CHAPTER ONE: Discovering Discontentment
Paige Barhydt was like most people; she relished time by herself. And on this first day of May, all she wanted to do was to relax in a Center City park and eat her lunch in peace before heading back to work. Her solitude was fleeting, however, as she spied Martin Larson coming up the path. Cutting her break short just to avoid him was an attractive option. Instead she stayed put, and in the end she was glad; talking with Martin that day changed her life forever.
Martin’s shoulders invariably slouched forward, as if he were trying to compensate for his six-foot, three-inch stature. His feet also shuffled as he walked, and his clothes always appeared a size too small: his shirt sleeves were too short and his pant legs, way too high. A thin, 1950’s-style tie rounded the look. The black-rimmed glasses perched on his nose were so thick and heavy, Paige would’ve sworn that he was legally blind.
“May I join you?” he asked when he reached her, sounding uncharacteristically polite.
“Sure,” she said, sliding her lunch and purse over to afford him more room to sit. “Would you like an apple?”
“No, thanks,” he said, making himself comfortable on the bench, “I’ve already eaten.”
Even while sitting, Martin was a whole head taller than she. Resting his elbows against the back of the seat, he regarded Paige deliberately, from her golden hair and lavender twill dress, down to her sheer stockings and matching lavender pumps. She was beginning to understand how protozoa felt under a microscope.
A strong breeze came as she took another bite from her chicken salad and celery sandwich, prompting her to reach for the plastic wrap before it blew away. The leaves of the tall Norway maple behind her started rustling, causing a delightful distraction from the sounds of horns blowing and tires screeching out on Philadelphia’s Market Street.
“Sitting behind a desk all day is a drag when you’ve got weather like this,” Martin said, pushing his glasses up with a long forefinger and studying her impishly. “That’s a pretty dress you’re wearing.”
Martin looked snooty, with that arrogant sneer, wide, confident eyes, and regal nose. His Adam’s apple was like a little elevator in his long neck, making a curious, two-inch ascension with every swallow. Marty worked in the collections department with such zealousness and efficiency, one would think that he was collecting for his own personal gain rather than for the benefit of his superiors.
“So, you and Christian have been dating for four years now, right?” he said, still observing every move she made. Most of the people who worked with her at Ralston’s routinely felt the need to stick their noses into other people’s business.
“Five years, actually.” Martin was a sharp man who was also a virtuoso at discovering discontentment, and he noted her lack of enthusiasm with one raised eyebrow.
“Marriage must be right around the corner for you two….”
“We’re not planning to get married just yet.”
“What’s the holdup?”
“What’s the rush?”
“It’s none of my business, but….”
“That’s right,” she said, not caring if she sounded short with him. Martin hesitated, his mouth still open from being interrupted mid-sentence. His surprise soon mellowed into a savvy amusement. At least he finally stopped staring!
A homeless man digging in the garbage nearby caught Martin’s attention. The back of the man’s neck was a fiery red, and his eyes were intent on finding anything of value: a half-eaten soft pretzel, some soda left in a can, a crust of pizza, anything. He was obviously a man in need.
“Just look at that,” Martin said, using his chin to point the guy out. “Seeing vagrants like him make me sick. Why doesn’t he get a job like the rest of us?” Martin glanced at Paige for a moment, and then allowed his cantankerous eyes to scrutinize the homeless man again. “What good is he, anyway?”
“You don’t know his situation. Maybe….”
“His situation is that he’s not working. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be eating out of trash cans. You and I are taxpayers, and there’s no reason why he can’t be one, too.” Martin looked over at the fellow again. “Get a job!” he shouted, this time catching the old guy’s attention. The man scratched the stubble on his chin and watched Martin, his manner suggesting a docile spirit. He seemed like a sweet old man who was down on his luck and didn’t want to offend anybody. After grabbing his sack filled with unknown treasures, he scooted off to avoid anymore of a fuss.
“Why don’t you do me a favor, Martin, and keep on walking,” Paige said, looking around self-consciously. “I don’t want anyone to think we’re together.”
When Martin stood up, his lanky figure reached high into the sky. “Well, I should be getting back,” he said, resting his big hands on his narrow hips as his attention settled on a man coming up from a transit stop in a wheelchair . “Now there’s a man who deserves a handout.”
