The dirt road circled to the left and when he passed the curve of trees, he saw the weather beaten white wooden structure, looking like nothing so much as a rural country church, probably Baptist. As he saw the sign he realized that was exactly what it was.
"Praise God Baptist Church," said one white sign and another nearby said, "Putnam County Food Pantry."
There were two dozen cars and trucks parked in the field surrounding the church. Twenty-year-old pickups, old model Fords and Chevolets and 90s model Pontiacs and station wagons which had seen much better days. The trucks for the most part had beds filled with odds and ends and tools. The cars looked like the original coats of paint been transformed by dust and grime to some in-between shades.
The exception was a late model blue Dodge Grand Caravan parked almost out of sight behind the church. Two boys were running a hose over it and two younger girls were using rags with suds.
He found a place to park and took his camera, tape recorder and notebook out before locking it. Probably unnecessary, but it was a habit.
He walked toward the front of the building attracting curious gazes from the line of men and women, mostly women, standing in a line outside the door. There were a lot of small children. Some pre-teens, but mostly young enough to be in diapers or toddlers held in mothers' arms.
A few of the women weren't bad. Frazzled, too young for him, but not bad. Most were older, heavier, tired looking. Keeping up with the swarms of little ones would tend to do that. He had thrown the camera on its strap around his shoulder and put the mini-recorder in his pocket.
"Hi," he said to an older man leaning on a cane. "Is this where I can find Mrs. Miller?"
The old man gave him a blank look.
A young boy, who looked to be on the cusp of turning from a pre-teen to a full fledged teen because his hands and feet were outgrowing the rest of him, had heard and said, "Oh, you mean the Wheelchair Lady?"
"Tommy," an older woman said, giving him a hard look.
"Yes, sir, Mrs. Miller is inside. She keeps things running."
Then, moving a little closer, she said softly, "don't mind the boy. Everybody calls her the Wheelchair Lady, or Miss Jessie. She don't mind."
Pushing open the screen door, he stepped inside. The church was bigger than he had thought. It ran backwards a ways, a long, rectangular room. Today it wasn't a church. There were no pews.
Instead, wooden tables had been set up end to end and nearly a dozen men and women bustled about behind and in front of the tables. The tables were heaped with loaves of bread, pastries, canned goods, some green vegetables that looked like greens or collards.
The front of the tables were lined with men and women, again usually women, holding paper bags that the workers behind the tables were loading with bread and canned goods and a few green things. Children were begging for particular cakes or pies while their mothers tried to move them along.
A stoop-shouldered older man approached him, glancing at the camera on his shoulder.
"Can I help you?"
He reached out and shook the man's hand, saying, "Yeah. I'm Robert Kincade. I work for the Times-Union and we had contacted Mrs. Miller about coming out and getting a few pictures. Doing a story for our Saturday Florida section. About her. The work she does."
"Hubert, Hubert Mossman, Mr. Kincade. She told a few of us that somebody was coming out. But she thought it was going to be some guy named Bass, Harry Bass. Kind of unusual name. Not hard to remember that."
"Yessir, Harry does have a memorable name, but he's tied up on another assignment and I'm taking his place."
"Glad to see you here, Mr. Kincade. Jessie- Mrs. Miller – is a good woman. And she deserves a little attention for all that she does."
"Well, that's what I'm here for."
"Sure, well come on back. She's in the rear."
When he walked through the rear door he found a smaller room with the door open to a back porch. In the back was a Winn Dixie truck with its back panel open showing boxes of canned goods and containers of bread. A half dozen younger men were shuttling the boxes and containers out on to the back porch.
A woman with golden hair piled high and contained in a hairnet directed the actions of the crew emptying the truck like a conductor managing an orchestra. She sat in a gleaming wheelchair that raised her head up to about the height of his mid-chest.
Mossman stepped up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder.
"Whatcha need, Hubie? We need to get this stuff out because Ray at the WD just called and they need their truck back there in 45 minutes."
