The job at the health center wasn’t official-official until they had checked my references, but of course my last supervisor had been Julia herself. But still. They might even want to call Target, and I hadn’t said a word to my supervisor there; although surely they must know that I would be looking. I’d go see the store manager this afternoon. It was the right thing to do.Julia had asked me to wait following what had turned out to be a panel interview with the clinic administrator, the nursing director, the on-call psychiatrist, and herself. “I want to give you a tour of the facility,” she had said. Maybe they did that with everybody but it did seem as if I were being introduced to the staff with a purpose, and everybody was very nice, dare I say welcoming. The whole experience had had that first-day-in-the-office feel to it.
Following the tour, Julia and I had stopped near the reception desk to say goodbye to each other.“How soon are you available to start?” she had asked.
My heart had threatened to pound its way through my chest.
“Right away,” I had said in voice so husky I needed to clear my throat.“July first?”
“Yes. That-that would be fine.”“Great! We’ll be in touch,” she had said and offered me her hand.
Mine was so clammy I had almost wiped it on my blue gabardine skirt, but then how uncool would that have been? Oh well, I thought plunging ahead into the handshake. Julia was a social worker too. She’d understand.“It’s so good to see you, Paige,” she had said with a bright smile.
“Thank you, Julia,” I had replied appropriately. “Thank you for giving me a chance.”That hadn’t sounded too grovel-ly, had it? I’d be in no position to negotiate salary—as if social workers ever actually did that.
“Thank you,” Julia had returned. “This is a great place to work. You can make a difference.”
Paradise. It would feel like paradise.
Our goodbyes said, I had let go of her hand and tried to walk calmly away, a hard thing to do when your brain is telling your feet to skip.
The sheltered bus-stop was just beyond the health center’s parking lot and I walked quickly towards it. Two elderly women, who looked as if they might be sisters, sat beside each other on the shelter bench, fanning themselves intermittently. While the shelter’s three-sided walls were great for blocking some of the wind and rain on cold days, they were also pretty effective at blocking a cool breeze on the hot ones; although we hadn’t come to the harshest heat of the day. I smiled a bright hello to them and they responded accordingly.
“You might as well sit down, honey,” one of the women said. “The next bus won’t be along for at least ten minutes.”“More like twenty,” grumbled the other.
“Oh I’m okay,” I said. “Thanks.”I was too excited to sit down. I stood, swinging my handbag by its strap, staring down the street as if I were looking for the bus, when I was really straining to see my future. My bright future, I whispered in my head. The annus horribilis at last transported into mirabilis on a MARTA bus. And a Buick. I was dying to call Madison, but I was certain I could not contain my excitement; I was almost about to blurt it out to these nice unsuspecting ladies, but the job was not mine yet. The chickens should actually hatch before I started squawking.
Sure the interview had gone great. I had totally been in the zone, my ideas and analyses sharp and concise. I supposed that came with dating a passionate attorney and advocate, not to mention having the very recent discussions with his equally talented activist parents. My social science brain had not been permitted to rust. In fact, maybe since Madison had come into my life I had become a better student of the world around me. I never knew when there might be a pop quiz, a thesis defense as it were; and God I hated losing an argument to him simply because I had failed to do my homework. I supposed I was still trying to impress him, and I supposed I always would be.And now just think of the conversations Madison and I would have when we met for dinner after the workday. How heady they would be. From theory to practice. Structural to individual. We totally got each other and believed in the same things. Social Work and the Law, we were the stuff of joint college degrees.
“That’s a nice suit,” the first lady complimented me.“Thank you,” I replied, smiling so gleefully she might have wondered about my medications.
“You work at the clinic?” asked her companion.
“No ma’am. Not yet,” I said. “I had an interview this morning though.”“Well now, ain’t that something.”
“I’m a social worker,” I announced, feeling like it, finally, from head to toe, through and through.How long had it been since I could claim that? I shivered with the thrill of it in the warm June sunshine.
