“A Darling Interest,” a story by Kevin Nichols, was a finalist in our recently concluded 52nd Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author
A Darling Interest
by Kevin Nichols
…..Don’t be surprised when kindred spirits meet each other at the right place at just the right time. People need people, even if they try to deny it. How many times do you see two people together and wonder, ‘Why do they get along so well?’ You see these people and they don’t look good or don’t seem to fit together; it baffles what should just be familiar.
…..Cello has been living upstairs in this duplex apartment for seven years now. He’s now in his late forties, never been married, and without children or pets. He works night shift as a stock person at the bakery in town. He doesn’t have a history of having many visitors. He goes to work, brings home groceries, and then you hear his music all weekend. I won’t say obnoxiously or annoyingly, just moderately loud. When he plays it, it can go on for five up to nine hours, nonstop. He may not be the most social of guys, but he could somehow entertain himself.
…..Miss E moved in four years ago and lives below him. Ever since their paths were forced to cross (they share the same front door to come and go from the complex), this place is filled with music, food, fussin’, and laughter. Miss E is 86 years old and has been living alone for twenty years. Her second husband passed away back then and the house he left her became too much. She and her younger brother (Winnford), moved into the duplex, but he passed away two years later.
…..I don’t think she or Cello knew what they were in for under the circumstances of which they met. Miss E doesn’t look or act her age. She has the energy and flirtations of a curious teenager. She’s hyperactive and takes medication for it. She still does everything on her own, including driving and working as a part-time caregiver. She loves to cook and always cooks for two. She never cooks sober, so expect a shot of Kentucky moonshine (booze) and a couple of beers to keep her company. She loves and will listen to any kind of music to relax before, during, and after cooking. In other words, she can still party. “I’m having me a me party,” is what she’d tell Cello when she was nippin’ (drinking booze).
…..Cello’s previous neighbors were a couple with two young daughters. Their dad was not going to let their ears or his own be exposed to anything but country music. After ringing Cello’s doorbell fifty times a month, he did it twenty more times when they got into the moving truck and were gone. Miss E moved in a week later. The duplex owner, who was close to her age, made sure Cello understood that Miss E was elderly, African-American, and wouldn’t want to be disturbed by “that noise.” Cello went out to check his mail and she opened her door. The genuineness of her smile put him at ease.
…..“Hello neighbor,” she said.
…..“My name is Erveena. It’s just me and my brother that moved in. I love to cook and play my sounds. I hope my music doesn’t bother you, if it’s too loud please let me know. Are you married or have any kids?”
…..“No ma’am, it’s just me. You like music?” he said shocked by all accounts.
…..“I love music. I have an organ in here and I play at my church, so you may hear me practice sometimes, ok? I just have an old record player in here for all these records I got over the years. I don’t know what I’m listenin’ to, some of it I’ve only heard for the first time. I was raisin’ my six kids and workin’, so most of this stuff I wouldn’t know it. I guess I’m just catchin’ up.”
…..“I’m a music freak,” he said with earnest enthusiasm. Her wise eyes and smile grew even more with elation.
…..“You can play whenever and as loud as you want, it don’t bother me.”
…..As is the case with most neighbors, especially curious ones, you study each other’s daily patterns for comfort. Miss E had gotten her flat set up and decorated suitably within the month. Cello slept during the day, but never soundly. He wasn’t the type to keep the sunlight out of his bedroom and hearing music instantly captivated his interest. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays you could hear many different genres of music grandstanding its way into Cello’s flat. Miss E made sure her neighbor knew she was having ‘A me party.’
…..Cello noticed that hours before the music would start, the corridor they shared would fill with delightful aromas of southern cookin’. Cello thought himself to be a rather formidable cook in his own right, but those were aromatics only pots embedded with the finest spices could muster. Cello’s routine was different. He had Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays to get his music in. He’d get home from work on Friday mornings to sleep. Once he’d awaken in the evenings, he would play until the early mornings. Miss E would sleep, but she would hear the music she hadn’t heard before. She would sit at the end of the stairs in the corridor to get full ears of what he was playing.
