Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Exposition in C Major


“Oh Lord Daddy. I think we’ve got problems.”

“Don’t be profane Del,” Daddy said automatically as I startled him out of another doze. “What problems? You are always imagining something.”

Grabbing the steering wheel to keep from being waspish about his yet again referring unflatteringly to the fact that I’m the worrywart of the family, I counted to five before answering. “The road Daddy,” I said pointing out what I thought was obvious. “Somebody has been through here very recently and trimmed the branches back.”

“Good.”

Looking at my father out of the corner of my eye trying to see him while at the same time guiding our awkward load down the rough track that passed for the road back to the hunting camp I saw him give a satisfied nod. “Good? OK, so what am I missing here?” I asked. He and Micah had a bad habit of leaving out key pieces of information in their stories. I’ve had my whole life to not over react to it but I always seem to get hung up on it like a big mouth bass on a well baited hook. At least this time it was accidental and not on purpose just to get my goat.

“Oh, I must have forgotten to tell you I called the Aunts after I got off work and told ‘em we were coming for an extended visit.”

Instead of making me angry like you would figure, his forgetfulness nearly brought me to tears. Over the preceding six months or so Daddy’s … well, his cognitive skills … had definitely been affected. I had taken over all of the bill paying and errand running that Daddy had always done before and after work. I already did most of the organizing around the house and I didn’t mind doing it, it made me feel like I was taking a burden off of him, but it turned out to be a blessing that I wasn’t able to go to school in more ways than one as it turned out. I’ve been forced to learn the hard way that things happen for a reason and that when a door closes a window will open somewhere, so long as you are willing to look for it. Actually it wasn’t the cancer that was slowly eating Daddy alive, it was the treatments and the medicines he took to counteract the treatments. The treatments had been working for a while, it was the medicines that seemed to be hurting him. It was just so very hard to see my once healthy and active father, a man I considered brilliant, enduring the trials and tribulations of his illness.

Besides, calling the Aunts so late at night wasn’t as crazy as it sounded. The Aunts were ancient and rarely seemed to live by the same sleep patterns as everyone else. At all hours you could find them up and discussing a wide range of topics, usually about people and events that lived and happened generations before I drew my first breath.

The Aunts were a force of nature. They’d also raised my mother when her mother hadn’t been able to handle the physical and emotional hardships of getting married in her teens, having five children in quick succession two of whom died in infancy, and trying to keep body and soul together while taking on the responsibilities of being a farmer’s wife. My mother was the youngest child and was nearly the third infant death and, according to the Aunts, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I remember Aunt Lilah, the oldest of the three as well as the tartest, saying, “That high stepping camel gave birth to a little Tennessee mule. Your Momma stubbornly clung to life every time the doctors had given up all hope. Too bad Winnie would not wait on the Lord’s timing. After a while she was just too scared of the pain of living and loving.”

I shook my head to empty it of memories. “Daddy I know the Aunts are still active even if they are as old as Jeff Davis’ hound, but I can’t see them out here lopping off these limbs. Some of them are so thick they had to have taken a chain saw.”

“I wouldn’t put it passed at least one of the old witches …”

“Daddy!” I remonstrated him laughingly. Daddy and the Aunts had a love/hate relationship. They’d been extremely protective of Momma and hadn’t cared too much for Daddy in the beginning. The only reason at all that they tolerated him in fact was because Momma was tip or tail in love and even the Aunts in their distrust could see that Daddy was even worse over her. Granddaddy liked Daddy from the beginning … until he and Momma eloped and then he didn’t seem to be able to ever completely forgive Daddy after that. At least not until he saw how completely devastated Daddy had been when Momma had died. But Granddaddy was dealing with his own grief and took it out on Daddy for a couple of years. It caused a valley between them that never quite healed.

I had to shake my head again. One of the things that irritated me most about going back to the old home place was how the memories all seemed to crowd in for attention at once instead of taking their turn like normal memories should. I finally got my ears turned back on and realized Daddy had been talking. I had to ask him to repeat himself.

“You OK Del? I’ll drive …”

“No. It’s … it’s just being back here,” I shrugged. “What were you saying about a caretaker?”

“Well, believe it or not the Aunts have finally admitted that they are getting too old to do some of the stuff around the homestead. They finally hired someone to help them.”

“Why aren’t the boys over there helping instead of making them pay someone to do it?!” I asked outraged at the very thought.

“Because they aren’t around anymore. When Clement died the death tax took up all of the liquid assets that were left in his estate and there was also a lot of debt. The boys sold their share to Esther’s son in law and there are some hard feelings or feud or something equally as asinine going on. Whatever it is I want to stay out of it as much as we can so don’t let those old biddies drag you in,” Daddy groused.

Clement was my maternal uncle and he’d died in a farming accident three years ago. Lightning had hit the barn and travelled through some cables then into a mule that my uncle had been currying. Esther was my mother’s sister and she was … well, a lot like her mother, my grandmother. Uncle Clement and Aunt Esther had lived with their mother off and on most of their childhood so they could go to the school in town. In the summer they stayed at the farm. It was sort of like an early form of joint custody, only without ever getting the courts involved to muck things up. Momma and her mother never bonded so she stayed with the Aunts and her father all the time. In fact I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’d actually seen my grandmother; I’d only actually met her twice and she didn’t seem to like me very much though Micah she seemed to adore … just like everyone seemed to in those days. Granddaddy still loved his wife, they never actually divorced, and for many years nursed hopes of her coming home but she never did and when she died of heart failure his heart broke. He followed her less than two years later.

My family seems to be full of stories like that; call it As the Stomach Turns: A Hillbilly Soap Opera. That sounds more derogatory than I mean it to because I know lots of families have stories like that in their closets … our closets just seemed to be overflowing with them, past and present. It was one of the reasons that Daddy took Momma away from the homestead as soon as he could, and why he kept us away as much as possible. Especially Micah who seemed to thrive on the drama that side of my family had a bad habit of generating. ‘Course it didn’t help that Daddy spoiled Micah something awful, and so did the Aunts and everyone else, but that is a different problem than the one I was trying to unwind at that moment.

“OK so the Cousins aren’t helping the Aunts because of some drama or other and as a result they’ve hired a caretaker to help out around the place. Anyone that I would know or remember?”

Daddy snorted and then laughed which should have warned me but I was too busy easing through a low place in the road, praying I wouldn’t bottom out the hitch. “Oh, I think you’ll remember him. Marcellus Griffey.”

I braked hard and just about screamed, “What?!! You so did not just say that the Aunts have hired Mark Griffey as their caretaker.”

I thought Daddy was going to laugh himself sick, and he nearly did. “Oh boy, that smarts, but it was worth it to see the look on your face girl. Honey, I know you and Mark haven’t always seen eye to eye but he’s not the same kid he was when you were growing up around here. I met him year before last and he’s actually turned out fairly well, especially all things considered.”

All things considered. I felt like putting my foot through the floor of the truck. “Well thanks for the warning Dad. Appreciate it.”

