It takes them longer than women to settle down and find their place in the world. But surely Alex should be there by now. Could it be that she has been too accommodating a parent? Has she fostered in him a need to be protected and indulged? Is it time for tough love? Is it time to put her foot down?

These are theoretical questions. She’ll take him in, of course. He’s her son, her only boy. She loves him. “All right,” she says. But she can’t help feeling a little ashamed for both of them.

“Thanks, Mum. I’ll go get the rest of my stuff from Fran’s. See you soon.” At the door he calls back, “Want me to pick up Chinese for supper?”

“No, thanks.” He’s supposed to be organizing his own meals, not hers. She leaves for her office in the small strip mall at the corner of the street.

Doreen is owner and manager of Snow White Cleaning Service. Homes and offices cleaned top to bottom in an hour or two by her efficient teams. Today is scheduling day. Doreen lines up pink, blue, and yellow Post-it notes in neat rows on the bulletin board and matches them with the employees’ time sheets: pink for two-hour homes; blue for one-hour apartments; yellow for offices. New clients and estate clear-outs she enters in her daybook; she has to take a look at those herself. Alex has often teased her about the Post-its and the colour scheme. “It’s like something out of the sixties. Put it on the computer, for God’s sake! I could set it up for you.”

“No thank you. I prefer to do it like this.”

In an hour she has matched the Post-it orders with staff. She begins the phone calls to follow up answers to her latest ad for new employees. She arranges to interview two applicants.

How would Alex react if she offered him a job with her service, let him earn his keep?

No. Most of her cleaners are women. Though she’d be perfectly happy to hire men, few apply for the job. Anyway, it wouldn’t be fair to her teams to have to work with the boss’s son. They’d suspect she was using him to spy on them. And they’d never dare report if he wasn’t pulling his weight, which could happen. Alex’s work record is not strong. Anyway, he’d probably refuse the offer, and she couldn’t blame him for that.

When she gets home, Alex is in the kitchen unpacking cartons and spreading them around the table. “Yo! Dinner’s up. Take-out Thai.” Doreen isn’t ready for dinner yet, and she was planning to finish the leftover chicken and rice casserole in the fridge, but it would be wrong to waste good, hot food. It smells good. Doreen sets plates and cutlery on the table and takes a couple of bottles of Corona out of the fridge.

Alex pulls back her chair for her. She has taught him good manners. Good manners are an asset to every businessman.

Warily, Doreen settles into life with an adult son in the house. She tries to ignore his comings and goings, but she’s a light sleeper. She hears the click of the lock late at night; she lies awake listening for it if she hasn’t heard it by one a.m. Alex isn’t noisy, yet she’s always aware of him in the flat; she hears his stereo, hears the fridge opening and closing, hears his low-pitched voice talking on his cell phone. He isn’t disturbing her, but she is disturbed.

She eats her usual meals at the usual times and does not offer to cook for him. She tries to pay no attention to his meals of cereal, peanut butter sandwiches, and take-outs. It’s petty of her to notice that it’s her cereal, her milk, her bread and peanut butter he eats and never replaces, but she can’t help it; she does notice and is annoyed.

Every day she asks, “What news on the job front?”

She can see that the question irritates him, but she feels she has a right to ask it, a duty even. There are jobs out there and he should be trying to get one. “Are you setting your sights too high? Are you being picky?” she asks.

After almost a month of this, Alex explodes. “All right! You want me to get a job, I’ll get a job.” He storms out of the house and returns that afternoon. “I’m stock boy at Costco. Mornings, seven to eleven. Now are you satisfied?”

“Yes,” Doreen answers, “I am.” Of course, the job is only temporary, and part-time and far below his abilities. His taking it shows his willingness to make an effort.

Because she knows the job is a blow to his self-esteem, Doreen tries to make things easier for him. She starts cooking breakfast for him; she’s up at six anyway. It’s very little trouble to fix a plate of scrambled eggs or a bowl of oatmeal with raisins and nuts.

She has another meal ready for him when he gets home at noon. She’s fixing a salad or soup for her own lunch then anyway. He needs more than cereal; he still has a day’s work ahead of him, searching the internet for job possibilities, following up on leads. At least she hopes that’s what he’s doing when he disappears after lunch.

