“He could have come to Jesus but instead he come to me.”
Those were the words that Maddie June Stanley said that day offhandedly as I rose to leave. I had been visiting with Maddie June all morning. We’d been talking about old times, her bringing me up to date, since it had been years since our last visit. But now it was time for me to go. We hugged, and I began walking toward the hall when she said what she just said. The words stopped me, and I turned in the doorway of her huge pre-modern kitchen and stared at her. As she spoke, she began sliding a fresh cup of hot, black coffee across the rough-topped, old maple table that served as her version of a work island. She was never one to ask, but it was clear she was asking now. I dropped my purse off my shoulder and sat back down. This woman who had mothered me so graciously years earlier now needed me to give her the attention a good daughter would.
“He was 10 or so, street-weary but road-wise,” she continued. “I cain’t even imagine how that baby boy was out there all by hisself with so many of them government agencies hunting down kids and pickin' ‘em up. When I asked his name, he said Just Max. He meant it just like that–Just Max. And that day started looping me off in a new direction and ain’t never looped me back.”
Maddie June just came to life as she talked about this boy. Her eyes twinkled like I’d never seen. She’d always been warm-hearted, but it was like something was missing from her life. She mothered so many people that it never occurred to me she still wanted a kid of her own. You see, she ran a boarding house in an era when boarding houses were remnants of western movies or what pre-dated hotels in the east ends of most towns and cities. But Maddie June wasn't someone to be dictated to by anyone’s conventions except her own. When her husband got crushed to death at the steel foundry in Bessemer, just outside of Birmingham, she used the one thing she had in this world, a rambling three-story house, and turned it into a place where strangers entered and left as family. That’s the only frame of reference Maddie June has—family. She was a beacon in the dark nights of many a soul, and I suspect that’s how Just Max found her.
I never knew how old Maddie June was. Sometimes it seemed like she just came into the world straight grown up and settled into the slot prepared for her. Aside from a few wrinkles and a bit thinner hair than when we first met, she looked just like she did that day I climbed up her front stairs praying for a new beginning. She was always forthcoming with me and everyone else, for that matter. So when she started telling me her tale about Just Max I had no reason to disbelieve, for I too had found this old house one drippy, cold January morning years ago, and she took me in that day and raised me until I could go it on my own. When I moved away finally, we kept in touch with yearly phone calls until this day when I finally got to visit her after all these years.
She got back to her story. “He was sandy-haired, skinny as a pole, with a face that was mostly eyes – big, wary-looking brown eyes, the color of blackstrap molasses. They looked too old for such a young’un. I spect he’d seen more than his share. The first meal I made ‘em disappeared like he was a hoover; it got vacuumed up so fast. He weren't given to talking like some kids his age who don’t give a body a moment’s peace. If he wasn't eatin’, he just stared straight ahead like he was looking into something I couldn't see. Occasionally he’d sigh.
“I have this little room off the backside of the kitchen here. That one there.” She pointed to a renovation she’d made since I’d lived here. “It was warm in there and caught the east light each morning making it easier to decide to give the day a chance. I coulda used that after Joshua got killed, when deciding whether to git up or not was still an issue. Just Max looked like he too might need some help from Mother Sun to make that choice each day, so I stuck him in there, sorta like a hen tucking her chicks under her wings since I spend most my time in this here kitchen. You know.
“Early on he got useful like he knowed if he started helping me out, I’d be less likely to turf him. I think, as I look back, being turned out was something he knew all too well. Yet, like a young colt, being too fenced in didn't work for him neither. So I just let him make his place in amongst mine, and Just Max and I got real comfortable.”
Maddie June stopped talking as she lit up a cigarette, perched it on the edge of her lips and began making too much noise with her big cleaver de-boning chickens for the stew she was preparing, to be able to talk. I shifted around on that stone-hard chair, trying to get my behind in a place it could stand for the rest of her story. Once she didn't need her focus on the cleaver, she blew a long stream of smoke off her last drag, stubbed the cigarette so she’d be able to re-light it and nodded her head as if she had been seeking agreement with herself and finally got it.
“I don’t sleep far from this back room. You know, just across the hall in what used to be, when Joshua was alive, a workroom of sorts where he built his model ships. That foundry cast ship parts after the war, and Joshua caught the bug. He fell in love with them big boats even though all he ever seen was pictures of ‘em. Some of his models is still out there in the living room. He did real good work. But as I was saying, I was close enough to Just Max’s room to hear all the yelling, then crying then yelling some more that first night he was here. It didn't surprise me. A child that young in his position must a see’d more than he cared to about the world’s mean side. But that first time, I only listened, nothing else, not wanting to butt into his life juss yet. But it was scary, whatever was going on. The next couple of nights it happened again, like he was having a discussion with someone, him yelling, then crying and whimpering like a dog that just been whipped. But after that first week, it all but stopped.
“The days turned into weeks and then into months. Just Max came and went as it suited him. He always checked with me first thing each morning, however, to see what he could help me with. When he took on a bigger job, I’d give him a bit of money so he’d have something in his pocket other than lint. I also found some decent clothes for him at Salvation Army and a warm coat. Winter wasn't too far off.”
Maddie June stopped to refill my coffee cup and hers and set a plate of fresh baked biscuits in front of me. I was thinking of all I’d planned to do on this short holiday I was taking, seeing a few other old friends and eating at my favorite place in Birmingham, but I knew I was needed here. So I relaxed into what felt like was gonna be a long story.