After stopping by the garbage cans to throw something away, the man in the wheelchair took the orange cap from his head and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. To Paige’s horror, Martin’s feet shuffled over to him, shouted a greeting, and then tossed some coins into the hat he was holding. Martin’s face just beamed as he walked along after, whistling a tune as if he believed he’d done something good!
Paige sat observing the stranger’s bewilderment and knew that he deserved some sort of an explanation. So she dropped the rest of her sandwich back into the bag, picked it and her purse up, and then trudged over as the man looked on. His perplexed face watched as she came near, and he only looked away once to reach inside the Flyers’ hat in his hand and take out the money.
“Hello,” Paige said.
“Hi,” he said, glancing over at Martin as he crossed an intersection filled with city buses and taxi cabs, and then lost himself not a moment too soon behind a skyscraper.
“Sorry about that,” she said, pointing to the change in his hand. Redness must’ve come to her face because it felt so hot.
He jingled the coins in his hand. “Is this yours?” he asked, grinning; it must’ve been obvious how embarrassed she was.
She smiled bashfully. “No, but the fellow who gave you the money is a coworker of mine. Sometimes he doesn’t think about what he’s doing.”
The man examined the coins in his palm. “Well, he left me with a buck fifty. I can put that toward the purchase of a chili dog.” When he looked up at her, the breeze tousled his fine, brown hair. “I’ll cover the difference if you’ll let me buy you a chili dog.”
“No, thank you. I brought my own lunch,” she said, holding up the bag.
“I’ll trade you. I’ll buy you a chili dog, and I’ll eat what you have.”
“Why don’t you buy yourself a chili dog?”
“Miss,” he said, glancing down at the money in his hand, “I’d just as soon throw this money away in that garbage can over there than spend any of it on myself.” He paused. “So, what would you like on your chili dog?”
“Cheddar cheese, no onions,” she said, smiling.
“It’s settled, then.” As he rolled his wheelchair over to a vendor’s cart, Paige found it difficult to keep up. A squirrel darted clear of the path they were on, probably for fear of being run over. By the time Paige finally caught up with him, the vendor was already preparing the sandwich. Delectable aromas coming from the cart only whetted her appetite for food with flagrant amounts of fat and calories.
“What’s your name?” she asked while catching her breath.
“Dennis Dru. And yours?”
The vendor gave Dennis his order wrapped in tinfoil, and then he handed it to her. “I hope you don’t mind, but I also threw in a soft drink.”
“Maybe you should keep that. I usually grab a cup of coffee after I go back to the office, so I don’t have anything for you to drink.”
“That’s okay. Let’s sit over there,” he said, pointing to a bench close by. He wheeled his chair beside the bench and she sat down next to him. After putting the soda on the seat between them, she held her lunch in one hand and the chili dog in the other. “So, what do I have for lunch?” he asked, pretending to peer inside the bag.
“Half a chicken sandwich. I’m afraid I beat you to the first half.”
“That’s okay.” Putting the bag down, she gave him the sandwich. Before partaking, however, he watched as she took a bite from the chili dog.
“Wow, that’s hot!” she said; she’d been so preoccupied by his company, that she hadn’t noticed the jalapeños mixed in with the chili con carne.
“I’m sorry,” he said, as she started fanning her mouth. “Ordering the Mexican version is kind of a habit for me.” Drinking soda gave her the momentary illusion that her mouth felt better. Meanwhile, Dennis finished his sandwich in three bites.
“You’ve got an apple, too,” she told him.
“No kidding? Let’s have it.” As she took a red delicious apple from the bag, its gleam seemed exaggerated in the sunlight, almost like the eternal pause from a still life. After handing it to him, he started polishing it on his shirt. “Do you live around here, Paige?” he asked before taking a bite.
“Yes, Chestnut Hill. I usually take the subway down here, though, to avoid having to park my car.”
While drinking more of the soft drink in her hand, Paige noticed a couple of kids playing with a Frisbee. They seemed to be having so much fun, tossing the disk and then leaping up to catch it. The boys were very good at the game, and watching them proved to be most entertaining. But when Paige glanced down at Dennis’s lifeless, atrophied legs, sadness returned to her face.
“This is a nice place,” Dennis observed. “The flowers are pretty over there.” He was referring to the rhododendrons in full bloom around the rugosa roses. Earlier, April rains had allowed them to flourish.
“Yes, they are,” she said, happy that he should notice. “The lilacs smell wonderful.”
