Trying to explain what I had to do to Paulie and Tiffany and the other kids was not fun. Paulie and Tiff had an idea of what could happen. Bobby nearly came unglued that I’d be further away than someplace he could run to. The others only grasped that this was something out of the ordinary and that it could be bad.
“Jude won’t let anything happen,” Paulie said forcefully.
“Paulie … don’t put that kind of pressure on Jude. It’s not fair.”
“He won’t,” he still insisted.
I let it go because the more I tried to reason with them the more upset they became. Sometimes little kids just have to believe what they need to believe. Friday morning Jude regretfully said, “I gotta still go work at Carlson’s. I’m not much in the mood to listen to him but I made a contract – verbal but still a man’s gotta keep his word – and I don’t like to break my word.”
Handing him a nosebag I said, “I know you don’t. While you’re gone what do you want me to do with all of your stuff?” I looked a little helplessly at the produce that still littered the kitchen.
“Ain’t mine … did it to feed the kids so do with it what you need to. Dad wouldn’t take the feed either, the hard head, so I’ll have to find some kind of barrel to put it in for storage or we’ll have mice and squirrels all over the place. Now I gotta go but I’ll take care of the feed tonight, just have Paulie keep an eye on it through the day, maybe cover it if it looks like it is going to rain.”
“Ok.” As he walked away I said, “Will you ask up at the house if someone will … will …”
“Dovie, nothing is going to happen.” But he sighed and said, “I’ll ask River. I know her and Butch want kids but she’s never been around them much until she moved here with him and all she’s had are those hellions of my sisters. Maybe if she compares those to this bunch it will give her a chance to fix her mind on it one way or the other.”
I nodded then added, “Tell Uncle Roe …”
He turned and started walking again while saying, “I ain’t in the mood to talk to him right now.”
He sighed again and turned around and told me, “Don’t start that again. This ain’t the first time Dad has ripped a strip off me but it’s one of the few I didn’t deserve. It’ll be fine, I’m just not ready to kiss and make up.”
“We don’t always get another chance,” I told him sadly.
He didn’t take kindly to the reminder and stomped away.
I went back to the house and the rest of the morning felt like a funeral. I tried not to show worry to the kids but they couldn’t help but see it. Every step I took whether I was putting stuff in the root cellar, canning, or anything else it was like trying to wade through hungry puppies. I couldn’t even go to the bathroom without little eyes peeping under the door asking what I was doing.
I can’t even remember what we ate at the noonday meal. About three o’clock Jude came back and he was driving the wagon and at first it looked like there was a patch work quilt in the back but then he got closer I realized it was full of melons and colorful winter squash … and up on the front seat with Jude was a large pumpkin.
“Who wants to help me with this thing?” he asked the kids in a big jovial voice. They blinked at him for a couple of minutes and then ran for the wagon. I just shook my head thinking of pedestals and heroes.
I walked over and didn’t know what to say. He looked at me and his smile faltered a bit. “I’m worse than a bear with a sore head when Dad and I are on the outs.”
“Is it better now?”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “Dad insisted on riding to Carlson’s with me and we talked it out. Worked a few things out too. Mom’s back – got in this morning nearly at daybreak – escaping from her sister and brother’s place from what she said. I don’t think her visit was good for her or Reynolds either. Her nerves are shot and Reynolds is as wild as he has been for a while … until Rochelle made him drink what he calls his tea. I don’t know if it is really doing something or is a what-a-ya-call-it … a placebo … but he calmed right down and then sat and played with my sisters’ kids like nothing was wrong. Rochelle said she is going to keep Mom and Reynolds at the house tomorrow. River is going to come up here and watch the kids and Butch is going to come up here and watch her and move some of the stuff out of their smokehouse into this one as they had to put down a hog that broke its leg so it will go into theirs.”
He cleared his throat. “Seems she and Clewis are … uh … not seeing eye to eye on a couple of things and Dad thinks it better if they don’t carry it to the kids if they are already upset.”
I nodded in relief. “Ok.”
“Uh … look, about me being sour …”
“You explained it and I can’t blame you.”
“Soooo … you and me, we’re not fighting?”
I looked around. “I don’t see any fighting. What about you?”
He gave a small grin in relief then turned to Paulie who had asked, “Which ones do we take inside Jude?”
“The ones that are X’d with a red grease pencil. All the rest I’m taking back down to the main house so they can have the wagon back. And don’t squash my bag Monkey, I’ve got a surprise in there for Dovie.”
“Better not be another snake,” I muttered.
“Nope, it is green but it’s not a snake.” At my still distrustful look he tried to look innocent and said, “Tomatoes.”
Being as it was a completely unexpected answer I squeaked, “What?!”
He gave me a huge grin. “I remembered how much you like fried green tomatoes when I saw Carlson’s wife just throw a bunch of plants in their gully because the trunk of the plants got broke off when their dogs got loose and started fighting in the garden.”
“And she just threw them away?” I asked thinking the woman must be crazy or wasteful or both.
“I know. If Carlson had known he would have been fit to be tied, the old skinflint. But maybe that’s why she did it. She can be like that just to get back at him for pinching pennies. They can be bad nasty to each other and still smile like nothing is wrong. I got as many out as I could. Some of ‘em are bruised but not as many as I expected.”
I left one melon upstairs but everything else went down into the basement. The wagon still looked full when Jude turned it to take it back down to the main house. I was putting things away while the kids ate supper when Jude came back.