Maddie June took a big swallow of coffee and started again. “Can you believe it, he stayed for four years and everthing went smooth. That boy got under my skin and into my heart like no one I ever knowned.
“Then one day, some man, a Mr. Jackson come to my house, flashed his credentials. He said he was looking for a boy named Peter Stanley. The man was one of them Dick Tracy types, you know. I thought he was going be the truant officer for I never did get that boy to go to school. He seemed to learn what all he needed on his own. So I asked this Mr. Jackson why he was bothering me ‘cause I didn't have no kids of my own and no relatives ‘cepting my dead husband.
“‘Would that husband have been Joshua Stanley?’
“‘Why yes sir, it would. Why you asking? He’s been dead for years.’
“He didn't say no more that day, that Mr. Jackson. Juss nodded his head and said something about checking his records and that maybe he’d be back. When Just Max came in that night I mentioned that a Mr. Jackson had been round to see me. Just Max stopped surveying the fridge like it was the display at the automat and turned slowly to face me. Just Max was fourteen by then but always seemed older than his years. He pulled the chair back from the table and set down on it like he was even older."
“I said to him, ‘Who you running from, darlin’ boy? I mean I may be a country woman, but I seen a thing or two in my time.’ There was something a little more here than chance that Mr. Jackson came to talk.
“Then Just Max reached across the table to a plate of hot biscuits and bit off a chunk of steamy bread while he thought ‘bout my question. ‘You ain’t gonna be in any trouble, my dear boy, so the truth will work best for us both. What do you know about all this?’
“He had to eat the whole biscuit before he felt fortified enough to say anything, or so it looked like. With his last swallow, he sighed long and hard, blowing his breath out through lips like an old dog. I couldn't help but smile, he was so dear to me and in a tough spot right this moment. I sat down across from him with my coffee. He reached across the table and took it from me, took a sip and slid it back like we were bonding in some strange way. One of his fingers landed on mine as he returned it, and for one instant stayed there gently petting my finger.”
By now Maddie June’s eyes were blinking hard, tears being ever so close. In all the years I’d known her, I’d never seen her cry. It was like she had to stand tall for all the rest of us, only now it was just her and a few country contractors and salesmen who stayed in this house. But the past had come to the fore and wouldn't leave without its due.
She continued her story. “‘I’m gonna have to leave, Miss Maddie.’ That’s what he said.
“No you aren't. A boy doesn't leave his mama for no good reason.”
‘There is a good reason, but I can’t tell you. I just can’t.’
“What could possibly matter more than what you and me have made here – a home and a family – you and me?”
Maddie June turned away when she spoke her next few words to me. “I couldn't have knowed what he knew, what he found impossible to tell me. I can understand it now. If only I could have understood it then. Maybe I could have changed things. Maybe I could have got him to stay.”
The room was so quiet when she finished that last sentence that I could hear the tick on her old wind-up Baby Ben. It was counting off seconds of our two lives, seconds perhaps better gone.
She turned back to me and sat across the table much like it must have been on the day she was reliving. She swallowed audibly and took in a big breath which she let out slowly. Then she smiled what most would describe as angelically, accepting as a saint, sweet and so loving.
“You see, in a way, he was mine. My boy. He was Peter Stanley, just like he was Just Max. He couldn't bear to see the pain in my eyes if he was the one to tell me that. Cause he would have also had to tell me that my beloved Joshua had a lady friend for who knows how long. But long enough to give her Peter. I suppose when Joshua got killed, there was no one to let her know. She must a thought he’d abandoned her, now with the complication of a child. If she did, she didn't know him any better than I did. For a kid was what he wanted most, and I couldn't give him one. And maybe she pushed the boy out, if she was struggling to survive. Or maybe when Peter got a tad older he wanted to know his Dad and set out to find him. I should have cottoned on to something when I found one of Josh’s model ships in Just Max’s room. The boy told me at the time he loved big ships, but I never put two and two together.
"It’s hurtful to find out someone you trusted betrayed you. But there’s something much worse. To lose a child. Something in me knew he was more than just another stray, only I never stopped to listen. Since I wasn't one for religion, I didn't set to praying for his return. Stead I juss kept sending out love, love so real that it might wrap round him and keep him safe…and maybe, juss maybe bring him home someday.”
“How long’s it been, Maddie June?”
“Ten years now. He’d be twenty-four.”
“Why didn't you ask Mr. Jackson to find him. He did once before.”
“No, that just wouldn't have been right. If he comes, I want him here of his own accord. When he gits a bit older, he’ll realize, one way or another, that people get through the hard spots. That they survive, and when he does, Just Max will be climbing up those stairs once again, only this time as a young man, handsome as ever I’m sure, and wiser. I just keep my sign up outside as I always have, my beacon. You remember that. Only I added a bit to it now.
The conversation had ended at that point. I knew Maddie June was better for having been able to tell that tale to someone she knew would care. The little room off the kitchen was in shadows now as the afternoon sun lit the other side of the house through the library-type windows in the front drawing room. She saw me to the door, hugged me like I was still that child of year’s past and kissed my cheek. Maddie June was a blessing to this earth.
As I climbed down the steep set of stairs that descended to the street, I turned and read the sign that had been hanging there for years. The paint was faded except for a new line that had been added to the bottom which I’d missed when I arrived. It now read:
Maddie June’s Boarding House
Y’all welcome here,
especially you, Just Max