"A guy from the Times-Union is here, Jessie."
"That Bass guy? Whatever his name was?"
"No, he couldn't make it. They sent another reporter."
"Oh, well, send him back. I can't stop right now."
"He's right here."
She touched the arm of the chair and it swung smoothly around. She had blue eyes, the clearest blue Kincade thought he'd ever seen, except maybe one other time. And that was long ago so he couldn't be sure. She wore no makeup, no lipstick. She was dressed in a simple blouse and wore slacks that concealed her legs. And she was still a beautiful woman.
She touched the chair again and it smoothly whirred to within a foot of him. She had to look up to meet his eyes, but with the raised chair she didn't have to look far. She held out one slim hand.
"Hi. I'm Jessie Miller. And you are... ?"
"Robert Kincade. Times-Union. You look pretty busy. Are you sure I won't cause you any problems, be in the way?"
She closed her hand over his and he felt the strength there. The hand wasn't rough. It was a woman's hand, smooth. But strong. And she wore no rings, no nail polish. All business this lady.
"You have a job to do, Mr. Kincade. And we need the publicity. I know your story is going to focus on me – the Wheelchair Lady wheeling around Putnam County doing good deeds. But it doesn't matter. If I get publicity, the work we do gets publicity. And we always need more help, more money, more volunteers."
"I hope it does you and this place a lot of good. But I'm pretty good at what I do."
"Then just stay out of the way, don't get yourself run over, and you can talk to anybody you want and take any pictures you want. I'll talk to you when I have time and things slow down, but they usually don't slow down until afternoon. There are a lot of people in this county who need help."
"Fair enough. Get doing what you're doing. I'll get pictures and talk to some people."
She turned away from him as if he had ceased to exist and was back into the business of shuttling food inside, finding places to store it, answering questions and solving problems that came at her regularly. He walked around and took pictures of men moving heavy crates of goods onto the porch and then downloading them into smaller crates to take inside.
As they worked, an old station wagon pulled up to the rear. A heavy set woman leaning heavily on two canes, aided by two younger men, hobbled up to the steps out of the path of the workers and called to Jessie Miller.
"Jess, I got some onions, asparagus and a mess of tomatoes out here. I was thinking about taking them to the farmer's market, but the Lord put it on my heart to bring them here. You want them?"
"Does a bear crap in the woods, Olivia? Don't be silly. Boys, bring a chair out here for Miss Olivia and help her grandsons get those vegetables out and onto the tables."
As the workers helped her grandsons unload the station wagon of bag after bag of tomatoes and onions and fresh asparagus, Miller rolled her way to the edge of the porch and leaned as far out as she could and held her arms out to the older woman.
"Give me a hug, Miss Olivia. Pastor Bennings said you haven't been to Sunday service in more than a month. Is everything all right?"
With her grandsons' aid, the older woman hobbled to the edge of the porch and was able to almost hug the woman in the wheelchair. Tears glistened in her eyes.
"Just getting older, Jessie. And this old body is failing me. Won't be too long before I'll be with Clete again."
"Bite your tongue, woman. Clete will wait for you a few years longer. Nothing he has to do other than lounge on clouds and pluck at harps anyway. He always said he spent his whole life waiting on you, anyway. You have two grandsons here that need you. As long as the Lord gives you."
As nonchalantly as he could, he swung the camera up and snapped picture after picture of the two women together, catching the tears running down the heavy woman's face. These were money shots. The story might very well go out on the main metro Sunday page instead of stuck inside on the Florida edition front.
Jessie Miller glanced back and saw what he was doing but said nothing. She was a practical woman, he could tell. She wanted the story and pictures to be seen by as many people as possible.
Something came up inside the hall and saying a quick goodbye, Miller swung the wheelchair around with the touch of a finger and was gone. Kincade wondered if there was a V-8 engine hid inside it somewhere. Olivia stared at him and he made it down the porch steps when there was an opening. He approached her and held his hand out. She took it.
