Of all people, it was the infamous Chandra, the surly supervisor who gave me my big break in the housing situation. I was pretty much positive about God. It was comforting to think of someone bigger and smarter ultimately in charge of things, even if I didn’t always understand His—or Her—decision-making/problem-solving processes. However, sometimes it really did seem as if the Good Lord was messing with me personally. I mean really, Chandra was going to be the one to get me a place to stay? Was that absolutely necessary? Now what was I supposed to do with all the revenge fantasies I had been rehearsing for the time when I was once again her economic superior? Sometimes when she was riding me extra hard the only thing that got me through it was the belief that one day I’d get to tell her that famous line, Take this job and shove it, but it seemed like God wasn’t having it my way.
Using a word-of-mouth approach to supplement my classified searches, I had let it be known among my Target co-workers that I was looking for a room to rent, weaving it into break-room conversations, etc. Self-deprecating humor was a decent tool for winning sympathy and support. I would make fun of myself for sharing a room with two little girls, describing some of the various awkward scenes that such a living situation entailed, some of which were exaggerated for effect but all of which were grounded in truth. It had been especially effective to talk about my niece, Jessica, having the makings of a government informant, which was true, assuming that government informants were delighted to report you to the authorities, and presumably they were.
Jessica was definitely a Daddy’s little girl, the kind of kid that I had never liked in school, the kind who somehow managed to be smugly right about almost everything. Oh well. I kind of felt bad about being negative about Jessica. It wasn’t her fault; plus she probably just hated having to share her room with a grown-up failure of a woman; so I didn’t have the right to blame her. Two’s company and three’s a crowd even when you are seven and eight.
At any rate I had had my co-workers guffawing all over the place with tales of teddy bears, and butterflies, and Skittles Candy color schemes that you could see in the dark even with your eyes closed. Then one day while a bunch of us were having lunch, Chandra announced that her aunt had a room for rent, and she was willing to ask her about it for me. Luckily I had just swallowed or I would have sprayed my co-workers at the break room table with Coke Zero or choked to death. I couldn’t even respond and Melissa had to fill in the gap.
“That’ll work,” Melissa said enthusiastically.
“Uh sure,” I finally croaked, despite a very big part of me that was wondering if Chandra was setting some kind of trap for me. “That-that would be great, Chandra.”
Maybe her aunt was a crazy lady. Or even though I loved animals, maybe the aunt had a house full of cats or a yappy little dog that was too old to bother about going outside to do his poop and pee.
“It’s just a room,” Chandra said. “And my aunt doesn’t want a lease, you know what I mean.”
Maybe that was it. The aunt was running an illegal rooming house. Who were the other tenants? Might they be creepy old men who would try to sneak into my room at night? It was one thing to be a social worker, and something else to end up living with your clients. But…
“My cousin got married on New Year’s,” Chandra explained. “And my Aunt Mary doesn’t really like living alone. She’s got a cat though. You allergic to cats?”
“Not that I know of,” I answered shaking my head.
“So you want me to check?”
“Yes,” I said. “Please do.”
Besides I didn’t have a lease with Ted and Pam either. The rent I paid them was undeclared income. It was basically stealing but I guessed when it was from the government that was okay. The Bible said to render to Caesar what was Caesar’s, but if Caesar didn’t know about it then what was the harm, right? Madison wouldn’t approve of it either. As a government official and a lawyer, it was not surprising that he took the rules very seriously. But he wouldn’t know. I’d make sure he had plausible deniability in the event of an ethics inquiry.
There had always been an underground economy working out here in the real world. I had just never pictured myself being a part of it. But such was real life. To operate above ground you had to have a credit score that was above water, or at least treading it. If not, then you did what you had to do, and what I had to do was get out of my nieces’ room. If Chandra’s Aunt Mary was willing to rent to me, and assuming it was a decent place, then I’d just count my blessings and pack my bags.
She was. It was. And I did.
Miss Mary had one of those old-timey houses with the heating grates in the floor running up from the furnace in the basement; for cooling there were a couple of window units, one in the room that Miss Mary was renting out and one in the living room. But, Miss Mary warned me, “I don’t like to use air conditioning unless I just have to. When it gets too hot then I sleep downstairs on the sofa where it’s cooler. If you run up my light bill too high I will expect you to pay part of it. Otherwise I’ll take care of the utilities. Chandra told me that you was having a hard time right now, so I’m not trying cheat you, you understand.”