Dennis paused to take advantage of a raft of wind carrying the delightful fragrance, which loomed above the smell of asphalt and the pungent odor of car exhaust. It even ousted the smells of hot dogs and french fries that the vendors were selling, and the otherwise penetrating gases drifting down from oil refinery smokestacks along the Delaware River.
“Lilacs, huh?” Dennis asked, wiping apple juice off his hand and onto the leg of his trousers. “Nice touch.”
Everyone around them had spring fever: joggers went by in droves, while bicycle riders and folks on roller blades breezed past as their wheels droned steady hums against the pavement. Hordes of people lined up by the vendors’ carts were waiting to be served. Sea gulls vied for the popcorn scattered around the base of a cast bronze statue of a girl holding roses and gazing up into the sky. It was called “Destiny.”
“What do you do for a living, Paige?” Dennis asked, taking another bite from the apple.
“I work in the department store across the street. Ralston’s customer service.”
“Do you like it?”
“Customer service?” she asked, and he nodded. “Not really, but it helps to pay the rent.”
“Serious rent, too, if you live in the northwest. I live in west Philly.” He looked up at her. “Ralston’s must pay well.”
It didn’t. Her boyfriend, Christian, always helped her cover the rent each month. It didn’t seem appropriate to go into all of that, so she didn’t mention it.
As Dennis concentrated on finishing the apple, she studied him. He was about twenty-five years old, and his upper body was very strong, obviously to make up for the lost use of his legs. The sleeves of the shirt he was wearing were rolled up past his elbows, and he was wearing a pair of faded, denim jeans. Dennis was only average-looking with his straight, brown hair, dull blue eyes, and pallid complexion, but there was definitely something special about him.
His wheelchair was a modest one; it was made very simply, with no fancy dials on it. But from the push handles down to the foot pedals, everything on it seemed to be in excellent condition. It was clean and well cared for, and Paige admired that.
When Dennis smiled at her, his dimples seemed to brighten the world around him more than the flowers did. Paige felt butterflies in the pit of her stomach, the ones she used to feel during her adolescence. It was nice having that anxious rush of anticipation back again; it brought memories of first dates and lost loves she thought she’d forgotten.
Savoring the last bite, Dennis finished the apple. For a time, he seemed to be the only man there; Paige could see no one else. He was like the Biblical image of Adam, being persuaded to eat of the forbidden fruit, a glimpse, perhaps, into an innocence lost. Paige remembered innocence fondly. It was nice having it back, if only for a short while.
Oblivious to the importance of the moment, Dennis tossed the apple core into a garbage can as if it had been just another apple, and then put the Flyers’ cap back on his head. “Well, I’d better get going.”
“Hey, wait,” she said, trying to delay the inevitable. “I owe you a cup of coffee.”
“That’s okay. I’ll grab something when I get home.”
“Listen, I promise that the coffee I’m offering you would probably be about the best you’ve ever tasted….”
“Don’t tempt me,” he said, giving her that cute, little smile again. “Maybe some other time.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
“It was nice meeting you, Paige.” When he gave her a friendly wink, those butterflies fluttered again.
“You, too,” she said, and then watched as he maneuvered his wheelchair past the boys with the Frisbee and then took off down Market Street.
CHAPTER TWO: Keeping the Secret
On Saturday, Paige had every intention of sleeping well into the morning, but she awoke when sunlight started streaming in through the lace-trimmed curtains. The flaxen-colored, satin canopy hanging above the bed never seemed to catch it. When she reached over to close the curtains, she tried not to disturb the velvety, dark crimson gloxinia blooming on the sill. Rolling over, she pulled the sheets snug against her neck, nudging Christian a little.
He was already staring at her, and his deep blue eyes watched her with great interest. His blond hair was too closely cropped to be mussed. “I wonder what Buddy and Ritchie were up to last night, making all that racket,” he said, raising his eyes to the ceiling and referring to the tenants who lived directly above them. Ritchie Reilly and Theodore “Buddy” Delancy were good friends of Paige’s, and had been her neighbors for almost three years now.
Pushing the hair back out of her eyes, Paige said, “They were probably doing the same thing up there that we were doing down here.” Reminding him of the night before brought a smile to his face.
“They must’ve had fun, then,” he said, running his hand over her thigh. “Doesn’t it disgust you at least a little to think of two men as a couple?”
“Love is wherever you find it, Chris.”
“Then people shouldn’t go looking for it in all the wrong places.”
