Livability

It is a well-accepted fact in our housing association (predominantly retirees) that, as the body goes through its final deterioration, so does the house and yard.  Therefore, when one of our residents finally dies or moves to an assisted living home, their house is usually in a pretty bad state when it hits the market.  So it was with old Joe Mason’s place next door to me.  He actually lost interest in his property before he lost the ability to take care of it; he took to using his energy for wandering and was often spotted far from home, loping along in the off-balance stride of someone who refused to get a hip replacement.  At some point, however, he began to lose his eyesight, had a few close encounters with cars and bicycles, and was persuaded by his son to move to an assisted living center about an hour away.  I hope Joe still has a chance to walk a little; it seemed to mean a lot to him.

In any case, by the time it was sold, Joe’s house needed a lot of repairs that we could see: a new deck, a new driveway, removal of overgrown shrubs, and surely a lot of indoor things we couldn’t see. (Neighbors or not, I had never been in his house.)  Our neighborhood was about twenty-five years old, and Joe was an original owner.  I looked at the real estate listing online, and it had, as I could have predicted, green appliances, beige porcelain and wallpapered ceiling borders.   Joe’s wife had died over ten years ago, and certainly nothing had been done since then.

So Joe, age about 85, went to assisted living where he would certainly eat better even if enjoying himself less, and Molly, age 67 and recently retired, moved in.  So it goes.  Only in a retirement community can 67-year-old women be called fresh blood.  Like most of us, Molly came from the north (Illinois plates on her car).  We all went over to introduce ourselves to Molly and entice her to partake in neighborhood association activities, but she did not seem too interested.  Molly did take names of contractors and landscape services from all. She said she would be busy getting things done to the house to make it “livable,” and so the contractors and service people started to queue up.  Joe Mason had lived there for years, but clearly Molly had a different idea of what livable meant.  Livable, I have learned, is a relative term.

 Our screen porch enables us to hear what goes on outside over at Molly’s, and what I heard for the next year was a steady stream of workers who came to replace the bathrooms, dig up the lawn, plant a rose hedge, put in a new kitchen, and ventilate the attic.  Just when we all thought that there can’t be another thing Molly could do to that little house, another truck would pull in.

Here’s the thing.  I rather hate dealing with repairmen, landscapers, tradesmen – but Molly seemed to love it.  When I moved to Georgia from New England, I couldn’t get over the fact that these Southern guys who came to fix things were willing to chat and whip out pictures of their wife, kids, dog.  While they were going on about their eldest’s baseball skills, I was smiling on the outside, fuming on the inside about the delay in fixing the faucet.  Molly adored it.  I could hear her going on and on with them as they stopped the compressor or leaned on the shovel to talk to her.  She even seemed to remember the names of their kids and solicited advice on everything from appliance repair to television shows.  If I sat on my screen porch, I could hear it all perfectly.

Now, here is another odd thing about Molly.  She loved to talk to the working guys, but she didn’t talk to the people in the neighborhood.  Believe me, there are many other single women here, and they provide a lot of companionship for each other.  Even the married ones, like me, are pretty sick of talking to their husbands and are looking for conversational variety.  But, Molly never turned up at neighborhood events, and when she walked her little dog, she was fixated on her cell phone.  She never talked on the phone though; she just looked at stuff.  Maybe she was looking for more service people to hire.  Service men, that is.  When my husband and I saw her moving van and went over, we had a short conversation in which most of the attention went to Bill.  In any case, after that we have hardly ever exchanged more than a few words with her.  But, oh, did she like to talk to the people she hired!  Maybe she thinks she’d purchased the right.

“So, Sam,” she’d say, all bright and shining and looking the poor guy in the eye.  “Did you watch that basketball game last night?” 

Sam would enter into the conversation and soon they’d be talking about whether she should buy a new car and how many years he’s owned his pickup truck.  These guys know she’s wasting their time and eventually move on to complete the job and get their check, but the money is never handed over before another conversation delves into the trivia of their lives.  Sometimes when we walked by and Molly was chatting them up, I thought I could see them raising an eyebrow at me, but Bill said I was imagining it.

Well, as I said, Molly had renovated everything and some things got done twice.  The front door and garage door were briefly a salmon pink, but then repainted a more acceptable blue.  She had the tar driveway dug up and replaced with concrete.  It must have been a cheap contractor, because the cement cracked within six months and she had it redone by another guy.  The gutters were replaced and equipped with leaf guards, and then French drains went in all around the house, even though it involved digging up some new landscaping.  We couldn’t figure out what she was thinking and where she was getting the money.  And it was noisy – saws, tile cutters, compressors, lawn equipment – you name it.  And if equipment wasn’t running, Molly’s mouth was.  Our screen porch was seldom peaceful.

