Still carrying the storage case, its hard rectangular body banging into me with each harried step, I got down the porch steps as fast as I could. Trampling across the precious lawn I went to where Madison sat in the driveway, racing to get to him before Derrick did. Derrick strode casually, removing his sunglasses and hooking them on the collar of his Atlanta Falcons t-shirt. If he said something awful to Madison I would kill him—spectacle or not.
“Hey man,” I heard Derrick say. “Let me get that for you.”
He reached for the cardboard box in Madison’s lap, but Madison firmly planted his left hand on top of the box and kept it in his lap.
“That’s okay,” Madison declined. “I got it. Just need you to pull your truck back a little so I can get to my trunk.”
“Oh yeah, sure,” said Derrick. “I probably need to back in the driveway anyway. The name’s Derrick Hall, by the way,” he extended his right hand to Madison. “I’m Paige’s ex.”
Madison raised his gloved right hand high, positioning it for a fist bump which had become the hip alternative to the regular handshake. It was a method that could work well for hands that couldn’t open.
“Madison Reese,” Madison said as the two men’s right hands came together. “Good to meet you.”
It wasn’t good at all, but for the tiniest instant I was almost grateful to Derrick.
“Iraq?” Derrick asked Madison in what evidently was some kind of boorish reference to Madison’s wheelchair.
“No,” Madison answered him.
Standing by his side now, I placed my hand on Madison’s shoulder. It was proprietary and protective, and Derrick didn’t miss the gesture. His eyes darted to my hand and then back up to my face. He grinned. Of course I knew this grin. It was the one that never reached Derrick’s eyes and only appeared friendly. More cover than not, it was just Derrick being politic while he studied the lay of the land and decided what he should do next. It had fooled many, including me.
“Oh,” replied Derrick. “Sorry…I just figured…”
“Easy mistake,” said Madison.
His shoulder muscle was like marble, but that was the only indication that Madison might be tense, and it could simply be from carrying the cardboard box. From where I stood I couldn’t see his face although I was certain it was game-on. After all he was a lawyer, being impassive was a prerequisite.
I, on the other hand, was not cool. How could Derrick be here? What kind of ex-husband just showed up like he had every right to?
“How you doing, Paige?” Derrick asked me drolly, as if he were sure he had the answer.
One who had come at Ted's request I supposed. I could imagine their conversations, what Ted must have reported to him about me, and now about Madison. I could picture them laughing, scoffing at something they were both too bigoted to even think possible—that Madison was a better man than the both of them combined.
What kind of ex-husband did something like this? The awful kind, the kind who were smug and selfish, and who enjoyed a drama. Derrick had no right to ask Madison about his injury, no right to speak of it at all. Or be here.
“Ted shouldn’t have called you,” I told him, barely keeping it together.
“You can’t spare a hello, Paige?” Derrick smirked ignoring what I had said.
Hell no! But I bit my lip. I was determined not to entertain him.
“Ted said you were moving out,” Derrick continued. “Thought you could use some help. I brought my truck.”
Which looked new, shining in the late morning sun, However, Derrick’s credit rating couldn’t be any better than mine. I didn’t want to think about how he’d been able to swing it.
“We don’t need a truck,” I said.
“Ah, Paige, don’t be hateful,” said Derrick wearing the phony, patronizing smile. “Everybody needs a truck on moving day. Now give me this,” he said reaching for the storage chest. “I’ll toss it on the back.”
Gripping the chest’s handle tightly, I recoiled from him, retreating a little behind Madison’s left shoulder where I was holding on.
“No,” I said tightly. “We don’t need you.”
“Paige, come on,” Derrick shrugged his shoulders. “Trunk. Truck. It’s a no brainer.”
He was so confident that the truck was the right choice, that he was. It’s a no brainer was Derrick’s favorite way to shut-down an argument. How many times had I heard him use it, meaning that I had no brain? And how many times had I let him get away with it, get whatever it was he wanted? Suddenly I totally got it—what real settling was. And not today. As if I had somehow communicated that to him through my hand on his shoulder Madison said to Derrick casually, “’Preciate the offer. But we’re good.”
Derrick looked down at him chuckling to himself.
“Hey man,” replied Derrick. “You not gonna stand—I mean—on foolish pride too, are you?”
Did I squeeze Madison’s shoulder tighter or did his shoulder get harder?
“We could be like that moving company you see around,” Derrick went on. “You know, what’s it called, Two Men and a Truck? You look like the executive type. You can be the supervisor.”
Madison also chuckled, briefly, dryly. Then placing his arm around my waist, he said, “That would be Paige’s job.”
I was the one who was protected and I leaned in closer to Madison. Derrick’s political veneer began to crack. The grin was faltering, slipping. For a moment no one spoke. Madison felt solid and strong, and my own arm slipped around his shoulders naturally. Derrick’s eyes bored into mine. Once upon a time, in desperation, I would have blinked, but that time was no more.
