The house's offer had been accepted, and things were moving swiftly toward closing. Tensions were running a bit high in the Evans apartment the last few days, as the natural reluctance to leave the familiar had descended onto the family, JJ and Thelma in particular.
James had agreed, albeit not too easily and none too happily, to allow JJ to live with Wilona until the end of the school year. It was already the middle of May, so it would really only be a matter of weeks.
Wilona had been shocked when James asked her if she and Penny would come and live with him and the kids; at first, she seriously considered it. After all, the 70s was the "Me" generation; people were finding themselves, drifting from the expectations of society (read: Marriage), simply co-habitating all over the place..and it's not as if there was anything romantic about it. James had offered it straight-up:
"Look, Wilona. You know the kids love you. You know you want better for Penny than the projects. It ain't a long commute to the boutique...but you ain't got to work either, if you want to just raise Penny up. And I ain't gonna lie when I tell you that them girls is good together, and you're good for Lisa. It's somethin' like a family, you know? We can manage."
"It ain't just about Penny and Lisa, though, James." She explained what JJ wanted; she also alluded to the talk of the projects...if there was a buzz about Wilona and James before, it was at a full hum now, about the Widower Evans and the divorcee..even though there was nothing more than friendship...it's not as if any could -see- into Wilona's heart and secret thoughts. The torch she'd carried was at full blaze, but she wouldn't, couldn't let anyone know that.
James shook his head and the argument got rather heated; James sent all of the kids, Penny included, over to Wilona's as they shouted this one out.
"Ain't NO way my son is goin' to stay in the projects. He can get a better education after the move."
"James," Wilona shook her head, her voice raising to match his. "You know well as anybody that the schools around here ain't no good. You know how smart Gramps (Michael) is...I've got news for you, mista. Michael's gonna have a hard time catchin' up in the beginning, because the schools they is in is so far behind! But Gramps will adapt. That's what it's all about..the adaptin'. If you force JJ to leave the school he's in, you might have a dropout on your hands."
That honest observation, although spoken in the heat of an argument, cut James close to the bone. Junior wasn't a scholar, no way, no how. He simply needed to hold on to get his Diploma..then he could go to Art school, full-time. If there wasn't a scholarship, it didn't matter anymore..James could pay full tuition.
After he calmed down, he looked at Wilona, still not happy about this, but acquiesced. "I'll pay his keep," James said and Wilona rolled her eyes. "James. Just hush. Weekends, we'll come out to the house. I'm sure Penny and me bein' there will make you and me break even in the end."
That spawned a whole other argument...Wilona's "women's libber" attitudes, money, who pays what, the whole nine yards. During the midst of the argument, Thelma returned, walking in quietly.
"Daddy, I wanna tell you something," she said, when James and Wilona's eyes went to her.
"What is it, sugar?" James asked, sitting on a turned-around kitchen chair now, looking up at his daughter. He took a sip of a glass of water and almost choked on it when Thelma said:
"Larry asked me to marry him. And I said yes."
James hit the roof, blood pressure and volume soaring. It took quite a bit of pleading from Wilona to calm James down; this wasn't the first time Larry had proposed. James thought that when Larry moved away, the threat was neutralized, but Larry's job in L.A. hadn't worked out, he'd returned to Chicago and Thelma had secretly begun seeing him again.
"ABSOLUTELY NOT" was James' final word on it.
Thelma glared, and stormed down the hall to her room.
"I ain't havin' this, Wilona!" James exclaimed. "Here we is, just about to get out of the damn projects, and she wants to marry this guy? What, she want to stay here when she can go on to better?"
Wilona shook her head. "I think she just wants some say, James." Wilona touched on how JJ nor Thelma were consulted in looking at the house; the decision had been made.
It was a lot for James to consider..and Wilona was right.
"Baby girl, come out here please," James said, knocking softly at the door. Thelma opened the door, sulking.
"You really want to marry this guy?" James asked. Of course he wasn't going to allow it to happen, but he wanted to open the dialogue.
"Yes, Daddy," she said, but couldn't meet his eyes..only when Thelma was lying could she not look him in the eyes.
Wilona kept silent, watching, and James coerced Thelma into admitting that she did feel left out, put out, that all these decisions were being made, and that she wasn't a little girl anymore..it would've been nice to have seen what was happening, so to speak, before it actually happened.
"I understand, and I was wrong," James said. Thelma's face almost seemed to brighten. "And I'll make it up to you, baby..I promise."
James explained that he was going to let JJ and Thelma decide amongst themselves who got the basement or attic; Thelma had in fact seen the property, but only after the papers were signed..if she hadn't liked it, too bad. She did, although she was hard-pressed to admit it; it was the -principle- of it. "Junior's gonna stay with Wilona to finish his school year. I know the school don't do nothin' for you, and you know you is a better student than your brother. So, tell you what. You move with Michael, Lisa and me, and you don't have to talk to Junior about which you want. You get first pick, and I'll fix it up however you like. It could be like your own little apartment, baby girl."
Thelma hugged James tightly. Privacy? And first pick? It meant a lot and went a very long way with Thelma. She went back to Wilona's a short while later with a smile on her face.
