“What’s in all those brown boxes Dovie?” Paulie asked right before his jaw nearly popped from being stretched wide in a yawn.
“Can you at least pretend to care and cover your moth so the rest of us don’t have to see down into your gullet?” I asked him tiredly.
“Huh? Oh … yeah, sorry. Anyway, what’s in the boxes and where did they come from? They look funny … no labels or anything.”
Sighing I told him, “They have labels, just the generic kind. The printing is hard to see on this cheap cardboard is all. Look.” I held one up for him to see and he nodded. “As for where they come from, apparently former Commander Blankenship thinks we’re charity cases.”
Not understanding but catching on that I was in an irritable mood Paulie backed away a little but with his voice caught between curiosity and concern he asked, “That guy that was sitting in the kitchen drinking tea last night?”
“One and the same,” I admitted trying to sound less like a shrew. “I suppose he meant well, it just goes against the grain for me to accept stuff like this. They didn’t even take the points off that fancy benefits card I bet. Jude and I do all right. We don’t need hand outs.”
Speaking of Jude, he chose that moment to come in off the porch from seeing the blacksmith and his daughters on their way. “She still cranking about that food?” he asked Paulie.
“It’s food?” Paulie answered.
Jude turned to me and asked, “You ever heard about not looking a gift horse in the mouth?”
“You ever heard about the snake and the apple?”
Jude shook his head. “Let people help with the kids Dovie. We’ll return the favor as we can.”
“This isn’t other people Jude. This is … I don’t know … welfare or something like it.”
He warmed his hands around a cup of acorn coffee and said, “Pride goeth before a fall.”
I glowered at him and said, “Enough with the homilies. I took the ding dang boxes, be happy I did that.”
“And gave half of it to Dad to take down to his place.”
“And?” I asked, daring him to say anything.
He leaned back against the counter. “And if Dad can suck up his pride then you should be able to as well. Now tell me what was in those boxes. I never did get a look.”
Growling a bit but doing as asked I told him, “Raisins, grits, cream of wheat, oatmeal, pasta, dried beans, a big ol’ jar of peanut butter if you can believe it, dried apples I think or maybe they’re pears, a jar of popcorn which we really didn’t need, a big bottle of oil, a bag of what I think is raw sugar, a jar of molasses, and then some perishables … butter, blocks of that funky processed cheese, cream cheese, and sour cream. There was a small pile of odds and ends that I’ve already put away … baking soda, vinegar, and a small jar of generic cocoa.”
He winked and said, “Nice haul.”
I hunched my shoulders. “C’mon Jude. Cut it out.”
“C’mon Dovie. Don’t be so sensitive. Did you send the same thing down to the house or was there different stuff in those two boxex?”
“I kept the cocoa and gave them a jar of generic instant coffee. They got the salt since we still have so much and I kept peanut butter.”
He nodded. “Wendalene is deathly allergic to peanuts.”
“I remember. That’s why I kept the peanut butter up here. And that’s enough about this stuff. I refuse to gloat.”
Paulie said, “I don’t understand Dovie. You always made a big deal out of it when you found stuff on the road, like in the vending machines or in an abandoned car.”
I deflated. “I know Paulie and I shouldn’t have. It was kinda stealing and this isn’t far from it either. There’s people really going hungry and here they are giving this stuff to us for next to no reason.”
Jude stopped trying to joke me out of my mood and walked over to put his hand on mine. “Even I know in the Bible it says we are supposed to take care of widow and orphans. And Uncle Alroy and your brothers gave their lives for this country and would want someone to look after you. There’s no shame in it, you need to let people do the right thing.”
“Our family already has done the right thing. We could have been turned away. We weren’t. I’ll never forget you stepping up out of the blue like that Jude. Never. And then Uncle Roe and the rest of y’all … there aren’t words. Other people out there don’t have family to help out; and even if they do have family, it isn’t like our family is. And you keep doing way more than your fair share. It … it just seems wrong somehow to take more.”
“Aw Dovie,” he said softly. He ran his knuckle down my cheek and smiled softly.
Then the back door banged and there was an angry “Hurrumph!”
At the sound of the door Jude had turned so that he was between Paulie and I and the door. You’d have thought he would have relaxed when he saw it was Uncle Roe and Butch but no, there was no relaxing; not after getting a good look at the man’s face.
“Not … one … word. I did not set you hear to take advantage of …”
I’d had a long couple of days. I’d had a bear of a night. My monthlies were due to come on soon and I was already cranky. It was a toss up which one unhinged my mouth and set it running. “Advantage? Now Uncle Roe, we all know you should be happy. Afterall, your scheming has born fruit.”
