There was one week left of school, one week of separation left for the Evans family from JJ, Penny and Wilona. Thelma had the smoothest transition of all the children; her good looks and outgoing personality garnered her scores of new friends and dating prospects over the last month. While there wasn't much time to join school-sponsored activities, there was a nearby dancing school with good teachers and reasonable tuitions, and Thelma quickly enrolled there after school.
Michael, as Wilona predicted, was having a bit of difficulty at first catching up. He burned the midnight oil many a night to get up to speed, reading the textbooks (He was shocked at the textbooks..they were practically new! The information inside was current!) front to back, and back again. His teachers were preparing the notation for his report card, reading: "Michael has a lot of potential. In his brief time here,
he has not only caught up to his class, but has exceeded all expectations and many of his peers! It is with these words that Michael will be promoted with the class to the eighth grade." When those words reached James' eyes in the next week, tears of pride pricked his eyes. He'd come to terms with the fact that Michael may have had to be left back for the year, to undo the substandard schooling that he'd had up till the move, but his boy came through. Michael, James knew, would be somebody, someday. Michael also took advantage of the village recreation program to fill his summer, with sports and activities, and he became a regular at the local library, spending his off-time and Saturdays with his nose in a book.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves...there was still one week left of school as this episode unfolds: James spent many weeknights pacing the floors, trying to get his thoughts together. He'd tested the waters with Thelma one night, after Michael and Lisa's bedtimes. He asked Thelma to have a seat in the kitchen. "We don't talk no more, just you and me," he said to Thelma, as she made them both a cup of tea, and sat with her father.
"What's on your mind, Daddy?" Thelma asked, stirring some milk in.
"Well, summer's almost here. How you like livin' here now...are you happy, girl"
"Daddy...I have to tell you..yes, I really am. Daddy, it's nice to be up in my room, doin' my homework and not hearin' the people upstairs fightin'. Or havin' to wait for the bathroom, ever. And when I'm walkin' home after dark, not worryin' about lookin' over my shoulder."
"Always look over your shoulder, baby girl, no matter where you is," James cautioned. "It's a safe neighborhood, yeah, but just like not everybody in the projects was bad people, you can't count on everybody anywhere bein' good people." James didn't want Thelma completely abandoning her street smarts; that was dangerous.
Thelma nodded. "You right, Daddy. It's just...so nice here. I still can't believe we did it. Ma would be so proud. I know she's smilin' down at us. Sometimes I almost think I hear her voice, like, late at night, sayin' goodnight to me and stuff."
"Me too, sugar," James said. Florida, while gone for quite some time now, was still and always would be in the forefront of the Evans Family's minds. Her presence could be felt on certain occasions...the childrens' birthdays and holidays, especially. "I miss your mama, honey, like no other. But I want to talk to you about this summer. I learned from not talkin' to you about this house in the beginning that that was a mistake, a mistake I don't want to make again. So I want to ask you about somethin' on my mind."
"Sure, Daddy," Thelma smiled, heart swelling..Daddy respected her now and looked at her in a new light. He didn't treat her as if she was on the level of Michael or Lisa. Not that she'd ever expect to be treated as his equal--they would always be father and daughter--it was nice to be spoken to in the way Daddy had taken to in the recent past.
"You have any problem, if Wilona and Penny left the projects and come out here to live"
"No, Daddy, no problem. I've always felt bad about leavin' them there. They're family. And Lisa misses Penny, bad. She cries when they leave on Sundays, cries herself to sleep. That's not good."
"No, it ain't good," James agreed. It broke his heart to watch that happen, and he wanted to make it stop permanently.
"And Penny's had enough troubles, Daddy. She could use a good school like we've got out here. And Wilona, well, Daddy, you could use a woman around the house."
James blinked. "What?" Not wanting to read into what she said, but, rather, asking her to elaborate.
"Daddy, you and Wilona should be together. Ma's gone...and she ain't coming back. I know you love her still..we all do...but look at it my way a second. Daddy..you're still a good lookin' man. I see how women look at you when we go grocery shoppin'. And you've got money, too. The wrong woman would take advantage. But you know Wilona. She's a good lady, Daddy. You deserve a companion, and you know we love her. You can trust her...nobody could ever take Ma's place, and I don't think Wilona would even ever try to. She loved Ma, too. You should ask Wilona to come be with us out here, bring Penny, and start over like we did."
"Thelma," James said, after a sip of his tea, choosing his words carefully, "I wouldn't want you just livin' with no man. Especially with children involved. Now, you got the attic. JJ got the basement. I don't want to give any of you kids the idea that it's okay to just..shack up with somebody."
Thelma grinned. "Then marry her, Daddy"
James blinked again. "SAY WHAT"
Thelma rolled her eyes playfully. "You heard me, Daddy. You two would be good together, and Ma would bless it. I know it."