“Now hold on Missy, no need to get disrespectful. I’m not the one that hired him, the Aunts did. And since it is their place they’ve got the right to chose who they want. I think he’s a little young for all of the responsibility but then again, so far as I know he’s been doing just fine so far.”

I popped my neck and apologized for the umpteenth time and admitted that I’d been on the mouthy side. “But come on Daddy. Mark? Really?”

“Yes Mark. Really. You know he wasn’t part of that pack that set the dogs on you, in fact the boy wound up getting hurt trying to protect you.”

“And I wouldn’t have gotten a broken arm if he hadn’t forced me to go up on the branch I told him was too slim to hold my weight. The only reason he got hurt was that he would have gotten switched badly by his crazy brother in law if the dogs had gotten to me while I Iay on the ground. You know you and Granddaddy and Uncle Clement would have shot all of them mutts if they’d so much as nipped me. Granddaddy nearly did anyway.”

“Don’t remind me. That was a bad day. Between Micah wandering off with the Taggert boys and all three of them getting lost up on the ridge and then you getting treed by those lunatic dogs and breaking your arm I was … well, never mind what I was. It isn’t a day I’d repeat for love or money. But Mark was in a hard place for a long time. His sister raised him the same way you helped raise Micah only she didn’t have either parent around for any guidance. She married young to a man who promised her diamonds and gold and she was too innocent to see it wasn’t anything but glass and tin. She paid for it, still is for that matter.”

“Oh for Pete Sake. They’ve been divorced at least five years Daddy. Even I know that.”

“Yeah, and that’s about all you know. You don’t just get over something like that and get to start over at square one. You shouldn’t be so quick to judge … and we both know what I’m talking about young lady.”

OK, so I’d jumped to some conclusions. Daddy was right, I was being judgmental and I should be the last person to be that way. I’d had my own embarrassing and awful relationship and it had changed me.

Daddy cleared his throat to say that the old, hurtful subject was to be put out of our thoughts again. “Look Del, I have a feeling this is going to be hard enough without you and Mark going at it like a couple of banty roosters anytime you get near each other. When you were little it could be funny, but you’re not little any more, neither one of you are. It is time to put childish things aside.”

“I don’t want trouble either Daddy so I won’t start if he doesn’t. A little more warning would have been nice though. I had to ask. What if I had run into him without knowing what he was doing hanging around? Or vice versa?”

Daddy shrugged, “Don’t have much choice Sugar, this is the way things are happening. And here’s an idea for you. Be nice. Disarm him. I know you can. You always could get the men down at the plant to eat out of your little hand; when you try you can be just like your Momma. So act like the past is the past and just let it go. You might be surprised to find he’s just in the habit of being defensive because he’s had to be that way his whole life. He’s a worse prickle burr than you are. And he’s got heavy responsibilities of his own now.”

Not quite sure I wanted to know but helpless to stop the question from leaving my mouth I asked, “What’s wrong with him?”

“Him? Nothing. But he’s supporting his sister and that three-quarter wild daughter of hers. And …” He stopped, pursed his lips, and sighed.

“What? Don’t leave me hanging now that you’ve started dishing the gossip.”

“That’s not funny Del, I’m nothing like the Aunts. This isn’t gossip, this is … I’m arming you with information so you can walk softly as need be. We don’t need any trouble nor any more notice than we are bound to get when folks hear we are back in town for a longer than normal stay. Truth is, Mark can’t seem to cut a break. He made the same mistake his sister did … looking for love in all the wrong places. Some girl from college, she got pregnant, told him he was the father and then when Mark said he’d marry her she pretty much said no and tried to take him to the cleaners. But the boy doesn’t have anything; his parents didn’t leave him squat. Well, that didn’t work too well for her but she agreed to marry him pretty much because her parents forced her into it, or so I was told. Six months after the baby was born, she hits the road “needing to find herself” leaving Mark with a sickly baby, a sister on some pretty strong meds to get her through the day, and a niece to support and still a semester shy of his degree and getting a decent job of any type. Worse yet …”

Dumbfounded I asked, “It gets worse?”

“Oh yeah. I just heard from the Aunts last week that the girl has come back and is trying to say she was suffering from post partum depression or something and wants to be a part of her son’s life and has a lawyer trying to get custody and child support too.”

“Geez Louise Daddy. Not that I don’t feel sorry for Mark … and I’m sure that’s why you told me all of that … but this is an awful mess we are driving into. Even under the best circumstances I’d rather wait til things settled out some before coming for a visit but … if you are wanting to do what I think you are wanting to do this is only going to make it that much harder.”

Daddy humphed as only he knew how and asked, “And what is it you think I’m wanting to do?”

“Daddy you raised us to be able to bug out quick in case of an emergency. You’ve always talked about if worse came to worse we could move into the hunting camp and spend a while pioneering until things blew over. I know for a fact you’ve got some stuff stocked down in the sub cellar beneath the cabin’s basement. You never let me help inventory it but I know it is there.”

“Do I want to know how you know?”

“How do you think? Micah of course. He’s always threatened to runaway and hide at the cabin so no one would find him. One time I asked him how he expected to eat while he was there and he let it slip.”

Daddy got mad which surprised me. “That durn fool boy. Do you know if he’s said anything to anyone else?”

“Take it easy Daddy. Who else would he tell? Those dumb friends of his? They couldn’t find the place if they were tied to the front porch by a two foot leash. Besides, after I figured out what he was talking about I warned him you wouldn’t be too pleased that he’d told me so he better keep his mouth shut or I would blab to you about it.”

“I just can’t put it off any longer can I? He’s not a little boy anymore and his shenanigans could have serious repercussions assuming I’m correct.” Daddy just shook his head sorrowfully. “You two grew up so quick, you even faster than your brother. Seems all I did was turn around and … but it is what it is and I don’t know how much time I’ve got left to set everything up. And … and I’m not in the shape I need to be to do it Honey. You’re going to have to really buckle down and help.”

“Daddy you know I’ll do anything …”

“I know that Sweetheart, but … well, better not to borrow any more trouble than we already own. I don’t really know how much time we are going to have. Tomorrow is Monday and I want to hit the ground running. We’ll unpack today even though by rights we should be resting and as soon as I make sure everything is still where I left it we’ll get a list going and you can go over to the Aunts and get a list from them and we’ll just make a day of it.”

Daddy was pretty much wore out again leaving me worried. He tired so easily, even on the medications that were supposed to help with his energy level. They used to help more and that led me to thinking about getting him into a doctor’s office to make sure that things hadn’t gotten … worse.

I didn’t have any time left however for that train of thought. We were pulling into the yard of the cabin and there was an ancient blue Ford pickup sitting on the opposite side of the clearing from us. I maneuvered our load reasonably close to the cabin and then got out, stumbled as I got my land legs back under me and then stretched.

Daddy got Micah up and they went to see what needed to be done to the outhouse leaving me to deal with the man bent over the tail gate of truck.

Recognizing him even from behind I walked up and asked, “Mark?” When he turned in my direction sharply I saw a baby … a baby boy … in the middle of a diaper change. “Need some help?”

