My Brother’s Keeper

by Pamela York Klainer

Rose put down the local paper after reading the latest rental ads, feeling nearly frantic as the end of the month approached and she’d not found a place to live. She’d seen too many unaffordable apartments, and not a single reasonably priced one that she could envision becoming her new home. She’d broken down and called the investor owner of her current place to talk about going month-to-month so that she’d have more time to search. To Rose’s deep dismay, he had an accent – Mexican maybe. Rose didn’t approve. She couldn’t understand why America even let these people in. Rose felt herself gripping the phone more tightly and envisioning a short, bulky man with dark features and a sombrero, like she’d seen on a liquor bottle. She, Rose, had lived in her hometown since she was born and her parents before her, and here she was on the phone asking favors of Sancho Panza. But she swallowed her disapproval and tried to sound conciliatory as she explained about needing a few more weeks.

The man, who was indeed an immigrant but owned property and drove a big maroon Lincoln with gold trim, was polite but unbending. The $25 increase in rent was a special offer because Rose had lived in the building for so long. But since Rose had given notice he and the other investors were planning a few small upgrades to her unit and would be charging much, much more. The crews were scheduled to come in the very morning after Rose vacated.

Rose exhaled heavily as she hung up the phone. She was down to her last and altogether too bleak alternative. She’d found an older neighborhood in a part of town she’d never before chosen to go, streets with once stately homes that had been turned into rooming houses.

Rooming houses. Roomer, not a tenant. A roomer, paying weekly or month-to-month and sharing an address with perfect strangers.

Rose could barely countenance the thought. Before she’d been eased out of her last job – dumped, really – she’d been an executive secretary to an important man. She never knew who had accused her of gossiping, of stirring up trouble among the other girls. They didn’t tell her, just that she no longer had a place because the firm was going in a new direction. Rose frowned, bitter resentment leaching from every pore. New direction indeed, and wasn’t her old boss sitting in the same old office with a new girl, a younger one, just outside his door? Her office friend Mabel had called to tell her when the new girl was hired, and to assure Rose that nobody liked the new girl or invited her to sit with them for lunch and that they all thought Rose had gotten a raw deal. But what did it matter? The new girl had the job, and Rose had gotten nothing but temp work, the jobs coming fewer and farther between. Regrettably, she’d reached a certain age.

Precious days went by as Rose paced back and forth in the apartment, unable to think clearly, and she was still in that panicked mode when her nephew Selwyn called. Rose was guarded in response to Selwyn’s upbeat cheer. Selwyn never called, nor did his twin brother Seldin, nor did their father Frank – Rose’s brother – who’d lost his wife only weeks after moving into the retirement community of working class dreams.

They were, Selwyn said, really in a bind and hoped Aunt Rose could help. Frank weighed 400 pounds and got up only under great duress when he really had to pee. Otherwise Frank sat in his big recliner in the living room where he’d fallen asleep smoking late one night and burned his stomach and the first two fingers of his hand. Frank, Selwyn said, simply couldn’t be left alone. They had aides coming in for part of the day to keep Frank company and make him lunch, but too many lonely hours were left unaccounted for. Selwyn and his wife worked, as did Seldin and his wife, and they all had kids to raise, and they just couldn’t get to Frank’s house every day even though he was their dad and they loved him.

Would Aunt Rose, Frank’s favorite sister, possibly consider coming to live in the patio home that conveniently had a second bedroom? Selwyn’s voice grew strained, the words coming out in a rush. They didn’t expect Rose to take care of Frank, god knows their mother had waited on him hand and foot and they knew not even paid help would do that. But if Rose were making dinner for herself she might surely share some with Frank, wouldn’t she, and then put their dishes in the dishwasher and maybe even run it? And there would be no cleaning expected. The wives would come on weekends to clean and do the laundry, just if newspapers or Frank’s shoes were on the floor during the week would Rose pick them up so Frank wouldn’t trip? And Selwyn and his brother would come without fail every Sunday to get Frank into the shower and make him shave and change his clothes. Rose wouldn’t have to pay rent, just chip in for the groceries, and it would be just like old times with her and Frank under the same roof and wouldn’t that be great? Selwyn and his brother and their wives had talked it over and all of them thought it would be really great.

