Mr. Pappas drove the wagon but it was Harry who climbed into the back with me and explained things. Quietly, barely audible over the creaking of the wagon and the jangling of the tack he said, “Dino doesn’t need a housekeeper Riss; it’s like I told you, he wants a wife. And he’s offering you the chance to think about it to see if the two of you will suit well enough to make a go of it.”
Startled I said the first thing that came to mind. “His boy might not like me.”
Smiling conspiratorially Harry reminded me, “That never stopped you before. Hannah didn’t want nothing to do with you at first yet you still taught her how to survive, and even better than she realizes it yet.”
His words startled me, making him laugh a little. “It’s one of the reasons Dad was always glad you stayed. He knew if you hadn’t our lives would have been a lot rougher than they were. At the same time you were also the reason he wasn’t as hard on the rest of us as he could have been. You made sure we knew what we needed to do so they wouldn’t have to always be at us, pounding away.”
“I never knew.” After a moment I added, “I thought a lot of your daddy. He could have run me off – most folks would have.”
“Riss,” Harry said getting real serious. “I know this isn’t what was planned and I know you’re gonna have to decide quick … and I know a lot of people question whether I’ve got any sense at all … but I never would have brought you here if I didn’t trust Dino to do right by you. Don’t let what Sol did sour you on people or on marriage. Look at my parents; they weren’t perfect but they managed to keep it together and make it work. Look at some of the other crazy pairings that are working; it ain’t like you and Dino would be the only marriage of convenience around. That love stuff is important, but it ain’t the first important thing like it used to be. At least think on this some.”
What I was thinking was that Harry was an odd boy; but it was also one of the reasons why we were friends, because I was odd too. Leaning back trying to take some of the pressure off of my sitter on the worst of the ruts in the road I asked, “How quick does he want an answer?”
“The quicker the better but he says that he’ll give you a couple of days to think on it.”
I’d thought we were being quiet enough that he wouldn’t overhear but there was nothing wrong with Dino Pappas’s ears. “If it makes a difference I plan on it being a legal contract and not just a spoken one.” That’s what people had started calling the different kinds of marriages people had, sort of like the difference between the old marriage licenses and civil unions. A legal contract marriage was a piece of paper that was filed with the state and recognized everywhere including by the Feds. A spoken “contract” was anything else from common law to civil union to something that was so casual it had no legal binding to it. The spoken ones were only as good as the people doing the speaking and usually even then only good in the state that they was declared in.
I looked at his back and saw that he had sweated through the shirt he was wearing so many times that it was faded in places and that there was a wore out place on the shoulder that was going to get worse real quick unless it was mended. “So you mean for this to stick? No giving yourself an out just in case you get sorry at some point?” I felt pressed to ask him.
“I was sorry that way once, I don’t intend on being sorry that way again. It will either work or it won’t but either way it won’t be because I started off expecting it to fail.”
That actually gave me more comfort than I intended it to but I was still cautious. I’d already heard the promises of one man, I didn’t intend on being made a fool of again. “Who do you want to marry us? If we go through with this I mean. I don’t think Brother Carver has kept up his license. Or at least that was what Mrs. Bly was fussing about at one point.” I was referring to the man that was acting as interim preacher at the church I had been attending with the Bly family.
He nodded. “I’ll speak with Judge Hargrove.”
“My word, you are serious about this aren’t you,” I couldn’t help but say. No one approached the Judge unless they were serious as a heart attack about what they wanted because if he put his name to it he expected it to stick and would fight tooth and nail with anybody trying to break such a contract unless there was a doggone good reason for it.
With too much understanding in his voice the man I was giving serious contemplation to marrying said, “I say what I mean and I keep my word.” And because I realized that appeared to be true, I needed to think real hard before I gave any words of my own.
We all fell silent except for some hard grunts because we’d come to a piece of road that no one maintained but once across it a neatly level, freshly graveled road took us the rest of the way into a tidy farmstead. A house, built of real stone and brickwork rose a majestic two and a half stories. It had a wide wraparound porch that looked like it could have easily sat a couple of dozen folks had there been that many chairs sat out; but there were only on rocker and a swing, neither of which were occupied.
