Anyone who says the cold months are months of ease for a farmer frankly just doesn’t know squat. I mean the months after the harvest and before the next planting might not be as hectic as the rest of the year but it is when you try and catch up with all of the work you had to put on hold and on top of that you still have the animals and day to day repairs to keep up with. This is made some worse by the fact that you have fewer daylight hours to try and fit your work into.
We pulled onto the road heading across the vineyard to Alec’s place – what most of us around here called “the Big House” because before it had been the overseer’s house it had been the manor house of a larger plantation built by some carpet bagger come south after the War Between the States – about seven in the morning. Sunrise had been about six thirty but had stayed a pinkish color way longer than I thought was strictly necessary.
“I see it Love. Alec will have as well. We’ll eat around dinner time and then head on home as soon as may be. I don’t want to get caught out if the weather is going to turn nasty.”
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor’s take warning. I know it is an old wives’ tale or at the very least a piece of unreliable weather lore – but I’m sorry, I’ve yet to see it be untrue. When the pink lasts too long after dawn or there is a red sky in what should be the middle of the morning bad weather isn’t too far off. At the very least I was sure we were in for a weather change. The sky wasn’t an angry red so we hoped that it would be fairly easy on us but it was still going to be the first storm of the cold season and I was praying everyone took heed of the warning God was sending ahead of it. Hypothermia could be a killer and we knew from talk that there were still plenty of people out on the road without good shelter.
I was in the back of the wagon with Kerry and Pita, all three of us wrapped up good in a couple of quilts. Dino and AJ sat on the wagon seat both in heavy coats and boots. The air felt almost dead and gave me a creepy feeling.
Dino said, “Good thing we got that round of the butchering done when we did. It’s colder today than it was yesterday and I’m not sure if the carcass wouldn’t have frozen before we could bleed it out properly, even in the barn.”
He and AJ continued to talk quietly and I held both children close to share my body heat. Soon we were pulling up to the house and there were plenty of hands to take the children while Dino lifted me up and out. “I could have jumped down,” I told him.
“And miss my chance to sneak a tickle in?” he whispered. I nearly pinched him for misbehaving like that in so open a manner. He held on longer than was polite and then grumbled into my ear a good-natured, “Spoil sport.”
I was laughing at his shenanigans when I realized that it wasn’t just Alec’s family there but some folks I didn’t recognize. I stiffened up just about the time that Dino and AJ spotted them coming onto the front porch. AJ snorted but Dino muttered, “What in the Sam Hill?”
Leaving Dino to sort it out I knew my own duty and went over to Aunt Adona and asked, “What can I do to help? I …”
“Nothing dear,” came her harried response. “Except perhaps … perhaps you could take the children and keep them in the back room out from under foot?”
Well, I didn’t exactly feel like I’d been slapped but I surely felt foolish for a moment. I didn’t even get introduced before I was being shooed along with Kerry and the baby off toward the back corner of the house. Along the way I was amazed to see a lighted hall. Once I got seated I realized that the light was coming from wall sconces and that it had to be from natural gas from the looks of the unlit ones on the wall in the room where we were we wound up.
The furniture and some of the other fixtures in the room might have been a little worn but I realized that there was more than just one reason why Alec didn’t want to take over his grandparents’ house. Gas heat, gas light fixtures, gas in the kitchen, and more than likely gas hot water were luxuries you only saw in the cities and even there the service was spotty. I didn’t mean to turn green with envy but the idea of hot water without having to lug it up a flight of stairs was just about to die for. The one thing that we had over the Big House was that there was an old dumb waiter system but all three of them had been dismantled and turned into laundry chutes. Dino said when he had a little down time we’d look at renovating them. I finally decided that I’d be better off content with what I did have than getting pea green over something that was likely as much trouble as it was useful. I had enough to keep up with, I didn’t need to add extravagances to it too.
I’d been in there an hour and was just about bored out of my gourd when Tina crept in with her little one. She smiled but it didn’t make it to her eyes all the way. “I see you’ve been polite-ed to the backside of no place too.”
The way she said it I couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, I thought I was the one that always used funny words but that’s a new one on me; ‘polite-ed’. It does just about describe it better than anything else would though don’t it?”
She sighed and then sat on the ratty old sofa in there beside me while we rocked our babies and Kerry was satisfied to play with toys that he hadn’t seen in a while including some left from when Ajax was still young enough to care about Leggo’s and Lincoln Logs. Tina finally said sadly, “I was hoping with you here we would get to do something beside sit around and feel useless. But no, they had to show up yesterday and there wasn’t any help for them to stay.”
Knowing she referred to the strange me I asked, “Uh … who are they anyway?”
“You mean … you mean you … no, why should you. I guess they didn’t even give you a change to get introduced. I saw from the window how fast Miz Adona and Mother Cheryl swooped in so nothing would upset their schedule and plans.” At my surprised look she said, “I was feeding the baby and heard you pull up. Anyway those are some of the buyers. Miz Adona always treats them real nice when any of their type comes around. I guess Poppa Alec does as well but … Miz Adona … uh …”
I gave an exaggerated drawl of, “She’s some particular.”
