I was baking the biscuits in a reflector oven out by the BBQ pit when I heard a howl of laughter through one of the upstairs windows. Ooooo I could have toasted the tail of a particular four year old; but the shoe was to be on the other foot shortly.
I was ignoring the muffled laughter that kept escaping from Dino all during breakfast but then he had to go and ask “How did you sleep son?” and doubled over laughing so hard he was pert near crying and gasping for breath. Harry was laughing too though not so hard since it was obvious he was laughing at Dino’s antics and didn’t really know what the joke was.
I’d had enough of being the butt end of that particular funny. I sat the pitcher of milk on the table a little harder than was strictly necessary and turned to go inside. That was when the little dickens that had started this said, “Better than when I have to sleep in your room.” He turned to look at me and said, “Daddy snores just like Wheezer our old boss dog used to that time he caught a cold and died.”
That set Harry off so hard he fell out of his chair and with no small amount of satisfaction I walked into the kitchen to wash a few dishes to get ahead of the stack that was coming. A minute later Dino came in and in a voice all the teasing was gone from said, “You didn’t eat.”
I told him, “I ate while I was cooking like I always do. It wastes less of my time that way.”
He came up beside me at the sink and used a finger to turn my face in his direction. “You aren’t just telling a story because … because I hurt your feelings are you?”
I grinned a little and said, “No. But it sure was nice to learn that I’m not the only one that keeps Kerry awake.”
He chuckled and admitted, “You’re too easy to tease. Next time chuck something at my head so I’ll stop before I go too far.”
I smiled and shook my head. “Nope, I want you to get that rope nice and long to hang yourself with.”
We decided reluctantly we’d had our fill of play and got down to the work of the day. He gave me a quick tour of the places I hadn’t already gone in the house and told me, “Be sure and snoop in all the closets and cabinets, no telling what is stuffed where. My granparents could be sensitive about moving their things about and they were the worst packrats; I never have gotten around to going through everything. And speaking of … there’s a fat ol’ gray Tom cat that wanders about like a ghost so if you see him don’t worry he keeps the mice firmly in check; but he’s not much for people so I wouldn’t recommend trying to pet him or pick him up. Not even Kerry will mess with that cat so that should tell you something. If you still have questions we’ll do a better tour later but I’ve put off …”
He stopped worrying maybe that he’d said the wrong thing, but I finished it for him. “… what needed doing to tend to me.”
“I didn’t mean it that way … and I don’t regret it, it was time well spent.”
I eyed him a bit then said, “Are you going to bite my head off if I say I’m grateful?”
He just snorted and he and Harry headed out the door to start their day. As he went I heard him tell Kerry to “Mind Miss Riss … or else.” I also got an admonition to stay away from the milk cow as she was acting ornery and had been kicking the last two mornings running. Last thing I need right now is to be kicked by anything, much less a cow, so I’ll happily leave the milking to Dino.
As hot as it was the milk wasn’t going to keep for long so I set some to cream down in the basement where it was cool and then fixed the rest up in a quick farmer’s cheese. That done and put away, I was tying on my work boots when Kerry walked into the kitchen and said, “I’m bored.”
I looked at him and said, “Mm mmm mmmm boy, them’s some dangerous words.”
“Why?” he asked the way a kid will when they’re suspicious their leg is being pulled.
I just laughed and told him, “’Cause when children claim they’re bored it is the solemn obligation of any grownup nearby to give them chores to fill the time they can’t seem to fill on their own.”
Little devil said, “Aunt Cheryl says I’m too young and small for chores.”
“Huh! Is that so?” At his solemn nod I said, “Well, you might be at her house but this is your daddy’s house and since I saw what a big helper you were with them potatoes I … well … between you and me … I’m thinking you aren’t being given enough credit.” He didn’t know what to make of that but boys being boys he was pretty easy to lead when I started plucking up his pride a bit.
