The next morning I was a little sore when I woke up but after the week I had had I hadn’t expected much different. What irritated me somewhat was that I could see that dawn was already making the sky pink.
“Ding blast it,” I snarled to myself climbing out of the bed that had turned out to be too comfortable. I rarely if ever slept so late. I hated wasting daylight and like to get up and have my day laid out proper before the sun came up. Instead I heard stealthy footsteps in the kitchen like someone was trying not to wake me.
Having outgrown my childish nightgowns some years ago I usually slept in shirts that had once belonged to my grandfather. He’d been a big man and being inordinately short – I was lucky when people were generous enough to give me a full inch over five feet – the shirts came down to my knees and a little more. Still, when I jerked the door of the room open to see who was in the kitchen and to tell them I’d be out in a minute to start breakfast Dino just seemed to stand there with his mouth hanging open.
“Give me five minutes and I’ll start … well … do you drink coffee?”
I shook my head. In my experience men were either grouchy or stupid before they had their first cup of coffee or tea. “Coffee? Do you drink it or do you prefer tea?”
“Uh …” He just kept standing there with his mouth hanging open. Then he shook himself and turned his back to me. “I’ve got it … uh … why don’t you get dressed?”
Suddenly realizing he was embarrassed I just had to shake my head. From my neck to my knees I was completely covered. The only thing that was showing was what was above the collar and what was below my knees; even the cuffs fell over the top of my hands. I was honestly as about as covered up as I intended to be that day since it already felt like it was going to be a hot one. I asked, “Nothing indecent is showing so is it my hair still being a rat’s nest?”
He relaxed a bit and slowly turned around chuckling. “No. You … uh … just caught me off guard.” Then his chuckling turned into a real laugh.
Trying to control himself he said, “You look about six inches tall in that get up.”
“Ha … ha … ha. You try being short and see how you like it.” I could ignore a lot but being teased for being short didn’t seem to be one of them.
I turned around and shut the door with a snap and then hurried to get dressed. Doing my hair properly usually had to wait until after morning chores but I was so irritated I rebraided the curly mess and wound it around my head properly just to give myself time to calm down.
I came out and ignored the man sitting at the table trying to hide a smile behind the cup he had parked up at his lips. I grabbed the clean skillet I had hung on the pan rack the night before but was stumped about where to go from there. Without looking I asked Dino if he wanted eggs and if so how did he want them.
“I’ve already got porridge going outside.” I could still hear the smile in his voice but it didn’t make me feel any better. As a matter of fact I was even more embarrassed.
“I can’t believe I overslept. I never oversleep. ‘Course I’m used to sleeping right next to the chicken coop but still, there’s no excuse for it,” I grumped half to myself.
“Relax Riss, I told you …”
Getting unaccountably mad again I snapped, “I’m not the princess type like them other women you interviewed. I don’t need anyone to baby me.”
“Whoa,” he said a little startled. “Harry warned me last night you were a bear for work … and that you don’t drink coffee.” He stood up and handed me a mug of tea. The aroma told me that it was peppermint.
“Did you know or was this a lucky guess?” I asked leaning towards being mollified.
He smiled, “Neither. Harry made me take notes.”
“Oh for pity sake,” I said just about ready to die of embarrassment again … or kill Harry; both sounded good right about then.
He chuckled, “Don’t worry about it. I asked for some hints.”
“You asked …? Why on earth would you do that?!”
“I’m stacking the deck in my favor,” he said with such male confidence I couldn’t help but feel the blush heat up my face.
To put him back in his place I told him, “Harry is fairly reliable as such things go but next time ask the source, you’ll be less likely to step in it.” Instead of putting him in his place I only made him laugh again. To put things back on a more even footing and take it away from a subject I still wasn’t comfortable with I asked, “Do you prefer porridge in the morning or are the feather dusters not laying?”
“I like a good breakfast in the morning but don’t always have time to cook it. I was hoping for some scrambled or fried to be honest but the hens have been off the past week. I thought it was the heat but after yesterday I think it could be upset nerves.”