"Miss Olivia. My name is Robert Kincade. I'm a reporter with the Times-Union. The paper sent me to do a story and take pictures of Miss Miller and the work she does. You two obviously know each other. Would you mind talking to me for a moment?"
"Alright. Let me get back in this chair. I can't stand up long much anymore."
When she was seated, he squatted down beside her and took out the micro-recorder. It would easier than writing notes in that position.
"Do you mind if I record this?"
"No, why not. There's nothing I could say about Jessie Miller that I'd mind anyone hearing."
"Say it for the recorder. My name is ... and I am willing to let you record me. It's legal. Got to do it. And I'll need a verbal okay and I've got a form for you to sign to use the pictures I just took."
"I understand. Nowdays people sue for all kinds of reasons. I'm old. I'm not completely out of touch."
After she had made the statement into the recorder, he looked back to the hall where Miller had vanished and said, "You're obviously close to Miss Miller. How do you know her?"
"I didn't know here when she was growing up. She was a city girl, grew up in Palatka. I've always lived out in West Putnam. But ... after her accident ... and the wheelchair, she started working with churches and the food bank and things like that. When Clete – my husband – died eight years ago..."
She stopped talking and looked at Kincade.
"You married? Have you ever lost anybody?"
"No ma'am. Not married and the only people I ever lost were my uncle and my stepfather. But that was enough. I wouldn't want to do it again."
"I understand. Losing people is hard. I lost mine a long time ago. Lost Daddy when I was only a little girl. But it's different when you lose your husband – or wife. You lose the parent of your children. You lose the person you used to talk about things with in the night. It's lonelier than you can imagine.
"Well, it was a bad time. I'd already lost my son, Calvin, and we were raising his two sons after that b- miserable excuse for a wife of his - got into drugs and then just vanished. And then all of a sudden, it was just me, and two teen boys. And I was already pretty stove up. And fat."
She stared into the morning sky. Pale white clouds were drifting, driven by an autumn breeze.
"Suicide is a sin. Us Baptists and Catholics don't agree on much, but on that we do. You cut yourself off from God's Grace and you condemn yourself and the people you love. But I have to admit, I was pondering it.
"And then Jessie started coming by. Just to talk. She brought out coffee for us to drink together while we talked, and cakes and pies, not that I needed them that much. But I'd stopped pretty much doing anything and the boys loved it, and they loved her. You probably already noticed that she is a very pretty woman. And they were teenage boys. But she handled them just right, didn't hurt their feelings. And they really did need a momma figure."
She was silent again for a moment.
"Then a few years ago, Clay got into running with a bad crowd and wound up in trouble up in Jacksonville. It would have killed me if he'd gone to prison. But Jessie went up there and worked a deal with some lawyer –a prosecutor or something – for Clay to be put into pre-trial inter-something and they sent him down here. And he's done what he needed to do and he's okay now."
She shook her head.
"I know nobody human is perfect. And we Baptists don't believe in Saints. I know she has – must have – her flaws. I know she has really bad luck with men. Never did understand why. But I can tell you she's a good woman, and there are hundreds of people in this county who would be living a whole lot worse if she wasn't around."
Kincade spent the next few hours wandering around inside and outside the church. He got a few good kid shots and made sure to get photo releases for all of them. Nobody objected as soon as they knew he was doing it for a story on The Wheelchair Lady.
Hubert Mossman, the man he'd met on entering the church, was standing outside taking a smoke break as the line to the front never stopped moving. Kincade noticed people might wait a half hour to 45 minutes, but no one left.
"I had no idea there were that many people in need, really poor, in Putnam County. I know it's not the richest county around, but... ?"
"This is not a bad day. There are Saturdays when there are three times this many people waiting. It doesn't happen often, but there have been days when we ran out with people waiting. Those are the days that kill Miss Jessie. I think it hurts her worse than it does the people we turn away."
He took another puff before dropping the cigarette to the ground and grinding it with his shoe.
