Excerpt from short story book Saint Catherine’s Baby.
The Sweetest Man (Part 3 – Conclusion)
Mr. Johnson and Ms. King, who now referred to one another as Joshua and Leslie, met the next day and the day after that. With Mrs. Johnson’s insistence, Joshua started seeing Leslie in the evenings as well, usually at Leslie’s home for dinner. When Leslie could arrange a babysitter, even though Sevon insisted he could stay by himself, “I’m TEN Mom!” they would go out to a movie, dinner or a walk around town.
It wasn’t long until mouths’ were talking and tongues’ a wagging at school.
“You Wiley Coyote you,” Maria exclaimed one afternoon to Leslie. “All this time. Not one look and here you come. Pow! He practically falls over himself chasing after you.”
Eloise laughed. Leslie chided. “Come on. It’s not like that. We’re just good friends.”
“Friends?!” Maria almost shouted. “Just friends my foot. You think we’re blind? We don’t see the way you talk?”
Leslie rolled her eyes, but didn’t deny the accusation as she walked away, leaving Maria and Eloise grinning, both genuinely happy for their new found friend, the “mother of Sevon.”
“Can we go to your place tonight?” Leslie asked sweetly, as she and Joshua left the Thai Kitchen, which had become their favorite dining spot.
“Well . . . I don’t know.” Joshua hesitated. “Don’t you think we should get back home? Ginny probably needs to leave soon.”
Ginny was the babysitter Eloise had found for Leslie. A freshman at the community college, she and Sevon had made a great connection. She didn’t treat him like a little kid and when he discovered that she had played soccer throughout high school and was on the college team, it was admiration at first goal.
“It’s only six-thirty,” Leslie replied. “She doesn’t have to leave until nine.”
“Oh yeah,” Joshua said, already knowing that was the case, but stalling, not sure what to say.
“Sure, sometime soon,” he said, giving her a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder. “Let’s go see that new flick by Spike Lee.”
“Soon, soon, soon,” she frowned. “You always say that.” She looked at the wet pavement as they walked, water still streaming down the gutters from the downpour an hour earlier.
“Are you hiding something?” she inquired.
“Hiding something, from you?” He looked hurt.
“You’ve never invited me to your house,” she said. As he lifted his arm off her shoulder, she stopped walking, braced herself and took a risk. “You got another woman at home?”
Joshua rolled his head and looked up at the dark sky. He hadn’t told her about his mother. He was afraid she’d think he was a loser, “a coward,” his previous lady friends had said or implied, because he still lived at home.
“Oh my God!” Leslie gasped. “How could you?!”
The expression of anguish on her face almost killed him. She abruptly turned and started to run. He ran after her and grabbed her long coat by the sleeve.
“No! No!” he panted. “It’s not like that.” He could tell she didn’t believe him, but she had at least stopped to listen. “Yes, I live with another woman . . .”
She raised her hand to slap him, restrained herself and turned to flee, but he wouldn’t let go and turned her around. “It’s my mother!” he shouted.
Leslie’s mouth dropped open. She stared at Joshua, flabbergasted. “Your mother?!”
He nodded, waiting to hear a litany of judgment, deprecation and farewells.
“Why?” was all she said. She took Joshua’s hands and held them in her warm gloves. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Joshua had tried to avoid this moment at all costs. How could he explain that he’s the last and only family member living that can care for his mom? How could he tell her that he’d promised to never put her in a home with strangers? How could he tell her he owed his mom the world; that she was the only one who stuck by him when he returned from Viet Nam addicted to heroin; the only one waiting when he got out of jail for robbery; the only one that called and visited every week during his rehab? Every other woman he’d known had left him for someone successful, someone who wasn’t such a “Mama’s boy.” How could he tell her all that?
“I was afraid,” was all he could manage. “I was afraid you’d leave.”
“Leave?” she said pulling him close. “You’re the sweetest thing I’ve ever known.”