A nightmare, Rose said silently to herself, being back under the same roof with any of her siblings, including Frank. It would be a nightmare.

Selwyn had paused, perhaps waiting for Rose to speak. When she deliberately didn’t, he soldiered on. There were a couple of things. The cat couldn’t come, because Frank had allergies. And Rose’s furniture couldn’t come either, because the place was fully furnished. They might be able to make room for a small piece or two, if Rose had a favorite chair or chest of drawers. But there wasn’t room for anything big. That didn’t matter, did it, Selwyn asked anxiously? Frank had furniture, and one couch is pretty much like another and the mattress in the second bedroom was almost new.

Selwyn finally fell silent, and Rose was silent too. When she spoke, it was to say that she would think about it and call Selwyn back.

Six weeks ago, when Rose had gotten the bulky envelope containing the lease, she had worried about storage space for her boxes of dolls and Christmas ornaments. She never even dreamed of walking out of the apartment with nothing but her clothes. She didn’t really have to think about Selwyn’s offer, or not very hard, because she hadn’t much of a choice. A rooming house wouldn’t let her bring the cat either, or her furniture. And there she would have to pay rent. Perhaps she could tolerate living with Frank for a few months, get back on her feet, and start looking again. But she had no illusions about Selwyn’s offer to be the unpaid help.

Rose felt curiously unable to sit, because it seemed as if the furniture was no longer hers, or wouldn’t be in a few short days. She paced, her heels banging hard and loud on the wooden floor. Years ago she’d smoked Lucky Strikes, when it was sophisticated for women who went to business to smoke. If she had a cigarette now in the apartment she’d light one up and take a deep, burning drag. She didn’t want tea, or to sit and stroke the cat. She wanted something far, far stronger. If she had cigarettes she might even go through the whole pack,lighting one right after the other.

Rose paced, her mind finally settling into familiar survival mode. Frank, who’d had to repeat a grade in high school, was dumb as a rock. She was smart, and could get around, and she still had her driver’s license although in recent years she’d had to use the bus. Right off the bat she’d offer to go buy groceries in Frank’s big old boat of a station wagon, as long as Selwyn and his brother paid for the gas. That way she could buy the food she wanted, and if the boys said anything she’d tell them she was trying to get Frank to eat healthy. And while she was out she could do her own errands, maybe even drive to the movies and spend a whole afternoon. Frank wouldn’t dare say anything, because he’d be grateful not to have been put in a home. And once she was there the boys wouldn’t darken the door on weekdays, of that Rose was sure. She’d be in charge. She’d insist on bringing the fine chiffarobe, even though it was bigger than what the boys had said. And they’d have to put an extra TV in her room, so she could go there at night and not have to put up with Frank and his cigarette smoke and his unwashed body smells and his loud snoring in the chair.

Rose’s anguished pacing began to slow. She could make this work. She looked around the apartment, thinking she could get a few hundred dollars for the furniture but that it wasn’t worth the effort. When she moved she’d get her security deposit back, and she could probably get a little money from Selwyn and his brother. That would give her a stake. She’d call Good Will tomorrow and have them come and get everything, even the boxes.

Rose stood still, willing her fast breathing and pounding heart to slow. She turned her attention to finding a place for the cat.

6 thoughts on “My Brother’s Keeper

  1. for Joyce: You’re reacting to Rose as if she were a real person and her plight a conceivable one, which is great feedback. Encourages me to keep developing Rose!

  2. Rose is breaking my heart.
    Funny, I just re-read many of Dorothy Parker’s short stories. One of Parker’s major topics is the absurdity and dishonesty of societal niceties, and because of that, many of the stories are dated. But I spent more time than usual with “Big Blonde”, and the parallel I will draw here after just two chapters about Rose is about how one’s expectations change with personal economic disaster. The Christmas ornaments are such a symbol of family life, of heritage, of a holiday of joy — but Rose is down to the dregs and all “things” become just that. Her small mindedness doesn’t bother me at all and I think it’s accurate in small towns and cities alike now, in 2014.
    Now I have “check Rose” on my Thursday to-do list.

  3. for Mary: “How one’s expectations change with personal economic disaster”. Yes, that is Rose’s story. I’m so glad the story is resonating with you. Very encouraging to my fledgling efforts as a fiction writer!

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