Saturday, March 17, 2012

The New Geek Empire: Part Eight

“Lydie? Got a sec?” Jax asked rather tentatively.

I wiped the sweat off my face with a bandana and said, “Sure. Just let me push this wheelbarrow to the compost pile.”

“I’ll do that.”

“Naw, it’s full of rabbit poop and you’ve got Kelly.”

He sighed. “Let me do something Lydie. It’s almost been a week and I’m going crazy.”

I started to panic. I’d sensed he’d been dissatisfied with things. I’d asked what his favorite foods were. I’d showed him how to hook up the TV and game consoles. I’d shown him the computer … no internet access but there were sim games and stuff like that he could play and Dad had a gazillion files saved to disc. He still just didn’t seem happy. “I’ll show you Dad’s movie collection. There are all sorts in there … no chick fliks though, for that you’ll have to get into my mother’s movies.” I was trying to make a funny but he wasn’t laughing.

He snorted instead. “Lydie, stop. I don’t mean I’m bored, at least not the way you’re taking it. I just mean I don’t like sitting around on vacation while I watch you do all of this work. It makes me feel crummy … like a lazy bum or something.”

I stopped and set the wheelbarrow down. “Oh … But you have Kelly to take care of.”

He nodded. “I know but I can do other stuff too. I’ve been thinking about it.”

Sighing I said, “This isn’t working for you is it? You’re thinking about leaving.”

He bumped me just enough to move me from the wheelbarrow and then put on a pair of work gloves that had materialized out of his back pocket. Grabbing the wheelbarrow handles he said, “See? I can have Kelly in the backpack and do other stuff at the same time. We’re used to working this way aren’t we Bumble Bee?”

Kelly giggled and kicked her heels into Jax’s sides and said, “Getty-yup horsie!”

It was hard not to smile so I didn’t bother trying. Kelly was a cute kid and said funny things all the time. It was like living down the hall from a miniature clown. Jax pushed the wheelbarrow but when we got to the compost pile he did let me fork the mess out since I already had the manure shovel in my hands. While I scooped the poop Jax said, “I’m not talking about leaving so stop freaking out about that. I just want to be part of things. I don’t like feeling useless.”

“I’m not freaking out,” I denied but when I looked at him and put myself in his place it actually clicked. “I … uh … I just wanted you to know I wasn’t just after extra muscle.”

He smiled slightly and told me, “Yeah, I figured that out. But I’m a guy Lydie … not a kid. I need to be part of what is going on … allowed to swim in the deep end without floaties on. I don’t want to just wade around in the shallow end of things.”

I gave him an apologetic glance. “I guess I’m not used to that. Dad was like that sure … but he was just Dad. Everyone said he was different. I guess I just figured … I don’t know …” Unable to come up with a good excuse or explanation I shrugged.

“What about Will?” he asked as he took the wheelbarrow once again, this time to roll it back to the tool shed.

“Will had the desire but he was sick so much. Even when the doctors suspected he was going into remission he was still recovering his strength and health and had to be careful not to overdo it. That’s why my parents decided to homeschool him that last year. His immune system was shot after the bone marrow transplant. Dad wanted to homeschool me too but I was already dual enrolled at the College so it wouldn’t have helped anything really.”

“You were the marrow donor weren’t you?”

“Yeah. It wasn’t that big of a deal for me but it could have killed Will and nearly did in the beginning. As bad as the donor thing was – and it wasn’t really all that bad – it was a lot worse for my parents. It killed them to leave Will in the hospital as much as he was there for a while. That’s why I did so much around the house; so my mom could stay with Will as much as possible.”

He nodded. Our story was commonly known and I supposed he knew a lot of it from work for Dad out at the mill. I closed and locked the shed and he asked, “Can you sit down for a while?”

Instead I asked him, “Want to help me get the tomatoes put on the drying screens? We can talk and work at the same time right?”

He nodded, understanding I was trying to include him but really needed to get work done too. We went over to the screened in patio area that Dad had built for Mom to use as her outdoor kitchen. The “counter” space was made from old granite pieces that he’d scavenged from houses that were being remodeled.

Jax asked, “Did your Dad build this?”

I nodded. “Dad and I did together … about … yeah … about seven years ago. It was the year I turned ten. Remember when the mill owners bought that crummy apartment complex and then converted it to condos? Dad got permission to dumpster dive and brought back a lot of stuff. They let him do it for free because he gave them the idea of recycling and selling a lot of the copper wiring and piping that was being torn out and upgraded. Dad said as much as they replaced, they probably recouped the cost of one of the rehabs at least.”

“Cool,” he said, wandering around inside looking at things while I got the tomatoes prepped.

“I know the counters are all mix-n-match but Mom liked it. Dad had wanted to make them stainless steel but he lost the bids he kept putting in at auctions then when the granite didn’t really cost anything except paying someone to help him uninstall them, load, and then reinstall them here it was like a no brainer. The roof is new though … only about two years old anyway. Dad and I did it, the sheds, and the barns the same summer we did the roof on the house. One of Dad’s whacky auction bids finally came in and it was for the contents of an old manufacturing building. Turns out it was used as a storage location for this roofing contractor that went belly up. That’s why all the roofs are that strange green instead of regular roof colored.”