She wrapped her leather coat around them both; re-heating the bond that had been temporarily frozen, extinguishing the fear that had drained the blood from their bodies.
“When can I meet her?” she whispered, after gently kissing his soft cheeks. “Tonight?”
“No. She’d be livid if we showed up unannounced. She’ll want to make a big to do about it.” He smiled sadly, returning Leslie’s kiss with one of his own on her wet lips.
“Oh. I hope she won’t go to all that trouble.”
“She won’t,” he corrected. “She can’t be on her feet long. It’ll be me who does the actual cooking. She’ll be the general in charge, ordering me to do this and that.”
“I hope she likes me.”
“Like you?” Joshua’s replied. “How could she not like you?”
His gut tightened into a knot, knowing that his mother had always found some fault or perceived character defect with his lady friends.
Leslie and Sevon closed the doors to the Camry and walked across the street. They opened the gate of the chain link fence to the old brownstone and headed towards the front porch.
“You be on your best behavior, you hear,” Leslie reminded Sevon. “This is very important for Mr. Johnson and me.”
Sevon nodded for the hundredth time. “How old is his mom? I bet she’s ancient.”
“Sevon!” Leslie sighed. “She’s not ancient, just older.”
“How old?” Sevon asked, as they stepped on the creaky steps.
“Shhhhh!” Leslie cautioned. “I don’t know.”
“Don’t forget the crystal wine glasses!” Alberta Johnson shouted from the living room.
“I didn’t!” Joshua yelled out from the kitchen, were he was nervously watching the clock. The table was immaculately set with silver utensils, which had been passed down from his great-grandmother. Bright red roses splayed out from a vase in the center of the white lace cloth, which blessedly covered most of the gaudy Formica top.
When he returned to the living room to help his mother out of her chair, the doorbell rang. He turned back towards the kitchen, wondering if he should get his mother up first or answer the door.
As he hesitated, looking at the front door then at his mother, Mrs. Johnson yelled, “What are you standing there for? Hurry up before they run off already.” He started coming towards her. “Go get the door you fool,” she snapped. “I can make it on my own.”
He watched her rise, with great effort, using her cane to steady herself, as he hurried to the front door.
“Come in. Come in.” He ushered Leslie and Sevon into the entrance way. “Who are you two fine looking people?” he kidded.
Leslie kissed him on the cheek. evon nodded a perfunctory hello.”
“Where’s you’re Mom?” Leslie asked, noticing the beautifully laid out table setting.
“I’m right here,” Mrs. Johnson replied, huffing and puffing her way into the kitchen.
Leslie, taken aback by how bent over and breathless Mrs. Johnson was, stood and stared. Catching herself, before it was noticed, she went up to the matriarch; shook her hand and said, “What a pleasure to meet you.” Turning towards her son, who looked like he’d just seen someone raised from the dead, Leslie twitched her head to indicate he should move closer. “And this is my son Sevon.”
Sevon bowed, reluctantly took the outstretched wrinkled hand and said, “Nice to meet you Mrs. Johnson.”
Mrs. Johnson laughed. “Now, aren’t you the little prince?” Sevon backed up closer to his mother. “You keep that up and the girls will be all over you.”
Looking a little sick at the thought of girls being “all over” him, Sevon nodded politely and decided then and there to keep his distance from the old lady.
“Please,” Joshua motioned towards the table. “Dinner is just about ready.”
Leslie pulled out a chair for Mrs. Johnson, who was so focused on landing gracefully in front of company, that she didn’t bother to say thank you. Sevon sat as straight as he could, like his mother had instructed, at the opposite end.
Leslie sat down next to Mrs. Johnson, put on her napkin and complimented their hosts. “This is beautiful.” She smelled the roses, then picked up a silver knife. “And these are exquisite. Where did you get them?”
Joshua put a plate full of steaming hot lasagna in front of his mother, who replied, “They’re from my grandmother. They were a wedding gift from the woman she worked for.”
“What company did your grandma work for?” Leslie asked, grateful to have something for conversation.