She ran her hand over the sheets and gave him a wistful smile; trying to change his mind about anything was virtually impossible. Usually, though, she just went along with him; sometimes it was worth it just to get him to be quiet.
Christian caressed her bare shoulder and then played with her hair. “How would you like to visit my mother today?”
“I’d rather spend the day alone with you, Chris. You had to work most of last weekend.”
“It would mean a lot to me if you visited with Mom. She’s really looking forward to seeing us.” Christian got out of bed and walked past his copy of Renoir’s Gabrielle with a Rose hanging on the wall. He admired it before going into the bathroom.
Paige stared up at the picture. With it came a rush of happy thoughts of their visit to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris three summers ago, back when spending time alone meant so much to both of them. Since then, the demands of Christian’s work usually prevented him from seeing her most days, let alone allowing time for vacationing.
Christian came out of the bathroom and stared at her. Perhaps he was remembering how wonderful last night had been. Paige had made him something to eat, they’d laughed and talked about things which had happened to each of them this past week, and then they made love. It was wonderful because it had all been so spontaneous.
“Okay, Chris,” she said. “We’ll spend time with your mother today. Go ahead and give her a call.”
He smiled in a charming sort of way; it always made him happy whenever she went along with him. Coming to her, he leaned on the bed and gave her a kiss. The top of his head brushed against the canopy, allowing a few strands of his hair to stand on end. If he’d realized it, he would’ve smoothed the hair down. He always liked to be neat, even while in the bedroom and still in his briefs. Times like these were when she most adored him, to see something out of place on his hair or on his clothes, and then keeping the secret.
“No need to do that,” he said. “I already told her we were coming.”
Paige’s brow furrowed. “Why do you even bother to ask me when you’ve already made plans for us?”
“I just assumed you’d say yes.”
Getting out of bed in a huff, Paige put on her robe and then went into the kitchen. After getting some coffee brewing, she put a couple of slices of raisin bread in the toaster and then checked the soil of the potted plants in the window. They were all pretty dry, so she filled a glass and gave them a drink of water. Then she trudged over to a chair and sat down, waiting on the toast.
When Christian came out of the bedroom and sat down across from her at the table, she stared at the milk-white hairs on his chest rather than look him in the eye. He could probably see how miffed she was, so he took her hand and held it. “I did jump the gun, didn’t I? Listen, I’ll call Mom and make arrangements for us to visit her on some other weekend.”
Paige considered him with grateful surprise. “Really?”
“Sure. But please understand that I still have to go.”
“I really wish you’d stay with me today. Please, Chris.”
“I promised her I’d come. I’m sorry.” She nodded, looking despondent. “Hey,” he said, reaching over and caressing the back of her neck. He leaned over and gave her a kiss that felt as warm and sincere as ever. “I’m going to grab a shower and then go back to my place. I’ve got some work that I’ve got to catch up on before I go over to Mom’s.”
“Don’t forget to call her and let her know that I’m not coming, Chris.”
“I’ll remember.” Christian went into the bathroom again and closed the door behind him. Paige stared after him fondly, taking her attention away from him only after realizing that the bread had popped up from the toaster.
She went over and picked up the slices, happy to see that the raisins on top hadn’t burned. After spreading some butter on them while they were still hot, she took a couple of bites from the first as she walked over to the front door and unlocked it. Opening it just wide enough to step through, she then leaned into the heavy, outer door to push it far enough so that she could pick the newspaper up from the porch with one hand while balancing the toast on the palm of the other.
“I don’t believe it!” Ritchie called as he descended the towering set of stairs behind her. “What are you doing up so early on a Saturday morning?”
“Chris is over,” she said.
“What else is new? It is Saturday, isn’t it? It’s a crime that the man won’t let you get any sleep.”
Sliding behind her in the narrow hallway, Ritchie took ahold of the doorjamb to support his weight as he reached out to collect his own newspaper from the step. Paige understood that he didn’t want his bare feet touching the cold cement. As he stood up again, he reached over and took a bite from the toast in her hand. “Got any low-cal sweetener, Paige?” he asked while chewing. “Your toast is cold,” he observed, wincing a little. He pulled the common, outer door shut; it always needed a boost, especially whenever the temperature grew colder.
“The operative word in that sentence implies that it’s my toast, Ritchie,” she said, smiling at him from over her shoulder. “Come on in.” When she went back inside, he followed her. “There’s some sweetener in the canister beside the fridge.”
