I was tired and had a lot on my mind so I wasn’t paying too much attention to the scenery when Jude nudged my arm and said, “Looks like we’ve got a welcoming committee.”
I looked up and standing at the main gate of the front acreage I saw several men, Uncle Roe and Butch a head taller than the rest of them. I jumped out of the wagon while it was still moving causing Jude to shout, “Blast it Dovie! Break your fool neck next time!!”
But I didn’t care, there was nothing but air under my feet as I ran the last several yards and then plowed on through to wind up in Uncle Roe’s arms. “Dovie girl! What’s wrong?!”
I reached into my pocket, ignoring the others standing there, and pulled out all the cards. “Look Uncle Roe! Look! I got my ID card and they gave me cards for the kids too!!”
Uncle Roe turned his head toward the heavens and said, “Praise the Lord!” Several others there said the same thing and that’s when I realized Mr. Schnell was there and some other men from church. I was worried that I’d made a spectacle of myself but Butch took his turn and literally picked me off the ground and hugged me as well. “Hmmph,” he said after a tight hug. “Jude said we needed to have faith. Ain’t that a kick, him lecturing us on faith?” But he said it with a grin that I realized was meant for Jude who had just then driven up.
Jude looked uncomfortably embarrassed but did return my grin with a wink. But I also saw caution in his eyes that told me to keep my mouth shut about the rest of it while there were non-family around even if they were Uncle Roe’s pew buddies. Looking around apologetically I said, “I need to see the kids. I … I need …”
Uncle Roe looked at Jude and told him, “Take her on to the house. River brought them down to help with some chores to keep their mind off things. Butch and I will be there directly.”
“Yes sir,” Jude answered obediently.
Butch helped me to get over the wagon wheel and we were on our way.
Jude snorted a small laugh that was still half irritated. “Bouncing on the seat won’t get us there faster Granny.”
“Oh hush,” I told him refusing to take umbrage at his teasing even though I could have. “I don’t feel like I ever want to leave again.”
“Well you’ll need to for church tomorrow.”
“That’s not really leaving. I just mean I don’t need to see town again ever.”
Sighing he replied, “I would give it up myself if I could.”
I heard something in his voice and it made me anxious. “Something is up. What is it?”
“Easy,” he said gently. “Nothin’ bad. Just think I might have found a way to help Dad out with the taxes that will be due the first of the year. The people in charge have decided it is too risky to use unvaccinated work gangs – they are at the bottom of the pile for the vaccination lottery – do some road work along the check point route. Guy today said that since I have so much experience working on big engines that he’d be willing to recommend me for the temp position they are going to have in two weeks if I’d be willing to commit in writing that I’d work from start up until at least the first snow and provide my own tools. It’s only twenty hours a week plus travel time to and from but it pays cash which means that Dad wouldn’t have to worry about trading anything out to barter the taxes with.”
Riding quietly I asked, “What if you didn’t have to do that?”
“Dad would have to come up with quite a bit of …”
“No. I mean what if you didn’t have to work and Uncle Roe didn’t have to barter for the taxes.”
“That ain’t happening.”
I sighed. “Jude …”
“Dovie, they won’t take benefit points. It’s against federal law to trade them. You could get in serious trouble just mentioning that.”
“Well fine, but … but that’s not what I’m talking about anyway.”
He briefly pulled to a stop and told me to, “Spit it out.”
Hesitantly I said, “Welllll, what if … er … coffee and sodas weren’t the only thing I collected as we … er … made our way here?”
Jude looked at me. Blinked a couple of times then said, “Hold that thought ‘cause I suspect it is going to take a lot of talking about and we’re almost to the house and they must have heard us already because I hear your jaybirds coming around the bend and probably at full tilt.”
Two seconds later I heard, “Dovie!” and saw Paulie pelting in our direction, running so fast he was creating dust. Jude put the wagon break on and got a good gripe on Grits. I jumped down and ran to meet my little brother and the others that were trying to catch up behind him.
After they made sure I was really back and not leaving again I walked to the house with the kids ringed around me – except for Corey who I couldn’t detach from my neck after his little legs finally got him to me – while Jude followed behind us and then pulled off to the side of the yard. There was so much excitement and I was trying to answer everyone’s questions that I didn’t notice that Jude had been talking with Uncle Roe until the man bellowed, “Frances! Come over here and see what your niece brung ya!”
I turned towards his voice and saw Jude and Butch up in the wagon with Uncle Roe and Clewis standing at the open end gate. There was a rush of bodies that swept me along like the tide but when I got to the wagon I felt compelled to say, “Jude did a lot of the picking.”
He said, “Did not, just packed the stuff down.”
I put my hands on my hips and said, “Did too.”
He shook his head and denied it by saying, “I picked a few things but not a lot of them.”
I started to open my mouth when Aunt Frankie said, “Will you two stop already? You give me a headache. I swear you didn’t bicker this much when you were little and had more reason to.” Turning to Jude she said, “And are you just going to stand there or are you going to help your mother get up in that wagon?”
“Uh …” Poor Jude. Aunt Frankie hadn’t talked to him directly in so long he didn’t know what to do when she did. “I don’t want you to get hurt Mother. Tell me what you want and I will …”
“Are you saying I’m too old to do a simple thing like climb in a wagon?” she asked him, clearly daring him to say any such thing.
“Of course not,” he denied quickly. “I just thought …”
“Well stop thinking, stop dawdling, and help me in here before I have to get your father to do it.”
