Friday, August 29, 2014

Chapter XXVI


      “Quite the accomplishment,” Crystal told me as I was lining the kids up and making sure we had everyone and everything we came with before walking back up to the Old House.

      “What is?  The kids?”

      She gave me a quizzical look.  “That too but I was referring to the fact that you had one of the senior ladies in the church ask you for a recipe.”

      “Oh.  That.”  I shrugged.  “It’s not like Mom didn’t ask them for a ton of recipes over the years.”

      “And that’s another thing.  You’re what … sixteen?” 

      “Nearly seventeen.”

      At my answer she said, “You talk like you are much older … and though I thought at first it was an affectation on your part it really isn’t.”

      I sighed but didn’t hold it against her as I had heard it before from people that didn’t say it as nicely.  “It is just the way I was raised.  Mom and I did a lot of stuff together.  I know those ladies that came to the church social like they are my own aunts and grandmothers … most of them anyway.  I know how they expect me to act and how they expect me to talk and how they expect me to treat them.  And I oblige them since it isn’t any skin off my nose.”

      “Don’t you want more out of life than … than being this?”

      “This what?”

      “A nursemaid.  Doing what everyone expects you to do, what everyone expects you to be?”

      She was making me nervous.  I told her, “I’ve always taken care of kids … it’s in my blood the way it was in Mom’s blood.  It’s what I do.”

      “But wouldn’t you like a chance to be and do something different?”

      I shook my head.  “Being able to do this is different from what everyone expected of me.”

      Slightly confused by my answer she asked, “What do you mean?”

      “Everyone expects teenage girls to be into fashion and boyfriends and socializing and all of that stuff.  They treat you like you have some kind of mental illness or developmental delay, or that you’re abused or something, if you don’t have any desire to be that or think of it as a stupid waste of time; to the point they try and force it on you whether you want it or not, try and take away your freedom to choose your own identity and destiny.  I’m freer than a lot of people even know, or want to understand.”  I could tell by the look on her face she still didn’t get it.  “Look, I had the chance to choose whether I was going to take care of these kids.  I could have walked away.  I could have given them away.  But I didn’t.  And I won’t so long as I know I can be what they need,” I explained, memories of Baby flitting in the back of my mind.  “Do you think I feel repressed or something?”

      “Repressed?  No.  Inexperienced with what your potential could be?  Yes,” she said looking at me with kind and well-meaning eyes that immediately put me on guard.  “You need to be in school, around people your own age, being exposed to a much broader range of opportunities, and having a chance at something besides a future of being barefoot and pregnant for some man.”

      “Hey!” I said nearly jumping backwards from her.  “I’m not that kind you know.”

      “What kind?” she asked, surprised by my reaction.

      “The kind of girl that is after sex to tie some poor guy to me to make myself feel better.  That’s like … ewww.”

      Giving me a you-poor-thing look she said, “Dovie, sex isn’t a bad thing.”

      I thought to myself, “Oh Lord.”  Aloud I said, “I’m well aware of that Crystal.  Mom had the talk with me a loooong time ago.  Dad did too to make sure I understood that it takes a while for boys to grow into men and that until I could tell the difference I didn’t need to mess up my life by messing with either one.”

      Non-plussed she said, “Oh.”

      “Yes.  Oh.”  Taking a deep breath I told her.  “I know you mean well Crystal and if things were different maybe what you are saying would make more of a difference for me but they aren’t different.  They are like they are and I’m perfectly capable of living with them being the way they are … and being happy with it.  And Jude is helping so it isn’t like I’m having to do absolutely everything by myself.”

      “And what happens if Jude isn’t around?  How are you going to manage then?” she asked sympathetically like she had caught me on something I hadn’t thought out.

      I admitted, “It wouldn’t be easy of course; but he is here right now and he’s promised to go on being here.”

      Changing tact she asked, “And you don’t think Jude deserves a life too?  What you are asking from him is a lot of responsibility and work for someone his age.  Even if you can convince me that you really believe you are doing the right thing you can’t think that you should be able to make that choice for Jude.”

      I opened my mouth to answer but Jude must have overheard because he came over and said, “She isn’t.  And before you start, Dad didn’t pressure me either.  He encouraged me sure … but in the end the decision is mine to make.  Stop worrying it to death Crystal.  I know you and Clewis want something besides kids and farming and there’s no harm in that … but some of us like it just fine.  I hope that sooner rather than later you and Clewis can get back to being able to travel and go different places like you did before.  Clew is always going on about the mountains out west and how there was places he never got to explore like he wanted to.  Someday I would like to go see places but I don’t need it the way you and Clewis do.  And I think from what Dovie has told me she’s had more than enough traveling to last her a long time.”

      He looked at me and I nodded, “A long, long time.  I’ve seen what is out there right now.  Y’all just don’t know how good you have it; I do.  But I’ll tell you one thing, I’m home and I’m not going back out into it for love or money … at least not until things settle down.”

      She knew when to concede an argument gracefully, I’ll give her that, and do it nicely so there was no hard feeling and I told Jude as much as we were walking back up to the house.  “She reminds me of Mom in that respect.”

      Jude looked at me like I was crazy.  “Aunt Malissa was never like that.”

      “Don’t bet on it because she could be.  She took care of a huge children’s program at our church in Tampa and dealt with all sorts of people under all sorts of circumstances and not all of them nice.  Get enough people together and there’s lots of nastiness that can come up, including money and budgets and abuse and legal mumbo jumbo.  Mom handled it all and did it well.  I think she would have gotten back to that place in herself if she had been given time.  It was just the three shocks, one right after another that tore her apart.”