Everyone in the kitchen said, “Dovie!” From Paulie all the way up.
I looked around. “Don’t y’all dare Dovie me. It’s the truth. I figured it out nearly from the beginning and that was months ago. It got to where poor Jude almost couldn’t be in the same room with me without nearly turning inside out.” Turning to Uncle Roe directly I told him. “And I thank you. I may not know what all your motivations are but you picked out the nicest, best man for me. It’s him I want and I aim to have him.”
They all looked like fish out of water, their mouths open and closing with no sound coming out and all googly-eyed. Paulie, choosing discretion over valor, quickly took his leave of the kitchen and I watched him hustle the other kids into the stairwell before they could get caught in the middle of what was going down.
Jude, trying to prevent a dust up, tried to caution me. “Now Dovie, Dad has a right to be upset if he thinks I’ve been holding back on him.”
“You’ve been quiet about it because I asked you to be until the dust could settle between us and we could work things out without pressure. You’re the one that keeps wanting to go talk to him. I just wanted some time.”
Uncle Roe asked in a forbidding voice, “You say he’s been pressuring you?”
I rolled my eyes. “No. I’m saying that he’s been what I think a gentleman ought to be and wanted to go talk to you and get permission. Which I think is silly considering how you were setting us up to begin with.”
This time Uncle Roe’s harrumph was considerably more blustery, trying to cover the illogic of his position … setting us up and then complaining ‘cause his plan succeeded. Butch on the other hand looked like a thunder cloud. “Dad … did you really?”
A little embarrassed to be caught out in such a way Uncle Roe said, “Don’t take that tone with me boy. Given Dovie’s age and her inheritance some young buck was going to come sniffing around sooner rather than later.”
Affronted I snapped, “I am not something – or someone – to be sniffed after. What do you think I am, some dog in heat?”
“Dovie!” I swear it was like a chorus.
“Well!” I snapped again. “How would you all like it if a bunch of females were to say that to you?!”
Butch shook his head. “That’s not the point. You’re too young and Lord knows what you and Jude have been up to in front of all those kids …”
“Butch,” I said warningly. “I don’t want to fight with you … in fact right now I’m just about ready to find a hole and crawl in it. But if you say something like that again I will lay in wait for you and by the time I am done going wild cat on you, you are going to have some vital parts missing. I … am … a … lady. I … am … my … parents’ … daughter. What you just said was about the most insulting thing that anyone has ever said to my face and I thought someone would have to go a far piece to out-do some of the people I met on the road.”
“I ain’t talking about you Dovie. Jude is …”
“ … a gentleman; and has been from the get go.” I finished for him. “He’s been so proper even you would approve you big ol’ nosey, over-starched up thing.” My hand was itching to pick up the rolling pin since it had given me such a release last night. Jude must have sensed it because he slid it further down the counter out of my reach. I turned and gave him the eye but he just looked completely innocent right back at me. I snorted knowing I’d been checked. I turned back around and faced my uncle and cousin. “Now you look here. I love you. You’re my family. But I ain’t going to be made to feel bad about this. I’ll pass on the fact that you have no call to question my morals. Mom and Dad raised me right and what they didn’t do I know how to choose for myself. And even if I was so inclined Jude won’t even put a toe into my bedroom without acting like he is going to have heart palpitations and a regular snit … and he’s only done it the once and that was because I refused to sit out in a cold living room and discuss what went on last night. On top of that we both work so hard there isn’t time for any shenanigans.” That last wasn’t strictly true but I wasn’t going to go into the fine details. “You have no cause to think what you’re thinking. That’s just having a dirty mind.”
Uncle Roe was giving me a hard look and Butch was all affronted. Well I was affronted by their automatic assumptions. Jude, trying to placate everyone said, “There’s no reason to get into a feud here. I know you asked me not to Dovie, but I should have found a way to convince you to let me talk to Dad. And don’t go picking on poor ol’ Butch, he can’t help it if he is shocked and is remembering the way I used to be.”
“Oh, don’t you start taking up for them Jude Killarney. They’re going to try and separate us. I can see it on their faces. And I won’t have it. The kids and I need you here.”
“Gently Dovie … Dad is only trying to do what’s best for …”
“I said I won’t have it!” And surprising everyone, including myself, I burst into tears. I tried to stop but the tears just kept coming. Ashamed, I didn’t know which way to run only I knew I couldn’t run so I just turned my back on everyone in the room hoping that would help me to stop being such a watering pot.
