Short Fiction

Winner: Tenant

Night fell quickly in Jeanine’s city, or it didn’t come at all. All through July, children flew from their homes long after supper and pedaled bicycles up and down the sidewalk. Fireworks burst in blue sky. Often there were little parties in Jeanine’s own garden.

Affie, her tenant, was a sweet American girl who had moved to Vancouver for her master’s in social work. She had many friends, and one or another or several were over most nights. Laughter washed gently over Jeanine’s bed, and she slept better that summer than she had in a long time.

Affie was gone one night, garden hushed and stairwell to the basement suite dark against the endless day. Jeanine endured twitching legs and a dry mouth and aggressive, fitful dreams. She was still tangled in the sheets when Affie came upstairs at 10 the next morning.

“Hey, Jeanine! I have something for you.”

“Just a minute,” she called, and she went hot all over with shame. It took nearly 20 minutes to shuffle to the washroom, change to day clothes, sort through morning meds and clear the fog in her head at least enough to imagine what she might say. She tried to straighten her spine, look happy and alert, but she emerged to an empty kitchen. A piece of chocolate cake in three layers sat on a serviette on the table. Affie had written a note and a drawn a little heart.

Jeanine was 70. She felt and probably looked older, but past a certain point no one cares how old you are precisely. Her hair was white, thin, cropped close. Osteoporosis had curled her shoulders and set her neck at a sharp forward angle. She took stool softeners, diuretics, nitrates, antidepressants. A nurse came twice a week. A gardener pruned the hostas. A cleaning woman vacuumed the carpets and dusted boxes holding toys and collars of long-ago cats. Jeanine could still drive but rarely did.

She was born and had lived every day of her life in her house on Dunbar. Her parents had come west when Vancouver was barely a city, dug a big foundation into the hill and must have imagined a family that could fill four bedrooms, but they never made Jeanine feel that she was not enough. When she was 20 and got her job as a file clerk at the UBC registrar’s office, her mother and father sent builders downstairs to make a bedroom and living room, bathroom and kitchenette. Separate entrance from the garden, ground-level windows. For the next 20 years Jeanine lived in the basement suite. Then her parents died quietly, one after the other, and she moved back up. She donated clothes but kept Hummel figurines and souvenir spoons. She had upgraded fixtures installed in the master bath and put a new mattress on the bed. Tried not to dream. She rented the suite cheaply to students.

She retired at 65. She would have kept on, but student workers got frustrated whenever she tried to show them how to edit records and stopped because she couldn’t breathe.

In 45 years, she had seven bosses. She learned to type. She was already old when decades of files were moved to Hollinger boxes and sent to off-site storage, when cubicles and computers appeared and the last of her old friends quit. She learned Blackbaud. She did not complain.

There were mornings when she walked through Camosun Bog and got the bus on 16th. There were days when it was already dark at four in the afternoon, and she held a folder over her head because she’d forgotten her umbrella, hurried laughing to the Student Union Building. One boss once decided to have an office retreat on a tall ship. Everyone who wasn’t seasick sang stupid songs and played getting-to-know-you games as they cruised the Georgia Strait. And in the late afternoon she, Jeanine, wearing a one-piece and baggy shorts, climbed up into the rigging. She was shaking hard, they teased her from the deck, but the distance telescoped as she rose. She went 12 metres, jumped into the sea, and bit her lip on the way down.

All of this happened. She knew, she remembered. She believed that in a drawer somewhere it was recorded. Still, at 70, she saw only the future clearly. The days to come were real, and the past seemed invented.

The stroke hit early one morning. In a black tunnel, she hoped she was still dreaming and listened for the long whistle of the train. Reached for another passenger, found her cane, banged it against the floor. Affie in a silky pajama set ran up the stairs. It was a small stroke, and by the time she reached the emergency room she already felt the way she always did. More or less. A little sad, a little empty. Deeply embarrassed for Affie to have seen her like that. Gurgling, and saying words that were not the words she meant.

Two days in the hospital, and then Affie picked her up. Affie helped her up the front steps. WELCOME HOME balloons floated on the kitchen ceiling, and it was too kind, too much. She wanted the tunnel and the dark, but she relaxed in the days that followed. Affie bought casseroles from Stong’s and sat with her in the living room and watched talking heads on TV. Bit by bit she started to tell Affie how much she hated it, being old and getting older, and Affie had sharp little incisors that made her look like a kitten when she smiled. “I think you’re crushing it,” she said. “I think you get better and better every day.”