“No,” he growled. “Why is it that every female always thinks I’m helpless when it comes to …”

Trying hard to remember what Daddy gave me to think about I said, “Knock it off Mark. I’ve done diaper duty enough in my life to know that it isn’t rocket science. It was just an offer, not a judgment of your abilities one way or the other.”

All I got was a grunt of an acknowledgement and I decided to accept it as a magnanimous apology and stood there waiting while he cleaned Junior up.

Mark held the boy like he wondered whether I was going to try and steal him and I pretended not to notice, “Cute boy. Daddy told me you had a kid but not what his name was.”

Grudgingly Marked replied, “Burgess. But everyone calls him Jessie.”

“Your Dad’s name, right?”

I’d managed to startle him. “Yeah. You never knew my dad though.”

“No, but the Aunts did and I must have heard that story of how they saw him run down Mrs. Cleary’s old Chevy when she forgot to put it in gear and saved it from htting a school bus I don’t know how many times.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, if that was you that trimmed back the road I appreciate it. It couldn’t have been easy.”

He looked at me like he was trying to figure out what game I was playing and that’s when Daddy and Micah walked up. I asked them, “All fixed?”

Micah answered, “And tried out. What’s for lunch? I’m starving to death.”

I rolled my eyes and told him, “You’re always starving to death. Daddy, you want …?”

“Don’t go to a lot of trouble Del; just heat up some leftovers out of one of the coolers. Mark here has hooked up a small propane canister but your kitchen looks like it’s had squirrels nesting in it. We’ll be cleaning tonight so you are going to have to get fancy some other time. I want to get unloaded and do what we talked about.”

“Yes sir,” I answered as I walked away, ignoring Mark as much as I could.

Dad and Mark talked while Micah and I started unloading the stuff that needed to be cooled down. When Daddy had started working on the hunting cabin, turning it into what he called a bug out location, one of his projects was to take an old RV frig and using some type of mirror thingy he heated up the ammonia coolant that ran through the coils. This in turn worked kind of like an evaporation coil method and only using the power of the sun had a fairly decent refrigerator for us to use without having to worry about a generator or propane. Someone, Mark I suppose, had already started the frig up and it was ready for our cold stuff. Not having a chest freezer because we moved around so much we hadn’t had too much of that sort of stuff to worry about transporting. I had also been a few days shy of my monthly grocery expedition so that meant there was even less to worry about that would spoil.

“Micah, I’m just going to fix up a stir fry tonight. Rice, these bits of leftover meats, and this last dab of steamed veggies. Will that hold you until I can get to the store tomorrow?”

“Bean sprouts on the side,” he said like he was being forced to offer me the keys to his jeep.

“Fine, bean sprouts on the side instead of mixed in. Happy?”

That caused lightning change of mood and a huge grin. “Who wouldn’t be? We’re home Del and I’m never leaving again. Not even Daddy can make me.”

A voice from the doorway asked, “Make you do what young man?”

Micah jumped and I had to bite my lips to hide a grin. “Oh, nothing. I’m just glad to be home. And you said I didn’t have to finish out the school year.”

“I suppose I did so don’t make me go back on my word by getting into trouble. Your sister and I have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time and you aren’t going to be sitting around playing or looking up old friends. You’re going to be working as well. Understand me?”

Micah was confused, I could tell. Normally Daddy doesn’t lay down the law until Micah has seen just how far he could stretch his boundaries. “Uh … yes sir. Sure.”

I was so tired by the time I fell in bed that night that I hardly noticed the musty smell of the cabin’s former furry tenants. I noticed the next morning however.

I found two dead mice on the cabin steps and said words I shouldn’t have when I stepped on them barefoot.

“Del Nash I better never hear them words coming out of your mouth again. What on earth has gotten into you this morning?”

“If I find out this is one of Micah’s pranks,” I said while I furiously scrubbed my foot of mouse innards “I will drop him down a well and cap it. I stepped on two dead mice on the front porch.”

I could tell that while Dad was sympathetic he was also having a hard time not laughing. “She must remember you.”

“She who?!”

“Remember that cat you patched up last time we were up here?”

“Not that mangy old … is it still around?”

“I saw her slinking around the wood shed yesterday. As long as you act like you are ignoring her she’ll come right up to you and give your leg a bump but just as soon as you think about petting her she’s off like greased lightning into the underbrush. Add cat food to that list of yours and we’ll see if we can’t tame her some. A good mouser is worth its weight in gold.”

“That list” as Daddy called it had already grown several pages long and there was more than one column on a page. He’d shown me what was in the sub cellar and had been duly gratified at my surprise and appreciation. I’ve been cooking with dried milk and stuff like that for as long as I could remember because that was what Daddy used to buy at the commissary. We still shopped at the commissary but a lot less often because it was so far away to get to.

Between what we brought from home and what was in the sub cellar we had food for a good long time. But Daddy told me to think about what would I need to turn all of the stuff into meals. He also told me to think about what I would need to preserve anything if we wound up growing that garden I had always wanted.

“Baby Girl, you may yet get to grow all of that rabbit food in something besides window boxes. And it looks like the old fruit trees have done well since we pruned the heck out of them year before last. I’ll talk to the Aunts about borrowing the old red A tractor, but not today. I know I said I’d go with you but, I just can’t face them right now. I can’t deal with this and their questions. You understand?”

“Sure Daddy. Why don’t you sit on the porch and get your thoughts in order and I’ll take the truck, run by and do the meet and greet with the Aunts, and then head on into town.”

“No, too much work. Micah and I will get some stuff down around here while you’re gone.”

“Well, all right. Maybe work will keep Micah from being so wound up. Wear him out Daddy, but don’t wear yourself out. I have my cell phone but I’m not sure what the reception is going to be. Call me if you think of anything.”

“I will, just watch yourself. And pick up some news while you are in town. One of the things Micah and I are going to do is set up the radio and antenna while you are gone.”

I hopped in the truck and headed through nearly a hundred acres of woods to visit the Aunts. What was once a thriving plantation before the Civil War … or the War Between the States as the Aunts tended to call it when not in polite company … had been reduced to less than five percent of what it once was.

I knew from the Aunts that the Nash, Griffey, and Porter families (Porter was Momma’s maiden name) were all related, going back to a common ancestral line born on the very homestead where the Aunts now lived. That common ancestor lost his life in one of the battles for Clarksville and it was his children and theirs that lost bits and pieces of the plantation until there was only the 100 acres left in this current generation. Even the Aunts had been forced to sell off parcels over the years to pay for taxes. Granddaddy had brought the farm back into a brief period of prosperity by trying new crops and farming techniques but even he was forced, due to failing health, to lease out the fields when he could no longer care for the land as it needed.

The part of the land that connected the homestead with the hunting cabin had never been developed because the family had always used it as their private hunting ground and because the connecting strip really wasn’t good farm land even had you been able to scrape out some terraces. The hunting cabin set higher than the homestead and in the winter, if you got passed the evergreens that surrounded the cabin, you have a clear view of the Aunts house and surrounding outbuildings. But this wasn’t winter. The trees were completely leafed out and it wasn’t until I’d broken through the last line of them and the associated underbrush that I got a good look at things.

