I had grabbed a basket and told Tiffany to hold Mimi’s hand and follow me. As I was passing by the guys that were cleaning up Clewis snickered. I was too tired and angry and he picked the wrong time to push my buttons.
I stopped Tiffany and then marched over to the guys and hissed in a low tone for only them to hear, “Clewis, I warned you. You do not mess in my family business unless you want me to start messing in yours. Crystal seems like a real nice lady. I don’t think you want her knowing some of the things that I know about you and who might also be in those stories. I do not think you want to know just how far I will go to protect what and who I consider mine to protect. You think I’m still the same girl cousin you could pick on and you are wrong. You have no idea how hard and fast I had to grow up when Dad and Jack and Jay died like they did and when Mom lost it. You have no idea how hard I have worked to keep my family together only to lose Mom because some jackass terrorist decided to poison the water.” He tried to open his mouth but mine ran over the top of his. “You have no idea what we have been through since then and you have no idea the lengths I went to get these kids safely here. No matter what you think you just don’t know what I’m capable of; I am not the same kid who left here last year. Do … not … push … me. It would be a very, very dumb mistake.”
I gave him one more hard look and then walked away without giving him or anyone else a chance to say anything. I was really angry, angry enough to have the shakes. I knew that some of my anger was way over the top of what it should have been but at the same time I knew that I couldn’t run the risk of letting Clewis – or anyone else – think they could just push me around. I was still in survival mode and I had to be able to lead. When Paulie got older it would be different but he was only ten. Hearing him almost tell me no because something was “women’s work” was more than I could stand.
Heck yeah there was women’s work and men’s work; that’s life. But at the same time Paulie wasn’t a man yet and I still needed to be able to boss him. “C’mon Tiff. Hold the basket while I cut these vine tips. See how they are all new and tender at the very end? That’s what you want, so you don’t cut them too far back or they’ll be tough; and we’ll need a lot of them. We’ll cook them like spinach.”
I knew she was listening but at the same time I could tell something was on her mind. “Spit it out Tiff.”
“Are you mad at Paulie?”
I sighed. “A little. He knows better. But I’m angrier at Clewis for starting it.”
“I don’t think Paulie meant anything bad.”
“What he meant was that he was too good to do a job I asked him to do. That is just not going to stand. We don’t always get to pick what we want to do in life. I didn’t get to pick some of the things I had to do to keep us all together and safe. And until he is grown enough to take that job over he’s going to have to help with other stuff … and that includes watching the younger ones.”
“I don’t ever want to have to do that.”
“Fight people. Shoot them. I don’t like it. I don’t want to ever have to do that.”
I turned to find Tiff looking very stressed out -and Mimi holding onto her around her waist. I sighed. “Tiff, I’m trying to set things up so that you don’t have to; so that when you grow up things are different from what they are right now. Trust me, I don’t always want to do what I do either.”
She nodded solemnly and continued to hold the basket. I knew that Tiffany hated ruckus. She was easily stressed and often worried whenever it happened. It was why I had left the kids with her while Paulie worked with me when we were on the road. I was hoping now that we were off the road she could relax more and get over some of the trauma but maybe that is her natural personality. Mom hated ruckus too which was why she learned to be such a diplomat. I tried to be like her when I could but a good chunk of me was also like Dad and the twins; ready for a rumble if I was forced into one.
We came back with a huge basket of kudzu tips and because they were so tender it didn’t take very long to get them cooked up. I poured them into a couple of serving bowls and stuck them on the table then set to work making sure that my kids got their share of the ribs and roast. I had to cut the meat off for Corey and Mimi and by the time they were all taken care of almost everything had been divvied up and eaten.
I sighed thinking that that I’d be eating another Clif bar after everyone left when Rochelle said, “Will you sit down? You make me tired just watching you.” I turned to tell her I was ok
only she was pointing to a full plate. “Eat. Jude says he hasn’t seen you hardly eat anything. I thought he was exaggerating but I’m not so sure now. And don’t give me that I’m-out-of-the-habit excuse you gave him. You don’t take care of yourself you aren’t going to be able to take care of those kids and I’m not gonna raise them for you.”
Rochelle was nobody to mess with being a completely different kettle of fish from her mother, especially when she was like she was being. She had always wanted to be a nurse but could never afford to get beyond the schooling for a CNA. She obviously still took that sort of stuff real serious. I’d overheard Mom and Dad say one time that Uncle Roe would have helped her pay for some schooling if she had only been able to get her personal life under control. The man she was calling her husband seemed ok but didn’t have a whole lot to say for his self if the time I’d spent around him during the slaughter was any indication.
I sat and ate and soon enough everyone picked up and left … leaving a bit of a mess behind but at least they took their dirty dishes with them. Uncle Roe and Butch were the last to leave. “Jude will feed the old smokehouse here; don’t make his job harder by letting the kids fool around the place or play with the door on it.” He wiped his tired face with an old, stained bandana. “I haven’t forgotten about getting you a few things to help out but if you can keep up with things like them greens it will definitely make it easier for all of us. I swun Sister, I was a boy last time I ate kudzu; I forgot how good it could be when it was cooked right.”