"You got a college education, right? And a job? And an apartment. And insurance, probably. You would never guess how many people don't have any of those things. But they do have kids. Or hospital bills. Or parents they're trying to keep alive.
"Now, there are some worthless lazy pieces of shit that take advantage, but most people are just trying to get by. It takes one stroke, one heart attack, one bad accident and million dollar hospital bill, being laid off or fired by pulp paper mill here which employs almost everybody in this county, to turn your life into a nightmare.
"I'm one of the lucky ones. Worked at the mill for 38 years, saved a few bucks and I live okay on social security and my savings. But every time I come out here to volunteer, I get down on my knees at night and thank God for my good fortune."
Kincade looked back toward the church and said, "Why do you think she does it? She works here, visits people, does God knows what else. What does she do when she's not working?"
Mossman grinned at the reporter.
"You noticed too, huh? She doesn't do anything with it, but she is still a looker. I've seen pictures of her as a youngster, and she was a beautiful woman. But ... she pretty much doesn't do anything except work, visit people and go to church on Sunday. She really doesn't have that much time for anything else. And I kind of think she's happier that way."
"Why? She's not that old."
"I'm not a gossiping old woman, so let's just say her luck with men stinks. Been married four times. Lost one in the accident that put her in that chair. Shot the second one. He survived but it kind of spoiled their marriage. And tried again twice with not much luck. I think she just gave up on men. Besides, there's a whole lot of men that never can get by the wheelchair."
"From the way you and I look at it. We're men. It does seem a waste. But from hers ... I mean, she's crippled from the waist down. What is she going to get out of it?"
A late model Chevy pickup spun into the parking area and the door was open and shut before the engine had died. A tall, dark haired man with his hair cropped into a buzz cut, dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt was striding across the lot toward the entrance to the church. Mossman' face darkened and he told one of the teen boys standing at the door, "get some men out here. Tell Miss Jessie."
Mossman stepped out to meet the younger man, broad across the shoulders and with a slender waist, standing a good half foot taller than the old man.
"Stop Jimmy. Turn around. Get of here now. Before there's trouble."
"There's already trouble, old man. Get the fuck out of my way before I knock your head off."
"Don't be stupid, Jimmy. They'll call the cops and she'll swear out a warrant against you this time. And you're going to go away. You'll never see your son."
"No one is going to keep me away from her, or my son."
"I'm going to try."
"I don't want to hurt you, but I will."
It was a stupid thing to do, and he knew he'd regret it later, but Kincade stepped between the tall young man and the short older man.
"I'm more your size, friend. Why don't you go away."
"I'll put you down, you interfering asshole. Who are you anyway?"
"Just a guy. But by the time you put me down, there's going to be a bunch of other men out here, and you won't get through all of them. If you got a problem, there's other ways of dealing with it."
"Go away, Jimmy. It's not too late to stop this before it gets ugly."
Jessie Miller sat on the porch behind Kincade, surrounded by four of the larger and younger men who'd been working in the back.
"You bitch. You're the one who put those fucking ideas in her head. She never would have left me if it weren't for you."
"I would have left you anyway, Jimmy. Miss Jessie didn't push me to it. She just helped me see what I should do."
The men on the porch stepped back and a dark haired, very pregnant young woman stepped forward to the edge of the porch. She was wearing shorts and a loose blouse that still bulged to the limit of its buttons. She was barefoot and Kincade would have thought she was 13 if she wasn't obviously older. He wondered when he had gotten so old.
Jimmy started to move forward, then stopped.
"I haven't had a drink in three weeks, baby. Even when I was dying for one, I been dry. I am sorry. I know I was stupid. I never would have touched you if I hadn't been drinking. But I never will again. I promise you. I will never touch you again unless you want me to."
She shook her head.
"You've promised me before. I can't trust you any more. It was one thing when it was just you and me. I could put up with you being so crazy jealous and putting your hands on me when you were drinking. But you could have killed our baby, Jimmy. You could have killed your son. And you could have spent the rest of your life saying you were sorry, and it wouldn't make any difference."
