Most people get a mother-in-law when they marry. Mine came with the house.
When I first moved next door, she seemed harmless enough—a little old lady living by herself in a ranch style house with a lovely yard. But I soon learned Myrnie, somewhere in her mid-80’s, had one of those touchy personalities that began at the point where water hit electricity. Everything was her business and it all bothered her. Unfortunately for me, her windows put me in her constant line of sight.
Myrnie was a short, stocky woman with sparse cinnamon hair flecked with gray and enough vanity to spread on toast. I first drew her ire because my friend, Luke, regularly parked his old, dented Honda Civic on the street directly in front of her house. “That car’s gotta go,” she said standing on my front porch, feet hip distance apart, wearing a pink and navy blue flowered shirt and boxy white pedal pushers. She shook her crooked finger at me and then at the faded car. “When it’s parked there, folks don’t stop in. They think I already have company.” She stopped to glare at my dog, Abby, a golden retriever. “He’s not a barker is he?”
“No,” I said, “she’s a good dog.” Abby gleefully wagged her tail at the compliment. “As for your potential guests, maybe they could call ahead.”
Her jaw jutted out revealing two long chin hairs. “Have your friend park on your driveway,” she ordered. “You got plenty of room.”
Speechless, I stared at the bright, red plastic nails that tipped her short, gnarled fingers and enhanced the age spots clustered below her knuckles.
“Not much of a car to begin with,” she muttered and stomped off.
Whenever my guests did park on my driveway, I could always count on a probing telephone call, along with feigned concern. “Is everything all right over there, Rita?”
I assured her it was.
“Lots of cars always means a funeral or something,” she said, fishing. “Somebody die?”
I consulted the neighbor across the street. “Aw, Myrnie’s always been that way,” he chuckled. “Lived here for years. You just have to let her blow.”
And blow she did.
Myrnie got into it with just about everybody over barking dogs. “You gotta nip that in the bud.”
“Maybe you could talk to the people; work it out,” I said, making a plea for compassion. “I’m sure the dog is part of their family.”
“Been there, done that. A dog is an animal.”
“That’s all we are,” I said. “Animals.”
“A dog,” she paused, her eyes narrowing, “can only bark for fifteen minutes.” She checked her watch. “He’s got five more.” Then she marched into her house to make the inevitable call to animal control.
“Shad up,” I heard her say one afternoon to Abbey who was barking at a squirrel in her tree. After that, I kept Abbey in the house whenever I was gone, and only let her in the yard if I was out there, too.
When Frank, a neighbor on her other side, let his homeless mother park her camper on his driveway, Myrnie had a conniption fit. Her arms flailed the air. “I turned them in,” she said.
“It’s not just anybody.” I protested. “It’s his mother.
“Can’t have people living out there on the driveway.”
“It sounds like he’s trying to help her,” I said. “Cut them a break.”
Myrnie’s jaw locked into that familiar, pugnacious angle. “You give those squatters an inch, and well, you know the rest. They don’t have a pot to pee in or a winda to throw it out of. First thing you know, the garbage will be knee high, and we’ll be overrun with rats.”
God help the Ridgeways. Their yard spouted clumps of dandelions. Myrnie, face flushed, ready for battle, zeroed in. “Those things spread like the chicken pox. Looks like an epidemic over there. I’m calling the city.”
She took down the license plates of “all the cars” visiting “the drug house,” a duplex across the street and a few houses up, only to discover that their children, complete with friends, were home from college.
She was upset when I put a blind over my garage window, because “she couldn’t see in.” And, she didn’t like the fact that I locked my backyard gate. “What if there’s a fire?” She also thought I needed to notify her every time I went out of town to avoid disruption to her life. “I always head for bed, when I see you put the dog out.”
To celebrate the March equinox, I invited my meditation group over. We were sitting in the living room, cross-legged, eyes closed, deep into Samadhi, I on the verge of nirvana (well hopefully) when, after five silence-puncturing rings, my answering machine took Myrnie’s desperate call. “Did something happen?” she squawked. “I seen all those cars over there. People walkin’ in with food. You sick or something?”
“God knows what she’d do,” I complained afterward, over potluck, to my amused visitors, “if she knew we were burning incense and had a Buddha on the coffee table. I swear that woman can see through cement.”
All six feet of Luke hooted. “Call her back, Rita. Invite her over. Tell her we’re having the blood sacrifice right after dessert. By the way, what is for dessert? Ah, cookies.”
“She’d probably storm the place and bat a few heads with her garden shovel.”
“We could always sacrifice my car. That would make her happy.”