Although she tries not to interfere, she can’t resist asking at least once a day, “How’s it going? Any possibilities?”

“Things are slow right now, Mum. You yourself said it’s unlikely anything will come round before the New Year. But I’m getting my CV out there.”

Most evenings he goes out. Well, he’s young. He needs a social life.

Doreen notices money missing from her purse. She’s sure she took two hundred from the cash machine that morning, but when she takes out her wallet to tip the delivery boy with the groceries, there are only two twenties left. As she pays for most purchases by credit card, she can’t have gone through so much cash. She must have dropped some of the bills when she stuffed them into her wallet at the machine. She was in a hurry. She should be more careful.

A week later, her wallet is once again surprisingly depleted. Did she drop some bills in the cab? A terrible suspicion comes to her that Alex is taking the money. She has to suppress the idea at once, ashamed of herself for having such a thought about her own son. Alex has his weaknesses, but he would never stoop to stealing, and from his own mother, for heaven’s sake! A few twenties would mean nothing to him anyway. He and his friends often spend a couple of hundred dollars for drinks in a bar, tickets to a show, a dinner out. She’s spoken to him about his spending habits. “It’s all very well for them that are earning well, but you can’t afford such extravagance.”

He argues. “In sales, you know, it’s important to be seen around. And anyway, once you’ve got your credit cards way up there, a couple of hundred one way or another isn’t going to make any difference.” That’s the way he and his friends live.

She’s always been careful about money. But she’s been feeling nervy lately, making mistakes. There seems to be more stress at work. Now that she thinks about it, she might have used the money from her wallet to replenish the petty cash box when she didn’t have time to get to the bank. Remembering that, she hammers her fist on the desk in shame for suspecting Alex. What is happening to her?

One morning Alex doesn’t appear at the breakfast table at his usual time. Doreen sets out his plate of scrambled eggs and walks down the hall to knock on his door. “Alex? Six thirty. You’d better move it.”

No answer.

She knocks again.

When there’s still no answer, she pushes the door open. She catches a glimpse of long, curly blond hair on the pillow, and a high-heeled shoe flashing with rhinestones beside the bed. She slams the door closed.

Then anger sweeps through her. She opens the door again.

“If you’re intending to go to work this morning, Alex, it’s time to get up.”

The girl sits up, pulling the sheet around her. “Do you mind?” she asks in an insolent tone. “We’re sleeping.” She flops down again and pulls the sheet over her head.

“Okay, okay,” Alex groans before Doreen can reply to that. “I’m coming.” Doreen closes the door.

Standing in the kitchen, Alex gulps down a glass of orange juice and shovels in a few forkfuls of eggs. “You don’t mind if Lillian sleeps it out? I’ll take her home when I get in.”

Doreen does mind. She doesn’t like the thought of an unknown woman in her home, especially a woman who wears shoes with rhinestones. All right, this may be an irrational prejudice, but surely a person has the right to exercise her own prejudices within the confines of her own home. And then there was that insolent “Do you mind?” as well.

But Alex is pulling on his jacket and heading for the door and Doreen doesn’t want to confront the girl herself. She pours herself another coffee and eats the rest of Alex’s eggs and goes to the office. She should have seen this sort of situation coming; she should have set up ground rules. No guests. She’ll sort that out with Alex first chance she gets. That woman could be prowling around her home getting up to who knows what. She arranges with one of the girls to cover for her while she takes her lunch break early and hurries home.

Alex arrives punctually at half past eleven. “Starbucks and almond croissants, everybody!” he calls, setting a paper bag on the kitchen table.

Doreen doesn’t need more coffee, especially Starbucks, which will wire her for hours. Nor does she need an almond croissant. But Alex knows what she likes, and he knows the salesman’s trick of using gifts to smooth his way.

He leads a barefoot Lillian into the kitchen. “Your Mum!” Lillian squeals, when the introductions are made. “Oh, my God. I am so sorry I yelled at you, Mrs. Arnold. I thought you were like a roommate, you know? I am really sorry.” She turns to Alex. “You should have told me.”

