We made one more stop before arriving at Miss Mary’s. Madison needed to keep to his bathroom schedule, and with Miss Mary’s house not being accessible for him, and us not knowing how long we would be there, Madison didn’t want to chance it. With such a risk there could be consequences he had once told me, keeping the details to himself, although I had done enough homework to have an adequate understanding. For Madison, going to the bathroom was more like a medical procedure than simple relief. He carried his necessary supplies with him in the side pocket pouch secured to his wheelchair.
I felt a fresh pang of regret regarding Miss Mary’s porch steps, as Madison pulled into a Kroger Supermarket. As soon as I got a real job I would get myself an apartment—first floor. I’d make Pam co-sign for me if I had to. After today she owed it to me, and I’d dare Ted to say one holier-than-thou thing. Siccing Derrick on us like that. And yes absolutely—Derrick was a dog, and I was the dyke-bitch who had married him. But that was yesterday’s news. I had my name back. And my own address. And oh yes, I had Madison.
As we entered the store we were assaulted by the various smells of cooking food which was meant to be enticing but in reality was only overwhelming due to the sheer assortment of aromas, even though it was lunchtime. Madison spotted the restrooms just passed the deli, and he suggested I go pick out some flowers for Miss Mary while he made use of the facilities.
“My treat,” he offered about the flowers.
“You don’t need to do that,” I replied.
“First impressions, Paige,” he smiled that movie star grin of his. “The way you talk about her, I’m thinking I’d like to have her in my corner.”
As if anyone in the world could have a better corner with me than he did. Ha! I was beginning to think he had the whole enchilada, for what it was worth of course. And in any case his gesture was authentic and sweet, so for about the millionth time today I thought to myself I am the luckiest woman in the world.
“How do you know she’s not allergic or something?” I asked him smartly, still feigning protest.
“Shop woman,” Madison ordered wheeling away. “And be fancy.”
The floral selection wasn’t the best I had ever seen but the prices weren’t beyond my means either. It was nice of Madison to think of doing this, but he shouldn’t have to pay. I had my own money too. Although this wasn’t about that, I immediately reminded myself. He was just a very nice a guy, and I needed to get out of the way and let him do his thing. Maybe it was just that I was completely out of practice with nice guys. Too much Derrick and Ted. But today, watching Madison be himself with everybody from Ted and Pam, to Derrick and the boys, and little Jennifer, and finally with me, well it was just splendid, that was all I could think. For you, and with you. Whatever the case may be. I broke out in goose pimples and it wasn’t from standing in front of the refrigerated case of cut flowers. I lit up just talking about Madison Miss Mary had observed, and she was right, my heart was finally safe.
Eventually I chose a bouquet and quickly went to the deli section for two cold bottles of water. If Madison was emptying he would need to rehydrate. We both did. It was beginning to be more summer than spring. By the time I made it back to the flowers, Madison was waiting for me. I presented the flowers.
“Do these meet your standards, my lord?” I asked bowing stiffly.
He laughed, pulling the shopping basket into his lap.
“Smart-ass,” he said. “Just put the flowers in the basket.”
Madison rolled to a self-check-out kiosk and before I could second-guess myself for maybe the third or fourth time, he produced his ATM card and handed it to me, mouthing his PIN number. It felt kind of weird using another person’s ATM card and knowing their PIN, but I guessed it was okay when the other person was your boyfriend—well the love of your life. Such sharing had never happened to me before but I decided to be as cool about it as Madison was. Simply put, he trusted me. My skin was all goose pimply again, and my panties damp, although that was getting to be wonderfully normal whenever Madison was near to me in thought, word, or deed.
When we finally got to Miss Mary’s house, it was almost one o’clock. I was a little nervous about the heat for Madison, so I was thankful that Miss Mary’s portion of the sidewalk was shaded by trees. Madison popped the trunk. Before hopping out of the car I placed the flower bouquet on the dashboard where he could easily reach it, drawing a curious look from him. “You should give them to her,” I said. “She’ll love it.”