      “Sorry, didn’t mean to bring it up,” Jude said after noticing that Paulie took off down the path a little ways ahead of us so he couldn’t hear us talking.

      “He’ll deal.  He’s done really well up to now.  I think he just thinks that I’m going to be upset because he doesn’t want to come with me and bury Mom’s ashes tonight.”

      “What?!”

      I explained it all to him, from start to finish.  “This is the first Sunday we’ve been back although it seems a lot longer.  I want to get it done.  Not because I’m anxious to get it over but … but because it needs to be done.  My folks wouldn’t want this hanging over our heads like this.  It’s … it’s morbid.  The four of them are together,” I said pointing upwards.  “What’s in that box started as dirt and it is gonna return to dirt.  It’s just stuff … not something to turn into an idol and pray to.”

      “You … uh … need some help?”

      “Thanks Jude but … but I’m liable to get … weepy … and I’d rather not anyone see me if I do.”

      “No harm in mourning Dovie.  You are burying your mom after all.”

      “No,” I told him.  “I’m just burying a piece of what she left behind.  I did most of my grieving for her back in the beginning.  I didn’t have much choice.  I still miss her but it is more of a soft ache than it is a hard pain; at least most of the time.  I guess it helps that I believe what I do.”

      “You mean church stuff?”

      “Yeah, if you want to call it that.  More … more like I believe He’ll keep His promises so I don’t have to worry and wonder about certain stuff like some people seem to thrive on worrying over.”

      We were almost the rest of the way to the house when Jude said, “Look, I picked up a few jobs so I’m not going to be around as much as I have been this past week.  You OK with that?”

      “Of course I am.  You told me that’s what you were going to do.  The kids will miss you telling them stories but you’ll be home for supper won’t you?”

      He nodded.  “Sometimes by dinner if I start early enough and the job is small.”

      “Will you need to take a nosebag with you?”

      “Think you could swing it?  Sometimes I get fed, sometimes not.  I’m going to be at the Schnell place the next three days helping him to move his hay into the barn closest to their house.  I know I’ll get fed there since it is only me and the Howard twins acting as extra hands.  You remember them?”  I nodded but wasn’t thrilled with the memories as they were some of the friends of Jude’s that I had made it a policy to avoid.  “Seems people have been ‘borrowing’ a bale here and there and Mr. Schnell wants it closer to the house so his sons and grandsons can keep a better eye on it.  Day after that I’m going over to the Carlson place with one of our teams and I’m going to haul the wagon while they bring in the bulk of what’s left in their gardens … melons and squash mostly according to Mr. Carlson.”

      “I’ll make sure you have something to take on those days.”

      He looked at me and nodded in agreement.  “I’d appreciate it.  As you saw today they haven’t changed much except to get more skinflinty.”

      “Then why work for them?”

      “’Cause it’s a job and I need one.  Plus they pay in feed.  The horses eat a lot … tons since they are work horses, and not just hay.”

      “Oh, that reminds me, I didn’t see Uncle Roe’s goats, what happened to them?”

      “The county took them for taxes.”

      “Excuse me?” I asked startled and flabbergasted.

      “Before the feds put a cap on local property taxes those jay-rabs in town got a law pushed through that all property taxes were due in full at time the bill was sent out.  No more rolling over from year to year.  To soften it though they agreed to take goods at market rates equal to whatever the tax bill was.”

      “I still don’t understand.  Mom left money with the county to pay the property tax in advance because we weren’t going to be here and she didn’t want to worry about it getting lost in the mail.  They’re two years ahead and I have the papers to prove it because I brought them back from Arizona with me.”

      He nodded, “This place is paid up, they didn’t even ask about it; the farm wasn’t.  Dad … don’t tell him I’m telling you this ‘cause he didn’t want your momma to know either.  Anyway, about five years ago Dad got into trouble when a balloon loan came due and hit at the same time we had a bad harvest.  He got two years behind on the taxes after taking some bad advice from a financial planner.  The third year he got back on his feet and he paid off that first year but there were penalties on it.  He could never quite catch up because they won’t stop tacking on penalties unless the bill is paid in full; so even though the bills were being paid quarterly it just kept adding up.  Then when they wanted everything right then and there …,” he stopped and shook his head.  “It was a close thing Dovie, a real close thing.  Other people lost their places, some have lost them since because they had to sell off too much and couldn’t keep things going.  If Ft. Campbell hadn’t been looking for goats I don’t know if the price per animal would have been high enough fill the hole Dad had dug.”

      “I’m not sure I even want to know what Ft. Campbell wanted with goats,” I told him.

      “Probably the same thing the townies want them for now when they can get them … food.  Those folks that lived in town and had a place to leave to … and actually did it … were smart.  It’s bad out that way these days and I wouldn’t take you or the kids there for no reason except the hospital and you’d have to be pretty sick for that.  If there wasn’t still decent folks living there I’d say block ‘em in and burn it down to the ground.”

      “Jude!”

      “You think I’m kidding?  Every once in a while the freebies that the government hands out to pacify certain people get all used up so then some of them get the bright idea to come try and take stuff they think they’re entitled to out here and it turns into a real brawl.  Ol’ Buttface is a jerk but he’s mostly good at his job; it takes someone tough to keep the peace at the checkpoints.”

      “Ants and grasshoppers.”

      “Worse than that,” he told me.  “Anymore lotsa people around here have as little as the people in town do, they just aren’t stacked like cord wood on top of one another so that all it takes is one fool to light the rest of them up.  What you saw at the church?  That ain’t typical.  Mr. Schnell was just generous and it brought a lot of people who were willing to add something to the pot so to speak.”

      “Maybe I was wrong to say what I did to Crystal.”

