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.”

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