He smiled and said, “Hey, it doesn’t look bad. What’s ‘regular roof color’ anyway? So it isn’t shingles but who cares? A lot of those expensive places along River Road were starting to replace their old shingles with the metal panels.” He looked at all the tomatoes and said, “So tell me what to do.”

I shook my head. “I’m not gonna tell you, I’ll show you. What we’re doing here is making dried tomatoes. First we need to cut all these tomatoes in half, cut out the stem part and any bad spots, then we’re going to put them on these trays and put them into the dryer.”

“That metal drum thing?” he asked pointing to the fifty-five gallon drum that lay on its side.

“Yeah, it’s a wood-fired dehydrator. Dad made it when the solar ones either wouldn’t work because of the weather or they didn’t work fast enough for the amount of produce Mom was processing. He got it out of a Backwoods Home magazine (http://www.backwoodshome.com/articles/hooker41.html ) and it is a lot more reliable than a solar dehydrator and is meant for large quantities. Not even my mother’s electric Excalibur can keep up with this baby once it gets going.”

I handed him a sharp ceramic cutting knife. “Don’t drop it; you can’t sharpen those once they are chipped or cracked.”

He looked at it then started slicing tomatoes. “Then why use it? Why not use a good ol’ metal knife?”

“Mom always said that ceramic knives didn’t make the food brown around the cuts and it bruised them less so that they’re prettier. Mom liked pretty stuff … including the food she prepared.”

He laughed, “Your Dad used to get kidded a lot about it at work, especially when she would cut his food into shapes … like those curly carrots.”

I smiled glad that someone besides me remembered that sort of stuff. “Hey! I happen to like curly carrots.”

Kelly asked, “Tarrots? Can I has some tarrots?”

Jax groaned, that kid could graze all day long just like a goat if you let her. Instead I told her, “I’ll make some curly carrots for tomorrow’s dinner. For now just drink your sippy. If you are a good girl you can help feed King Kong in the morning.”

Easily pleased, that made her happy and she babbled away about “babbits and chickies” just long enough to go to sleep as Jax and I cut all the tomatoes. I showed him, “I cut an X all across the top of the tomato halves – these are plum tomatoes by the way – so that they don’t curl so much as they dry. Then once we get them on the trays I’ll sprinkle them with a little salt and some Italian seasoning, pop them in and let them go; I’ve already got the dryer warmed up.”

“I can feel it,” he said wiping his upper lip with his shirt sleeve. Then he seemed to sigh in contentment. “See, now this is what I’m talking about. We’re working together instead of me sitting on the porch like a lazy hound.”

“Jax I never thought of you like that,” I told him. “I just figured you would need some time to settle in and get used to things. You’re a townie after all.”

He grunted. “Only half townie. Every summer and most of my spring breaks I went to live on my Granny’s farm. Did that right up until the family put her in that nursing home; she got MRSA and died a couple of months later. That was the winter before I started going with Darlene and you know the rest of it from there. None of this is new to me except for your dad’s gadgets and gizmos.”

Thinking back I realized I did remember that he was usually gone all summer long. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Seriously though, I never meant to make you feel bad.”

“I know and I hope you’ll understand that what I want to talk about isn’t meant to make you feel bad either.”

Cautiously I said, “Ooo … kay. But you don’t expect me to like it.”

“Maybe, maybe not; I’m not sure. Some of it might sound like criticism but I don’t mean it to be. And part of it is just going to make more work which I think needs to be but which probably isn’t going to sound very fair to you.”

When he stopped talking and just looked at me I finally said, “Well say it already will you. The suspense is killing me.”

He snorted but did finally get down to it. “I’ve had plenty of time to look around and have the surprise wear off. I’m sure there are things I don’t know about and that’s fine but I mean the major stuff. But as pretty and as shiny … and useful … as it all is, I think there are some things that can be improved on.”

“What … what things exactly?” I was trying to keep an open mind but I felt defensive at the same time.

“You admitted you haven’t done any scavenging.”

I shook my head. “No. To be honest it just never … I guess it never really occurred to me. It seems wrong somehow. I felt guilty just taking things from the fruit trees and gardens without permission; like it was stealing.”

“Well, if you were able to go that far then you need to go a little further. We need to go back to the mill. There is still a lot of stuff there that could come in handy. And I’d like to have a look at those houses and those trailers you mentioned.”

Trying to play along I said, “Let’s start with the mill. Just explain the why of it to me.”

“First off, that battery in the shed you asked me to look at is bad … I put the meter on it … and you’ve got a couple of others out there that don’t look like they are charging and discharging properly. Spares need to be found pretty quick. Best place to do that is going to be the mill. We can take the ones off of the company equipment and off the few vehicles that are still in the parking lots.” At my nod of understanding he continued. “I also looked at the schematics in your dad’s shop. I can hook up the water wheel but we need a different kind of wire than what you thought … it needs to be a heavier gauge. They’ve got huge spools of the right type at the mill. Now here is the big deal. I also found in your dad’s notes how he was thinking about using tall oil to make biofuel with.” (http://www.motherearthnews.com/Renew...Biodiesel.aspx )

Trying to keep up I said, “Tall oil is that stuff they collect out at the plant when they use pulp from pine trees.”