Seconds later Miss Mary, wearing another one of her flowing floral dresses that rivaled the many colors of the bouquet she was about to receive, was out the front door of the house and down the porch steps. Following her was a more sedately dressed older gentleman, who looked to be around Miss Mary’s age. Was he her gentleman caller?
“Well I wondered what happened to y’all,” Miss Mary started fussing even before she reached the car.
We were pretty delayed, it was true; so I was glad for the flowers that Madison had bought, and I hoped we hadn’t caused too much inconvenience.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Things took longer at the house than--”
“What?” Miss Mary laughed merrily, her hands planted on her hips as she surveyed the contents of Madison’s trunk. “Your sister try to lock you in your room? I’m not surprised.”
“Something like that,” said Madison joining us, the flowers in his lap. “Madison Reese,” he introduced himself to Miss Mary extending his right hand.
Miss Mary grabbed it warmly in both of hers.
“Mary Bolton,” she returned. “Boy have I heard a lot about you,” she beamed at him.
“Hope it’s good,” replied Madison.
“Are you kidding me?” Miss Mary chuckled deeply. “Heaven must be missing an angel since you’re down here with us.”
My whole body burned with a blush.
“I see,” said Madison winking at me.
Which did not help me at all. Changing the subject, I hastily introduced myself to Miss Mary’s friend.
“Leonard Fields,” the older man said in a deep booming voice that matched his big burly body just right.
“He’s my angel,” added Miss Mary with a just a hint of coquettishness.
And now there were two blushing faces, although the second one at least had a beard to hide behind.
“These are for you, Miss Mary,” Madison said offering her the flowers.
Miss Mary squealed like a very good girl rewarded accordingly on Christmas morning.
“Leonard, look!” she said showing her beau the flowers.
“We wanted to mark the occasion,” Madison explained, finally a little embarrassed himself by Miss Mary’s delighted response.
“You must have a good daddy,” Miss Mary replied. “And a mama who raised you right.”
I couldn’t help but compare Pam and Ted to Miss Mary and Leonard, and it wasn’t in a good way. But again, that was behind us now, so I refused to dwell on it.
Once the two men had shaken hands, Miss Mary took charge of organizing the emptying of the Buick’s trunk. “Leonard, you get that plastic chest, and Paige and me will get the suitcases,” she said. “Madison, you take the box.” And just like that, all of my belongings were sitting on Miss Mary’s porch.
“Leonard’ll help you take your things upstairs,” Miss Mary said to me. “Me and Madison’ll go around back. I got us a nice picnic lunch all ready.”
I hadn’t expected that, but it was time to eat and generous of Miss Mary to have planned for it. Luckily the backyard was well shaded too, and I was really glad that we had made the stop at Kroger’s.
Mr. Leonard was great and together we made quick work of taking my things upstairs. My new bedroom had been freshly painted a lovely warm creamy brown color, and Miss Mary had even purchased new bed linens and matching curtains for the window that looked out over the backyard. An early summer breeze blew through the open window stirring the sheer panels gently. I thought of that old Isley Brothers song, of jasmine and feeling fine. I was really going to like it here. Chandra was going to get a very nice Thank-You card, my treat.
“Mae said you’re a modern woman and you deserve a modern looking room,” Mr. Leonard said. “That light brown is real popular. And it’s semi-gloss too. Just wipe it with a wet cloth and it looks like new.”
I wished desperately that Madison could see it.
“She didn’t need to do that,” I said.
“Well, that’s my Mae,” he smiled. “Good thing I’m a contractor. Comes in pretty handy sometimes.”
I also wanted to go to the window and check on what was happening downstairs. Miss Mary was probably making me out to be a love-sick puppy or something, which wasn’t untrue merely embarrassing. Madison had to already know that I worshipped the ground he walked—rolled on, and I could picture Miss Mary confirming it. Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I wondered if Madison ever referred to me as my Paige. It was kind of old timey to be sure but it was nice to imagine him thinking of me like that, as his.
“Miss Mary has a beautiful home,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s a decent old house,” Mr. Leonard agreed. “Needs a few improvements but it’s solidly built. Real estate agents always snooping around but Mae’ll never sell. Come on, let’s go eat. She’s a helluva cook too.”
