“How come Auntie Paige doesn’t have to go to Sunday-School?” asked the ever-inquisitive Jessica, the older of my two nieces.
“Auntie Paige has to go to work,” replied Pam.
“Daddy says that it’s a sin to work on the Sabbath.”
The original Sabbath was on Saturday, the last day of the week, but far be it for me to quibble about such things with a deacon of the church or his sainted wife.
“Her boss doesn’t believe the way we do,” Pam explained.
“Then is Auntie Paige going to go to H-E-double hockey sticks?”
I had been keeping my head down, content to be braiding Jennifer, my youngest niece’s hair, but now I looked up at Pam, both out of sympathy and a need to reassure myself that my sister wasn’t worrying about my eternal fate. As different as we were, Pam and I loved each other very much, and we would always find a way to stay close despite our individual life-paths. The Robinsons had been a Christian family, although our parents hadn’t been pushy about it. Pam and I had both had church weddings. She had just married into evangelism, and I had married into, for want of a better word, materialism; and as it turned out, she had made the better choice. I guessed being governed by the Ten Commandments wasn’t the worst way to live your life.
The first thing Pam wanted to know about Madison, when I told her about him, was whether or not he was a Christian. Not how tall he was, or if he was divorced, or even if he had a job. No, her first concern was whether or not he was on his way to H-E-Double Hockey Sticks. For my sister the right answer to that question would answer a whole bunch of the other ones: like if he was stable, and decent, with good table manners, and a future. It was a naïve way to assess it, but then we probably all had some kind of equally dubious short-hand way of trying measuring another person’s worthiness. In any case since Madison and I hadn’t yet delved into personal religion, not directly anyway, I didn’t know the answer and so couldn’t attest to Madison’s spiritual credentials. Pam therefore wasn’t sure how she felt about me dating him. She hadn’t met Madison, and I did have a pretty dismal track record. She was wary. Maybe I should be too. After all Madison, himself, was.
Wary was good. Wise men were supposed to be that way, and Madison was very wise, brilliant even, I had decided. I couldn’t get him to confirm it, but I was convinced he must have graduated at the top of his class at every occasion. Plus he was licensed to practice law in several states which meant he had passed multiple bar exams. “Had to be,” Madison had casually explained why he had gone to such trouble. “Dad an itinerant hell-raiser. I never knew what jail he was calling from.” I wondered just how many times it had been Madison-to-the-rescue, although that must have stopped once he went to work for the government.
I also wondered how that part had happened, or rather why. Did it have something to do with his disability? Traveling couldn’t be easy for him. Of course I hadn’t asked him about this either. We talked for hours but mostly about things societal, global, historical. The personal seemed to be relegated to the parenthetical, the aside, the interjection. I was getting the feeling that Madison Reese preferred to drive with his foot on the break—in a manner of speaking. It made sense. Besides if I asked him too much too fast, like why he was in Atlanta when most of his family was in Michigan, then I might have to tell him too much too fast, like how my divorce had left me sharing a room with Jessica and Jennifer. If this worked out there’d be plenty of time for the great reveals. With my erratic work schedule, usually involving evenings, our face time was limited, so we thus far had a good excuse for not getting more naked—figuratively speaking of course.
Since the first date, Madison and I had only seen each other twice, and both times at the Le Bon Café, and always under Denise’s annoyingly watchful eye. This afternoon, however, I was scheduled to get off work at three o’clock, and Madison was picking me up and taking me to his house for dinner. I hated that all he had ever seen me in was my Target uniform but I couldn’t make up my mind to pack a change a clothes to take with me. The required bag would have the look of a sleep-over and that topic wasn’t on the table, with us being so wary and all, and I was loath to even appear to suggest otherwise. Slow was good, right? I certainly used to tell my clients that. I just needed to keep repeating it to myself to drown out the constant roar of my raging hormones.
“Of course not,” Pam declared to Jessica about my ultimate spiritual destination.
If missing a few Sunday services was enough to put my soul at risk in all of their eyes, I could just imagine what fornication would do—or even the mere desire to fornicate. I was definitely lusting in my heart.
“But Daddy says if you don’t go to church--” Jessica argued her case.
“Mommie, I don’t want Auntie Paige to go to H-E-hockey stick!” Jennifer whined-in. “Please make her go to church!”
Maybe a big purse would work to carry a change of clothes. At least they’d all be gone when I left to catch the bus so my family wouldn’t see. Pam knew that I was meeting Madison after work today but she would be expecting me home before too late.