“Exactly. They’ve got huge storage tanks of the stuff. I’m pretty sure I understand the process because they were thinking about making a small biofuel production plant right at the mill to cut down on regular fuel costs within the mill itself. I heard that was another suggestion your dad made by the way, they just never got around to the start up. Your dad’s set up here is sweet but still lo-tech enough that I don’t think I’ll kill it by experimenting but I swear I’ll be careful. We’ll have to figure out storage and all of that …”

“We have underground tanks for the biofuel because it gels at a higher temperature than regular fuel. But here’s another think to think. I use biofuel to heat with during those times a fireplace or wood stove isn’t enough. That usually means most of the winter nights for the furred and feathered out in the animal barn. That reason alone is why I’ve kept things up and running as much as possible. But the chemicals won’t last forever. I ordered more right before things fell apart but only half the order came in.”

“Not a problem. Your dad got most of the chemicals at the mill and I know where those are stored so that’s another thing that should be on our list. The problem is going to be transporting this stuff so that no one notices.”

“That’s not the biggest problem,” I told him. “We can move it at night if we have to. It is getting it down the last bit of road.”

“I’ve already thought of that and think I’ve figured a way around that. First we have to set up a storage container. Then if I bring the small tanker trailer we used to empty the vats with when the pipes clogged or for inspection, we can park that off the road, camouflage it, transfer it a little at a time … it won’t be easy but it is doable and the payoff makes it worth all of the effort.”

I thought about it for a moment and then said, “Alright. I’ll even give when it comes to taking things from the mill since you know for a fact that the owners and their families are gone … I mean dead. But … do you really want to go pawing through people’s houses? What do you need that we don’t have right here already?”

In less than half a second he said, “Clothes for Kelly for one. I hadn’t thought of that until a couple of days before you showed up in town. She’s already grown out of everything I bought for her before things fell apart and she can’t wear just socks once the weather turns.”

A little hesitant to offer I said, “There’s things up in the attic. They … uh … they used to be mine. Mom sewed all of my clothes and they never wore out before I went to the next size. Most of them are denim and cotton jumpers and things like that. I know my old winter coats and boots are still up there. Mom was a labeling fanatic … well you saw what it is like up there. And … um … oh geez.”

“What?” he asked as I sputtered to a standstill.

“Look, I know it isn’t cool but I can sew and quilt and all of that. Mom was on fire about me keeping up with the skills she taught me. It was just easier to give in and sew my own clothes than it was to listen to her lecture about economics and poor quality if I bought something at the store; she’d go over it and point out every little flaw and tell me how much time and money I wasted having to make repairs or alterations.”

He stopped putting tomatoes on the screens and really looked at what I was wearing. “You sewed that?” he asked referring to the shirt and capris that I was wearing.

Nonchalantly I said, “Yeah. What of it?”

Before I knew what he was doing he had stepped over and pulled the collar of my shirt back and said, “There’s no tag.”

I jerked away from him, “No kidding. My mom had these ‘made by’ tags she sewed into her stuff but I never bothered.”

He was still standing too close and when he started looking at my capris a little too close and then reached out a curious finger to touch the flat felled seam that ran along the outside leg seams I popped his hand and asked, “What are you doing?!”

“Huh? I was looo … oh … uh … oh boy.” He stepped back and looked a little bashful but not especially embarrassed. “I really was just … looking. I remember my grandmother making my Easter clothes when I was little and the spare bedroom had boxes of unfinished projects she kept meaning to work on but … I don’t know … I just thought it was …” He cleared his throat and said, “Anyway, next time I’ll warn you when I mean to touch.”

“When you mean to touch? Well, that’s some ego you got there Ajax Remington. I mean really.”

He wasn’t sure how to react at first but then he grinned and stepped back and started putting tomatoes on the screens again. “Did you think I was kidding when I said I would probably think about it?”

I’d never dealt with anything like Jax, at least not in real life and that was a whole lot different than dealing with the make believe gamer world. “Well … I guess now I know for sure don’t I.”

He got quiet when he saw how uncomfortable I was. “Ok, on to other topics. This looks like a lot of food.”

Well, I had to admit he was trying … in a weird guy kind of way. I smiled just a little and said, “I’m not totally against the idea Jax … just not used to you … anyone … being up in my personal space like that.”

“You sure that’s all?” he asked.

I looked at him and then had to smile a little bigger. He had a baby back pack on and his kid was in it dead to the world asleep. Her sippy cup had drenched his shoulder and he hadn’t even noticed. His hair was going every which direction where Kelly had been using it like horse reins. There was a smear of “pea-but” on his shirt where she’d wiped her mouth across his chest at lunch. And this was the guy that used to be too cool for words. “Yeah, I’m sure. Just … uh … just kinda figure into the equation I … I don’t know how I’m supposed to react to that stuff in the real world. Gamer land I would have shot you or thumped you with my sword or something … here … here I don’t know what to do. I really don’t want to thump you but, I don’t know how else I’m supposed to act without looking like a sleeze queen.”

He gave me a lopsided grin. “Just be yourself. And I’ll try to be less … uh … hands on … until you can figure out what that means.”

I looked away and made a face. “This is soooo strange.”

He admitted quietly, “Yeah, for me too. I tried to date a couple of times after Darlene but after a while it just wasn’t worth the challenge. And people kept watching me to see if I was going to ruin Kelly’s life or if I’d wind up like those crazy dads from hell you’d see on the news; shaken baby syndrome, leave the kid in the bathtub to drown in three inches of water, starve her to death or feed her until she weighed as much as a baby elephant. It got old real fast. The guys at the mill, they were about the only ones that didn’t treat me like I was brain damaged. A lot of them only got to see their kids every other weekend so understood where I was coming from. Geez, I sound pathetic.”