I followed Mr. Leonard back downstairs and through the house. In the kitchen something did smell very good, and my tummy growled. The morning toast was a long time ago. Mr. Leonard was holding the screen door open for me but before I could pass I saw something that froze me in my tracks. Next to the porch steps was a newly built wooden ramp that gradually sloped down to the grassy yard. The wood was so new you could smell how it had been freshly cut. I stared at it in disbelief. I must be imagining it. I looked at Mr. Leonard who grinned broadly.
“Like I said,” he said. “I come in handy.”
“There you are!” called Miss Mary, getting up from the picnic table underneath a huge oak, where she had been sitting with Madison. “Paige, girl, we gotta get these men fed.”
I still didn’t move, and ambling across the yard, she reached us, claiming the still open screen door from Mr. Leonard, and basically pushing me back inside.
“Go on now, Leonard,” instructed Miss Mary. “Y’all talk about your sports or something, while me and Paige bring the food out.”
In the kitchen, Miss Mary was a swoosh of printed flowers, bustling from oven to refrigerator to counter and then back around again, while I mostly just stood in the middle of the floor dumbly, completely stunned by her kindness. We had only talked about making her house accessible, and now she had gone and done this huge thing as if she were certain that our arrangement was going to work out, that me and Madison would. Talk about stepping out on faith.
“You mentioned Madison having trouble with his hands,” she was saying. “They have special utensils they use. Does Madison have his with him?”
“I’m-I’m not sure,” I answered.
Miss Mary shot me a glance that said I was supposed to know.
“He’s okay without them,” I added. “He holds things between his fingers.”
“They don’t move,” said Miss Mary as she lifted the lid off the casserole dish she had just taken from the oven.
Instantly the room was filled with the savory fragrances of cooked onions and sage. My stomach growled again, but mainly I was just overwhelmed. She had done all these nice things for me and what had I done? Picked out some flowers and not before I had discouraged Madison from even buying them. In the words of Bill Maher, new rules.
“That’s how it works,” I explained. “His fingers stay in place, so the fork does.”
“I see,” replied Miss Mary. “Spread that towel on the tray and bring it over.” I quickly followed her instruction. “And if he runs into any trouble you help him?”
No. Madison never ran into trouble. Not anymore anyway.
“Madison’s very independent,” I said. “He doesn’t like that.”
Miss Mary frowned.
“Help’s not a dirty word, Paige.”
Although it did have the requisite four letters.
“I know,” I agreed.
“And it doesn’t always have to mean nurse either,” Miss Mary said. “Now you take this casserole. I make it with egg whites and turkey sausage and low fat cheese. And this evening when it gets cool I’ll make Leonard go for a walk with me. He’s got a heart condition. We talked about it one time and now I just act accordingly. And let me tell you, he doesn’t always like it but he knows why I do it. Maybe it’s more complicated with Madison, but you can read up on things. I did. That’s how I learned to cook for Leonard. And what you don’t understand, you ask Madison about it.”
How could I tell her that I had only just been allowed into Madison’s bathroom? I had to tread lightly.
“I don’t want to embarrass him, Miss Mary.”
“Bet you don’t tiptoe around your patients,” she replied.
“Clients,” I corrected her.
Not that I had any anymore.
“Whatever you call them,” she brushed away the correction. “I bet you just dive right on in there and roll up your sleeves and get it done. Whatever they need.”
Everybody’s not a case. They don’t want to be managed. Ted’s indicting words bumped around in my brain.
“And besides that’s how you know it’s all right to ask. Because it does matter to you how he feels about it. It means you love him, Paige,” Miss Mary continued. “He’ll know that, and he won’t mind you asking. Or looking after him,” she smiled. “It comes natural when you love somebody, baby. I did it for my husband, God rest his soul, and now I do it for Leonard. And he looks after me too. That is the way God intended it.”
Miss Mary returned to the fridge and took out a big bowl of salad.
“I used baby spinach,” she said. “Bite-size leaves. Lord knows, it’s just about the only way I can get that man to eat greens unless their simmered in pork fat which he does not need.”
