The next two weeks went by in a blur. Reggie’s eyes improved though he continued to look a little like a doll someone has squeezed too hard and the eyes had bugged out. But at least the swelling started to subside and he was able to see after a fashion and didn’t constantly need Ginger as a seeing eye dog. Well, he didn’t need her but she wasn’t shy about offering her services just in case. All Reggie really needed to do was protect his eyes from bright light and not over tire them; that meant the running around he did with Jax at night was perfect for him. Me? Not so much. It was very hard to stay home while those two, and sometimes Ginger, went gallivanting around the county. I know it helped all of us out but I felt left out after being the one to …
Oh well, it really doesn’t matter after all these years; just memories that have come back to twit me here and there. Taking the long view it was a good thing that I hadn’t had any real desire to be empress of my little kingdom. I think for the guys it was enough to swallow that they lived in my house on my land and it had all started out as my idea. They didn’t suffer from what some of us girls back then called testosterone poisoning but I’m pretty sure living in a matriarchal society would have been too much for them to deal with. Actually I didn’t consider that a bad thing; if you need to fight the last thing you wanted was for your army to be full of metrosexuals that was too concerned with chipping their nail polish or running their eyeliner. Contrary to some opinions, real women aren’t much into men that spend more time on their hair than they do. This is just as true today as it was back then.
It didn’t necessarily have anything to do with them being real guys, but had I demanded more or forced them to give more than they willingly did it might have destroyed the accord we developed. I was pretty sure if our positions had been reversed I would have felt the same way. Besides, the accord was a good and constructive thing that got better as time went by with only the occasional bump in the road … like seven people having to share the same indoor shower on a system that was designed to only serve four people. We wound up having our first council meeting over that one.
Nervously I agreed to start the meeting out. “Let’s skip the calling to order and all that pretentious crap OK? Ashley wants to keep minutes and I’m cool with that if everyone else is; it might actually come in handy at some point. I just don’t want to turn this council thing into a farce.” As everyone agreed I got down to business. “OK, I don’t want to go all Mother Bear about this but you’ve got to be more careful with how much water you are using, especially hot water. The tanks are being run dry every night and yesterday I even had to haul water in from the pump just to get dinner cooking and clean up afterwards. Until I can figure out a way to increase the capacity you’re going to have ration yourselves … especially the hot water. I mean I don’t mind showering outside right now but it ain’t happening in the winter, not even for you guys.”
Obviously making an effort to take it seriously Ashley asked, “What can we do? I don’t like taking cold showers, but a cold shower is still better than no shower.”
I told her, “In the winter no shower might be what we wind up with at this rate; at a minimum we could wind up with shower rotations or something like that. See, come cold weather I have to drain the outdoor tanks and lines so they don’t freeze and rupture and switch the system over to the small indoor tank that uses methane to heat it up.”
“Methane?!” Reggie barked in laughter. “You mean you heat hot water with farts?!!”
Leave it to Reggie to channel George Carlin. “You should take that act on the road,” I sighed. “If you want an explanation it goes something like this. I take the rabbit and chicken poop and use it to keep these tanks called digesters topped up.. The resulting methane is collected and used like natural gas. (http://documents.ponics.org/sections/biogaz/Methane-Digesters.pdf ) After the stinky stuff has been fully digested it leaves a organic sludge behind. I take that leftover sludge and I spread it over the fields like a wet fertilizer. My folks collected quite a bit of methane this way but, pardon the pun, the supply isn’t bottomless. It’s not like I have access to big animals like cows or horses that produce a lot of … er … poop.” Reggie was trying to be serious but I guess like a lot of males under the age of sixty (and some even older) poop has an innate humor to it that was hard to resist.
Aston had improved enough that he was coming downstairs for a couple of hours every day and had insisted on sitting in on and participating in our “council” meeting. “Sorry Lydie, I’m still not getting it,” he said, rolling his eyes at Reggie. “I thought everything here was solar. Matt thought solar was where it was at too and from what I’ve seen and heard about everything here – now that I’m awake enough to listen – I can’t say he’s wrong. It sounds kinda perfect.”
Reggie leaned forward obviously interested in my explanation of this aspect of our lives as well. Trying not to make it sound like a lecture I said, “Nothing is perfect Aston. What happens to the solar if we have a week of cloudy weather? And you know that happens during the winter … and it happens during the summer too for that matter.”
Reggie answered manfully holding back another snicker, “Switch to the methane?”