I shook my head. “No you don’t. I should have listened more when Dad talked about you to Mom. Sometimes it just felt like he was warning me about what could happen if I didn’t stay focused. But maybe that isn’t what he meant. Maybe he was trying to tell me that there were guys out there that were … were different from Matt.”

He laughed. “Your dad would have fed me to the pulping machine if I’d even thought about asking you out. And he’d been right. I didn’t have my head on straight back then and was barely keeping it together.”

“You don’t seem that way now,” I told him quietly.

He was going to say something cocky but then just gave me a quiet, “Thank you.”

Then I said, “So anyway … about the food. I know it looks like a lot but this is the beginning of September. Harvesting will be over by the end of next month and everything will have to last until next April and May when the next harvest of fresh stuff starts up again.”

Happy to change the subject Jax nodded. “For a while I bussed tables out at the truck stop diner while I was still in highschool; I know how fast food can go. It just seems like a lot for the three of us. My grandmother always had a big garden but she gave stuff to all the family and still had some left over.”

I told him, “We gave stuff to the food pantry and traded with the Mennonites. I’ve just kept gardening like Mom out of habit I guess. I know technically it’s too much but this way if the garden doesn’t make it for some reason, or there’s a hail storm, a drought, a swarm of locusts, or something like that we’ll still eat because we’ll have some left from previous seasons.”

He looked thoughtful. “OK. And on that note one of the things I was wondering about was if you still want to bring in other people.”

His question caught me off guard. I hadn’t thought about it at all since we left town. “Are you?” I asked.

“Technically this is your place and I can’t invite people here.”

“Don’t avoid the question.”

“You just did,” he pointed out.

I rolled my eyes refusing to admit it. Instead I told him, “I honestly haven’t really thought about it. It isn’t on my high-pri right now.”

He seemed to relax. “Ok. Could I ask you something else?”

“Stop asking like you’re some kind of supplicant. It makes me feel … I don’t … creeped out.”

He smiled. “Look … I’d just like to suggest that we focus on some other stuff first and let the idea of more people be put off for a while; at least until we see how the kids shake out in town. How do you feel about that?”

A little exasperated I asked him, “Why do you keep asking me how I feel about stuff? You sound like the school’s psyche counselor.”

It wasn’t the answer he was expecting and he closed his mouth and blinked a couple of times figuring out how to respond to the way I had phrased it. Finally he sighed and said, “One of the conditions my Uncle set for me renting the garage apartment was that I had to go to family counseling with them. You know they had started attending that new age-y church that went into that old car dealership’s building.” At my nod he said, “I guess more of it stuck on me than I expected. Matt’s mom was a bi … uh … bear about things being phrased just right.”

Trying not to show that I’d noticed what he had almost called his aunt I said, “OK, that’s cool. I was just wondering if you thought I was gonna have a melt-down if we don’t exactly think in lockstep. And can I ask you why you and Matt have different surnames if your fathers were brothers?”

He looked at me and then a grin of relief grew on his face. “Thanks for not saying anything about how I should have been grateful for the place my aunt and uncle gave me in their home. I was … am still ... just it wasn’t perfect for any of us. My dad and Matt’s dad are half brothers. My dad was older and when his dad when he was a baby. He had three older half-sisters from his father first marriage that Granny raised like her own. Then a year after he died Granny remarried and had Matt dad. Granny was that man’s third wife and he had kids that Granny raised also. When Matt’s dad died in the war she married a widower that had four kids of his own from another marriage and then they had two daughters together. You think you had to be careful of who you were related to? You should have seen my family reunions. You had to work it backwards to find out if you were blood related or related by marriage … people really did go to our family reunions to find dates sometimes.”

I whooped a surprised laugh then slammed my hand over my mouth to keep from waking Kelly. “Oh man, Dad could tell the same kinds of stories. He always joked that he kept expecting the local schools to be full of three headed and seven toed kids just from all the intermarrying that had to be going on. You are just too funny. It’s nice that someone actually gets that concept without thinking I’m from some redneck hell on earth.”

Matt laughed too and then grinned and it held something I couldn’t really define. Then he had to go and spoil it by embarrassing me. “Matt’s an idiot. I would have come over here even if I had to crawl the whole way with Kelly on my back.”

I blinked, then blushed. “Oh.”

“Yes. Oh.” Making another quick subject change he said, “Now you don’t seem to have a problem with the mill. And you seem like you can be persuaded about checking out the empty houses and trailers around here. I’ve got a few other things in my head but now that I’ve told you some of my ideas, do you have any of your own?”

It didn’t take me but a moment to say, “The goats.”

“Yeah, you mentioned them the first day we got here. What do we need for them?”

“Fencing and feed. Those goats are used to surviving on forage but they’ll need more than that when the weather turns.”

He pulled out a folded piece of paper and a broken pencil. “Anything else?”

“For the goats? Not off the top of my head. But … but I have a list of other stuff.” I explained about reading those books and how I’d thought of things here and there.

When I was finished he said, “What stuff is on your list?”