      “Wrong?  You mean about it being better here?  Naw, not from what you’ve let out about what you saw traveling.  But it is going to be rough this winter so we need to squirrel away whatever we can … and like Dad keeps reminding everyone, we need to keep it to ourselves.  The fact you let on that you were feeding the kids on deerberries and kudzu actually made people less interested in you which is a good thing.”

      “Well it isn’t a lie.”

      “All the better,” he said as we climbed the porch steps.  “Looking poor is what is in fashion these days.  You want to still look like you’ve got some pride but you don’t want to have anything to brag about.”

      “I wouldn’t brag one way or the other; it’s rude.”

      “So it is … but that’s a fact not everybody remembers and I’m tellin’ you it can draw trouble when people think you have something they don’t.  Especially if the wrong sort of people think it.”

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Chapter XXV


      I had nice winter boots, had even considered wearing them, but the weather was still too warm and they pinched my toes enough that I just shrugged it off.  My legs would just have to show beneath the dress in all their glory; both the nicks and icky looking bandage.  I was sure I was going to get a few comments and I was right.

      Faith snickered and Wendalene laughed out right before asking, “Did you use a weed whacker on those legs Dovie?”

      Trying to head off any more of their jokes I shrugged and said, “Nope.  More like a bush hog.  Now anyone got a joke better than that they might as well get it out of their system now because I’d rather not get Uncle Roe all hot and bothered at someone giggling in the middle of service.”

      Clewis had to add his two cents with comments that included band saws and machetes but soon enough it was over, mostly because the other females remembered that their turn might come sooner rather than later and they didn’t want to be on the receiving end of what I was getting.  Uncle Roe for his part stayed out of it but all he had to do was look at his watch and said, “It’s time.” And we were all scrambling to find a place in the wagon.

      I was settling all the kids in the center of the wagon, away from the food baskets, when I heard Clewis ask Jude, “You fit to ride?”

      “Yeah.”

      “Then maybe you better take Dovie up behind you.  Wagon is going to be crowded with the kids and food in there.”

      Jude tolerated the mild bossing like a younger brother would but he approached me with caution.  I sighed.  “I’m not going to bite Jude.  If you don’t want me to ride with you just say so.”

      “It’s not that.  It’s I normally ride Grits.”

      Trying real hard not to make a face I said, “That horse hates me.”

      “He doesn’t hate you.”  Trying to bite back a smile that wanted to sprout from beneath his overgrown mustache he amended, “Or at least not much.  It’s more he likes the way you squeak.”

      Irritated I asked, “Talking to horses now are you?”

      He didn’t let his feelings get hurt by my snappy comment.  “Seriously Dovie.  He should behave with me.  He’s always been better with me than with Butch.”

      Sighing I said, “Just don’t let him toss me over a hedge.  Last time that happened I was still finding the briars under my skin a week later.”

      Uncle Roe said, “We’re wasting time.”

      That was a huge sin in Uncle Roe’s eyes as it had been his father’s before him … wasting time was not something readily tolerated.  I was telling Paulie to hold onto Corey and Mimi when Paulie’s eyes got real wide.  I turned just in time to avoid being where Grits’ teeth clacked together.  Rochelle and Wendalene’s kids were laughing at the foolish dance I’d been forced to do but mine were scared and that made me mad enough that I lost my fear of that oversized pain in the rump right then and there.

      I grabbed that animal where the noseband and cheekpiece met at a metal ring and jerked his head down.  He tried to pull away but I’m a lot stronger than I look and had his reins in my other hand, not to mention I had had all I was going to put up with.  I hissed right in his ear, “Now you listen to me you mule headed horse.  I don’t know what I’ve ever done to you but feed you and brush you and clean out your ding dang stall.  You can pick at me all you want but you just made a grave error in scaring my kids.  Unless you want me to bob your tail, tie pink ribbons to your forelocks, and put you out to pasture with your only company being Old Man Morrison’s gay bull you will knock … it … off.”

      Amazingly enough Grits stopped tugging and when I turned loose of him he just shook his head and turned away like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth … but he didn’t try the biting trick again.  Butch and Jude had both jumped forward when they’d heard his teeth clack but all Butch said was, “That’d sure do it for me.  What about you Jude?”

      Jude snickered.  “It ain’t me that’s got to worry.  I just hope poor ol’ Grits ain’t traumatized ‘cause I can guarantee that Dovie will sure do it.  She’s a momma bear where them kids are concerned.”  He turned to Paulie and Tiff and said, “Ain’t that a fact?”

      Tiff grinned bashfully – she was getting used to Jude’s occasional silliness – and Paulie said, “You ain’t seen nuthin’.”

      Crossing my arms in embarrassment I told them, “Alright, that’s enough.  Uncle Roe is ready to go so let’s go.”

      Butch must have told Clewis what he’d overheard me whisper to Grits because he started laughing on the way to church so much that Uncle Roe wanted to know what the joke was.  Clewis was smart enough to say, “Just thinking what people are going to say when they see that wagon full of kids.  Mrs. Hopkins is going to think she’s died and gone to Heaven.”

      Tiff asked Paulie, “Whose Mrs. Hopkins?”

      He rolled his eyes.  “Old lady at the church.  She wears lots of perfume and likes to hug on kids.  You can always smell who she has gotten to because they wind up smelling as much as she does.  And you better hope that she’s done enough kissin’ before she gets to you or you’ll be wearing lipstick on your face too.”

