Harry found us there on the porch about the same time Kerry tore up the steps and went to grab at the food. I hauled him back by his collar before he actually made it. “Whoa boy! Seeing your daddy’s house I know you weren’t raised in a barn. Go wash up and your daddy will fill your plate for you. No one wants to eat the dirt off your fingers in their food.”
A deep sigh was followed by obedience but only after his father gave him a look that would have scorched paint. I was wiping the serving utensils before setting them on the table when Harry looked at Mr. Pappas and said, “Told you.”
I looked at Harry and asked suspiciously, “Told him what?”
“That you’d be able to handle Kerry. There wasn’t a little boy at school that wouldn’t have walked on hot coals for you, and not a few old men around town that don’t feel the same way.”
If we hadn’t been in someone else’s house I would have given serious consideration to thumping Harry right proper and he knew it ‘cause he only grinned like a Cheshire cat and took a safe step backwards. Mr. Pappas read the look and smiled.
“Harry my man, you keep that up and you are not long for this world.”
“Maybe, but I’ll die happy.” I groaned and rolled my eyes at his tomfoolery then told him to hush and get a plate filled before everything congealed.
Kerry’s plate was filled and waiting for him when he got back then we all sat and said a quick grace before they started to feed their faces. I was gratified that no one seemed to be objecting to what they’d been served; they looked like they were actually enjoying it, even Kerry which should have tickled me but didn’t. I pushed the food around on my plate trying to convince myself to fork some in. The problem was I’d lost my appetite somewhere along the way but tried not to let it show.
“My cousin’s wife Cheryl swears by wild ginger tea.” Mr. Pappas’s comment brought me back from my thoughts. He realized I was trying to catch back up and explained, “For the … er … stomach issues.”
“Oh … that … no, I’m fine. The … the last few days … I’m sorry …” It all just sorta hit me hard and I got up quick from the table and walked away. I don’t make of habit of crying and even when I do I don’t like doing it in front of other people. I knew most of it was just being pregnant and hormonal but not all of it, not all of it by a long shot.
I tried to keep it in while I looked for a hole to crawl into. I didn’t know where I could go for privacy. Nothing around me was familiar and it just reinforced how much my life was changing and how much it was bound to continue changing. Suddenly I was scared to death all over again and there wasn’t a dang thing I could do about it … but apparently someone thought alone was the last thing I should be.
“You shouldn’t go without eating. It’s not good for you or the baby.”
I jumped at his voice and sniffed back my tears as quick as I could. Trying to make it plain that I wanted to be alone I told him, “Eating isn’t normally a problem for me. You’re the one that’s been working. You better go eat before it’s rurnt.”
“It’ll keep. Come here and sit down,” he said pointing to a bench I hadn’t noticed before.
I sighed and sat. For all the kindness he’d shown me off and on that day I got the impression he was a man who was used to having his way. “I had thought to wait on this but it seems that maybe it would be better just to have it done and over with. I feel like if I don’t say this now I’ll lose my chance to say it at all.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect but it sure wasn’t what came out of his mouth. “Riss … I can call you that? OK … and you call me Dino from now on. You callin me Mr. like you would my grandfather do is making me irritable. You’re age already makes me uncomfortable enough as it is. Besides you and Harry don’t act like you’re barely legal. If I didn’t know better I’d add several years to your age.”
“Harry’s not … legal I mean … but will be in two weeks. I beat him by a couple of months.”
“Oh yeah, that makes me feel soooo much better,” he said sarcastically.
I shrugged not knowing what to say to that. He sighed again before continuing. “OK, here’s the thing. I should probably have my head examined but the truth is the more I see of you the more I want you to say yes.” I gave him a surprised look and then hunched my shoulders feeling trapped. “Wait now, I said I want you to say yes that doesn’t mean I won’t stand back and abide by it if you say no.”