I grinned in spite of myself and told him, “Well I scratched off cannons and Holy water.” When he grumbled and gave me a look that told me his question had been a serious one I said, “Well … a … a few … personal items.”

“Per … oh … uh … you mean feminine stuff. I heard the girls talking about that back at the school.”

I shrugged and said, “I hope they were smart enough to talk about birth control pills and condoms at the same time.”

He almost choked on his own spit at the way I’d just thrown it into the middle of the conversation. After clearing his throat he said, “Not in so many words.” But then even more serious than he had been before he told me, “They don’t need the kind of trouble they were making for themselves so I started talking about dirty diapers, spit up, and formula for a little bit. The guys gave me dirty looks because apparently it was spoiling their fun but they still weren’t taking me very seriously. One night I simply threw a laundry basket condoms in the middle of what they called the play room and told them all to wear ‘em or wind up like me. That babies couldn’t be turned on and off like their game consoles, they didn’t come with extra batteries or volume controls, and if they killed their kid there wasn’t enough points in the world that would bring them back to life.”

Trying to envision it I said, “Oh … my … gosh! What did they say?!”

“I think a couple of them got the message but most of them just laughed at me and started calling me Father Goose. Matt however got all pinched up asked me not to be so … how did he say it? Oh yeah … not to be so crass about it. That he would speak to each of his ‘men’ privately and impress upon them the importance of things like personal hygiene and protection.”

I shook my head kind of disgusted. “You know, sometimes I wonder what I ever saw in Matt.”

He told me, “You were just doing what everyone expected. Heck, even I expected the two of you to date until highschool was over then as soon as the two of you went away to college the spell would have been broken.” I didn’t want to agree with him but I was starting to think maybe he was right.

We got quiet after finishing the tomatoes and getting them loaded into the dryer. Jax took Kelly to do the daddy thing with the potty and all that and by the time he came back out I was finished with the remainder of my outside chores that were on my list for that day. The problem was one of those chores had been to get another bale of hay out of the stack that was covered with a tarp. Getting it out had been easy. Putting it on the dolly to wheel it back to the barn had been fine. But I’d tripped over something in the animal barn, I never did figure out what, and when I went down it was hard and I scrapped my back on some empty cages that I’d had stacked off to the side.

I didn’t cry but it hurt. Had I been by myself I might have cried just to vent some steam but no way was I going to let Jax think I was a wimp. The thing is that scrape tore my shirt on the back of my left shoulder and also tore off some skin. I was trying to get a look at it but since my neck didn’t bend like a giraffe I wasn’t having much luck. That’s when Jax came in.

“Hey! What happened?!” Kelly said the obvious. “Widdie gots a boo-boo Daddy.”

Smiling for her sake I said, “I tripped I think. One of the rabbits must have pulled a fast one or …”

Jax interrupted by pushing my hand out of the way. “Don’t touch it. Geez … you look like you slid into first on your shoulder.”

I tried to laugh it off and say, “Better than sliding in face first.”

Jax was not amused and said, “I promise to not go all pervert but you’re going to need to lose the shirt so I can clean this. You broke your bra strap too.”

I stared at him. He just stared back and then said, “You’re going to need to trust me at some point Lydie and this might as well be it.”

Not ready to just strip right there I told him, “If you weren’t here I’d have to take care of it myself. I’ve had worse. Back in July I fell off the porch roof getting rid of a wasp nest. I don’t know which was worse, falling into Mom’s rose bushes or getting stung by the yellow jackets that survived the spray.”

“Am I supposed to think that’s funny?” he asked calmly. “Because it isn’t. You could have broken a bone … or your neck.”

“Ok, ok. Let’s just … go to the house. I don’t need eleventy dozen little eyes staring at me while we get this done.”

“Fine. And I’ll put Kelly in her highchair. She can play with those stacking cups you found for her.”

After we got inside and he put Kelly to play he told me to sit in a chair backwards and to just tell him where the first aid supplies were. “The big tub of stuff is in the laundry room above the cabinets that hold the cleaners.”

He got it down and whistled when he opened the top. “Man … you could do surgery with some of this stuff.”

“That’s the point,” I told him. “Farms come with farm injuries and it is too far to the hospital for some emergencies. I really need to show you where all of the stuff is just in case. There’s a matching tub like this one in Dad’s office out in the main barn and a smaller one in that closet back in that corner where I keep the stuff for the animals in the animal barn. The heavy duty stuff though that doesn’t need refrigeration is in my mother’s closet. And down in the cool cellar in that little locked cabinet in there is some real drugs.”

“Real drugs?”

“Yeah … antibiotics, heavy duty pain killers, sedatives, that sort of thing. Hey, how do you know what to use?” I asked noticing how efficient he was.

“I started taking classes to be an EMT after I realized it would take me forever to get a degree in nursing. I was still going to go nursing school after I saved up the money but figured I might as well have some useful training just in case I got laid off from the mill. They’d made noises about it a few times and I was definitely pretty low on the totem pole. If nothing else I figured I was preparing in case Kelly got hurt or something like that. It is one of the few things I did that didn’t seem to chap the butt of the social worker that the county assigned to Kelly.”

I was slowly unbuttoning my shirt and I told him, “Yeah, I remember that. Dad was pretty bent that someone had made an anonymous complaint against you.”