She tried to bite her lips but then giggled rather guiltily. “She sure is. I don’t mean to be disrespectful but … but …”
Liking Tina and wanting her to know she could talk to me honestly without having to worry I’d go carrying tales I told her, “It’s all right. We’re all family here aren’t we? She’s a terrible snob and you and I both know it. She’s nice but I always get the feeling that she’s waiting for me to come to the table nekked in front of company or something due to what she calls my ‘surprising lack of education and training.’”
Her guilty giggles took off and soon we were both laughing for no good reason except mutual understanding. The door opened and we both tried to stop our laughter on a dime but it was just Dino in high dudgeon. “There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“I’ve been right here the whole time,” I told him. “Something wrong?”
“I want to introduce you to the buyers.” He opened his mouth to say something else but then asked, “Why are you two back here? I thought you’d be in the kitchen but every time I tried to get a straight answer Aunt Adona would get this frazzled look on her face and Cheryl and Tamara would act like I’d lost my mind.”
Tamara is Cheryl’s only daughter, fifteen, and sweet as can be but she takes after Aunt Adona in more than one or two ways. Tina went for a straight face though her lips kept twitching and said, “We might get in the way, or so we are told.”
“So you’ve been …”
AJ suddenly limped in behind Dino and started, “I thought you weren’t going to leave me to hold up the conversation with those sanctimonious …” Then he caught sight of Tina and I and looked at Dino’s confused face. “Oh. Mother and Cheryl are out to put on a perfect dinner party are they?”
The way he rolled his eyes was too much and Tina and I started laughing again. AJ was smiling as well but for once it was Dino who wasn’t amused. “Now look here, I know they want to make a good impression on the buyers but not at the expense of my family. They act like they’re ashamed …”
I jumped up because Dino in a snit is something I didn’t want on my first Thanksgiving with the family; plus, I had vowed to never be a problem for him in that way. “Nope. Climb down off that hobby horse husband.” Dino seemed to like it when I called him that. “You and me both know that I’m a little more … um … earthy let’s call it … than your aunt is comfortable with. I’d like to help in the kitchen and was beginning to wonder what to do to keep my brain from turning to mush but then Tina showed up and we’ve been having a good time. And don’t you go getting your knickers in a knot over it. It’s just something silly and unlike Tina, I don’t have to live it every day.” When he continued to look like thunder was gathering on his forehead I fluttered my eyelashes at him and said sweetly, “Please?”
Since that’s about as unlike the way I normally am as could be it tickled his funny bone just enough to stop the mad from rising up. He smiled but still grumped, “I still intend to introduce you. And I won’t have you treated like a second class member of the family. Ajax should know better too.”
I rolled my eyes and then looked at Tina and asked, “Is it worth the trouble? Are those men that boring?”
She smiled and said, “They’re nice, at least most of these men are. One of them is more than a little full of himself.”
AJ nodded and said, “That would be Haroldson.”
Dino sighed, “Yeah.” He shook his head. “Maybe I’ll just stick back here with you.”
AJ said, “Oh no you don’t. Alec is in the den setting up a big table of taste testing and …”
Something struck me as odd all of a sudden and struck so hard I had to interrupt. “Dino, how did those men get here if they didn’t come by our place?”
AJ and Dino stopped talking and then looked at each other. He reached over, gave me a kiss and promised he would leave me stuck back here and then he and AJ marched out the door like they had answers to get for their questions.
“Wow,” Tina breathed. “You gotta tell me how you do that.”
“Get Dino to just … just …”
I shook my head. “I don’t get Dino to ‘just’ anything.” I started to juggle Pita who was getting tired of being held and wanted to spread out. “I hope this floor doesn’t get any colder. Pita likes to stretch and can pitch a royal fit if you don’t get out of her way and let her do it.”
After we put both the babies down on a thick quilt that we had folded in half Tina sighed, “Oh look, I just can’t believe it. Yours is already as big as mine and they are months apart. How do you do it? First managing Dino and now you grow your baby so big and healthy.”
I told her again, “I don’t manage Dino …” But at her look I said, “Well OK, maybe I do a little but no different from managing the house or Pita. Feed him, water him, and give him the attention he craves and he’s good to go. He’s just not the fussy type.”
“That’s not what Miz Adona said. She said you must have some kind of magic because she had begun to wonder if Dino was ever going to marry again.”
I snorted, “Yeah, I’ve heard about his picky streak he went through but he’s not that way with me. Lord knows there is enough he could pick apart if he was really in the mood to, starting with that little red head looking at your sweet little peanut. Instead he has decided that we are his and as you just saw he can be some protective over the oddest things.”
Tina got a sad look on her face. “I wish Ajax and I had a place of our own.”