The old place certainly looked in better shape than it had last time I was there. I thought to myself, “If Mark has been able to do all of this then I’m properly grateful and I’ll tell him so if he’ll listen.” I pulled to a stop in what looked like new gravel over the old washed out parking area and before I could even step out of the truck the Aunts were descending on me.

Aunt Lilah, once tall now bent from a bad case of osteoarthritis and scoliosis, was in the lead. As she was the oldest she always positioned herself to be in the lead. A bit austere after having to help raise countless siblings and their descendants since she was a young girl, she never the less was also the quickest to offer a hug or pat for a job well done. Her tongue was as tart as a little green able, but it could also sing the sweet lullaby when you were young and scared and feeling like your mother had abandoned you.

Aunt Sheba was a short butterball. Once a reigning beauty, she’d had a short but painful marriage to a traveling salesman who had sweet talked her into disobeying her father. He’d found out and there’d be a shotgun wedding that had only last long enough for her to lose the baby to a case of diphtheria before it was a year old and her husband to a bar brawl less than a week later. She’d moved home and was the aunt who didn’t have much confidence in the male species.

Aunt Bel was the baby of the family of eleven stair step children. Something had gone wrong at her birth and she was what they called a “blue baby.” The doctor got her breathing, much to their father’s disgust, but lack of oxygen had done its damage. Aunt Bel was special. Her favorite thing was to follow the weather for all sorts of different places. And she saw the beauty in everything, even in loss. She was the one that told me stories of how Momma was likely spending her time in Heaven; not just sitting on a cloud playing a harp, but growing flowers and learning to tend to fruit trees. She was the one that opened my eyes to what the Bible says Heaven is really going to be like … not boring but exciting and mentally and physically stimulating to go right along with the perfected bodies we will all have when we get there.

Aunt Lilah and Aunt Bel had never married. Aunt Sheba wished she’d never married. They shared a difficult childhood at the hands of a father that had a less than charitable opinion of women. It wasn’t stereotypical of the times. Aunt Sheba said one time, “Father was simply a mean man. We honored him the best we could with our obedience until the day he died but that doesn’t change the fact that he was a mean man. He sent our long suffering mother to an early grave with all of his demands and refusal to hire in any help. ‘Why spend the coin, that’s what I’m giving you children for,’ he’d say. If I’d been born in a different time I would surely have legally changed my name. All of us girls were given names to remind us of his opinion. If you think ours are bad child imagine how our sisters Tamar and Jael felt. The boys were all named Samson, Michael, Gabriel, Joseph, Jacob, and Gideon. There just wasn’t any escaping from it.”

In a flash those memories were thought and then gone as I was swept into their arms and urged to come inside. I sat for an hour, listening to them and answering their questions before promising I’d come back another time, that I needed to go to town for groceries.

“Oh child,” Aunt Lilah started. “The last grocery store in town closed last month. You are going to have to go to Greeneville or Ketchum if you need more than what you can pick up at the Bait and Tackle.”

That I hadn’t planned on and I was trying to decide whether to call Daddy and let him know or just to go ahead and go when Aunt Bel said, “Actually Del, it would be a big help if you’d run Marcellus over to Ketchum. There’s something wrong with his truck and with showers promised for this afternoon I hate the idea of him riding a bike all that way. I’m sure he’s over at his trailer if you’d just go tell him.”

Aunt Sheba said, “She’s right of course. Providential is what it is. Don’t let him fuss Del, he’s not one for letting people do him favors. Nearly as hard headed as Father was about that.”

They left me little choice but to do as they asked though I didn’t have a lot of confidence in Mark going along with their plan. I could feel their eyes watching from the kitchen table as I walked over to a beat up 1970s era single wide and knocked on the door. Suddenly I was airborne. I was knocked backwards off the stairs by a dog that had hit the door so hard the doorknob left a dent in my arm. Thankfully I’d taken a few self defense courses and knew how to fall without getting anymore injured than I already was.

The main problem was the dog hadn’t stopped with the door and barreled down after me. Since I had worked so many night shifts Daddy had bought me a few stocking stuffers over the years to go with the self-defense classes. One was a small, battery operated tazer. I hit the dog on the side of the head and it rolled away yelping as I scrambled to my feet using my other hand to pull out the collapsible baton.

“Hey! What are you doing to my dog you *****?!!!” I turned to see what appeared to be a girl in trampy t-shirt and short-shorts barreling on me snarling worse that “her dog” had. I pulled the bull fighter routine, spinning out of her way, and then whacking her across the butt – hard – with the baton.

“Ow!! Momma!!! Call the cops. I’m going to sue this … “

I’d had enough. “Shut up Princess. I’m looking for Mark. Is he around or did you eat him for breakfast?”

A surprised cough of a laughter had me glancing out of the corner of my eye to see Mark put a heavy chain on the dog and then padlock him to a stout tree. Suddenly Princess wasn’t the raging termagant anymore but a pathetic little girl crying, “Wait! Uncle Mark, you can’t! It was all her fault. She … she antagonized him and … and he was just … just defending me from her threats.”

“Stow it Cici. I warned you what would happen if this dog wasn’t properly trained after it went after that guy from the Farm Bureau. You’re lucky it was Del that it went after. She knows how to defend herself.”

“But Uncle Mark,” she continued to whine.

But Uncle Mark wasn’t having any of it. “Enough. Del, this is my niece Cici Riders.”

I blinked. There was no way that someone really named their kid Cici when their last name was Riders but apparently I was wrong. All I could say was, “You have my condolences” not sure which one I was talking to.

“Where’s your mother Cici?”

“Where else?” she rolled her eyes and then flipped her hair and stormed back inside, slamming the ancient door hard enough to crack one of the window panes. A baby started screaming inside. Mark cursed and started and then stopped, waging some war not to say anything.

“Go. Go, you know you need to. Just if you could come back …” He nodded once and then jerked the door back open and went inside. The walls of the trailer were so thin I could hear him stomping down what had to have been a hallway and then turning around and coming back. The little boy was in his arms and was clinging to Mark for everything he was worth.

The moment Mark came my direction the dog tried to dash right at him and the baby. Mentally I knew the dog was on a chain but emotionally there was no way I was just going to stand there. I pulled the tazer again and just the clacking made the dog back away growling.

“Lordy Mark, I don’t mean to tell you your business … “

“But you will anyway,” he deadpanned.

I turned to look at him and that’s when he saw that I was more shaken by the dog going after him and the baby in his arms than I had been when the dog came after me.

“Hey, you’re really shook. It can’t get off the chain. I have it hooked to a chest harness,” he said nodding at the black leather straps that wrapped the dog in several places beside its neck. “Cici keeps taking the training collar off of him so I locked this thing on.”

