The tick tick tick of the wall clock reminded Anni that one o’clock wasn’t far away and she hadn’t cleared the snow off the front steps and sidewalk. Or showered. “After we finish the dishes, I’ll shovel the walk.”
“No, I can do these on my own. You go ahead and get dressed.” Lena’s s’s sounded like z’s—her accent tended to appear when she was tired or preoccupied or out of sorts. Like this morning. She set the plates in the sink.
“No, I’ll stay and help,” Anni said. “I’m not anxious to go out into the freezing cold just yet anyway. Besides, work takes your mind off things.”
Lena nodded. She ran hot water in the sink and squeezed in a green stream of Palmolive. “Arbeit macht frei,” she said, her face hard, her jaw set. Her mood darkened without warning and she said the words as if in a dream, like someone talking in her sleep.
It startled Annie. She had grown up with her grandparents speaking German so she understood the meaning of the phrase—and the genocidal cruelty behind it. What had this morning of possibilities become to Lena, she wondered, to pull that out of her? Dread seemed to dim the light around them both.
They stood at the sink, Lena washing and Anni drying, and after a few minutes of silence Anni suggested they go over their meeting with the boarders. Lena brightened and took a step into the day’s tasks; before long she was out of whatever fog she had wandered into. First, they’d all eat lunch and get to know each other, she said. She washed the dishes with increasing energy as she talked. Then they’d take a tour of the house and talk about room assignments. When it came time at the end to hand out keys, Anni would review the rules of the house.
The inevitable awkwardness of explaining the dos and the don’ts made Anni uncomfortable and she did not relish the fall out. After all, these were emancipated adults who might balk at restrictions. But it had to be done to avoid embarrassment later on; both she and Lena agreed on that. Still, she had edited and softened The Rules so no one would take offense—she hoped. Lena listened as Anni read them out loud one more time.
- You have an assigned parking slot along the front curb (So sorry but the driveway is not wide enough for more than one car. We apologize.)
- Breakfast, Dinner, and Supper will be served at 7:00 a.m., noon, and 6:00 p.m. (It’s all right if you’re a little late, though.)
- The kitchen closes after meals (But if you miss a meal, you’re welcome to make a plate of leftovers for yourself or have a snack from the pantry.)
- The front door is locked after ten o’clock (No curfew, though. You will have your own key. Just be sure to lock the door behind you.)
At first, she and Lena had decided to open the house only to women. But when no more than one woman responded after two months, they revised the plan; to make a profit they would need at least three boarders. Lena suggested Rule #5 when two single men answered the ad right away.
- No guests in the bedrooms, except for family members.
A nice, parenthetical aside could not make that less awkward. Anni didn’t disagree with the rule, just its assumption. She’d known plenty of girls in college who broke the “bedroom rule” in the student code of conduct.
“It’s good,” Lena said. “The message is clear enough for the men, I think.” She smiled. “You are a pushover, Anni. Everyone will love you.” She took the ham out of the icebox and wrapped it in tin foil.
“Thank you, Lena. But they won’t love either one of us if they slip and break their necks on the front walk their first day here.” Anni hung the damp cotton t-towel over the small rack on the wall and hurried up the stairs to her room.
Lunch would look simple to their new roommates, but it was anything but. Glazed ham, potato salad, homemade rolls, apple pie for dessert. Lena had been hard at it since yesterday morning; she wanted to make a good impression, she said, but Anni thought maybe she wanted to make up for Rule #5.
After her shower, Anni pulled on her heavy cable knit sweater, wool pants, and brown leather mukluks and walked out the back door to the garden shed for the metal snow shovel and rock salt. Her boots crunched on the thick hard snow that blanketed the backyard; her fingers froze through her mittens and the winter air stung her nose and cheeks. But the cold seemed to numb her fears and so she welcomed it.
She began shoveling where the driveway met the front walk and skimmed the soft new snow all the way to the porch steps. As she chipped away at the hard ice underneath, she thought again about what Lena had said in the kitchen—Arbeit macht frei. As a journalism student, she’d studied articles about World War II in which that particular phrase played a central and sinister role. There was so much about Lena that she did not know, and so much it seemed that Lena kept hidden.
The hard ice underneath the new snow was immovable and after chipping away at it for half an hour, Anni gave up and threw rock salt on it. The three steps cleared easier than the walk, but in spite of that and the below-thirty-degrees temperature she’d broken into a sweat. The snow on the street next to the curb had been piled up by the plow, but she had to clear space for parking and so she dug in. By the time she finished, the salt had done its job on the walk and the thick sheet of ice broke into soft pieces as she shoveled it once again.
When the snow was cleared, she leaned on the shovel and looked at her watch. Twelve thirty. She had just enough time to dress and help Lena set out lunch before their guests arrived. She left the shovel and rock salt by the back steps and forgot to slip out of her mukluks until she reached the staircase inside, where she left them, hoping Lena wouldn’t notice notice them before she had time to put them on the porch.
The smell of glazed ham had filled the house and she became a little girl again, here, at Christmas time. Her grandparents were still alive and the tallest tree they could buy filled the corner of the drawing room, decorated and glittering with white lights. The smell of pine and ham and rolls and pumpkin pie made her stomach growl. She sat next to Grandpa and turned the pages of his music as he played carols on the baby grand piano, while nearby Dad and Henry stared across a game table from each other playing chess. Mom, Grandma, and Alice cooked and laughed in the kitchen. So much had happened since then.
Anni slipped her straight yellow plaid skirt on over her black tights and black long-sleeved body suit. She wanted to come off relaxed and comfortable but dressed up for this first meeting—a person had one shot at a first impression, after all—so she added the matching plaid vest. Jacquie Kennedy was her role model: a suit makes a statement.
The doorbell rang and Anni froze in front of her bedroom mirror. Her legs would not move until the doorbell rang again and she ran out the door and down the stairs.
Lena beat her to the foyer. “Where are your shoes?” she said, looking down at Anni’s feet.