Paige slipped the rubber band from the newspaper and started reading the headlines as she began a slow odyssey back to the table, taking an occasional bite from the toast and trying not to get butter smudges on the print. Christian hated that. The news on the front page was far too depressing, what with murders committed last night in north and southwest Philly, grim references to the depletion of the ozone layer, and inner city housing and menacing crack house problem. Paige wanted to read about something happy for a change. She sat down and leafed through the paper, almost reaching the back before finding something upbeat.
“You know, it bugs me that you always look great so early in the morning,” Ritchie said, wrinkling up his nose. “After just tumbling out of bed, with no makeup on or anything.”
“You’re just used to the way I look without makeup,” she said, putting on a pair of reading glasses.
“No, no,” he said, shaking his head as he opened the canister and grabbed a fistful of sweetener packets. “You’re just gorgeous, that’s all. Glasses can’t even mask how lovely you are. That’s why you’ve got a gorgeous boyfriend.” He sounded envious.
“Buddy’s a looker, too,” she said, peering at him from over the top of the newspaper.
“Theodore?” he said, his unruly, red hair standing up as if bristling over a comment like that. His boyfriend, Buddy, was a lot of nice things, but handsome wasn’t one of them. “You and I both know that Buddy isn’t quite so grand looking,” he said, “but he’s a real doll baby. I wouldn’t trade him for all of the pretty boys in the world.”
“And I don’t blame you. At least you know where your man is every day: he’s right there beside you.”
“Well, you know where your man is, too.”
“Oh yeah, he’s behind a computer terminal analyzing briefs, or in a courtroom somewhere trying to be the next Perry Mason.”
Ritchie shook his head, frowning. “Chris is much better than Perry because he’s got nicer-looking legs.” He held up the sweetener in his hand. “Thanks for the loan, love,” he said, taking brisk strides to the door as if he’d left something unattended on the stove. As he left, he closed the door softly behind him.
Paige glanced down at the newspaper again and gave it her full attention. Just two pages from the last, she found a picture of Dennis Dru right in the middle of the community sports section, racing in a wheelchair built for speed. According to the article, some competitive sports events were beginning that very morning and concluding on Sunday. Some local businesses were sponsoring the meet.
As she continued reading, Paige discovered that Dennis had been last year’s one hundred-yard dash winner. The article also mentioned the high school where the events were being held, and at what time each competition was scheduled to take place. Paige smiled a little; it would be fun to go out and root for Dennis. And she was anxious to see if those butterflies would come back again.
“A penny for your thoughts,” Christian said, standing next to her as he dried his hair with a towel. He startled her because she’d been so absorbed by the article, she hadn’t heard him come out from the bathroom. She closed the newspaper and looked up at him. “What’s so interesting in there?”
“Oh, this and that.”
He smiled at her as he threw the towel over his shoulder. “Why all the mystery, Paige? What are you up to?”
“Nothing,” she said, trying to look surprised as she took off her glasses and set them aside. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Sounds good, but I’m going to shave first. Listen, why don’t we meet up for dinner after I visit with Mom? Go out and buy yourself a new dress, and I’ll take you to The Ellington. An eight o’clock reservation has already been made.” Christian grabbed his pants and pulled out his wallet. “Here,” he said, handing her one of his credit cards. “The dress is on me.” Before letting her have the card, he added, “And you know what I like.”
“Something sexy, but not over-the-top.” She took the card from him and put it on the table.
“And even in a potato sack, you’d be the best-looking woman in the room, honey. Tonight, I’m going to wine and dine you in style. Let’s plan to meet here at, say, seven-thirty?”
“All right, Chris,” she said, running her hand over the newspaper in front of her. “Seven-thirty it is.”
CHAPTER THREE: With Arms like That
The attendant waiting on Paige at Claudio’s Boutique on the corner of Seventeenth and Walnut Streets was very accommodating. All the samples she showed Paige were the very latest in evening wear. But the last dress the woman suggested was an elegant, quietly extravagant, and subtly sexy frock, just what Christian wanted her to get.
Perhaps the attendant was fooled, but Eleanor could tell that Paige’s heart just wasn’t into shopping. She would put on a dress, glance at her watch, give the dress a good look in the mirror, and then study the timepiece again. With each of four different dresses, she did the same all four times. The fourth dress, however, was the exquisite black silk. Paige still had it on and looked absolutely stunning, but she didn’t even seem to notice.
“Paige, dear,” Eleanor said, sinking down in a love seat and looking painfully bored.
“What?” Paige asked, glancing up from her watch. ”What’s wrong?”
“I’m just wondering why you dragged me to this shop when you’re really not interested in buying anything.”
“Chris asked me to get a dress for tonight. Besides, I figured you might be interested in something here.”
“I can’t even afford to buy panty hose in this place, and you know it. And there certainly isn’t a dress for under three hundred and fifty dollars here.” Eleanor glanced around at some of the other patrons with an upturned nose; she never liked fancy boutiques because she always left them empty-handed. “Three hundred and fifty dollars better spent paying my rent, I should think.”
Paige came away from the mirror and sat down next to Eleanor on the love seat. Eleanor Hambright was Paige’s best friend. They’d met in the third grade and had stayed friends for fifteen years, and counting. Boyfriends, parties, heartaches, good times, bad times, flute lessons, volleyball matches, just name it and they saw it through together. They even shared the intimate details of their relationships with men. Eleanor seemed to enjoy a light sampling of various gentlemen, never letting herself get too involved with anyone she didn’t think was right for her. The field was still open as far as she was concerned, only the selection pool kept getting more interesting. Eleanor liked it that way.
Meanwhile Paige, on the other hand, had met Christian Vandenbosch at a law school dance at seventeen, fell in love with him at eighteen, and then allowed herself to be seduced by him at nineteen. Christian had the knack for making a woman feel like the only woman. Sometimes she scolded herself for not being able to be satisfied with him.
Staring into Eleanor’s rather exotic, at times hypnotic, bluish-green eyes, which seemed to change shades depending on her mood, Paige said, “There are some competitive events for handicapped and mentally challenged people going on today at a high school across town.”
“I never knew you were interested in that sort of thing, Paige. What’s it all about? Hey, this doesn’t have anything to do with that guy you met a few days ago, does it? What’s his name? Dennis?”
“I have reason to believe that Dennis will be there,” she said, nodding.
Eleanor ran fingers through her thick, brown hair. “What is it about this guy? I mean, what’s the attraction?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t call it an attraction, necessarily. I just met him.”
After studying Paige’s face for a moment, Eleanor said, “It sure looks like an attraction to me. I haven’t seen you this ga-ga over a boy since Petey Lane in the seventh grade. Any guy who can make your behavior regress by better than ten years must be a real knockout!”
“He’s not, Ellie. Really. But he’s so nice.”
“Haven’t those events already started?” Eleanor asked, and so Paige checked her watch again.
“Yes, about two hours ago.”
“Why don’t we go over there, then? I hear admission is free.”
“You’ll come with me?”
“Sure. I can afford free. Besides, I’d like to meet Dennis. If you think he’s wonderful, then I’ll probably think he’s pretty terrific, too.”
“You’ll like him, Ellie. I know you will.” Paige glanced down at the dress she was wearing. “So, what do you think about this one?” she asked, referring to the garment.
“I think I’m going to be borrowing it a lot,” Eleanor said, and they both started laughing.
“Can you imagine? Spending nearly a thousand dollars for one dress…?”
Eleanor shook her head. “No, I can’t even begin to imagine something like that.”
“Do you think it’s too much?”
“For you and me, definitely. For a boyfriend who makes six figures a year…?” Eleanor wrinkled up her nose. “Nah.”
“Why don’t you find yourself a rich man, Ellie?”
“Because I’m having far too much fun with the poor ones. They try harder.”
“Besides, I have a lot in common with poor boys. We spend so much of our time trying to make ends meet, the only pleasures we can afford in life are the ones we make together.”
“Tell me more!”
“I will, I will. I always do.” It was Eleanor’s turn to check the time. “Come on. Take that dress off so that we can get out of here.”
After arriving at the field, a gentleman showed them where the one hundred-yard dash was to be held. As Paige and Eleanor walked along, they admired the beautiful red and white azaleas, along with hundreds of bright yellow buttercups planted along the walkways. Huge crowds didn’t stop the bumble bees from taking advantage of this treasure; they were busy collecting nectar from the petunias, their funnel-shaped flowers poised like little gramophones in a whole host of colors: blues, whites, reds, pinks, and violets. They even drew the attention of a tiger swallowtail with a wingspan of better than five inches.
Bleachers had been set up for spectators, apparently on a first-come, first-served basis. Eleanor and Paige arrived late, so they were out of luck finding seats. That didn’t matter; the seats were better left for the family members and friends of those who were participating.
When Paige finally spotted Dennis, she found him instructing several Down syndrome kids on what to do for an upcoming sack race. Although there were two other coaches assisting the project, Dennis seemed to be the man in charge. All the children adored him. He’d talk to them, hug them, and then offer them words of encouragement.
Everyone seemed anxious for the race to begin, and it was difficult for Dennis and his assistants to keep the children together. And Dennis looked official, from the red coach’s cap on his head and the silver whistle around his neck, down to his light blue tank top, cutoffs, and tennis shoes.
“How do I look?” Paige asked Eleanor, fixing her hair a little; Dennis hadn’t noticed her yet, and she wanted to look nice for him.
“Like a woman about to make a fool of herself,” Eleanor retorted, so Paige looked at her. “You look fine. Just try not to come on too strong. Dennis might be fragile.”
Paige looked over at him again, watching as the muscles in his arms rippled with every move. “With arms like that?” she said. “I doubt it.”
Finally Dennis glanced over and saw her, probably because she was still staring at him. She smiled and raised her hand. Although he smiled back, he didn’t seem to recognize her at first. Collecting his thoughts enough to remember, he excused himself from the group so that he could come over and say hello.
“Paige,” he said, turning the cap around on his head so that the brim would be in the back. “Hi.”
“I see you’re a sports fan.”
“I wasn’t until this morning,” she said, and he looked surprised to hear her say that. “I saw your picture in the newspaper,” she clarified, and he seemed embarrassed to be reminded of that likeness. Just mentioning it brought color to his face.
“Did they get my good side?” he asked, and she nodded. “Couldn’t have, because I’m sitting on it!”
Paige laughed and so did Eleanor. “Dennis, I’d like you to meet my best friend Eleanor.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said, reaching out to shake her hand.
“Are you racing in the one hundred-yard dash today?” Paige asked him.
“I’m obligated to,” he said, throwing up his hands, “since I won the event last year. Now they’re making me defend my title!”
“We came here to cheer you on,” Eleanor said. “So now you’re obligated to win.”
“I can’t stand the pressure!” he said as a bunch of the kids he’d been coaching started calling him back. “All right, all right, you guys! I’m coming!” He looked at Eleanor and Paige again. “Listen, why don’t you girls stick around until after the race, and then we’ll all do something together.”
“Sounds like fun,” Paige said. “Besides, I still owe you a cup of coffee.”
“I’m afraid I won’t feel like drinking coffee. I’ll want something cold.”
“I’ll buy you a water ice, then.”
“Make it cherry, and you’ve got a deal. See you in a few minutes.” Dennis took his chair over to where the children and the other coaches were and Paige watched him closely. Everything he did fascinated her.
The coaches managed to assemble the kids together and have them all line up side by side, and then they called the start of the sack race soon after. If the officials hadn’t acted fast, the kids would’ve scattered again and utter chaos would have ensued. Nine children were in the race, and three of them tumbled to the ground after only a few hops from the starting line. Part of the problem was that they were laughing so hard, it was difficult for them to keep their balance.
A first contestant crossed the finish line, and the crowd cheered. Soon there was a second and a third place finisher, and the crowd roared again. Dennis had gone down to the finish line before the start of the race and now hugged each of the children as they crossed over. He treated them all like winners, and so did the cheering entourage. The kids’ beaming faces let Paige know that they felt the same way about themselves.
Dennis looked at Paige and found her staring at him again, so he sat back and watched her for a moment. The first, second, and third place sack racers were presented with colored ribbons designating their respective awards, and they all stood proudly as family, friends, and well-wishers applauded them. After giving one of the young coaches some instructions, Dennis then joined Paige and Eleanor over at the sidelines.
“Great race,” Paige told him as he came near. “The kids are having so much fun. You seem to bring loads of sunshine into a lot of people’s lives, Dennis.”
“There’s always enough sunshine for everyone,” he said, perhaps suggesting that he could do the same for her.
She stared at him, getting lost in his big, blue eyes. Lots of questions came to mind, some of the deepest, most personal questions she could think of. Paige had never had a handicapped friend before, so she didn’t know what was appropriate to ask and what wasn’t. Whenever a situation made her feel awkward, she’d rely on what she did best to make herself more comfortable, and that was to make others feel less so. Flirting was always an effective weapon for her, and she used it well.
“Is there?” Paige finally asked, staring at him with such zeal that he started fidgeting. He pushed the cap up on his forehead and then patted it back down again.
“Sure,” he said, looking befuddled. Then he chuckled. “I’m sorry, I forgot what the conversation was about.”
“Sunshine,” Paige said, giving him a big smile. Whenever Paige felt giddy, the blue in her eyes became more vivid, and their sparkle, seemingly effervescent. They must’ve looked like a couple of blue bubbles by now.
“Sunshine,” Dennis said, remembering. It was fascinating to see how much he was affected by just a nominal amount of flirting. When he managed to look at her again, she gave him an apologetic wink; she just couldn’t help herself.
“Well, I’d better get back,” he said. “I see that they’re getting ready to take off.” Dennis was still rattled, and color was starting to come to his face. “See you in a few minutes.” He steered his chair over to where the others were assembling at the starting line.
Two coaches helped Dennis out of his wheelchair and into one designed for racing. It was just like the chair in the newspaper: a three-wheeled model resembling a bicycle in the front. Dennis folded his legs manually as two young men lowered him into the seat. Glancing at Paige, he appeared embarrassed at having been lifted up in front of her, but he was okay again once settled into place. After strapping himself in, he put on a pair of safety goggles and replaced his cap with a helmet. As he slipped on a pair of gloves, he looked at Paige again as she shouted good luck. He seemed to appreciate the gesture.
There were seven other men competing with Dennis and unlike the kids who raced before them, they were all intent on winning. The synthetic track seemed ideal for their wheels to glide over. Everyone was wearing gloves to protect their hands, but some of the men had professional-looking racing clothes on, and chairs that were a lot fancier than Dennis’s. A few of the wheelchairs looked extremely mobile, modified for speed and endurance. They almost looked capable of winning the race without the benefit of a driver. Some had smaller grips on the wheels for easier access and maneuverability; some had been adjusted to minimize wind resistance; and still others had deeper tire tread and a simpler, aluminum construction to decrease their weight.
Most of the rear wheels were bent in toward the body, apparently to help keep the chairs from tipping over. The chairs were low to the ground and without armrests. Some of the men’s knees were almost touching their chins. There were wider spokes in the wheels, and the wheels in front were about three times as large as they were on a standard chair, while the ones in the back were smaller. Dennis’s chair was at serious odds with the improved models, but Paige wasn’t worried. What Dennis did have were the biggest biceps of anyone out there, and they would probably make up for a lot once the race got going.
Soon the race was on and it amazed Paige to see just how fast those guys could move. The race was over in a short time and Dennis had an excellent showing, but he didn’t win. He did, however, come in a respectable second place, and it was obvious when he was handed his red ribbon that he had a lot of supporters in the crowd.
After the excitement died down, the assistant coaches helped him back into his wheelchair. They collected the racer he’d used and a few others, obviously those not owned by the contestants, and loaded them up on the back of a truck. Dennis gave his gloves, goggles, and helmet to one of his assistants, and then shook his hand. Apparently the young man was congratulating him on a race well run.
A short time later the crowd began to disperse because the one hundred-yard dash had been the last event of the day. When Dennis came back to Eleanor and Paige, he seemed distressed at having lost. Paige guessed that his trying to impress them must’ve taken all the fun out of it for him. “Sorry, girls,” he said.
“Now what in the world do you have to be sorry for?” Eleanor asked him. “You did great.”
“I was supposed to win, remember?”
“Oh, nix that. Besides, the other guy cheated.”
Dennis smiled. “Cheated? How do you figure that?”
“He obviously greased his wheels,” Eleanor said, and that made Dennis roar with laughter.
“I thought you did a wonderful job, Dennis,” Paige said, and so he looked at her. “Come on and let us treat you to an ice cream cone and a drink.”
Dennis rubbed his chin. “Gee, I wonder what I would’ve gotten if I’d won…?”
“A banana split,” Eleanor said with a shrug. “Well, there’s always next year.”
“I’m looking forward to it. Listen, I have to come back here and wrap up a few things, but I can spare a few minutes now so that you can honor me.” He smiled impishly. “After you, ladies.”
They walked across the field and then on down the street to a nearby ice cream parlor. Paige ordered and paid for everyone, and they all sat around and had some of the best conversation she’d had in a very long time.