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Marco ... Polo

Hence, to offset the sudden outgo of capital, and anticipating the arrival of a few new tools, my mother decided that having a quiet tenant living over the garage certainly couldn't hurt, since he or she could come and go unobserved, walking down the driveway to the garage, taking the side stairs up to the flat.

Drafting me to her cause, promising that some money would change hands when she got her first and last month's rent, plus security deposit, we pushed open the windows of the flat, gave the place a good scrubbing, threw the curtains in the washing machine, replaced old light bulbs with new ones and attached a second galvanized mailbox at the foot of the stairs, where, she said, we would put the new tenant's mail.

My mother envisioned a nice librarian who wore practical shoes, pantyhose you couldn't see through, a woman of culture and restraint who played only Brahms on her very small radio, barely a whisper of piano and strings, and spent her evenings sorting overdue book slips and reading Emily Dickinson. I was hoping for a 19-year-old college student, distinctly female, tanned legs that went on forever, skin like a Georgia peach, long sun-bleached hair and lips the color of a half-eaten plum. A worldly babe who, one Sunday morning, my folks having left to enjoy a long brunch at a local restaurant with the next-door neighbors, would invite me up to see her cozy abode. And humming, "Do You Believe in Magic?" I would skip up the stairs to the flat, my heart doing the Macarena, and knock on her door. Let the games begin. One Daniel Otterman, known to friends and coaches alike as Otter, would finally start to experience what people were always referring to as "life."

Inspired, I helped my mother write the ad, suggesting that the words "sunny flat over garage, ideal for young single female" would have strong appeal. She was sitting at the kitchen table with a wrinkled ad form torn from the classified section of the newspaper, filling in the blanks with care.

"How long before the phone starts to ring?" I asked.

"Well, the ad'll run Saturday and Sunday. So, I'd guess Saturday morning we should get some bites. Have to show them the flat, check references. We wouldn't want to run into that tenant from hell you mentioned."

"Is dad going to be around this weekend to help you screen these folks?"

"Your father will be in San Diego for two weeks, leaves Friday, something to do with working on a project for the university. He said he would happily leave the renting up to you and me."

"Dad has always had perfect timing," I said.

My mother nodded, smiling, saying, "Indeed.

Early that Saturday morning, instead of the phone ringing, I heard the doorbell ring, my mother calling out from the kitchen, "Daniel, will you get that. It's someone here about the flat."

I opened the front door and there stood a young woman, early to mid-20s, a single plait of long brown hair falling to the middle of her back, her eyes large and dusty gray.

She was tall and rangy, wearing jeans, a white blouse and navy blue blazer. She had an envelope in one hand and in the other a small notebook with a pen pushed into the wire binding.

"Hi," I said.

"Hi. I've come about the flat ... the one over the garage."

I heard footsteps behind me and then my mother was at my elbow, saying, "Mimi Osborne?"

"Yes ... right. Mrs. Otterman. Hi. Thanks for letting me come over on such short notice."

My mother gave me a light push with her hip and opened the screen door, stepping out onto the porch. "Come on, let's walk down the driveway to the garage, and I'll show you the flat."

Curious, I tagged along, Mimi saying to my mother that she thought the flat sounded like it was exactly what she was looking for. "When you told me where you lived, well, I thought how great, this is such a wonderful neighborhood."

I have to admit that Mimi Osborne had it just about right. We were only two short blocks from College Avenue, which, if you followed it north, ended at the university campus. The Avenue, as it was called, had more than a few small coffee houses, busy mom-and-pop bakeries and produce stores, one-room restaurants and lots of bookstores, used and new. My mother felt right at home there. It was hip, liberal and had more people per square block who, if you said something like, "That's outta sight," didn't give you a second look. A place where tie-dyed T-shirts and macramé were making a second or third comeback and the word "Organic" and "Recycled" appeared in lots of windows. Where people quoted Nietzsche and still remembered the Free Speech Movement and People's Park.