For some reason I believed him. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he said though he didn’t seem to enjoy saying it. “When I was your age I would have laughed my head off if someone had attempted to foretell my future as it’s turned out to be. All I wanted was to go to college, get married to my sweetheart, and be an officer in the Marines like my father had before me.” He was quiet for a moment. “I got half way to my goal and every dream I’d ever had died a painful death. War changes things … not just landscapes but people. Tammy was the sweetest girl when we first got married but I discovered she had a streak of weakness in her that nothing I did could change. I was half way around the world fighting a war that I didn’t understand and wasn’t sure I believed in while the people I was fighting for at home were dying from nerve gas delivered in a terrorist attack. The only reason Tammy didn’t die was because she was gone for the weekend with the first of her many “admirers” she seemed to encourage. The only reason I’m in the shape I’m in instead of dead on some battlefield is because I was used as a guinea pig by some experimental medical response team.”
He turned to look at me and said, “I don’t need to tell you that bad things happen and you survive them, sometimes even when don’t expect to. The difference is whether you’re surviving them to wait on the next bad thing to happen and take you out or whether you’re surviving them and trying to go on living despite that there might be another bad thing going to happen. After Tammy left I forgot that for a while. If you think Kerry is ornery you should have seen me.”
I admitted quietly, “I did remember?”
He nodded a little and said ruefully, “Yeah I guess you did. Don’t hold it against me.” Then he shook himself before saying, “I’ve got a handle on it now but I’ll admit I still have my off days. And I’ve got days my leg hurts and I can be a real bear. But I don’t hit … I never even hit Tammy though she tried to provoke me any number of times.”
Surprised I told him, “I wasn’t worried about that. I figured if you were a hitter somebody would have spilled the beans by now. It’s not like we’ve got a ton of people living in the district, but the ones we do have love to talk.”
He nodded. “Well I’m glad that wasn’t a concern for you. I’ve had enough women ask me though that I figure it would be better to make sure. But something else might be worrying you and we need privacy to talk about it. I gather from what you said – whether you meant to give it away or not – that you don’t … you and Sol …” He blew air out of his mouth trying to figure out how to say it.
I said it for him instead. “No, I don’t have a lotta experience.”
“Ok … yeah … that’s what I meant. See, I don’t want you to worry about that. I mean eventually yes, but not worry about it even when … I mean it’s not something we have to jump right into … I mean if … it happens.” He stopped and ran his hands through his hair. “You know this was a whole lot easier when I was having this conversation in my head.”
I’ll admit that the thought of that particular issue did cross my mind more than once. I didn’t know this man. And maybe back in history or in some other cultures arranged marriages between complete strangers is normal but even in the messed up world I live in, it isn’t the way things usually happen.
He smiled and said, “You’re as red as a beet.”
Feeling more than a little on edge I said, “Better than not having any shame at all. I feel like … I feel like … like I’m … I’m trading my body for a roof over my head.” He smile went away as fast as it had appeared. “People might not think I have any morals because I forgot ‘em for a short time, but … but …”
“I’m not saying that and I don’t think it; and I won’t let anyone else say it either.” He said it like a promise.
I shook my head. “Even if you do mean it, you won’t be able to stop them. You ought to know how people are ‘cause of your wife.”
“Ex, not ex … does it matter? People talk. They always have and always will. Even my friends looked at me like … like …”
Gently he told me, “Yeah. I do understand. I got that too. Like I should have been able to find some way to fix it … or that Tammy was the way she was because of something I did to her. But you can’t let people run your life because most of them would like nothing better than to run it into the ground rather than take care of their own business.”
Frustrated I said, “I know that. I was eleven when I moved to the farm. People thought I was odd and different even back then and I’ve never been able to be anything but that way … never wanted to be anything else for the most part. But this … what we’re talking about … that seems so different I don’t even know if I can abide it.” Hunching over I tried to explain better. “You’re nice … much nicer than I expected.”
“No but … it just is. And that’s what’s so hard. I didn’t expect to like you. And you’re offering me things that I never in a million years expected to have. Not even with Sol.”
Cautiously he said, “I’m … not sure I understand.”
“Look around … this house, this farm, being my own woman and not at the beck and call of others, maybe even … I don’t know … friendship or whatever you seem to be talking about between us.”
“And … uh … Sol wasn’t … ?” I could tell he still wasn’t understanding.
