“Dovie! Lonnie got stuck in the tree … again. And this time his split his britches.”
“Dovie! Bobby got into the persimmons and ate too many and has the squirts and the rest of us need to use the bathroom too.”
“Dovie! Corey locked himself in the outhouse and now we can’t get him out and he’s crying.”
“Dovie! Mimi was walking on the porch railing and she …”
I saw Jude trudging up to the house leading Grits who was in turn leading the old sway back mule fit for little else but packing things from one place to the next to earn its feed. Both animals were loaded with Jude’s pay that he kept after giving the lion’s share to Uncle Roe. He’d been helping some local farmers repair and winterize their equipment most of the last two days. He saw me winnowing shells and skins out of some acorns I had cracked earlier in the day and was about to say hello when he noticed Mimi with her nose stuck in the corner near the front door.
He finished coming the rest of the way up, handed the animals off to a silent Paulie who quickly led them around back to be unloaded, looked and me and said, “Must be quite a something this time for all of them to be scrambling to stay out of your way.”
“Grrrr,” I growled then glanced over towards the corner.
“Double uh oh.” He turned to Mimi who still faced the corner and asked, “OK Princess Trouble, what did you get up to this time?”
“My whooff ffooff felw ouff.”
Jude was trying to figure out why I would be so bent out of shape about a loose tooth when Mimi turned around. He jerked like he’d been stung in the backside by a hornet. “Yoweee! What in bloody blue blazes happened?!!”
Naturally Jude just ran up the stairs and started turning her this way and that looking her over. And she was worth a look. In addition to the missing “whooff ffooff” she had a swollen lip, a bumped chin, a split eyebrow, and was working on what I knew was going to be a glorious shiner.
“She fell off the porch railing this time,” I growled.
Jude just shook his head in consternation and said, “I’ll run her down to Rochelle.”
“Oh. Already come and gone has she?”
Her bottom lip trembling a bit Mimi told him, “Aunt Wofelle fold Vovie foo fell me foo ve vypsies.” Then she grabbed him in a hug that nearly strangled him and cried, “I fon’t wanf foo go foo vee fypsies Fude. Fon’t fell me. I wonff walk on vee porf raiffing foe more eeffer. I promiff.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes knowing good and well she’d already rolled Jude. How someone that had a reputation like he had could be such a soft touch when it comes to girls and tears I don’t know. He might as well as have a sign that read SUCKER hung around his neck for every female to see.
“Well … I don’t think we need to worry about the gypsies … at least not this time … but I know someone that is going to bed with no story and no dessert.”
“Oh fooooo, Peefff Fude!”
He shook his head. “Sorry Princess but we had a deal. You promised me last time you got caught up there you wouldn’t do it again. You broke your promise. That’s a bad thing … very bad. People who break their promises can’t be trusted. People who can’t be trusted can’t have things like desserts and story time.”
“Uh uh.” He barely popped her behind but she started crying like her world was ending. “Nope. Not working. Now go help the others unload so I can take the animals back down.”
Once Mimi was out of earshot he turned to me and said, “Thought I was gonna cave didn’t ya.”
I sighed and told him, “Pretty much. I’ll admit you surprised me. I thought for sure she had your number with that trembling busted lip.”
In a slow drawl he admitted, “Wellll, I might have if she hadn’t promised. I’m just surprised after you put the fear of God in her last time that she got up there and did it again.”
“Oh. Travis and Trent were here again. Which probably meant that Reynolds was here too.”
I tried to keep my mouth shut. I tried really hard but I know without a doubt if I didn’t say something to someone I was gonna pop.
“I love kids. I really do. They might well be my calling in this life. And trust me I’ve taken care of both good ones and some so rotten you would give serious thought to putting them in a deep freeze and not taking them out until they were all grown. And those boys aren’t really rotten … not even bad really … they’re just boys being boys and I can’t fault them for it. But if they don’t knock off coming up here, trying to get mine to skip chores and get up to mischief or egging them on to do things that they know doggone good and well are against my rules I am going to have me some boy skins hanging on this wall!” I said slapping the side of the house to make my point.