Doreen takes a sip of the sharp bitter coffee and bites into the buttery croissant. “That’s all right.”

In fact, Lillian is nicer than her shoes had led Doreen to expect. She admires Doreen’s kitchen: “Great place you’ve got here. Love the decor,” she says. She’s very attractive with clear-cut features, blue eyes and that mass of blond curls. Doreen can’t blame Alex for being smitten. But she will not be won over by good looks, pleasantness and compliments.

“Where do you live?” she asks, hoping to convey the idea that Alex should have gone to her place.

“Downtown. I share a condo with a couple of girls from work.”

Well, the sharing explains why they didn’t go to her place, but Doreen is not going to back down on the issue of overnight visits.

Yet habits of hospitality die hard. She can’t discuss new rules with Alex in the presence of the girl, while eating the food he’s provided. She finds herself chatting as if to a guest she invited herself.

Lillian, she learns, is as an exercise trainer. She works part-time at a club but is trying to build up a base of private clients. She seems ambitious. She might be good for Alex. But she can’t stay overnight. It may be old-fashioned, but this is Doreen’s home and she sets the rules.

Doreen finishes her coffee and pastry. “I have work to do and I’m sure you both do too.” She leaves the kitchen.

She is pleased to hear the sounds of their departure a few minutes later. She goes back to the office. She’s feeling jumpy from the coffee. She doesn’t work well. She has to check figures two and three times. At four she has a training session with two new employees.

Only after they reach the offices to be cleaned does she realize she hasn’t eaten a proper lunch. No wonder she feels irritable. She’s too harsh in her criticism of the new employees’ work. One of them quits after an hour and a half.

A high turnover rate among employees is inevitable in this kind of business. The good, reliable workers soon find better jobs, even though Doreen tries to keep them by making them team captains and paying them twenty-four an hour. The drifters and marginals last anywhere from an hour to a month or two, but you can never depend on them. They have to be teamed with the best of the leaders or monitored by Doreen herself.

She’s on the lookout now for management potential as well as cleaners. She’s sixty-three; she would like to ease herself out of a full-time role in the business over the next couple of years. She’d like to take some holidays, not be tied down to dealing with the business every day.

God knows she deserves a rest. She’s been working since she was eighteen. She didn’t have it easy: no chance for higher education and dilly-dallying with career choices for her. What she got was an early, unhappy marriage, then divorce and life as a single mother, juggling job and child care. She took cleaning work because it was one of the few jobs that gave her some freedom to set her own hours. She worked hard, built up a business of her own. Snow White Cleaning Service has made a good living for her, and for Alex. She has tried to tell him how hard she worked, how frugally she had to live in the early days.

Alex doesn’t understand frugal; neither do his friends. It’s easy come, easy go with them. He tells her she’s too uptight.

That’s what he said when she mentioned the missing twenties to him. “I can’t understand why you’re so upset about a few bucks. You probably spent them and forgot. A bottle of wine, a ride in a cab, a couple of coffees.”

“I keep track of things.”

“God, don’t I know it!” Alex rolled his eyes. “You really need to relax, Mum. You’re going to give yourself ulcers or a heart attack or something, eh?”

He uses the same subtle shifting of blame when she speaks to him about Lillian’s staying overnight.

“I didn’t know you were so moralistic about that kind of thing. I mean we’re all adults here, right? We didn’t make a lot of noise, did we? We didn’t wake you up, I hope.” He seems truly bewildered.

“No. It’s not about the two of you sleeping together. It’s about a stranger sleeping here, in my house, using our bathroom, walking through our rooms when we’re not here.”

“Hey! Lillian’s not exactly a stranger off the street, eh? What are you afraid of anyway?”

Doreen gives up trying to explain. “I just don’t want her or any other girlfriend spending the night here, treating the place like it was theirs. Or at least like a hotel room.” Lillian used two towels, left the bathroom like a steam bath, and didn’t wipe down the shower.

Alex gives his ‘poor me’ sigh. “It’s your place. You call the shots, I guess.”

It’s not the right time to ask, but Doreen asks anyway. “Any prospects?”