“Company?” Mrs. Johnson stared hard at Leslie. “Where are you from?”
“What?” Leslie said, as Joshua placed dinner before her, smiling lovingly, not having heard their interaction.
“She was a cook, a cleaner,” Mrs. Johnson continued sternly. “She was a slave.”
“Why yes, of course,” Leslie acknowledged, feeling like she’d just slipped and fallen into a mud puddle. “I meant . . . I was just wondering …”
“What company?” Mrs. Johnson muttered, shaking her head, wondering how her son could find someone who had no sense of history, no understanding of what they’d been through, of who they were.
Joshua put a big helping of Lasagna in front of Sevon and a large portion at his own seat, then placed a bottle of wine and one of apple cider next to the roses. He sat down across from Leslie, between his mother and Sevon. After putting on his napkin, he glanced over at Leslie. His smile disappeared when he saw her look of confusion. Without wasting a second he looked at his Mom for an explanation, but received none.
Leslie watched Mrs. Johnson and Joshua bow their heads to pray and did likewise. Sevon, not being brought up in a religious household, reached for his fork and took a mouthful of lasagna before his mother could stop him.
Alberta Johnson shot an inquisitional look at Sevon, then his mother. “Sevon!” Leslie admonished. “What on earth are you doing?” Sevon was at a loss. His Mom nodded frantically at Joshua and Mrs. Johnson’s bowed heads.
Sevon put down his fork, whispered “sorry” and bowed his head.
The rest of the evening was civil, but no matter what Leslie said or did, she couldn’t erase the mortal sins Mrs. Johnson insinuated they had committed at the dinner table.
“That woman,” Mrs. Johnson gasped, after their guests had left. Joshua helped her back into her “Big Daddy” chair and raised the footrest. “That woman doesn’t deserve you.” She looked at the picture of her dead husband on the bookshelf, realizing once again how much she depended on her only son. “She’s got no religion.” She took a few skeletal wheezes. “A kid with no manners. And . . . worst of all . . . she doesn’t even know she’s black.” Joshua remained silent, as his mother gargled on. “Did you see her hair?!”
Driving home, in her new luxury Toyota, Leslie knew she couldn’t blame Sevon, who had never said grace in his life and she couldn’t take back her naive question about Mrs. Johnson’s grandmother.
“How on earth,” she told herself, “was I supposed to know? I’m not a mind reader.” As they drove on she became more incensed and less self-effacing. “What century does she live in? she told herself. “Praying never got us anywhere!”
Two minutes later she found herself arguing for understanding and patience. “So, she finds it comforting. Who am I to say what works best for the old lady?”
Joshua finished up the last of the dishes, got his mother’s night time medications and brought them, with some water, into the living room.
“Here you go Mom.”
“Thanks son.” She plopped the handful into her mouth, took a big swig and swallowed them all at once, coughing a few times to clear her throat.
After making sure they’d all gone down OK, he said, “I’m going to go read a while.”
When Joshua came out of his room, about twenty minutes later, his mother said, with a slight slur, “I, I think I’ll go . . . my prayers and . . . to bed. I’m pppretty tired all of a sudden.”
He helped her rise. She leaned on him hard and dragged her cane behind her. Her shuffling was worse than usual as they entered the bedroom. He sat her on the side of the bed and pulled back the hand-knitted bedspread. Gently removing her shoes, he laid her down and pulled the covers over her shoulders.
“Thanks sweetheart.” They kissed each other goodnight. “You’re sssuch a swweet, sweet boy. What . . . what would I . . . I ever do . . . without you?”
Joshua turned off the light, closed the door and went to the bathroom. He took the few remaining barbiturates he’d switched with his mother’s medications and flushed them down the toilet. As he watched them disappear, he realized he had been so taken with Leslie King, that he’d forgotten to find out the name of that cute little girl with pigtails that he’d seen on the playground several months ago and promised himself he’d find out first thing in the morning.