I shrugged. “Sometimes; but the methane production isn’t a huge set up and is dependent on how much poop the animals give out and if I can keep the digesters warm enough to keep the reaction going to actually create the methane.”
Ginger said, “Then there’s that biofuel thingy. Or is that the methane thingy?”
I saw Reggie give her a goofy smile and had to fight a smile of my own because if anyone else had said “thingy” he would have gone into some long drawn out reason why it was stupid. “The big set up in the barn is biofuel … but it’s dependent on chemicals and what we can feed it to keep it going. I’m not going to use all of our corn to make ethanol; that would be cutting into our food supply. You want to know the full details about it ask Jax. He does better on the technical explanation than I do because he helped get the system up and running – and keep it running – out at the mill.”
Ginger shook her head forcefully causing her curls to spazz out. “No technical anything thank you very much. Just wanted to know what it was called. I’m officially on vacation from science class for the duration.”
I did smile then. “OK. Look. Bottom line is we have redundant systems. We bring the redundant systems on line when they will give us the biggest, most efficient return. I run solar all year but the output is naturally going to be better in the summer than at any other time of year. During the winter we get the biggest kick from the BTUs of the natural gas system. Biofuel runs all year long as well but we’ve tried to take all the waste out of the way we use it because each system has its own needs. The tractors use up a lot of the biofuel as does the heaters for the house and the animal barn. The redundancies mean that no one system gets overloaded but we still have to use some … some …”
Jax said, “Common sense. Just say it Lydie and stop worrying about hurting people’s feelings. They’re not little kids and now that you’ve explained it I’m sure they understand better and we’ll all be able to be more considerate.”
It was Reggie using his non-goofy persona who responded, “Jax is right Lydie. Don’t let it go until it is a problem next time. We’re just used to turning on a faucet and having water and not thinking about how it got there. Having to do without was a real pain – I swear I got to the point I hated hauling water – when we were living at the school and then coming out here we just went back to old habits. But now we know that old habits aren’t going to work we can make new ones. No big. Right Ginger?”
Wide eyed she said, “Uh … yeah … sure. I … uh … suppose I don’t have to wash my hair like every day. Ash?”
Ashley nodded, “I guess … but that’s … that’s gross. I mean we’re all sweaty and junk at the end of the day because it is so hot. We can’t sit under fans all day long.”
Feeling bad I said, “If you really need to rinse you hair out you can use a bucket of water from the hand pump outside, but I wouldn’t recommend it when cold weather finally arrives unless you want to catch a cold.” I inwardly cringed hating the idea of giving another lecture. “When cold weather arrives heat is going to be precious. Look, I’m not saying this is going to be easy …”
Aston coughed and then grimaced but pushed off everyone’s concern. “I’m fine … but Jax is right. We’ll just be more careful from here on out. About everything. It won’t all come at once – like trying to learn a new way to play an old sport. Besides the water, what is the next most important thing?”
He was asking me but Jax answered. “She won’t say it but she needs some help cooking and getting the garden stuff in. I’m going to turn the potato hills over in the morning but need to spend the rest of the day unloading one of the trailers so Reg and I can take it and hit a couple of places we mapped out the other night when we brought that other stuff in. Can a couple of you help take the potatoes to the cellar? There’s also the last of the apple and pear trees that need to be picked over. The best looking apples go in the fruit cellar and the others are going to get pressed for cider.”
The girls were looking uncertain and Aston was looking depressed but then Reggie said, “Mmmm … fresh cider. I likey.” He sounded like that comedian that was called Jim Carey.
He looked so weird and goofy that we all chuckled, even Aston. The “meeting” broke up with everyone grabbing one last muffin from the basket I had made to try and soften them up. I was emptying the crumbs into the pail I used for scraps that I gave the chickens when I noticed that Jax had followed Aston out to the porch where he was going to sit and soak up some Vitamin D. The conversation was short but I knew it had to have been something special the way Aston seemed to sit a little straighter after Jax walked off towards the barn.
Being incessantly nosey I finished what I was doing inside and then used Kelly as an excuse to go see what Jax was up to. I found him stacking bags of fertilizer and soil on pallets in the old tack room attached to the animal barn. “Hey,” I told him.
“Hey,” he answered back with a grin.
“So … what were you and Aston talking about?”
The grin turned to a laugh. “You’re worse than a cat, you know that?”
“Maybe … but you’re gonna tell me anyway right?”
He smiled and then getting a little serious said, “Aston’s pride has been hurt. I’m worried he’s gonna have a relapse or set back if he starts giving up.”
