Pamela York Klainer
Six weeks after her return from the hospital Rose’s new landlady, kinder than most, was still bringing Rose cardboard containers of soup from the corner store and sometimes a small cluster of fresh flowers. On her latest trip upstairs the landlady also had news: Mr. Freddie Lew would be moving into 7C, right across the hall from Rose. Mr. Lew, said the landlady, was a gentleman of the Oriental persuasion and clearly – like Rose – not your usual rooming house resident. There were down-and-outers who paid for a room when they could and decamped to the streets when they couldn’t. They often left the landlady’s rooms a mess of congealed carry-out cartons and stale cigarette butts and sometimes shortchanged her on the rent. Then there were people like Rose and Mr. Lew who’d come from better things and were here trying to get back on their feet. The landlady was always glad, she said, for people like Rose and Mr. Lew.
The only Orientals Rose knew in town were the people who owned the hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant on the main street, where she went sometimes for the lunch special chow mein. Maybe she’d recognize Mr. Lew. Or maybe she wouldn’t, if he’d worked in the back, in the kitchen.
To be truthful Rose was a little afraid of Orientals. In high school some of the girls had taken the bus to the next bigger town to go to the movies but Rose’s mother had never let her go. Katie Kelly knew on good authority that Chinese white slavers hung around the alleys of places like movies or clothing stores and grabbed young girls, then smuggled them onto steamers to China and the girls were never heard of again. Rose supposed Mr. Freddie Lew was too old for anything like that and besides he wasn’t skulking around the alley but moving into the room right across from her. She’d give him a wide berth anyway, and she hoped she wouldn’t be smelling anything funny coming from the things he left in the shared refrigerator or from the hot plate in his room. She knew that Chinese restaurants sneakily cooked stray cats, passing the meat off as chicken, and that’s why she always ordered vegetarian chow mein.
Later that day Rose heard someone slowly trudging up and down the stairs, sighing heavily and dropping things with a resounding thud. The noise went on for some time, and Rose’s curiosity got the better of her. At the sound of the latest thud Rose opened her door, as if to go down the hall, and she came face to face with Mr. Lew. An old man with white hair and liver spots on his wrinkled face, Mr. Lew had thin arms under his short-sleeved shirt and soft looking hands. Not the busboy, Rose thought to herself, because they have to lift heavy racks of dishes and glasses in and out of the dishwasher. Maybe he was the cook.
Mr. Lew smiled at Rose, apparently unperturbed that she was staring through the open door of his room at the boxes he’d already stacked against one crowded wall. They’re tax records, he offered, even though Rose hadn’t asked. I was an accountant up until last year, and I have to keep these for the IRS for a few years in case any of my old clients are audited.
Rose was startled. Her last good job had been with a big law firm, and she knew what lawyers and accountants looked like. They were distinguished men who wore suits and fedoras. They most certainly didn’t carry their own boxes, not even across the room, and they didn’t look anything like Mr. Freddie Lew.
Rose was a master at eliciting gossip, and she soon waylaid the landlady. Yes, said the landlady, poor Mr. Lew. He had a small tax and accounting practice that he ran out of his home on the other side of town. He and his wife had lived happily there until she’d gotten cancer, and Mr. Lew had spent every last cent trying to make her better and then, when things got really bad, trying to make her comfortable. He’d let go of his clients to care for her, and by the time she died he’d lost her and the house and his business, and that’s why he was at the rooming house. Letting everything go to be with his wife was real love, the landlady thought, and she asked Rose if she didn’t think so too?
Rose was so flummoxed by the news that Mr. Lew was an accountant she could hardly think about love.