“So much for anonymous; I found out it was Darlene’s parents. They just couldn’t seem to stand that the judge gave me full and sole custody of Kelly after Darlene said she wanted to end her parental rights; they’d had someone all picked out to be Kelly’s adoptive parents that lived several states away and I think it embarrassed them that it fell through. That’s another reason why I stayed in the garage apartment rather than moving out on my own all the way; I didn’t want any trouble with child services.”

I looked at him then sighed. “Look … just …”

He pulled up another chair and sat beside me and tried to calm me down. “Lydie, I’m not a jerk. I’m not going to make a move on you when you are hurt or go crazy just because I see a little skin. And the sooner we get this done the sooner you can stop worrying about it.”

I figured I was being stupid but it was still embarrassing. He had to help me get the shirt off because the blood had already dried in a couple of places and the material was sticking. Then I held the shirt to my front because the bra strap on that side really was toast and the whole thing tried to go lopsided. He cleaned the area that was scraped pretty fast and then put cream on it and a gauze pad to keep the scrape from oozing all over the place.

“I’ll clean it before we go to bed. And … uh … I’m really not a jerk but maybe you should go put a different shirt on. Your skin is really … uh … nice and smooth.” That just about did me in and I took off up the stairs almost at a run so that he wouldn’t realize I was trying not to act like I might want him to be a jerk.

What to wear was a challenge and took longer to figure out than I had meant it to. I couldn’t manage a regular bra because of where the straps rubbed so I picked a strapless one that I had bought to go under a party dress. A shirt wasn’t that easy to find either, so I settled on a tube top and just threw a camisole shirt over the top to keep me from looking like I wanted the wrong kind of attention. I came downstairs slowly but was surprised to find Jax in front of the stove.

“Hey! That’s my job,” I told him. “You think I’m made of glass or something? It’s just a scrape.”

He looked over his shoulder and grinned. “Don’t get so defensive. It’s just noodles for the spaghetti you said you were fixing for dinner. I didn’t touch your precious meat sauce in the slow cooker or your bread in that shiny box thing.”

Snorting in an unladylike way I told him, “That shiny box thingy is a solar cooker. Dad built it …”

“Using some plans he got off the internet,” he said laughing. “How many times have I heard that?” (http://www.omick.net/solar_ovens/current_solar_oven.htm )

“Laugh all you want buddy boy … but you’ll be glad that it is that much less wood to cut for this winter. I mean you did say you wanted to share in the chores did you?”

“Awww maaaaan,” he groaned with a laugh which then had me laughing.

My shoulder was still sore but I was no longer embarrassed and the rest of dinner went really well. The spaghetti and soft breadsticks were delicious if I do say so myself. For dinner we had homemade apple yogurt parfaits. Kelly nearly wore hers so Jax fed her rather than let her feed herself. Pretty soon she was finished and while they had their nightly “tickle fight” and general mess fest with the toys we’d cobbled together for her I did the dishes and put away the leftovers that would be used for the next day’s lunch.

The two of them came galloping into the kitchen as I was scouring off the stove top. “Somebody wants to give you a hug goodnight and won’t go to bed until her demands are met,” Jax said playing it to the hilt.

I put my hands on my hips and said, “Is that so? Well does the noisy bumble bee promise to go to sleep if she gets a hug?”

Kelly giggled and something tugged in my heart. I started to realize I really like the little kid even if she was loud and messy. I gave her a clumsy hug … I was way out of practice … and then he was zooming her up the stairs like she was a plane for her nightly story then bed. It wasn’t ten minutes later when he was coming back down.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

“Uh uh. She barely made it into her PJs before she was nodding off. I got two pages into the story and she was out like a light. Got anything left I can help with?”

I shrugged and then regretted it. “Ouch. You can take the table cloth outside and shake it off for me if you don’t mind.”

“Sure,” he said. He even managed to get it off without dumping all the crumbs onto the floor; but I still had to sweep. If Kelly had been shooting to get pieces of noodle, sauce, and crumbs all over the place she had great aim.

Jax came back in and put the plastic gingham checked cover back on the kitchen table. “I wiped it off outside with that spray you used to clean up her highchair. I’ll bring it in too. How’s your shoulder?”

“Sore but I’ll live. It’s a little early but I think I’m done for the night. I’m just gonna sit in the living room and work on my notes unless you need me to get a load to soak overnight.”

“No. Putting that bag over Kelly’s clothes while she ate was a good idea. You mind if I sit in there with you for a while? I don’t feel like going to bed yet.”

I rolled my eyes at him. “I wish you would stop acting like I’m your keeper or something. Why should I care if you want to stay up or where you want to stay up at?”

“I just don’t want you to think I’m stalking you. Besides, I’ll need to check that scrape before you go to bed.”

“I suppose,” I said. Then added, “And I don’t think you are stalking me. You live here too.”

He gave me a relieved nod and we went into living room and I climbed onto the end of the sofa, criss crossed my legs and started trying to rework my schedules. Looking over my shoulder he asked, “What are you doing?”

I explained, “You want to go to the mill and go to those empty houses. I have to make room in my chore times to get it done. I finished harvesting all the berries and cherries last month but I’ve still got apples and pears coming in out the wazoo, the peaches need to be finished getting cleaned off by the end of this week, the watermelons will be ripe pretty soon, corn needs to be picked …”

“Whoa … you’re going too fast for me to keep up. Go slower and tell me what needs to be done.”

