I was speechless which was rare enough but this time I was so speechless there were tears in my eyes. I tried to put it down to them ol’ hormones acting up but God and me both knew that wasn’t the case. I’d never – at least not to my knowledge – ever had anyone take my side as hard as Dino did. I didn’t know how to say anything at that point much less what to say.
Dino was walking us back the way were had come only on the other side of the street. I had a hold of Kerry’s hand on one side of me and on the other Dino was walking between me and the curb with a gentle hand on my back guiding me through the crowd while he carried the few packages he’d picked up.
“I’ll have to come back in a week to see if the orders are in. That’s cutting it close to when Alec expects the first of the grapes to be ready but there’s no choice. Everybody and there mother has an order waiting to be filled ahead of me.” He sighed and shook his head before saying, “I forgot that today was check day.” Glancing down one of the side roads we saw that it was congested with lots of people. “Look at that line at the Depot, the train must be late.”
Finally finding my voice I said, “I hope they haven’t had another derailment. Last time checks were late … it doesn’t even bear thinking on, especially with prices rising and things getting scarce.”
Two years ago the checks from the government … from social security to pension to disability to just everything … had been a month late when someone tried to steal the metal rails from the train tracks to sell for scrap. It had been some idiots so desperate for drug money they’d forgotten that a new law had been passed making recycling metal a requirement not a choice; you don’t get paid for recycling your scrap, you get a hefty fine if you don’t. The uproar in the entire area at the delay had been so awful they’d actually sent in the civil service patrol to quell it. Worse, while the checks had been a month late it had taken six months to get rid of the CSP. I don’t know who made the bigger mess, the rioters and malcontents or the people sent in to stop them. That was the same year we had so much trouble with rustling and garden thieving, mostly done by people that had come from outside the area to stir things up even worse than they already were.
Drawing me back to the present Dino asked, “Is there anything else you need while we’re in town?”
I nodded. “The schedule for the harvest markets and rummage sales if they’ve got it made up yet.”
“Already picked a flyer up at the Seed and Feed. Hope you didn’t need it for note paper, all they are handing out now is little squares about the size of a post card. Next thing you know they’ll be printing them on the back of used postage stamps.”
I chuckled even though it wasn’t that funny. I can still remember when there were flyers all over the place for all sorts of things, so many in fact they were used as note paper most folks. Lately paper and printing costs have skyrocketed. I guess cutting down on the size of what they were handing out was a way to stop the “waste” and cut costs. I still had about half a ream of paper leftover from when Harry, Hannah, and I had been in school (it was something Sol had sent out but I wasn’t telling Dino that) but I was sure happy to have my little blackboard for making temporary lists.
“Newspapers are getting thinner and the print is getting smaller too,” Dino observed.
“Seems like the serving of everything is getting smaller,” I added.
“Not where we’re going.”
“Huh?” He’d caught me off guard.
“You want to eat in a private room or out back on the verandah at Joe’s?” My mouth fell open in surprise and he laughed. “Do we need to wire that close? If it keeps falling open like that the hinges are going to wear out.”
I shut my mouth with a snap and he laughed some more. “I thought you were just talking big back there,” I whispered.
He whispered back like he was mocking me, “No, I wasn’t just fooling.” In a normal tone of voice he asked again, “Private room or verandah?”
“I … I don’t … know. I’ve … I’ve never … Doggone Dino, only people with money eat at restaurants. And … well … geez, it don’t sound to me like you pinch your pennies near as hard as you claim to.”
He sighed, “Stop making it sound like a death sentence. Joe’s an old friend of the family. I don’t stop in near as much as Alec and Cheryl do; they sell produce to Joe and his wife Laurie as a side business to the vineyard. It’s been a couple of months since I’ve been in and I just thought you would appreciate a day off from cooking every meal.”