      I had to hide my face in Jude’s back so the kids wouldn’t see me almost laughing because it was true; we’d all grown up getting what we had called “the treatment” from her.  Mrs. Hopkins is as sweet as can be but she tends to leave a lot of herself everywhere she goes.  Her favorite scents are White Linen and Youth Dew, both easy to overkill with unless you use caution.  Dad had once said that she must get a commercial discount because she had to buy it by the barrel full and spray it on with a garden hose.  I remember Mom whapping at him with the potato masher she had been using at the time but we all just laughed.  Memories like that hurt, but I won’t give them up for nothing because bittersweet is still better than the plain bitterness of having no good memories at all.   

      Soon enough we got close enough that I could see the old church building and was surprised to see both wagons and trucks all over the place.  Clewis said, “Somebody let it out there was going to be a feed put on.”

      Uncle Roe said with some satisfaction, “Not until after everyone gets a good dose of the Holy Spirit.”

      I heard Bobby ask Paulie, “Is that the name of the perfume that hugging lady wears?”

      Uncle Roe had been listening closer than he had looked because I saw him cough a couple of times into his hand and smooth down his beard to hide his own smile.

      By the time we parked the wagon, tied off the cattle, got everyone out of the wagon and took the food over to the back building so that the ladies in charge could put it on the right tables there wasn’t time for any socializing.  Uncle Roe went to sit in the Amen-pew and was the youngest man there.  Aunt Frankie took as much of the family as would fit up to the family pew.  The pew where my family normally sat when we were visiting was full of people I didn’t know so I looked around but couldn’t find anything where I could keep the kids together without stacking them like Lincoln Logs.  Jude caught my eye and with a jerk of his head I saw that he was setting up old metal folding chairs along the back.  “Paulie, go and help Jude.  Tiff, pick up Mimi and I’ll handle Corey.  Bobby, Lonnie, you get over there and help too.”

      Jude sat on one end, Paulie next to him, then Bobby and Lonnie.  I sat on the other end with Corey in my lap.  Tiffany sat next to Lonnie and we had Mimi between the two of us.  Brother Shirley stepped to the pulpit and rubbed his hands together like he was a man with a plan and said, “My goodness it is so good to be in the House of the Lord today.  Just looking out over all these faces … it inspires with the Spirit, it surely does.”  Then he was off and running. 

      Everything went well as Brother Shirley is one of those preachers that likes to keep things on a schedule.  Opening prayer and a praise and worship hymn, next a hymn for handshaking and hugging, then announcements from the pulpit and another hymn, then another prayer, the offertory and special music, then he slid right into his sermon complete with notes that were in the bulletin – and which we were all expected to discuss afterwards with Uncle Roe leading the questions to make sure we listened – and then a monkey wrench got thrown in.

      “Well folks, looks like we are going to have to sing the doxology a capella as our pianist and organist had to go back and set the dinner up and Sister Jenkins’ arthritis is acting up and she’s unable to play.”

      That’s when I heard Uncle Roe say, “Dovie.”  It was not a request.

      I sighed but not so that anyone could hear me, after all you did not embarrass the patriarch of your family by making a fuss in public, and certainly not in church.  It would have been nice had he asked when was the last time I had played, much less played the doxology, but we were all in luck as it was one of the first hymns I had ever learned to play and was stuck like gorilla glue in my brain.

      I stood but wasn’t sure what to do with Corey who was nearly asleep until Jude reached over and took him from me.  I nodded my thanks and then stepped out into the aisle and walked to the front.  If people’s stares had been needles I would have bleed out before I made it to the ancient piano that had sat where it was even before my mother was born.  I sat down on the bench and in the silence the squeak of the old springs was horrible.

      I had placed my stiff hands on the keys and was in the middle of a swift prayer begging for help when Brother Shirley said, “Well now, since it seems our ladies might need a few more minutes why don’t we have a little praise and worship to keep us occupied.  Dovie, why don’t you pick since you got volunteered for this duty?”

      I didn’t know whether bang my head into the keys or get down on my knees and thank God that he hadn’t asked for some suggestions from the congregation; I would have been petrified to attempt to play something for the first time in front of a whole crowded church of people.  Trying not to look at anyone I started off with “I Love To Tell the Story,” then with barely a pause went to “Trust and Obey,” and then followed that one up with a double whammy of “Rock of Ages” and “Amazing Grace” and nearly wept in relief when Brother Shirley nodded at me which meant he was going to say a quick prayer over the food after which I could play The Doxology and then escape.

      And escape I did, just as fast as I could get down from the stool.  I wove my way back to Jude and took Corey from him only to watch him bend down and pick up Mimi before he told her, “See, I told you that you would get your turn.  No need to have your curls fall out.” 

      I looked at Tiffany who told me, “She got jealous.”

      “Where are the boys?” I said looking around frantically.

      She said, “They went off with Reynolds when Uncle Roe said they needed to come help set up the blankets and stuff for the family.”

      Cautiously I asked, “How did Reynolds seem?”

      She shrugged.  “He’s not banging his head into anything.”  I suppose that was a blessing to

be thankful for.

      By the time we got outside the line through the buffet was already fairly long but Jude had already mapped out a campaign.  He whistled for the boys – Reynolds came running too – and told them, “Run and grab the plates out of the picnic basket for everyone.  You trail beside us and we’ll fill your plates but you drop ‘em you are going hungry because with all these people there isn’t going to be any extra.”

      That was when I heard River laugh.  “Honestly Jude, you make it sound like you are going into battle.”  She shook her head and then said, “We’ve already got plates started for all the kids at the children’s table.  All they need to do is sit and eat.”  She turned to me and asked, “Are any of them allergic to anything?”

      At the same time Paulie and Tiff said, “Bobby can’t have red dye.”

      River looked at me and asked, “That bad?”

      “Let’s just say there would be two Reynolds running around.”

      At her alarmed look she said, “I don’t think so but let me go check real quick.  Will they come with me?”