The house reminded me of my grandparents’ house in the country. There were plenty of windows all of which were screened and open to the breeze. The enormous front and back porches were screened in too and shaded by oak trees that might have been planted sometime around the Civil War. The wooden floors creaked, and the plumbing fixtures were old enough to be vintage. In terms of square footage, Miss Mary’s house was about the same size as Ted and Pam’s, but there weren’t any vaulted ceilings, recessed lighting, or granite countertops. The floors were scarred and dull and covered with a patchwork assortment of throw rugs, some of which were threadbare and frayed. The atmosphere smelled of many meals prepared in the basic white kitchen with the chicken and duck wallpaper borders. And there was the lingering scent of aerosol room deodorizers and scented candles. There was also enough bric-a-brac to fill a tourist town antique shop, and a huge, ugly, brown Barco lounger filled up one corner of the living room with a floor lamp circa 1950 standing next to it.
I was smitten! Especially when Tomboy, Miss Mary’s Garfield-size orange tabby jumped up on the sofa and nuzzled my hand.
“Tomboy,” Miss Mary fussed. “Get down! You gonna scare her to death with your big self.”
But I was already rubbing the cat’s head affectionately. Growing up, Pam and I had had a dog. I had asked Derrick if we could have a pet, but he had said that they were dirty and that it would affect the resale value of our house. I guessed Ted and Pam felt the same way as they also kept their house an animal-free zone.
“Oh no,” I assured Miss Mary, allowing Tomboy to make his way into my lap. “He’s adorable.”
“You like cats then?”
“Do you have any pets?”
“No ma’am. My sister and her family aren’t too keen on them.”
“And that’s where you been staying, with them?”
“Well how come you so keen on moving?”
It was a fair question. Madison had already asked it too; when I had announced to him that I was going to be meeting Chandra’s aunt to maybe rent a room from her.
“I don’t get it,” he had said. “Why pay money to a stranger rather than live with your folks?”
“I pay money to them too,” I had replied.
“Okay, but the question remains. A stranger over your family?”
“I’ve told you about my brother-in-law. It’s better this way.”
“It’s because of me,” Madison had said as if answering his own question.
We had been sitting together on his sofa watching a movie. I had been eating popcorn. Madison didn’t want any, claiming it wasn’t worth the effort. “It’s too hard getting it to my mouth in the first place,” he had told me once. “And even harder getting it from between my teeth.” Apparently flossing was no small feat when your fingers didn’t work properly.
It was at such moments that I was forced to abruptly remember that Madison’s life was not as easy as he made it seem. It was not when he was transferring into his wheelchair or using his grabber to retrieve something off a top shelf, or even when we were walking down the street together; no it was when he turned down popcorn because it wasn’t worth the work that I noticed and remembered; remembered the way people would glance at him sometimes and quickly look away, the way my own sister had not shaken his hand.
I didn’t like to remember it. I didn’t want it to matter, which was why we hadn’t double-dated with Ted and Pam to go to the symphony. Because they would make it matter. I couldn’t decide what was worse: Pam saying that she felt sorry for Madison or Ted saying nothing about it at all, but in either case, I wasn’t willing to have them look down on Madison, literally or figuratively.
On this occasion I had tried once again to just play it off as usual.
“You know, Mr. Center of the Universe,” I had replied teasing him with a smile while I continued eating the popcorn. “Contrary to popular belief, Paige Robinson’s world does not totally revolve around Madison Reese. I might just really want to have my own room again. And a full-size bed. And maybe, just maybe my own bathroom.”
It had not been a total lie, but Madison had not looked at me, focusing on the television instead, his face way too grave. I often wondered if I should recommend that he get counseling. It was standard practice in these cases. People needed grief counseling sometimes. Madison had lost so much, his body, the woman he loved, maybe even himself. What if I was letting him down by not advising him the way I would have anybody else? Being stoic could be heroic but foolish too, and unnecessary.
“It really isn’t all about you,” I had said instead, all the while hoping, Don’t go there, Madison. We had been having such a nice time. I wasn’t mad with Chandra anymore. Things were looking up, weren’t they? But he had pushed the Pause button on the remote control using the knuckle of his pinkie finger. We were going there. God—I wanted so badly to tell him that he worried too much about it, his liabilities as he called them, but how could I? I had no right to. And what if I were terribly wrong? Or just so hopelessly in love that I wasn’t seeing straight because I only saw him, the whole him, my beautiful golden-brown eyed lover with the broad shoulders and the gorgeous smile.