“You gonna get the job,” pronounced the first lady, as if she knew it to be true.Roll the dice, Madison had said that night Le Bon Café, and it had come up double-sixes. I recalled how triumphant I had felt moving my backgammon pieces around the board, winning the game, beating him. But then Denise had shown up to warn me, “Be careful, cherie. Do not be too confident.” Yes. It was best not to forget that God was a comedian.
I was pretty much useless during my evening shift at Target since I seemingly already had short-timer’s syndrome in spite of myself. However, I needed to hold it together, since Target was still my bird-in-the-hand, as scrawny as it was. Survivor’s guilt helped, face to face with my co-workers, some of whom were my friends, I felt like the crab in the barrel who was about to get out. I was going to miss the break-room banter, the camaraderie, the occasional girls’ night out after work. But maybe we would keep it up, you know, keep in touch, although that almost never happened. When people separated they did in fact usually go their separate ways. But maybe Chandra could keep me connected, because we were joined permanently by her Aunt- and my Miss Mary.Although Chandra wanted to get beyond Target too. She had been talking to me about her going back to college to get her business degree. She really liked retail and hoped to be a store manager someday, maybe even own her own boutique. Although the thought of homework and Target-work intimidated her. “I didn’t buckle-down like I needed to before,” she had confessed. “And I wasn’t working then.” But that was okay, I had assured her. Not everybody was ready for college right out of high school. I had been constantly encouraging her, even promising to help her study. I could still do that, and I swore to myself that I would. Heck—I could even drag Madison in on one of her projects now and then. It wouldn’t be hard. He liked teaching.
My phone vibrated in my pocket. I was on the floor but I stole a second to see who was calling. It was Madison but I had to let it go to voicemail. By the time I took my break later, I found three messages waiting on my phone from him. I knew what he was calling about: the interview. I had left him a single text message earlier: “Interview went REALLY well. Will call you later.” I had the excuse that he would be busy doing things with his parents, but the real reason we hadn’t talked was my nagging fear of overreaching. I knew the job was mine. I was just scared to say it, in case it somehow turned out wrong. It was silly, silly, silly, but once very awful things happened to you, it was just hard to believe that something good could. It was like I needed to tiptoe so as not to tempt Fate, and blabbering to Madison all the joyous thoughts racing around in my head regarding how my change had come would be like I was marching to a brass band, with cymbals clashing, when it could still end up being a funeral dirge. See—silly, silly, silly. Finally I called him. He answered.“Hey,” he said. “What happened to you? I’ve been calling all day.”
At the sound of his voice I was instantly grinning goofily—still, and again I guessed I always would.
“I had the interview,” I replied. “And then I came to work.”“You couldn’t find five minutes to call me back?”
Was he mad at me?
“I want to hear what happened?” Madison continued. “We all do.”“I sent you a text,” I said. “It went really well.”
“Paige,” he said, a rising note of impatience in his voice.
“Really,” I insisted. “I did fine.”
“And what?”“For God’s sake.”
He sounded so frustrated it was cute.
“Okay,” I giggled a little. “I-I think I got it,” I confessed trying to carefully temper my words. “They just need to check references.”
“That’s fantastic, babe!” said Madison at last happily.He was proud of me.
“I know,” I agreed for a second. “But it’s not a done-deal yet,” I hastened to add. “They haven’t--”“Paige--”
“No Madison. Not yet. I don’t wanna jinx it.”
“Okay,” he yielded. “We won’t plan the party just yet.”I was smiling so brightly that he had to be able to see it through the phone.
“Well we can celebrate the interview,” I offered. “How ‘bout that? It was a panel, but I was so totally on, Madison. I couldn’t--”“No-no,” he wryly disagreed. “We might jinx it.”
Touché. I chuckled.“We can’t,” I said swiftly recovering. “That already happened.”
“And you already got the job too,” he said.“I know,” I whispered like it was a secret, which made Madison laugh out loud, creating a delicious sound.