Jimmy looked at his shoes. There was no sound.
"I love you, Alyssa. I always have. I always will. I can't go on living without you. Without my son. If you do this, I'll die. Please, give me another chance."
There was a long silence.
"I'm sorry Jimmy."
He looked down and when he raised his eyes to her, Kincade saw they were filled with tears. Something had changed and Kincade felt itchy. It was the look of defeat, things ending. And when a man showed that, he was either going to walk away or come back shooting.
Jimmy turned and started to walk toward his truck. Kincade sensed something behind him and turned to see four men lifting the wheelchair over and down the steps. A moment later she was wheeling past him toward the retreating figure.
No other men were following, but Kincade found himself behind her. She might be a Saint, but Jimmy was a man who had just lost hope. And such men were dangerous.
Kincade had reached the truck when she approached to within a foot.
"Jimmy. Stop for a second."
He opened the truck door and slid inside without looking at her.
She stood up in the chair by pushing herself up with her hands and managed to touch his arm. Kincade found himself at her side, not sure what he'd be able to do but moving behind her.
"Jimmy. Listen to me."
"Why? You ruined my life with your damned meddling. Everybody thinks you're some kind of saint. You're just a damned old bitter woman. You can't have a man in your life so you mess with other people's lives."
But Kincade noticed he didn't shake her hand off.
"Jimmy, I was married to a man like you. He thought he could stop drinking. And he did, after he killed himself and left me paralyzed for life. I know how hard it is to stop. But it can be done. People do it every day."
He finally turned to look at her.
"What difference will it make? You heard her. We're through. She won't come back to me. And she'll keep me from my son."
"That's not what I heard, Jimmy. That's not what she's saying. She doesn't trust you. She doesn't believe you want to stop bad enough. And she doesn't trust you around your baby if you keep drinking. I don't blame her. I wouldn't trust you around a baby. The way you are now."
"What do I do? How do I make her trust me again?"
"Prove to her she's wrong. You've trying to do this by yourself. Join AA. Get a sponsor. Find people who will help you. And go three months without a drink. Or six months. Or a year. Whatever it takes."
"I'll miss my son's life."
"I know she'll let you be there for the birth. And she's already talked about letting you visit with him. With your mother along. It will be supervised, but you'll see him. And if you're worried about it, she won't be seeing anyone else. The girl loves you. After what you did I have some difficulty understanding that. But she loves you.
"Now it's all up to you. You can go get drunk, or you can call Bill Sorrells with the county. He's been clean for 10 years and you haven't done anything he hasn't done worse. Go talk to him."
He sat there with his hands on the wheel.
"Do you really think she'll wait for me?"
"I think so, Jimmy. But even if she doesn't, you're not really doing this for her. You're doing it for your son, and for you. Whatever happens now, it will pass. But you're going to have to live with yourself for a long time."
She sat back down in her chair heavily and it hummed backward. A moment later Jimmy and his pickup drove out of the parking area, without spinning out.
Without looking back at him, she said, "I appreciate the backup, Mr. Kincade. Do you always leap to the defense of maidens? Or just the crippled ones?"
"Just instinct. I'm not here because I was worried about you. From where I stand, you've got more balls than any guy around here. And I'm not here because you're in a wheelchair. I couldn't help myself. I was raised that way."
"Well, thank you. I wasn't really worried about Jimmy. He's a good boy. I've known him since he was in diapers."
"He grew up."
"I know. Unfortunately, they don't stay in diapers. But I think he'll be alright. He wants to get sober for Alyssa. And Sorrells will be a good mentor. Now, I need to get back because we still have a lot of people to feed. You don't have to stay any longer if you don't want to. I know you've got pictures and talked to people. We can do this by phone, can't we?"
"We could. But it's Saturday and I don't have any place in particular I need to be. I don't mind hanging around until you get free."
