Dena Harris tapped the steering wheel of her Ford Escort in time with some unnoticed song on the radio. It was a Saturday morning and she was more interested in the screech of blue jays coming from the hedge to her left and the flaming head of a cardinal in the shrub to her right. She didn?t know what kind of hedge or shrub they were. She didn?t care. All she cared about was the big house that came with them.
She sat in the driveway of the house at 1009 South 12th Street in the small town of Benevolence in northeastern Oklahoma, waiting for the landlord to arrive. The house stood over her, blocking the morning sun so that she sat in comfortable shade within her car, the driverís side window rolled down to let in a spring breeze. The shrub where the cardinal sat grew at the corner of the porch near the steps. At the other end of the porch, an inviting swing that barely moved in the breeze. There were no curtains in the front windows; the Venetian blinds were pulled up so that the windows looked like blank, dull eyes. Dena resisted the urge to get out of the car and look through the windows. She?d done that twice already since first finding the house in the classified section of the newspaper.
She glanced in the rearview mirror and smoothed her red hair, more orange than the head of the cardinal, which had decided to leave the shrub. The car seat in the backseat of the car seemed very empty to Dena. She?d left her daughters, Brianna, eighteen months old, and Rebecca, age seven, with their grandmother for the day.
A Chevy pickup jumped the curb behind Denaís Escort and jerked to a stop in the front lawn of the house. A bald elf of a man hopped out and hurried around the truck toward her. Dena got out of her car and faced him.
"You?re here to see the house?" The man pulled off his dark sunglasses and quickly looked her over. Dena noticed his eyes staying a moment longer on her legs than anywhere else. She?d worn the shorter of her two favorite skirts in hopes it would help.
"Yes," she said. "I?m Dena Harris. I spoke to you earlier."
"Dena, thatís right," the man said. "My nameís Harry Bosco. You ready to go inside?"
"Yes." Dena followed Bosco to the porch, where he flipped through some keys before finding the right one. He opened the door and waved her ahead of him.
The front door opened onto a large living room with three windows and two other doorways leading away from it. A black cable, like a thick, rigid snake poked from the floor near one wall. From the tip, Dena could tell the cable was for the television. Directly before the front door at the other end of the room was a brick fireplace. Beside the fireplace Dena could see the kitchen through a doorway.
"I just had all the carpets downstairs stretched," Bosco said. "I try to replace all my carpets every three to five years, but I have them stretched every time someone moves out."
"Oh. It looks good," Dena said, glancing again at the brownish-gray carpet.
"The two downstairs bedrooms and bath are through here," Bosco said, leading her to the doorway on the south wall.
Dena looked quickly at the master bedroom. It had a ceiling fan and a small closet. The other downstairs bedroom was about the same, except smaller. The bathroom was small, but had an exhaust fan and plenty of light. The tub and sink were clean.
"The house used to be just those two bedrooms, the bath, living room and the kitchen here," Bosco said as he led her through the living room and into the kitchen. "The people who owned it before me built everything from the kitchen back and up. They also dug the basement. Then they decided to sell it."
"Why would they sell it after doing all that work?" Dena asked.
"I think he was transferred with his job," Bosco said. "All these appliances stay. Or I can take them out if you have your own."
"I?ll need them," Dena said, looking at the mismatched stove, refrigerator and dishwasher. "They all work?"
The kitchen wasn?t very big, but it opened onto a big dining area with a huge picture window that looked out on a big back yard. The back yard was closed in with a tall wooden fence.
"Do you allow pets?" Dena asked.
"What do you have?"
"Well, I don?t have anything right now," she said. "But with a big yard like that, I?m sure my girls would love to have a dog to play with."
"Outside dogs are fine," Bosco said. "Inside cats, too. Inside dogs ?" He shrugged. "I haven?t had much luck with people who have inside dogs. The carpets never last long."
"I understand," Dena agreed.
"Hereís your basement." Bosco opened a door under the stairway leading to the second story. "Itís not a full basement, but it goes all the way under this back part of the house. The water heater and central heat and air unit are down there."
"Thatís fine," Dena said. "I?d rather see the upstairs."
"Sure." Bosco closed the basement door and led her up the narrow stairway to the second floor. It had the same carpeting as the downstairs area, with two good-sized rooms, one very small room and a bathroom that was twice the size of the one downstairs. Dena caught herself smiling in the wall-length bathroom mirror and forced herself to look skeptical.
"Thatís about it," Bosco said as he led her back down the stairs. "Thereís the detached garage, no automatic opener. Anything you want to ask?"
"Is the wiring and plumbing all up to date?" Dena asked.
"Yeah. As far as I know, everything works. I always come right out whenever thereís a problem. If itís something I can?t fix I get somebody else out. It doesn?t pay to let things go because they?ll only get worse."
"And you?re wanting how much rent?"
"I?ve got it listed at $550."
"Uh-huh." Dena moved toward one of the windows in the living room and looked out, bending over slightly, just enough to make her skirt ride up her thighs an inch or so. She didn?t like doing it; it made her feel cheap and kind of sleazy, but she needed to be frugal with her money. And, she admitted to herself, it wasn?t a bad feeling to know that a man was looking at her after the way her marriage ended. "What about the neighbors?" she asked.
"Retired couple there where you?re looking," Bosco said. Dena could see his reflection in the window. He was watching her backside intently. "I?ve only talked to the guy on the other side once. He keeps to himself. You probably won t? see him much. Folks across the street and behind you seem okay. Itís a quiet neighborhood. A few kids, but no trouble."
"Thatís good," Dena said, straightening and turning back toward the man. She noted the blush on his face as he raised his eyes and found them locked with hers. "This is really more house than I need," she said. "Is your price firm?"
"Well, really, I can?t come down too much," he said.
Dena bent over and scratched an imaginary itch just above her right ankle. She straightened and asked, "Could you rent it for $450 a month?"
"Oh, no, I can?t go that low," Bosco said. "I could come down, say, $25."
"Umm. I don?t know," Dena said. "I really hadn?t planned to pay that much. I mean, itís a nice house, but I suppose the utility bills are pretty high. And cleaning it ? It?ll just be me and my girls, and they?re both little. With two bathrooms to keep up, thatís a lot more plumbing than I?m used to. I?d probably have to call you every time any little thing went wrong."
"You?re not married, then?"
"No. Recently divorced," Dena said, giving a sad smile. "He found somebody else."
"What brings you to Benevolence?"
"I got a job here."
"I see. Where will you be working?"
"For the Main Street Authority, the downtown restoration project. As a secretary."
"Uh-huh. Well, could you go $500 in rent? Thatís really just enough for me to pay the mortgage payments on the place."
"It?ll be tight, but yes, I think I can do that," Dena agreed. "Will you need a deposit?"
"I take a monthís rent as deposit," Bosco said. "I trust you, though, so $400 will do just fine."
"Thatís so sweet of you," Dena said, wondering if she could talk him out of charging her any deposit at all, and deciding she probably couldn?t. "Thank you."
"It won?t get you in trouble with your wife, will it?"
"Oh, well, I handle the rental property. She?ll never know unless I tell her." Boscoís head turned even redder.
"How soon can I move in?"
"As soon as you give me a check."
"I can do that right now," Dena said, pulling her checkbook from her purse."