“Mom always said hunger was the best sauce for any dish.”
“And she was right, but some seasonings and sugar aint’ gonna go amiss either. Well, we haven’t got much sugar but I’ve got two pails of honey that I’ll send over in the morning. It’s older stuff - dark and has some crystals in it but you know to heat it and they’ll melt. The corn coming over started out in the feed silo so you’ll need to clean it good before you use it … same for the wheat and oats. Frances won’t have rice in the house ‘cause she hates the stuff and I can’t say I’m all that fond of it either so I’ll give that to you and keep the barley we have which should make her happy. I can spare a bag of salt but you’ll have to use it in moderation. I don’t want to have to use the salt licks if we don’t have to. And …”
“Hold that thought Uncle Roe.” I ran into the house and then dug out a bag of unopened coffee I had found along the way and ran back out and handed it to him. “Here. I don’t drink it unless I have to and since Aunt Frankie got the diet sodas I wanted you to have this.”
“Where’d you get this?” Butch demanded after Uncle Roe had shown him what it was.
“Every once in a while we found something in a security office at the abandoned rest stops or in a car pushed off the side of the road that had been missed by everyone else. Most of the time everything was trashed and I was barely able to dig enough out of the broken vending machines so that the kids wouldn’t starve. At first it always felt like I was stealing but after a while the kids got so hungry that I stopped caring. If it was edible … even if it was opened … I would gather it up. A few times it got so bad I would scrape the peanut butter off of the crackers and heat it up and add a little water to it to make it go further. One time I heated up water and added a couple of packs of lemon juice I found and some dandelion greens to make a soup with and that was better. If it wasn’t for dandelions and dollar weed I don’t know if we would be here.”
Uncle Roe asked, “Then for heaven’s sake girl, why didn’t you drink the sodas or the coffee?”
“I always imagined finding someone that was so desperate for a taste of it that they would trade it for some food. But it didn’t take long for us to learn that it was better to keep to ourselves and away from people if at all possible. In the beginning there were cops and charities with food but after a while it became every man and woman … and kids … for themselves.”
“I don’t like hearing my sister’s kids went through all that,” he said heavily.
“We weren’t the only ones Uncle Roe. Butch asked about the coffee so I told you, but it was to be honest, not to make you feel sorry for us. And with that in mind, if the kids are different or quiet I just want you to understand that it is because they’ve been through so much not because they are all that standoffish.”
Butch said, “I’ll talk to Clew. I can’t promise it will make him stop but maybe it will make him ease up.”
I debated my next words. “I trust you with my life Uncle Roe … and you’re not far behind Butch. And if I trust you with mine I guess that means I’m trusting you with Paulie’s and the other kids as well. But I can’t have Clewis … it is hard enough … he’s just gotta understand. I don’t want hard feelings between any of us. I’m … I’m seeing that there are things already going on that haven’t been nice for all of y’all. But I cannot have Clewis going through the kids just to irritate me. It’s not fair to them … and doesn’t say a whole lot for Clewis that he’d do it. He’s a grown man and … and because … well … some things happened on the road and the kids are … are a little scared of grown men.”
Uncle Roe’s voice got tense when he asked, “What kind of things?”
“Things that shouldn’t have happened Uncle Roe, but that were less than they could have been. But what I had to do to get us out of that situation … please Uncle Roe … just make Clewis understand that things are hard enough for all of us without him picking in what he thinks is fun but is only gonna cause more damage.”
“One of these days you’re gonna tell me all about that road trip of yours,” Uncle Roe said sadly.
“I told you the important stuff worth repeating Uncle Roe. It just went on so long and there are so many little details … things just pop up every once in a while and gets tied back to something that happened back then.”
He sighed and gave me a tired hug before he and Butch got in the wagon and left, Clewis having taken Magnolia back somewhat earlier. I turned and looked at the mess in the yard and started picking up dishes that would have to be washed before I could stop. A couple of hours later I was wringing the just scalded dish rag out to hang it up when Jude stumbled into the kitchen. He’d tried to help with the clean-up but had collapsed in the porch swing with his leg propped up and unwillingly fallen asleep. I turned and looked and my tired fled as I rushed over to pull a chair out for him to all but fall into. “Don’t move,” I told him.
“Don’t especially plan to,” he mumbled.
I ran upstairs to where I had stowed a lot of what I picked up on the road and found the Naproxin. Coming down the stairs I missed a riser and nearly fell, scaring myself. I slowed down after that and walked the rest of the way back with at least a little decorum. “Here,” I said handing him one of the little pills.
“Naproxin … uh, the store brand is called Aleve.”
“A headache isn’t what I’ve got,” he said too tired to be snippy or sarcastic.
“You’ve got a giant headache in your leg. Just try one – you can only take one every twelve hours – and if it doesn’t work then we’ll give something else a try.”
He took the pill and then let me help him hobble to “his” sofa. I went over and sat in an overstuffed armchair. I’d meant to talk to him but he was asleep when I looked and then I couldn’t remember what I’d meant to talk to him about. Soon enough I was asleep as well sitting up in much the same way I had been sleeping for months when we were forced to sleep in the car.