I swallowed twice, my mouth too dry to even come up with enough spit to wet my lips. “Mark, I don’t care if that dog is chained inside a suit of armor, that dog comes after that baby again and I’ll … I’ll … I’ll wind up in a lot of trouble is what will happen. I mean it though. Do me a favor and let’s walk over this way.”

He gave me a considering look. “Yeah, well … the dog is going tomorrow. I warned Cici she needed to train it to keep it but she didn’t change his water dish and she didn’t take him for a walk and he made a mess in the trailer this morning. I just hadn’t told her yet. Her old man keeps giving her these mutts that he says are for protection. She’s too irresponsible to have a dog and the things just wind up getting meaner because she isn’t consistent with their discipline. They’ve never gone near your Aunts. I swear.”

“Huh? Oh, I … uh, I guess I should have been worried about that but I’m not. Aunt Sheba keeps a loaded gun with her and even at her age she is one heck of a shot. I just … can’t … that dog … the baby …”

“Yeah … yeah. I usually keep Jessie with me unless I’m having to do something really loud. I was working with the chainsaw. Babies have sensitive ears,” he shrugged.

“Tell me about it. Of course that doesn’t count when it is their own crying and screaming making the noise. Micah was a real pistol when he was Jessie’s age,” I said rolling my eyes remembering wishing for a set of earplugs to at least deaden the sound when he was experimenting with the sound of his own voice.

“That’s right, you took care of Micah a lot. Look, I’ve … uh … “

“Yeah, actually I have a favor to ask. I know you are busy but when the Aunts get something into their head you know what they’re like.”

He nodded getting a guarded look in his eyes. “Well, they are determined that you ride with me to Ketchum, something about you were going there anyway and that the grocery stores in town here have all closed. You know the drill. ‘But Del … dear … it only makes sense …’,” I ended by mimicking Aunt Lilah’s forceful tone.

I was relieved to see that Mark wasn’t being defensive and was actually considering it. “Yeah, OK. I’ll … uh … need to bring a car seat for Jessie and … uh … I’ve got to stop by the u-pull-it yard. When did you have in mind to go?”

“Actually, that’s kind of the favor. I was wondering if you could do it now.”

He shrugged and said, “Sure. Why not. I gotta grab a couple of things and …,” he was trying to juggle Jessie while he picked up a box of tools.

“Will he come to me do you think? Or I can grab the other stuff if you’ll point it out.”

I thought I had gone too far but then he just sort of gave in. “Here, hold him tight, he wiggles a lot.” He went inside and came back out with a diaper bag followed by a screaming Cici and a woman that I could just barely recognize as Mark’s sister.

“Go back inside Dee.”

In wasted sort of voice the woman whined, “Mark, why do you have to keep at Cici like this? You antagonize her and then just leave her to me to deal with. Will you ever grow up and make something of yourself.”

Mark was getting that shuttered look on his face again and I thought this so unfair that I couldn’t help but open my mouth even though I knew it was none of my business. “Hi Dee. I don’t know if you remember me or not. Either way here it is. Those are my Aunts over in that house. Your daughter’s dog is a menace and attacked me. I could have just flat out killed it, I have my gun licensed and I’ve been forced to put down dangerous animals before. Mark gave her fair warning that if she didn’t start taking responsibility for her pet like a good owner does then he was going to find it a home where it could be trained to be something besides a useless monster. Now I’m giving you and your daughter fair warning. I’m back. My Aunts’ safety is my priority. I find another dangerous and out of control animal anywhere on this farm I’m not going to care who it belongs to. Do I need to be any more clear on this subject?”

Cici was standing there with her mouth hanging open trying to figure out what planet I had descended from. Dee was still playing catch up. “You’re … you’re the Nash girl.”

“Yes.”

“Y’all are … are here for a visit?”

“Actually we are here for the foreseeable future. Now if you don’t mind, Mark and I have business to attend to. Cici, you should bring a large pan of water outside for this dog. It’s hot. And I stuff you buttocks back into those shorts before you do it or he might decide to make a snack of them.” I turned on my heel and casually walked over to the truck carrying Jessie and threw Mark the truck keys.

It took a few minutes to get situated, all under the heated and gator-tear streaked face of Cici the Terrible, but we eventually pulled out. Mark had offered me the keys but I asked him if he minded driving until my nerves settled down. “I drove most of the way here yesterday and I haven’t driven into Ketchum in like … ever. We always went to Greeneville when we needed something we couldn’t get in town.”

He shrugged and then got into the driver’s seat and got us going the right direction. “About … about …”

“None of my business Mark but honest to God you must have the patience of Job not to slap that girl from now until Juvember. I don’t know how you do it.”

I’d caught him off guard again. “This … this was a bad day. She always gets like this after she’s spent the weekend with her Dad. He got remarried and she found out her step mom is having a baby … twin boys. Her Dad won’t shut up about it and … well …”

“Yeah. I remember him,” I said and I didn’t need to say anymore.

“She wasn’t always like this. Just since the divorce. And Dee is just …”

“Suffering in her own way?”

He looked at me and said, “That’s a kinder way of putting it than most people do.”

“Dad reminded me of a few home truths. I won’t judge your sister. I didn’t walk in her shoes. But I don’t think she’s doing herself … or Cici … any favors. She should join a divorce support group or something. The church we used to go to had one.”

“You forget where you’re at Del. Most of the churches around here wouldn’t even welcome Dee through the front doors now that she is a divorcee.”

“You … tell me your kidding … you are kidding right … or exaggerating?.”

“Ok, a little. Your Aunts’ church … their preacher’s wife comes out about once a week and when she’s through with your aunts she’ll step over and say hello to Dee. If Dee knows she’s coming she’ll actually make an effort to get out of bed and do something with herself.”

“Maybe I was too rough then.”

“No. I went and talked to a couple of people I know down at the clinic. They say part of the problem was that I was enabling her, trying to fix something for her instead of helping her to fix it. I don’t know. Did you ever think your life would turn out the way it has?”

Understanding what he meant for him but not sure where he was going as far as me. Before I could say something he continued, “Taking care of Micah was just something you always did when we were kids but at least your Dad was there. Now he’s …,” he stopped and then looked at me.

It took a lot of my control but I said, “You mean he’s dying and I’m taking care of both of them – him and Micah? Working three jobs and praying that I can find another scholarship or grant that will let me finish my degree? That money is so tight that we’ve had to move back and live in a shack on the backside of my elderly Aunts’ farm? That my dying father has now gotten some wild hair …” I stopped before saying anything else and took a couple of steadying breaths.

“Things that bad?”

Trying to leave myself some hope I said, “They aren’t as bad as they could be. They aren’t great but Dad is still here and there’s a chance the insurance company will approve the new drug if I could ever get them to push the application through their stupid benefit/return committee or whatever they are calling it this week. We have a roof over our heads and I’ve got money for gas and groceries. There are some people that can’t say that.”

Mark nodded and conversation kind of petered out after that until we got to the Ketchum city limits. Looking around I asked Mark, “What’s up with all the cars? Geez you’d think this place was important or something.”