Jude just leaned again a porch post and asked, “Feel better?”
“Let’s just say I’m not quite so close to exploding as I was a few minutes ago.” I sighed. “I hate being on the outs with the kids. It makes me feel like I’m always the one that has to be the bad guy. But they’ve got to learn. This is farm country, not the suburbs, and Rochelle is as close to a doctor as we’ve got around here, which while more than a lot of people have, is still not saying a whole lot.”
He shrugged casually. “Gotta do what you gotta do to turn ‘em out right. Mom let me run wild figuring she was making up for things being messed up when I was real little. When she gave me an inch I took a mile and three quarters. Look where it got me. I love Mom but looking back even I can see there were more than a few times when she should have turned me over her lap.”
“Uncle Roe never? I mean …”
“Nope. Talked about it, threatened it, sat there while the teachers talked to me, had the preachers talk to me, then gave up I guess when words weren’t near enough to scare me off my chosen path. Only thing he ever did that did some good was tell me that the first time I got caught driving drunk would be the last time under his roof and that if I wanted to kill myself I could go dig my own hole and climb in and save everyone else the grief a little early. I knew he was dead serious and I reckon it was enough to keep me from ever doing it.”
“God Jude … sometimes I’m scared to death I’m going to scar the kids for life or something. It’s not like they’ve exactly had it easy. All but Paulie have lost everything, right down to their past and family history. Paulie has already lost so much … I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on them.”
“I’ll tell you like Dad told me … hard is showing you care, easy is being lazy because it is too much work. Dad has been hard on me the last year and regrets not doing it sooner – I know you think too hard sometimes – but Dovie, I been messed up for a long time and have a lot to prove. I know people keep expecting me to go back to the way I was but I don’t ever intend to. But there are days even I wonder if I’ll make it.”
When he shook his head I saw how tired he was but I also saw something else. “What happened today?”
“Don’t bother denying it Jude, I can see it I just don’t know what it is.”
He sighed and then got a look on his face like he was debating explaining it to me. He sighed again and eased down on the other end of the bench I’d been setting on. “Sheriff came around while I was working. Asked me a lot of questions like where I’ve been and could anyone vouch for me. Kinda embarrassed me if you want the truth.”
“He did what?” I asked outraged at the nosiness of some people.
“Easy Dovie. Turns out a lot of guys I used to call friends and hang out with at all hours have been straying from the straight and narrow. The harder times have gotten the less scope they had for their usual mischief so they’ve been getting up to other things, in most cases worse things.”
“That still doesn’t mean that you have.”
“Naw it doesn’t. But someone thought it would be funny to use my name. I’m just flaming lucky that one of those times is when I was putting in community service hours in town and a couple of others have been when I been working for people that are above reproach like Mr. Schnell.”
“No still about it,” he sighed, shaking his head. “Sometimes it feels like what I used to be is going to follow me around for the rest of my life. Not just the drinking but … but just being irresponsible. I thought I was having a good time … but mostly I was just making a fool of myself.”
I put the bowl of acorn meats down and scooted over and startled him by putting my arm across his shoulders. “Well that sheriff can just go take a flying leap is what I say. You offered to help before I even had to ask and you’ve kept on helping ever since even when you could have taken all the pay you were bringing in and done something else with it besides feed us. The last thing you are is a fool Jude Killarney. The past is the past and that’s where it should stay. You’re one of us now and I’d like to see anyone say otherwise. I’ll set them straight right quick.”
He gave me a surprised look and then snickered. “’Bout like you showed that bear?”
“You know,” I said scooching away back to my end of the bench. “I could have gone all day and several more without you bringing that up.” He started laughing and couldn’t stop so I told him to scat and he jumped to escape the acorn shells I threw at him.