I stopped him and pulled him out of the traffic on the sidewalk. “Dino … I … I don’t know what to say. I’m not scared or anything but … I don’t know … I mean … it’s been a long time since … well even when Daddy was alive we didn’t do it but a couple of times a year but still … I …” I looked around and then whispered up at him, “Am I even dressed proper to go in some place like that?”
He leaned back and looked down at me and asked, “You haven’t been out to a restaurant in a while?”
Not wanting to sound like a complete idiot I told him, “I remember the way things used to be but … but I don’t know if the way they used to be is the same way they are now. I don’t want to make a fool out of myself or be a shame to you.”
His face softened. “If Kerry is OK in Joe’s then you won’t have any trouble. I’ll let Joe suggest a table, he always gets it right.”
Joe’s was one of the few eateries left in town that catered to people who went to sit down and eat. There are a couple of places that are grab-n-go’s down by the Depot, there are produce carts that work the townie neighborhoods just off the center strip on the other side of town from the Depot, there is a lunch counter sort of thing out by the mill that caters to the rough single men that stay in barracks over there but the only two other places besides Joe’s that are what you would call real restaurants is the place that is attached to the Motel down by the highway that serves breakfast all day and this little hole in the wall that is only open to serve the railroad people and their military escorts.
Joe’s is in what was once a Victorian mansion that, before it became a bed and breakfast and then a full-fledged restaurant, used to be a vacation home of the son of some robber baron or other. In fact that house – or what used to be a house – is the only reason that the train tracks run by Newton. That man’s brother, a rival in all respects, built a similar home in Cherry Gap and that is why the tracks run by that town. The rivalry between the two brothers is also why Newton and Cherry Gap seem so similar; one couldn’t have something without the other replicating it and vice versa. Just goes to show you that it doesn’t matter what historical era you are studying on, people can be just passing strange.
We turned a block off of the main drag and then walked up the steps of this place with huge, white pillars holding up a roof that looked too big to have been constructed so long ago. In no time at all we were in – didn’t even have to wait in the short line of people that had already been waiting – and seated at this table that seemed to give us a view of the whole room while also giving us a little breeze from the open windows.
Dino smiled broadly and stood up to greet a huge man that came of the kitchen. They pounded each other on the back the way men do in greeting … Lord knows they wouldn’t dare call it a plain ol’ hug. The big man was a little older than Alec and his voice was booming and loud. “Dino! It’s been a long time!”
Dino smiled, “The farm and raising Kerry has kept me busy.”
“So Alec has told me. And Adona … she certainly surprised me with the fact that you’ve got someone helping you these days.” He turned what I felt was an intimidating gaze on me and said, “It takes a lot to impress Adona and apparently you have young lady. She says that you’ve already got the garden, orchards, and even Master Kerry here well in hand.”
Not knowing how to take this man I just looked at Dino before saying, “That’s kind of her but I’ve had a good bit of help.”
“And modest too … look at her blush.” And boy was I. I don’t know what was worse, having this big man talk about me loud enough to be heard in the next town over or have every eye in the place rolling in our direction. “I hear you preferred to be called Riss so … Miss Riss, what would you care to try today?”
In a panic I looked at Dino. He asked, “What’s today’s special?”
“Oh, can’t go wrong there my friend. Chicken stuffed with Dirty Rice, Grilled Vegetables topped with feta cheese, your choice of side salad or wilted greens, and for dessert your choice of one of Laurie’s pastries.”
Dino grinned, “We’ll take two of those and for Kerry just have Laurie plate up whatever she is doing for the children’s menu.”
Kerry asked me, “Do I get a pastry too?”
I looked at Dino and he said, “It depends on whether you clean your plate.”
I nearly laughed at how fast the boy unrolled his cutlery and tucked his napkin in. Joe left and Dino turned to me and asked, “Is water OK?”
“That’s perfect. And Dino … um … thank you. I’ve never done anything like this.”
