On Monday after Jude walked down to the main house to saddle Grits to ride to work I took the kids into the woods and we picked the last of the wild grapes that we could find, both possum and muscadine. There might have been more to be found on the property but not in any number that would make it worth our while to hunt them. Besides, three bushels of mixed grapes was certainly nothing to complain about or regret.
I set nearly a bushel to dry to make raisins using the old solar dehydrator that Mom had made Dad and boys build for her when I was little. The one thing different that I did was replace the little stick of wood Mom used in the hasp of the door to keep it closed and used packing straps all the way around instead. No animal – except maybe that pesky bear – was going to be able to get into the dryer and Jude had said that someone at church had mentioned seeing the semi-celebrity bear heading up onto the ridge where it was probably filling its belly and looking for a den to stake out for the winter.
I also took some of the bounty of eggs, boiled them, and then pickled them in a gallon jar to put down into the basement for use later. I remember Mom saying there was a way to preserve fresh eggs without refrigeration – how they did it when my grandparents were children and before then – but I couldn’t remember what it was.
I had fed the kids supper and sent them off to bed while I finished the grape butter made with honey when I heard steps on the porch and then an incredibly tired voice saying, “It’s just me Dovie so keep that cannon in your apron pocket.”
I pulled the pot off the burner to keep the butter from scorching and went to go see what had kept him so long. Without a word he handed me the large croaker sack he carried with him all the time (this time full of something making it heavier than I had expected it to be) and then used his boot to shove a produce box in the door. He groaned and then used the boot scraper and brush to get his Steel-Toes off. I could smell them from where I was at so I was glad he considerately left them outside on the porch.
After he’d come in and closed the door behind him he pointed to the bag and said, “Mrs. Schnell sent you what’s in the bag. The box is part of my first day’s pay.”
“How did you know about the gun?” I asked.
“Saw you from the window and the way that pocket is draggin’ it couldn’t have been anything else.”
Comprehension dawning I asked him, “Did you plan on being this late?”
“Naw. Howard twins showed up late and hung over and then the sheriff came and arrested them for some trouble they got in over in Dover last week,” he explained with obvious irritation in his voice. “All the ruckus slowed us down a lot more than we wanted. Look, I got a favor to ask … would you let Paulie come with me tomorrow?”
Trying to decide if he was serious or not I said, “Paulie is too young to help with hay bales.”
Stretching the kinks out Jude shook his head. “Not moving the bales … if he can help Mrs. Schnell get her empty jars out of the barn that would save those of us moving the bales some time and work. They’re already in milk crates, all he’d need to do is put them on a hand cart and then move them to their back porch; Mrs. Schnell and her girls will take it from there. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think he could do it.”
Somebody wasn’t where they were supposed to be and when Paulie said, “I want to Dovie” I turned to see them all peeking through the rail and spindles from the stairwell. It would have been so easy to say no and have that be the end of it but instead I said, “It’s a real job Paulie. You’ll be around grown men and older boys.”
“I want to try.”
“You can’t just try. If you go you’ll have to do everything you can to finish the job.”
Jude leaned on the banister and said, “This isn’t the army Dovie … you know the Schnells aren’t going to work him into a lather.” Then he turned to Paulie, “But your sister is right that you aren’t going to want to shame yourself by doing less than your best. You sure you’re up for it?”
He nodded and said decisively, “I want to go.”
I nodded my consent despite my reservations before I could change my mind and then went back to the kitchen to finish what I had been doing and to take the plate of supper out of the oven for Jude. I heard him almost fall into the chair and I told him, “If it wasn’t the Schnells I don’t know I would have said yes.”
“If it wasn’t the Schnells I don’t know that I would have asked. It was actually Mrs. Schnell’s idea and he’ll get paid for every hour he works and get fed just like her grandkids do. He’ll come home tired but it ain’t gonna hurt him Dovie … I wouldn’t do that.”
I sighed. “Oh I know … just … oh, forget it. I’ve just gotten so used to being able to watch over him and depend on him 24/7. I need to get over that. I wonder if Aunt Frankie would let Reynolds come down here.”
“You don’t want that, trust me. He might let you boss him better than in the past but he still hasn’t proven himself to be dependable,” he said. “And even if you want him anyway Mom is taking him to see her sister tomorrow and they’ll be gone until Friday. Her brother in law is a doctor and Mom wants to have him evaluated again … and she thinks Uncle Martin will do it for free. Yeah, good luck with that.”
There was some acid in his voice so I asked, “What’s that mean?”
“Uncle Martin is the first one that told me when I was a kid that there was things that I didn’t know and that I’d better behave or he might just tell me what they were.”
“And this man is a doctor?”
“Uncle Martin is a psychiatrist.”
Outraged I said, “You’re joshin’ me.”
“Am not … and I don’t want to talk about him anymore if you don’t mind. The man turns my stomach.”
“But wait … won’t he hurt Reynolds if he is like that?”
“No, they love Reynolds and my sisters. Apparently there was some bad blood between the man Mom says was my sperm donor and Uncle Martin when they were in school. It carried over.”
