Chapter 1Annus horribilis. Her poor majesty. I thought about how the queen of England had had bad year as I attempted to return order to the shelves and bins of Christmas clearance items ravaged by bargain-hunting shoppers. Most of the hardcore hunting had already happened, and what was left basically looked like it was ready for The Island of Misfit Toys.
How appropriate that this was my assignment. The queen of the misfits. Okay maybe only the countess. Let’s not get above ourselves. Anyway, if the friggin’ queen of England could have a pity-party, then I totally deserved one. A spiteful divorce from a cheating husband had left me in bankruptcy, on all counts, just as the rest of the U.S. economy was tanking. It turned out that half was half even if all there was was debt that had been mostly racked-up by one half of the couple. Then state budget cuts had disappeared my case manager position at Friends for Life, the community-based organization where I had worked for almost ten years.
Now I was the underemployed older sister forced to move in with her little sister’s family, and share a bedroom with two nieces and one bathroom with four kids total. Plus I had to constantly hear it from my evangelical brother-in-law, Ted, who essentially blamed me for everything including how Derrick, my ex had treated me. “You career women don’t understand a man’s needs,” Ted said. “That’s why you couldn’t hold on to your husband.” On top of all that I was making Pam, my little sister Ted’s wife, “sick with worry”. And all this really got to me since a) I was the oldest and supposed to be looking out for Pam, and b) I kind of believed that Ted was right I hadn’t been able to hold on to my husband.
My life had turned into a reality show. I had made a bunch of bad choices albeit for good reasons, but love, compassion, forgiveness, patience, these things didn’t pay the rent or raise your credit score. Hard work did that which was how I had ended up at Target, because like a lot of my fellow Americans, I was finding that good-paying hard work not easy to come by. Yet convinced that bad luck couldn’t last forever, even for me, the countess of nothing, I had swallowed my educated pride and donned a red polo shirt and khaki pants and took my Step One. The bottom didn’t have to be such a depressing place if you looked up. Pam was always saying the Lord helped those who helped themselves. I supposed I believed it too. After all helping people help themselves had been my job, my career which was not a dirty word no matter what Ted said. Sooner or later I’d get back to it. But in the meantime, it was January, the beginning of a new year, and maybe just maybe I’d have myself an Annus mirabilis, a wonderful year.
I got a page that a customer needed help in small kitchen appliances. Although I was a treasure trove of Consumer Reports ratings on such things, I was pretty sure the shopper wasn’t waiting for my sage advice. She probably just needed something from the stockroom, but willingly off I went. In any case all the walking was good exercise.
A man in a wheelchair was parked by the coffeemakers. Oh—he probably just couldn’t reach the item he wanted. His back was to me, and he was in one of those modern chairs, black and sleek, almost cool-looking considering. He had nice shoulders too and it wasn’t just his leather jacket. His shoulders were squarer than Derrick’s had ever been even though when we were married Derrick had practically lived at the gym. I had a thing for broad-shouldered men, and sometimes men in wheelchairs had really great upper-bodies.
“Did you need some help?” I asked making myself known to the customer.
He turned his chair and brought me face-to-face with star attraction. His smile was man-magic, the perfect balance of white teeth and pink lips with a dot of a dimple. He had black hair, black lashes, and golden brown eyes that even in the glare of department-store-fluorescence had sparkle. He was wearing a purply-mauve dress shirt and black slacks. I recognized good clothing when I saw it since Derrick had taught me about stylish menswear, running up our credit cards in the process.
“Yeah. That Mr. Coffee up there,” he said gesturing towards the top shelf. “’If you could get it down for me, I’d really appreciate it.”
“Oh sure!” I replied happy to help.
What a drag it must be when even a store shelf posed a challenge.
“I hope you weren’t waiting long,” I said handing him the box which he placed on his lap.
“Not a problem,” he said balancing the box with one hand.
How was he going to push his chair?
“I can carry it to the register for you,” I offered. “They’ll keep it at Customer Service until you’re ready to check out.”
He smiled again. He was totally Hollywood handsome, like if Tom Cruise really had been born on the Fourth of July, maybe about a foot taller, and not crazy enough to be jumping all over Oprah Winfrey’s couch.
“Thanks, that would be great,” he said.
It wasn’t like he was the first “breath-catchingly” attractive customer to stroll—well roll—these aisles. In fact it was one of few fun things about working the floor, a little flirtation and a whole lot of fantasizing. Gay and straight, we would trade such observations in the break-room, shamelessly hope for a little Lifetime movie of our own. The wheelchair would make for an interesting twist, but then again my customer had these gorgeous shoulders and a smile that was supernatural.