“Is this what you want, Paige?” he demanded darkly. “You’re turning me down?”
He seemed honestly surprised by it; like he had really believed that he could just swoop in and reclaim—if just for show—what he had settled for before. I didn’t turn to see but I pictured Ted and Pam still standing on the porch, their nasty little plan collapsing right before their eyes.
“I didn’t ask you,” I said, my voice drawing strength from Madison.
“Move the truck, Derrick,” he said simply, as if he really were the supervisor, and like it was a no-brainer.
This time when Derrick looked down at him, the cover grin was completely gone, replaced by unvarnished contempt. Derrick’s eyes narrowed. His nostrils flared. His hands pulsated, opening and closing concurrently, as if he were squeezing some kind of invisible pump. For a terrifying moment I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t really think Derrick was capable of violence, or that I mattered that much to him. It was just that this was an ancient, primitive ritual, the stuff of legends, this competition, this conflict between males, the law of the jungle; and Derrick had every advantage—save one. He lacked Madison’s character.
The driveway pavement was hot. Derrick’s face wore a sheen of sweat, and I could feel little beads of my own perspiration sprouting at my hairline. Since his injury Madison’s ability to regulate his body temperature was impaired and he wasn’t able to easily sweat. Derrick probably didn’t know that. To him Madison must have just looked cool, calm and collected. Which he was. Because that was Madison’s nature, the game-face he put on every day of his life. Derrick’s shallow artificial surface was no match for that.
He shifted his gaze towards the front porch briefly, where Pam and Ted must be. Did he think his co-conspirators were going to come to his aid? As Eliza Doolittle might have said, not bloody likely.
“Fuck this shit!” Derrick snapped, and turning away he stormed off. “You want the bitch dyke you can have her! Have yourself a ball,” he angrily flung back at us over his shoulder. “If you can.”
“Let’s get you moved,” Madison said giving me a quick squeeze before taking his arm from around my waist to push his chair. Then, the cardboard box in his lap, Madison rolled to the end of the driveway where Derrick’s truck still remained, coming so close to the vehicle that he could have reached out and touched it. Derrick gunned the engine. My stomach flipped with fear. Road rage was real. What if Derrick did something stupid? Finally the trucked jerked back and then peeled off, the huge tires screeching as Derrick floored it dangerously down the street.
At last I could breathe again.
“Paige,” Madison called from the back of the Buick. “Bring the chest.”
By the time I reached him, he had already placed the cardboard box in one corner of the trunk. When I started to lift the storage chest, Madison stopped me, pressing down on it until it was sitting on the pavement.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said. “Go get your suitcases.”
“Madison,” I began warily. “You shouldn’t…” but I stopped.
It was his call. I watched him place his left foot flat on the street, then using his right hand brace himself against the body of the car and proceed to push his left forearm under the plastic handle. The veins in his right bicep and forearm showed through the taught muscles as Madison lifted the storage chest up and over into the trunk; but immediately his legs went into spasms, the right leg shaking so forcefully that it fell off the footplate too.
“Madison--” I started again.
“The bags, Paige,” he ordered me firmly as he leaned into the trunk, repositioning the storage chest, and ignoring his shaking legs. “I’m fine.”
Obediently I turned to go for the bags but then saw my nephews, Teddy and Thomas, coming towards us, each of them carrying a suitcase. Trailing behind them was Jennifer my shoulder bag hanging from her shoulder and dragging on the ground. When they got to the car, the boys looked a little sheepish. “Mom told us to bring your suitcases,” Teddy said.
“I got your pocketbook, Auntie Paige,” announced Jennifer.
I didn’t say anything. If this was Pam’s way of making a peace offering, I didn’t want it. I’d never forgive Ted, or her.
“Great!” Madison said intervening. “Thanks guys. Mind setting them in the trunk for me?” His feet now back in place on their plate, he pushed back from the car. “Just lay ‘em flat on top of the chest.”
The boys took turns putting the bags into the trunk per Madison’s instructions and headed back to the house before I could thank them—assuming I wanted to. Didn’t the Bible say something about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons? Ted had turned them all against me. I had never felt welcomed here. Outrage choked me and pressed my lips together.
“That it, Auntie Paige?” asked Madison.
The playful reference caught me off guard and Madison gave me one of his gorgeous smiles as if Ted hadn’t invited Derrick here to humiliate him and teach me a lesson. Madison was making out like it was water off a duck’s back. Frankly it was a little infuriating. I nodded my head yes.
“She’s not your auntie,” Jennifer stepped forward to inform Madison.