After the dew dried off we spent the coolest part of the morning – which wasn’t saying much – trying to make heads or tells of the vegetable and herb gardens. Oh Lord what a mess I have before me. I’m gonna be hoeing from now ‘til the other side of Christmas just trying to catch up. The first thing I aim to look for is a cultivator and if Dino doesn’t have one I think I’m gonna have to figure on how to make one myself even if I have to hook one of the dogs up to act like a mule to pull it. ‘Course once I get the weeds down I hope I can come up with some kind of mulch to put around the ones most difficult to hoe around.
And the compost piles are in terrible sad shape … well to be flat out honest they aren’t in any shape at all because apparently all the waste either goes to the hogs or the dogs and the manure piles haven’t been turned in forever. The weeds growing up around the manure piles where it’s leached into the soil look so fierce they’d give a billy goat pause. I hope Dino has a scythe or swing blade short enough for me to handle or I’m gonna have to get some help cause I surely am not going to kill myself pulling those things by hand.
Kerry is too small for hoeing yet though next season if I cut him one down to size I can put him to work between the rows. Right now he doesn’t know the difference between a pea and pigweed and he’d likely mow down half that needed keeping and only half that didn’t. I had him follow me around with a bucket with a lid and when I pulled a hornworm, grasshopper, or other nasty off a plant I’d put it in there. After remembering something one of my uncles did I also let him grub some worms up so I could set up a worm form for him to tend to teach him useful responsibility.
When I had walked the rows and gathered as many of those pest types of insects as I could find we walked over to the feather dusters and I let him toss a couple in there and it became a game to him. That kept him and the hens busy while I checked for eggs. There was one ol’ mean biddy in there that was too broody to move so I let her have her clutch. The flock has been picked over and not replaced for a while; if the chicks turn out healthy I might try trading some cockerels for some pullets as heat and nerves as an excuse or not I am not too impressed with the number of eggs these birds seem to be giving. I also saw that there were two more sections of fenced off area; one held a few geese and the other held a couple of turkeys.
“Honey?” I asked Kerry. “Are these your daddy’s birds or is he housing them for someone else?”
“They were Yaya’s. Aunt Adona took most of them with her but Daddy kept some because they reminded him of her.”
Since I’d never heard the name but had a good imagination I asked, “Was Yaya your daddy’s grandmother?”
“Uh huh. It’s hot. I want a drink,” he answered a little on the cranky side.
I snorted, “It depends. Do you have any manners in that mouth or just demands?”
He finally figured out that a please, yes ma’am, and no ma’am would go a long way towards getting him his way and as the day wore on I had to remind him less and less. Good manners are a habit just like bad ones are and the sooner you start a good habit the longer it will hang around and help you out.
From mid-morning on my main focus became the peaches and nectarines. A bushel of peaches runs about fifty pounds and since I remembered my commonsense I didn’t try and move the bushel baskets that Dino and Harry had brought into the kitchen for me … at least not until I emptied them at least half way. And it is a good thing I am so close to the ground because I tell you that bending over a bunch a times to deal with five bushels of fruit gets tiring.
So did standing at the sink washing jars till I was sick of seeing ‘em. On the other hand I was grateful too. There were a ton of empty jars down in the basement stacked in what seemed like endless rows on long shelves. What I was most grateful for however was that I’d managed to save all of my grandmother’s reusable tattler lids for canning. The companies that make the lids for jars want a precious lot for their wares these days and I hate spending money on something that can only be used once. The tattlers are reusable and my grandparents had a fine collection that I’ve salvaged over the years. A few have snapped and chipped and had to be thrown away – always a grieving process – but for the most part the ones that Granddaddy bulk ordered before the beginning of the war are still going strong.
I gave serious consideration before using my lids. By doing what I did I seemed to be making a commitment and I suppose I am. I know I already love the Little Hellion ‘cause despite it all he is an easy child to love and get attached to. Although I only promised to look after him, I am starting to like his daddy too. Again it makes me wonder if I’m not fickle somehow. I was all prepared to spend the rest of my life as Sol Bly’s wife and yet here I am, not two weeks later thinking about another man. Makes me wonder if there ain’t something inherently wrong with me. Maybe there is something to all them abandonment issues Mrs. Bly used to claim I have. It gives me pause; I don’t want to make another mistake … especially not seeing as how there is a little boy and a kind man involved.