He smelled good too, and it was the end of the day. I wasn’t even trying to go quickly as I walked beside him carrying his coffeemaker, my big-box ticket to a tiny glimpse of heaven. After all what did I have to go back to after this? Sad picked-over Christmas ornaments? I just decided to concentrate on his scent that now and again floated up to me discreetly. I’d bet money he didn’t buy his cologne at a drugstore. Or a Target. Glancing down at his polished black loafers tucked neatly on his chair’s footplate, I felt kind of shabby in my red and khaki uniform and sensible, scuffed-up shoes. Oh well. There was probably a Mrs. Smells-Too-Good-To-Be-True anyway, so I would just enjoy this little encounter while it lasted.
Finding an open register up front meant that it was over already, and I reluctantly sat the coffeemaker down on the counter. Fatima, the cashier, waited.
“Thanks…uh,” he glanced up at my name tag. “Paige. I usually buy these things online,” my customer said. “But I’m an addict about coffee, gotta have it first thing. And I woke up this morning to find mine dead at dawn.”
Surely if there was a wife she could have done this errand for him, so that might mean…Really? Like I stood a chance?
“I know what you mean,” I replied. “That must have been awful.”
“Madison,” he said. “My name’s Madison.”
He reached out to shake my hand and I accepted the gesture eagerly, praying that my palm wasn’t too sweaty.
“Madison,” I said his name, smiling. “As in the president?”
“No,” he returned, grinning wryly. “As in the pastries.”
We both laughed.
“That’s really good,” I told him.
Madison was a name more popular for girls these days, but I liked the historical sound of it. It had a kind of 19th Century gravitas.
Finally Fatima cleared her throat. Dropping my eyes I realized that I hadn’t let go of Madison’s hand. And it was me holding on. Because at last the cerebrum part of my brain engaged and I realized that he couldn’t. His fingers were curled under, like one of those GI Joe dolls with the Kung Fu grip. When our eyes met again, Madison’s smile was changed, cooled, pulled back. His palm felt rough against mine, but his fingers were thin, soft. He was a quadriplegic, like Teddy Pendergrass and Christopher Reeve. And yet he didn’t look like them. Nothing about Madison screamed crippled, except for the chair…and his hand.
Which I didn’t seem to want to let go of.
“Years of practice,” he said as the magical smile reemerged.
“Did you find everything?” asked Fatima from her cashier’s post getting the proper interaction back underway.
I let go of Madison’s hand, and pivoting his chair, he turned his attention to Fatima and the business of paying for the coffeemaker. This was definitely my cue to leave but I just kept standing there, like we were together or something. I watched him key in his ATM PIN with the knuckle of his right index finger.
The transaction over, Fatima handed Madison his receipt and he stuffed it into a pouch on the side of his chair where he also kept his ATM card. Now the awkward moment: she didn’t know what to do about handing him his shopping bag. Fatima looked a little panicked, but Madison seemed unfazed as he reached with both hands to take his merchandise.
“It’s okay,” he reassured her. “I got it.”
The bag perched on his lap, Madison pushed off from the register, me following.
“I can carry it out for you,” I volunteered.
“No thanks,” he declined. “I’m good. Besides it’s freezing out there and you don’t have a coat.”
Ridiculously his concern for me gave me butterflies. I’d be remembering his chivalry standing at the bus-stop later tonight. But now we were at the store exit, and thus my stage exit.
“Well good night,” was all I could think to say.
“Goodnight, Paige,” he replied. “Thanks for your help.”
But neither of us moved. After a moment Madison reached inside his jacket and pulled out of pair of black gloves.
“Hope you enjoy your coffee,” I said stupidly, vainly trying to prolong the conversation.
Threading his fingers into the gloves, he used his perfect teeth to pull the Velcro straps closed over his thumbs.
“I will,” he replied. “I make good coffee.”
“You got a good machine,” I chirped. “Consumer Reports rated it a best buy.”
“You don’t work on commission, do you?” he smiled.
“No,” I chuckled a little nervously. “Just like Consumer Reports is all.”
Okay this was getting really silly, or I was anyway. I had never been particularly good at the pick-up in either direction. Marrying Derrick right after college graduation had spared me what could have been valuable practice time. Plus Madison looked very white-collar and I was a Target store clerk. And I lived with my sister. And Madison couldn’t walk, or hold my hand…and…and…and…
“Well, goodnight I repeated myself, offering him my hand once more.
In spite of the gloves, and everything else, it was like I just had to touch him one last time or regret it forever. We looked at each other as he placed his hand in mine, and because I felt something, something thrilling, I prayed that he was able to feel it too. Maybe women didn’t look at him that way anymore. Maybe I was giving him a little boost.
“Goodnight,” he replied again, but this time he did pull away, placing his hands on his wheels. He pushed his chair using the palms of his hands. “Seems I’ve been missing out doing my shopping online.”
Okay. That gave me a little more than a butterfly feeling. It was the way he had said it, the way his right brow had raised slightly. Just who was boosting who?
“Sometimes it’s just gotta be hands on,” I said with a little boldness that surprised me.
“I agree,” he smiled brilliantly again.
I took a step or two back and Madison turned towards the exit. I watched him leave; and I wasn’t worth a dime of the $8.25 an hour they paid me for the rest of my shift.