Now Madison’s warm smile shone on Jennifer as he reached up to hook his hand into the canvas loop that allowed him to pull the trunk lid down so that he was able to close it.
“No she’s not,” he agreed. “My bad. So what do you think I should call her?”
“Her name is Paige,” replied Jennifer smartly.
“I know,” Madison rolled closer to the curb where Jennifer stood, and rested his hands on his knees. “But don’t you think she should have a pet name too? I bet you got one. I had one when I was a little boy. My dad gave it to me. It was Maddy. Daddy and Maddy.”
“That’s a girl’s name,” said Jennifer.
Jennifer looked thoughtful.
“There’s a girl in my class and her name is Billie. But you can’t spell it with a Y. If you spelled Maddy with a Y I guess it would be okay.”
Madison pretended to wipe sweat away from his forehead onto the back of his leather glove.
“Whew! That was close,” he said earnestly. “Saved by the Y.”
“You’re silly!” she declared.
“Now is that with a Y or an I-E? And I still don’t know what I should call your Auntie Paige.”
“My daddy calls my mommie sweetheart.”
“Okay. I like that. Sweetheart it is.” He looked up at me and winked. Then in a very bad Humphrey Bogart impression he asked. “Ready to go, sweetheart?”
“You talk funny,” Jennifer giggled.
So maybe I had always had one friend in this house. Claiming my purse, I dropped to my knees and gave Jennifer a tight hug.
“You be good, okay?” I said into her hair, fighting back emotionally mixed-up tears.
“You’re not going to live with us anymore?” Jennifer asked her tone suddenly small and sad.
When I looked into her sweet face it had become very serious. I saw Pam there, the Pam before Ted, when she had been unshackled by a husband’s superiority complex. At least Jennifer wasn’t willing to send me to H-E-double hockey sticks.
“No,” I told her. “But I’ll come get you sometimes--promise. We’ll go to McDonalds.”
“Chuck E. Cheese’s is better,” Jennifer said.
“Okay. Chuck E. Cheese’s it is.”
“Is your friend gonna come too?” she asked looking passed me at Madison.
“I’d like him to.”
“Well—okay. He’s kinda goofy but I think he must like you, Auntie Paige, so he can come.”
“I’m glad,” I said, my tears threatening to break. “Now run along.”
I didn’t watch Jennifer go back up the drive as I was keeping my back to the house while I waited next to the car for Madison to make his transfer and stow his chair in the backseat. As soon as that was done, I got into the car and continued to keep my eyes straight ahead. Madison started the car and the air conditioner’s cool air was soothing in my face as I struggled to collect myself. No matter what, I was leaving this place today. I was unshackled.
Madison lowered the car door windows, which didn’t make any sense with the AC on, and I couldn’t understand why we weren’t going. After what seemed an interminable amount of time he spoke.
“Are you okay?” he wanted to know.
Yes, of course, I thought bleakly. My holier-than-thou family was in cahoots with my cheating ex-husband, and my boyfriend had just witnessed the whole clown show.
“I’m fine,” I said.
Still Madison didn’t put the car in drive. Frustrated, I finally looked over at him.
“Your sister and Jennifer are waiting out front, Paige,” he said. “You don’t want to wave at them?”
“Can we just go—please.”
“Just go,” I snapped.
“Okay,” he replied and called up Miss Mary’s address in the GPS, driving us away, and rolling up our windows.
Every now and again I’d steal a glance at Madison to get a read on his reaction to all of this, now that he was no longer entertaining children, but what was the use? He had on his poker face, so whatever was working behind that composed visage I had no way of knowing unless I point-blank asked him; and I really wanted to arrive at Miss Mary’s wearing my own happy face which I probably wouldn’t be able to do if we went there right now.
I considered saying I was sorry right up front, but my counselor’s mind was enough intact to realize that I couldn’t apologize for Derrick or Ted, or Pam either for that matter. Apologizing would only make me look more pathetic than I already did. I kept hearing Ted’s words in my head: You need help.
I could have taken a taxi to Miss Mary’s house, so truth be told, some of this really was my fault. I loved Madison so much that I just wanted to show Pam and Ted who he was, how able, how good we were together. They were so totally convinced that he was broken, and he was not. I had wanted them to see that. But I had forgotten that there were at least two sides to any argument. They had wanted to show me. And there was Madison stuck in the middle, where I had brought him. And after the way Pam had treated him before too. I should have known better. But no, once again I had trusted too much. Social Worker Robinson to the rescue, like Ted had said. Always looking for the happily ever after. Like that ever happened. I did need help. Somebody better call Iyanla or Dr. Phil. I needed a couch.