"I may not."
"I'll take my chances."
"You're a pit bull. You're a good reporter, aren't you."
He followed her back to the church, watched as a trio of men lifted her back up onto the porch and she whirled back into action. And while she kept the food flowing, talked with men and women who came for food and more, the hours passed. Even though it was October, it was hot and he found himself sweating.
After a while it was a natural thing to put down the camera and notepad and take a place behind the tables passing out food as the unending line continued to file through. She positioned herself at the end and was able to help the passing out of cakes and pastries to the children. She glanced up at him and smiled. And even with her hair up in a net, and her face flushed with heat and sweat running down her cheeks, she was beautiful.
It was 3 p.m. and the line was finally petering out, the cars and trucks magically vanishing from the field surrounding the church. The women sat in chairs behind the tables while the men leaned against the wall. Hubie walked outside again for another smoke, joined by two of the older men.
Kincade came over to Jessie.
"Is this a good time?"
"You've been a good sport, Kincade. Let me wrap things up, get the guys ready to get everything back to normal and bring the pews back in for tomorrow. A half hour. Okay?"
At that moment a black woman with white hair and what could only be called granny glasses hobbled over to her and said, "Miss Jessie, could I ask a favor?"
The old black woman leaned over and whispered in her ear.
"It's been two days. Sarah told me today that it's been two days since she heard from her and I checked around. Nobody else has heard from her either."
Jessie seemed to stare off into distance. Then:
"I'll go check on her, Ethel. And I'll let you know. Mr. Kincade, I'm sorry, but something's come up. And ... it's liable to be late. I can't ask you to stay here that long. I promise I'll call you. Just give me a number."
"It's not that late, Miss Miller. If you have an errand to run, I can wait here, or meet up with you later."
"There really is no point, Mr. Kincade. I don't know how long I will be and I assume you weren't planning on staying in Palatka overnight."
"With apologies, Ms. Miller, but I wouldn't tell you how to operate a food bank or the other work you do here. A face to face, especially for a story like this, is always better than a telephone interview. I'm just trying to do my job. I really am not worried about the time"
She just stared at him for a long moment. He couldn't read her expression.
"You really are hard to shake, aren't you?"
"Comes with the job."
"Alright. Get your car. I'm going to take my van. You just follow me and we can go somewhere ... and talk ... after."
He was waiting on the road leading away from the church, pulled far enough off that she made it by him in her van with no trouble. It was going on 5 p.m. and shadows had appeared in the dimming light. He followed her with no trouble. She wasn't racing, but she was making tracks at a good pace.
He followed her to where the dirt road led into a paved two-lane road and then after about five miles widened into a four lane. The road wound through neighborhoods anchored by small convenience stores and then acres of open woodlands. After awhile he saw a huge cemetery on his left that seemed to run for nearly a half mile.
There was a street sign that read, "Silver Lake Road" and she turned and followed it south. A few miles further south she turned onto a two lane road with a name he didn't catch and then two miles further she turned to the right on a dirt road that led him into a world of increasingly older, shabbier wooden houses.
Another turn and they were driving down a dirt road that grew narrower and more rutted the further they went. Finally she pulled the van to a stop a hundred feet from a frame house that might have been white a hundred years ago. Now it was just dirty. He pulled in behind her. The driver's door opened and the magic wheel chair swiveled around to settle down next to the driver's seat. She slid a very nice ass from the driver's seat into the chair.
"That is a very nice rig. Does the county pay you for your work or do you have your own money?"
She glanced at him and he couldn't tell if she was irritated or not.
"Are all reporters so nosy? About other people's personal business?"
"That's why they call us reporters."
The wheelchair lowered to the ground and she spun it around.
"I don't get a penny from the county, or any government source. I'm an unpaid volunteer. But I have my own money. Any other questions?"
"A bunch, but they'll wait."
She rolled forward and he followed her and nearly fell over her as she stopped abruptly.
He stepped around her.