Confused I asked, “Why would he give up? He’s getting better isn’t he?”
“Yeah,” Jax answered while he wiped the sweat off of his face with a bandana I had fashioned for him. “Yeah, he’s getting better but he isn’t anywhere near where he can really help out with anything. Aston isn’t the kind of guy that is going to just be able to brush that off. He’s already feeling the responsibility of getting Ashley pregnant and now he can’t do anything really to protect her or help get things ready so that other people can protect her.”
I sighed. “Oh. So this is one of those guy things that don’t make a lot of sense.”
He took his hat off and popped me in the head before taking the last few sacks off the dolly and placing them just so. “It does make sense and you know it. A man needs to have some pride … and right now Aston’s is hurting.”
“So what did you say? You obviously made him feel better.”
He shrugged but then grinned sheepishly. “I asked him whether he’d prefer a rifle or shotgun for tomorrow while he kept an eye on things.”
“While he does what?” I asked a little outraged. “Jax, he can barely stay upright for more than an hour or two at a time. You can’t expect him to …”
Cutting me off Jax said, “I expect him to do what he can and you girls need to start letting him.”
“Excuse me?” I asked feeling a little snippy.
Jax stopped and leaned on the dolly. “Aston doesn’t need three mothers, three sisters, or three nurses. He needs to be allowed to be a man. That isn’t going to happen if you trap him by hovering too much. Can’t you see he is starting to feel useless, starting to get depressed? That’s not good for his health and mental recovery. Bad enough that he got the crap beat out of him by women; it sure ain’t doing him any good for more of you to keep him down.”
He walked out leaving me with my mouth hanging open and just this side of being mad. But to be honest he did give me a lot to think about and by the time I put dinner on the table – with the help of both Ginger and Ashley who themselves seemed to be inordinately proud of their role in the meal – I realized that Jax had told me nothing but the absolute truth. It was also a truth that could apply to how I was working with Ginger and Ashley. I wasn’t used to there being anyone else but – and before that it was mostly just Dad and I while Mom took care of Will – and I was turning into my own worst enemy. I had to learn that I couldn’t manage or do everything myself, that there was no need to be a martyr because there were other people I could count on.
And I tell you as the remaining days of that second week went by I was very happy to have help. It was the end of October and except for a couple of the Granny Smith apples the rest of the trees needed to be gleaned. The Chesney and Buckingham apples were our best long storage apples and we went over the trees by hand first to pick the best of the best. After that we just picked as we went and took the bushel basketfuls to the cider presses. Yes, I wrote presses as in plural.
Dad got tired of it taking forever to get all of our apples pressed at the end of the apple season; or our grapes for that matter during grape season. Plus, went we started making nectars to bottle he said it only made sense to be able to having multiple presses running at a time. He built multiple fruit presses for the same reason he built Mom more than one cheese press; because he could. ( http://www.motherearthnews.com/Do-It-Yourself/1976-09-01/How-To-Build-A-Cider-Press.aspx ) We had four presses, two with very large baskets, one with a medium basket, and the fourth with a gallon sized basket for berries and the like. Dad did some pretty extensive experimenting with the smallest press; basically if it was soft enough he would try and press it. He reminded me of how addicted to her dehydrator Mom could get on occasion.
With all four presses going it kept us hopping filling containers. Despite the warm weather the apple crop was one of the best in my memory. All of the apple trees on the home site were standard sized. Dad just didn’t have the patience for dealing with the dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties. “Them runty sized small trees are for city and town yards. We don’t live in town and I see no reason to restrict ourselves.”
Taking care of all the fruit that came off of those standard sized trees was another matter. A standard sized apple tree will give you anywhere between eight and eighteen bushels of fruit. That year we got close to between sixteen and seventeen bushels a tree but most years it was closer to fourteen and fifteen. Not all the trees were for cider making but there were about six trees left to deal with for that fall’s crop. A standard sized bushel of apples weighs in at forty-eight pounds. And a gallon of cider usually requires an average of fifteen pounds of apples. In other words for every bushel of apples I would get between two and three gallons of juice.
I pulled out the old account books to review our harvest that year and sure enough the math went something like this: six trees times fifteen bushels equaled ninety bushels of fruit. Out of that ninety bushels we peeled and dried another ten bushels to add to what I had already done. We also put back about twenty bushels of fruit for winter use in the apple house. Another twenty bushels was split between apple butter and apple sauce making. That left us forty bushels for the cider press which we got roughly a hundred gallons of juice off of. Jax, Reggie, and Aston took twenty five gallons of the juice and made five five-gallon casks of hard cider and another ten gallons went towards some fine apple wine. That left sixty-five gallons to bottle. Not just sixty five gallons to bottle but sixty-five gallons of juice to find room to store.