Besides, if they didn’t accept Madison what difference did it make? They didn’t have to. He belonged to me. Or I wanted him to. If my freak show of a family hadn’t caused him to push pause, or the fatal eject. What if he couldn’t accept them? Again it was a two-way street. I won’t come between you and your sister, he had said and Madison had meant it. His life was already complicated enough. He didn’t need my family drama. My personal baggage was not the kind he could just swing into his trunk and close the lid on it. I really did need a truck to haul it around. Madison might never go to Chuck E. Cheese’s with Jennifer and me; and from out of nowhere a hot tear poured down my cheek. Quickly I swiped it away, forcing down a sob.
Unexpectedly Madison turned into a strip mall shopping center. I stole another hasty sideways glance at him and then looked straight ahead again. Why were we stopping here? The place was run-down looking, with the kind of stores that had names that featured the word Dollar prominently, and the kinds of restaurants that always sold hot wings whatever else was on the menu. The GPS lady was beside herself with new instructions and recalculations. Even more perplexing was the fact that Madison bypassed the handicap parking and pulled into a more isolated space near the back of the lot next to a field. He rolled down the windows and shut off the engine.
“Why are we stopping?” I finally asked, my voice so gravelly I was forced to clear my throat to get the words out.
“We need to talk,” replied Madison, removing his sunglasses.
The bottom of my stomach dropped out. Any conversation that began with We need to talk was generally bad news for somebody.
“I’m sorry, Madison,” I said grimly getting the ball rolling although I still wouldn’t face him.
“I get to go first,” he replied.
Now I looked at him. A little grin was playing around his mouth. Something must be amusing him, so I felt a little better.
“The way I see it,” Madison began thoughtfully. “Your ex was your family’s ace in the hole. And whatever you say about him, my man Derrick did show up on time. Gotta give him that. And he was pretty smooth too—at first. Very nice truck. Ram Tough. You know, some people think the pick-up truck is the backbone of the auto industry. Nobody builds them better than we do.”
The digression made me anxious. What were we supposed to be talking about?
“But anyway,” Madison got back on track. “Your folks didn’t count on you having a joker.” Now his smile was beautiful. “A little beat-up, and missing a corner or two, but I’m still in play. You trumped them, Paige.”
I was staring at him.
“And you didn’t even blink,” he grinned.
“I don’t…It was awful for you,” I stammered. “The way Pam and Ted acted, and…and Derrick, he was so rude. But it was my fault.” My voice cracked. “I exposed you to it. I could have taken a taxi.”
“And deny me my chance to be a hero?” replied Madison. “No way.” He smiled again and then turned serious, instructive. “Paige, you’re a beautiful woman. There’s probably always gonna be some goofball who tries to prove his manhood to you by humiliating me. It kinda goes with my territory. But they usually back down. Not too many cool points beating up a cripple. And if they happen to be too drunk to know better,” he continued as he flexed his right bicep showing its definition, “Then I can usually get in one good sucker punch to the belly, or lower,” he grinned again. “Which can turn the tables pretty quick. ‘Course if they should get me on the ground, I’ll expect you to do more than dial 9-1-1. Something to the head works nicely.”
Madison in a bar fight? Before or after, it was hard to imagine he’d ever elect brawn over brains. But I could imagine Derrick dropped to his knees, clutching his family jewels. Talk about your shock and awe. It would have been fabulous!
“You’d fight for me?” I asked, just a little too thrilled by the prospect for the social worker pacifist moniker I claimed to carry.
Madison’s face became serious again.
“For you, and with you,” he replied. “Whatever the case may be.”
I was smiling but I started to cry too. I thought about how protected, how supported, I had felt with Madison’s arm around my waist, with his big shoulders to hold onto. The damsel in distress at last had her knight in shining armor. Of course I didn’t believe in all of that, I couldn’t, being a feminist and all, but it was wonderful. Madison, his expression now sweet and tender, was wiping away my tears with his thumb.
“So no loser tapes, okay,” Madison said. “This is a good day.” He lifted my chin so that our eyes met. “And promise me you’ll fix things with your sister. Don’t be so hard on her, or Sir Judge-A-Lot, or whatever you call him,” he smiled.
“They owe you an apology, Madison,” I said stubbornly. “They owe me one.”
“And from the way things turned out, I’d say they owe Derrick one. Bet his ego took a hit today. Big man in a big truck loses out to a gimp in Buick.” He grinned. “Not too good.”
I laughed a little.
“He was totally pissed,” I had to agree. “He had no idea who he was up against. You must be incredible in court, Counselor.”
“Paige,” Madison said. “It was you. All you. I just had your back.”
I felt his knuckles against the nape of my neck as Madison drew me to him. Our lips touched gently, and then our mouths, and finally our tongues danced together as I squeezed myself between Madison and the steering wheel again to be in the happy place that was his arms. It was a wonder the police didn’t bust us, making out like teenagers in the broad daylight.
to be continued...