I sighed. “We … look, we were just gonna get married. Right or wrong, we were just a couple of kids who got caught doing what millions have probably done before us and not got caught doing. Getting married is what everyone told us was the right thing to do. And I thought I knew what getting married meant, but then I found out I didn’t, not really. I know what that means better now that I’m not getting married to Sol than when I was. Isn’t that a kicker?” A little sob escaped no matter how I tried to strangle it down. “It was all so simple in the beginning, now it’s a nightmare. We weren’t going to have our own place, it didn’t seem like it mattered. Sol seemed to be content to come back to live with his parents and help Mr. Bly work the government contract on the farm. He never said he wanted anything different from that. I was just happy not to have to change and leave the only home that I’d known for so long. The farm wasn’t mine, it wasn’t even theirs … it was like a life estate sort of thing from the government to Mr. Bly; when he died the farm reverted to the government and there was nothing to inherit. That’s why we had to pack up and move the way we did. The people that got the contract after Mr. Bly showed up the day before we left and … and they aren’t pleasant people. They made a real fuss about us not leaving everything in the house for them to simply assume and take over. I can’t even guarantee that my things are still there in the barn.”
I shook my head at just how big a fool I’d been. “I don’t even know if they’ve left my camper alone for me to move someplace. I just don’t know what I’m going to do and it’s like you’re holding out some pretty picture that can be all mine so long as I’m willing to give up what little bit of self respect I have left.”
He was quiet then sighed. “Unfortunately I can see your side. But for the life of me I can’t be sorry that Sol lost his chance. He has … lost his chance?”
“Haven’t I said that already a time or two?” I asked irritably.
“In my experience young girls …”
I snapped, “And what the heck do you know about young girls?”
He drew back a little at my harsh tone but answered me anyway. “They seem to get stuck on stupid, preferring moonlight, roses, and romance to food on the table, a roof over their heads, and a man that would lay down his life trying to keep the wolves from the door. They want Romeo with his pretty words. They want to be Juliet, the object of desire that the boy would risk everything for. Well if they’d stuck around for the end of the story they would have found out that they’re both dead by their own hand and I’ve had enough tragedy and drama to last me two or three lifetimes. All I’m looking for is some comfortable company with someone that can take care of my son if something should ever happen to me, someone that will help make a better life, not someone waiting around for me to hand one to them.”
I think I laughed but it wasn’t a nice sound. Ignoring his last couple of sentences I said, “Romance? Is that what all that was supposed to be? That one stupid mistake that has changed my life forever? Is that what romance is supposed to be?! All I thought about was the guy that I thought I loved was alive when he could have been so dead … and that I had helped to keep him alive so it had to mean something special. All I thought about were the sweet words that made me feel like no one had ever made me feel before. Only now I’ve found out those words weren’t worth what’s at the bottom of the hole in the outhouse and that I near about killed myself to keep him alive just so he could turn around and betray me by going off and marrying some rich city girl. If that’s romance I hope to God I never experience it again!”
I tried to get up but he put his arm out. “Running doesn’t help,” he said quietly. “Been there done that too many times. You’re only hurting yourself and giving them power they don’t deserve to have.” That stopped me and the rest of what he said led me to sit back down. “And I won’t deny it; it is gonna hurt for a while. But I tell you it’ll hurt longer the more you dig at it.”
He took my hand and it bothered me some but I let him. “I’m not asking you to pretend it didn’t happen. You’ve got a right to be angry and offended by the way you were treated. You’ve got a right to be outraged that the man who helped you into this situation isn’t man enough to hang around and help you deal with it.”
“Then what are you asking for?” I asked almost afraid to know.
“I’m asking you to make room for something else in your life besides the anger.” I didn’t know whether to take him seriously or if he was just seriously deranged. “I want that something to be me … and my son. I can’t even adequately explain the why of it to myself much less explain it to you but that’s the long and the short of it. You’re good with Kerry. You’re strong, a survivor. You don’t go around forever expecting things. You know how to make do without someone having to stand over the top of you and make sure you do it. You have what my father would have called a good seat.”
“Excuse me?” I asked with some outrage.
“Not that kind,” he laughed ruefully. “When someone has a good seat it means they know how to stay in the saddle properly; you flow with the horse and not counter to his rhythm.”
“What I want to know is the same as I asked you before? Are you serious about this or are you just stringing me along?”
I shook my head. “I already told you I’m serious or I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. I just feel …”
“Feel?” he asked when I sputtered off.
