“Drink your tea Reynolds. I only made it especially for you because you said you were thirsty.”
“This is my tea!” he shouted.
“That’s what I said,” I told him trying to stay calm. “I wouldn’t have made it for anyone else. It’s my mom’s special recipe.”
“You’re mom’s not here. She’s dead.”
“Yes, she is. Drink your tea.”
“I wanna play with the kids.”
“I thought you said you were thirsty.”
“You can’t drink and play at the same time. But if you drink your tea then Paulie said he would play with you. If you get too hot then you can’t play or you’ll get sick.”
“I wanna play with all the kids, not just Paulie. That’s what’s fair.”
Between one thing and another I finally got him to drink three glasses of the chamomile and lavender tea. He liked it because it was sweet and a little tart where I had snuck in some lemon balm. It took three glasses before it started taking effect. All three of those herbs have a sedative effect. I was just praying I wasn’t poisoning him in the process but he’d come over so frantic that I hadn’t known what else to do.
He never did completely settle down but he settled down enough that Paulie and Bobby could actually play with him. Tiff stayed on the outside looking in, keeping score. Reynolds seemed to enjoy it when the little ones clapped so he tried to keep playing the game right. I kept close by separating apples out that were blemish-free and good enough to wrap and put on the shelves down in the fruit cellar. The rest I would quickly cut the gashes and bruises out of and then slice them and put them in a big pot that I was going to cook down to applesauce.
Suddenly Reynolds said, “Ok, I’m done. Bye.”
“Wha …?” But he was off so quick I couldn’t stop him. “Oh Lord, Uncle Roe is going to kill me for letting him run around on his own.”
“No he isn’t.”
I jumped a mile. “Jude! Just how long have you been standing there?!”
“You mean how long have I been hiding over in the bushes?” At my glare he said, “Long enough to see you must have the golden touch.”
“If you mean with Reynolds it wasn’t the golden touch … it was tea … several glasses of it. You coulda come out and helped you know,” I huffed.
“Bad idea. Mom’s got Reynolds thinking … aw never mind.”
I smelled trouble. “Does this have something to do with why you are sleeping here?”
“Can we talk about it later?”
I nodded. “So long as we really talk about it and you don’t come up with another excuse.”
He sighed. “Aw, whatever. You’ll find out sooner or later anyway. Mom … she’s disowned me. Says I … I was a love child and don’t have the same dad as the girls do and that I’m a … an embarrassment or bane to her existence or that I always side against her to be mean or something along those lines. To be honest I always wondered ‘cause I’d heard stories from my uncles and I look so different from the girls but …”
Shocked but at the same time not … you hear things when you’re a kid that don’t always make sense until you are older and hear other things I said, “Does that matter anymore? Uncle Roe adopted all four of you when he married your mom and you call him dad and everything and always have.”
“You … you don’t care?”
“Well, I suppose I care if you do. But if you’re asking me if it changes anything then don’t take this the wrong way but that’s a dumb thing to think. You can’t help who your parents are or aren’t. And regardless of who your father was when you were born Uncle Roe chose to be your dad when you were little. I decided to be … well, I don’t know if a mother is what I am to the kids but I decided to keep them myself and I’ll fight tooth and nail against someone trying to take them away.”
“You gave that baby away,” he reminded me, hurting me more than I wanted to admit.
“Yes I did … because Baby needed something that I couldn’t give him and it would have been selfish to hold onto him only to watch him suffer for it.” Looking away I said, “Doing the right thing isn’t always what I want to do but it’s what I try to do … most of the time anyway.”
Regretfully he said, “I put my foot in my mouth didn’t I?”
I shook my head. “No. It’s the truth. I might as well learn to live with it now. And that still don’t … dang it, you have me talking just awful. That still doesn’t … not don’t … doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that your mother isn’t … well … I’m sorry Jude but she’s not always very nice. And she is the least nice when … when life is frustrating her. You just happen to get caught in the crosshairs this time.”
He snorted. “’Suppose that’s one way to put it. But now you know why I’m sleeping here. It just keeps the peace.”
“Sure it does. All it really means is that your mother and sisters have an excuse not to look after you like they are supposed to.”
“Hey! I’m a grown man in case you haven’t noticed!” I had let the words come out of my mouth before thinking about them and I hurt his pride when he was already low which made me feel bad.
Trying to make amends without embarrassing either one of us further I said, “A grown man coming out of the seat of his pants and barely able to cook enough to keep himself fed. At the very least … well maybe not Faith because she’d probably stitch your skin as often as your pants … anyway, one of them should have stepped up. Speaking of which, what is your waist size?”
Still a little embarrassed he asked, “Huh? What are you talking about?”
“Your jeans that’s what. I can see through them in places in the back and what’s underneath don’t … doesn’t … look much better. I think some of Jack and Jay’s old things can be made over to fit but I might as well start with something that is at least close so I don’t have to do too much to them.”
“You … you don’t need to … I mean …” he sputtered trying to see what the back of his jeans might look like to me.
“Look, if I’m going to take care of you too I don’t want people saying I treat you harsh or that I don’t know how to take care of you and the kids. That’s all I need, someone coming along and telling me that since I can’t do it that they’ll find someone that can.”
He stopped looking over his shoulder and looked at me and then finally said, “I told you Dovie, I’m a man, not a child. You don’t need to take care of me.”
“And you don’t need to hunt for a houseful of people that are practically strangers to you either but you did,” I said pointing to the small field-dressed deer I could finally see that he had hung up in a tree to the side of the house where we had gradually been moving so we could talk away from the kids who had gone back to picking apples.
“That’s a deep subject, and one deeper than I am up to getting into,” I told him. “Let’s just call it … call it mutual support or something like that. OK?”
In instant relief he said, “Sure. Why not? And before I get busy with that deer … you remember how to take care of the meat?”
“You mean cook it? Yeah. I’ll pressure can some of it … or do you want me to turn it into sausage or jerky? ‘Cause if sausage is what you mean I’ll need to find Mom’s recipes and see if we have the right seasonings. And I guess see if we have muslin bags to stuff it into so it can be hung in the smoke house.”
“I didn’t mean anything in particular so any of it is all good … just so long as we get the loins for dinner tonight and don’t waste none. I’m starving. Mom went on strike and the girls only fixed grits and greens for lunch and that don’t stay with you long when it is only a little bitty bowl of the leftovers from the bottom of the pan.”
“Want some apple? I’m cooking down a batch of sauce to put up.”
“Can you poke a slice in my mouth? My hands are a mess.”
The kids took it as a game to take turns feeding Jude when he brought me cuts of meat from the deer. He made them laugh by being silly which made me think. I couldn’t remember Jude being like he was acting and then couldn’t decide if it was because he hadn’t been or because I’d just never noticed. He was always with older kids that my parents didn’t want me hanging around so maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t. I’m beginning to think that “wasn’t” isn’t nearly as important as “is” these days.