“I can’t believe you had him build that ramp,” I blurted out. “I mean changing your whole house. You--”
“It’s a plain old wooden ramp, Paige. Leonard’s men knocked it out in less than a day.”
“But Miss Mary, it’s…I can pay for it. I’ll add extra to the rent.”
“No you won’t. You can’t steal my blessing.”
“But Miss Mary--”
“Paige Robinson, this is your home now, and Madison Reese is your man. It wouldn’t be right for him not to feel welcomed here. The Bible says thou shalt not vex a stranger, or oppress him, and not being able to get into your woman’s house is what I would call very vexing.”
There was nothing left to say but thank you, and so I did, going to her and hugging her tightly. She squeezed me back, and I loved the way she smelled of perfume, and of the onions and the sage.
Lunch was terrific, the food, the company, the conversation. All of it. I watched Miss Mary dote on Mr. Leonard lovingly and took mental notes and tried to imitate her a little too with Madison, anticipating what he might want or need: a second helping of the casserole, another slice of buttered bread, unobtrusively refilling his glass of lemonade. Years of locked-down TV-taught wifeyness began to bubble to the surface and frankly I liked it. Suddenly I was remembering my own mother with my father, how loving him in these little—okay slightly stereotypical ways—had made them both happy, how both of them had rarely seemed vexed. Not like Pam was now, almost always anxious, more dutiful than delighted. She looked after Ted too, and her children, devotedly, compulsively, and seldom with the easy-going lightness of Miss Mary’s style. Miss Mary and Mr. Leonard were lovely and fun together. The last time I had seen Pam and Ted be fun together was…oh well I couldn’t recall such a time.
When lunch was over all four of us participated in clearing the table and carrying things back to the kitchen, and Madison got to try out the ramp, the casserole dish sitting securely in his lap. The ramp worked perfectly. The small landing at the top of the ramp made it easy for Madison to navigate the screen door which opened outwards. Then while Miss Mary gave Madison a grand tour of the first floor of the house, Mr. Leonard and I put away the food and began to wash the dishes. Ah, modern-day domestic bliss. I started picturing many times like this in my new home.
Home. It was a wonderful word. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed the true meaning of it. I belonged here already. And Madison was welcomed.
Nevertheless it was getting to be a long day. It was after three o’clock. At the very least Madison would likely need to relieve himself again and the doorway to the guest bathroom downstairs was too narrow for his chair. Miss Mary and Mr. Leonard had disappeared somewhere in the house and Madison and I once again sat together in the shade of the oak tree, our knees lightly touching. He looked content although his shoulders had rounded a little and I was noticing that he kept shifting his weight in the chair. Plus I still had unpacking to do. The responsible thing would be to send him home but I just didn’t want him to leave. We had always had our Saturday evenings together even when I had to work until closing. I’d miss falling asleep next to him tonight. Although maybe he was looking forward to having his bed entirely to himself. And given how nice it was going to be in my own new bed, I should be looking forward to sleeping alone too. But sleeping single in a double bed was somebody’s country western blues. Like a greedy person at an all-you-can-eat buffet, I wanted more.
Ah, but what would Miss Mary do?
“I probably need to get unpacked,” I sighed signaling the beginning of the end as I toyed with the hem of Madison’s polo shirt.
Miss Mary would put her man’s needs first and let him go. I could always see him tomorrow. Madison nodded and I felt almost as sad as little Jennifer had been when I said goodbye.
“So you like your room?” he asked.
“I do,” I said. “I can’t believe she painted and bought new linens.”
“And built your boyfriend a ramp for his wheelchair.”
“I know, right?”
During lunch Miss Mary had claimed that she had been needing to have a ramp put in. It seemed there was this woman in her church’s ladies auxiliary who had very bad hips and needed surgery. “One little step can just about do her in, so every time we have a meeting at my house she suffers. But now with my nice ramp, she won’t have to worry.”
“She really likes you,” Madison said stroking my hand between his palms.
“You too,” I reminded him.
“Guess we’re a package.”