And the next morning there was another delicious sound from my cell—Julia Longdon’s voice offering me the case worker position at the Oak Wood Community Health Center. “Welcome aboard, Paige,” she said. And it was like I had been rescued by Noah himself for I had found refuge at last on the Old Ship of Zion. This time I immediately called Madison to squeal my joy to him before running downstairs to find Miss Mary and shout Hallelujah to her too.That evening Madison took us all out to dinner, me, and his parents. It was a celebration for my new job, plus it was his parents’ last night in town. And tonight everybody was kind of dressed-up. Madison: casually GQ and gorgeous and Jefferson in a sports coat, something he rarely wore according to both his wife and son. I was wearing my little black dress again, toned-down this time by a pair of black flats, and Jan had on a navy blue skirt and a silk blouse with a print pattern in pastel colors.
“Madison gave it to me for Mother’s Day,” she said when I told her how pretty it was as Madison drove us to the restaurant.The men were in the front and the women were in the back. Madison’s chair was stowed in the trunk.
“It’s very chic,” I said.
“Yes, I love it. There aren’t too many straight men who have an eye for fashion, you know. Not many I would trust anyway.”From what I had seen thus far, I assumed that Madison’s style gene had come from his mother. Jefferson appeared indifferent to fashion, and a very reasonable person could conclude that he hadn’t changed his style very much since his college days at Michigan State when he was earning his economics degree. His son, on the other hand, always dressed well. I supposed that made him a metrosexual. And yet father and son were obviously close, kindred spirits, one of those best-friends kind of duos, and inspiring to see together. Daddy and Maddy, just thinking of that made me smile. And I bet there were pictures too, buried in a basement storage closet.
And just like that—there was Karen, sitting right between Madison’s mother and me; because she must be buried in the basement too. All of Madison’s happy history cut off from him, and me, and by his own hand. So one day while she was at the university I raked them all into a box. As if that would erase anything. It wasn’t a good time, Paige. I wasn’t thinking too straight. But he had said that he was better now. And because of me. Not Karen.
They all would have seen her by now, since Jefferson and Jan were leaving tomorrow morning; and yet no one had mentioned her to me. There was no cause to, no reason at all, and it probably wouldn’t have made me feel any better about the situation in any case. Maybe she was only haunting me. Maybe it was nothing. And at least I wasn’t a Target store clerk anymore, well I wouldn’t be after one more week. I was only giving a week notice to be able to have a few days off before I resumed my career. My brilliant career. Okay so maybe I didn’t climb pyramids, or publish in scientific journals, but still it was brilliant. And the beautiful man driving the Buick as he debated the merits of the Atlanta Braves versus the Detroit Tigers was my man. Not hers.“The Tigers are your heritage, Maddy,” argued Jefferson.
“When in Rome, Dad,” replied Madison.“I just hope you two get it out of your system before we get to the restaurant,” Jan piped in.
I just chuckled and enjoyed it.Madison had decided on the Atlanta Fish Market for dinner. We had been here before and the food was great, plus it was a popular place to bring out-of-town guests since it had this enormous kitschy-looking fish towering above it which pretty much made it an Atlanta landmark, although not as famous as the Big Chicken. Valet parking was mandatory and Madison pulled into the line behind a minivan and stopped, popping his trunk so one of us could get his wheelchair.
Jefferson and I arrived at the back of the car almost simultaneously, with me retrieving the wheels and him lifting out the chair. As I was quickly reattaching the wheels to the chair, Jefferson observed, “You look like you know what you’re doing.”I did, having seen Madison do it so many times, although I had never actually done it before. As a rule, Madison always took care of his own wheelchair, and I generally had the sense that it was off-limits somehow. However tonight he had had no choice, with four passengers the wheelchair had to be placed in the trunk, and so someone had to help him with it.
“It’s easy,” I told Jefferson as I made sure the wheels were securely in place.“You take good care of him, don’t you?” he said.
I looked up at him. Of course they probably worried. You had to live with or near Madison, on a daily basis, to see how able he was. No doubt I would have been concocting similar endless obstacles and challenges for him myself had I not witnessed him overcome and workaround so much. Jefferson and Jan really ought to visit more often. It would put their minds at ease.
“It’s pretty mutual,” I replied.
Although truth be told, on the caring continuum in this relationship I was more the receiver and Madison was the giver. Which was ironic, not just because I was a social worker, but because maybe this was the first time I had been able to feel this way, cared for, since my parents died. If Karen wanted him back, then she would have to fight me for him, and now that I had established a beachhead, even with Madison’s parents, I would not be easily vanquished. Jefferson and I smiled at each other before he hurried around the car to bring Madison’s wheelchair to him.At our table the server brought us menus and wine lists.
