Lisa was napping again, getting the rest that would chase her cold away, in the late afternoon. James was in the kitchen, checking the pot roast in the oven. He reflected at the roster of meals he'd served since they'd moved into the house: Meat at least twice a week...in the projects, they were lucky if they saw meat once every three weeks. While his cooking skills were above average, he knew he could never rival those of his late wife, Florida. How she ever did so much with so little, he'd never know.
He ladled some gravy over the roasting meat and vegetables, and closed the oven door, and poured himself a cup of coffee from the machine. Thelma had been in and out quickly after school, long enough to drop off her books and grab her dance clothes. Michael was due any minute; James waited anxiously.
Finally, he saw Michael coming up the side of the house, to enter through the back (kitchen) door. "Hi Daddy," Michael said with a bright smile. Reading to the old folks at the nursing home, a form of service to the community, wasn't just good for the spirit; Michael did receive extra credit for it in his English class...but that's not what drove him to do it. He told his father that he also planned to visit every so often over the summer. "There's a man there that reminds me of Grampa Henry," Michael said, describing the old man at the rest home, with his barrel chest and gravelly voice. James smiled...he still marvelled at the fact that he and his father were once again in touch, sharing a good relationship. He made a mental note to himself to call his father later tonight, when the rates were low (some habits die hard) to tell him about his plan to pop the question to Wilona.
"Keep on keepin' on, Michael," James said, supporting his son's choice to continue on.
"How's Lisa doin', Daddy? She any better"
"She'll be fine. She's nappin' now...which is good, because I wanted to ask you about somethin"
(James chose 'ask you about' as his terminology, remembering how Lisa first reacted with the 'I want to talk to you'. James didn't want to cause his 'militant midget to fidget', so to speak.)
"Sure, what's up?" Michael got himself a glass of milk from the refrigerator as James sat at the table.
"It's about Penny and Wilona," James said, "I wanted your opinion on somethin"
"Like what? They're comin' this weekend, right? I promised Penny I'd take her to the park"
"Oh yeah. They comin'. But...Michael, look. I don't want any upset in this house. I...I am thinkin' about askin' them to come be with us..on a permanent basis"
"Fine by me," Michael shrugged, as if James had said they were having spaghetti again tonight after he had it for lunch. It was no big deal to his son.
"Michael..I want to see if you're followin' me here. I mean come and live with us for good. In this house, day in, day out. Family. Maybe even...maybe even marryin' Wilona."
Michael paused, setting his milk down a second and thinking about what this could mean. Finally, he spoke.
"Would that make you happy, Daddy"
"I think so, son..but if it ain't agreeable to you, tell me now. I ain't gonna be mad or anything..I'm coming to you on this. And your brother, and your sisters. You all got say"
"Well..thanks for the say..but you go on ahead and do what you feel is right. Wilona's always been like an aunt. She ain't Mama, but havin' her around the house might be nice. But Dad"
"YOU still gonna do the cookin' right"
James and Michael both erupted in laughter.
"Yes, son, I promise you that."
The roars of laughter woke Lisa, who rubbed at her eyes and appeared in the kitchen. "What's so funny?" she asked, with a little yawn punctuating the end of her sentence.
"Michael wants to be sure I still do the cookin' if Wilona says yes"
"You ARE, ain't you?" Lisa said, deadpan and with a daunting look. More laughter ensued from the father and son, and Lisa too was reassured that yes, James would still cook.
Shortly thereafter, the three sat down for dinner. Michael cleaned up, and Lisa was underfoot. She wouldn't leave him alone. James was reading the paper in the living room and Lisa peeked out to be sure James was engrossed in what he was doing, before signaling her brother.
"What, Lisa?" Michael looked down with a quizzical expression.
"You sure you okay with what Daddy's gonna do"
"Why wouldn't I be"
Lisa looked pensive for a minute, making sure James wasn't paying attention.
"Well," she admitted, a little shyly, "it might be weird..sharin' Daddy, all the time."
Michael stopped what he was doing and squatted down to Lisa's eye level.
"Look, baby sister...Daddy loves you. He loves me too. And he loves Thelma and JJ. Just because he might love Wilona and Penny don't mean he loves you no less. Don't you know that"
Lisa shrugged. "Maybe"
"No maybes. When you was a baby, and you came home, it didn't even cross my mind that Daddy didn't have enough love for us now that you were born. And it still don't occur to me..because Daddy loves us all. Understand"
Lisa nodded, still not completely convinced. "But you..you a boy. Penny's a girl. Like me"
"JJ's a boy. Daddy loves us all the same. I promise"
"You mean it"
"If anything," Michael said with a small smile, "You the baby. You always gonna be the baby..even when you're an old lady. Daddy's little girl. Nobody can take that away"
"What...what if Daddy and Auntielona have more babies"
Michael made such a face. "That ain't gonna happen. Wilona's too old for babies, Lee"
"But Wilona's only 25"
Michael broke out into another fit of laughter, which caught James' attention. He appeared in the kitchen.
"What so funny"
"Nothin' Daddy," the children said in stereo. Later, after Lisa went to bed, Michael confided to James what had happened. Of course, fresh, yet quieter laughter broke out, but James made a note to himself that he'd ensure Lisa still knew how special she was..would always be..to him. His littlest had the roughest start. While JJ and Thelma were born in a cold-water flat, and there wasn't always enough to eat, and Michael was born in the projects, Lisa had had the worst entry into the world. JJ, Thelma and Michael were never neglected, and always knew they were loved. Lisa didn't have that sort of start. For that matter, neither did Penny, who James was very fond of. He just had to make sure, similarly to when Florida was alive, how he was careful not to show his total adoration of his baby daughter, that James would never let Lisa think Penny had the lion's share of James' favor.
