Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.
The Sweetest Man (Part 2)
“If he wasn’t a married man, I’d have honed in on that honey years ago.” Marina whispered to the mothers.
“Married?” Eloise exclaimed. “I don’t know if he’s married or not.”
“Really?” Marina replied. “I always assumed . . . he never even looks at me.”
“Just because a man doesn’t look at you Marina, doesn’t mean he’s hitched,” Eloise chided.
Marina good-naturally pushed Eloise on the shoulder.
“Just because he’s not married,” Linda broke in, “doesn’t mean he’s worth your time. After all,” she scoffed, “look what he does for a living. He’s not going very far.”
“I don’t care if he was washing dishes or the president of IBM,” replied Marina. “If there was more like him in this world, we’d all be better off.”
“It matters,” Linda insisted. “And you know it.”
They all nodded, agreeing with both Linda and Marina.
Leslie bid farewell and went out to the basketball court to get Sevon. By the time they got to her new car she had forgotten all about Joshua Johnson.
After putting the old three-speed bike away in the garage, the one he rode to work for the last twenty-three years, Joshua entered the house by the back entrance. The weathered screen door squeaked and slammed shut behind him.
“Hey Mom, I’m home,” he shouted, as he hung up his lightweight windbreaker and walked through the kitchen. On the scratched cutting board, by the sink, were some carrots and potatoes; half of which had been sliced; the other half lay silently by themselves, waiting for someone to rescue them from their wilting future.
“Mom,” Joshua said, a little more urgently. “Mom! You OK.”
“I’m just fine.” He heard her reply from the living room. “Stop your fussing.”
Joshua saw his mother, Alberta Johnson, sitting in her favorite “Big Daddy” chair, as she always liked to call the worn and tattered green suede recliner. Her feet were raised on the chair’s movable leg rest.
“Started dinner,” she explained, “but couldn’t get my breath. Had to sit a spell.”
She took in a few quick gasps that sounded like someone taking a drag on a water pipe.
“Mama,” Joshua scolded. “You leave that to me. I don’t mind cooking when I get home. It sort of relaxes me.”
“After you been out working your buns off all day?” his Mom shot back. “I’ll have no part of that.”
“You know what the doctor said,” Joshua replied. “You’ve got to pace yourself, stay off your feet.” He went back into the kitchen and kept talking. “That congestive heart stuff isn’t something to play around with.”
Alberta almost spit, as she hollered after him. “If the good Lord had wanted me to sit on my behind all day, he wouldn’t give me the legs or the gumption to use ‘em.”
Joshua returned and handed her a glass of water and some pills. “And if you don’t stop hovering over me,” she frowned, then winced, as she swallowed the pills. “I’m going to die from being babied to death!”
Joshua smiled, took the glass back in the kitchen, returned to the living room, sat on the matching green sofa and propped his feet up on the coffee table.
“How goes it with the rest of the world?” his Mom asked earnestly.
“Couple new kids today,” he replied, as he picked up the daily paper and began scanning the headlines. “One of the cutest little girls you’ve ever seen.”
“And the other?” she nodded, having expected him to tell her without her having to ask.
“Well,” he said slowly and lowered the paper to see her inquisitive eyes over the top. “The other’s name is Sevon. Nice looking kid.” He paused for effect, then said dreamily, “and his mother . . . man, was she something else.” He shook his head with pleasure, remembering the way she looked at him from behind, after they’d met and parted. He put the paper in front of his face once again, to hide the enormous smile from his mother.
“Put that thing down!” she insisted, pointing at the paper. Joshua folded the daily news neatly and placed it on the table by his feet. “Now, are you going to tell me more or do I have to beat it out of you?” she said, raising the cane she used for walking, like some menacing spear.
Joshua chuckled. He knew she enjoyed the banter and played it out as long as possible. She got pretty lonely during the days and loved a little intrigue. He wished he could afford to stay home and keep her company, but it was financially impossible. She had always been self-sufficient and independent, but since his dad had died from lung cancer in 1986, she’d been quite lonesome. It wasn’t long after his death before she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and that was on top of her already existing arthritis and high blood pressure.
“Her name is Leslie,” he recalled. “Real nice. Real nice indeed.”
“Well?” his Mom said, almost coming unglued.
“Well what?” Joshua teased. He knew what was coming.
“Well?” she said sharply. “Did you ask her out, talk a little, make a move?”
“Make a move?” Joshua laughed. “Where do you come up with this stuff, TV?”
“For God’s sake Son,” his Mom exclaimed. “You said she was pretty. You said she was ‘something’.” She shook her head. Do I have to spell it out for you? Have you forgotten your single and a man? A good looking one, if I may boast,” she said proudly.
“Mother,” Joshua replied with a hint of irritation, as he got up to head back to the kitchen to finish dinner. “She’s probably married.”