She had asked when they were going to meet him, and that indeed should happen soon to maintain respectability. The last thing I wanted was for Ted to give either of us grief with some kind of needless suspicion. Madison was a very decent guy, maybe the best guy ever, religious beliefs notwithstanding. I hadn’t yet told them that he couldn’t walk; since there had never been a proper segue to the subject. The wheelchair didn’t define Madison in my eyes so why should it be allowed to define him in theirs? I wanted it to be incidental when they got to know him, although I did need to figure out what to do about the two front porch steps. Oh well. Another one of those questions it was getting time to ask.
“Nobody’s going anywhere,” said Pam, “except to church. Can we please just finish getting ready already?”
“Auntie Paige, go to church,” ordered Jennifer twisting around to look up at me with big serious eyes.
And get married before you have sex, I imagined her sweet voice saying as well, if she had a clue. Thank goodness she didn’t. None of them did. Sharing a room with two little girls wasn’t all that different from a nunnery. Teddy and Thomas, ages thirteen and twelve respectively, Jessica and Jennifer's big brothers, might be beginning to have some idea, assuming Ted, the Elder, had granted permission for puberty to kick-in. I could picture myself someday soon smuggling safer sex brochures and condoms to my nephews, a co-conspirator with Mother Nature or rather reality.
“I do sweetie,” I reassured Jennifer about church. “It’s just today I have to go to work. But I promise, it won’t be that way all the time.”
For an instant I imagined talking to my own little girl about God, a little girl with Madison’s golden brown eyes. My tummy flip-flopped and my skin broke-out in goose bumps. Slow your roll the sane part of my brain said to rest of me. Ironic phrasing to be sure.
At least the big purse worked. In it I had packed jeans, a nice purple pullover cardigan, and a change of underwear, panties and bra. A girl could hope, couldn’t she, I told myself on the bus ride to work. And if nothing else Madison and I might at least engage in frottage, brochure-speak for having sex with our clothes on. God bless the French!
Today my shift was from eleven to three, and happily Chandra had the day off since she seemed to like throwing a monkey wrench into my best laid plans. I’d almost swear it was personal with her except I didn’t think she could know enough about me to screw things up for me with Madison on purpose. Maybe she’d seen me getting into his Buick the couple of times he had picked me up after work, but she could have mistaken him for an uncle or something. No, she just liked to mess with me on general principle. If I wanted extra hours, she’d send me home early. If I wanted to leave early then there was always something that had to be done before I could clock-out. Some day when I had a real job again, I intended to come back to this Target and give her fits.
By three-fifteen I was re-dressed and heading out the store exit to be safe-sound-and-sexier in the Buick. I was even wearing perfume which we were not allowed to wear when we were working.
“Hmmm,” Madison hummed appreciatively in my ear. “Vanilla.”
“You like it?” I asked eagerly.
He gently nipped my neck sending sparkles along every nerve in my body.
Stroking his freshly shaved cheek I giggled merrily.
“And did you notice?” I said sitting back and pulling my coat open. “No red, no khaki.”
Madison rewarded me with one of his best smiles.
“I kinda like a woman in uniform,” he said.
“Ha! I’m in uniform,” I quipped rubbing his denim-clad thigh before thinking. “We’re dressed just alike. Hip, urban….profess…ional.”
Madison was looking down at my hand on his leg. Immediately I realized I had crossed a line—figuratively and literally, perhaps forcing him to reveal something he wasn’t ready to. But now that it was there, resting on his thigh, I didn’t want to take my hand away. I yearned to touch him, all over, even if there were places where he couldn’t feel it. Every injury was different. Madison would definitely have to teach me about his—when he was ready. I just wanted to make that easier for him.
“Yes we are,” he said referring to our uniforms, leaning in to kiss me lightly on the lips again, before starting the car.
I breathed a silent sigh of relief and fastened my seat belt. Slow your roll, Paige. Slow your role.
Madison’s midtown condo was on the 11th floor of a building with an attached covered parking deck and an ample supply of elevators. He said that the building had been a popular hotel before it had done some hard time as basically a welfare hotel. A very wealthy real estate developer with a love for Atlanta history had rescued the building and renovated it, preserving its unique exterior architecture. I wondered where the welfare tenants had wound up, but I also admired what the developer had done for the building and undoubtedly the neighborhood. Maybe the tenants had gotten jobs doing the renovations and had now moved on to bigger and better things. That way there could be happy endings all around.