IF Wilona said yes, that is.
It was still too early to call Junior; Snow days had brought the school calendar into another week, but nobody expected the student body to show up until Tuesday, and that was simply for the Graduation ceremony. James had already earmarked Monday for moving his son's clothing into the Evans House, and he'd drive the family back into the City on Tuesday, right to the school. It was unusual even still for James to own a car...to say to himself, "I drive my own car", after all of the years of hitching rides with those fortunate enough in the projects to have their own cars, or, more often, take the bus. He'd picked up a gently used Dodge Dart Swinger, in a mustard yellow, with a dark roof. It wasn't fancy; he could've bought something new and elaborate---JJ had requested a "Cad-DEW-LACK", but James wasn't having it--and the little Dodge did what it needed to do, and would, with proper care, probably be Michael's first car. Michael showered and went to bed, and Lisa was long asleep, and James found himself pacing and waiting for things to settle at Wilona's before calling. She wouldn't be home before 10, as she was most nights that she worked, but Penny was probably finishing homework or bathing and JJ might not even be home yet, enjoying the last few nights out with his friends. James opted to wait another 45 minutes or so before dialing that number.
He took this time to call his father, a brief, cordial conversation, with Henry's full support. "I loved Florida, too, but you shouldn't be alone, son," Henry said soothingly. "Learn from my life's lessons, Jimmy. Don't wake up one day and find yourself to be an old man, all alone."
While on the phone with Henry, Thelma came home. She kissed James' cheek and he warmed her dinner plate. James invited his father out to the house over the summer..a standing invitation, not going to pin him to a date just yet. Henry accepted gladly. "I'd love to see the house, as well as my grandkids..and if you're lucky, my new daughter and granddaughter." James thanked his father and hung up.
Finally, after some pacing, the clock struck 10. James dialed and the phone rang a full 8 times before JJ answered.
"Hellooooooo," JJ said, cockily, answering in his self-assured tone.
"Junior, it's me. Can you talk"
"Since I was 2 years old"
"Shut up, Junior! That ain't what I meant. I mean...you got privacy"
"Well, Penny's in bed and Wilona ain't home yet. What's up, Dad"
"What you mean Wilona ain't home yet"
"Inventory, Dad. She ain't comin' home tonight. She gets off in the mornin"
James muttered a curse under his breath. "If you wasn't there, who'd watch Penny"
"Good question. Maybe Gertie..but I don't know if Wilona had anybody. She asked me on my way out this mornin' and I almost forgot"
"Well, least you could do is watch her, son. You've been livin' there, you can help out"
"Touche. And it ain't like I mind watchin' her either, but I worry about them here"
"Me, too. That's why I called"
"I don't get it"
"Junior..you is comin' home soon. I want them to come with you"
"What, live with us"
"Out of sight. The ghet-To ain't get-tin no better, Dad. The elevator's broken again..yeah, big surprise..and the new people in our old place ain't no good. Wilona and Penny got to get out of here"
"What do you mean, ain't no good?" James' voice took on a tone of more concern.
"She..well, she got 5 kids. Different man all the time. Sometimes she got eyes so black they look like raccoons...I guess she gets beat..always yellin' comin' out of our apartment. It's weird, Dad. It ain't ever sounded like that when we lived there. And get this"
"She's Alderman Fred Davis' niece, so she'll be here for-eva"
James shook his head. "Junior, look. I don't want nobody to have a bad reputation. If Wilona and Penny live here, I'm gonna ask Wilona to marry me. You okay with that"
"Why buy the cow if you can"
"DO NOT finish that sentence, Junior"
"Just jivin', Dad. Just jivin'. Sure, that's cool with me. You talk to Thelma"
"Yeah. She's good with it too"
"May I make a suggestion"
"As long as it ain't got nothin' to do with cows, go ahead, Junior"
JJ's voice took on a serious tone. "Try to get her to quit the boutique, if she says yes. Dad...it's got a new owner, and they're treatin' her like garbage. Workin' her more hours and threatenin' to cut her pay. It ain't like it was. She needs to get out of there but says all the time, 'I need this job'. Dad..talk sense to her. If she marries you, she don't need that job. Penny misses her, too, and sometimes..well, sometimes I wonder why she took Penny in if she ain't gonna be home"
"Now, Junior, it wasn't like that when she first got Penny. This is somethin' that just come up recently, right"
"But nothin'. The way you said that made her sound like a bad mother. She ain't"
"No..I didn't mean that. I know she ain't"
"Well, long as we got that straight. But yeah, I will talk to her about it. Ain't no way she's gonna keep them hours..she won't need to. And she could always work for someplace else if she insists on workin'. Provided she don't get all stubborn and pigheaded and demand to keep that damned job"
JJ grinned and said "I'm sure you'll get her to see the light..after all, you're the Dad of Kid Dyn-0-MITE"
James cringed, but gave a reluctant chuckle. "Sure you right. Now get to bed. You ain't out of school yet"
"Okay, Dad. G'night. Say g'night to the kids for me"
"I will. Take care, Junior."
They hung up. With his kids and father on board, James simply had one..make that two more to convince: Wilona and Penny.
(To be continued...feedback most certainly welcome!)