Off away from the house was a barn and a few other outbuildings within easy walk. On the other side of the house was a large garden that needed tending in a desperate way. Beyond the garden was row upon row of grape vines infinitely better cared for than the garden. It was quite a place all right and a bit intimidating to me to think of having to help with its upkeep. For the most part what I’d seen in just that one look appeared to be in reasonable order but it wasn’t getting the attention that it needed save for the cash crop fields.
We’d stepped up onto the porch and Mr. Pappas was saying, “There is more garden behind the house including my grandmother’s rose garden. There’s also a couple of groves of fruit and nut trees but we’ll have to walk around for you to …” What he had intended to finish with was cut off when first several chickens came fleeing and behind them a pup and a little boy doing the chasing.
A sharp expletive jumped from between Mr. Pappas’ lips and he rushed down the steps and straight towards the little hellion that was laughing like he didn’t have a care in the world. Knowing it was going to take more than one person to save the chickens I grabbed the broom that happened to be leaning near the kitchen door and stomped down the steps. Taking aim as the pup rushed by chasing another brainless feather duster I swung and sent the pup snout over tail making him yip in surprise.
“Sit!” I commanded.
The little hellion wrenched out of his father’s arms and tried to set on me but I turned quick and caught him by surprise as I pushed him to where he wound up sitting with the pup. He went to start his mouth and I asked in the same tone I’d heard my grandfather use with my cousins, “You want someone to have to shoot that dog?”
That shut him up for all of about two seconds but I stopped him again by saying, “And if someone has to it will be your own fault for teaching him to be a chicken killer.”
The boy’s eyes got big and round. Most kids know that chicken killers aren’t tolerated by even the most dirt poor scratchers. As soon as an animal – whether it be dog, cat, or something else – got to be known as a chicken killer it wasn’t long for this world.
I got a mean look and then he said, “You’re stupid. He ain’t a chicken killer. He was just playing.”
I shook my head. “He’s a just a pup now but what he’s learning to be is a hunter. And what you’re doing is teaching him to hunt chickens. Pretty soon his instincts will get away from him. It may already be too late to unlearn what you’ve done taught him.”
“You can’t do nothing to my dog. He’s mine and you kill him I’ll kill you.”
Before Mr. Pappas could act on the outrage and anger that flashed on his face I got down in Kerry’s face and told him, “Them some powerful big words for such a little squirt. And unless you want your sitter to be boiling hotter than this day is you better watch your mouth with me. You may have been able to run off all the other women your daddy brung home but you’re going to have to grow a mite bigger and then some before you’re able to push me around. And forget about them crocodile tears yore thinking about using, they don’t work with me either. Now get your hind end up and help put these poor ol’ things back in their yard where they’ll be safe and can get some water and cool off. Your daddy will be lucky not to lose one or two just from the heat and scare they’ve taken.”
“You can’t tell me what to do.”
“Don’t think so? Try me. And you can forget about your dog for a while.”
“Wha .. ? Why?! Where are you taking my puppy?!!” he cried as I grabbed his now thoroughly cowed dog by its scruff and started to haul him towards a small fenced in area that had a doghouse in it.
“I’m putting him up until you can prove that you are responsible enough to have a dog. And you better pray he can be broken of any bad habits he’s learned.” I let the “or else” hang in the air and even Kerry got the message.
He tried to open his mouth but his daddy got to him first. “Boy …” One word but that’s all it took. Kerry might have been spoiled in some ways but that let me know he wasn’t ruined; he at least still respected his daddy. I just hope the dog isn’t ruined. I’ll put it down myself if I have to but there’s something wrong feeling about being forced to kill an animal just ‘cause it was taught wrong by its human master.
I didn’t like being the one to discipline the pup but I’d rather discipline it than end up having to see it killed. I tied him good and firm to a stone post inside the fenced off area and then looked around in irritation at the lack of upkeep. I turned to see Kerry being force marched over my way.