“Dad, you pick the wine,” Madison deferred.“Something sparkly,” said Jan. “To celebrate Paige.”
Yes! It was my celebration. Ghosts of Christmases and everything else passed be damned.When the wine, an Italian Prosecco, came, arriving in its own silver bucket of ice sitting in a small stand, Jefferson shooed-off the server’s attempt to fill our flutes, informing him instead that he would take care of it. The server, somewhat taken aback, nodded and proceeded to take our orders for dinner. Afterwards Jefferson poured the Prosecco, while Jan watched Madison push the stem of his glass between his middle and ring fingers so that the narrow bowl of the flute sat in the palm of his hand.
“To Paige,” Madison said raising his glass.“To Paige!” Jan and Jefferson echoed him.
I raised my glass too, and all four glasses came together, clinking softly. And I felt like singing Happy Days Are Here Again, and I’d be willing to bet, Jefferson, being a union man, would know the words to sing along with me.
After dinner, Madison drove his parents back to his building before taking me home. He parked in the garage and idled the engine, while Jefferson, Jan, and I got out to say goodbye properly; which meant really warm hugs and familial kisses on my cheeks that left me very touched and bordering on tears. In the words of Sally Fields at the Oscars, they liked me, they really liked me.“Maybe you and Madison can come for Thanksgiving,” Jan suggested holding both my hands in hers.
“We’d love to have you,” agreed Jefferson. “Assuming you root for the Lions, or keep quiet.”He was grinning broadly but Jan let go of one of my hands and punched him in the arm.
“Enough with the sports, please!” she said.“I’d love to come!” I said.
“Well we’ll all work on Maddy together,” Jefferson strategized. “Since the…he doesn’t like to travel much.”“You burned him out with all that chasing around the country to get you out of trouble,” Jan countered.
“Anyway,” Jefferson said. “We’ll talk him into to it. You’ll have a good time. All of Detroit’s not post-apocalyptic.”“I look forward to it,” I said.
Madison lowered the front passenger window.“Anybody familiar with the greenhouse effect?” he asked.
“Ignore him,” Jan laughed and hugged me again.“And maybe in the midst of all your farewells,” Madison added. “Dad could bring my chair around.”
“I think he’s jealous,” Jefferson teased heading to the back of the car.When I was finally back in the car and we were leaving the garage, I playfully asked Madison, “Are you jealous?” When he didn’t answer I thought to myself that he must be irritated, but why for heaven’s sake? “Madison,” I asked more seriously. “Are you mad?” and still nothing, but at the first opportunity he suddenly turned into an empty parking lot. “What is it?” I asked, at this point a little alarmed. Without a word Madison lowered the car windows slightly and then shut off the engine. “Why are we stopping?” I wanted to know. Releasing his seatbelt, Madison moved his seat back, and then with his hand at the back of my neck drew me to him, taking my mouth hungrily with his. Melting against him I received his seeking tongue, stroking it with my own, sucking it into my mouth, while the rest of my body thrilled with the anticipation of what could come next.
When we were forced to part to breathe again, he still held me close.“No,” Madison said.
“No what?” I asked dizzily.“I’m not jealous.”
Okay, I thought, not really caring about the joke anymore, as I was definitely onto to bigger and better things.
“I’m impatient,” he said.His breath was soft and warm to my face. In the quiet I was sure I could hear his heart beating, or perhaps it was that I felt it beating against mine. I smiled. It had been a while since we had been without chaperones within earshot; but really we were getting to be rather notorious with our teenage parking interludes. One of these days some police officer was bound to tap on the window and shine his flashlight in our faces.
“I’ve missed you too,” I purred. “So am I spending the night tomorrow night?”“Do you want to?” Madison asked as if he didn’t know the answer.
It was hard to read his face in the darkness, but then it was often hard to read his face.“What do you think, Candy Man?” I impishly flirted.
“That I’m in love with you,” he said.