“I’m serious, Paige,” Madison had said, now meeting my eyes. His expression had been calm as it usually was. Sometimes I thought he must have invented the adage Never let’em see you sweat. “I won’t come between you and your sister,” he had told me.
Okay so I was a piss-poor social worker when it came to my own relationships, but then I guessed most of us were. It was easier to be the objective professional when it wasn’t your own life splayed out on the table in need of a fix. Maybe I should be the one calling a hotline or something. Were there any support groups for people like me? Maybe disability dating, if that was what they called it, was like cross-cultural dating. Maybe Madison’s world really was just that different from mine.
Well I didn’t care if it was. I was idealistic enough, or romantic enough, or simply silly enough to believe that love would find a way. He could go there, even stay there but I didn’t have to. The topic was supposed to have been where I was living anyway. Casually I had reached for the remote and resumed the movie.
“Don’t worry,” I had practically quipped, my voice sounding discordant even to me.
But it was true. He wouldn’t. Derrick hadn’t; Ted either. Pam and I were all that was left of our immediate family; and regardless of my current circumstances I was still the big sister; the Jessica to her Jennifer. We would be fine. I supposed lawyers, like policemen, were trained to be suspicious, to trust no one. If we had been in a courtroom Madison might have asked the judge, “Permission to treat as hostile, your honor?” Well too bad we weren’t. It was just me and him, and the popcorn and the movie. And the best place in the world was right beside him. Why couldn’t that be enough? Pam and I would work things out between us, and Ted would never like me, but regardless I just wanted to be with Madison.
“Miss Mary,” I said now, with Tomboy purring contentedly as I stroked his orange coat. “I’ll be honest. I love my sister, and she loves me, but we’re just different, which is kind of hard for her. Maybe more so for her husband. Sometimes she doesn’t approve of my choices, how I live my life.”
“It’s like that sometimes with family,” replied Miss Mary.
“Yes, but it’s out of love I know--”
Miss Mary put up her hand indicating that I needn’t say more.
“I been the black sheep myself plenty of times,” she said. “And have had more fun than some of my kinfolk ever want to know about.”
“Me too,” I sighed.
Miss Marry giggled and brought a smile back to my face.
“More power to you!” she declared.
By the time I paid the rent and my student loan bill, and purchased a monthly transit pass, I wouldn’t have a lot of money left over, but I would have my own room, a bigger bed, and some peace, and as the Master Card ad said, that was priceless.
“When it comes to grown folks,” Miss Mary continued. “To each his own I say. As long as you don’t get drunk or do drugs, or bring that element into my house, what you do in the privacy of your room is your business.”
Tomboy jumped off my lap and trotted into the kitchen. A minute later I could hear him crunching the dry food I had noticed in his dish. And a pet too! I smiled again and sipped my tea. I would be happy here, and didn’t I deserve that? The neighborhood where Miss Mary lived appeared to be at a crossroads, either there was going to be a total collapse or a burgeoning renewal. Deciding it was going to be the latter, I took it for a sign that I was in the right place. The Queen of England had rebuilt her castle. Her children’s marriages were pretty much a wreck but they had gotten over it. The Windsor family was going to be fine for a few thousand more years. The Robinsons were too.
Miss Mary confirmed that the neighborhood was gentrifying because her property taxes had gone up. She needed the rent money to supplement her fixed-income in order to meet her increased tax burden. “This house been in my family a hundred years,” she told me. “We not gonna lose it on my watch.” Which meant I would be helping her, and I liked that too. It really must be a sign.
She was as lively as her brightly colored floral house-dress. Her blue shoes were somewhere between traditional bedroom slippers and currently stylish mules and made a half-sliding sound against the floor when she walked, not a shuffle per se, just an easy going gait that I found relaxing. There was no hurry in her. I looked forward to living here.
Miss Mary was funny and serious at the same time; a real church-lady but seemingly pragmatic, realistic. She was a widow, “But I do have my company,” she informed me. “Except not too much in the summertime. I don’t like a man up under me when it’s hot. Now you young people, y’all don’t care nothing about it being hot. Y’all like getting all sweaty with one another. But you wait and see. You get my age, you’ll know what I’m talking about.”