The condo was a corner unit, and inside it was gorgeous, no surprise. The great room was L-shaped and had a fireplace in the living room area. The dining area and kitchen completed the space. On the long end of the L there was a bedroom and a bathroom. The master suite was located off the short end closer to the dining area. The general décor was all browns and blues, dark woods and stainless steel, and lots of electronic equipment: a flat screen TV, a multi-component music system, and a computer. There wasn’t much furniture, just the basics: sectional sofa, coffee table, bookcases, dining room set. All of it a very modern masculine style, and not unlike the way Derrick had decorated our house, with not a flower nor a frill. The hardwood floor was devoid of carpet or rug. Derrick had been obsessed with sculpture, but Madison’s bookcases were filled with only books from the floor to about mid-way up. No wonder he liked Le Bon Café so much. I supposed Denise’s books made him feel right at home.
I was kind of surprised at the absence of pictures, painting or photo. Madison liked art, and he spoke fondly of his family when they inadvertently came up. I had been looking forward to checking out his parents, to seeing the faces of the practical mother and the radical father.
“Can I hang your coat?” Madison offered from behind me.
“Oh,” I said dropping my bag on the sofa and removing my coat. “Thanks!”
Taking my coat, he used a grabber that he had slipped over his wrist and hand to hang it on a peg high up in the entryway closet. His jackets hung on hangers from a lower bar which held them just above the floor.
“Your home is beautiful,” I said, feeling suddenly very poor surrounded by the simple elegance.
“Thanks,” replied Madison.
Ted and Pam had a beautiful home too, but that was the point. It was their home, not mine. I was really no better off than the welfare tenants who had been displaced by a wealthy man’s inspired gentrification.
“Maybe a little bourgeoisie,” I heard myself say from somewhere out of my petty insecurities.
Madison just smiled and crossed the room to turn on his elaborate music system.
“What’s your preference?” he wanted to know. “Jazz or Classical? R&B? Pop? Country?”
“No Peter, Paul, and Mary?” I chuckled dryly.
Madison chuckled too.
“’Fraid not. How ‘bout Joan Baez or Bob Dylan?”
“Umm,” I tested him. “I was hoping for Sinatra.”
“You got it.”
And right away the room was filled with Ol’ Blue Eyes himself. Wow. But then I guessed if Madison was going to drive his father’s car he might as well like his father’s music.
“You have so many books,” I observed wandering over to one of the bookcases. “Guess you’re not into the whole Kindle-Nook-iPad thing.”
“I am,” he said. ”I’ve just been collecting books since I was a kid.” He wheeled over to the shelf where I stood reading the assorted titles. “In our house there were always more books than toys. That’s what you get when your mother’s a teacher.”
“My grandmother belonged to the book-of-the-month club,” I shared. “I remember she had all these books by writers no one had ever heard of, at least I never had. But I would read them anyway. Novels. Pretty adult stuff sometimes. There was this one book about the Boer War in South Africa. Rags of Glory. Huge. And I had to look up some of the words but I loved it.”
“The Boer War, huh?” said Madison with a grin. “You’re one fascinating woman, Ms. Robinson.”
“You don’t think it’s boring?” I asked abruptly embarrassed.
“On the contrary. Beauty and brains. A very winning combination.”
My face warmed intensely. I wasn’t beautiful but it was nice of Madison to suggest it.
“You have nerdy tastes,” I replied. “You weren’t a geek or something in school, were you?”
“I probably would have fit in just fine with your crowd,” said Madison with a wink before turning his chair and heading to the kitchen.
Did he just call me a geek?
Following after him, I watched as he, wearing oven mitts to protect his hands, placed a covered casserole dish into the preheated oven.
“What are we having?” I asked, wondering to myself if the casserole was store-bought or Madison-made.
“Rigatoni with Italian sausage,” he replied. “Turkey sausage. Hope that’s okay. I don’t really eat red meat.”
“Why don’t you open the wine?”
A bottle of merlot waited on the dining table, along with two traditional wine glasses and a wine bottle opener that was the same kind I used. However, Madison’s kitchen was full of assistive devices, including the kitchen structure itself. Various tools obviously designed for hands with limited dexterity sat on granite counters that were lower and mostly open to accommodate a wheelchair. I poured our wine while he put together a green salad. Watching him work I was persuaded: he had made the casserole. Soon the kitchen smelled of garlic, basil, and oregano—wonderful.
The salad made and sitting on the counter, Madison joined me at the table. Pushing the stem of his wine glass between his fingers and cradling the bowl in his palm, he raised his glass to make a toast.
“To coffee makers,” he said, smiling warmly.
“And the people who buy them,” I added, beaming back.