Which reminded me of the pup and I looked out the kitchen window. When I didn’t see him in the pen I turned to say something but Dino forestalled me. “I moved him to the kennel this morning. It will be cooler there as it is shaded and he’ll get reacquainted with the rest.”
“You have more dogs? I didn’t hear them.”
“They’re hunters and I train them to stay quiet unless they are working. I’ll let the boss dog and three other adult male dogs out while we’re gone and they’ll keep an eye on the house and livestock. The alpha female is in heat and she’ll be better off staying in her pen and the other female has a new litter.”
“That’s a lot of dogs,” I told him, surprised. “How do you keep them all fed?”
“I haul a load of kibble a couple of times a year from the Seed & Feed but they also get the leftover scraps from hunting and slaughter time.” When he saw the look on my face before I could hide it he said, “I know it sounds like an expense, and it is, but what I get in trade for the pups that I don’t keep more than makes up for it. I don’t like to breed the dogs often; the one in the kennel now was an accident that happened when a certain little boy that shall remain nameless left the kennel door open.”
That particular little boy came stumbling down the stairs. He was fine as a frog’s hair until he spotted me. “What is she doing here Daddy?”
Dino asked in a strained voice, “What did we talk about last night?”
“But why her? Why can’t Aunt Cheryl come be your company? She’s much nicer and prettier?”
Now it was my turn to try and hide a smile. Poor Kerry, life was simply not going his way. I also imagined that Aunt Cheryl might be part of the problem of why Kerry was turning spoiled. I looked at Dino to share what I thought was a funny but he wasn’t the least bit amused. He was in a staring contest with his son and the longer Kerry continued to ignore the warning the worse it was going to be for him when Dino got tired of it.
“Kerry Pappas, are you telling me you don’t want any breakfast? And here I thought you must be near starving to death.”
That confused him just enough to break off the eye contact. “Huh?”
“That is either yes ma’am or no ma’am so are you telling me that you don’t want any breakfast?”
Arching my eyebrow and giving him the same look I’d seen my great great Aunt Lois level on us kids more than a few times I told him, “Because that’s what bad manners and a sour attitude says. If you would like some breakfast like the rest of us civilized folks then you need to moderate yore behavior a mite.”
“Huh?” he asked still confused.
Harry chose that moment to walk in and swing Kerry up in into his chair at the table and explain, “Mind your p’s and q’s Squirt or she’ll leave you hungry. Ask me how I know but I’m telling you it is a sad, sad tale.” Harry’s outrageous remark and the look on his face when he said it was just enough to tip the balance in the other direction and make Kerry laugh despite his mullygrumps.
While the menfolk sat regaining their humanity with either coffee or tea, or in Kerry’s case milk, I brought in the pot of porridge. After tasting a smidge to make sure it was ready I felt forced to doctor it up a bit with some syrup and some raisins I had found in the pantry. After giving up on finding any butter I ladled it out into bowls and carried them over to the table. There was a deep sigh of resignation from Kerry before he put the first spoonful in his mouth but when he did I nearly fell out of my chair laughing.
Dino looked first at me and then at his son’s face. The boy’s eyes were as big as saucers right before he started shoveling his porridge into his mouth as fast as it could get it there. “Whoa! You’re going to have an upset stomach,” I told him, trying to get him to slow down.
Dino cautiously put a bite to his lips and then did a double take before looking inside his bowl like he’d never seen porridge before. That only made me laugh even more. Harry just smiled and held out his bowl and said, “May I have some more ma’am? Please?”
Still chuckling I stood up to get the pot and by the time I brought it back Kerry had cleaned his bowl as well. Screwing up his courage he looked at me and said, “Can I have some more … please?”
I thought Dino was going to choke and I had to pound on his back when his coffee went down the wrong way. I looked at Kerry and told him conspiratorially, “See. That’s what happens when you eat too fast.”
He looked at his father like he wasn’t too sure I was telling the truth but finish his second helping of porridge without a word. Dino for his part kept looking at his son like he had something growing out of his head. He kept doing it until I kicked him under the table. It wasn’t hard but it was enough to catch his attention. I rolled my eyes at him and he got the message.