"I'll think about it, sugar," James said, pulling his daughter into a tight hug which made Thelma giggle. A little while later, Thelma went off to bed, but not before pausing at the entryway and looking over her shoulder.."Daddy?"
"I can help you pick out a ring"
"Go to bed!" James laughed.
"It'll be a nice one"
James got up, mock-menacingly. "Don't make me pop you on your behind"
They both laughed, Thelma playfully running up the stairs. "Night, Daddy!"
James slept well that night, first time in awhile. He fought the urge to call Wilona on the telephone, as it was late Wednesday night. She'd be out Friday night; they could talk then. He still had his other children to speak with.
Thursday morning, breakfast came. Thelma had already left for school; she and her friends stopped off at a local diner once a week before school. Lisa woke up that morning, clammy and with a stuffy nose; the onset of a summer cold. She padded down to the kitchen. "Daddy, I don' wanna go to school today," Lisa announced, bundled up in her bathrobe and slippers. She looked pathetic and wasn't faking. She could easily spread the cold to her entire pre-k class. Would it be just a few months until she started Kindergarten? Damn. Time flies.
"And you ain't goin' today, either, little girl. You gonna spend the day gettin' rid of that cold, so it don't hang onto you for the whole summer." He ruffled her hair and gave her a wink. "Thanks, Daddy," Lisa said, sitting at the table and pouring some Rice Krispies out of the box. James winked again for reassurance, and leaned to kiss the top of her head, as he went to pour his little one some orange juice.
Michael came down next, raring to go as always. "Mornin' Daddy, mornin' Lisa," he said, swinging by the refrigerator for apple juice, and 2 pieces of bread for the toaster.
Lisa sniffled a greeting and James replied with, "Mornin', son. You bringin' lunch or buyin' it?" James had really adapted to the routine of caring for the house. He could make a good bag lunch in record time and having put a lot of work into the house, he knew where everything went. He'd even made some tasteful built-in cabinets in strategic places around the place, to help with storage.
"You mind if I buy today, Daddy? It's spaghetti and meatballs," Michael asked. He didn't want to hurt Daddy's feelings, but he LOVED the school's spaghetti and meatballs. James just laughed. "Mind? Hell, I'd give you more money to bring some leftovers home!" James went into his pocket, giving Michael lunch money and some extra for an ice cream.
Lisa pouted at the sight. "Why Michael get an ice cream and I don't"
"Because Michael's goin' to school and they sell it there to kids who eat all their lunch," James said.
"I like ice cream too! I always eat ALL my lunch! And my school ain't got ice cream!" While it might look to the reader as a whine, it was more of a mournful lament of injustice that James couldn't help but smile at. Michael turned away to smile, too..he didn't want Lisa thinking he was making fun of her. He wasn't. It was just the notes in her voice and how she said what she said...it had the ability to make even the most stonefaced smile.
"Well, baby girl, there ain't much school left. You'll go to big school soon, and you can buy ice cream there. I promise. And if you're feelin' better tonight you can have some after dinner, okay?"
"Well, okay," Lisa conceded, and nibbled at her cereal with a big sigh. Michael finished up his breakfast, kissed Lisa's forehead, grabbed his books and waved to James. "Remember, Daddy, Thursday is the day we stay after to go to the nursing home and read to the old people"
"Okay, Michael. See you at about 5 then"
"Uh huh. Bye"
"Have a good day, son." Michael went out the kitchen door and it was just James and his youngest. He took a seat beside the table, and poured some Rice Krispies out for himself.
Lisa gave him a little grin. " 'lo there, Daddy," she said, and scooted her chair closer. James put his arm around his littlest, most affectionate child. "And hello there, you," he said, giving her a little squeeze.
"So I'm stayin' home today, hm"
"Yup. Gonna get rid of that cold"
"You want it"
"No, I don't want it, why you ask me that"
"Well, I sure don't want it!" She giggled.
"Baby girl, I don't think anybody wants it."
The conversation devolved into silliness, about how they could get rid of it: Throw it in the garbage, wrap it in a box and give it to the nosy neighbor 3 doors down, things like that that ended up with Lisa in a gigglefit and James grinning. Just a special, silly moment between them. As her giggles quieted, they finished breakfast and he told her to 'park it' on the couch. She dragged an afghan and turned on the television while James cleaned up from breakfast, and she settled in underneath it, resting.
James went over the words in his mind as he cleared the table and wiped the counters, editing them as he rinsed the cereal bowls, editing them again as he unplugged and covered the toaster. Finally, he was ready.