Affie was not the first tenant to be something like a friend, to bring her little gifts, join her for meals, and insist she must have so many stories to tell. But she had liked Affie best even before the stroke. Affie was easy to like. Bouncy curls, dimples, delicate tattoos on three fingers. She was interviewing teenagers at Musqueam and writing her thesis on healing from intergenerational trauma. She called herself a settler and a colonist, then said, “I do know how that sounds. Like I’m just telegraphing to everybody, hey, I’m a white woman from the US, but I promise I’m one of the good ones.”

It was Sunday afternoon, and they walked slowly up the hill. Jeanine tried to listen and tried to breathe through her nose. They reached the café, and Affie folded Jeanine’s walker and hooked the LeSportsac of meds to the back of Jeanine’s chair. Over Earl Grey and cucumber sandwiches, Affie said she and Nathaniel were thinking about spending some time on the island before summer ran out. “Do you have a favourite spot? I think we should just go to Victoria, I still haven’t been, but he says there are other places that are more special.”

“Nathaniel?” Jeanine asked.

“Haven’t I introduced you? Next time he’s over I’ll bring him up.”

Jeanine should have her own space, her parents had said, when she was 20 and working and might, they thought, want to have boyfriends over. And when Affie first moved in, she’d asked if Jeanine had any kids. “No,” Jeanine answered. Affie blinked and waited, but there was nothing much to tell. Before there are children, there must be a boyfriend. Jeanine never wanted one, and none ever wanted her.

Affie would finish her degree requirements in December. Then, probably, she would leave. Go back to Oregon, or apply for permanent residence and move to an above-ground apartment in Kits. Weep at her garden wedding. Load small children into carriers for weekend hikes at Deep Cove. Send Jeanine Christmas cards, at least for a while.

Jeanine took the last sandwich from the tray and nudged the bread off and studied dill as if there were secrets in it. “You know,” she said, “if you want, we could switch places.”

Affie hitched one side of her mouth into a smile. “Places?”

“I’m sure the upstairs isn’t how you like but you can redecorate. You’re young and you’ll have a family and you need space. The basement suite is more than enough for me. I wouldn’t change your rent.”

Affie’s eyes widened. She laughed low and said, “Oh. Gosh. Nathaniel and I have only been seeing each other a few months. We aren’t at ‘family’ yet.”

Give it time, Jeanine thought. Let her imagine tiny feet in the long hall, just as Jeanine now imagined, now remembered the creaks and sighs of the basement suite ceiling. She had really been quite happy down there, for a good long while.

That evening she heated a pot pie, opened a ginger ale. She heard Affie from below, talking on the phone. “Yeah, I know,” Affie said, and Jeanine went to stand at the top of the stairs.

“Obviously,” Affie said.

She said, “If I leave I’ll have to take out a loan just to pay rent. There’s nothing else like this.”

Affie took a shivering breath, and her voice was higher, sharper than normal. “Jeanine is great,” she said, “but it’s just, she’s old and she isn’t well and I’m not her daughter. What happens when she dies? I don’t want to be here for that.”

I don’t want to be here for it either, Jeanine thought. Maybe she said it aloud, and Affie went quiet. The basement lights clicked off. The garden door opened and closed. Jeanine evicted her the next day.

Spiders laid their eggs and stretched webs from tree to tree. From the basement windows, at the thin edge of day, they glittered with dewdrops. All the little creatures, Jeanine thought, were stringing lights for her.

Affie had asked for more time, and Jeanine had refused it. She invented a grand-niece, moving from Kelowna because her husband had been transferred. A whole clutch of littles and another on the way. They needed the upstairs as soon as possible, and Jeanine needed to resettle in the basement.

She moved down as if it were all true. She paid the cleaning woman to move a few sweatsuits, the frozen foods, the television, and then she let her go. The gardener, too, she dismissed, and sedges went limp in the rain. The nurse alone came, rested two fingers on Jeanine’s wrist and proved she was living still.

The alumni UBC Short Fiction Contest 

This year marked alumni UBC’s first short fiction contest for alumni. "Tenant" was chosen as the winner from almost 100 entries. Additionally, two other stories were selected as finalists. Many thanks to UBC’s School of Creative Writing and UBC Okanagan’s Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies for their support of our inaugural short fiction contest. 

The jurors, all UBC alumni, were Annabel Lyon (author, director of UBC’s School of Creative Writing), Michael V. Smith (author, professor of creative writing), Danny Ramadan (Syrian-Canadian author), and Umar Turaki (writer and lecturer at UBC Okanagan’s Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies).