The Fix Up – By Grace Gannon Rudolph
Wanda McFee’s neighbor Marie was a short, rail thin Italian woman who lived in a split level ranch across the street from Wanda’s apartment building. Marie was a successful real estate broker by day and a matchmaker by nature.
Wanda, who loved her job as director of social services at the Golden Ladder Nursing Home, sailed into her 30s with occasional dates but no big romances. They were simply bumps on the road of life and because her job fulfilled the need to be needed she remained foot loose and blissfully unattached.
Marie began to worry. She began to sing the praises of Jerome, Ruth’s son. Ruth was the semi-retired woman who shared Marie’s office at the Home at Last Real Estate agency. “I know you,” Marie said, “and Ruth knows him. We’ve talked it over and this would be a great match.”
The corners of Wanda’s mouth turned down. “His mother’s trying to fix him up with a date?”
“Yeah, and you’d better hurry before someone else snaps him up. He’s a catch.”
“Well someone else is going to have to throw out the net because I’m dating Simon.”
“Simon? Who’s Simon?”
“He’s an engineer.”
“He’s not,” Wanda lied.
“When you break up -”
“You’ll be the first to know.”
Wanda wasn’t in love with Simon but when the question, “Why isn’t a nice girl like you married,” became a mantra she encountered daily from the residents at the Golden Ladder she began squinting in the mirror checking her neck for wrinkles.
One night, on her way home from work, a frail elderly woman in a threadbare coat hefted herself onto the subway car and waddled toward Wanda on scuffed men’s boots that were untied and rundown at the heels. Wanda pushed over to give her room. The woman squeezed in beside her and cradled a black trash bag on her lap. The bag bulged with crushed soda cans and empty bottles. Wanda and the woman rocked together in rhythm with the moving train for a few moments before the woman glanced down at Wanda’s left hand and the naked ring finger. She gave Wanda a toothless grin and said, “What’s a nice girl -”
“I’m entering the convent of Our Lady of Mercy tomorrow,” Wanda said.
The woman shook her head. Sparse wisps of oily gray hair fell across her eyes. “Well at least you’re not gonna be unmarried and on the streets like me.” They rode to the next stop in silence and then the old woman lumbered off the train. She left behind a chill in Wanda’s heart.
That night when Simon asked Wanda to marry him, she accepted.
Simon was the divorced father of a five-year-old son named Raymond. They lived with Simon’s mother and father. The more time spent with Simon and his family, the more convinced Wanda became that she had slipped into the quick sand of a dysfunctional family of historic proportions. She was torn between taking to the hills and staying to become Raymond’s personal Joan of Arc.
Simon’s mother, a trim and icy, elegant woman and his father, a man who couldn’t pass a mirror without jutting out his jaw and checking out his chiseled profile, could not accept the fact that they were old enough to be grandparents. Raymond was a cross they bore with little or no grace.
When Raymond fidgeted at the dinner table his grandfather would point a finger at him, pretend to pull a trigger, click his tongue with a loud pop, almost as loud as the traffic that rumbled past the house and say, “Go play in the street.”
When Raymond came too close to his grandmother she would push him away saying, “Get off me,” then readjust her clothing and smooth her hair.
Simon simply ignored Raymond.
Raymond’s favorite phrase was: I hate you. He’d spit it out at his father, his grandparents, stunned strangers in stores and shocked people who side-stepped him on the street. When he’d say “I hate you” to Wanda she’d say, “That’s okay. I love you.” Wanda didn’t want to marry Simon; she wanted to save Raymond.
On the Fourth of July she bought a surprise gift for Raymond to help him work out his aggression in a safe way; an inflatable clown as tall as Raymond. He insisted on bringing it with him to the fireworks display and while firecrackers snapped and popped around them and the sky lit up like the bombing of Berlin, Raymond wrestled the clown to the ground and bit off its head. As it deflated, the surrounding crowd clutched their children to their sides and backed away.
Simon and Wanda met with Father Murphy, her parish priest, and were told that because Simon was divorced they couldn’t marry in her church.
Simon’s mother sprang into action and found a non-denominational chapel.
Simon’s father found a fixer-upper house on the far side of the State.
On the first day of August, a rainy night that followed a week of rolling thunder and lightning so bright people cringed as they dashed for the safety of their homes and cars, Simon broke down in tears after yet another date of aimless driving around. He said he had thought it over and couldn’t go through with the wedding. Wanda felt like she had been let out of a cage. She slipped off the engagement ring and tried to give it back.
“No, you keep it,” Simon said.
She opened the car door and was about to throw it in the gutter but he lunged across her lap and caught it in his hand. “I have one question,” she said. He turned his tear streaked face towards her. “Why do your parents hate Raymond?”
“They don’t hate him,” Simon said. “It’s just that he looks so much like my ex and, they resent the fact that she took off and dumped him on us.” Us. Wanda knew that try as she may she would never have been Raymond’s Joan of Arc.
She stepped from the car and into her apartment where she took an hour long shower, shampooed her hair, brushed her teeth, and slept through the night for the first time since she had agreed to marry Simon.
Two weeks later she went to a large Italian wedding reception. Marie’s nephew was marrying his childhood sweetheart. As they sat at the table waiting for the dinner to be served Marie said, “So, how’s Simon?”
“We broke up.”
Marie pretended to be bereft for a heartbeat and then said, “That’s too bad. Listen, now will you date that widower I’ve been trying to fix you up with for the last three years? He’s perfect. His name’s Jerome. I work with his mother and we can do this. We can fix you up.”
Wanda rolled her eyes and as she pictured a bald gnome with green teeth and bad breath a woman stopped by their table. “Isn’t your name Wanda?” Wanda nodded. “I’m Rita Glauner’s mother. You two were in the same class at St. Aloysius High.” Wanda smiled; nodded again. “Rita’s married now. She’s got four girls and one boy.” Then, in a voice reserved for offering condolences on a recent death she said, “You never married, did you.”
Wanda bared her teeth and said through a tight, clenched smile, “Well, my sun hasn’t set yet.”
As the woman drifted away Marie leaned across the table and said, “Good for you.”
Wanda rested her chin on her fist and looked across the dance floor. The bride and groom clung together and swayed to the rhythm of May I Have this Dance for the Rest of My Life.
Over the next week Marie ramped up her mission to fix Wanda up with Jerome. Wanda got nightly calls. Messages were left under her door: Call me. Marie.
Jerome’s mother joined Marie’s crusade. She made nightly calls to Jerome and when she couldn’t reach him she drove by the house and tucked notes into his mailbox: Call me. Love to you and hugs to Harry. Mom.
One day in early August, Wanda took an extra half-hour for lunch and searched a Hallmark store until she found a box of pink floral notepaper. She brought it back to her office, sprayed it with a resident’s cologne and scrawled in the most seductive script she could manage: Let’s get these ladies off our backs. I’m willing to gamble that you’re not Attila the Hun if you’re willing to gamble that I’m not Lucrezia Borgia. She took a long time to write Jerome’s name on the envelope, sealed it, and put it inside another envelope addressed to Marie. She put the envelope for Jerome inside that envelope along with a brief note to Marie: Don’t bother holding this up to a light – you won’t be able to read it. With a satisfied grin she sealed the envelope and sent it on its way to the Home at Last real estate office.
When the envelope arrived on Marie’s desk she let out a whoop and handed the pink envelope to Jerome’s mother who lifted it to her nose, closed her eyes with a beatific smile, dug frantically through her purse searching for her glasses and then rushed to the nearest window to hold the pink envelope against a pane of glass. She squinted, turning it one way and then the other. “Oh,” Marie shouted, “And there’s a note from Wanda it says, “Don’t bother…”
A few nights after Wanda had mailed the letter her phone rang. She groaned, put down the book she was reading and picked up the phone prepared to tell Marie the harassment had to stop but, before she could speak, the sexiest baritone voice ever created by God or man said, “I got your letter today. Let’s do it.”
That Friday night, three weeks after Wanda’s broken engagement to Simon, the weather was perfect. The day had been very hot but by the time Jerome rang her doorbell at six o’clock the evening the air was soft. A group of children playing kick-ball in the street stopped their game and were crowded around Jerome’s fire engine red Mustang convertible. The top was down.
Jerome had made reservations for dinner at a small restaurant on Cape Cod. During the drive Wanda couldn’t take her eyes off him. His tanned skin was touched by the golden evening sun. There were laugh creases beside his green eyes. Wanda pushed her hair back behind her ears and studied him from the corner of her eye. She had always dated accountants and engineers. Once she dated a teller at a bank who made the front pages of the Boston Globe when he was caught embezzling money. Jerome was a different breed all together. Jerome was an iron worker. Jerome had discreet tattoos. Jerome had a pickup truck in addition to the convertible, and owned his own home. And, Jerome had a five-year-old son named Harry.
After they pulled into the parking lot at Finnerty’s on the Beach, Jerome opened the car door and took Wanda’s hand to help her from the car. They were seated at a small table for two overlooking Buttermilk Bay. With nothing to lose, since Wanda felt too unlucky to ever see Jerome again, she ordered from the side of the menu that listed the food and ignored the side that listed the price. She threw discretion to the wind and, instead of ordering coffee, she ordered martinis; two of them. She had never had a martini and wanted to see what all the James Bond fuss was about.
After dinner they walked slowly along the Cape Cod Canal bumping shoulders now and then, and talked. And talked. And talked. A black cat dogged their footsteps to the end of the canal and back to the Mustang where it leapt into the car and curled up on the passenger seat. Wanda gently lifted him out and put him on the ground.
Not wanting the evening to end, when Jerome invited Wanda back to his home and said, “Coffee only. I promise,” then crossed his heart, she believed him. They talked till the sun came up then made a date for the next evening. Jerome wanted Wanda to meet his son who had spent the night with his grandparents.
Jerome and his son Harry lived together in a large Victorian house. Harry went to kindergarten, both sessions, and was picked up by Jerome at the end of each day. On school holidays, or sick days, Harry went to work with Jerome who gave him a hard hat and let him ride in the trucks. Harry was an independent little kid whose favorite accessories were ties and top hats, even if the night was so hot that all he wore were shorts and sandals; which was how he was dressed on the night he met Wanda.
That night they went to the Midas Fair. For the first time in her life, Wanda rode on a Ferris wheel without being almost overcome by the urge to jump to the ground when the Ferris wheel stopped at the top to let passengers on. She felt safe. Jerome was on one side; Harry on the other. Laugher and music from the merry-go-round drifted up to surround them. She turned her face towards the cloudless star filled sky and took a deep breath of cotton candy and newly mown hay.
At the end of the evening Jerome invited Wanda back to his home. He gently removed Harry’s top hat and lowered him to the couch in the living room while Wanda made coffee. When Jerome came into the kitchen he said, “I don’t want this night to end.” Wanda nodded in agreement and then Jerome cupped her face in his hands and kissed her. “I guess I’ll have to marry you,” he said. “What do you say?” Wanda said she’d have to think it over.
The next morning he came to her apartment at 7 a.m. When she opened the door he leaned against the wall and said, “Well?” Not hello. Not how are you. Just – “Well?”
How could she resist.
They went to see Father Murphy who was startled by the fact that just a few weeks earlier Wanda had been on his doorstep with another man and another five-year-old son. But this five-year-old was different. Instead of bristling hostility that steamed from every pore, this child adjusted his top hat, adjusted his tie and regarded the priest as though he, Harry, was about to conduct an in-depth interview of his own.
Father Murphy invited them in to the parlor. As soon as they crossed the threshold and were inside the hallway Wanda whispered under her breath, from the corner of her mouth, “Can I talk to you alone for a minute?”
“Sure,” Father Murphy said.
While Jerome and Harry waited in the parlor Father Murphy took Wanda into his office, closed the door and sat down behind his desk.
“I know this is weird,” Wanda said, settling herself in the chair in front of the dark oak desk and explained the situation.
When she was through Father Murphy said, “Tell you what, I’ll size-up Jerome alone, then talk to his kid and then I’ll let you know what I think.”
“Even if you think I’m nuts?”
Father Murphy nodded and stood up. “Even if I think you’re nuts.”
When Wanda was finally alone again with Father Murphy she said, “I think I might be rebounding.”
Father Murphy smiled and said, “Sometimes those are the best marriages. Go for it.”
On the way back to the car Jerome said, “Harry, how would you like to have a sleep-over at Granma’s tonight?”
“Are you and Wanda sleeping over too?”
“No,” Jerome said, “We’re going out to dinner to celebrate.”
“We’re getting married. We’re going to be a family.” Jerome pointed to Wanda, to Harry, and then to himself.
“And Harry,” Wanda said. “We’ll get you a tuxedo to go with your top hat.”
They dropped Harry off at Ruth’s home and as they drove off Harry and his grandmother waved goodbye from the porch. When they went inside to the kitchen Marie was already scooping ice cream into Ruth’s best china bowls. “You know what, Harry?” she said. Harry shook his head. “The best marriages aren’t made in heaven, they’re made by matchmakers.”
Harry frowned and took a spoonful of ice cream. Ruth pointed to the corner of her mouth and Harry touched away the ice cream in the corner of his mouth with the tip of his tie and readjusted his top hat. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
“You will Harry, when you get older. You will if your grandmother and I have anything to say about it.” Marie and Ruth exchanged a high five and then high fived Harry.