“Uh uh. The closest thing to this that I can remember is that time that some officer invited Daddy and us to some big to do at the Columbia Restaurant. I guess … yeah … that was the year I turned nine because for my birthday Momma made a Tres Leche cake like the piece I had had that night. I remember thinking that is was exotic or something equally silly and feeling that I was the luckiest kid because my dad had gotten back a little early from some training or other down in Central America.”
Interested he asked, “Did your family move around a lot? Did you like it?”
“Not as much as some,” I shrugged. “I don’t have a lot to compare it to. I was eleven when … well, when things changed. It’s always just been ‘before’ and ‘after’ in my memories and that’s just the way it is. Why? Did you move around a lot?”
“Oh yeah, at least once a year until I was a Junior in high school.”
“That must have been hard,” I said.
“No, not really; it was mostly overseas moving from one appointment to another. Because of my dad’s job I knew most of the kids of the US ambassadors over in Europe by first name. In fact I still kept up with some of them until … well, until everything went back to snail mail. Truth be told it was one of them recognizing my name on a hospital roster that got me out of the hell hole where I was stuck after I got blown up and into a villa out in the countryside where I could recuperate enough to return stateside without destroying my health.”
“You’ve led an exciting life,” I told him a little awed at all he had experienced.
He sighed, “Trust me, I’d give up the exciting part to have back the people that have been killed and the peace we’ve lost in this country.” I was quiet after he said that. He got the wrong idea and said, “Sorry, didn’t mean to bring our good time down.”
“Huh? Oh no, you didn’t. I was just thinking.”
“About what?” he wanted to know.
“Well … don’t laugh … but the world is so much bigger for you than it ever was for me. Just …”
“Just makes me wonder, as nice as you are, if you aren’t going to wake up one day and realize that I bore you to death.”
“Miss Riss,” he smiled, putting a hand over mind. “You are a lot of things but boring is not one of them.”
I smiled ‘cause he wanted me to but I wasn’t sure he’d understood what I was trying to say. See I know just enough to know that I don’t … know much I mean. The world used to be all right there at my finger tips with my computer. The city I lived in was full of people from around the world and they gave where I lived a flavor like no other. But that all slammed shut away from me the day my daddy died. After we got to the farm I didn’t budge from there for years. When I’d gone to the city to be with Sol, that’s the furthest I had travelled since the day the camper had been parked and put up on blocks. And where had I run when that didn’t pan out? Right back here.
What did I know that could keep a grown man, a man that had experienced a lot of the whole world, interested? Would I eventually bore him? And if he grew bored could I blame him from looking for something to excite him again? I couldn’t even keep a boy like Sol from looking for something more, what on earth did I have that a man like Dino could possibly want long term?
I couldn’t keep my thoughts from showing on my face and Dino was about to say something but the food arrived and I’ll admit that the food did what a good cook hopes for and it put me in a better frame of mind. The “dirty rice” was a pilaf made with chicken gizzards and it was stuffed inside a piece of chicken that had been pounded flat and then rolled up. I’d never tasted anything like it and would have stopped to try and work out the seasonings if my tongue didn’t also want to taste the grilled vegetables and the wilted wild greens salad that came with it. And if that wasn’t enough after we’d all cleaned out plates, including Kerry, got to eat pastries unlike any I had ever had. When it came down to choosing we all ate something called fresh Touloubakia. They were little fried pieces of dough that had been dipped in syrup.
Coming back to the table Joe boomed at Dino, “Hah! I’ll have to tell your aunt that you’ve picked a girl that likes Greek food.”
Surprised I asked, “This was Greek food?”
Joe smiled and said, “Indeed it is. My Laurie – I’d introduce you but she’s in the middle of making phyllo dough and can’t leave it – got all the recipes from Dino’s grandmother and his Aunt Adona.”
“Well, I’ll be honest. I don’t care where it came from but it sure was delicious.”
That made Joe laugh real big and in no time we were out the door and heading back to the wagon. I was full as a tick and looking at Kerry I could tell he’d fall asleep on the way back to the farm.