“Look. I’ll move out as soon as I can. Okay?”

She shouldn’t have asked. This situation isn’t easy for him either.

Doreen’s best girl, whom she’s been training in management, gives in her notice. On impulse, Doreen offers Alex the job. “Nine to six. Eight-fifty a week, a hundred bonus for every new client.” To her surprise, Alex accepts, although he says it can only be a provisional arrangement. Yes, under the circumstances it’s wise of him to specify that, Doreen agrees.

He handles the position well. He insists on replacing her scheduling Post-it with an Excel spreadsheet. The girls each get a copy. They like it, say it makes it easier to keep track of their hours.

Even though he’s earning a decent salary now, Alex doesn’t mention moving out. Doreen still cooks his breakfast; he still helps himself to her food. Well, it would be silly to have separate and labelled cartons of milk and jars of peanut butter and jam. And in some ways, it’s convenient to have Alex living at home. They have daily business talks over breakfast. She takes an occasional afternoon or morning off, thinks of possible holidays. He brings in several new clients. He’s a good salesman.

Once or twice, Doreen thinks she hears giggling coming from his room late at night but doesn’t go down the hall to investigate. As far as she knows, no one is staying the night.

After Alex has been on the job a couple of months, Doreen arrives at the office one afternoon and finds a note pasted to the door: “Back in ten minutes.”

When Alex returns, Doreen is sitting at the desk, glaring. “If this ever, ever happens again, I will fire you. Understand?”

“I hear you. But just let me ask one question, okay? If it was any other employee except me, would you take that tough an attitude?”

“Yes, I would.” Even as she says it, Doreen knows it isn’t true.

“I had to go out to get something to eat,” Alex offers as explanation.

“You’re supposed to bring something and eat it in the back room. Or arrange for Rosemary to cover for you.”

“She wasn’t around, and I was hungry.”

He hasn’t even brought a take-out bag. He must have eaten out. Doreen wonders how long he’s been gone. More than ten minutes anyway.

He’s answering the phone as she leaves, charming someone who wants her condo and her car cleaned every Thursday. Her car? Alex is saying, “Yes, certainly. We clean cars.”

A week later on a Wednesday morning Alex bursts into the flat. Doreen is enjoying a slow morning, lingering over a second coffee, daydreaming about a Caribbean cruise.

“Great news!” he shouts as he comes in the door. “I got a job in the Re-Max downtown office.” He flings himself on to the couch. “Starting next week. I’ve had my CV in with them for ages, went for a second interview last week, they called this morning, and the job is mine. It’s a dynamite office, right in the heart of condoville. Isn’t this great?”

He’s always wanted to get into real estate sales. He took the course and gained accreditation some years ago. But real estate took a downturn, and he wasn’t able to get on with any of the big companies. This is the opportunity he’s been waiting for. “That’s wonderful. Right up your alley.” Doreen is delighted for him.

Her next thought is for Snow White Cleaners. She’ll need a new office manager. Next week! So much for that Caribbean cruise. She’ll be back to long, full days at work. And what’s happening in the office right now? “You didn’t just leave the office empty, did you?”

“No. Relax. Caroline’s team was taking a break. They said they’d cover. I wanted to come straight here and tell you.” He’s already dialing on his cell phone. “Why don’t we go out for lunch to celebrate? I’ll invite Tammy. I’d like you to meet her.”

“Who’s going to mind the store?” Doreen hurries to her room. Changing out of her at-home sweats, she hears Alex talking to his new girlfriend. “Yeah, a great opportunity. I’m really happy. How about lunch?”

He’s walking around the living room jingling his pocket change grinning like a lottery winner when Doreen emerges in working garb of black skirt and crisp white shirt. “When can I expect you back at the office?” She picks up her keys.

“Oh. You’re not coming for lunch?”

“No. I am trying to run a business in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Oh. Well, look. Since you’re all set anyway, could you take over for the afternoon? I might get something going.” He winks. “Take it off my salary, eh?” he calls as Doreen stamps down the stairs.