I couldn’t imagine any time hot or cold when I’d push Madison away. I lived for being up under him, as Miss Mary called it. Unfortunately Miss Mary’s porch steps, front and back, and staircase leading to second floor where the bedrooms were, ruled out our doing any private business in my new room. Oh well. This was just a way-station. Someday I’d be able to rent my own apartment again, and this time it would be on the first floor. Madison would always be welcomed.
“I do have a boyfriend, Miss Mary,” I started to tell her. “But--”
“Well I should hope so!” she merrily exclaimed.
I smiled again. We were having English Breakfast tea in the middle of the afternoon. It was sweetly sophisticated that Miss Mary had a Tea Time. She explained that she liked to have milk in her tea, so she only bought English Breakfast. If I wanted coffee I’d have to buy it myself and a coffee pot too. Maybe Madison could buy me one as a housewarming gift. After all coffee pots were kind of our thing.
“Is he good-looking?” Miss Mary wanted to know. “’Course there’s nothing wrong with an ugly man. It’s been my experience that they do appreciate you better. But you still young. I say now is the best time to go out with good-looking men, at least until you get serious. Wait ‘til you ready to settle down before you settle.”
I considered telling her that I had already settled down once, until Derrick had announced that he had actually been settling, but I decided to save it for another time. I wondered if I was ever going to really get over that—how Derrick had believed he was settling for me, lavish church wedding and all. Every time I recalled myself walking down the aisle to him, believing that for once in my life I had been truly beautiful, I’d imagine Derrick thinking how he had deserved better. The wedding dress was the first thing that had gone to the consignment shop. I would have donated it to the Salvation Army just to get it out of my sight. Maybe that had been my biggest mistake; Derrick had been too good-looking for me. Had I stayed in my lane, in my league, I might have been a married woman today instead of a down-and-out divorcee.
But then I would have never met Madison; who was too good looking for me too, even if he didn’t seem to realize it. If that horrible green light had been red, Madison’s journey might have never brought him to me. He would have been able to reach his own coffee maker and easily carry it to the check-out.
Sometimes it made my head spin, the way things played themselves out. If Derrick had loved me then I would not be loving Madison, and I couldn’t imagine not having this man in my life. People believed that they wanted do-overs, that they wanted to correct every mistake they ever made, but did we really? If we could see the whole road laid out before us, no twists and turns, no foggy curves, or summits to reach, then maybe we’d just be frozen in place by the knowledge. Or maybe we’d still go off the road all together searching for adventure.
We were kind of built for risk. It enticed us. Safe was okay, but it rarely took your breath away or sent electricity through your bloodstream. So yes, I had an ace, an Ace of Hearts, but in the card game, Spades the Ace of Hearts could get trumped. Holding onto it for too long instead of playing it could be a costly error, maybe even cost you the game. Sometimes it was better to lead with the Ace Hearts, or any other ace you might have. Go first. And why not? A win was a win and in the long run who really cared by how much?
“He’s very good-looking,” I proudly told Miss Mary. “Smart too. And nice. You’ll like him.”
And I love him. The Ace of Hearts was bright red in my hand. Miss Mary grinned so broadly that I blushed.
“You sure do,” she sagely said and sipped her tea.
For an instant I wondered if she had seen my imaginary hand.
“We like each other a lot,” I said.
Miss Mary glanced at me over the rim of her teacup before returning it to its saucer.
“You light up just talking about him,” she observed. “Looks to me like that man got his hands around your heart for safe keeping.”
It was nice the way she said it: Madison’s hands around my heart for safe keeping. It was lovely to think of him holding my Ace of Hearts in his hands because it did feel safe. I felt protected in his beautiful hands.
“Some nights I’ll probably do a sleep-over at his place,” I informed Miss Mary.
“I’m not prudish, if that’s what you’re worried about,” she replied. “He’s welcome to sleep-over here too, as you put it.”
“He won’t be able to.”
Miss Mary frowned a little, waiting to hear why.
“He uses a wheelchair,” I explained. “The steps…”
Again she nodded her understanding.
“I see,” she said. “Well maybe if things work out, and we get along, we’ll put in a ramp. They got those new chair-lift things that anybody can put in their house. And since I’m no spring chicken, I might be needing that kind of thing myself someday.”
She made it sound no normal. My eyes watered as a happy lump swelled in my throat. I couldn’t believe her, or my fortune, or Chandra. Chandra who had made all this happen, Chandra the mean floor supervisor that I had sworn to have my vengeance against. See—God must be a comedian.