But later she did wonder, in passing, if her ex-husband would have dropped everything to care for her the way Mr. Lew had for his wife. Rose thought she and Roger were in love when they first got married. Well, maybe it wasn’t passionate love like you saw in the movies, at least not on Rose’s part. She was twenty-six and still living at home when she met Roger at work. She’d just gotten off the assembly line and moved into a clerk’s job with her own desk and phone, and one day Roger walked by and smiled and called her “Miss Kelly” instead of Rose, which made Rose feel that he’d been brought up to be respectful. He wore a suit and had a nice car, and was a supervisor. He was pleasant-looking, if not drop-dead handsome, and after remarkably few dates Rose decided that Roger was good enough for her. Twenty-six was practically an old maid, and she wasn’t sure how many other chances she’d have. She hated living at home, especially after her younger sister had gotten married before her. That made Rose feel like passed-over goods. She didn’t feel any better when the sister came running home after a year with her new baby in tow, saying her husband masturbated while watching TV and that a faithful Catholic she could never stay married to someone sexually deviant and wanted the marriage annulled. At least she was a “Mrs.”, and had a child. Rose had nothing but work and the Rosary Society at church and a lot of younger siblings who kept asking to borrow money.
Rose had expected Roger to move up in his job so they could have a better house in the neighborhood where the women Rose wanted to be friends with lived. Roger moved up a little, but not enough, and that left Rose as the outsider. She was a good worker, conscientious, so the women asked her to be on their committees for the PTA because they knew she would finish her tasks and most of theirs too. But none of the women nominated her for membership in The Club, where the town’s ladies went to lunch. That, Rose felt, was Roger’s fault. He could have tried harder.
Despite his faults Rose liked having a husband because she thought couples got a better shake in life. When her babies came along Rose was in heaven – at least as long as the girls were infants. She had a twinge of regret when each baby crawled off her lap and moved away. Rose always wanted another baby then, but she began to have miscarriages and after losing two or three pregnancies Roger had said firmly that enough was enough. They had two healthy children and should be grateful. Then the girls got old enough to go off with their friends and Rose was truly bereft. One day, when her youngest had reached junior high, Rose saw an article in the paper about a badly handicapped baby who’d been brought here from Korea by a church group. The baby needed extensive surgery, which the church had paid for, and now the group was looking for a foster home or maybe even an adoptive family. The baby would need care for the rest of its life, but financial help would be provided. Rose had stopped dead in her tracks, newspaper in hand, sure that this was her calling. Her excitement grew all day, and she could hardly wait until Roger got home. They would take the baby – surely no one else would want such a burden – and Rose would care for it, and the next article in the paper would show the happy baby in Rose’s arms and the women of The Club would think she was a saint.
To this day Rose remembered the sour feeling in her stomach and the aching stab of disappointment when Roger had asked her if she was out of her god-bless mind and the answer was no No NO. And for god sakes don’t bring it up again.
That was when Rose stopped loving Roger for good, although the marriage struggled along for a few more years until the girls were out of high school. Rose was surprised that Roger acted surprised when she said she wanted to leave. She was even more taken aback when he turned nasty and said she’d get not a penny of his Social Security, which Rose knew was wrong because they’d been married long enough. She left the marriage supposedly getting half the value of the house whenever it might be sold, but Roger let the place go ramshackle so her half didn’t mean anything. He finally bought her out for next to nothing, then turned around and fixed the place up and gave it to their married daughter, the one with the child, and how could Rose feel resentful about that?
The end of her marriage had been a long time ago, and Rose had gotten used to living by herself. She still thought couples made out better in life, but she’d lived so long as a woman alone she’d lost interest in the whole endeavor of marriage.
Lost in all these old thoughts Rose almost didn’t notice the small white envelope tucked against her door, with her name in neat handwriting on the outside. She opened it, and found a message to her from Mr. Freddie Lew. The landlady had told him Rose liked to go out for senior citizen supper, but that she hadn’t gone anywhere since coming home from the hospital. Mr. Lew said he understood what it felt like when you were frail and vulnerable; at a point his wife had felt the same way. Mr. Lew wondered if Rose might feel safer if she had company. He would like to take her to dinner, no obligation, because it had been so long since he’d had someone to talk with over a meal. It would be just that, dinner, and he would be honored if Rose would accept.
Rose stood stock still, bewildered first and then flustered, the neatly penned note shaking in her hand. The world that Rose had so well under control suddenly turned upside down.
Mr. Freddie Lew had asked her out on a date.