I smiled at him, loving the way that sounded.
“I hope Miss Mary and Mr. Leonard make up a little for Pam and Ted.”
“Hey,” Madison said, drawing me to him. “I say we record over that negative tape.”
He kissed me softly, his lips and tongue tasting faintly of the remnants of the lemonade. If he kept kissing me like that I’d throw away the recorder.
After he made his goodbyes to Miss Mary and Mr. Leonard, I followed Madison out to his car.
“So how ‘bout tomorrow we go shopping for your housewarming present?” he suggested.
“I already know what I want,” I informed him brightly.
Madison transferred into the car seat and lifted his right leg in.
“And what would that be, pray tell, and can I--” Before he could get his left leg in, it abruptly locked in a spasm that froze it straight out, banging the top of his foot into the car door. “Dammit,” Madison swore under his breath.
Usually during moments like these I’d avert my eyes so not to witness his frustration, but we were a package, right? For God’s sake he had shared his PIN with me. So looking on I kept talking.
“I want a coffee maker,” I said. “Just like yours, from Target.”
Madison managed to chuckle in between taking deep breaths while he waited for the leg to relax. It was still odd to me, how strong his leg muscles could be on their own and yet mostly refuse to move for him when he wanted them to. Sometimes I’d notice him barely moving his hip and see how difficult it was for him to do it just by the hard set of his jaw. But then all of a sudden one of his legs, or both of them, could contract and be as stiff as a tree trunk or bounce around as if keeping time to some kind of strange music no one could hear.
At last the leg began to relax and swiftly Madison lifted it into the car.
“You aren’t sentimental one bit, are you?” he teased me as he began to disassemble his chair, setting the wheels in the back, and the chair this time in the front passenger seat next to him.
“I am and proud of it,” I declared, perching my rump on the edge of the seat next to the rebellious left leg. I nearly placed my hand on it but resisted the urge. “And you know I don’t want you to go, right?”
“Paige--” Madison’s voice took on his practical father tone, which could at times be both annoying and endearing.
I liked looking up at him. It almost never happened. If I had met him before, at 6’3” Madison would have towered over my 5’7” frame. And been married to Karen and able to get any coffee maker he wanted.
“I know,” I almost groaned. “You really should, and I have my unpacking. But Saturday nights I’m always with you, so I don’t know what to do with myself. Does that mean we’re stuck in a rut?”
“No,” Madison smiled, tenderly rubbing the back of my neck. “How ‘bout you do your unpacking and I go stretch out for a little while. Then when you’re done you call me, and I come back and get you. We’ll get take-out.”
I was thrilled with the offer but I hesitated showing it. I had my own place now. This was a good thing.
“You’re not tired of me?” I asked, flirting a little.
As if he would ever say that he was. I mean, he might someday, but this was not that day.
“No, sweetheart,” he said leaning down to kiss my forehead. “But I am a kinda tired.”
I saw that now, in his golden brown eyes that had lost a little of their luster. Madison sat back again and shifted his weight, stretching his back. This time the right leg quivered. Okay, Paige I scolded myself in my head, let him go.
But before I did I got to my knees and kissed him on the mouth, long and gently, enjoying the cherry on top of what had turned out to be a feast day even as the hard steel was digging into my knee caps. I could always eat more but I was full—for now.
And maybe it was the whole thing: the way Madison had handled Ted and Pam, and Derrick, and how he was with Jennifer, and buying the flowers for Miss Mary, and counseling me, the counselor, and doing it very effectively. Maybe it was Miss Mary’s house full of wisdom and love, and with a new wheelchair ramp. Or Mr. Leonard calling her his Mae, and seeing them together, the fire in their furnace despite the snow on their roofs. I just felt buoyed by it all. Even the bad parts had worked together for good just like that verse in the Bible. I didn’t really get God, not totally, but maybe you didn’t have to. Maybe that was the faith part. You took your chances and played your ace, trusting that your partner was holding the joker and would have your back. Anyways, I moved my lips to Madison ear and for the first time ever, I confessed it freely, whispering it, on a kiss, “I love you.”
******To be continued….