He stared with her at the crumpled boards and the fallen metal rods that must at one time have been a wheelchair ramp. They served as the support for the ramp and a railing to hold onto walking down the steps. The porch stood nearly eight inches above the ground. A set of four steps each only about three inches high stood beside what had been the ramp. But he would never be able to lift the wheelchair even three inches.
"I told her..."she whispered. "I should have come by and made sure."
"You didn't know?"
"No," she said softly, shaking her head back and forth. "It's an old house. I had the ramp put in there – for her and for me – ten years ago. There was a time when she didn't need it, but as she got older ... her legs got weaker."
She wheeled herself closer.
"I thought that it was getting rickety a month ago. I meant to call someone and have it replaced. But..."
She rolled forward close enough to the one metal railing on the left side. But as she put pressure on it, it wobbled. It wouldn't take any weight.
"I got busy. There was always something to do. Even so, I could have come by on a weekend. I would have seen what was happening. Somebody might have accidently brought it down ... or it might have been kids. They have some mean little bastards around here.
"But I should have done something."
"It can still be fixed," Kincade said, stepping up on the first step.
"You want me to knock? See if anyone is here?"
"She's in there."
After a minute, she said, "Go on up and knock. See if the door's locked."
He stepped up onto the porch. The boards under his feet cracked and creaked. He put his hand on the door knob. He twisted. It turned and as he pushed, the door swung inward. He looked back at her, sitting in the rapidly growing gloom. She didn't need to gesture. He stepped inside.
It was an old fashioned living room. A heavy couch on one wall and a coffee table in front of it. There was a large screen, old fashioned floor model television sitting in one corner. A wall was filled with shelves and knickknacks and photographs in frames.
He waited a few seconds and then called out again. He looked around, found a light switch on the wall near the front door and flicked it on. A hanging lamp flared to life.
"Is anyone here?"
He walked toward an opening at the other side of the room. It was darker here. Again he felt for a switch and found it on his left. He stood there for a moment, taking it in. Then he approached what lay in the center of the room and sat gently on the old fashioned bed. He reached one hand out to the side of the figure lying there. The skin was cool, almost cold, dry and almost crinkly, like dry parchment.
Her eyes were closed, her body dressed in an old-fashioned nightgown. He looked around and saw a pitcher which might have held water. Her hands lay at her side. The clothes hung on her loosely. There was a body underneath it, but it was hard to be certain that it was a woman, with a woman's curves, if it hadn't been for the long white hair. There was enough black at the roots to have a hint at what she would have looked like as a younger woman.
He stood up and left the dead woman behind him.
She waited for him at the foot of the porch. He shook his head and she lowered her head to her hands.
"It looked like it was peaceful. I'm not a doctor, but there are no signs she—was in distress. She could have just fallen to sleep."
After a long moment she raised her head and stared at the ruined ramp.
"Miserable son of a bitch. God..."
She rubbed her forehead.
Kincade walked down the steps to stand beside her. He held his arms out to her.
"You want to see her. No way you're getting that wheelchair in there. Unless you want to crawl in, let me help."
She looked at the ground, then slammed the arm of the chair viciously.
"You miserable damned piece of junk. What good are you when I really need you?"
She looked up at him and held her arms out.
"Hold tight. I'm heavier than I look."
She caught his look and snapped, "Don't say it. Don't goddamned say it. Not now."
He smiled innocently.
"I wasn't going to say a word."
"Put your arms around my neck."
As she gripped him around the neck he ran his left arm under her legs and his right under her ass.
"Can't lift you otherwise. Besides, we need a good wide –"
She glared at him.
"Anyway, up we g-"
He almost dropped her but put one foot under him for balance and caught her, then straightened, lifting her with him."
"Sorry. Caught me off guard. Heavier than I-"
"It's dead weight, Kincade. I can't help you ... the way a normal person would."
"I just wasn't ready."
He turned and stepped up heavily, then took another step and another.
