I sent Harry out packed with enough snacks and sandwiches to last him until he got where he was going and Dino sent him out with the assurances that he had a place to come back to if he needed it and that his personal things would be looked after. I thought that was just about the sweetest thing but imagining the reaction if I was to tell either man that I kept the words between my teeth.
The next day - that would be this morning - we drove him at first light to the drop off point on the other side of town. I am not ashamed to say I just about cried a bucket full when that darned ol’ bus pulled away with all them young men crammed in there like sardines. It was like our district was losing a whole grade of boys at the same time … but it wasn’t no football game they were going to see.
We weren’t the only ones there and I was getting more than a little upset after the bus drove out of sight and people turned their eyes on me. Dino sensed it and got us out of there and when I started paying attention again we were driving into town. We parked in a field they’d set up for people that used buggies and wagons rather than cars and trucks – my uncle used to laugh and say it looked like the town was being taken over by a bunch of poor relations to the Clampetts – and while I was willing to wait in the wagon Dino was unwilling to let me.
“Come on, I need to do some shopping and place a couple of orders. It’s too hot for you to wait that long and I’m not leaving a lone female sitting out in the open either. All sorts of yahoos have been hanging around town the last few months.”
Knowing that there would likely be a lot of people at the bus stop I had, at least according to Kerry, decided to dress like a girl for a change. The dress was worn and originally belonged to one of my aunts but it fit half-way decent though it ran a little tight in the places and it was bound to get tighter over the coming months. Instead of my work boots I wore a pair of my mother’s old slip on flats with a buckle on the side. The bottom of those shoes have been repaired more than once over the years since they are my primary church shoes but the upper part is still nice as I keep them polished with olive oil mixed with a little lemon juice. My hair was another matter; it was too hot to leave down at all so I just braided it and wrapped it around my head like normal. And likewise the only jewelry I wore were the silver ear studs that I always wear to keep my pierced ear holes from closing up and my grandmother’s wind up clock broach pinned inside my front pocket. As soon as my feet touched the ground I could feel the heat through the bottom of the shoes and knew it was just about time to put another piece of leather over the thin soles.
I looked over to see Kerry wilting a little bit and dampened my handkerchief with some water from the canteen in the wagon and washed his face and neck. “Better?” I asked him and he nodded but didn’t look any happier.
“What’s wrong Honey?” He just shrugged so I looked up at Dino who was paying the attendant to mind the cattle.
He came over and picked Kerry up as we crossed the street into down and then as he put him down once we hit sidewalk he told me quietly over top of the boy’s head, “Tammy used to bring Kerry with her when she came to town to … to find some entertainment. She used to threaten to leave him at the Depot so someone else would take him away so he would stop getting in her way.”
Now I know I promised not to speak ill of Tammy in case at some point the woman manages to get her head out of her you-know-what and want to have some kind of relationship with her boy but I swear the more I hear about her the less I want to ever have to have any dealings with her. I had an aunt that used to swear up and down that people should have to pass a class and get a license to have kids and for some folks that might not be too bad an idea. Even as little as I know about being a parent, I still know you aren’t supposed to say those kind of things to little children, not even in joking.
I didn’t know whether to say anything to the boy or not – I don’t want to reinforce something that is nothing but a half remembered fear – but I did make sure to hold his hand and when it got sweaty I told him he could just hold my shirt if he preferred. I suppose I could have brought a pocket book for him to hang on but I hadn’t thought we were going to town.
As for me, I don’t know how I got wrangled into it but somehow or other I wound up having to give my opinion on the purchasing and ordering that Dino did. And since most things had to be ordered out from the city he had me add anything that was needed around the house. There were only a few things that immediately came to mind – bleach, washing soda, rubbing alcohol, and glycerin – but I really hadn’t had a chance to go over all the supplies.
“Well, start a list,” Dino said. “I’ll place the order next time I come to town. There won’t be much time for that sort of thing once the grapes start coming in.”
These days you have to plan ahead and I don’t just mean a day or two either. Most folks I know already have Christmas at least half way planned out well before fall term of school starts up, which around here is the end of September after the bulk of the harvesting is over with. Knowing this to be a fact I dithered around and then pulled Dino aside to beg a favor.
I took a deep breath because what I was about to do went against the grain but there was no getting around it. “Dino, I already explained I can pay my way but … but can … can you front me something on this order until we get back to your house? I didn’t bring anything with me and I’ve … well …” I looked down at my belly and finally just put it all on the table. “I need some material so that I can make me a few things that’ll … well … that’ll fit. I’m already busting out of everything and …”
I was just about ready to crawl in a hole but when I finally got the nerve to look up into Dino’s face the irritation I expected to see wasn’t there. And it wasn’t unholy glee at my predicament either. Nope, the man had a smile on his face that was full of understanding and kindness … though there was some devilment in there that he manfully seemed to hold back. He told me to order what I needed but when I just ordered a bolt of plain lightweight cotton fabric and a bolt of plain heavier weight cotton fabric and several spools of thread to match he gave me a sharp look.