…..As the weeks went by, Cello noticed that she loved to talk. Hello in the corridor, assistance taking her groceries inside, or a mailbox visit ended up being close to a hootenanny. There’d be the early morning hours when he’d get home from work and she’d open the front door for him. He always gave a listening ear and a smile, but a perplexed apprehension developed as well.
…..Months later Miss E’s high-spirited nature and enjoyment of booze started to grow into public display. Cello would consistently sit on his balcony patio around dusk. Her patio was under his, along with her cultivated flowers. She would nurture them, eat dinner on the outdoor dinette, and listen for Cello’s door to open.
…..“Hello neighbor,” she said beaming with anticipation. Cello sat in his favorite chair and waved.
…..“How was work? You sure are being quiet today,” she said.
…..“We were busy. I gotta make dinner and get some sleep here pretty soon.”
…..“I made dinner for me and Winnford,” she said.
…..“You’re more than welcome to come down get a plate. I made white beans, greens, and there’s some boiled red potatoes if you eat stuff like that. I always overcook, so you’re always welcome.”
…..“I appreciate it ma’am, but this isn’t a good time.”
…..“What’s wrong boo? Was it that bad today? You don’t have to cook nothin’, I mean, you’re skinny, at least I can put some weight on ya. Or I got some weight you can move around,” she said with a boisterous laugh. Cello was in half shock and confused repulsion.
…..“Well let me know if you ever need anything,” she said as Cello gazed anticipating she was going back inside.
…..“Hey. Don’t fall asleep up there or you might miss somethin’,” she said.
…..“Look,” she endearingly said, kissing her hand blowing him a slow kiss before disappearing inside.
…..Time went by and it got to the point where Cello didn’t have to think about his dinner plans. Miss E would be waiting for him in the corridor or aggressively ring his doorbell. She normally wore a colorful array of summer dresses (hippie) and would have a sweaty glaze. She always told him what the menu was (she was a manager of a restaurant in Michigan years ago) and always offered him beer or water. She affectionately took pleasure in knowing Cello was at home and in a joking mood. At the same time, she would flip that dress with the provocativeness of a seasoned madam. Cello was interested in the food, the other stuff, he had to learn the value of comic relief. The two were making a situation comedy for YouTube.
…..Miss E would invite Cello inside and he would get the complete ‘get it yo’self you know where everything is at’ hospitality. The woman had a general store in her kitchen: canned food, snacks, spices, paper towels, napkins, water, homemade bread, soda, mouthwash, air fresheners, anything a person needed if they were out, she had. Her brother Winnford would shuffle to the bathroom and nod, but he mainly ate his meals in his bedroom. He wasn’t in good health, so Miss E was his caregiver. Their personalities clashed, which made things more difficult.
…..One Friday she invited Cello down for beers and music. Cello wasn’t unappreciative of his neighbor’s kindness and wasn’t the town barfly he once was. He had no plans, so getting to know more about his feisty neighbor was priceless entertainment. They drank beers, listened to music, and talked about family and life stories.
…..Miss E had a welcoming patio with her flowers, so they decided to take the drinks outside. They laughed and amused each other like old friends. Cello had always heard from the older people he knew in life that he was an old soul. Miss E told Cello how the right person always came to her at the right place, at the right time. She told him it was ok if he called her Miss Erveena.
…..“Have you ever been with an older woman?” she said lightly touching his thigh with an experienced gaze.
…..“No ma’am, I haven’t,” Cello said.
…..“Have you ever thought about it? I mean, a woman twenty or thirty years older than you? I know how young people are these days. They’re doin’ all that stuff now on the TV shows I watch and that stuff with these phones now. Have you ever thought about it?” she said.
…..“Miss Erveena, I haven’t been with a girl since I was in high school.”
…..“Well are you, have you just not met the right one yet, are you? I mean it’s none of my business but,” she said.
…..“I’m only looking for a man in my life,” he said with a light-hearted sigh. “I haven’t met or been with anyone for quite some time now.”
…..“You serious?” she said. “It’s been twenty years since my third husband Reverend Dobson passed. We couldn’t really do that sex thing like that. Everything was with touch, cuddle on the couch, that type of thing you know. That fun stuff I did with my second husband. He was a biker and loved dem’ damn streets, but whew, oh man the sex was good,” she said with a robust laugh.
