We walked back to find Harry looking frazzled and Kerry looking mutinous. I intended to start my duties right away but Dino said, “Sit down and finish your dinner. I’ll take Kerry and clean him up.”
“But your supper …”
“Just keep the flies off of it, I’ll be back as soon as I put him down for the night.” Kerry heard the words and started to fuss until Dino gave him a look and a bit of a growl that sounded like a bear telling a cub they were about to get swatted if they didn’t mind.
I put half my dinner on Harry’s plate for him to finish and he tried to object. “Harry, I’m gonna eat something just to keep the peace but I’m honestly just not hungry right now. Help me not to waste the food.”
Reluctantly at first Harry started eating but once he’d gotten the taste his reluctance went away. “Riss,” he mumbled around a mouthful of salad. “If you are really set against things …”
“We’ve come to an agreement of sorts.”
Getting a fatherly look that sat strangely on his freckled face Harry asked me, “What sort of agreement?”
I rolled my eyes. “The sort that suits me for now.”
“And that is?” he persisted.
“It leans more toward me being a housekeeper and auntie but leaves open the possibility for more after we’ve both had time to get to know each other.”
He shook his head, “You already know each other.”
I was just about sorry I’d given him second helpings. “Harry don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
He sighed, “OK, so maybe I do.” He blushed. “But your way people are going to talk.”
“We’ve already had this conversation.”
He shook his head. “Not this one. Letting your … uh … passions and what not escape your control is different than going to work for a man that you might start … uh … I mean …” The blush crept all the way to the tips of his ears.
Too tired to be embarrassed anymore I told him, “There won’t be any ‘uh’ until – or if – we decide to get married. I’ve got his word on that and I reckon I believe him. I’ve warned him that people will talk but he seems to think he can stand it.”
“What about you? Can you stand it?”
“I don’t see as I have any choice. I made my bed, now I’m gonna have to lie in it.” I explained the rest and though it wasn’t his first choice he did admit to how it might be better in the long haul of things.
Just as I put the last bite in my mouth and stood up to clean off the table Dino came back out onto the porch. I shook my head at how the eggs were likely to taste but he was a grown man so I let it. “I didn’t make any sweet for dessert as I didn’t know what your preferences were.”
He mumbled “As long as it don’t move I’ll eat it” while he forked the last of his dinner into his mouth like his hunger was getting the better of him.
“Kerry didn’t look like he had any trouble eating either.”
“He better not, he gives me enough trouble on all other fronts but that one will earn him some hard time. I work too hard to make ends meet to let him waste it. Between the prices and weather changes this past year there’s gangs of kids in the cities roaming the streets like wolf packs just to find food. He better appreciate what he’s got.”
I looked at Harry. “Did you hear or see anything?”
“You mean when we were going to Uncle Bill’s?” At my nod he said, “There were rumors. Had a couple of people warn me while we were on the road but I didn’t actually see anything. ‘Course we didn’t get all the way into the city either, only to his compound in the factory section.”
I looked back at Dino as I scraped the last of the food into his plate and stacked the remaining dishes and cutlery to take them to dishpans I had by the fire with the heating water. “OK, so there’s been talk, but have you actually seen any of these gangs of kids yourself?”
“Not me but Alec did … my cousin, the one married to Cheryl. You’ll meet him tomorrow. He had to go into the city to get some medicine for the baby”
“The one that is sickly? Their grandchild?”
“Yeah,” he said. “He says that most of the older kids that cause problems have been packed off to work farms or recycling centers and under heavy guard. It is supposed to be an educational environment to teach them life skills rather than the criminal skills they were developing but rumor has it they’re little more than old-style gulags.” I had an idea what the word meant and it wasn’t pleasant. “Now the story is that the younger kids are starting to skip school, roam around, and get into all kinds of trouble.”
I turned away to start the dishes and so they wouldn’t see me touch my stomach. Right then I determined that my kid wasn’t going to wind up some street brat even if it did mean marrying before I was ready.
I heard them behind me bringing the rest of the stuff from the table. “Do me a favor and bring all that crocery from the sink in the kitchen. Might as well get to it.”
“Uh …” Dino was a little hesitant.
“Look, I’ve washed dirty stuff before. I’ve washed nasty stuff before. And you asked me to take the house in hand. Well the first place I plan on starting is the kitchen. So do me the kindness of not making me go back and forth on them steps too many times.”
Harry said in a pretend whisper, “Better just give in. It’ll go easier on you if you do.”
He just missed getting swatted by a wet dish rag, but he did put more effort into helping after that.
Dino asked, “Did you tell Harry?”
“I told him.”
I shrugged. “And what? He isn’t my keeper. But if it matters he’s fine with it. I didn’t mention going to pick up my things though.” He nodded. I’d given him the excuse to talk to Harry ‘cause I figure he was going to do it anyway. This way they could work it out between them.
After the dishes were finished I headed towards the kitchen itself. I just hated the idea of putting clean dishes away in a dirty cabinet and one thing led to another and before I realized it I could barely see my hand in front of my face. I looked up in surprise to find that dusk had almost turned to full evening.