“Are you sure?” she asked as he bent over and gave her a kiss.
“I don’t know,” he said standing, turning to leave. “She seemed pretty high class.” He walked towards the kitchen and muttered. “What would she ever see in a janitor?”
“Come back here!” Mrs. Johnson demanded, as she thumped her cane on the floor like a gavel.
Joshua turned and waited for the inevitable motherly pep talk, realizing he should have kept his thoughts to himself.
“You do honorable work for an honorable daily wage,” his mother instructed. “You help keep a clean place for God’s children to learn.” He lowered his head. “Look at me when I’m speaking!” He looked up quickly. “And to top it off, you’re an intelligent and kind man.” Joshua listened, knowing what she said was true, but also understanding how a man was measured. “Anybody says otherwise, is either a fool or blind,” she concluded.
“Yes Mom. love you too,” he assured her, then turned and headed towards the counter to finish cutting the vegetables that had been waiting so patiently for his arrival.
Without making it to obvious, Joshua made a point of taking out the cafeteria garbage at the same time the following day in hopes of at least seeing, if not talking too, Mrs. King. Discreetly, he looked up and down the hallway when the bell rang and saw hundreds of students, parents and teachers, but no Leslie King.
“Forget it,” he said to himself, carrying the can on the pushcart to the garbage bin. “What was I thinking?”
As he was about to re-enter the building, the door flew open and hit the metal can in his hands. It was Sevon.
He looked at Joshua briefly, muttered, “Oh. Sorry.” Then ran down the path towards the parking lot.
Mrs. King followed close behind yelling, “Sevon! Wait up!”
She almost walked right past Joshua, who stood silently behind the open door, then felt his presence and turned.
“Good day Mrs. King,” he nodded, unable to keep his pleasure at her acknowledgment under wraps. “And how are you and your son today?”
“Quite fine, thank you,” she replied; glancing once more down the path to make sure Sevon was safe. Turning to face Joshua directly, she asked, “And you, Mr. Johnson, how goes it for you?”
“Much better,” he said, looking down at the ground shyly.
“Much better?” she questioned.
“Much better, having seen you today,” he blurted boldly and looked her square in the face.
Now it was Leslie’s turn to look away, suddenly at a rare loss of words.
If someone had been watching this encounter from afar, they would have thought these two adults were acting like young teens experiencing a crush for the first time.
“Mr. Johnson, please,” she rebuffed.
“Mr. King’s a lucky man,” he offered. “Yes indeed.”
“There is no Mr. King, Mr. Johnson.”
“Please, call me Joshua.”
“Leslie,” she said, matching his dismissal of formalities. “King’s my maiden name. Sevon’s father is Albert Wilson.”
Joshua could hardly contain his ecstasy, but all the world and Leslie saw, was a slight nod of acknowledgment.
“And you Mr., I mean Joshua,” she wondered out loud. “Surely a man such as yourself is happily married, I presume?”
Joshua saw Sevon walking quickly towards them. “Married?” he answered. “I’m afraid not.”
“But Eloise Jacobs said . . .,” she started to blurt out, but was saved by Sevon.
“Mom! Come on!”
“Sevon,” she said sternly. “Don’t interrupt when people are talking! You hear me?” She looked in Joshua’s direction.
“Sorry,” Sevon said quietly. Joshua acknowledged the boy’s apology with a grin.
“Mothers,” Joshua said, shaking his head and smiling understandingly at Sevon. “They can be such a pain.”
Sevon stared blankly, having no idea that Mr. Johnson was joking, then grabbed his mother’s sleeve. “Come on! The game starts at four o’clock on channel eight!”
“Soccer,” Leslie explained, as she was being ushered away by her increasingly excited son. “He’s become a fanatic. Talked me into getting cable so he could watch every week.”
Joshua didn’t budge. His heart was beating like a time bomb.
“Let’s talk tomorrow,” Leslie hollered, walking half backwards, as she and Sevon made their way to the parking lot.
He remembered nodding and grinning stupidly as they left; feeling like everything was in slow motion until Mr. Duncan, the principal, opened the door to leave.
“Good night Mr. Johnson,” he said, taking a double look at the school custodian, who was frozen, with an empty garbage can in hand, looking towards the parking lot. “You OK Mr. Johnson?”
Joshua shook his head, like shaking off a vision, when he realized Mr. Duncan was addressing him. “Oh yes. I’m great, thank you,” he replied and opened the door to take in the can. “It’s a beautiful afternoon, isn’t it Mr. Duncan?” he said, looking up.
The principal looked at the cloudy gray skies and back at Joshua. If you say so.”
“See ya tomorrow,” Joshua closed the door and stepped lightly; pushing the empty trash can down the hallway; whistling an improvised tune all his own.