“First of the month. With all the small towns losing their stores, everyone has to go to the next nearest town that still has what they are looking for. Kechum and Greeneville are about the only two places within a hundred miles that have any variety to choose from.”

I should have realized it. It was always the same on base that time of the month. If it wasn’t the active service personnel it was the retirees coming in. I stopped at the first branch of the national bank I did business with and asked Mark if he minded if I ran in. He said no since we could both tell that it was time for Jessie to have a diaper change.

I was between rushes and though the manager wasn’t happy about it but I cashed out both my checking and savings account. I was praying that I was doing the right thing. I figured if worse came to worse I’d just have to skip another semester of school and graduate a year later than I had planned.

I walked back out and apologized to Mark for taking so long. “No problem. They want you to put money in but they don’t like it when you want to take it back out again.” We both chuckled a little at that then he said, “If I give you directions, you think you could drop me and Jessie off at the junkyard and then come back for us when you’re finished?”

Realizing I had held him up longer than I had thought I looked for some way to atone and then hit on an idea. “Mark, don’t take this the wrong way but how are you going to do whatever it is you need to do trying to keep track of a baby?”

He was getting that defensive look on his face again. “Oh, don’t go all prune-faced on me. I’ve baby sat more kids than I can even remember. I have all sorts of training. You know I took care of Micah at this age and his claims and behavior to the contrary I never dropped him on his head. Look, I’ll give you my cell phone number. You can call and check on me as often as you want and I’ll even let Jessie drool on the phone so he can let you know he’s OK. This way you can get your work done in less time and not have to worry that Jessie is going to crawl off into something he isn’t supposed to. Besides, it’s hot, you don’t really want to deal with a cranky, hot baby in the middle of a dirty junkyard do you?”

“I don’t know Del. Don’t take this the wrong way but … “

“But I just got back in town and you don’t know me from Eve anymore.”

“Yeah … yeah, something like that.”

Looking around I spotted a membership club warehouse and I just happened to have a membership card for it. “OK, here’s a compromise. I’ll start my shopping over there,” I said pointing in the direction of the store. “I won’t be far off. If you finish before I do you can even walk over. I’ll give you my spare key to the truck and I’ll give you Daddy’s cell phone number too. I’d give you Micah’s but I’m not sure how much good it would do, he’s always forgetting to charge it or keep it on him.”

Daylight was wasting and Mark finally capitulated but he was pretty strung out about it I could tell. As a show of good will I called him as soon as I pulled into the parking lot to let him know I was there and then called him from inside the store to make sure there was still reception. He seemed to appreciate it and with that out of the way I got down to the reason why I had come in the first place.

Rather than put Jessie in a buggy seat Mark had told me I’d have to carry him around in his pack or he would chew on everything and really pitch a fit. That also made it easier for me because the large flatbed cart that I wanted to use didn’t have a child’s seat. First I steered the flatbed to the bakery section and asked if they knew of a source for used five gallon buckets in town.

The woman I spoke with said, “Honey, I’ve got a boatload of them in the back. I’d been holding onto them for this man that used to come collect them but it’s been two weeks and I’ve got to get these out of here. You want them, you can have them.” I made arrangement to pick them up out back after I had completed my shopping and then got down to it.

Up and down the aisles I went. I grabbed large bags of flour, white rice, corn meal, popcorn kernels (100 pounds of those), bulk packages of all the different pasta shapes, I grabbed canned meats that would help tide us over until Daddy and Micah could go hunting, bulk containers of a bunch of different condiments, several jars of peanut butter, commercial size cans of broths, about three hundred pounds of white sugar and nearly the same in brown, large cans and jugs of different cooking oils, boxes of salt, large containers of several just-add-water type beverages, and more. I went over to the health and beauty area and picked up some bulk OTC meds and then finished stacking the flatbed with paper goods.

The woman running the check out gave me the eye and then had the nerve to ask, “What are you buying all of this for?”

“Just had a man give us some money and tell me to restock the home. In this day and age you can’t afford to look a gift horse in the mouth.”

“Sure can’t,” she replied. “You sure you going to be able to pay for all of this?”

“Yes,” was the only answer I gave her and I didn’t care if it came out rude or not. “She was rude for having asked in the first place.”

I was happy to have so quickly knocked off a good part of my list, less happy about the prices. I carefully navigated the parking lot getting plenty of stares and a few snickers. Mark was waiting at the truck and just goggled at the loaded flatbed. But he told me to keep holding Jessie and that he was load it into the camper.

“Mark, put those frozen veggies into the cooler will you?”

“No problem. You all like your rabbit food I take it,” he said referring to the fact that I had bought six bulk bags of different types of frozen vegetables including one that was an oriental blend that would be great for stir fries.

After everything was loaded he said, “Here, I’ll take him and put him in the car seat. You drive. “

I got in and saw a messy pile of metal parts sitting in a cardboard box in the floorboard. I asked and he had found everything he needed on a single vehicle which made pulling it even easier. After the Jessie was buckled in I asked him what he had on the rest of his list.

“I need to pick up some groceries and stop by the feed store if you have time. They didn’t deliver the last order and aren’t returning phone calls for some reason,” he said looking hot and sweaty.

“Hey, if you want we can stop and pick up something to drink and …”

“No, it’s OK.”

Thinking I knew what the problem was I said, “Well, how am I supposed to show my appreciation? You came all the way out here with me which meant I didn’t have to drag Daddy out which in turn kept me from worrying over him and making him crankier than he was already this morning.”

A cocked eyebrow was all I got until he said, “OK, where’s the Del I remember and what did you do to her?”

I laughed ‘cause he was spot on the money. “She grew up for real instead of just thinking she was grown up. Look Mark, you were no angel, that’s for sure, but I was way out of line for holding a grudge you didn’t deserve to begin with. We both just picked at each other too much. What, you’re 23 now?”

“Twenty-four.”

“And probably feeling like you’re eighty-four with all the responsibilities you’ve been forced to shoulder lately. At least I got out from under some of mine when I started school. Daddy saw what I was doing to myself over it and sat me down and had a long talk. We worked things out. If Micah hadn’t been bent on acting like an oversized donkey’s behind things would have been even easier on me.”

“Your aunts told me you worked three and four jobs all the time,” he said, not objecting when I pulled into the parking lot of a popular fast food burger joint.

“Normally just two or three but I’ll do just about anything to bring in some money. Daddy’s pension and income from the plant covered all of our household needs so long as I was careful at the grocery but it didn’t stretch far enough to cover anything else. Once Daddy retired Micah and I lost our health care benefits. The university required that I carry their plan but the Daddy had to pay for his and Micah’s through a private insurer and when Daddy got sick that 20% ate up a lot more money than we expected, plus some of his meds weren’t covered by the plan we had. And … well, you know the drill. Living cheap and living well don’t have to mean the polar opposite of each other but work and creativity are the two things you have to have to make them meet in the middle.” I was a little embarrassed by how much information I’d just kind of spewed out there. I’m not normally that forthcoming but giving how the Aunts talked, Mark probably knew half of what I was telling him already.