"Crisis averted," Wilona said with a small smile after Thelma left. James smiled gently and gave credit where it was due.
"Thanks to you," he said and motioned for her to sit by him. She pulled up a chair. "What is it, James?"
"There's four bedrooms on the main floor. Thelma will have top or bottom..she'll pick. Junior will have the other, so that's seen to. Michael and Lisa each got a room. So does Penny. That only leaves one more bedroom."
"So I'll sleep on the couch when we visit," Wilona shrugged. It was no big deal.
"No, you ain't. When you come out on the weekends, I'm gonna take the couch. And when summer comes, and school's out, you and me is gonna have a long talk."
"About makin' things right. Wilona, you know I don't like the idea of you stayin' behind. It ain't like I'm gonna be right next door if you need somethin', and the projects ain't gettin' any safer, you know? Sure, Junior's gonna be with you but he's still a kid. You need a man around."
Wilona didn't want to read into his words, so all she could say, as she noticed her mouth had gone dry as cotton, "Go on."
"The opportunity to get the hell out of the projects is here. I want you and Penny with us. Lisa loves Penny, Penny loves Lisa. You know that. Raisin' a child alone ain't no way to do it, Wilona. We could help each other."
"So you want me as a live-in babysitter, and you'll help me raise Penny, is that it?" Wilona didn't recognize her own voice as it came out of her mouth, she seemed to be speaking slower and softer, but sarcastically.
"I didn't SAY that, did I. Let me finish, woman," James said, shaking his head. "I ain't always good at finding words, okay? Now give me a damn minute."
James looked at his hands for a minute as he collected his thoughts.
"You have always been there for me, for my family. When Florida died, at first, I wanted to die with her. I know I did her wrong...you knew it before she did. You know that ain't like me. And I learned from it, Wilona. I know I'd never do anythin' like that again. I'm in a different place now. Junior's gonna be goin' off to art school soon..Thelma's only a year behind. That'll leave me, Michael and Lisa. Lisa ain't a baby anymore, and Michael's growin' up fast. Before I know it, they'll be up and gone out the house too.
"Now look at you with Penny. She's not a baby neither, Wilona. You got her now, but one day before you know it, she's gonna grow up and move away, too. And you'll be all alone.
"I..I don't want this to come out wrong, Wilona...but you know I care about you. Always did. If Florida'd knew she was goin' to pass on, she probably would've wanted you and me to be together, to take care of each other..to love each other, to help each other.
"I ain't askin' for an answer now and I ain't gonna make you do anything you don't want to, but if you ever decide you want to get married, and do this right, this would be good for you, Penny, my kids and me. All lookin' out for one another. I don't feel right leavin' you behind here, Wilona. It ain't right. And who knows, maybe the gossips of the buildin' seen somethin' in my face that I ain't wanted to let on about."
Wilona's mouth hung open, eyes wide now and looking a little shaky. James met her eyes and a blush rose to his face.
"You don't want no part of this conversation, do ya," James said, quietly and embarrassed, after too much silence had passed.
He was met with a sob that Wilona choked back as she threw her arms around him, leaping out of her chair and almost knocking James off of his. She still didn't say anything; rather, she just held on to him, around the shoulders, and James held her closely for a long while.
Finally, Wilona collected herself. "Lord...I had no idea," she said, barely above a whisper. "Of course we'd have to have lots of long talks and ironin-out things..but yes, James..I could see this workin' for all of us. Penny would have a father..I'd have a husband. And no rush, because we can do this right. Your kids will need time to deal with this, so we ain't gonna say anything till we're sure this is what we want. And I don't want you thinkin' I'm sayin' yes because you came into money or any of that."
James shook his head. "If I thought that, I wouldn't have said what I said to you." Wilona managed a smile, and James pulled her toward him, giving her a long, gentle kiss.
The last days of the projects were now behind the Evans family. JJ moved his boxes of clothes to Wilona's, and the rest of the family's possessions went onto the truck. James left carfare for Wilona, Penny and JJ to come up for the weekend; the rest of this week would be dealing with moving in, registering Thelma, Michael and Lisa in their new schools, and getting adjusted to the new house.
Thelma chose the attic: "There's more light up there, Daddy, and the long wall, you can put a barre on it so I can dance upstairs." James did, as well as a full bath and a tiny kitchen. It was a nice little suite, one that Thelma could live in for long-term, with all the privacy she'd have dreamed of, and more. James also gave her the green light--and the funding--for Thelma to decorate it to her own tastes, giving her that extra happiness that it was really 'her space.' JJ scowled when he realized that Thelma had the better light.."But Dad! Why she need to see her broomstick legs dancin'..I need the light to paint!"
"Shut up, Junior. We'll work somethin' out"
"Shut up, Junior," James said, a stern look on his face.
JJ looked sullen..until James set up a wonderful track lighting system, allowing JJ to adjust the light to whatever he desired. It was a surprise for JJ that took James the better part of the week.
With each visit, with Wilona's touches as well, the new Evans House became less of a house, and more of a home.
And summer was fast approaching...it was almost time for the promised discussions to happen, between Wilona and James. Each glanced nervously at their calendars, on separate occasions. Would they actually make it happen?
(To be continued, and feedback most certainly welcome.)