Jude squawked, “You don’t cry … you never cry!”
Getting really upset I sniffled and tossed over my shoulder, “Well, no one has ever threatened to take you away before!”
Uncle Roe said, “Well now Little Sister, I ain’t trying to take him away if you really are set on having him.”
I turned back around. “I am.”
Butch, the big bucket of dirty wash water had to put his two cents in. “I’m not sure that Aunt Malissa and Uncle Alroy would care for this too much.”
I snapped, “In case you haven’t notice they’re not here. Neither are Jack and Jay. Jude is the one that has been looking after us and protecting us. Twenty-four, seven, from the moment he laid eyes on us as the check point. If not for Jude we probably wouldn’t even be here. I’ve been able to count on him day and night ever since. And then I come to find out he wasn’t completely against the idea that Uncle Roe kept trying to plant. He made it easy not to be hatefully embarrassed by the whole situation. And then once we figured out between the two of us that it was what we both wanted, I’ve been able to count on him being a gentleman and … well … being a whole lot better than what most guys would be under the same circumstances as we’ve got here.”
I realized that Uncle Roe was looking sorrowful from my previous words to Butch. “I’m sorry Uncle Roe. I miss Mom too but she is with Dad and I know she is a heck of a lot better off than she was without him. None of them would want me to just stop living because they weren’t here to do it with me. And I’ve got Paulie and the other kids to think of. And Jude …” I gave Butch the evil eye before continuing. “And Jude understands all of that and is more than willing to help me to take care of them. The kids already count on him. Heck he reads to them almost every night right before bed and they love it and look forward to it. He’s teaching the boys to hunt and he’s about the only one in the house that doesn’t have to shout to get Mimi to mind for more than two seconds at a time. I don’t know what I’d do if he wasn’t here with me.”
Butch still wasn’t satisfied. “But what about you Dovie? You’re awful young.”
“Aw, you’ve been listening to Crystal. You act like I should be in a school some place and looking to run away from my responsibilities.”
“Naw, that’s not what I mean. I just mean you’re young. You change as you grow up. The person you think you want to spend forever with at your age might not be the one that you wind up with.”
I snorted. “I ain’t that fickle girl from your high school days Butch … what’s her name. She was stupid, I’m not. Jude and I … we’re mutual. Aren’t we Jude?” I asked, suddenly feeling like maybe I was making some assumptions.
He cleared it right up however. “Of course we are. I’ll wait as long as it takes. No one is going to rush you into anything. I promise.”
I sighed without quite meaning to. That’s when Aunt Frankie made her presence known. “Well I’ll say this, you got it bad girl. Never thought I would see the day though I should have figured it; you’re so straight you were bound to turn it in to some huge drama. And you,” she added, looking fiercely at Jude. “You been fooling around with her?”
“Shut your mouths you two, it was a question that needed asking but from the look on your faces I can tell you haven’t been.” She turned to Butch with a wink. “Butch Honey, hand me that bucket of water. If their faces get any redder we’re gonna have a fire here right quick.”
“You already said that boy,” she said with a smirk. She turned to Uncle Roe. “Did you really mean for it to go this far?”
The man hemmed and hawed but finally admitted, “Well, I wasn’t agin it if it did bear fruit.”
“Well, looks like it did. You gonna make ‘em suffer or give ‘em your blessing? All I can say is if you don’t Dovie is likely to go off like a Roman candle. Her hair is just about to start smoking as it is.”
He scratched his chin and looked at Butch then nodded. “Depends. How long you plan on waiting boy?”
I wanted to shout at them to stop calling him “Boy.” It makes me irritable but it didn’t seem to faze Jude in the slightest. “I’m ready when Dovie is.”
Everyone looked at me. “We need to talk to the kids first.”
That’s when Tiff called down, “Do I get to be a bridesmaid?” Of course Mimi said, “Me too. Me too.”
Bobby asked in his whisper that was anything but, “They ain’t gonna get all mushy and junk are they?”
I shouted back, “Were y’all listening in with your big ol’ ears?”
“Yes!” they all shouted back, laughing.
I crossed my arms and Jude called them into the kitchen. It sounded like a herd of buffalo were running down the stairs. To cut a long story short it was basically decided that Jude would stay here at the house to keep me from springing the waterworks again and from having a royal conniption. So I got my way on that. But Uncle Roe said if that was the case that we had to take the first slot that Brother Shirley had open on his calendar and that it had to be a church wedding and I better be wearing a white dress. That last fired me up all over again but a well-placed elbow from Aunt Frankie kept me from voicing anything. It was strange to have her on my side.