His daddy gave him a look and even though he did it around a bottom lip that just about dragged the ground he gave me a reluctant apology. Never one to pass up an opportunity I sat on a stump outside the dog pen and pulled him over to me. “Kerry, do you understand how serious it is to own something?”
He just looked at me out of the corner of his eye. I explained quiet and serious, “When we own something that means it’s been put into our care; we’re responsible for it. And that means we have to clean it, keep it where it belongs, use it properly, put it away when we’re done with it so it’ll be there next time, and stuff like that. And when what we own is something all living – like a dog, or a mule, or some other animal – that becomes even more important.”
The bottom lip was still all pooched out but I could tell he was listening. “Fer instance, I wouldn’t say your daddy owns you precisely but he is responsible for you. He keeps a roof over your head, makes sure you’ve got a place to sleep every night, keeps you safe and makes sure you have something to eat. He also tries to teach you not to make bad choices so that as you grow up you won’t get in trouble with other folks. That’s what people are supposed to do.”
“Not my mother,” he said pathetically.
Oh he was a smart little devil but I wasn’t the type to have my heart strings twanged so easy. “So I’ve heard and look where it got her. She’s missed out on all the good things she could have had because of her poor choices.”
Twanging didn’t work so he tried a frontal attack. “I don’t want you here.”
“Well I’m not precisely sure that makes any difference if you want to know the truth. You’ve proven you are ornery and can’t seem to mind no matter how much your daddy needs you to. It’s obvious as the day is long you need someone to mind you and teach you that stepping off the straight and narrow isn’t the smartest thing in the world to do. Boy, I’m not sure they’d even take you up at the new school with the way you act and that’s a shame considering how much fun school can be.” He started to open his mouth and get me off track but I talked over him. “And your daddy needs help you aren’t old enough to give him yet, somebody that will stay around and keep helping even after you grow up and go your own way.”
Next he tried insults. “You talk funny and you’re fat.”
“And bound to get fatter, at least for a while so get used to it. Reckon I’ll be as big as a barn with the way I’m already showin’.”
“Showin’ what?” he asked like I’d taken leave of my senses.
“Well I didn’t exactly eat a melon boy. I’m gonna have a baby.”
“’Cause I am you monkey. Why are you such a bucket of trouble?”
“You gonna leave it here when you leave?”
I snorted, “Boy, you got some imagination. Why would I leave my baby?”
He looked at me like I was stupid. “My mom left. Jimmy’s mom left too.”
Mr. Pappas mouthed a silent “Teasdale” and I understood. “Well, Jimmy’s momma didn’t have any choice. She went on to heaven to be with Jimmy’s daddy when Jimmy was a baby. It happens that way sometimes. My own parents died before I had a chance to grow up too. And do me a kindness not to measure me by your momma. I don’t aim to bad mouth her but I don’t aim to repeat her choices neither.”
He was quiet and then a disgruntled whisper came out that said, “You still talk funny.”
“And you have bad manners which is some worse.” Using the fence to stand up I looked to find Harry doing his best not to smile and though I didn’t know Mr. Pappas well he looked like he might be trying to hide one as well. I sighed. “Well, if all the fuss and feathers are taken care of if you’ll show me the kitchen I’ll get a meal going.”
Mr. Pappas said in a startled voice, “I didn’t expect you to cook.”
Giving him an owl-eyed stare I asked, “Afraid I’ll burn your supper?”
Giving as good as he got he responded, “Just trying to be ‘mannerly.’ But if you are offering I’ll accept. I need to see to a few things and it’ll give you a chance to see the inside of the house.”
He showed me to the kitchen and I was very impressed despite myself with everything except its state of cleanliness. Oh, no one would get sick eating out of it but there was just lots of little things that had been let to slide. The walls, floors and other surfaces needed a good scrubbing. The fireplace needed sweeping. And the sink was stacked with dishes that had been there more than a day or two.