“Come up and eat supper Dovie; I’m hungry.”
“I’m not playin’ Dovie.”
I turned to look to see what he wasn’t playin’ at and realized he meant he wanted me to come upstairs and eat. “I’m not hungry Jude.”
“I know you’re not but you’re gonna eat anyway even if I have to feed it to you. At the very least you’ll eat some of that melon you cut up for dessert.”
“Don’t make me boss you Dovie.”
I snorted. “Isn’t that what you’re doing already?”
“No … not really.”
I heaved a sigh and went to eat if for no other reason than I got the feeling that Jude would be just mule-headed enough to refuse to eat unless I did.
I put a piece of melon on a plate and then sighed in exasperation when Jude put two more on top of it. “That’s enough,” I told him meaning more than just what the words said.
“Depends on whether you eat that or pick at it,” he responded right back with the same undercurrent of meaning as I had.
Almost in the mood to be spiteful and sit there staring at him I instead decided to try and not cause yet another brangle and save my energy for what I knew would be coming tomorrow.
Jude made me almost rethink my choice when he said, “Saints be praised, the girl is eating.”
“Enough Jude. I’m sitting. I’m eating. Now stuff you own face and be quiet,” I snapped.
“That was the plan all along.” After we’d been eating silently for a couple of minutes Jude asked quietly, “They been doing that all day?”
I turned to look and see what he was talking about and five heads disappeared from around the edge of the door and then Corey got pulled backwards and then I heard feet rushing up the stairwell. Sighing I turned back around and told him, “Yeah. They’re upset. We haven’t been apart in … in months and months.”
“But it is only going to be for part of a day and you need to tell them that.”
“I’m not going to say it and have it be a lie Jude.”
“It’s not going to be a lie.”
“It could be and I won’t take the risk.”
He shook his head. “It’s not going to be a lie Dovie. And either way sometimes a lie is better than the truth. Tell them it’s going to be ok at least.”
“I’ve already told them that.”
“But they can sense you don’t believe it.”
Closing my eyes for a minute and trying to hold in the acid belch that threatened to rise up I finally said, “I’m trying to Jude. There just hasn’t been a lot of … of reason to believe in good stuff for a while.”
“You’re here aren’t you? You got them kids you wanted haven’t you?”
I blinked at him in surprise. He was one of the last people I would have ever expected to be lecturing on the art of believing the glass was half full. He snorted, “I know. I’m one to talk right? But this time even I can see it. Don’t let the long, hard rough patch you went through start making you automatically think your whole life is going to stay like that. It took me getting sober before I could see that for myself. You ain’t a drunk or addict so you don’t have an excuse. And what happened to all that church believing you have? Think it only works when things are going good?”
That made me stop and think. I tried to let go of the bad feelings but I could still feel them pressing in from all sides. “Jude … I’m … I’m scared. Not for me, I kinda don’t feel anything for me right now. But what if I can prove who I am and that I belong but then they …” It felt like something huge and heavy was sitting on my chest. Quietly I leaned over and whispered, “What if they take the kids away?”
“That ain’t gonna happen Dovie. They don’t have any place to take them to.”
“Child and Family will …”
“Won’t do squat. One of the few good things to come out of martial law around here is that the jackasses in the county got their fangs pulled. You might have to provide some type of educational plan but then again maybe not. They still haven’t gotten the school system back up and running when it got shut down because of the virus. They just don’t have any place to take the kids to and provide them with anything. Even if they say something I doubt they’ll do anything.” Some of me was relieved but I wasn’t going to take it as a fact until I knew for sure.
Jude helped me to wrangle the kids to bed with a story of him and Jack and Jay’s first hunting trip; they had been as close to a serious fuss as I’d ever had to deal with because I told them they couldn’t come to my appointment with me. After they were actually asleep he said, “You need a story to get you to sleep?”
I shook my head. “I’ve got stories already.”
“That why you’re so quiet?”
“Don’t do that. You’ll start worrying again.”
I looked at him and admitted, “Haven’t really stopped … just stopped acting like I was.”
“Well that ain’t helpful.”
“It let the kids think what they wanted to so it was helpful,” I contradicted.
“OK, so what are you thinking?”
I looked at him to see if he really wanted to know. I saw that he really thought he did anyway. “About some of the things I saw on the road.”
“What kind of things?”
I shrugged, “The kinds of things you wished you never had. You know I can’t even count the number of DBs – that’s what we called dead bodies – that I saw? It was awful.”
He looked alarmed. “Hey … pick something else to think about.”
“I wish I could. I just keep seeing all of these faces … or what used to be faces after nature got through with them … staring at me. I keep seeing and hearing the people that died in the medical facilities, how freaked out even the upper muckety muck doctors and staff were. I remember what was left of Uncle James and how I had to … to bend him … it … to fit in the hole that I dug. I remember the nasty look in the eyes of the woman that gave me Mom’s ashes. I just can’t get away from it Jude. It’s never been like this before. It feels like I’m being attacked. It won’t stop.”
He got up and came to sit close beside me on the sofa and whispered, “It gets like that when I need a drink real bad Dovie. It seems like it won’t ever stop but I’ve learned that if I fight it eventually does. You just gotta believe that it will stop and it will.”I was shaking in a way I never had … not even when I had shot and killed those men which for some reason wasn’t part of the bad stuff coming at me. That in itself bothered me making me wonder what kind of person I was.