As he felt her solid weight against her side, he felt something more solid, harder. Metallic.
"Are you carrying a piece, or are you just glad to see me?"
"I'm a single woman who lives alone. I've got a permit for a concealed carry."
"No wonder guys don't give you any grief."
"Not any more."
They approached the doorway and he turned sideways as they entered. He carried her into the bedroom and stopped as she stared at the woman on the bed.
"Could you ... just set me on the bed? Beside her."
He knelt beside the bed and let her slide beside the dead woman. She just sat for a moment, then reached out with one hand to stroke the old woman's hair.
"Her hair was jet black. Martha was nearly 60 when I met her. Her husband, Riley, used to tease her about coloring it. Said she was trying to look younger to keep all the young girls from going after him. She'd give it right back to him. Said there were plenty of younger black – and white –gentlemen that would be happy to console her if he went after a young woman.
"They were very much in love. He lived five years after I met her. Just dropped dead at work one day. No warning. She never loved another man."
She ran a finger along the dead woman's charcoal-colored skin.
"She was my rehab nurse. When I first got into the chair. Not like this one. A plain old wheelchair that I had to move with my arms. I didn't know how to go to the bathroom. Get on and off the toilet. How to clean myself. Things you never think about when you have two good legs."
She didn't look at him but Kincade saw that her eyes were wet.
"No matter what they say, nobody is ever ready for the chair. I was young and strong one day and half a woman the next. People say you have to pick yourself up and concentrate on what you have left. Not what you're lost.
"The stupid motherfuckers! You can't concentrate on what you have left. All you can think of, night and day, is what you lost. It took time. Months. And she was there for me. I probably would have made it without her. Most people eventually learn to live with the chair. But ... she was there for me. My parents were still alive then and I loved them. But she was the one person that made a difference."
She leaned forward and put her face in her hands.
"She was there for me. It was her job. But it was more than her job. And when I decided that I wanted to live again, she kept pushing me to do something with my life. 'The Lord didn't save you from that crash to have you throw away his gift by sitting in a room watching TV and getting fat.'
"I told her there was nothing I could do. Nothing I wanted to do. Nothing I was good at. There isn't much demand for cheerleaders doing routines in a wheelchair. I wasn't going to go to college. All I'd ever wanted to do was get married and raise a few kids. Be a mother and a good wife. I would have been a good one. But ... after the crash ... no more kids. Ever. No husband.
"But she wouldn't let up. It didn't happen overnight. But over time, I got into volunteering at churches, food pantries, working with pregnant girls that need mentors. There are always needs that there is no money for. And a little bit at a time, I found out there were still things I could do."
She lifted her face from her hands and stared up at Kincade.
"Who I am – she created that person. She made The Wheelchair Lady. She was my friend ... and my conscience. And we were close. That was when she could still get around. When her husband was alive. When her son lived here in Palatka. Before her husband died. And her friends got old and died. And her son moved away for a job."
She rubbed her lips and tears glistened in her eyes.
"She got old and frail. She got invisible. Like a lot of old people.She wouldn't go into a nursing home. That would have killed her. All she wanted was to be remembered by a few people. Like me. And I forgot about her. I got too busy. And she died alone."
"People get busy. She knew what your life was like. She must have understood."
She looked up into Kincade's eyes and said, "Don't try to make me feel better, Kincade. She died alone."
She pointed to an old-fashioned phone that sat on a small table at the end of the bed.
"Give me the phone and let me call her funeral home."
"Do you want to-"
"I'm not going to leave her alone. I'll wait here with her until they come to pick her up. I ... uh ... would you mind waiting outside. I'd like to spend a few minutes alone with her."
He walked outside and waited in the gathering darkness. He knew this wasn't going into the story. He was a reporter. He knew the rules of the game. You owed the subject of the story nothing except to quote them honestly. Otherwise they were raw material for your stories. You owed your loyalty to your employer. It was the newspaper, or the radio station, or the television station that paid your weekly salary.