As a matter of fact I gave it a lot of thought as I dealt with the fruit that had the kitchen smelling a little overripe; I certainly had the time. I pickled about ten pints each of peaches and nectarines. I canned a healthy number plain and spiced as well. Peach and then nectarine preserves came next. Peach butter both plain and spiced was another easy fix and didn’t cost me any pectin either. I had some left over from last year’s canning season but I would need to make more from this year’s apple thinnings or there wouldn’t be near as much jam and jelly as I would like.
About then I had to get some dinner on. It was so hot I couldn’t imagine that the men would want anything to make them hotter so I fixed another garden salad, a cold ham pie, and then sumac lemonade with water as cold as I could get it to come up. And when they hurried to get back out to their work I made them take a jug of switchel with them to keep from drying out too much.
I had worried a bit during the meal asking Dino about using all the sugar and he gave me a nice surprise. Apparently one of his field hand’s father gives Dino shares for letting him keep some of his beehives in the orchard and out in the vineyard. “My grandfather had the same deal with him Riss, there’s honey down in the basement that is at least five years old and probably some quite a bit older than that, maybe even from before the war. Use it … use it all if you need to. In a few months we’ll only be looking for space to put the new stuff.”
“Then why do you take it in if you can’t use it all?” I asked thinking that it was a waste.
“Some of it is for my grandparents’ memory and to help their old friend out but I’ll be honest … I need those bees; and honey doesn’t go bad. Most of the vineyard is pollinated by wind but I’ve always noticed that the areas the bees tend to favor do a little better and these days a little better can make a big difference. And we’ve never had the orchards fail with the bees at work either … of course my grandparents were organic growers before it became fashionable or as is the case these days, typical. That is also how Mr. Blanton gets top dollar for his honey because it can still be certified organic. My grandfather swears he could smell the difference between a wine that was grown organically and one that had chemicals sprayed on it.”
“Could he really?” Harry asked surprised.
“I don’t know, he claimed he could. My nose isn’t that sensitive but Alec swears up and down that he got to where he could tell the difference too.”
That brought up a question that had been nagging at me. “If you don’t mind me asking how did you wind up inheriting your grandparents’ place if Alec worked at it longer?”
Dino nodded, “Yeah, Alec has been at this since he was little but his father hated it … Aunt Adona’s husband. My grandfather and him were always at loggerheads. He wanted his son to grow up and be an engineer like he was but Papooh … that’s what we called my grandfather … wanted someone to take over the vineyards. Aunt Adona and Uncle Pierce separated when Alec was in college but Alec is a peacekeeper and tried to please his father and Papooh too … and wound up running away from both of them for a time to find himself before coming back with Cheryl and Ajax in tow. Uncle Pierce remarried and had another kid with a new wife which kind of took the pressure off of Alec … but Papooh kept wondering if Alec wouldn’t just run off again so he started grooming me. I liked farming but I also wanted to see the world a bit first. Luckily Alec and I always got along and mostly, because with him being older, he understood what I was going through. In the end Alec and I inherited equally. He’d already been living in and making improvements to the old overseers house and didn’t want to pick up and have to do the same thing to this place … it just worked out. Technically he owns half and I own the other half but come grape harvest time we work the vineyard like it is still whole.”
I sighed, “I wish it was that easy with all families. I’ve seen inheritance stuff tear families apart.”