…..Cello felt a little uncomfortable until he realized that Miss E was always trying to make him uncomfortable, it made her laugh. He couldn’t help but laugh. The two carried on with drinks and laughter way into the morning hours. She kept making naughty jokes about “if he could still use it” or “it’s been a long time since these old bones have been in the toolbox.” It was light-hearted fun that he hadn’t had in years. Cello was a loner in the country town, no one knew him and he kept it that way.
…..His parents were in their golden years and he moved back to town from the North. The town is transient. Its economy is based on the local university, factories, restaurants, retail, and farming. The kids that attend the university meet their spouses to leave or settle to be locals. The locals were either born and raised in town to become lifers or misplaced souls to live a ho-hum subsistence. Cello was a recluse. Miss E had lived in Detroit in the same neighborhood with two of her sons before their deaths. Cello considered himself an alien and Miss E could see that in him.
…..Their friendship had a silly connotation to it as the years went by. Cello playfully called her “A nut, a world-class nut” during their neighborly gossip, sprightly banter, and disagreements. The granny aspect and her natural endearment for Cello were constant. She’d cook enough food for him to share during the week. She’d make sure he had enough moonshine and beers for the weekend. Household items were supplied with a knock, smile, and fussin’.
…..Most people in the neighborhood would see he always helped her carry groceries inside. He always waited and opened the front door for her on rainy days. Whenever she had health or car appointments, he would accompany her if her relatives couldn’t. If they had a craving for carryout food, he would pick it up (they would take turns paying) and they’d share. They didn’t go to church, dinner, movies, or anything like that together. There was that understood generality that maybe someday they both would find a partner. They lived in a gossipy town and sugar mamas (older than Miss E) were known to have assistants. The local churches were known hubs for it, even in this sleepy town.
…..The youngblood influx moved into the empty duplex next door. The first couple was a guy who looked like a smaller version of Shaggy from “Scooby-Doo.” His chick was Velma with pink hair. Upstairs was a corn-fed brunette, another Shaggy with short hair, and a well-fed chick in voluptuous clothing. Both groups drove newer SUVs and didn’t maintain a consistent work schedule. You could hear the banging of cookware, flushing toilets, and hip-hop basslines all through the night.
…..Miss E would tell Cello that daily one guy and girl would leave their duplex. The girl would always carry a backpack and the guy would lethargically trail her. Whenever they left with the backpack, they always walked and never returned until the early evening.
…..“His name is Hank,” Miss E said stopping Cello one Saturday at the front door.
…..“Which one?” he said.
…..“The guy with the short hair. The weekend you were out of town they had two other SUVs I ain’t seen before parked in our spaces. I had a mighty lot of grocery that day, so I went and asked that pink-haired girl if she knew whose cars those were. She said the people upstairs may know, but you know I can’t walk up there.”
…..“Some skinny girl from across the street came over and helped me take my stuff inside,” she continued. “She stayed a while and I gave her a beer and a couple dollars for her help. She said she’s got a little boy and that they’d come back to visit and she’d check on me ya know.”
…..“How did you meet Hank and what’s the chick’s name across the street who helped you?”
…..“I was at the gas station that weekend and he just walked up to me smilin’. He ain’t got no teeth, but he said he was my neighbor and had seen me around. He said he’d help me take my grocery in and asked to borrow a couple dollars, I didn’t give it to him though. That girl, I think she said her name is Sky. She cried talkin’ about her husband and how he won’t have sex with her and won’t give her any money for cigarettes. She’s from New York she said. You’ll have to meet her next time she comes over.”
…..“Miss Erveena, I want you to be careful around here. Just because these people are around with a smile and offering to help don’t mean they have good intentions. Don’t be giving them money, if you keep on, you’ll never get rid of them.”
…..She looked at Cello like she knew what he meant, but the generosity in her didn’t want to believe it.
…..Cello walked to the gas station one Saturday when Miss E was out. She always gave him a heads up on her weekly schedule for errands, so he knew she’d be gone that afternoon. When he got back, Hank was ringing her doorbell. He turned around with a dishonorable smile of bad teeth and fraudulent concern.