Council time. “Uh … you know, we’re kinda running outta room around here. Between you guys making your midnight runs and trying to store all the produce I’m tripping over stuff.”
Strangely enough it was Ashley who yet again understood what I was feeling. “Lydie you are just like your Mom. This mess would have driven her crazy too. I remember what she was like whenever she got involved at our school functions. Man oh man.”
We both laughed a little at the memory. “I’m trying not to be that bad,” I told everyone. To the ones that didn’t get it, mainly the guys, I explained, “My mother literally had to have everything hyper organized. It was like an ingrained personality trait; it wasn’t just something she did but a big part of who she was. You’ve seen the attic. I grew up living like that and … and this is a little … little … challenging.”
Aston said, “So what do you want? More cleaning or what?”
I shook my head and tried to smile despite the fact that Aston was being a little snotty. “I know not much can be done about it right now. I’m sure as heck not going to look a gift horse in the mouth; but space is something we should be considering as it is getting in short supply. I know Jax doesn’t think that much salvage is being brought in beyond like building supplies and stuff but to me it looks like a lot because keeping it neat and organized is getting almost impossible. I guess I was more making an observation. I mean this meeting was to talk about what we had and what we needed. Or maybe I’m missing the point. It’s not like I’m not willing to listen to anyone else’s opinion.”
It was Reggie that came up with the start of a potential solution. “Actually I got an idea. Kinda something that I had talked to Aston about when we were still in town.” Reggie looked at Aston and asked, “You remember that idea we had about hiding stuff outside of town, just in case?”
Aston shifted in his chair and slowly seemed to throw off whatever had been bothering him. “Yeah … yeah I remember. It was after we found out that Matt was the only one that knew where all the stuff was that we’d been salvaging. It was supposed to be for the whole group but Mark was like keeping the locations of the best stuff secret. We didn’t know whether even Sas or Marty knew where everything was although probably Sas did since Matt would have needed someone to move stuff around for him.”
I sighed but hadn’t meant for other people to hear it. Aston asked, “Am I boring you?”
“Huh?” I asked surprised. “Uh … no. I just keep walking into these huge billboard like signs that tell me how stupid I was about Matt.” I hadn’t meant to share so freely and was uncomfortable and went to stand up to refill the pitcher of juice.
Jax grabbed my hand and said, “No one is blaming you for what Matt did or did not do.”
I shook my head. “It’s not that. I’m not taking responsibility for what he did. I’m taking responsibility for what I didn’t see. And frankly I don’t like feeling like an idiot. Especially not in front of other people.”
“C’mon and sit down, we don’t need any more juice or cookies or whatever you were about to go get.” I sat down and Jax continued. “I could say the same thing about Darlene. That’s just … just life. Sometimes you just don’t see things until they slap you in the face. This war or whatever it is is changing people, and not always for the good. Matt has changed. You couldn’t know that because you were insulated from it by living out here. The fact is however that you do know now and you are choosing sides … our side … so let’s just stay on topic.”
Ginger said, “Yeah Lydie. We all make mistakes. Like Ashley and Aston are the only two I know that have stayed together as long as they have … at least people our age. And now you’ve got Jax and … well, it’s cool. You don’t need to freak out every time it comes up that Matt has seriously taken a vacation from normal. We don’t blame you for it.”
Reggie just looked on but seemed to relax when Aston sighed and mumbled, “Don’t mind me. Matt just … I feel like he stabbed us in the back when he should have had our back.”
Reggie brought the conversation back around by saying, “Exactly which was why I was talking to Aston.”
Jax in an attempt to keep the conversation going in that direction prompted, “Talked to him about what?”
“Whatses?” Ginger asked.
While Reggie laughed and everyone else rolled their eyes I asked, “You mean storing stuff off site?”
Aston nodded. “Yeah. We didn’t really have time to pull it off but we did some thinking on it. You know my dad and uncle dug basements and septic fields?” I nodded. “Well, during the summers I would help when they needed another hand. A cache wouldn’t have to be as big as a basement of course.”
Then a thought came to my head, “But could you like rehab an old basement or an old storm cellar?”
He gave me a considering look and said, “Maybe, depends on how old and how bad it is. Why?”
“I might know of places like that but I don’t know how far away you want them from the house.”