I realized that if we were going to share the workload he needed to understand what was involved so I tried to explain without sounding snotty about it. “OK. I’ve already told you about the apples, pears, peaches, corn, and watermelons. I’ve got enough dried apples and pears and I’ve already canned a bunch of stuff out of them so what I’m going to make with most of what is left is apple juice and cider and pear nectar. If you want we can even make some hard cider; Dad did nearly every year (http://www.motherearthnews.com/Real-...ard-Cider.aspx ) and he and Mom would enjoy a glass ever so often. He didn’t mind if I had a sip at the holidays but it is really strong stuff. I’m not sure how you feel about it.”

“Granny used to talk about my grandfather making it … the man my older cousins called Pap. He died before I was born though so I don’t remember him. Is it difficult?”

I shook my head, “No worse than anything else I guess. I wouldn’t mind trying pear hard cider. Dad used to say his grandparents did it and I like the taste of good pear nectar almost better than apple juice (http://www.hipchickdigs.com/2009/09/making-pear-cider/ ). I could make peach nectar too but to be honest the trees gave so early and well this year I’m just about peached out. I think I’m just going to dry what’s left … at least what you don’t eat first.”

He grinned, “You sure you don’t mind? I love fresh peaches.”

I grinned back at him, “Go ahead, less I have to worry about. Besides, the fuzz gives me the shivers. I like nectarines better but they finished out early last month.”

“Good deal,” he said. “So what else?”

“Beans.”

“Beans?”

“Yeah, I had a gap in the pole beans when a few rows didn’t make for some reason and I had to replant them but I need to start picking the next crop tomorrow. I’ll cook us up a couple of big pots then I’ll dry the rest into leather britches. I’ve got a bunch of dried pods to pick on the bush beans by the end of this month which are both next year’s seeds and the dried beans I’ll cook over the winter.”

“You don’t … you know … can the beans like at the grocery store?”

“Some I will. Some I’ll go ahead and fix into soups. I’ll even can some chili if we can get a deer or two. I took one over the summer that kept getting into the corn but I don’t usually like to hunt before cool weather sets in because processing the meat is too much in warm weather.”

“The meat spoils right?”

“Yeah, if you aren’t fast enough. Do you hunt?”

He shook his head, “A few times when I was a kid with my grandmother’s brother when he was still alive. I helped my grandmother cull her chicken and geese flocks; she always had a couple of turkeys too. Her neighbor would trade pork for chicken and a Thanksgiving turkey at the holidays but I didn’t get to see it because I was always in school.”

“Almost don’t need to keep hogs these days. There are wild ones that run loose and make a mess and Dad and I used hunt them and take a couple after the first freeze. When the people abandoned the land around here the wild pigs moved in. The boars are dangerous so watch out if you see any.”

“Yeah, guy at work got treed by some that had come onto his property.”

“Exactly; being gored is no joke. Anyway back to the garden stuff. I cut the broccoli and greens as I want them though next month I’ll probably start drying whatever is left.”

“Broccoli? Kelly calls it trees. Broccoli and cheese is like her favorite all time food next to peanut butter.”

I smiled, “Trees? That’s funny. Will used to call them that …” I stopped and looked away. Sometimes the hurt still caught me when I wasn’t prepared.

Quietly Jax asked, “You OK?”

I answered a watery, “Yeah. They lie when they tell you it gets better after a while. It just gets different.”

“I’m … I’m finding that out.”

I looked at him in understanding but we both knew we couldn’t do anything but keep going because those that left us behind weren’t coming back. “I also need to clean the root cellar out and make it ready for stuff to be put in there. I’ll save the best storage apples and pears to make them last as long as I can. Carrots and potatoes will be put in crates and set in their places down there. Cabbage, that I don’t intend to turn into kraut or canned slaw, have a shelf down there too. Cucumbers will go in the pickling barrel. Grapes that we don’t eat fresh I will dry into raisins; I’ve got enough grape jelly to sink the titanic and enough grape juice that I’m afraid it will turn into wine or vinegar before we can drink it all. I’ll dry or pickle the peppers you see all over the yard … don’t let Kelly put any of those little orange ones in her mouth you will have a flaming baby dragon on your hands. I should probably put chicken wire or something around them. I’m really sorry she got that jalapeno the other day.”

He shook his head. “That was my fault. She saw me pick one and eat it. I should have watched her closer. She spit it right out. I doubt she’ll do it again but just to be on the safe side I will put up that fencing if you don’t mind.”

“We’ll do it together. I’ll also stick labels near the plants so you’ll know what they are until you can identify them by sight. Mom said she used to fence everything because Will and I would graze like goats when she wasn’t looking. That’s why nearly all the landscaping around the house, barns, and pond is edible instead of mixed. She used to have to put Will in a harness and have him on a leash line because he was prone to wander away really fast and then Mom would panic and we’d be looking for a long time before we’d find him hiding in a bush or something.”

Jax shuddered. “I’d have a heart attack.”