He came from the kitchen with a couple of baby aspirin and some apple juice for Lisa to wash them down with, and took a seat on the couch by her. "Sit up, baby," he said, giving her the medicine and drink, and then she snuggled down to watch TV. Basic morning fare, the tail end of the cartoons before giving way to reruns. She looked up at him from her snuggled perch: "Daddy"
"Am I keepin' you from doin' stuff"
"Stuff? Like what"
"I dunno...makin' the beds and stuff"
"Nope. That all can wait. I'm happy spendin' time with you"
"Good," she smiled, snuggling back in.
She dozed off in the middle of I Love Lucy and even James found himself nodding off during the show that followed Lucy, a rerun of Love, American Style, but both woke up almost simultaneously, about 10:30.
Lisa almost looked a little embarrassed as she peeked up at him. "I'm too old for naps"
"No you ain't"
"Why you say that, Daddy"
"Because I was nappin', too, and I'm bigger than you, ain't I"
"Mmhmm," and more giggles followed.
When that round of laughter quieted, James' face turned serious yet kind. "I want to talk to you about somethin', Lisa"
"Uh oh," she said.."I'm in trouble, ain't I"
"No! Why you think that"
"Usually you call me li'l girl or baby girl when I ain't in trouble. You save Lisa and 'I wanna talk to you' for when I'm in trouble," she said, a little fidgety.
James shook his head, "No, no, it ain't like that," he said, and lifted her to sit on his lap. "It's a good kind of talk"
"Ok, Daddy. Talk good then," she said, cuddling up and listening.
"You know what hurts me more than anything in the world"
"Seein' you cry when Penny and Wilona leave"
Lisa shifted a little. "I don' like it when Penny and Auntielona leave. I want them to stay forever"
"You cry for JJ too, don't you"
"A little..but Daddy, Penny is my best friend! And my sister! And..and"
"Shh. You're gettin' upset again, and that ain't why we're talkin. I want to ask you somethin"
Lisa shifted again. "Okay, Daddy, g'head and ask"
"If I could find a way to have Wilona and Penny live with us all the time..would that make you happy"
"OH YEAH!" Lisa bounced. James ssh'ed her, wanting her to settle some.
"I can't make no promises, but I am gonna try. I think I know how...and it would also make Penny your real sister, not just a pretend one"
"If I ask Wilona to marry me"
"Then she'd be Mamilona. Not Auntielona"
James chuckled. "Only if she says yes. And if she do say yes, then her and Penny and JJ come back and live here and we'd be a whole family."
Lisa pointed to the phone on the side table. "CALL HER NOW!" she shrieked, bouncing and excited.
"No, baby girl, that ain't how it's done..and I NEED you to keep it a secret. I'd ask her when they come out here, in private. You don't tell nobody. I'm trustin' you with this. I know it's hard to keep a secret this big, but if you need to talk to somebody about it, you talk to me in private. Okay"
"No, not yet. But after tonight, okay, Michael"
James bristled some. Thelma, for all of her happiness, still hadn't warmed up to Lisa all that much. "No, not Thelma, she's too busy," he said, a bit ashamed. He really wished Thelma had come around by now.
"But you or Michael, I can whisper to? What about Penny"
"NO! Just me or Michael. Not Thelma, not JJ, certainly not Wilona and definitely not Penny"
"Can I tell my puppy"
"The puppy you PROMISED to buy me when we moved in here that I ain't seen yet"
James blinked, then snorted. "I oughta warm up your behind, you little brat," he laughed. Talk about a master negotiator? His daughter already knew how to work forgotten promises to her advantage!
Lisa giggled and snuggled back in, letting the puppy go for now. Getting the puppy would be easier when Penny was already there, so she could help train it, Lisa figured.
Lunchtime was approaching, James noted with a glance at the clock, and he could start assembling dinner as well. He'd gotten things down to such a routine that he found himself with a lot of extra time these days. The house was, for all intents and purposes, complete, construction-wise, and any final touches could be Wilona's to decide, to let her make it her house too, if she said yes. James still had just a sixth grade education under his belt, so finding a job that would be different than previous jobs would be almost impossible. And he didn't -need- the work...money was no longer an issue in their lives. It would be simply to pass some idle time, and be productive.
He was over the kitchen sink, glancing out the window into his back yard, eyes fixing on the shed a moment. His thoughts lingered on a memory of when Florida was alive, when they lived in the projects and James had considered opening a Fix-It Shop. He'd run it secretly out of the apartment, until Bookman abused the service, threatening to have the Evans evicted if James wasn't Bookman's personal fixer of all things..that Bookman made a profit on.
Maybe come fall, when Lisa was in school full time, James would revisit the idea. Right now, though, he'd spoken to two of his children and gotten their full support. Two to go...and with only about 30 hours to do it, as Wilona, Penny and JJ would be at the house on Friday evening. James got lunch together for Lisa and himself, and played Candyland with her to while away the afternoon. He'd talk to Michael early in the evening, and perhaps Junior by telephone tonight.
(To be continued...and feedback most certainly welcome!)