“Why don’t you?” I asked out of curiosity.
“Money, time, building materials … but mostly it’s my fault I think.” When she saw I didn’t understand she said, “I knew when Ajax and I got married that I’d have to be content to be part of a big family and all that means, learn to share a lot of stuff that as an only child I hadn’t ever had to do before.”
She stopped for a moment and then said, “I don’t know if you can understand. You … you’re strong … and independent. I don’t mean just physically but all of it. I understand why you had to get that way and I wouldn’t ever want to have walked in your shoes but sometimes … sometimes I miss … miss … being challenged or at least having the opportunity to face challenges. See my mother was a lot like Miz Adona; real used to having her way. She and my dad divorced when I was little, I don’t even know where he is at anymore although before the war he used to come around every other week and we’d go do something. Mom only let him because if she didn’t she wouldn’t get any child support. But then the child support stopped coming and so did my dad … I’m not even sure if he is alive or not; or whether Mom would even tell me if she’d heard from him.” She shook off what was obviously a sadness that she kept folded up and put away. “When things started getting rough Mom decided that another husband would be useful. Only the one she got is only good for her … he doesn’t care much for kids. Mom ended up wanting him more than me, or at least it felt that way, and … and then Ajax came along and … Gosh this sounds awful.”
I shrugged, “Better than my story does. But if someone is only listening on the surface they won’t really know will they?”
Tina and I came to a better understanding right there and then than I could have probably even explained to Dino. “So you two got married and …?”
She sighed, “Do you know I’m twenty years old? Ajax and I have been married a little over two years. I want a place to call ours. I want … I want to prove myself. And we were really going to do it until the baby came and … and I fritzed out like I did.”
“For some women the baby blues are pretty bad,” I agreed without making her feel too bad. “Heck mine were bad enough that I nearly threw the water pitcher at Dino for helping too much. The pitcher never left my hand but the water left the pitcher. Shoulda seen the look on his face. And I thought I was gonna just lay down and cry to death as soon as I realized what I had done. Dino just laughed as soon as he realized I felt so bad ‘cause he wanted to make me stop crying.” I shook my head. “I sure hope if we do have another one that it won’t be so bad. They say it is different every time.”
She grumped, “Guess I’ll find out soon enough.”
“Guess you’ll … you mean you … again … so soon?”
“Mother Cheryl just laughed and told us that we shouldn’t have counted on the nursing being fool proof,” she admitted with more than a fair bit of red in her face.
“So because you’re gonna have another baby you and Ajax aren’t going to have a place of your own?”
“No, because of how I got after the last one. I don’t think anyone thinks that I’m strong enough, at least not with the way things are right now. We were going to clean up the old carriage barn. It needs a lot of work to make it livable but oh Riss it was going to be our own place and now … now I don’t know if it is ever going to happen,” she moan wistfully.
Kerry picked that moment to insist on showing u the castle he’d built and then Dino came back and insisted we all come out and we never did get back to the subject. Not to mention there was enough to keep me distracted having to deal with four strange men.
Tina was right; three of the four were nice if a little starchy for my taste but that fourth one was a real kicker. Ronald Haroldson thought more of himself than the other three put together and doubled did. Promising myself that I would not do anything embarrassing I kept my mouth shut but he finally decided that he wanted to pay the shy little wifey too much attention.
“My dear? Why so quiet? Surely I don’t … intimidate you?” Considering the man had a wolfish smile on his face and looked like a cat who had found something interesting I knew that he was hoping he did exactly that.
Dredging up my past, including the lessons my own highschool English teacher aunt had tried to pound into me I put on my best Mona Lisa smile and in a cultured voice I said, “Not at all I assure you.” Every Pappas connection in the room turned to look at me and it took everything I had not to laugh in their faces.
When the man said, “That’s very … nice … to know” I realized he was the type of man that gives hound dogs a bad name. Ol’ Romeo was trying to work me over with his eyes so much I nearly asked him if he’d had a few too many nips of the strong stuff. I swear he couldn’t seem to focus on anything that was above or below my bust line.
I had thought to treat him to some stiff medicine but seeing Dino’s face out of the corner of my eye I decided the satisfaction of watching the man make a fool of his self wasn’t worth upsetting my husband. I kept Haroldson at arms distance from that point forward but it was during dinner that I realized he’d heard my story some place. He kept making snide and insinuating remarks that only I could hear. A few times he overdid his theatrics a bit and Dino would give him a close look but he wasn’t really doing anything or saying anything worth fighting over, just barely enough to irritate. I’m not sure what his purpose was but I was getting real close to being sick of it even if I knew he was not worth the inconvenience a ruckus would create.
He just kept on at it and in the end my curiosity won out over my good sense. In the same voice I had put on for the company’s benefit I said, “Mr. Haroldson, by your own admission you’ve never been to this area before. Might I ask how you are so familiar with the more intimate details of our community?”
There was something there and then gone in a flash; now I was the hound on a scent.