Dishes were a quick clean up but I surely hated to have to put the fire in the grate out with water the way I did because it would mean cleaning it out before I could light another one in there. We were going to be gone too long to leave even a banked fire unattended.
I was wondering if I could risk not watering the garden so that we could go ahead and get before it turned into the scorcher that the clear blue sky promised it to be when I just about jumped out of my skin. “What on earth?!” I cried as I noticed small jets of water jump up before settling down near to the ground.
Kerry walked over to where I stood trying to figure out what I was looking at and told me, “Daddy is irritating the garden.”
I looked at the boy and then back at the garden before it clicked. “You mean he’s irrigating the garden?”
“That’s what I said. Come on, I’ll show you. Sometimes he lets me pull the handle.”
We walked over to what looked like a giant, tub up on stilts to find Dino turning a valve. “I’ll let it run until we’re ready to go … thirty minutes good for you?”
I nodded while Kerry told him, “I told her I’d show her how to irritate the garden.”
“Irrigate son,” he said with a sigh that told me it wasn’t the first time he’d corrected the word.
Their set up was unlike any that I’d seen though I’d heard that a few people had something similar. The big tub was like an above ground cistern or water tower. It was tall and narrow like an iced tea glass but set up on a welded frame that acted as a pedestal. There was a pipe that ran from a shed nearby and then up and into the top of the “glass.” There was another pipe that ran to the same location only from the corner of a different outbuilding. On the garden side a pipe came out of the side of the “glass” near the bottom. This pipe had a valve and then another piece of pipe after that which ended in a horizontal piece of pipe that dropped down into four other pipes that had their own levers. Those pipes went down into the ground.
Dino explained, “The height of the tank and then the change in pipe diameter, as well as the drop of the plumping from here to the garden, helps keep the water pressure adequate unless the tank is nearly empty. When the tank is completely full as it is now there’s a big push at first which is why the water jumps and then it equalizes after I adjust the switches on the outflow.”
“How do you fill the tank if it doesn’t rain?”
“Depends. If the cisterns are full I’ll pump it off from there but if I absolutely have to I’ll get the well going.”
“You’ve … you’ve got electric?” I asked in an awed whisper.
“I’ve got a generator that will run off of ethanol.” Knowing the word from my childhood but not understanding what it was he explained, “Moonshine. I have to be careful as the government is pretty strict about its use but so long as I don’t say much and grease the right palms with a few extra bottles of the good wine after harvest they don’t bother me. Alec just finished building a set up that runs off of methane and I intend to replicate it after I get some of the harvest money.”
My jaw unhinged. “Are you telling me you can make a generator that will run on poop?!”
I’d caught him off guard again and he laughed and then laughed some more only harder. “Yes, yes I can.” He tried to say something else but had to stop ‘cause he was laughing again.
I just shook my head. “Well why hasn’t everyone been doing this all along? There must be enough poop around here to run a million of ‘em.”
That only made him laugh harder. Kerry looked at his daddy like he’d taken leave of his senses and I was beginning to wonder the same thing. He finally wound down and admitted, “I don’t know to be honest. You’re right there is enough …” He sputtered again and I had to sigh as he fought not to laugh again. “… enough biomatter to make it worth the trouble but most people seem only able to focus resources on one solution at a time.” At my puzzled look he said, “At the beginning of the war when people still had the money they were trying to acquire food and diesel to keep their family and tractors going. Then the money ran out to do more than barely get by, there wasn’t any for extra projects. That also meant that by the time it was too late there wasn’t money to try anything new. Then someone found out that many of the tractors could be made to run on ethanol which was a product most of them knew about for generations, just in the form of moonshine. That wasn’t too hard because they had the parts on hand to build their own distillery set up. The problem is the corn crop is closely monitored by the government because it is needed to feed the cities and the troops to keep them going off like a bottle rocket in the middle of an oil refinery. The government will look the other way as long as you keep feeding them but you make waves you better duck.”
I nodded. I’d had more than enough experience with government inspectors to last me a life time.