“Surely that can’t be all you need. Even the Mennonites wear clothes with color to them.”
“I have dyes for colors and I’ve also got enough zippers and buttons to fill a flour sack. If you think your grandparents were pack rats you should have met mine, you haven’t seen what all is in them chests; and to add to that I have the dress form and my own measurements to make patterns from.” His mouth was starting to get that pinched up look it got when he thought someone was telling a story. “Dino, that look on your face best not be saying what I think it’s sayin’. I am not telling a story. I may not have grown up with the advantages you did but that doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of that fact or of being able to do for myself. I’ve made over my whole wardrobe from old clothes since I was eleven years old. It doesn’t bother me any and actually I feel proud that I’m not wasting money on things I don’t need to. So if you think …”
“Doggone you’ve got a fast, hot temper when you want to,” he mumbled. He sighed and shook his head. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings Riss, I just promised you and myself that I would take care of you and the baby and I don’t want you to go without when it isn’t a problem for me.”
I nearly kicked him. I hate being beholden and it had taken more courage than he knew for me to speak up in the first place. “Now you listen here …”
“No, you listen,” he said as he tugged a curl that had escaped my braid. “I’m not asking you to make a decision before you’re ready. But I’ve already explained that you need to stop worrying so much about what you’re costing me. If I couldn’t afford a wife I wouldn’t have gone looking for one.”
I could have whacked him in the head with Harry’s old stick ball stick; he said that last sentence just loud enough that four people in the store turned to look. I stepped closer to him and whispered hard, “Be that as it may the only way you’re going to keep being able to afford a wife is if the one you seem intent on having doesn’t spend you out of house and home. Now knock it off already, people are starin’.”
“Let ‘em stare,” he grouched but then he smiled like he’d somehow won an unexpected prize and I realized that somehow he’d taken what I had said as an encouragement. Well, it wasn’t meant to be exactly though I suppose it was an admission on my part.
As we made a couple of more stops I started worrying at Kerry’s unusual silence. Don’t mistake me, I was happy he was minding – there were enough gas vehicles on the road, stopping and passing through or speeding as the case went, that it made me nervous for him to get anywhere near the curb – but I didn’t like the reason behind it. I told Dino at the last stop that Kerry and I were just going to wait outside on a bench. We’d walked clear to the other end of town where the Seed and Feed stood on the corner and we were both hot and tired and the shop was crowded with cranky men that didn’t smell too good anyway.
After a moment I asked him, “You OK? You’re not saying much.”
He shrugged his thin shoulders. “You wanna talk about it?” I persisted.
He shrugged his shoulders again. His eyes were glued to his lap but then he looked up at me through his long dark eyelashes. “You gonna leave like Harry?”
“My goodness, what brought that thought up?”I asked startled.
“Harry and you comed to our house at the same time and now Harry is gone. And you cried and other girl stuff so much you had to blow your nose. Are you gonna go follow him?”
I shook my head. “Harry is turning eighteen Sugar. When boys turn eighteen they have to go give Uncle Sam some of their time before they can call their time their own.”
“But are you gonna go after him?”
“No Honey, I’m not.”
Unsatisfied with my simple no he said, “But you went after that other boy and you only came to live with me when he didn’t want you.”
Ouch. The honesty of little boys can be brutal. “Well, that’s true as far as it goes. But no one is making me live with you; your daddy and I came to an understanding between us. I’m staying to take care of you until my baby is born.”
In a really quiet voice he said, “I hope your baby never gets born.”
Well that jerked me back. “Excuse me?”
In an aggrieved voice he said, “You said you’re staying until your baby is born. If it stays living inside your belly and never gets borned then you won’t leave.”
I winced. This was turning harder and more complicated by the minute. “Now look here Kerry, I never said that I was for sure leaving after my baby is born. Your daddy and I have an agreement that we won’t push each other until we are sure exactly what we want to do. Sometimes grownups take a while to make up their minds about things, especially important things like where they’re gonna live and with who. Now the fact is I like you real fine and like taking care of you so stop worrying at it so much.”
“Don’t you like Daddy too?”
I sighed and tried to be as honest as I could with a four year old. “I’m finding I like your daddy real fine too but there’s more to it than that Squirt. It’s hard to explain but I just want to make sure the decisions your daddy and I make don’t hurt anyone, especially you.” That last part I punctuated with a tickle to his belly button. I don’t think it was the answer he wanted but he giggled and seemed to be at least some reassured.
I was still tickling him when I felt a hand fall on my shoulder. I looked up and felt all the color drain from my face. Dino had been standing there listening the whole time. His eyes were solemn but there was a smile on his lips too … lips I’d been noticing a mite more than I should have been under the circumstances. “There’s some women out on the back porch where the sun isn’t so bad. Why don’t I take Kerry and you go on back there?”
I know he was trying to be nice but why are men so oblivious about certain things? Did he completely miss how some of them women acted when we dropped by his cousin’s place? Did he expect that was gonna change in just a week or so worth of time?