“You can bet Aunt Adona is going to get a full report from Joe and Laurie.”
That froze me up right there. “What? Oh no … did … did I do something wrong?”
Dino laughed, “No. Just the opposite. Joe can’t stand it when people leave food on their plate and you wouldn’t even let a piece of rice escape; and Kerry never made a single fuss while he was in there.”
“Kerry rarely makes a fuss,” I said confused.
“Not anymore he doesn’t. He used to be one great big fuss … they came one right after another without pause so you couldn’t tell where one ended and the next began.”
“I’m not kidding Riss. You just don’t know what a difference you’ve made because you don’t know what it was like before … him or the house. I was at my wits end.”
Dino picked Kerry up again to cross the road and by the time we’d gotten to the other side he was asleep in his father’s arm. We laid him down in the back in a nest of hay – I would have stayed in the back with him but Dino wanted me to sit on the wagon sit with him – and then got back on the rutted path that would take us to the farm in the shortest time possible.
Once we got out of town traffic Dino asked, “You got any particular project you want to tackle next?”
“My biggest need after doing some laundry is to bring up as many empty jars as I can fit in the kitchen and start getting them washed. I’m going to need every one of those jars starting next week when the garden really starts coming in. While I’m doing that I also need to organize down there or I swear I’m … uh …”
“Gonna break your neck?”
“Well … you said it, not me,” I admitted, grinning sheepishly.
He laughed, “It’s all right. I feel the same way. I’ve basically just made a path between the stairs and the stuff I need to get to but I’ve got a permanent bruise on one of a knees and my elbow stopped thinking it was funny a long time ago.”
“Is there a room where I can move stuff until I can get to a point I can put it back down in the basement in some organized fashion?” I asked, remembering how my grandparents had to go through everything in their house to make room for all the extra people.
Then a thought struck me. “Uh … does this house have an attic too?”
“Yep,” he said.
“Is it … is it as full as the basement is?”
“Yep … maybe worse.”
All I could say was a breathy, “Oh my.”
“Yep,” he said for the third time.
Then we looked at each other and started laughing for no reason. “Riss, maybe I should have warned you about the size of the job ahead of you but … I didn’t want to run you off like the others.”
I rolled my eyes, “A little work did not run off those other women, they just didn’t suit you.”
“I am sitting here telling you that more than one of them thought I was out of my mind to want them to organize all of that stuff. One even suggested I simply have a bonfire of everything in the house including the old furnishings and then order all new from the city.”
I looked to see if he was fooling and he wasn’t. “Exactly where did you order these women in from? The How-to-Run-Off-a-Man catalogue? I’ve never heard of such foolishness.”
“That’s because,” he said. “You don’t remember what it was like to be a city girl. You have to remember, things might be tight and they might be scarce, but in the cities you still have stores, convenience markets, and twenty-four hour entertainment opportunities. For the most part there is still the illusion of prosperity if not the reality to go with it. People get used to a way of life and most of them don’t … or won’t … learn to live any other way; it’s threatening to them.”
I shook my head. “Threatening is worrying if there’s going to be a flyover and bomb drop. Threatening is living with the possibility of terrorist attacks at any time. Threatening is worrying if the water is going to keep flowing from the taps and the delivery trucks are going to keep bringing food in from the country so the less than desirable populations don’t come unglued and start burning and pillaging.”
“I agree. I don’t think I would deal with being forced to raise Kerry in that kind of environment very well though some seem to handle it just fine. I had one woman, believe it or not, that was worried about all the rabid bears we had out in the country.”
“Rabid … rabid bears?!” I laughed. “I mean, not that I’d ever want to meet one for goodness sake but what does she think, they hide under all the toadstools waiting for a city girl to come tra-la-laing along so they can eat her?”
He chuckled, “I have no idea. I wound up taking that one back to the train depot the same day she came when she found out we had spiders down in the basement.”