      I looked at Paulie and Tiff and they nodded.  Mimi did not want to get down from Jude’s arms until Reynolds said he’d give her a piggy back ride if she promised not to kick.  Paulie took Corey and I whispered to him, “Don’t let him throw her over a hedge.”

      Paulie nodded seriously and followed.  Jude started pulling me back into line.  “What’s wrong?”

      “I don’t want to miss anything.”

      “So don’t miss anything.  I can …”

      “No,” he said suddenly mulish.  “Dad said to make sure you eat because you are scrawny.”

      Highly offended I told him, “I am not scrawny Jude Thomas Killarney.”

      Aunt Frankie came waltzing by with Uncle Roe and asked, “Does someone else need to sit at the children’s table?”

      I felt like stomping off.  I could have, no one would have stopped me, but I didn’t want the kind of trouble that would have brought.  Instead I bottled it up and just stayed silent.

      A couple of minutes later Jude said, “Are you being ornery on purpose?”

      I bit off a, “What now?”

      “You aren’t putting anything on your plate.”

      “Are you blind? I’ve got white beans, stewed potatoes, and I’m gonna have cornbread if there is any left.”

      “That’s not much.”

      “It’s all I want.”

      “That’s because you haven’t been eating much.”

      “No, it’s because it’s all I want.  I don’t like to waste food Jude and if I put more on my plate I might not be able to eat it … that’s wasteful.”

      “Oh for pete sake Granny,” he muttered, rolling his eyes for good measure.  “The scarecrow in the kitchen garden has more stuffing to it than you do.  Afraid you’re gonna lose your figure?”

      “Why would I care about my figure one way or the other?  Will you stop pestering me?”

      “I’ll stop when you stop needing to be pestered to remember to eat.  And you’re going to put a kink in your neck looking for the kids.  River said they were set up at the children’s table.”

      “They don’t know how that works.  I thought I would be there to show them.”

      “You mean to teach them to keep other kids from grazing off their plates?”  At my reluctant nod he looked over the heads around us and said, “You don’t need to worry about that.  Reynolds and Paulie know what they are doing and have them all corralled.  Reynolds just punched the arm of one of the Carlson boys – can’t tell which one from here – for trying to take something off of Tiffany’s plate.”

      “Oh good gravy,” I mumbled.  “I don’t want them to learn like that Jude.  And what if Reynolds gets a wild hair and takes off?”

      “You can’t protect them from everything Dovie.  And Reynolds won’t take off.  He’s gone sweet on you because you brought him some of that tea he likes.  Which Mom wants the recipe for but won’t ask and Rochelle doesn’t quite believe in it.”

      “Aunt Frankie already knows the recipe,” I told him, getting my plate before he could slap something else onto it besides the green beans he’d snuck on while I wasn’t paying attention.  “I told someone, can’t remember who now though it might have been Rochelle, that it came out of those receipts that Granny Cherry gave my mom.”

      “Well then you tell her.”

      “Fine, I will … and stop that.”  Greens had miraculously sprouted in the spot I had been saving for my cornbread.

      I did manage to get the slice of cornbread that I had wanted but turned to find Jude had enlisted Mr. Schnell in his deviltry and they both tried to look like angels when I spotted the slice of smoked beef that covered almost half my plate.  “I’m going to go sit with the kids.”

      “Not unless you plan on sitting in the middle of a game of red rover.  The kids finished eating and are now being rustled into games.”

      “Corey is too young …”

      Wendalene, who was passing by on her way to the dessert line said, “Corey is passed out on a quilt beside Taylor and Loretta.  What do you do?  Drug that kid?  He never makes noise.”

      Jude snorted, “Oh he makes noise, you just can’t hear him underneath all the noise that Mimi and Bobby make.”

      “They aren’t that bad,” I said, defending my charges.

      “No they aren’t.  And it was a relief to finally see them act like normal kids.  I swear I thought you had them hypnotized for a while.”

      I refused to bicker about it, especially as I was suddenly enveloped by a perfume laden cloud.  My eyes wanted to water.  “Mrs. Hopkins!”

      I turned to find that hers already were.  “Oh my lands Dovie, just look at you … all grown up or as good as.  I’m so sorry about your Momma honey … but you know she just wasn’t happy without your daddy and brothers.”

      Mrs. Hopkins loved everyone with abandon but she had all the tact of a bull in a china shop.  All I could say was, “Yes ma’am.  Paulie and I have tried to look at it that way.”

      “And now you’re home and you’ve brought me a bunch of little ones to just love to pieces.  That Tiffany is such a little lady.  Reminds me of my sister Rosemary at that age.”

      I opened my mouth to respond but she was off to fumigate the next person on her list of must sees.  I looked at Jude and said, “Not a word.”

      “Wouldn’t dream of it … but you’ve … uh … got a couple of lips on your cheek.”

      I sighed and we finally found a place to sit down on the blankets.

      “Bought time you got here,” Aunt Frankie said around a bite of some kind of cake.  “What have you been feeding Reynolds.  He isn’t himself at all.”

      Beginning to wonder if I was ever going to be able to eat what I had on my plate whether I had wanted it there or not I opened my mouth to explain when Brother Shirley came by and said, “Not himself?  Why the boy is out there playing better than I’ve ever seen him play.  I was just coming to ask what you were doing different Frances.”

      Wendalene stuck her foot in it by saying, “Some old recipe of Granny Cherry’s.”

      Trying to smooth the smolder I saw developing in Aunt Frankie’s eyes I told Brother Shirley, “Granny Cherry – Aunt Frankie’s grandmother – knew all the old time ways of doing things.  Aunt Frankie always had Reynolds on a special diet … all natural foods and stuff … and it seemed to suit him better than when he ate just any old thing.  The tea helped my mother and poor Reynolds has been suffering since his doctors have cut him off.  It looks like Aunt Frankie has been right all along and that Reynolds needed to stick with the all-natural approach.”