I couldn’t resist. “That would make a lot of people happy.”
“Come on, Rita. You’re a writer,” Luke said, his dark eyes amused. “Think of all the good material living right next door. She’s one hell of a character study. And, this is one hell of a good cookie. Chocolate chip.” He brushed crumbs off his shirt onto my floor.
I had to smile. He was right. Pieces of Myrnie already floated through many of my characters, but so did pieces of him.
One windy evening, I hosted a birthday dinner. We were about to cut the cake when a loud noise stopped our chatter. Six seconds later, the telephone rang. “Someone’s shooting in the neighborhood,” Myrnie declared, out of breath.
“It’s pretty blustery out there,” I said, trying to calm her, “but we’ll check it out.”
“We? You’re not alone?
“No, I’ve got company.”
“There’s no one over there that’s got a gun?”
“Of course not,” I said, irritated.
“What about that Luke fella? The one with the crummy car?”
“I had to turn the TV off when I heard that shot,” she insisted. “A person can’t even sit in their living room and feel safe these days.”
The next morning, I directed her to a large tree branch that had fallen on the metal shed in her backyard.
A month later, Myrnie hired a handyman to repair the shed’s dented roof and its decaying floor. I happened to be standing there as the befuddled man walked toward her garbage can with a clinking box full of empty liquor bottles.
“I see you’re quite fond of Jack Daniels,” I said to Myrnie.
She blanched. “The guy that fixed the leak in my roof that time was an alco-hawlick. Dang fool hid all his bottles under my shed.”
“Gee,” I said. “I don’t remember seeing a roofer at your place.”
“I’m just glad the idiot didn’t fall off, break his neck, and sue me or something. Gotta go.” She hurried inside. I heard the door slam.
After Myrnie discovered the neighborhood association, she became a regular. “You know me, I just bite my tongue,” she said, but insisted that I go there and help her complain. “I can’t do it alone. You gotta have people behind you. They just think I’m an old crank.”
If the shoe fits, I thought, but feigned other commitments.
Myrnie was not to be put off. She tacked a plastic zip-lock bag containing copies of the association newsletter to the fence between her yard and mine with a big plastic clip. “Keep one for yourself and hand the rest out to the neighbors,” her handwritten note ordered. I dropped them into the trash. Sometimes I just ignored the parcel. Sure enough, the phone would ring. “What I put out on the fence, hasn’t moved. You been gone? I can’t see in your garage since you put that curtain there.”
Like a person breaking in a pair of new shoes, I thought I was starting to get comfortable with Myrnie’s cantankerous ways until she started in on my climbing rose, Joseph’s Coat. The ten-foot climber burst into a gorgeous kaleidoscope of orange, yellow, red and pink blooms each June. I had lovingly planted it in an obelisk wrought iron trellis by our shared backyard fence directly in front of Myrnie’s patio.
I did have a motive. I wanted to block her view into my life.
As the rose grew and the trellis aged, its metal legs loosened in the soil. Periodically, the wind caught the rose’s leafy top, causing the trellis to bend slightly on an angle, but not enough to harm the vigorous rose.
Needless to say, Myrnie was on it like a fire in dry underbrush. “Why don’t you fasten that thing to my fence?” she squawked. “Its leaning there like that makes me crazy.”
I simply straightened the trellis, but I wasn’t strong enough to push its legs into the earth.
Not to be put off, Myrnie ordered the yard service crew we shared to straighten it. “They just stood there like fence posts, until I told them I think of you as my daughter,” she said smugly.
Daughter? I thought of her as a thorn in my side. Of course, the two intimidated Hispanic workers did her bidding and pushed the legs into the ground. Still, the next strong wind gave the trellis a slight tilt.
I let it go. It wasn’t harming the rose and secretly, I was glad it irritated her. “Don’t worry about it,” I told her. “The canes are firmly entwined. It’ll be okay.”
“No.” Myrnie bristled. “A trellis should be straight. That’s why you have one in the first place.” She insisted that the yard crew fasten it to the fence. She even provided the wire, but alas,a windy night caused the trellis to lean sideways again.
Myrnie pointed it out several times. “It gives me fits,” she said in that shrill, scratchy voice which rivaled fingernails against a chalkboard.
I took my time straightening it, much to her chagrin. Maybe, that’s when she started really hating that rose bush.
“So how are you?” Myrnie asked. I had just come home after a long day to a ringing telephone.