“Creating a methane digester … a piece of equipment that takes the biomatter and collects the resulting gas … the CH4 or methane … is not a big deal; pretty simple really. But converting an engine to run on the methane is a little more complicated and includes modifying the carburetor so that it will deliver the gas to the combustion chamber. And …” He looked at my glazed look. “Am I boring you?”
“No,” I told him. “I just do a lot better with pictures and I’m having a hard time turning your words into a picture I can understand.”
His face cleared and he told me, “I’ll show you Alec’s set up one of these days. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind, he’s that proud of it. But not today. In fact, if we don’t get a move on we’re going to run into trouble.”
He shook his head, “If that is the start of telling me that I don’t have to fetch your belongings you can save your breath. I told you I would and that is the job that I’ve set for us today.”
There wasn’t anything to say to that but thank you. I watched him turn off the valves to the garden and then lock them with a chain. Afterwards he set off to help Harry hitch the team to his wagon which was bigger and had better springs while Kerry followed me back to the house and showed me how to lock everything up.
As we sat on the porch waiting for the men Kerry asked me, “How come you don’t dress like a girl?”
Since he wasn’t the first little boy to ask me that question I didn’t get upset. “Because I don’t have many girl clothes and I don’t want to ruin the ones I have by working in them. These overalls work just fine and have growing room in them yet.”
“Oh.” After a half beat he asked, “Are you going to ask Daddy to buy you some girl clothes?”
Now that did get a rise out of me. “I most certainly will not Squirt. My clothes are my business and I better not hear you saying otherwise.” He gave me a look like he was considering my “request” but didn’t say anything else about it. I thought for a not-quite-five year old he sure did have a brain that worked overtime figuring out ways to get him into trouble.
The wagon ride over to see Dino’s cousin was a short one as the two farms adjoined. When we pulled into the yard we found we weren’t the only ones to stop by. There were several wagons parked here and there and knots of people standing about as well. Dino said, “He must be studding the bull again.”
Of course Harry had to see what Dino was talking about and before Dino could stop him Kerry had jumped out of the wagon and run over to a crowd of little boys. Dino growled but not in a serious way since he’d had the brake on. “We might as well get down. If Alec can’t go I’ll see if one of his boys will come with us.”
I knew most of the people there but that isn’t what kept me hanging back as Dino headed toward the front porch of the main house. Before I could decide what to do so there wouldn’t be a fuss I caught sight of a figure flying straight at me and just had time to dodge, but he whipped around and grabbed me around the waist from my backside and squeezed hard enough to cause me to grunt. Two more came at me but they had more sense and went at me from the sides.
“Miss Riss! Miss Riss! You said you were moving away forever and that we might not ever see you again!”
Trying to peel the little boys off of me I said, “Do I look like a jungle gym to you monkeys?”
They all laughed and turned loose but not without one more squeeze that caused me to squeak. “Goodness gracious land sakes alive, you’d think it’d been a million years since you’ve seen me.”
“It has! Nobody plays with us anymore on Sundays.”
I shook my head, “I’m sure that’s not true Riley.”
One of the others said, “They don’t play like you do. When are you coming back?”
Before I knew it I had a bunch of little boys all chirping at me like baby birds in a nest. Unfortunately that brought the kind of attention that I’d been trying to avoid. A woman not much older than me, one that not too long ago I’d thought a friend, demanded, “JR, come … here … now.”
“Aw leave off Cindy I’m just …”
“JR, you want me to slap you?”
I had to intervene, “Cindy, don’t. He doesn’t understand.”
“I don’t care if he does or not. You’re … you’re not fit company …,” she nearly snarled.
What I hadn’t realized until it was too late was that Cindy had nursed secret feelings for Sol for a long time. He never returned her feelings as far as I knew and when what happened became common knowledge she seemed to think it was my fault that she’d never been able to catch his attention. Of course she wasn’t the only one that set themselves against me for one reason or another. What happened to me might be common in the cities but folks around here figured I was common all right … a common tramp that had somehow been pulling the wool over their eyes up to that point. On the other hand there were some that said they’d “known what I was all along.”