      “I do believe I remember you saying something about that at one point Frances,” Brother Shirley said.

      Aunt Frankie went from cranky to preening at the sound of approval in the preacher’s voice and then a couple of nearby ladies started asking her about it and off they went to town.  Aunt Frankie was in her element – she was not a dumb woman, just vain – and I was finally able to eat.

      Jude who had been a silent observer leaned over and whispered, “Smooth move.”

      I whispered back, “You should try it some time.”

      “Don’t have to,” he said with a sigh.  “You heard her address me directly yet?”

      I thought back and realized suddenly that I hadn’t.  All the peevishness that I’d been feeling towards Jude evaporated.  I ate what I could on my plate without comment or complaint and then when Corey woke up I mashed up the beans and potatoes I had left and forked them into his mouth so no one could say that food had been wasted.

      I was sure I had escaped when Jude came back with a scoop of the deerberry cobbler.  “I got the last of it so you better eat up.”

      “You eat it.”

      “But you made it; you should at least get some of it.”

      “I’m stuffed.  Besides there’s more where that came from.  I found a bumper crop of deerberries not too far from the house.  I know they aren’t real sweet to some people but they are sweet enough to make a cobbler with.”

      “You sure?”

      “What do you think?  I feel like I’m gonna have to roll back to the house as it is.  Poor Grits isn’t going to be able to carry both of us.”

      Jude ignored the comment and started shoveling the cobbler into his mouth and when he was done with that he started scraping the large pan I had cooked it in.  I looked at him and shook my head.  “You’re nuts.  You gonna start licking it next?”

      “No,” he mumbled with a spoon his mouth.  “But the thought is tempting. This stuff is good.”

      A voice behind me said, “It shore was Honey.  An’ was them deer berries did you say?”

      I turned and then smiled, “Yes sir Mr. Schnell.  Mom would make deerberry cobbler if we were here while they were in season.  I just used her recipe.”

      “Wanna share it?  I got a whole dang field of these that the deer normally eat, but they’s white tails be kinda scarce this year.  Might as well eat the berries myself if they are worth somethin’.”

      “Well, I’ll give you the directions for a nine by nine pan and you can double it if you need to.”

      “Sounds good Punkin, but can you writ it down fer me?  I’ll never remember all the directions to give to the missus and then she’ll skin me.  While you’re at it might as well add that haw sauce recipe … she wants that one as well or I really will get skint fer forgettin’.”

      I laughed because Mrs. Schnell wouldn’t say boo to a goose and everyone knew it.  So I wrote the directions down in a little notepad he took out of his pocket and by the time I was done with that it was time to clean up and get back to the animals and after that the evening chores.

      I was helping to pack things up when I heard a vaguely familiar voice say from behind me, “Well, it appears that poor ol’ Jude was somewhat truthful.  You do belong to the Killarney clan though it’s hard enough to believe with them slanty eyes.”

      Already on edge because of the tone I turned to find it was the man Hennisey that Jude had help me with.

      “Yes sir.”

      My respectful response seemed agreeable to him because he struck a pose with his hands behind his back and his chest all poofed out.  It would have been more impressive if his mustache hadn’t looked like a small dirty caterpillar that was trying to decide which side it was going to slide off when the glue holding it there gave out.

      Accidentally noticing the man’s zipper was only at half-mast I could hardly find where to look when he asked me, “I hope you are behaving as you ought.”

      I nearly choked on my answer of, “That’s the plan Mr. Hennisey.”

      “Very good, very good,” he said before strutting off.

      Had I looked anyone in the eye I would have burst out laughing which likely would not have been a good thing.  As a result Uncle Roe thought I was upset.  “Was he bothering you Sister?”

      “No sir.  I … uh … just don’t want there to be trouble.”

      “Don’t mind that boy.  He ain’t got no real authority around here and everyone knows most of his brains have been crowded out with rocks.  If he bothers you, you just tell me or one of the other men.  Boy has a reputation of sticky fingers and wandering hands.”

      It wasn’t often that Uncle Roe was so … er … descriptive in his opinions about people, at least not on a church Sunday, but his words somewhat explained Jude’s lacking-in-respect nickname for Hennisey.  Since no one seemed to be concerned about him showing up I let it go and went back to helping to put stuff in the wagon.

      On the way home everyone was silent but it was a pleasant kind of quiet and not a brooding one.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Chapter XXIV


      Saturday was a long drawn out day and I was glad to finally have my turn in the bathtub though I needed to wash the dirt ring out of it before I had been willing to pour my clean bathing water in it.  How the kids could get that dirty even though I made sure they cleaned up every night before bed I don’t know.  Lonnie especially was like a dirt and mess magnet.

      I had just settled into a soak when there was a tap on the door.  “Dovie?”

      “Let me guess, someone needs to use the bathroom.”

      “Um … yeah,” came Paulie’s answer.

      Then another voice was added to the conversation.  “Stay put Dovie,” Jude said.  “I’ll take them out to the outhouse.”

      “You sure?  What about your leg?”

      “Last of the red was gone this morning and I’m feeling a lot better Granny.”

      I huffed loud enough that Jude could hear me and both he and Paulie snickered.  “You know, one of these days that is going to backfire on you,” I snapped at both of them and they beat a fast retreat.

      I had found an old straight razor and figured out how to sharpen it … not that it needed much as it already took a strip of hair off my arm with one swipe … and was trying to shave my pits without cutting an artery when there was another tap on the bathroom door.  “What?”