“You have had some bad luck I reckon,” I said shaking my head. “Why did you keep looking for a city girl if they all turned out to be like that?”
He shrugged, “I don’t know. Aunt Adona kept asking me the same thing. I just couldn’t see myself with any of the women from around here.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t laughing any more.
“Now don’t take that wrong.” I wasn’t taking it wrong but I was back to thinking about what I’d been thinking about in Joe’s.
“I guess … I mean I guess someone with your experience and all … there’s not much to talk about to … uh … a girl from the country.”
He opened his mouth to deny it then he closed it and said, “I’ll admit I used to think that way. But I don’t any more. Riss, look at me.”
“I am listening to you.”
“I didn’t say listen to me I said look at me,” he demanded.
To appease him I looked up at him from the side and he said, “We’ll have enough to talk about that you’ll get tired of hearing my voice.”
I sighed, not willing to lie. “What do we have? Kerry? I already love that little rascal but one of these days he’s gonna grow up and leave your nest. The house? You can’t tell me that what scrubbing, cooking, or washing I do in a day is going to be all that stimulating a conversation for you.”
“Seriously Dino, that’s all I know. I never got an opportunity for anything other than a basic government education. I was smart enough before we moved to the farm to be in all advanced classes in my virtual school but when I got to the farm there was just no … no scope for me to do anything more. You know the kind of books my grandparents had besides the Bible? Field & Stream magazine, Tractor manuals, the Farmer’s Almanac, and old Daily Bread devotionals.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” he told me.
“I know there’s not, I surely didn’t mind it after I got used to it. I didn’t exactly have a lot of free time to read anyway. But don’t you think, with all your life experience, you need someone that is going to be able to talk to you about … about stuff?”
He was quiet. “We can work it out Riss.”
“We can’t change who and what I am. This dat blamed war has already lost me so many people, things, and opportunities that I can never get back even if it was to end tomorrow. Is that really the kind of baggage you want to drag around for the rest of your life?!”
All of a sudden Dino stopped the horses and turned to me, “There is nothing … nothing … wrong with who you are Damaris. I am not Sol. I don’t know why he did what he did but I never was one of those guys that needed to go looking for a new flavor ever couple of weeks. I’m just fine if we don’t light sparks off each other every minute of every day. I had that with Tammy and I can tell you I got tired of being burned every time I turned around. I want someone stable; someone I can depend on, someone that understands what has to be done to make things last and how to make do when something doesn’t.”
He was breathing heavy and I was getting just a little scared … not of him but of me, of my feelings. He must have seen it in my face because I watched him fight for calm. “Riss, I promised I wouldn’t push but with Harry gone from the house you are going to have to help me here. You talk like you’re thinking about our proposition being made permanent then when I answer your concerns you get scared.”
I told him quietly, “It’s not you I’m scared of.”
“Then who … oh.” He stopped and took my hand which didn’t stop my shaking any at all. “Damaris, I can help you there a little.”
“How?” I asked finally looking him square in the face.
“We go slow. As slow as it takes.”
I swallowed and you could hear the tick in my throat. “You … you promise? I mean I know you said it before but I’m not sure I knew what it would mean back then. I … I don’t guess I can exactly say I don’t know what happens but … “
“I promise … as slow as it takes.”
I took a deep breath and blew it out slow. “I’m gonna believe you Dino Pappas. Just for the love of all … if you ever think that you’ve changed your mind, you let me know before you go and do something about it. Please?”
He shook his head. “I’m not going to change my mind Damaris Keehn,” he said teasing me a bit to try and lighten the mood. “And I promise we’ll move as slow as it takes. But come the end of the grape harvest I’m gonna ask you if you are any closer to finalizing your decision and I would like an answer then.”
Still unsure but trying to tease him back a bit I said, “That sounds like a threat almost.”
“Nope,” he denied. “It’s a promise.”