Not knowing the depth of the pantry I kept the meal simple but filling. It was so hot that lighting up that big wood stove would have been a misery so I lit a fire outside in what looked like the old BBQ pit and then used the coals to fix what my mother had always called a frittata; I threw in some dried tomato and diced potato to flesh it out and give the men something to chew on besides plain ol’ eggs and cheese. As a side dish I fixed a summer salad made from peas and spinach was barely big enough to fool with yet wilty at the same time. There were a couple of sad looking sweet potatoes left in one of the bins and I cut the eyes off both ends (saved them to sprout in the kitchen window out of pure habit) and then sliced the middle and fried them up with a little butter and sweetener as a glaze. I was in the process of looking for the drinking water to make some tea with when Dino Pappas came around the house with Kerry who shot off in the direction of the outhouse.
At my raised eyebrows he said, “Seems he’s been eating some little green apples.” I winced having been there myself a time or two. He went on to ask, “What are you looking for?”
“Your hand pump or cistern. I was going to make some tea.”
“Be sparing with it. There isn’t much.”
I was gonna nod but then had to ask, “The water or the tea?”
He huffed like I’d made a funny. “The tea.”
Knowing for a fact he had a garden full of different mints I asked, “You … uh … take it to market?”
This time he was the one that stopped and looked where I rather shamefacedly pointed to a bunch that I’d already clipped to use. “Oh. Uh … I thought you meant … well, obviously not.”
Getting confused I just sorta stood there trying to figure out what he was talking about. He huffed again and shook his head. “Most of the women that came out here expected store-bought goods.”
I rolled my eyes and then said, “Well, no wonder you turned your nose up at ‘em. That stuff’s as high as a kite these days not to mention you drink too much of that stuff and you start shaking like you got palsy.”
That did make him laugh which I’m not sure I understand. Rather than explain he said, “The hand pump in the kitchen is good clean drinking water. There’s a sistern at the corner of the workshed that we use for outside needs and laundry.”
Again impressed I asked, “How did you manage to get a pump indoors?”
“It’s been in since the house was built, well before my grandparents moved in. My grandmother thought it was quaint and always refused to let anyone take it out though there were regular faucets as well until I took them out.”
“Huh,” I said in wonder. My family’s farm had been set up better than most to whether the changes the war had wrought but nothing like the convenience of a hand pump at the kitchen sink. The one convenience that I did notice missing was an ice box. “You have an ice house or an ice pit?”
“You making that a requirement?” he asked quietly.
“A requirement for what?” I asked before thinking. The words were barely out of my mouth before I realized what he’d meant. “Uh, no … I mean … I was just thinking this place has more conveniences than where I grew up except for an ice box. That we did manage to have because my grandfather was too cheap to replace it until my grandmother started serving him spoiled milk for his coffee.”
He asked, unsure whether I was funning or not I guess, “And would you do that?”
“Naw, and if you’d known my grandfather you wouldn’t be surprised. My grandmother though was what you might call a pistol. She’s the only one in the family that could have gotten away with something like that.” I smiled at memories I’d had stored away for a long time. “They seemed to be constantly at one another and an outsider would have thought they’d been better off apart but actually they were like to halves of the samebody.” Suddenly another memory took over. “When it came down to dying my grandfather held her in his arms and begged God to take him instead. God didn’t answer the way he wanted so the night she died he just sorta lay down beside her and gave up. He too was gone the before the sun come up on the next day. They’re buried in the same grave, in the same pine box.” I turned away and got myself busy taking the food into the house.
Quietly he came over and helped me carry it but instead of going inside he put it on a table on the back porch. “The dining table isn’t fit for company and eating out here makes it easier to clean up after Kerry.”
I grinned to cover my feelings at revealing stuff I hadn’t even talked to Sol about and said, “That explains the broom.”
He grinned relieved I wasn’t gonna turn into a watering pot and said, “Yep. I’m not interested in creating any more work for myself than I have to.”
“Then maybe you should rethink this marriage business,” I said seriously.
Kerry came banging out of the outhouse cutting whatever he was going to say short. What he did say was, “Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. I do know I’d like to talk about this some more after I put Kerry to be tonight … if you’re willing to listen.”
I nodded. I could at least listen since I was – or at least Harry was – the one to bring this whole thing up in the first place.