“How’re those twins,” Molly would shout at the lawn guy the minute the mower stopped.

“Well, they went to visit their grandparents this week – nice and quiet around the house,” answered the wiry little man from the landscape company.  Molly is sometimes foiled by workers who don’t speak English; I suspect she asks for people to be sent that she can communicate with – but not because she wants to give them particular instruction on lawn care.

“Wow!” exclaimed Molly, and keeping the conversation going she’d ask, “Your folks?  Your wife’s?  Where do they live?”

And so it would go.  Some of the underlings who worked for someone else would soon get nervous about justifying their hours and try to get back to the scheduled job; some of the self-employed guys would spend considerable time talking about their families, divorces, pets, and the high cost of living – none of which were getting helped by the time they spent gabbing.  I think Molly probably tipped all those guys.  They surely were patient with her.

Lonely, you say.  She must have been lonely.  And certainly you are right.  Most of us are.  But why didn’t she speak to us, people whom she has more in common with, people she’s not paying?  As I said, maybe Molly felt she could chew their ears off because she is paying them.  I’m the opposite; I don’t feel entitled to a captive audience.

We had no idea where Molly got the money to pay for all of this.  Unlike most of us retired people in the neighborhood, she has a part-time job in a local florist shop.  We all joked that if she stopped renovating things, she wouldn’t have to work.  I went into the flower shop once, just to see if she talked to me more if I was a customer.  She did, going on at length about the relative merits of roses and carnations for an aunt’s birthday, but I wasn’t even sure that she realized I lived right next door to her.  When I reminded her, she looked at me as if to ask, who’s the crazy one? and went to wrap my flowers.

Retired folks who moved from the place they worked – usually from colder climes – are a strange lot.  We have no history with each other; if we want to (and some do), we can make up a past, neglect to acknowledge the children who’ve stopped talking to us (women tend to do this), or puff up our achievements to makes us feel important (mostly men indulge in this).  Yet we are all curious.  Molly intrigued us more than most because, in fact, we knew nothing about her other than she liked to renovate her house and was not at all interested in us.

* * *

It went on like this for about a year, and then one day, Molly strode through her backyard to the edge of our porch and addressed my husband and I through the screen.

“Hi, you guys!” called Molly in a voice I had not heard before.

We covered our surprise with smiles of fake delight in welcoming our neighbor.

“I want to bring someone over to meet you!” she squealed.

“Now?” I asked, fearing she was going to solicit new work for one of her favorites.

“Here he is right here!”  One of the handymen who had been working on an addition to Molly’s deck came striding over.  He looked to be in his fifties or so.  Plenty of red hair and beard, and a decent beer belly which at least was covered by his sweatshirt.

“This is Jerome!”  Molly exclaimed, putting her hand on the arm of his oily sweatshirt.  “As soon as my divorce comes through, we’re getting married.”  Her divorce?

“Hey y’all,” said Jerome, looking more than a little embarrassed.

Not knowing what else to say, I asked if they would be staying in the house next door after they were divorced and married or whatever.

“Of course,” said Molly.  “Especially now that I’ve got it the way I wanted it.  Jerome is moving in next week.  He’s got a dog too, so let us know if he’s any bother.”

I wasn’t sure whether she wanted to be sure Jerome or his dog wasn’t a bother.  I hoped that Jerome knew we had a strict leash law, and I wondered how many more projects Molly would do now that she had slave labor.

Jerome moved in the next weekend with just a pickup truck’s worth of belongings and a disreputable-looking (but not large) mutt.  We ended up liking Jerome and his dog Boomer, and Jerome and Molly turned up at every neighborhood event.  He helped us repair our porch when a racoon ripped one of our screens and kept his dog on a leash. 

But we never saw Jerome or anyone else work on that house again.  Within a few years, it looked almost as bad as when Joe left.  We never knew whether Molly got her divorce and married Jerome; if it happened, they didn’t tell us.  We soon learned though, that Jerome had been married before and had two grown children and three grandchildren, who would show up with Jerome and Molly at the neighborhood pool once in a while.  Unlike any of us, Jerome was a true local and his family all lived nearby.

But it seemed to work out; I can hear Jerome and Molly talking quite affectionately to each other in the yard sometimes, and we have neighborly conversations with them.  In fact, Molly now leaves her cell phone home when she walks the dogs, and looks eager to talk to almost everyone.  I keep thinking about her need to make the new place “livable.”  I guess she’s done it.

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