“Yeah. I wish …” he trailed off.

“What?”

“I don’t know. When Dee and Butch were married …” he started.

“Butch is your brother-in-law right? I didn’t have much to do with him even before the dog incident.”

“Ex brother-in-law, please. Anyway when he and Dee were married money was pretty good up until the end and Dee never had to learn to budget and stuff like that. Butch handled all the bills, bought her clothes like she was some kind of Barbie doll, they had the maid to go to the grocery for them, heck her name wasn’t even on any of the accounts. After the divorce she didn’t have a clue and I wasn’t much better. She ran through the settlement money like it was water and everything fell apart before I even realized what was happening. Your aunts tried to warn me but I was so in deep with the trouble over Jessie that I just kind of blanked it out, thinking it couldn’t be as bad as they were painting it. Man, I wish someone would have sat me down when I was a kid and told me one day I was going to need to know all the stuff I used to think of as useless. I’d give a whole lot to be able to go back and change things.” Then he looked over at me and sand, “A lot of things.”

Jessie chose that moment to get fussy so we got out of the truck to tend to him. We walked inside and I told him that he could pay me back some other day and that since this was probably the last time for a while that I’d be eating out to let us do it in peace without a lot of arguing over who was paying for what.

“Maybe there is some of the old Del in there after all,” was his way of accepting. While we ate and Mark fed Jessie a fruit and yogurt cup we planned out the rest of our stops.

We came out of wallyworld with three buggies full but no strange looks. Lots of people came to town on the first of the month to stock up and no one seemed to be leaving with anything but at least one full buggy. Of course the buggies weren’t all full of food but of a lot of different things but when those little white plastic bags are tied shut you can’t tell what is in them can you?

The only problem I had was when I ran into the purchase limit in sporting goods. I could only buy two boxes of ammo; not two boxes of any one kind of ammo but two boxes of ammo period. Mark helped me out by buying two for me and then shook his head when I went started to complain grumpily.

On the way out of the store he told me that he knew a guy at a pawn shop that was selling out and might could give me a price at least close to what Wallyworld’s was if I was interested. So Mark made the call, I called Daddy to confirm, and we swung by there and loaded up on almost all the .22lr the guy had left as well as shotgun shells and some reloading supplies so that Daddy and Micah could go back to loading their own shells. “Daddy has the other stuff he needs. I appreciate this Mark like you don’t know. Daddy has been really worried because he and Micah had blown most of the .22lr last time they were at the range and he kept forgetting to restock.”

“Micah knows how to hunt?”

“Yeah, I do too. Most of our family vacations that weren’t spent here were in places where we could hunt or fish. I hardly ever bought meat at the grocery except if it was only a really, really good sale.”

“How do you plan on running a freezer up at the cabin? Generator?”

“No. We dried or canned most all of the meat. Canning was about the only ‘women’s work’ Daddy ever paid much attention to but Granddaddy was like that too if you remember him. Actually what he wants to do is build a smokehouse but … but …,” I lost steam wondering if there would be time enough left for Daddy to finish all of his plans for the cabin.

“Hey, you OK?”

“Yeah,” I said trying to breathe around the heavy feeling in my chest and see through the incipient tears in my eyes. “It just sort of sneaks up on me every … every …,” another swallow and I could finish, “every once in a while. But I guess you understand better than most would. You were eight when your parents were killed weren’t you?”

“Yeah. Dee was in her senior year of highschool. I don’t care what anyone says, it doesn’t get easier, it just becomes part of the landscape and you just learn to deal with it better.”

“Because you don’t have any choice.”

He nodded, “Because you don’t have any choice.”

I dropped Mark and Jessie at the feed depot while I ran a couple of smaller errands down the road. First I stopped at a discount auto parts store and picked up all the fluids, belts, and other odds and ends Daddy had asked for and then used the Tom-Tom to find a pharmacy that would fill Daddy’s prescriptions and signed up to have them moved to the new location. While I was in there I saw a guy walk in that had a Harbor Freight logo on his pocket so I asked him where his store was located and could have kicked myself when he pointed across the street.

I lit out of there before my red face could catch anything on fire and tried to call Mark to tell him I was going to be a few minutes late but couldn’t pick up a signal. Fussing at the phone I drove across the road anyway, battling traffic that was turning into a nightmare I finally got to park and walked into a welcome blast of cold air. Everyone seemed to be glued to the TV when I walked in but given there weren’t any customers in the store so that didn’t seem too unusual. I just figured there was a game on or something and went about looking what I had come in for.

The lighting down in the basement and in the sub cellar was awful to nonexistent. If you’ve never tried to climb steep pitched stairs while carrying a lantern I wouldn’t recommend experimenting. I’d hardly touched my own money that I’d taken out except to pay for my personal stuff at wallyworld and to make change for Mark when they wouldn’t take anything bigger than a twenty at the register. I got lucky and this store had a pretty decent solar section; in my experience some of them didn’t.

I grabbed several solar powered security lights, some solar fence chargers so that I could raccoon proof the garbage cans, and a few other odds and ends that set me back enough to make me cringe. We’d collected quite a bit of solar equipment over the years especially once Daddy started working at the plant. The plant manager wrote off broken equipment and threw it away. It was more expensive to get it repaired. Daddy had a thing for dumpster diving and came home with more junk than I could find room for. A lot of it was stored at the Aunts and would need to be carted back to the cabin which I was not looking forward to.

It took forever for me to get the clerk’s attention to tell him I was ready to check out. He was only paying half attention to things and even dropped one of the solar lights so I had to go back and get another one and he still through the broken one in the bag. “What is up? Is the game that good?” I asked finally getting too irritated no to say something.

“Game? Oh … you must not have heard. There’s something going on up at the levies. Cops and even the military are up there. There’s a rumor that one of them violent environmental groups have taken the main gate hostage or something like that.”

“Up … at the … the levies?”

“Yeah, near the water treatment plant. Man, what those whacked out freaks won’t do for attention.”

“Uh … yeah.” I paid and after I had put the stuff in the back and shut the camper down I tried calling Mark and then Daddy, not being able to reach either one of them. Traffic was even worse. I was like a fish swimming upstream and I realized it was getting close to quitting time for a lot of businesses. I pulled into the Feed Depot to find Mark pacing around outside practically drilling a hole through his phone as he pushed the buttons. I beeped the horn and he jumped and then jogged over.

“Where have you been?!”

“I stopped at Harbor Freight. I tried to call. Has it been going through? I can’t get ahold of Daddy either.”

I saw the tension go out of his shoulders just a tad. “No. No and I can’t reach Dee or Cici. Look, now I’m the one that has a favor. You were pulling a pretty good load when you got here. Do … do you mind if … look, they refuse to deliver your aunts order because the price of fuel has jumped and their place is too far out of their way. They’ll let me borrow one of their trailers for free if I drop a load off at one of the neighbors who is in the same boat.”

“Well of course.”

“It’ll mean a trip back though to bring back the trailer.”