“Yep,” he agreed. “Like I said it was Alec that really made things easy for both of us. It could have turned out a lot different.” He gave Kerry a look where he was dozing by his plate and added quietly, “You’ll get used to Cheryl. She’s been a lifesaver for me but I know she can be … uh …”
Smiling I told him, “You don’t need to justify your family to me. I can see they are all well-meaning. I won’t create problems for you so don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried about that. I just want you to know that I realize that Cheryl is some of the reason that Kerry got so spoiled. Just by way of explanation, Cheryl lost her last pregnancy about the time that Kerry was born and can’t have anymore … she kind of transferred some of those feelings to him and Tina never put a stop to it since it was so convenient for her. But now with Ajax and Tina giving her a grandchild it isn’t quite so intense as it was.” That did explain some of it and I knew I’d need to be careful not to set a bad precedent with the woman as she could make my life difficult if she took it into her head to do so.
After lunch, and with the understanding that sweetening wasn’t going to be a problem, I went back to canning with a clear conscience. I brushed out and cleaned the solar dehydrator … I discovered from the staining on some of the screens it was used primarily for making raisins … and set some fruit leathers and fruit slices to dry. The contraption was taller than I was which meant I had to get Kerry to help me find a step stool.
Fresh and full of vinegar from his short nap I had to finally tell him to go outside and play but to leave the animals alone and to stay where I could keep an eye on him. He still managed to slam in and out of the screen door so often I had a couple dozen flies worrying at me while I tried to work.
I started a batch of glace’ peaches and nectarines and then made a couple of liters of peach liqueur and peach cordial which I set on a set of shelves down in the basement next to the door to the wine cellar. After knocking my ankles and other parts of me even more sensitive into things down there I’ve determined that I will have to organize it sooner rather than later. I’m not sure when I am going to have the time but it needs doing or someone is going to break their ever loving neck … and that someone is likely to be me.
I still had two bushels of peaches left but I was getting some tired by that time so I used the few I had left that I’d already skinned to make Peach Bread Pones. It’s just about the easiest thing in the world to make. You take soft fruit and mash it up juice and all. Then you mix that about half and half with self-rising cornmeal and add a little sweetening to that. If the peaches aren’t juicy enough to make a soft-hard dough you can add a little boiling water at a time until you get it the way you want it. Then you put the pone dough to bake or fry as you prefer and wham, bam, thank you man you have some good eatin’.
I gave one of the pones to Kerry to gnaw on and then asked him to show me to the orchard. When we got there I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry; somebody had forgot to mention that the orchard here had peach and nectarine trees in it too … and it also had a couple of huge cherry trees that had been netted over to keep the birds out of them and a pretty good sized strawberry tower that needed picking as well.
I know what I’m doing when it comes to the how but I’ve never had to do all the work by myself. Before the epidemic I was following the womenfolk in my family around and doing for them and then afterwards with the Bly family while I was the one directing the doing there were hands to help with the work itself. I shook my head and tried real hard to not be overwhelmed and believe that I’d be able to do it all … but I knew in my heart that I was getting a late start and was already behind and unlikely to get caught up before some things were rurnt. That just don’t set well with me; I hate to waste food of any type.
But a body can only do what a body can do. I knew I’d brought the buckets with me for a reason so I set to it. First I pulled all the ripe cherries I could reach which, though quite a bunch, still left what looked like bushels on each tree. I set those in the shade to ask Harry to bring to the house for me. Then I went to the shed to look for a tub. I got lucky and brought back a few plastic dish pans and a wheelbarrow to push them in.
“Kerry Pappas! Do I look like a push mule to you?!” I told the boy when he hopped into the wheelbarrow like he expected me to cart him around in it.
“I just wanted a ride. My feets are tired.”
“Well my ‘feets’ are tired too, and so is my back and just about everything else that is attached to me. Now stop pouting. You help me pick these strawberries and get them back to the house and I’ll give you a choice between peach or strawberry shortcake for dessert for supper tonight.”
On the way back I also cut some rhubarb and knew if I didn’t get the rest of it in the next day or two I wouldn’t get any more at all since it was hot and late in the season for it.
