Laurelle and Rhoda

 This was a bad idea. Laurelle didn’t even like old people, not unless they were in excellent health and had good retirement benefits.  The smells inside a stranger’s house made her ill. This one probably reeked of kitty litter and overripe bananas.

Laurelle sat in her car across the street from Rhoda’s yellow, stucco one-story house. The Bermuda grass was pale and patchy; no one had fertilized it in years. A leggy poinsettia shot up as tall as the house, bending out from under the eaves. It should have been pruned into a thick bush. 

“Rhoda’s a little eccentric,” the church secretary had told Laurelle when she called, asking for Rhoda’s phone number and address. “You’ll love her.”

Rhoda’s yard had one redeeming feature: a liquid amber tree planted near the street.  With its red and gold leaves, it was a reminder that even in Southern California there was a hint of four seasons.

Laurelle didn’t feel any rapport with other women, not even those her own age. She wasn’t the kind to cook up extra casseroles to deliver to shut-ins.  She could go back to work right now and talk to Rhoda on the phone instead.

But wasn’t the best remedy for despair to help someone worse off than yourself?  Laurelle was sick of mourning a marriage that had been doomed from the start, sick of crying over a man she hadn’t loved in years. She wanted to help someone weaker than herself. Then she’d regain her own strength.  And hopefully the other person would appreciate what little she could do. 

She reached for the potted azalea. She forced herself out of the car. She crossed the street and walked up to the front porch. Yellow-centered burgundy mums bloomed in a flowerbed overrun with crabgrass. Laurelle rang the doorbell.  No one answered.  Maybe she should go. 

“Over here, honey,” a voice called from somewhere off to the side. Laurelle stepped away from the door.  Was Rhoda calling from a back bedroom?  Laurelle approached a wooden gate beside the house, leading to the backyard. She pulled on the dangling shoestring, and the latch released. A house trailer was parked on the other side.  “Come on in, honey.”  The voice was scratchy.

Laurelle hadn’t known Rhoda lived in a trailer.  She’d be stuck in a tight, cramped place with a stranger. Maybe she could still escape.  She’d give Rhoda the plant and leave.

Laurelle climbed the two wooden steps placed in front of the trailer door and tugged at the screen.  She left the late afternoon sun to enter a dusky cave.  Something glowed red, a fake fireplace with a light shining through a stack of plastic logs.  The whole contraption was set inside a cardboard box. The room smelled faintly of smoke, as if the logs really did burn.  Was the red light scorching the cardboard? Another whiff convinced her that Rhoda was a smoker.  If she lit up, Laurelle would have a good excuse to leave.

Rhoda sat in an upholstered armchair beside the plastic fireplace. “I won’t stand up,” she said. One foot stuck out in front of her, resting on a pillow which sat on yet another cardboard box.  Her flowered housedress was the kind with rickrack around the collar and snap closures that sold at Sav-On for ten dollars. Covering her lap was a crocheted blanket.  “Sit down, honey.”

The only other seat was a kitchen chair beside the door, which should have made Laurelle feel safe, sitting so near the exit. But this was a single-wide trailer, and Rhoda’s extended foot was only inches away.

Laurelle’s chair was covered with a crocheted blanket, shades of orange, brown, and white, colors used throughout the trailer.  When she sat down, she could feel the bumps of the crocheted knots, and underneath that, the split Naugahyde, torn down the middle after years of use, exposing the cushion’s white stuffing.

Laurelle could see Rhoda’s face clearly now. She had short, straight gray and white hair that was clean but limp and cut to just below her ears. She’d obviously done what Laurelle was not brave enough to do – give up on her hair.  Most shocking of all, Rhoda had chin whiskers, pale but visible. 

How would Laurelle ever make the time pass?  She should have brought the twins. They’d have found it impossible to keep still in such a tight space, and she would have been forced to excuse herself and leave after only a few minutes.

“What can I do for you?” Rhoda asked.  That’s the question Laurelle should have asked.  “Pastor Mark told me you’re going through a rough time.”

“My husband cheated on me.”  Laurelle shocked herself by blurting out those words. It must be the environment.  This was the sort of setting where women sat around and badmouth their last five husbands.

“Are you two still married?”

“I asked for child support, and I haven’t seen him since.”

“Oh, honey.”

Laurelle didn’t want Rhoda to feel sorry for her.  Rhoda had misinterpreted the entire situation.  Laurelle wasn’t a victim. “I called the other woman and said, ‘Come get him.’  She expected me to cry and beg her to leave my man alone. ‘Come get him,’ I said.  ‘He’s no use to me.’  Of course she didn’t. It’s much more fun to screw someone else’s husband than to take care of him for the rest of your life.”

Rhoda laughed a scratchy, throaty laugh. Like a cow, she had no teeth on top.

Laurelle looked away.  She didn’t believe in gobbing on makeup or starving herself in search of beauty. But she did take care of her teeth and hid the dark circles under her eyes with coverstick.  Rhoda didn’t even do that.