“Fine,” I said fidgeting and checking my watch. “How are you doing?” I knew her cancer had returned and spread to her kidneys. Her doctors did not recommend treating the reoccurrence with radiation or chemotherapy and because of her age, they’d ruled out surgery. For that, I was genuinely sorry.
“I just wanted to tell you,” she continued, “I had the guys trim your rose.”
“I had them cut mine back, so I thought they might as well trim yours. There’s no need for you to be a climbing on the ladder, cutting those buds. I mean you could fall or something.” she said, layering on her concern for me.
“You might want to give it a shot of fertilizer. You know, to perk it up.”
“Oh, uh-huh,” I said half listening. I sorted through my mail. The rose did need to be deadheaded.
“You there?” she asked.
“And, I had the guys wind your clematis on it, too. Not that I minded it climbing on my fence.”
“That’s nice,” I said, my mind miles away.
“Now it looks good,” she insisted. “And the trellis is straight. There’s no reason you need to be on a ladder.”
Who did she think climbed on the ladder to clean the drains or to paint the house trim? “How thoughtful. Thank you,” I managed. Abby anxiously pawed the door wanting to go out.
“I’ve been busy getting all my things settled. I can’t talk too long because home health care is coming.”
I’d seen the ambulance parked outside her house in the wee hours of the morning a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t realize things had become that serious.
“And, my sister’s got a tumor.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“It’s in her liver.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked and meant it.
“When you get some time, come over. I’d like to see you. Maybe in a couple a weeks. You know, when you got the time … for tea.”
This was such a different Myrnie. Tea? Did she want to say goodbye? I didn’t know. Of course, I needed to visit her. Maybe I’d bring her a bouquet of roses from my yard.
“I have a twenty-year-old mind in an old body.” Her voice cracked.
I had heard her say that many times. In fact, I enjoyed entertaining my friends with “young” Myrnie stories. Like the time, she’d strained to squeeze her full bottom into low slung jeans “that gals these days wear.” And the toe ring she tried, but had to give up because of her diabetes. Instead, she sported an ankle bracelet and painted toenails. One day, she even came home with new eyebrows tattooed on her crinkled forehead. When she lost some weight, she went around with her shirt tied up around her waist to show off her bumpy, cellulite-studded butt.
Now, all of that belonged in the past. I felt a strange ache. What did it feel like to be her? To wake up in the morning, look outside your window and know all of what you saw and sensed was now beyond your control.
Losing control. That especially would be hard for Myrnie.
“Feeling young is okay,” I said. “It can help. It really can.” Actually, life in the neighborhood without her would seem bland. She knew everything that went on and then some. I’d miss the stories, her corny observations, and the fun I had doing imitations of her for my friends. Who said you had to like every aspect of a person anyway? I’d miss her, I guessed, the way I missed that tacky chalkware bird figurine I used for a paperweight. Funny, how I didn’t realize its value to me until it tumbled to the floor and shattered. “You take care,” I said. “Abby is about to break down the door, so I need to let her out.”
That’s when I saw my rose.
It wasn’t trimmed. It was stripped of blooms, buds and all of its leaves. Now it was just a stalk—gray, barky and naked in the middle of a “straight-as-a-pin” trellis. My purple blooming clematis vine that grew nearby and had previously made its way up her fence now curled around the trellis.
Myrnie had done it again.
I wanted to wring her wrinkled neck. The yard guys would not have demolished my beautiful rose, unless someone specifically ordered them to do so. Why for God’s sake did this woman, at the end of her life, do this nasty thing?
Enough was enough. Period.
In a huff, I marched inside and grabbed the phone. I intended to spew fire. Don’t you ever make decisions about anything in my yard. I’d call the yard service, too, and raise hell.
Myrnie was dying, her life now grains of sand slipping through the narrow channel of an hour glass. My throat tightened. Her cancer hadn’t quenched her flame. No, that irascible, fiery woman was still in her failing body. I took a deep breath and dropped the receiver in its cradle.
Maybe in the end, clinging to who we are is the last shout we get at life. I wanted Myrnie to have that shout.
Jean Rover’s short fiction has received awards or recognition from Writer’s Digest, Short Story America, Willamette Writers, and Oregon Writers Colony. Her work has appeared in various literary magazines and anthologies, including the Saturday Evening Post’s Great American Fiction Contest Anthology. Other stories were performed at Liars’ League events in London, England and Portland, Oregon. She has also authored a chapbook, Beneath the Boughs Unseen, featuring holiday stories about society’s invisible people, and her novel manuscript, Ready or Not and short story collection, And Then Spring Comes, were semi-finalists in Chanticleer’s International Book Awards contest.