My mother loved strolling along the Avenue, on occasion insisting I come along, wanting to expose me to people who were "into some mind-blowing things." Though at times I resisted, I admit I found the locals interesting. The Avenue was a Mobius strip where Vietnam was still debated and often used as the ultimate analogue for what was still crippling our consumer-driven, fossil fuel-addicted society. Everyone was buying too much stuff and turning the planet into one large greenhouse while trashing the oceans and the rain forests.

My mother and I often stopped at the Café Mediterranean to buy a pound of just-roasted coffee beans, to be ground later. The Med was a place frequented by a generic ragtag clientele — my mother called them the last remnants of the counterculture kids; I called them drifters — sitting at small tables sipping cappuccinos and espressos in white porcelain cups. Many were gaunt, pale, with Rastafarian hair and unkempt beards, rings and studs in ears and eyebrows, tattoos decorating arms and shoulders. Sometimes there were young women, my age and younger, runaways most likely, wearing blown-out jeans, grungy T-shirts, looks of boredom masking feelings I couldn't begin to imagine. All of them sat slouched in bentwood chairs, a few read newspapers, others wrote intently in notebooks, while someone warmed to a good rant about the conspiracy perpetrated by the global corporations to enslave the masses, television being the medium of choice, advertising being the messenger. The refrain to this Gregorian chant went something like, "I hear ya, man."

Key in hand, my mother led the way up the side stairs to the flat, Mimi, glancing over at the backyard, the newly planted seasonal flowers adding what my mother called eyewash. "This is so charming," she said.

When I entered, the two of them were standing in the small living room. I could tell Mimi was pleased, taking the place in, the hardwood floors, off-white walls and woodwork, ornate wall sconces and a brass chandelier. In the small kitchen was an old enameled Wedgwood stove, creamy yellow, the edges trimmed in dark blue, the cabinet doors with small panes of wavy glass and chrome pulls. A white refrigerator stood next to the water heater, and a cast-iron sink was attached to the wall with a gingham skirt concealing the plumbing. The bedroom was spacious, the bathroom small but adequate with a shower over the tub, and everywhere sunlight streamed in through wide windows.

My mother and Mimi sat down at a small oak table in the living room, looking at some papers Mimi had brought in a manila envelope. "Daniel," my mother asked, "would you run to the house and get me that folder with all our rental paperwork in it?"

"Sure."

"I think it's on the table in the kitchen."

When I returned, file folder in hand, my mother and Mimi were deep in discussion, Mimi holding a wadded tissue in her hand, her eyes teary and red.

Glancing at Mimi, I handed the folder to my mother who took out one of the rental agreements she'd picked up at the stationary store. "Daniel, why don't we give Ms. Osborne a moment to fill out this application. I think we've found our new tenant." Looking at Mimi, smiling, she added, "You just take all the time you need. Come down to the house when you're finished."

I waited until we were in the kitchen before asking my mother what the heck did she mean we'd found our new tenant? Wasn't she going to take names, make phone calls, check references? And what about the tenant from hell?

"Daniel, I know, I know. But I have a good feeling about Ms. Osborne. I can tell she's good people. Plus, she's in a difficult situation."

"Mom ... "

"Hear me out. She's not married, but there's a man. They've recently split up. Apparently she's been with him two years, there were some problems, and she needs a place where she can regain her balance. Get centered. She needs some time for herself and the flat is perfect."

"You know for sure she can even pay the rent?"

"She said she has a job up near the university, a consignment store. Place where you bring used clothes and sell them, split the profit with the store. She's been working there for over a year."

"Mom ... this is ..."

"Daniel, I've already promised her she can move in."

I looked at my mother thinking that even after all these years I could still be surprised by her reflexive good nature. She wanted to believe the best about people and acted accordingly, assuming that their intentions were, like her own, straightforward.