It’s a terrible afternoon at Snow White Cleaners. A laptop has gone missing at one of the offices they clean regularly, and the police want to interview the team who have been working there. Anyone could have taken that computer, including employees of the company. But who do they suspect? The cleaning ladies, of course. Doreen makes the necessary arrangements with the police, tells them she’d trust that team with the crown jewels. But they have inquiries to make. They’re only doing their job, she knows. Still, it is annoying. Then she fields a complaint from a customer about a “slapdash and inadequate” cleaning of her home. “I had to re-do everything myself,” the woman whines and demands a refund. Doreen has to give it to her. Later she has to fire a cleaner. She hates firing people, gives her employees every chance she can, but this woman has twice shown up drunk for her shift. She has to go, however unfortunate her circumstances may be, however badly she needs the job. All this means Doreen has to make changes to the time sheets, and she hasn’t yet learned to work with the Excel spreadsheet that Alex put in and so has to sort it out and convert the week back to her old Post-it notes system. It’s late and she’s tired and cross when she gets home. She’s looking forward to a hot bath, then a glass of wine and a toasted cheese sandwich.

She finds the bathroom occupied. “That’s Tammy. She’s just taking a shower before she leaves,” Alex explains.

It’s too much. Doreen goes to her room, slams the door, does some searches on the internet and makes some phone calls. She finds what she wants, which is a small apartment for rent in the area of the Re-Max office. She drives there, signs a lease and pays the first month’s rent.

When she finally gets home, she has the hot bath. She lies in the tub imagining the scene when she tells Alex he’s moving out. I think this will work out better for both of us, she’ll say.

She imagines Alex staring at her open-mouthed. “You’re telling me that you went out and rented an apartment for me without saying a word about it to me, without even letting me look at it, and you want me to move out today.”

“Or tomorrow. Or let’s say by the end of the week.” She won’t be dictatorial about it. She’ll justify her action rationally. “As you know, I haven’t been as keen as you about your living here. I think we both need more independence. In your own apartment you can invite whoever, whenever, without bothering anyone else.”

“You were bothered because Tammy took a shower?”

“In my bathroom. When I wanted it.” That does sound mean and petty. “When I come home tired after a hard day at work, I like to be able to relax in my own way. And yesterday was a very hard day.” Which, now that she thinks about it, wasn’t really Alex’s fault. But he should have kept that girlfriend out of the shower. She could just as easily have showered at her own place since she was going home anyway. Doreen has made it perfectly clear that she doesn’t like having other people wander around the apartment. Alex alone she can tolerate. Not that she doesn’t want him to have girlfriends. He’s still young and single. Of course, he wants girlfriends. But why can’t he find women who have their own apartments to invite him to? And what if she herself wanted to invite someone to sleep over? It hasn’t happened for a couple of years now, but it’s not yet out of the realm of possibility. Except it won’t happen with a grown-up son around to smirk and pass smart comments. This co-habitation is making Doreen into a cranky, demanding mother and she doesn’t want to be that way. “I think it would be better for you to have your own place,” she’ll tell him. “So, I went ahead and chose it for you.’’ That’s all she needs to say.

An hour later, feeling more relaxed, she’s in the kitchen fixing herself a grilled cheese sandwich when Alex drifts in. “Everything okay at the office?” he asks.

“Uh huh.” She’s not up to talking about the situation now. She’ll tell him tomorrow.

Alex pours himself a glass of milk. “Sorry about letting you down today. I was just, like, crazy with excitement at getting the job. It’s exactly what I’ve been wanting.”

Doreen nods. “You’ll be good at it. I just wish you’d given me a bit more notice, that’s all.”

“Well, I told you as soon as I knew myself. Came straight over here. I knew you’d want to know right away.”

It was kind of him to think of her. “Yes. It’s just that I’m worried about finding someone else, for the office, training her, or him.”

“You’ll find someone else easy. I mean, you don’t exactly need a degree in astrophysics to do that job.

“Oh, and by the way, don’t worry; I’ll see you through this week. I’ll be in the office bright and early tomorrow. You get a good rest, Mum. You look kind of tired.”

She can’t talk about the apartment at breakfast next morning because they’re both running late and need to get to work. She can’t tell him in the office with the girls around. They’re already complaining about the return to the Post-it system. They get Alex to fix it back the way he had it. When he has time, he explains it to Doreen, step by step. He’s patient with her as she tries it out. It turns out to be not as complicated as she’d imagined.