      “Dovie, Corey says he’s thirsty.  Can he have some water?”

      “Tell him he has to use the potty first and then he can have a small drink.  Give me a sec and I’ll …”

      Jude came to the rescue again.  “Why don’t I just round the rest of them up and take them out?”

      “Would you?  Please?  I swear I’ll owe you Jude.”

      He snickered.  “I’ll hold you to that.”

      All was quiet for about fifteen minutes and I was getting the last little square of hair I had missed off the shin on my left leg when out of the blue Paulie banged on the bathroom door so hard the razor slipped and instead of an inch of hair I took off an inch of skin.  “Ack!!”

      I don’t think he heard me though as all he could say was a breathless, “Bear!  Bear!  Bear!”

      “Bear?!” I said trying to scramble out of the bathtub.  My wet food skidded on the tile and I fell back into the bathtub with a huge splash.  I came up spluttering and splashes and coughing up hairy water.

      I was aware enough that I heard someone turning the door knob.  Snorting the water out of my nose I said, “Open that door on pain of death.”

      Jude asked anxiously, “You OK?  It sounded like you fell.”

      “I did fall you Goof!  Anyone would fall when they’re informed there’s a bear at the house!”

      “Well take it easy and finish your bath, it wandered off into the trees.  I’ve seen it before.  It’s just old Three-Toes.”

      I grumbled about bears and boys and blood.  Jude misunderstood and said, “Naw.  Three-Toes wouldn’t bite anyone, it probably only has enough teeth to gnaw on berries and grubs.”

      “Not the bear you … you …”  I slapped the water in anger.  “Just have Tiff bring me the first aid kit and leave me alone.”

      “What do you need the first aid kit for?”

      “Jude,” I growled at him warningly.

      “What happened?”

      Knowing he would just keep pestering me I finally snapped, “The razor slipped.”

      “Oh.  Where?  Is it bad?”

      “None of your business and at least I’m not bleeding like a hog chewed on me but it won’t stop and I need the styptic pencil.”

      He grunted in sympathy.  “You shoulda just … er …  Where did you say you were shaving?”

      “I didn’t.  Go away.”

      “Uh … nothing … er … vital?  Should I go get Rochelle?” he asked diffidently.

      “No … it’s just my shin OK.”

      “You swear?”

      “Jude!  Scat!”

      That’s when I heard Paulie say confidentially, “I wouldn’t hang around when she says scat Jude.  She’s a little sensitive about people seeing her with no clothes on.”

      “Grrrrrr!”

      “See what I mean?” Paulie said before I heard his feet beating a hasty retreat.

      Unfortunately he didn’t convince Jude to go with him.  “Who the Sam Hill has been seeing you with your clothes off?”

      “That’s none of your business either.”

      “You aren’t saying you had a …”

      “No!  Honest to Pete!” I yelled at the door finally managing to get out of the tub without turning the floor red by tying a wash rag around my leg.  “If you must know Mr. Nosy I just got tired of all of the examinations we had to go through while in quarantine.  They didn’t give us Double Negatives a whole lotta choice since we were basically the guinea pigs that got them their stupid vaccine.  And the older we were the more blood they could take from us.”

      “You shoulda said no,” Jude said with some heat in his voice.

      “Saying no was easy, getting them to listen was a completely different matter.  And I caught on real quick that if I didn’t want to get separated from Paulie and then the other kids I had to play ball or suffer the consequences.  Now if you are done with all of the embarrassing questions will you please just get Tiffany?”

      “I’m here,” she said.  “You need help like last time?”

      “No.”

      “What does she mean like last time?” Jude asked, unfortunately catching what Tiff had said.

      “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

      “I say it does.”

      I was hopping around, trying to put my underclothes on without messing them up and then pulled my nightgown over my head.

      “Dovie?” Jude asked through the door again.

      “Don’t you ever give up and go away?  Give me a minute will you?  I splashed water all over the floor.”

      I let the water out of the tub and then heaved in the soaking towels before noticing that blood was soaking through the wash cloth.  “Dang it!”  I sat on the toilet and untied the rag and when the air hit the raw skin I hissed involuntarily in pain.

      “Dovie Doherty you can either open the door willingly or I’m coming in on my own whether you like it or not.”

      “You wouldn’t.”

      “I would.  Don’t believe me ask Wendalene.  Mom and Dad had gone off to some auction for the weekend and it was just the three of us because they had taken Reynolds with them.  Only I didn’t realize at the time her boyfriend had snuck in the window and …”

      “OK!” I said to stop his words from flowing.  “That is NOT a story I am interested in hearing.”  I reached over across the small sink space of the closet sized bathroom and popped the lock.  As soon as I did the knob turned and Jude pushed the door open.  “Where’s Tiff,” I asked.

      “She went to see what the noise was the boys were making upstairs.  It sounds like they turned something over.”

      “Oh glory,” I moaned.  “Can’t a girl just have a bath in peace?”

      “Doesn’t seem like it.  Let me see.”  He turned the old metal trash can over and sat on it like a stool being careful to leave his own leg straight. 

      I pulled away at first but when he just sat there and looked at me like he wasn’t going to budge until I gave in.  “Fine.  But if you make one nasty crack.”

      “I won’t Dovie, now let me see.”

      I propped my foot up on the clothes hamper and pulled my gown above my knee and then gingerly took the wash rag off again, preparing for the sting I knew was coming.  When he saw it he whistled in sympathy.  “You took off a patch of skin all right.  But you aren’t using a styptic pencil on that, you’ll pass out.  I’m going to clean it and then put some antibiotic cream on it.  I know you have some in there because I saw it when I was dealing with the stupid bite before Rochelle got a hold of it.”