“That’s the problem, I don’t know what I feel and even if I did I’m afraid to trust my feelings because doing that is what got me into this mess in the first place.”
The he asked, “OK, how about a compromise?”
“A … a compromise?”
“Sure. I know what I want, but you don’t … at least right now. I’ve had my heart ripped out too, I know what it feels like. I also know what it feels like to have your back up against a wall. The fact is no matter what I want if you decide now, just because I’ve pushed you to make the decision, neither one of us will ever know for sure that it was the one you would have made if left alone to do it in your own time.”
It really upset me to hear him say those words and not be able to deny them. I knew that I could say yes and stick with it right then and there … but I would never know if I said it just because I was too used to life’s current taking me where it will or if it was because for once I took a direct hand in the direction I went even if it was against the current.
“Riss, how about this? We’ll go get your things tomorrow. We’ll pick up my cousin or maybe his son to help. They live the next farm over and I know they are between plantings. Harry can come too. We’ll leave Kerry with Cheryl so he won’t be underfoot. That should knock your first worry out of the way.”
“You don’t have to do that,” I said though I wanted it a lot worse than I should have.
“I want to. The sooner you can focus on figuring out what you want the sooner we both can figure out if what I want and what you want are running the same direction.” I’m not sure but my mouth must have fallen open ‘cause he put his finger under my chin and closed it before continuing. “You have my word that you have a place to stay until your baby comes but it won’t be in a camper out in the weather; there’s more than enough bedrooms for you to choose from including one right off the kitchen that you might like. It’s away from the other ones so you’ll have some privacy when you need it.”
“And what do you want in exchange?” I asked, unsure I was able to tell truth from fairy diddle at this point.
“Help with Kerry. You see how the boy is. Cheryl use to keep him but her daughter in law had a sickly baby and it is all she can do to keep up with her own responsibilities these days. I’ve been piecing him out to some of the wives of the field hands when I couldn’t take him myself but they kiss his little butt because they’re afraid if they don’t their husbands will lose their income.” I nodded my understanding and he added, “And I need help with the house and home gardens. It’s all getting away from me. Up until last year my grandmother helped but after she passed … I don’t even know what all is left in the pantry. One of the women I had to the house to see if we would suit handed me this long list …” He grimaced. “It would take all the profit from three harvests just o get what she considered the basic necessities.” He looked at me and said, “I’m not saying that I can’t afford to fix some of those holes but …”
He huffed, “Somehow I think you do which is just one of the things that makes you different from all the others.”
I nodded and said, “I told you all you needed was a housekeeper and auntie for your son.”
“Maybe, but … well … I’m finding that isn’t all that I want.” And didn’t that unsettle me. “Riss, by staying here you’ll get a feel for the place and get to know Kerry … and me. I’ll … get to know you. That’s all we’ll do, get to know each other. You think you can ‘abide’ that?”
I nearly pinched him for using my own words but I have to admit that talking to him and finding out he was willing to back off and let me breathe eased my mind a lot.
“There’s just one thing,” he added seriously.
I sighed thinking it had been too good to be true. “I wondered if there was another shoe in this.”
I just shook my head at his questioning look and he continued. “I don’t want to have to fight every guy who thinks he has a chance.”
He sighed. “I want people to know that we’re … we’re … er … testing the waters so to speak. And I want your word that you’ll … respect our bargain and not go looking for something with anyone else until after we’ve settled things between us one way or the other.”
I could have just spit right there but then I remembered how his wife had done him. I tried not to sound put out when I said, “I asked Kerry not to measure me by the things his momma done. I’d appreciate the same courtesy from you.” He blanched a little at my words but I wasn’t through. “You claim to understand how I feel, being used and left and all. Then understand this, I really don’t have any desire to go looking for whatever it is you think I’m gonna go looking for.”
“All right,” he agreed after thinking it over. “I’ll abide by that if you extend me the same courtesy and not measure me by what Sol did to you. Not all men are so weak.”
When I held out my hand to seal the bargain he shook his head and kind of chuckled but he still shook my hand on it. Maybe I shoulda gotten the agreement in writing but he didn’t ask for my John Hancock so I won’t ask it of him. I don’t know why but something is telling me his word is good.