Later in the day he signs up a new client for a three-hour slot. He really is a good salesman. He’ll do well in real estate. It’s a niche meant for him.

The afternoon is slow. Alex works on costing out the feasibility of acquiring another car for the business. Doreen is able to leave the office early. She’ll have a nice dinner ready for him when he gets home, something to blunt the eviction notice she’s going to give him.

He starts praising the meal as soon as he walks in the door. “Mmm. Smells delicious. I’m guessing Beef Strogonoff. Am I right?”

He’s right.

“And I have just the right thing to go with it.” He pulls a bottle of Valpolicella from his briefcase.

The meal will be a celebration of his new job then, the turnaround in his fortunes. They can discuss his moving out later.

“I was going to share this with Tammy,” Alex says as he uncorks the wine, “but honestly, she can’t tell the difference between a decent wine and grape Kool-Aid.”

Doreen senses that Tammy is already falling out of favour. Surreptitiously she drops the new apartment’s keys into the buffet drawer under cover of reaching for candles there.

Alex talks with excitement about his new job. He has to go in tomorrow to set up his desk, meet some of the others on the team, learn how their computer system works. “Sorry about that, by the way,” he says. “I was really planning to give you all of this week.”

“Never mind. I’ll cope,” Doreen says. It’s not a pleasing prospect. She has come to rely on Alex’s help at the office. He has good ideas.

He tastes the wine and then fills their glasses. “Actually, I could probably help out occasionally even when I’m at Re-Max. Mornings are slow in real estate. And you know, I’ve been thinking I just might be able to work out something with you as the go-to cleaning service – like when we have to spruce up a property before opening it up for a showing.”

It’s a nice thought, but Doreen isn’t sure she can handle any more business. She’s got her hands full now. She’ll have to start training a new office manager tomorrow. She begins to worry about which of the girls she’ll choose for the job while Alex studies his phone and taps out a text or two. He’s going to meet some friends at a pub later, he says. It’s nice that he has friends. Doreen wishes he would find a steady girlfriend. It’s time he settled down. In something better than a bachelor apartment.

Alex pours out more wine. “Another advantage of this job is I can keep an eye out for a good buy on a condo for myself as an investment and a living space both, you know. You can make big bucks that way if you’re ready to act when the right place comes up. It’s so great to be able to live here in the meantime. I really appreciate it, Mum. I wouldn’t want to be tied down with a lease, you know what I mean?”

My God, has he read her mind? Has he seen the keys? Discovered the lease in her desk drawer? She reaches for her glass of wine. She can’t present her decision, not now, not tonight. “Have fun,” she says when he leaves for his evening out with his friends. She wonders whether she’ll find one of them in the bathroom tomorrow morning. She clears the table, loads the dishwasher, lays out her office clothes ready for the morning.

Two months later the keys for the studio are still in the buffet drawer, the lease in Doreen’s desk. Living with Alex has been working out well enough these days, though she still doesn’t think it’s right. Alex is out a lot, busy at the job and obviously enjoying it. He’s made his first sale. She always knew he would find his niche eventually. When he has a free morning, he helps her out at Snow White. He’s even found her a good candidate for office manager who so far – touch wood! – has been doing a good job.

Last weekend he brought a girl home for dinner, a nice girl. Doreen likes her. He’s been going with her for more than a month now. He may be getting ready to settle down at last.

On the whole, Doreen is glad she didn’t carry through with that crazy idea of forcing Alex out just because of her own obsessive hang-ups. If this new girlfriend of his steams up the bathroom once in a while, well, Doreen will have to put up with it until he gets the condo he wants, and he’s on track to do that soon. He’s her only child, her only son, and what she wants more than anything else is for him to be happy.

But she’s keeping the keys and paying the rent on that studio, just in case.

About the Author

Katharine O'Flynn

Katharine O’Flynn lives in Montreal, Canada. Her work has appeared in several print and online journals. Her short story collection Coming Home was published by Seraphim Editions in 2016.