      It was unpleasant enough to make my eyes water but Jude was right, at least it was better than pouring salt on it.

      We helped each other up and then as I cleaned up the bathroom and threw my dirty clothes into the hamper he said, “Now what about what about this other time that Tiffany was talking about.”

      “You worry at stuff like a dog at a bone.”  Instead of answering me he just continued to lean against the door jamb.  “Look, it’s not any big deal really; at least not any more.  Just one time they got a little rough with testing.  People were dropping like flies.”

      “It’s still happening in the areas that haven’t self-quarantined because they haven’t won the vaccine lottery yet.”

      “I mean before the vaccine was developed.  They were running out of adult Double Negatives.  Some of the vaccines were actually making the DNs sick.”

      That caused him to stand up straight.  “With the virus?”

      “No.  The stuff they were putting in the vaccine was just as bad as the virus apparently.  So some of the older adolescents started to be used.  It got real bad.  They needed … samples.”

      “Samples of what?”

      “Different things, but for me it was from the injection site.  They’d … they’d shave off thin squares of skin for one injection.  For another they’d … they’d core … core the injection site out.  That was the worst … and no, I’m not showing you as some of them are on my stomach.  But really, I had it easy compared to some whom they actually needed samples of organ tissue.”

      “Organ … ok, that’s enough.  It sounds like a frickin’ nazi death camp.  How come you didn’t say anything about this before now?”

      “Because it is over and done with.  If we spend all our time thinking about the past we’ll never be ready for the future.”

      “And if you don’t learn from mistakes in the past you are doomed to repeat them.  Or something like that anyway.  Dad is going to flip a switch.”

      “Oh don’t tell Jude … please!”

      “But …”

      “Please Jude,” I begged.  “It’s just … just not something I want people knowing.  And I don’t know … maybe I’ll get in trouble for telling what happened.  It was supposed to be secret.”

      “Dang Dovie,” he muttered angrily.  I just looked at him, silently pleading with my eyes for him to understand.  Quietly he asked, “Are you scared?”

      “I … no … maybe … I don’t know.  It’s just … look, the people running those places could make things happen.  And then suddenly we all got shifted to that last place we wound up in and the tests stopped and we got treated half way decent.  The adults were segregated from the rest of us instead of us all mixed up together.  Same company with the government people running it but it’s like there was a change in policy or administration or something.  They started finding families for a lot of the kids until just my core group was left.  Then internally everything just broke down and staff didn’t show up for work, the adults rioted, and then … then we just picked up and left when no one else came to check on the place.  And it’s over and done with.  I don’t want to bring it all back up.  Especially not if … if …”

      Jude sighed and shook his head.  “OK, I’ll keep quiet about it.  For now.  But …”

      “But …?”

      “What if it turns out to be like what happened to those soldiers that went over there and got that biowarfare stuff sprayed on them?  What if something happens to you down the road in a couple of years like you get sick because of what they done to you?”

      I shrugged.  “Then it does.  Hopefully by then Paulie and Tiff will be old enough to finish raising the youngest ones.”

      “You’re pushing those two together kinda early ain’t ya?”

      “Huh?”  When I finally understood what he was saying I felt like hitting him.  “Not like that you big dork.  Get your mind out of the gutter.  Like family, a team, that sort of thing.”

      “My mind isn’t in the gutter.  I’m just saying it happens … the Mennonites marry cousins pretty regular.  And cousins married regular around here a few generations back too.  Those two aren’t even blood related.”

      “Next you’re going to say something like if Clewis and Crystal weren’t already married, he could come after me and keep the land in the family.”

      He made a fake gagging sound.  “Now that’s straight out the gutter right there.  Besides, you’d wind up killing him and then Dad would be all upset and everything really would be at sixes and sevens.”

      “Then don’t say something stupid like I should hook up with Clewis.”

      “I didn’t say that, you did.”

      “You said cousins.”

      “I said … dang it!  I can’t remember what I said you’ve got me so turned upside down.  But it certainly wouldn’t be Clewis.  You’d be unhappy.”

      “And why should that matter to you?  It would cut you loose so you could go off and have some kind of adventure and get out from under all of this that you’ve got stuck with without any say so.”

      Jude opened his mouth to snap out some pithy reply but then closed his mouth again for a moment before saying, “You really are scared aren’t you?

      “I’m not scared!” I growled.

      “Yeah … yeah you are.  But you don’t have to worry Dovie, no one is making me stay.  I’m doing it because I know it is the right thing to do and I’m not going to leave you high and dry.  Doing the right thing for once makes me feel … I don’t know … better about it than I might have about staying if you and the kids hadn’t come home.  You don’t have to do all of this by yourself.  And … and …,” he sighed.  “And I won’t say anything about what happened to you either if it bothers you that much.  But I won’t lie about it either.  Deal?”

      “You swear you won’t blab to Uncle Roe or Butch or Clewis or anybody?”

      “I won’t blab.  But you should see a doctor … a real doctor.”

      “No way.  At least not right now.  I am done with doctors.  And you better not say anything to Rochelle.  She’s better than she used to be but she’s still likely to do something ‘for my own good’ before she asks my opinion of it.  That kind of trouble I do not need.  And Wendalene is just as bad if not worse.”

      “You’re preaching to the choir Dovie.”

      “Speaking of,” I said hastily changing the subject now that the opportunity had presented itself.  “Did those pants and shirt fit?”

      “Aw Dovie, I told you that you didn’t have to …”

      “We’ve already been over that ground plenty.  Just try it on and see … please.”  I figured if I was going to ask him for something like keeping tales from his own father I had to at least be willing to treat him with some courtesy even if when we brangled.