Supper was as easy as I could make it as I was so tired I could barely stand to be around anyone. I fixed Greens Italiano. The first step is to take a good clove of garlic and about a quarter cup of chives and chop them up real good before sautéing them in three tablespoons of oil. Then into that mess you toss about four cups of cooked greens – some came out of the garden and some were wild ones that I had harvested along with the rhubarb – and on top of that you pour in eight ounces of tomato sauce. Heat it all together and season with a little salt and pepper if it needs it and you’re done. I made up and easy pie crust dough but instead of putting it in a pie plate I cut circles out of it to hold some stuffing and made sausage pockets with it for the meat. Kerry voted for the strawberry shortcake and that was the most work, but I didn’t shirk it; a promise is a promise and you don’t break a promise to a little kid. I didn’t have the strength left to whip up any fluff for the top of the shortcake but no one seemed to notice.
After dinner I pitted cherries like a crazy woman and set them down in the ice room to stay cool so I could start on them first thing – Harry and Dino had indeed brought the buckets in for me and they even did it without asking; they found them when they went to see what all I’d accomplished in the garden.
The house had long grown quiet but I was still trying to get the last few things done so that I could go to bed with a clear conscience when Dino walked downstairs one last time.
“There’s no convincing you not to work like a mule is there?” he said shaking his head.
I shrugged, “I like to make hay while the sun shines. I’ve been told I won’t have any choice but to slow down at some point and I don’t want to leave so many things undone by the time it’s forced on me.”
He grunted his understanding if not his happiness with that fact. “Can you at least sit a minute and talk?”
I took the pitter off the counter by the sink and attached it to the table top and continued pitting cherries while we talked. “First off, save me those cherry pits.”
“You don’t feed ‘em to the animals do you? I thought they were poisonous?”
“They are, or so I’m told. But that’s not what I use ‘em for. I wash ‘em and then dry them and store them for the winter and then when it’s cold I use them in the pellet stove out in the workshop.”
“You’re joshing me,” I said, never having heard such a thing.
“Nope, Alec does the same thing,” he said while smiling tiredly.
“Well don’t that beat all.”
“Second thing,” he said. “I hate to add to your chores but some of my best field hands need work bad and came to me today to see if I could give them any off season work.”
“How does you giving them work make work for me?”
“I usually give ‘em a noonday meal as part of their pay. Cheryl or Tina helped last summer but …” He shrugged leaving me to feel in the obvious. “And two of ‘em have boys they bring with them about Steven and Chris’s ages. Actually I thought I’d ask Harry to get those boys and clear those trees off for you and anything else you need help doing. I’ve got about a week’s worth of work I can afford to pay the men and then they’ll have to find work someplace else but that also means you’ll have those boys to help for a week so make use of them.”
Something began to nag at me and finally I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “Dino … don’t get all pinched up and start hollering.”
His face told me he didn’t know whether to shutter it or not. “When a woman starts out saying something like that it’s never a good sign,” he said half joking, half worried.
“Well it isn’t anything bad but some men get all bent out of shape over nothing. Mr. Bly did that summer.”
“The summer that the government inspectors cut the income because he had to spray with an insecticide that got taken off the approved list after he had already done the spraying.”
My mouthful paused him for a minute. “I’m still not getting it,” he said more than a little confused.
“My father and grandfather and uncles were all the type to put back for a rainy day. And even though Daddy was a military man he didn’t trust the government any further than he could throw ‘em on some things.”
I sighed, “Look, Harry don’t know and I’d appreciate you not saying anything to him; I don’t want nothing slipping out to his mother or sister and for good reason. I never got around to telling Sol either though I don’t know why. Only Mr. Bly knew and after he finally accepted my help he acted like I’d never told him and never said another word about it.”
Dino ran his hand through his already messy hair and muttered, “Riss if this is supposed to make sense …”
“I’ve got a little metal put back, mostly silver.”
My words fell flat and hard. See people that have metal don’t generally advertise it. There’s a pretty good tax on the exchange and the amount of tax depends on whether you are changing it to federal notes or state notes. And sure enough Dino started getting all pinched up.