“Don’t worry about it. Daddy will probably think of some other stuff he wants. Look, I don’t want to rush but … do you mind if we make this our last stop? Or do you have …”

“No. No that’s fine with me. If you’ll take Jessie I’ll back the truck up and we’ll just go. It’s … er … it’s already loaded. I told them … uh …,” he stopped uncomfortably.

“Like I said Mark, don’t sweat it. You’d do the same for me if things were reversed. Let’s just go. I’m a little worried.”

It took a few minutes and I had to change the ball on the hitch but we were finally on our way home with Mark driving since he knew the back roads.

“Mark?”

“Yeah. The guys at Harbor Freight said something was going on at the levies. Did you hear anything about that?”

He nodded. “That’s why you want to get home?”

“Well …”

“You Dad work at a water treatment plant.” It was a statement and not a question.

“Yeah.”

After a second of uncomfortable silence Mark asked me a question I’d been dreading. “Why did you all move back?”

“Daddy … he just … sorta …”

“Del, you never did lie very well. Your dad was in the military. He was asking me how well your aunts were set up and stuff like that. I thought at the time he was worried about being a burden but … but now maybe I’m not so sure. So … what is it? Or have you been forbidden to say anything?”

“Forbidden? No. But …,” I stopped trying to find the words. “Mark I really don’t know what is going on. Daddy … Daddy … well, he thinks he overheard something that … that worried him. I don’t know the specific details but it involved Homeland Security. But the thing is … sometimes Daddy … well … his … his medication … it …” I stopped, still at a loss how to say it.

“You’re dad thinks something bad is going to happen but you aren’t necessarily convinced but you trust him enough to go along.”

Even thought that didn’t quite cover everything it was enough for me to say, “Yeah, basically, that’s it in a nutshell.”

“Do you think whatever is going on up at the levies has anything to do with it?”

“I don’t know Mark,” I said shaking my head slowly. “That is one heck of a coincidence either way you look at it. I’ll be honest and say it is setting off the wooly boogers inside my stomach.”

“It must be contagious then,” he muttered. After a few minutes of quiet concentration to get us out of town and onto one of the roads that would take us across farm country he said, “If those levies go everything you are looking at right now could suddenly get very wet. We had record levels of rainfall for the past two months and while we aren’t at flood stage another month would put us over it. Those levies are holding back more water than they usually do.”

“Great. I could have gone without hearing that all day.”

“Wait, I’m not done. Your aunts’ place sits higher than most since it was one of the original homesteads in the area and they had the sense to know where to build back then. But your uncle’s place, it sits in some bottom land. The levies go then so will everything they have. And if they lose the farm they’ll move in on your aunts’ place; and what’s more the old ladies will let them.”

“And you’re telling me this why?”

“If they move to your aunts’ place I’m leaving even if I have to put a sail on the trailer and paddle out.”

“Uh oh. That bad?”

“You don’t want to know. Let’s just say they put their noses into places they had no business putting them and leave it at that for now. Your aunts know how I feel but I’m just the hired hand and they’re family. But … and you didn’t hear this from me so don’t bring it up again … if you all have anything stored in the house or barn you’d better get it while the getting is good or you might not … if you get my drift.”

Oh brother I thought, on top of everything else this I did not need. “Thanks for the warning. And look, if worse does come to worse, don’t take off before talking to Daddy.” Added “please” when he looked like he would object. “Granddaddy bequeathed that back forty as our portion of his estate … to Micah and I as our mother’s beneficiaries. The aunts have the right to live there for the duration of their lives but that back forty is actually ours; we pay the taxes on it and everything and have since Granddaddy passed away.”

“I didn’t know that.”

I nodded, “Most people don’t but Uncle Clement’s family all should. The rest does belong to the Aunts free and clear as Granddaddy deeded it over to them right before he died to avoid a fight between his kids. What the Aunts plan on doing with the remaining sixty I can’t say. If Daddy knows he’s never said anything about it.”

“Well, I’d still get anything that is yours back to the cabin as soon as you could. If there isn’t anything to fight about then a fight should be less likely.”

“And you’ll talk to Daddy first?”

He would only go so far. “I’ll think about it. But I’ve got Jessie and Dee and Cici to think of. I can’t sit around waiting forever for your family to make up its mind about what it is going to do.”

I let his words roll off of me figuring he must have some reason for them but I also wondered where he thought he would go if something bad did happen. The rest of the trip back to the Aunts’ place was fairly quiet. Jessie was asleep and we were both wrapped up in our own thoughts. The only radio station that wasn’t bankrupt and still reached out as far as we were driving didn’t have a thing on it about the trouble out at the levies.

“Why don’t they say something?!” I fussed.

“Dale Rogers … the guy that owns and operates the station … wouldn’t know honest news if it smacked him across the face. He’s always bragging about his years in the Peace Corps and you can guess which side he supported in the last elections. His bark is pretty loud but he doesn’t have the guts to take something on without a crowd at his back. Most people consider him the town jester. He’s a lot more sound than substance.”

“Those types aren’t necessarily harmless.”

“Rogers is, at least so far as I’ve experienced. In a crowded room he’s a big man. Get him off on his own and the air comes right out of him.”

As we finally pulled in I saw Daddy and Micah loading stuff into Micah’s jeep and onto the small trailer that was attached to it. Daddy saw us and quickly walked over to the driver’s side when he saw Mark was driving.

“Mark, I hope you don’t mind. I asked Dee and she said it would be OK for us to borrow the trailer. I should have asked you when Del called earlier but it slipped my mind.”

“No sir, it’s fine but tomorrow I’ll need it to deliver something to a neighbor. My truck can’t handle this big trailer where I’m going.”

Daddy was gray faced with fatigue and even Micah was looking worried. Micah jogged over to my side of the door and whispered, “Del, make Dad say this is this is the last load. He looks weird and he puked up his lunch. I tried to make him go home after that but he got mad. I think he might have that stomach virus again.”

Mark turned his head and looked at Micah and then at me. I gave a slight shake of my head and then told Micah, “You know how determined Daddy can be but I’ll see what I can do. We’ve got stuff to put away in the coolers anyway. Why don’t you go tell the Aunts goodbye and I’ll take care of things.”

I sat there for a second trying to figure my next move when Mark said, “He doesn’t know does he?”

“Micah? No, Daddy doesn’t want him to know but it is getting to the point that it can’t be hidden any longer. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“The boy is going to be angry.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve put myself in his place a million times but Daddy just won’t listen. It is going to come to a head pretty soon.”

“Tell you what, since I owe you a couple of favors how about when you need some help with your Dad and Micah you just ask.”

“Don’t offer if you don’t mean it Mark.”

He put his hand on my arm, “I mean it Del. This day hasn’t been anything like I expected it to be. Nothing can come of it but … but it’s been one of the best days I’ve had in a good long while.”

I started to ask him what he meant when Micah came tearing back over to the truck. “Del!! Aunt Lilah says to come quick! The news says there has been some kind of explosion at the old Curtis Levy!”

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