I walked back to the patio area and just like I knew it would, the weather turned a might chilly. I wasn’t happy to find Cindy out there with her mother and younger sister either but I couldn’t turn tail and run. Ignoring them and walking over to the far corner which gave them plenty of space to ignore me conversation picked back up. All was fine until Cindy raised her voice a little louder than needed and said, “She has no shame. First she ruins the name of one good man and now she’s doing the same of another.”
The acid started roiling in my stomach. I kept trying to turn the other cheek but Cindy kept egging and egging and egging. It was getting hard to breathe around the size of my feelings when I heard a slam and dead silence. I jerked around to find Dino and a couple of other men standing there and to say that Dino looked like black thunder didn’t even come close. Poor Kerry’s eyes looked round and scared and few other men of my acquaintance looked like they were about to take flight too.
I walked over real fast and said, “Well, my goodness, wind must have caught that door. If you’re ready I …”
In a snarl he asked, “Have those witches been talking like that the whole time you’ve been out here?”
“Talking like what?” I said avoiding a truthful answer. “I’m afraid I wasn’t paying attention as I was just standing over there thinking about …”
I sighed. “Oh honestly Dino, what did you expect? I told you you won’t be able to stop people who are hell bent on talking. You know and I know that it isn’t what they are saying it is but …” I ended in a shrug. “If you’ve finished, let’s just get. Don’t let ‘em turn it into a scene. Cindy has already done everything she can besides dance nekked trying to get a rise out of me.”
That last sentence had the desired effect. He stopped breathing through his nose like a bull and turned around and looked at me. His mouth twitched like he was fighting a smile but then said so God and everyone could hear. “Praise the Lord we’ve been saved from that particular spectacle. I want to get something to eat while we’re here in town and don’t want to lose my appetite before hand.”
I heard a couple of gasps from the crowd of hens behind me and felt like my own jaw must have come unhinged at the suddenness of the return attack. He kept on, “And if anyone questions my honor or yours I’ll be happy to meet with them to explain their error.” He turned a mean eyed stare at a man standing there about as pale-faced as you can get and still be amongst the livin’. “Ain’t that right George?”
The man swallowed and it was loud in the silent space we were all standing in. Not liking the gleam that was returning to Dino’s eyes I got in behind him and started pushing him back into the shop and then through to the other outside. He let me because if he hadn’t I could have pushed all day and him not budged but I still let into him. “Dino Pappas! What got into you? You know who that man is?!”
He snorted, “Of course I do. He was that little tart’s father.”
“Yeah and you’d already insulted his daughter and then you go threatening to whoop him if he couldn’t draw them in line,” I whispered fiercely trying not to be overheard while I covered Kerry’s ears.
“You bet I did.”
“But why?! There’s no sense in causing trouble like that.”
“Because it wasn’t right what those wet hens were doing. I never would have let you go out there if …”
“One, you don’t let or prevent me from doing anything and we better get that straight right now. Just because you suggested me going out there doesn’t mean I didn’t have a choice of whether to do it or not. Two, we’ve already talked about the fact that people are going to talk. Picking fights over it isn’t going to change that. And three …” He tried to say something but I refused to let him and talked over the top of him. “And three, George Turner wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hades at lasting two seconds if you really went after him. You’d squash him like a bear after a berry.” After a look at him I said, “And you can unpuff that chest, that’s nothing to be proud of. You aren’t the bully type and you’d regret it as soon as you done it.”
He snorted finally coming down a bit from his angry. “Maybe, but I’d make sure and enjoy it for a few minutes.” Then he tried to wind back up again and said, “And you better not let anyone talk like that to you again.”
I shook my head and told him, “They weren’t talking to me. I told you Cindy was just trying to get a rise out of me and I was determined she wasn’t going to have it.”
“If they weren’t talking to you what would you call it?” he asked still wanting to be angry.
“They were talking around me. That’s all. I learned not to pay attention to them a couple of months back.” At his sharp look I just rolled my eyes. “You men think you are just so big and bad but the truth is that women can do a lot more damage with words than men can with fists. Now listen here, there’s some people I care what they think and some I don’t. Just so happens I care about what you think and your family too. I care about what Harry thinks. There’s some old friends of my grandparents that I care about and I would be hurt if the little boys turned on me I suppose. But just about everyone else can go to flinders for all I care. I might not have been able to say that too long ago but that is how I feel now. My real friends are still my real friends and those that have shown themselves to be otherwise … well I just don’t have the time or inclination anymore to worry about it.”
“That’s a deep subject,” I smart mouthed at him and gave him a little punch to make him notice, both of which made Kerry giggle.
He snorted like he wanted to continue on with our conversation but caught sight of people standing around the front of the stores trying to act like they weren’t eavesdropping. He said loud enough to oblige them, “Be that as it may, people that want to be my real friends better watch their mouths. There’s plenty enough hurting around here that if Alec and I decided to put our money into the economy of the next town instead of here it would be noticed real quick. We picked Newton because our grandparents have always done business here but Cherry Gap is the same distance away and has the same offerings and might prove to be a little friendlier.”
With that it was him that was pushing me along only I wasn’t big enough to stop him.