“Yeah well Dad paddled Will a few times and after a while he got the point even if he didn’t agree with it and the running off stopped.” Jax was still looking cross eyed at the idea of Kelly wandering off so I just kept talking. “We’ll probably eat the last of the summer squash – I like it fried like I fixed yesterday for lunch – and the pumpkins and winter squash will get canned, dried, or put on their shelves in the root cellar. We finished off most of the tomatoes today except the ones that I want to turn into more juice and spaghetti sauce. The sauce is an all-day activity so I’ll try and do the juice while the sauce is cooking and kill two birds with one stone. I use Mom’s really giant pots so I’ll have to do it on the outdoor gas burners and you’ll need to keep Kelly with you most of that day. I’m just gonna tell you, the one thing I’m not good at is having kids around big cooking fires outside. You remember Julia Quinn?”

He nodded right away. “I worked with her older brother.”

I told him with my own shudder, “I was there that day. Our family and the Quinns used to get together and boil sorghum. She was old enough to know better than to play in the fire but no sooner had her brother told her to stop twice and then threatened to go tell their parents than she did something that shifted the cradle under the sorghum trough. We started screaming and got her pulled out … her brother got his hand all scared up too … but … you know how it went.”

“I had no idea Lydie. I knew that Ray and your Dad used to talk about their families but I didn’t know what the connection was. Your dad always said he was related to most of the county so I just assumed that was it.”

“Yeah, we were some kind of cousins but mostly it was they used to own that fallow land on the other side of Herman’s Creek and that’s where we made the sorghum. They moved away and I heard that Julia got out of the wheelchair after a couple of years of therapy but that she wasn’t ever really the same. She was in the burn center for a long time and Mom said the pain turned her mind a bit.”

“Don’t know, Ray didn’t talk about it much. I just knew the story. But you don’t have any trouble around fire yourself after seeing that?”

I shook my head. “No. It’s just watching kids around fire. I couldn’t even stand for Will to be around it much. I used to get so mad at the boys in his Boy Scout troop. Some of them acted as dumb as stumps,” I told him disgruntled even at the memories.

To distract me he said, “I’m afraid to ask if this chore list is any longer.”

I snorted. “What do you think?” I showed him the paper. “I’ve got herbs to hang to dry, sweet potatoes to dig and put in the root cellar, sun chokes to mulch so they’ll over winter, and count the jars and lids I have left. There’s all the beets to deal with and I need to can the sweet corn … and cut some off the cob to dry … and the dent corn out in the field that needs to be stacked to finish drying and then next month I have to bring it in, cut it from the stalks and tie it together for curing.”

“You don’t combine the corn?”

“Uh uh. I mean I suppose I could because Dad converted the tractors to run on the biofuel but I didn’t plant enough this year to make it worth it. I still have a bunch of corn in the corn crib that will need to be cracked for the animals as we go. Next year I’ll have to …” He gave me a look and I corrected it to, “… we’ll have to plant more corn. The corn combine is that big toothed thing at the end of the vehicle row in the tractor barn. The wheat combine is the one with the thing that looks like a rolling beater on the front.”

He nodded. “I know. Like I said, I worked on my Granny’s farm. Did you plant wheat this year?”

“Yeah, about five acres that I harvested in June; enough there was no way I was gonna try and bring it in by hand that’s for sure. I only got 40 bushels an acre though because I set the spreader too thin. Mr. Houchins’ was a lot prettier from what I could see but he has a monster irrigation system, we don’t. I did put in soybeans behind the wheat but I might wind up just deciding to let them go; the deer have already grazed the heck out of them anyway. I know the perfect spot to set up the stand if you are serious about hunting with me … we’ll need ear plugs for Kelly though and hope the deer are so numerous she won’t scare them all off before we can get a few.”

Scribbling away on his piece of paper he said, “I’ll figure something out.”

We talked back and forth but then it came down to going to bed and he said, “Let me have a quick look at your shoulder.”

“It’s not …”

“Lydie … did I jump you when I looked before?”

Giving him a look that told him not to be stupid I said, “That’s not what I’m saying. I just mean that you don’t have to.”

“I know I don’t. Now take your shirt off, I want to check you out. Uh … I mean … Dang it Lydie, you know what I mean.”

I wound up laughing at the irritated look on his face and giving in with a clear conscience. It was still hard to see the super cool guy I remembered in the one sitting behind me being so careful as he pulled the tap back to “check me out.”

“It looks ok,” he said. “It isn’t oozing anymore which is a good sign. I’ll change the bandage again in the morning.”

We went up the stairs together after checking all the locks. I turned to go to my room when he stopped me. “Lydie?”

Turning back I said, “Huh?”

“Thanks.”

Confused I asked, “For what?”

“Understanding about me needing to be part of whatever it is we’re doing. And … uh … trusting me … in the beginning and … uh … tonight. I … uh … appreciate it.”

I smiled inordinately pleased for some reason. I felt compelled to tell him, “And thanks … for not … you know … constantly ragging on me. I’m really glad … I mean … that you and Kelly … not … uh … not Matt and Marty … I mean …”

I was starting to feel stupid and tripping over my words. He closed the few steps there was between us and I had to look up into his face. He said quietly, “Me too.” Then he kissed me lightly on the lips and turned me back around and pushed me gently towards my room while he walked towards his and Kelly’s. I was still trying to figure out how to make my feet actually move when I heard his door close quietly behind me.

1 comment:

  1. Kathy,

    You write better than probably 99% of what is sold on Amazon. Have you considered selling Kindle format versions? I realize your postings are available for free on various blogs, buyt I know I would purchase them if available at Amazon. Your "This Is Me Surviving" is a classic of the genre.

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