A few more women had come over to see what the fuss was about and several of them looked like they’d just bit into an unripe persimmon. They were pulling the boys away and the boys being boys were making a fuss at being yanked away from a favorite toy, namely me. Kerry being Kerry blurted out in a voice loud enough to be heard clear across the yard, “How come those women don’t like you touching their kids?”
I glanced around to see who’d heard him just in time to see Dino’s head go up and his face take on a dark look. I bent down to Kerry and said, “Hush! That’s their mommas and they can tell ‘em what to do ‘til the Rapture and it’d be none of my business. Now scoot, it looks like it’s your turn on the swing.”
As quarrelsome as Kerry could be he was still just a four year old boy and swings beat adult foolery every time. As soon as he run off I quietly went around to the other side of the wagon and didn’t look at anyone. I had just decided to climb in when there was that hand stopping me again. I was thinking that the next time he tried it I was gonna slap it.
“What’s going on?”
I sighed. “What do you thinks going on?”
“I know what you said but …” He shook his head. “I thought you were exaggerating.”
“Well I wasn’t so there. Now just forget about it and tend to your business. I’m gonna sit in the wagon.”
“You are not ‘gonna sit in the wagon’. You’re going to come up to the porch and meet my family.”
Outraged I said, “I am not going to do any such thing. I saw the way that woman up there was pinching up. I reckon that is one of your relations and I’m not going to have a hand in causing problems.”
“I intend to make my point,” he said angrily.
“Well you can make it without me.” I put my hands on my hips and gave him look for look. “Dealing with people talking is one thing but I will not … will NOT … be the cause of any trouble with your family.”
“I told you I wouldn’t let people talk about you.”
I shook my head. “And I never intended on holding you to a promise you couldn’t keep. People talk Dino. You know it too. Even if you could stop ‘em in your presence they’d just pick it up again when you weren’t around.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Yes, it is,” I contradicted. “I’m not going to back out of my promise. I’ll stay and help with Kerry and your house. But this should show you the way my words apparently didn’t that any other idea you might have is …”
I’d managed to irritate him. “I don’t go back on my word.”
And he was beginning to irritate me. “I didn’t way you would. For Pete’s Sake you’ve been nicer to me in just one day than most folks have been to me … well … for a long, long time. I’m thankful you aren’t asking anything for it either like most men probably would and you know what I mean so I ain’t gonna say it. I’m just that grateful for your kindness.”
“I don’t want your gratitude,” he snarled.
“Well tough, you’ve got it,” I snapped right back.
Somebody coulda struck a match just by putting it near us we were just that hot. He was glaring at me and I was glaring at him. Then a voice full of laughter said, “Children, children this simply won’t do.”
We both jumped like we’d been electrocuted old style. We both turned to find a slim older woman with silver hair cut to her chin in a modern bob standing there shaking her head at us. “Dionysius, introduce me if you please.”
I looked at Dino who was absolutely not happy to be called by his given name and couldn’t help it. “And I thought Damaris was bad when my aunt said it that way.”
Dino’s nose flared and then the lines around his eyes started to soften. Soon his lips started to twitch unwillingly before saying, “Then I’m never telling you my middle name.”
Thinking of my own middle name I refused to even let him know I had one. Suddenly remembering we were being watched I closed down and took a step back before saying, “I beg your pardon.” I was looking for a way to make a quick escape but apparently we’d drawn a crowd. Dino gave them all a glare that seem to say, “What are you looking at?” before pulling me forward.
“Aunt Adona, this is Damaris Keehn. This is the woman I told you about that has agreed to help me with Kerry.”
I mumbled a polite “How do you do?” then tried to escape again.
The silver hair lady stopped me by saying, “I don’t bite you know.”
“No ma’am, but I don’t want to be the cause of any fuss in the family. I’ll just go over to that tree and …”
Before I could finish she was shaking her head, “Actually now that Dionysius has introduced us I’d like to introduce you to my daughter-in-law.” She might have been silver haired but the look on her face said steel is what run through her veins. She grabbed a hold of my arm – that grabbing thing must be a family trait – and drew me with her right smack dab through the middle of the crowd. By the looks on people’s I wasn’t the only one wondering what she was up to.