Jax said, “You thinking about the abandoned houses?”
I shook my head, “Uh uh. Only one or two of them even have basements and I figured they might be too obvious for what Reggie and Aston mean.” Turning to them I explained, “Two of my dad’s aunts and uncles built houses on the land they inherited from my great grandparents. About fifteen years ago they sold out to some investment company that was going to put in one of those high end gated communities but the company hit a lot of legal snags and the whole plan fell through. But not until after they had bulldozed down the houses. The investment company lost the land to foreclosure to some lender that was based in India. The lender went in there and put in planted pines because supposedly they were going to sell the trees to the paper mill later but then just basically abandoned the land when they went belly up too. The county was always threatening to take the land because the property taxes weren’t being paid but they never did. You can imagine what the land looks like after fifteen years. Dad and I hunted all over that area so I know the cellars are still there though I won’t go down in them for love or money.”
“Why not?” Aston asked.
Jax and I answered in stereo, “Spiders.”
So then the spider story had to come out and Ginger and Ashley both got grossed out and sympathized while Reggie had an evil twinkle in his eye that told me a plastic spider was likely in my future.
Aston said, “I’ll have to look at the interiors of them first to make sure they haven’t collapsed or don’t have standing water in them. And it isn’t just spiders we have to worry about; holes in the ground sometimes turn into snake dens. But if they look half way decent – even if it means shoring them up a bit – we could use something like that to maybe set up not just a cache but Reg and I talked about having a base camp to work around. Can the cellars be capped off?”
“They are already capped off; with metal doors no less. I don’t know what shape they are in as the doors have rusted closed.”
That gave Aston something to spend his energy on which I think is what Reggie was after. I knew he and Jax talked a lot and I decided to leave the guy stuff up to them as I had already experienced just how wrong I could read them.
By the end of October we were all really tired. It was a good tired but a bad tired at the same time. Good tired because we were really getting a lot accomplished and we were starting to work together smoothly as a team but bad tired because in addition to everything we were accomplishing we thought about everything that we weren’t accomplishing.
We still hadn’t managed to lure the goats out of the kudzu. Of course that wouldn’t have done any good anyway because we didn’t have an enclosure built to put them in. We hadn’t done any hunting and we badly needed to. It was amazing to me how much food the guys could put away and the canned and dried meat I did have was not going to last forever. We hadn’t culled any of the chickens and I was beginning to wonder if I should since all the additional mouths meant that I didn’t have near the surplus eggs that I used to. We hadn’t done any spying on the refugees in town when we really needed to know what they were up to. There were lots of things we hadn’t done; the list was depressingly long.
But Jax constantly reminded me that there were the unexpected things we had accomplished that we hadn’t expected to. For one telling Mr. Houchins what was going on in town seemed to soften him up a bit and he and Jax spoke of possibly doing some trading come the spring once we all saw ourselves through the winter. Then we got a double dose of friendlies when Jax and Reggie, on one of their midnight runs, crossed the county line to check out some of the farms out that way and ran into an older couple that were just about on their last leg and bad shook up because they’d been robbed the week before. Turns out they were close kin of Mr. Houchins. Jax couldn’t leave the old couple so he and Reggie packed them up, animals and all, and figured if Mr. Houchins wouldn’t take them in that we’d figure something out.
Oh my word, Reggie said Mrs. Houchins was crying and Mr. Houchins wasn’t far from it. But while Mr. Houchins was more than willing to take his kin, the animals were just going to be too much for their laid in supplies so the older couple decided to take a couple of animals that were sentimental to them … like their hound and a couple of noisy geese … but we inherited the rest of them. Geese, ducks, chickens, and quail then numbered into the birdbrain clan I was already caring for. A young female cat that they’d rescued from their neighbor’s abandoned house because it was fixed and declawed so wouldn’t really survive in the wild … and it was an indoor cat which Ginger fell in love with and it with her. Sigh. Three young dogs, housebroken, that were the pups of the hound the older couple kept. Two more flaming rabbits which I suspect means that shortly it will be a whole lot more than two because it was a male and female kept in the same large cage. And to top it all off there was the parrot.
Its name was Green Bean and Reggie fell in love with the lunatic thing. It was pretty young as parrots go but someone had already taught it to talk and mimic human speech and it seemed to enjoy attention. Luckily the cat and the parrot were friends or I can imagine the trouble that would have led to even if the cat was declawed. The dogs learned really quickly that Green Bean was king but after the pecking order was established things settled down in the house. I just wish they had stayed settled down everywhere else too.