Jude scrambled out of the wagon, almost falling in his haste, and then hoisted Aunt Frankie up so she could climb in; no small feat of strength as she and the girls are built on the tall and … uh … voluptuous side. And no, I’m not jealous. I know I’ve got a fair figure but compared to Aunt Frankie and Jude’s sisters I’m flat as a pancake on both ends. For instance, were I to try and wear one of Rochelle’s old shirts the thing would gape open down to my belly button. They weren’t quite so … curvy … as they used to be, but losing weight hadn’t done much but make their assets stand out more and better.
When Aunt Frankie got up there and actually looked at what Jude was taking out of the sacks she demanded, “Where did this come from?”
I swallowed and explained. She just continued to stare at me and I was beginning to wonder if I should duck and cover. Jude must have sensed it and tried to head it off by putting several packages of feminine hygiene items in her arms. “Here Mother.”
Aunt Frankie’s eyebrows shot up into her hairline and she turned to give Jude a scowl before saying, “Boy, you’ve got absolutely no sensibilities. For heaven’s sake, hand me that sack before you go spilling things every which way.” Jude sighed but complied. Aunt Frankie looked up and called, “Girls! Come help with this before Jude does who knows what else.”
Faith hung back but came forward when Jude told her, “Catch!”
She just caught the package of razors and then had to scramble forward into the protection of her mother’s presence when her sisters spotted what she had. Rochelle said, “You’re gonna share those Faith.”
She muttered something under her breath and Rochelle asked, “What was that?”
Jude, seeing the direction things were taking, quickly reached into another bag and said, “Hang on, no need to have a cat fight. There’s a package of ‘em for each of you … Rochelle, here are yours, Wendalene there’s a package for you, Crystal … catch, and River … heads up.”
Aunt Frankie said, “Alright, that’s enough. We’ll cart the rest of this in and your father will have a say over it and I don’t want a single complaint. Have I made myself understood?”
I don’t know what put Aunt Frankie in that mood but it sure put a goofy looking grin on Uncle Roe’s face. He said, “We’ll get ‘r done Frances but I expect to see you get your share too.” She sidled over to him and I turned away not wanting to see what was likely taking place.
I noticed most the rest of us were studiously ignoring the pair as well.
Clewis came over and needled me by saying, “You’ve got too much luck Dovie Doherty. Look at this stuff … someone might think you are trying to buy our affection with it.”
I’ll admit it, his words stung because I hadn’t thought of anyone thinking that at all. But it also reminded me, and rightfully so, why I could do what I did. I looked at him quietly, “I’d give it all back if it meant I could have my parents and brothers here.” I turned away, my feelings still too raw and close to the surface after my recent crying fit. I didn’t want him to see how his words had affected me. I was squeezing Corey a little harder than I had meant to and he squawked.
Suddenly there was a hand in front of my face. “Here, give me him.”
I felt Corey taken from my arms, saw Jude put him in the wagon bottom, then reach back down and pick me up and I let out a squawk about like Corey had as my feet left the ground. Once I was standing in the wagon Jude told me, “Don’t let him steal all your fun. You did a good thing Dovie; it helped the family.”
“I’m fine … just … just a little tired I guess. It’s been a funky day.”
He nodded then gave a sharp whistle. “Paulie! Gather up the troops and get ‘em over here; we need to get back up to the house.” He jumped out of the wagon and as the kids lined up post haste he put them in the back with me. “I need to talk to Dad for a sec then we’ll go.”
I answered more questions from the kids and those that stood around the wagon. Butch got out of the wagon with the last item – one of the bottles of lemon juice – and told me, “Jude’s right. Clew is … well … he’s having a hard time right now.”
I nodded and quietly I replied, “He and Crystal are brangling a little bit.”
“Nah, no more than they normally do now that they have a place of their own for privacy. More like Clew isn’t used to staying in one place very long and wants to go but he’s afraid if he does he is somehow going to be left out of all that is going on here. And Crystal isn’t up to traveling right now.”
“She can’t get pregnant … Jude mentioned she’d had a … uh …”
“Yeah, a hysterectomy,” he acknowledged. “But that ain’t the problem. She wound up being allergic to something in the T-vaccine and was sick for a while last year. Every once in a while she has a relapse. Guess you can see she ain’t her normal self.”
“I thought that was just because they were fussing.”
“Nah, like I said, neither one of them are easy to live with but they can’t seem to live without each other either. They fight hard, they make up fast. Irritating as hell to be around when they really go on a tear and all you want is some peace. I’ll talk to Clewis.”
I shook my head. “No Butch. You gotta stop trying to make things easy for him. And I need to grow a thicker skin. For one, I’m no angel. And for two, if Clewis is all I have to worry about in this life I’d be a lucky girl. He’s the least of my worries; I should be able to ignore him.”
He leaned over the wall of the wagon and patted my arm and then walked towards Uncle Roe who stood there shaking his head while Jude came to take the reins. I asked, “Is he upset?”
“No … not about any of it so stop trying to make a problem when there is none. He’s more worried that I’m getting into more than I can handle going to work in town … old friends, easy temptation, that sort of thing. He won’t ask me to stop because he’s a realist but it hurts him a little that it is something I gotta do because he can’t get the farm to pay the taxes right now.”
Paulie asked, “Jude, can I ride on the wagon seat with you?”
“’Nother time little man. Keep your sister company, she’s had a rough day. She’s not used to being away from you guys and she fretted quite a bit.”
“Aw Dovie … we did OK. River can’t cook though.”
Shocked I said, “I hope you didn’t tell her that Paulie.”
“Naw, didn’t have to. Butch’s eyes started watering when he tasted the grits she made for noonday and she’d put honey in it thinking it would cover up the crunch where she didn’t cook ‘em enough. He started laughing like it was funny … not mean, but funny. That’s when we walked down to Uncle Roe’s. Gosh I’m glad you’re home.”
I tried not to smile because I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea, but a grin popped out anyway and I told him, “I’m glad I’m home too.”