“Tony and I been together for forty-five years, so I can’t complain. I made plenty of mistakes, but here we are. The hardest part was when Mama died. That makes twenty-two years in April, and I still think on her everyday.”

Laurelle didn’t know what to say.  She wasn’t close to her own mother. She remembered the plant sitting on her lap. “I brought you this.”  Where to put it?  The tiny nightstand beside Rhoda was already covered with a Bible, coffee cup, and bean bag ashtray. The kitchen counter, all twelve inches of it, was hidden beneath Reader’s Digest and Guidepost magazines. 

“Beautiful,” Rhoda said. “I dearly love flowers.  Azaleas is one of my favorites.”

Two steps and Laurelle was in the kitchen. She stacked the Reader’s Digests and set down the plant.  As she turned back toward her chair, she heard a chirp. A birdcage stood on the other side of the door.  She looked at the bird instead of her feet and her hiking boot scuffed a crocheted rug. Even though she was slender and barely five foot five, she felt too tall and bulky for the trailer space. She leaned over to straighten the rug, aware that her head was just inches from Rhoda’s extended foot.  Rhoda wore red crocheted pompom slippers.  Her swollen ankle was streaked red and purple.  Rhoda leaned forward to cover her ankle with the white crocheted blanket in her lap.  In contrast to the rest of her, her hands were pretty.  The skin was smooth and free of age spots. The polish-free nails were a healthy pink with tips white and filed to form perfect ovals. She couldn’t be as old as she looked with hands like that.

“You can keep the azalea near a window, or outside in the shade,” Laurelle said. “The soil can dry out, as long as you soak it between times.”

“You can’t tell it to look at my yard, but I’m real good with plants.”

Laurelle hadn’t meant to insult Rhoda or call attention to the things she could no longer do. “I see you like to crochet,” Laurelle said, an understatement if ever there was one, with every piece of furniture and even the floor covered with a crocheted blanket or doily. 

“I buy used blankets at thrift stores and garage sales and unravel them, so I can use the yarn to crochet something new.”

It was bad enough being trapped inside a stranger’s cramped trailer, but to know she was sitting on the yarns of a dozen strangers’ cast-off TV blankets, baby layettes, bed spreads, and for all she knew, toilet seat covers – Laurelle was having trouble breathing.

She turned to the bird, a pale blue parakeet.  A tiny egg sat at the bottom of the cage.  “Is this your only pet?”

“No dogs.  And the cat’s gone, which is a good thing.  He did all right in the house, but then he moved out here with us. He was forever pacing and meowing. One day I come home from grocery shopping, and he’s gone.  I haven’t seen him since.  He’s probably dead. After I got over the shock, I was relieved.  He was just like Papa.  I never could make him happy.”

“So that’s your house?”

“Sure is.  Bought it in fifty-eight. But I like living in the trailer, everything so close at hand. You can’t have a clutter, otherwise there’d be nowhere to sit. You have any kids?”

“Five-year-old twins, one boy, one girl. I left them with the wife of one of the guys who works for me at the nursery.”

“I was a twin. My sister didn’t make it.  She was smaller than me.  And I wasn’t much to look at.  Grandy made an incubator for me beside the stove to keep me warm day and night.  But she almost killed me with cow’s first milk, the kind the cow gives right after she calves, that’s thin and yellow like pee, and so full of good things for the calf, and she give that to me to drink. It might be fine for a calf, but for a teeny human baby, only three pounds and hardly surviving, it’s pure poison. My little body had diarrhea and couldn’t keep nothing down for days. Between that and the cod liver oil they used to force into me, my stomach’s bothered me every day of my life.  Guess that’s why I’m so skinny.

“They’d give all us kids cod liver oil.  In winter, the classroom smelled so bad of fish, with the windows all shut and the stove lit, I’d pinch my nose.

“They didn’t even expect me to live. Her and I was so tiny, born seven weeks too soon.  She died a few hours after birth, but I made it, tucked inside that box lined with excelsior and Papa’s flannel shirt. I always liked flannel shirts. Maybe ’cause Grandy told me that story so many times.  I can see that shirt. Red plaid, with thin stripes of green and gray.  It’s got a hole in one elbow, what flaps back over the edge of the box.  Boxes were made out of wood in those days.  I always thought it was like being born in a manger.  That was in nineteen twenty-four.”

Nineteen twenty-four.  Today was October fourteen, nineteen ninety.  That meant Rhoda was sixty-six years old. Laurelle would have guessed eighty.  Rhoda must have packed a lot of living into those sixty-six years.

Rhoda reached for a striped purse the size of an eyeglass case.  She pulled out a pack of cigarettes.  “You don’t mind, do you?”