“Demented,” I whispered.
“Yeah it is,” Jude said with a real bite to his voice.
I stopped talking and let him eat after that. The grape butter was ready anyway and I needed to get it into jars so that I could put it into the water bath canner I had waiting. I sighed and knew that I needed to be careful with the propane. I had finally figured out how to read the dial and was happy to see that the extra-large tank was just a smidge below full but that didn’t mean I needed to be extravagant and wasteful by letting the burner run when I didn’t have to.
As soon as the jars were in I turned to look at the contents of the box and bag. I bent down and reached into the box and then let out a yelp and all but landed in Jude’s lap. “What the …?” he barked nearly toppling us both backwards.
I got up and slugged him in the arm. “You did that on purpose! Get it out of here … now!”
“Ow! Get what out of where? And what the heck did you …” He looked over my shoulder, ducking in time to avoid another slug and said with a chuckle, “I swear Dovie, I didn’t do it. It must have crawled in when I set it down in the barn to get Grits’ saddle off.”
“I … I hope you’re happy you great big … you … you …”
“Easy … I’ll get it out. Just give me the dust pan so I don’t bruise it.”
“Bruise it? You better hope I don’t bruise you,” I snapped, near tears from fatigue and the sudden fright.
I hadn’t pulled the box into the light before I put my hand in there and instead of what I had thought was a piece of rope holding together a bunch of beet tops turned out to be a long, thin grass snake which I had promptly tossed before leaping away in the opposite direction.
Jude came back in and caught the screen door before it banged shut and said, “I put him off in the bushes so you can relax.”
“You relax,” I hissed. “And you can just check that box and bag for any other critter you might have accidentally on purpose brought home with you.”
He sighed and shook his head. “I told you I wouldn’t do something like that Dovie. And that was Jack that put that snake on you that time, not me.”
“You laughed right along with the rest of them when I woke up and found that thing curled up on me.”
“Yeah I did. I was a jerk back then. You telling me we scarred you for life?”
Rather than yes or no I told him, “I hate snakes. They wiggle and slither and have a forked tongue that is just nasty. They’re not natural and I sure as heck won’t have one in the house.”
“Ok, ok, so the boys don’t get pet snakes for Christmas,” he said trying to look serious.
I gave him the evil eye and told him, “You even think about it and you’ll wish you hadn’t.”
He fake shivered and then said, “Mercy, it got cold in here all of a sudden.” But he also emptied the contents of the box and bag onto the table so I wouldn’t have to stick my hands where I couldn’t necessarily see what I was touching. “There. Better?”
Mollified and finally willing to believe he didn’t do it on purpose I said, “Yes. Thank you. And if you want some more supper …”
He shook his head. “Naw.” Wistfully he added, “Sure wish I had some warm water to wash with though.”
“You do,” I said obviously surprising him. I told him about the black shower bag from the camping gear I had found that day. “I had it hung out all day today. It was almost too hot when I brought it in right before the sun went down so it should still at least be lukewarm. I wrapped it in a couple of towels and hung it in the shower in case you wanted it.”
He didn’t do anything but turn and hurry over to the bathroom where I heard him moan in pleasure when he felt the bag. “It’s still warm Dovie,” he said as he headed to his room for clean clothes and his bathing gear.
“I told you it would be. Just be careful and don’t break your neck; it’s dark. You better take an oil lamp in there.”
Coming out of his room he said, “I got a jar candle that I can use. Save the oil for when we need it.”
“Have you seen all the lamp oil Mom and Dad bought and put down in the basement?”
He came back with, “Have you forgotten how many hours of dark there is in the winter around here?”
I conceded the point and he shut the bathroom door and I looked at what he had brought home. Besides the beets there were turnips and parsnips from the box. In the bag there were bundles of greens – chard, collards, kale, and some broccoli raab. There was also a big head of cabbage, a few shallots, and a small bunch of pearl onions.
The collards I would cook and can. The kale and chard I could also can but I preferred them fresh; same with the broccoli raab. I would cook and can the beet tops and turnip greens but the beet, turnip, and parsnip roots I would store for as long as I could in the root cellar which was just opposite the fruit cellar down the tunnel. Most of the cabbage I would turn into canned slaw. Uncle Roe liked his slaw fresh or liked the cabbage done up in sauerkraut. I was debating on whether I really remembered Mom having a recipe for easy canned sauerkraut or if I was dreaming when Jude stepped into the kitchen.
“Ahhhh. I feel human again.”
Needing to get a little of my own back I quipped, “Fool yourself often do you?”
He made as if to throw his wet towel at me but then all the stuffing seemed to go out of him. “Lord I’m tired.”
“Then go to bed. I’ll set my alarm so you don’t oversleep.”
“Don’t need an alarm, I never oversleep. But what about you?”
“I have to finish these jars. But just in case I forget to tell you in the morning, please remember me to Mrs. Schnell and say thank you for the beets and stuff … just leave out the part about the snake.”
He chuffed a tired laugh and went off to bed after checking all the doors. About an hour later I gratefully did the same.