Well I didn’t want that. “Don’t Dino, I mean it. I trusted you enough to say something to you so trust me enough not to be telling you to hurt your manly pride or whatever you want to call it.”
I could see him fighting it but he finally relaxed into the knowledge a bit. “I still don’t see what you having a bit of savings has to do with me.”
I hadn’t given it much thought up to now but when the thoughts started coming they were fast and furious. “Well first off, I don’t want to seem like I’m a leech. I … I’ve had to deal with the idea that I can’t do it all, can’t do it alone. If I tried the metal wouldn’t last very long at all. But you’ve offered me a place and whether you want my gratitude or not you have it. Second, I’m not stupid. Any number of things could happen to me and leave my baby motherless. I don’t want to think about it but I reckon I have to. Some of that metal could keep him or her from turning into one of them street rats that you said runs around in the city. I don’t want that for my baby Dino.”
He could see I was just that upset at the very idea and he put his hand over mine and said forcefully, “That isn’t going to happen Riss. You won’t let it … and neither will I.”
I shook my head. “I know firsthand that you can plan and plan and plan some more but that the fastest way to make God laugh is to tell him you have plans. I’m sure my Daddy didn’t plan to die that day but he did. I’m sure none of my family set out to die in that epidemic, but they did. I didn’t plan on Sol doing what he did to me, but he did … and now here I am trying to figure out how to plan so if something … something I’d rather not think about happens my baby has some way to be something besides a street rat.”
I swallowed, both my mouth and my eyes dry even though they burned. Dino said, “I’ll keep your secret Riss. You can count on me.”
I looked at him and said, “I … I think I can. And that’s kinda scary. I already thought I could count on someone else and it blew up in my face. And before you say something I know that you’re different from Sol. Sol was a boy and … and I’ve found out that there are differences between boys and men. You’re showing me that. But … but I … I want you to know … Now look here, I don’t want to mess up but I want you to know that … that … I set more store … by … by your friendship than I do by that metal. There’s enough to set some aside for the baby and have some to do other things with and if it just so happens that it gets to the point … I mean …”
Now it was my turn to reach out and put my hand on his arm and I tell you it felt some strange to be doing it. I didn’t think I’d ever reach out that way again and that was a thought big enough and scary enough that it almost put me off from saying what I meant to. I guess I must have startled him some too because he stopped being all bowed up and put his hand over the top of the one I had on him.
“Dino, don’t say no out of hand. I’m not saying you will need to know about that little bit of savings I have but I’d rather you know than not … just in case. That’s all … for just in case.”
He sighed. “Riss, you don’t understand. I’m not hurting, not the way you think. I’m just … well if you ask my ex she’ll say I’m as stingy as Scrooge before the ghostly visits.”
“I ain’t asking that woman. She don’t sound like she knew you none anyway,” I huffed.
That made him smile before saying quietly. “Maybe, but I do know how to pinch a penny … hard enough to make Ol’ Abe cry, or so Alec complains. I have regular funds and I have emergency funds. I’m fine in both areas, I just have to be careful this time of year right before the harvest as expenses can get away from you real easy. The field hands work on shares from the harvest, some in cash and some in product, so they know they aren’t going to get paid until we get a batch to market, but during my off season they usually work on shares at other farms and some of the men they used to get work from are having to put them off. Plus Chester’s oldest son is getting married and won’t be sending his paycheck home anymore which is pinching him due to it being unexpected. But these men are experienced and they’re fast and that’s what we have to have with the grape harvest and I don’t want them leaving the area … and if that means a sacrifice during the off season then so be it.”
“You wouldn’t just tell me a story would you?” I asked, practically begging him not to be lying to me.
He moved his hand from mine and pushed a curl behind my ear and said, “No, I wouldn’t just tell you a story.”
I started to feel things that were making me nervous and had to get up and put some distance between us. I looked at him with my eyes and asked him silently to understand and he smiled. “I’m proud that you trust me Damaris. I won’t let you down.”
Funny thing is I want to believe him … not so funny is the fact I’m fast finding that I need to be able to believe in him.