Laurelle had never been able to tolerate cigarette smoke.  She didn’t mind helping someone in need, but maybe Rhoda was the wrong choice. That woman at church in the wheelchair would be better. Laurelle could push her around the neighborhood so she could see the flowers and trees.  Or she could help a kid with his homework, or mow a sick person’s lawn. She wanted someone she could feel sorry for.  Maybe a tragic-car-accident survivor. Not someone like Rhoda, who smoked until she got cancer. “I should pick up the kids.”

“Let’s go outside then, where the smoke won’t bother you.” Rhoda slid her cigarettes and lighter into the front pocket of her housedress.  “I can walk, it’s just that I never know when the diarrhea will start up.  I can’t control it once it starts.  That’s why I can’t get too far from home. And my foot hurts a little, but I’ve always had trouble with my feet, so that’s nothing new.”

Rhoda pulled away the blanket to reveal white flaky skin covering legs the color of barbecue pork ribs, with hardly any more meat.  She used her hands to lower the leg that rested on the homemade ottoman.  Laurelle wondered if she should offer her arm.  Before she could, Rhoda reached for the wall and rose.  Laurelle held open the screen door. Rhoda gripped the doorframe as she descended the steps. Once on flat concrete, she walked steadily but slowly, still wearing those red pompomed slippers. Pastor Mark had told Laurelle that Rhoda had colon cancer.  “Have you been sick very long?”

“I’ve been doing poorly for a long time, and I’d be tickled if God would heal me, but if He don’t, I can live with that. It’s just that Tony, bless his soul, don’t know the first thing about housecleaning.  He smears the dirt around.  I try not to complain, but it’s so frustrating not being able to do it myself. I don’t know what he’ll do if anything happens to me. A couple of old ladies at church have one eye on me to see how much time I got left, and one eye on my husband to see how much time he’s got.  They hope it’s days for me and decades for him.”  She laughed again, that scratchy laugh just a step away from a cackle. She sat down on a woven canvas lawn chair under a plywood-covered patio. She lit her cigarette.

Laurelle moved the other chair several feet upwind.  Egg-shell shards littered the edge of the porch. She looked for explanation in the overhanging growth of the avocado tree, but found only more mysteries. A six-foot wooden post supported a heavy branch, and pinched between the top of the post and the limb was a man’s rubber boot.

“That woman what watches your kids, she a Mexican?” Rhoda asked.

“Yeah. She’s got three of her own, so Mitchell and Marnie always have a great time over there.”

“Them Mexican gals are good with kids. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I would a survived Calexico. You know where that is?”

“On the border?”

“Yeah, about a hundred mile in from San Diego, on the U.S. side, right acrost from Mexicali. I lived there from the time I was twelve until just after my sixteenth birthday.  Before that, we all lived outside Amarillo, on a ranch, Mama, Papa, my little brother Lonnie.  But I had no choice in the matter.  That morning, when I got up, it was so cold in my bedroom there was ice in my wash bowl. I smashed that ice and swore at Mama, said I was glad I was leaving, ’cause Texas was so damn cold in the winter, and California was always warm. ’Course Mama didn’t hear me, I was just talking to my mirror.

“I didn’t cry when I got on the train, even though Mama did. ’Cause I washed my face in that cold water, all the muscles in my face was stiff.  I couldn’t do a thing but stare at her.

“Papa wasn’t there.  Mama didn’t tell him. And she didn’t bring Lonnie, neither, ’cause he’d a told Papa.  So it was just Mama and me.

“Aunt Ione was waiting for me in Calexico. I knew it was her ’cause she favored Papa, but skinnier.  She wore a white dress and white stockings and white shoes, just like a nurse, which of course she was. She bought me an ice cream cone, and I was so tired and upset from the trip, I threw up.  And that’s when I found out she was like Papa.”

“In what way?” I heard an engine shut off, then the sound of the gate opening and closing.

“That’s Tony,” she said to me, then she called out, “I have a new friend.  Laurelle, from church.”

Laurelle stood and held out her hand.  He brushed his palm on his white painter’s pants, then gripped hers firmly with short, strong fingers.  He was only as tall as Laurelle, but broad and muscular. His black hair was thick and his eyes and skin brown. He looked too healthy and young to be married to Rhoda. “You take your medicine?” he asked her.

“Not yet.  I want to talk.”

“You want me to get it?”

“I’m about ready to come inside. You go get washed up.” Rhoda turned to me.  “If I don’t take my medication, the pain’s so bad I can’t sleep all night.  I probably about talked your ear off anyhow.”

“Nice meeting you,” Tony said to Laurelle, then walked to the trailer.

“It’s fascinating,” Laurelle said to Rhoda.  “What did your father –”

“I should go in now. I try to fix him something to eat when he gets home, nothing fancy. Otherwise he’ll do the cooking.  He’ll use every pan we got.”

Laurelle walked slowly beside her back to the trailer.

“You come again,” Rhoda said.  “I’ve been through a lot, but then life hasn’t been boring.”

“I’ll have to see how my schedule looks.”  Laurelle might consider keeping this old woman company now and again, but only on her own terms.