…..“Is she here?” he said.
…..“No,” Cello said looking through him.
…..“I was just checkin’ on her. I seen her the other day, I wanted to see if she needed any help liftin’ anythin’ heavy,” he said.
…..“She ain’t here. Man, these lots are marked by the apartment numbers. We’re paying rent to have our spaces, you know that right?”
…..“Sorry to bother you two,” he nervously said and walked away.
…..Sky was trying to establish herself as well. She seemed to be lurking, waiting to catch Miss E returning from the grocery store. At times, it seemed as though the neighborhood was studying Miss E and Cello’s daily routines.
…..“No, don’t,” Miss E whispered before he could answer the door that Sunday afternoon.
…..“I thought you were going to let her in.”
…..“That girl is plum crazy,” she said. “I was gettin’ my money off a lottery ticket at the sto’ I won and she started givin’ me some sad story. Once she seen him run the numbers through and get in dat’ cash register, here she comes.”
…..“You can’t wear your emotions on your sleeves around here.”
…..“Cello, why don’t you try and talk that junk to me?” she said.
…..“I don’t guess I’ve taught you anything and I know I get on your nerves teasin’ bout’ that sex thing, but you, you don’t be out there like dat’.”
…..“I asked for years to have some dashing darling to spend time with. Other than my guys I text and see on this phone, I ain’t gonna be touching anything but myself. So I’m stuck with you for a while, stuck with a nut, a world-class nut,” he said in a teasing, spoilt voice. The two burst into their usual laughter and pally hug.
…..Two years went by and the neighborhood remained predictably regular. The “Shaggy” crew moved out, Sky got a job at the local Waffle House, and the gas station was still the hub for crystal meth.
…..Cello accepted a management position at another company in another state. He knew in three weeks he was moving, however, he didn’t tell Miss E. She always told him, “You have to know when to let people go. You can’t make a person stay if they don’t want to, let them go.” A new life was waiting for him, he just didn’t know the appropriate time or way to tell her.
…..Her eldest daughter Marvella called him one afternoon from the hospital, Miss E had been in a car accident. There were no internal injuries, but she did have a broken hip. Rehabilitation and actual healing would take nine months to a year. Cello knew he would never see her again if he moved.
…..“She thinks highly of you, if you’d want to come to visit her next week it’s ok with us,” she said.
…..“We really appreciate how you’ve watched out for her all these years. We don’t talk to her without your name being mentioned, Cello. She likes calling you “Knucklehead.” It always gives her a laugh.”
…..“Do you think she’s gonna be ok?”
…..“She’s stubborn, but that rehab, it’s gonna be hard for her,” she said in trembling tone. The two refrained from words.
…..Marvella, her daughter Kenzie, and her sister Nita met Cello at Miss E’s recovery room. The surgery was successful, but the rehab was an ominous reality. They answered the door and stepped into the hall with him.
…..“She wanted to talk to you alone for a bit. We’ll be waiting outside,” Marvella said.
…..The way her legs were positioned for support and the machine bulkiness added to his sorrow. She had a smile, but he was used to her being hyperactive, talkative, and always doing something. He had seen her lonely, drunk, silly, a forgotten aphrodisiac, and sometimes an old fool. She had seen him in all the same ways. He may have not been an old fool, but certainly a frustrated one.
…..“These old legs have seen better days and longer nights my deary,” she said with a wry smile waiting for his laugh.
…..“A nut, a world-class nut,” he said with an awkward chuckle and concerned gaze.
…..“Hopefully you can give these old, brittle bones some longer days and nights,” she said raspily laughing.
…..“You’re my guardian angel, this old woman wouldn’t have made it all these years without you being my best friend. I know I get on your nerves and I don’t think I’ve taught you nothin’.”
…..“Erveena, you’ve taught me about this being single thing, and just about everything else,” he said apathetically pulling out his smartphone.
…..“It has really gotten lonely out there.”
Kevin Nichols is a music connoisseur (an unabashed avid addict and collector) who writes a weekly blog on. house-mixes.com. He has been a freelance writer and bibliophile for 24 years. In his free time, he enjoys cooking, watching documentaries, wine & whiskey tastings, and airbnb travel.