“I was wondering if you ever wound down.”
I jumped not realizing anyone was around. I turned to find Dino standing there holding an unlit kerosene lamp. “I tend to go to bed early … Harry has already crashed upstairs but warned me you can be a night owl.”
“Only when there is work to be done. In Summer the days are so nice and long it’s a shame to waste them.”
“He also said that for as long as he’s known you you lived in a camper rather than the house.”
I shrugged, “Long story.”
“We’ve got some time if you’ve got the inclination.”
I rinsed out and scalded the rag one more time and then hung it up for the night so it wouldn’t sour. I told Dino, “I scooped out what water I could from the sink but some still went down the drain. I’ll pour some vinegar in it tomorrow if you have any.”
“That I know we do have as I tripped over it the other day. But no need to be so careful. The plumbing works.” He laughed at the look on my face.
“Are you sure you aren’t yanking my chain about having a hard time finding a woman willing to stay with you?”
“No, I’m not yanking your chain. I have to keep buckets of water in the bathrooms to flush with but the septic still works.”
“Then why the outhouse?”
“My grandmother hated dirty floors. Unless it was night time everyone stayed out of the house as much as possible because we didn’t want to have to keep taking our boots on and off.”
Nodding I admitted, “Well that certainly makes sense. Do you mind if I sit down?”
“I wish you would. You were going to tell me about that camper.”
I sighed. “I suppose I was.”
“Why didn’t you live in the house?”
“I don’t know, not really. It just never seemed to come about. My mother chose to live in the camper rather than ask for a place in the house; my grandfather would have made room for her. I suppose the camper … well, truth be told Momma kinda … well … she just wasn’t the same after my father was killed. She held on to things but couldn’t stand to at the same time. The camper had been the last big thing they’d bought together and I guess … I don’t know. We just lived in the camper instead of the house.”
“Your father died early in the war?”
“He died at the First Battle of MacDill.” Dino got real still when I said it, most military men did. MacDill had been the first US base that had been attacked head on and it had galvanized the country in a way nothing else had up to that point.
“I hadn’t heard that.”
“It’s not common knowledge. I’m proud of Dad and who he was but his death isn’t exactly something I would ever brag on. Anyway, after the epidemic I just stayed on in the camper. Then the Bly family came and I just kept on staying in it. It … I guess … in a way … it’s been the one constant in my life left over from before my father died.”
He was quiet for a moment then asked, “Will you be hurt if something has happened to it? Or if we don’t bring it back?”
I thought for a moment then answered, “No, I don’t think so. I said my good byes when I … when I thought I was moving to the city. I’ll be honest though and say that I hope that my other things are there.”
Suddenly remembering he told me, “Harry and I unloaded your things from the wagon; they’re in the front room. I wasn’t sure where you wanted them.”
“Oh good grief, most of that stuff is just … well, it surely doesn’t belong in a fancy room like your front room.”
I stood to get up and move it but Dino took my hand to stop me, an act I had a feeling I’d have to get used to. “Leave it for tonight, unless there is something in particular you want. I put your clothes bag in the bedroom.”
“Is that your way of sending me to bed?” I asked, only half way funning.
“It’s my way of saying politely that I don’t want you to think I expect you to work like a mule and certainly not in your condition. If you want to stay up that’s your choice, but you don’t need to stay up working. Why don’t you let me show you the room to see if you care for it.”
I surely did all right, though the thought of sleeping in a room bigger than the whole camper had been was a might strange. There was an attached bathroom … one not shared by any other room. The mattress didn’t look lumpy and there were wooden slates on the windows for blinds plus curtains on top of that. The two mirrors – one in the bathroom and then a beveled one on the wall behind the dresser – didn’t even have any cracks in them.
“Wow. Who lived in here?” I couldn’t help but ask.
Dino smiled at my reaction. “My aunt when she visited. She was my father’s sister. She lives with Alec now and you might get to meet her tomorrow though she’s a little particular about being introduced to people without notice.”
“Wait, I thought … I mean I got the impression you didn’t have much family?”
“Compared to what I used to have I don’t. My father was the baby of the family and I didn’t really get to know my grandparents or the rest of my relatives until I was in my teens and Dad took a job stateside that kept us in one place.”
“You were an only?”
He shook his head sadly, “No. I had two younger sisters.” Had said it all and even if it hadn’t the look on his face did. “There’s clean linens in that cabinet. If the mattress is too musty we can air it out tomorrow.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. No need to make more work for yourself,” I said teasing him a little with his own words to try and get the sadness out of his eyes.
Instead he turned to me and said, “There’s work and then there’s work. I want you to feel comfortable and safe here Riss. I’m a man of my word; when I give it I keep it.”
“I’m starting to see that,” I told him.
He said goodnight and then, leaving me the lamp which he’d lit for me, he headed out to his own room but not before telling me that there was a lock on the door. I turned and gave the room another look and just shook my head. I hadn’t had so much space to myself in a long, long time if ever; it was going to take some getting used to.
The mattress was a little musty but not as bad as the camper got after a long, damp winter. It certainly didn’t keep me from climbing into it and falling to sleep almost immediately.