Finally the whole pack of busy-bodies left and I was ready to barricade the door because I knew others would be arriving shortly to twit us about having kept it a secret though each of them would probably swear up and down they had figured it out a long time ago.
The kids were off outside for a bit, sounding like a bunch of noisy geese. Jude took me in his arms and said, “If you want to wait …”
I shook my head. “No. Now that it’s out let’s just get passed this point. We both know what we want. I know that doesn’t sound very girly or romantic, I’m just already ready for people to stop fooling around in what is our business and only our business.”
Suddenly I was bent over backwards and being given one humdinger of a kiss. When he let me up for air I asked, “What was that for?”
“For ‘cause I can and hang caring about anyone seeing. If there’s a break in the weather I heard there is going to be a meeting at the church. Brother Shirley and some other folks want to get together and see if we can provide some mutual aid to some of the church members that need some help.”
“What kind of help?”
“Well, like for instance Mrs. Hopkins needs some help getting wood … it’s just her and her sisters now and they don’t have anyone in the family to help with the heavy sort of work and they ain’t got the money to pay to have the work done either. There’s people that don’t have much food left in the house that might be willing to work for a meal or two. Young kids that have outgrown their clothes or shoes that have families that can’t afford to replace them. It’s actually not as bad as it could be, people smartened up fast after last winter when things started getting so hard … but there’s still some that need a little help here and there. Church should take care of its own.”
“Yes it should,” I agreed looking at the box of stuff still on the table.
“You’re bound and determined aren’t you?” When I shrugged he said, “Well before you start divvying up what we need to feed our own house, why don’t you wait and see what is needed and by whom at the meeting.”
“We’re all going?”
He sobered. “I … I’d really rather you stay here with the kids though I might take the boys if they promise to behave. I need to go … for a lot of reasons … but after last night I’d rather the house not be left unattended. Though maybe I should leave the boys.”
I looked at him and understanding how serious it was said, “It’s all right, take the boys. But no holding back Jude; if there is something we can do … something that isn’t just you working yourself to death … I want to know about it. Those folks have been awful nice to just accept me and the kids in with next to no questions. They treat Paulie and the rest of them like they’ve always lived here.”
“And they better. The Killarney and Doherty families have been in these parts a long time … especially the Killarney’s.”
“You know what I mean Jude.”
“Sure do and my opinion is still the same. If they can take me in after how I was then they better not have any trouble with them little kids.”
“Ok tiger … down. I didn’t mean to get you all wound up.”
He grinned. “I’m wound up ‘cause I’m happy.” He pulled me back into his arms. “You’ll see Dovie. I’m not fool enough to think things will be perfect all the time but they’ll be good most of the time.”
I hugged him back. “They’re good most of the time already. Just …”
“Just, please try and not … I mean … I know you’ve been with a lot of girls Jude and … and I …”
“Don’t you worry about that Dovie. I’m starting over fresh with you. The rest will work itself out. We’ll take as much time as you need.”
“You sure that’s ok with you?”
“Yeah,” he said kissing me again. “I’m sure.” He sighed. “And I’d like to spend more time demonstrating how sure I am but there’s work that needs doing … starting with me going down and finding a piece of wood that will work to start repairing the front door. Unless you’re happy with it just being nailed shut like that.”
“No,” I said with fierce finality, remembering what caused it to get broken in the first place. “I am not happy with it being nailed shut like that.” I stopped realizing something. “Uncle Roe didn’t say anything about the blacksmith and his daughters.”
“That’s ‘cause he doesn’t know and we’re gonna keep it that way.”
Startled at his tone I said, “Oh … uh … ok.”
“I know it is going to be hard but I want that to stay between us and the blacksmith.”
“I want people to trust us … that whatever we know stays with us.”
Thinking about it I asked, “Is … is this part of the other stuff?”
He nodded. “And I’ll explain more tonight. Clewis is out doing a few things and when he gets back we’ll have a powwow and then you and I can talk. Can you wait that long?”
“I … well … yes. I mean I already told you that you don’t have to tell me, that I trust you.”
“I know Sweetheart. But I realized last night that I can’t keep carrying on doing things under your nose when it might affect you and the kids so much. Last night went bad. It didn’t go as bad as it could have but it could have gone a lot better. I’d rather you be more prepared in case something happens when I’m not around. Ignorance ain’t always bliss apparently.”