She went to the sink and started doing the dishes from breakfast while I grabbed a dishtowel and dried. Standing next to her I realized that though I saw her everyday, I rarely noticed the slight changes taking place. The laugh lines at the corner of her eyes were deeper, her blonde hair was graying at the temples — hair that was just long enough to tuck behind her ears, a signature mannerism, and usually something she did when she was preoccupied.

"She's very sweet, Daniel. I know this will work out just fine."

Mimi Osborne moved in early the next morning, backing her 15-year old Saab, a dull white, one taillight covered with red cellophane and duct tape, down the driveway, unloading a duffle bag, blankets, linens and several boxes of pots and pans and a coffeemaker.

I'd gotten up early, and I was sitting at the kitchen table sipping coffee, the back door open, watching Mimi make trip after trip up the stairs. Feeling a bit guilty as I watched her struggle with a toaster under one arm while pulling a large canvas duffle by its strap like a toboggan, I walked out of the kitchen and across the lawn, standing at the bottom of the stairs.

"Hello," I said, calling up to her. Mimi Osborne stopped on the landing and turned, looking down at me as if she were trying to remember where we'd met.

"Hi," she said, pulling the bag up the last step.

I gestured toward the car, its trunk open, asking, "Need a hand?"

"Nope," she said and pulled the duffle behind her through the door.

I stood looking up at the empty landing, a bit taken aback. I had expected a smile, or a greeting acknowledging that I was the owner's son, and she was deeply grateful to be able to move into a well-located, sunny flat, all utilities included. I heard the sounds of pots and pans banging together, then silverware crashing loudly, as if a box of kitchen utensils had been turned upside down and emptied into a drawer.

Most Sundays I worked a full day at the city pool as a lifeguard, half-days during the week since I was going to summer school. This particular morning it was already warm and I knew we would be busy. Kids would fill the large and small pools all day long, and those not splashing and yelling would be on the grass and pavement, stretched out on their towels shivering as they waited for the sun to warm them.

A casual observer might think walking back and forth holding a whistle and watching kids swim would be routine, even boring. But trying to keep track of small, frenetic swimmers at a pool has an undercurrent of terror and the image of that one kid who gulps water and ends up on the bottom near the drain was never far from my thoughts.

It makes for a long day, so when I returned that evening, walking down the driveway, I was ready for dinner, homework and bed. Surprisingly, the Saab was still parked in the same spot where it had been that morning, the trunk not quite closed.

I saw my mother standing near the car talking with Mimi, who was dressed in a pair of faded jeans, western boots and a tight-fitting blouse. She was lighting a cigarette while my mother was saying something, pointing at the Saab.

When I saw the cigarette I knew my mother might have hit a small speed bump in her new role as landlord. Cigarettes were a big thing with my mother. She hated them unequivocally and considered anyone who smoked to be moronic. She had told me a thousand times that smoking turned your body into a toxic waste dump, your lungs into barbecue briquettes, and nicotine was more addictive than heroin. And so on.

I noticed her attention was split between the car and Mimi's cigarette. "That'd be great. My husband, Walt, you haven't met him, he's in San Diego on business, he parks his car here, and on weekends uses the garage."

Mimi took a long pull on her cigarette, blowing the smoke up into the air. "Sure. Not a problem."

Mimi started to turn away when my mother said, "Oh, and Mimi, I'd really appreciate it if you wouldn't smoke in the flat. I ... I didn't know you smoked, and it's just a rule we have. I should have mentioned it. Hope you understand."

Mimi looked at my mother for a long moment, took a deep drag on her cigarette, blowing smoke out her nose. "Sure. I better get back upstairs and start putting stuff away." She gave me a glance and my mother a nice smile and walked over to the car and closed the trunk, then went quickly up the stairs, shutting the door hard enough to rattle the pane of glass.

The half-light of early evening was fading, and the cicadas were starting up their nightly song. The air was cool, the fog rolling in off the bay, and we could hear, far in the distance, the hum of freeway traffic. My mother and I watched the lights go on throughout the flat, the flickering blue light of the television filling the front room windows. I forced myself not to say a word.

To be continued