Monday, November 14, 2011

Chapter 24

Chapter Twenty-Four

While Lucia led the girls to one of the downstairs bedrooms I stepped back outside and listened to noise the guys were making. I still didn’t know who Thomas was and figured I’d have to find the answer myself. I grabbed a wind up lantern from the bookcase by the back door and walked to towards the barn. As I came forward Tony noticed and said, “Ragazza … in the nick of time as usual.”

I didn’t answer him because I was staring dumbfounded at what looked like a zoo. My mouth must have been hanging open because Tony put a finger under my chin and closed it. I looked at him and he chuckled. “Your eyes are as big as silver dollars Joey. Of course you should have seen my face when I stumbled across Bennie and …” He may have been making a joke but I could also here the choked up sound of too many emotions in his voice.

Shaking myself to try and gain some control I asked, “Should I fix anything to eat?”

A guy’s head popped around the door and I jumped when I realized I didn’t know him. Bennie said quietly, “Easy Joey, this is Thomas. If not for him we would have been toast. These animals come from his family’s place.”

“Uh … hi Thomas. You hungry?”

He looked like he was struggling to talk but then shook his head. “Better not since it is so late … but … but you mind if I … I heat up some of Rose’s milk? We drank most of her evening milk but there’s a little left in the thermos.”

I squinched my nose up imagining what it would taste like without refrigeration. “Honestly, do you really want to drink sour milk? Why don’t you let me put that to making bread and I’ll make you some butterscotch milk or a milk toddy or something like that?”

Thomas’ mouth was soon hanging open like mine had been and Bennie was going, “Mmmmm … butterscotch milk. You sure you can spare it Joey?”

“It’s no problem. Thomas what about your parents would they …” It took me half a second to realize I had made an awful mistake. “Geez, I’m sorry. I’m usually better at making sure I only put one foot in my mouth at a time.”

The young man was sad but not angry. “It’s ok. They had gone to visit my Granny who was in Nashville in a nursing home. They … they ….” He shrugged. “They never came home. Guess you know what I mean.” He turned to lead the two cows into the barn and Bennie and Tony followed him in, pulling a small farm wagon that held other caged animals. I saw rabbits and a few other things I couldn’t identify in the dark. Then I nearly screamed when I got goosed from behind.

“Joey?!” Tony called coming out of the barn at a near run. When he saw me berating a couple of goats for getting over familiar he had to lean against the door to stay upright while tears poured down his face as he tried not to laugh.

“Ha … ha …” I huffed.

Thomas came out and said, “That’s where you three got to. I can’t take you nowhere. Behave before the nice lady wants to BBQ you.”

“Humph. I wouldn’t get any of them near any BBQ of mine until they had a bath. I didn’t know goats could smell so … so … goat-y. They smell like my brother’s football laundry used to.”

That sent Tony off again. Bennie just sighed and shook his head but there was a small, tired smile on his face too. Thomas looked at me to see whether I was fooling or not. “The billy … the male goat … he is the one that smells. The girl goats – the does – just pick it up from him.”

I heard the back door open so I left the lantern with the guys and headed to the light of the kitchen. Lucia walked back inside with me. She was so silent I had to ask her, “Trouble getting the girls to give it up and go to bed?”

She sighed and shook her head. “I wish. I … they’ve … they’ve been like this ever since …” She shook her head again and I nudged her to sit down at the kitchen table.

I gathered what I needed. I grabbed the pitcher of milk from the frig and for every cup of milk I added one tablespoon of brown sugar, a half-teaspoon of butter extract, and a dollop of marshmallow crème that my mother seemed to have stocked in bulk. I brought everything to a near boil on the stove top, watching as Lucia tried to pull herself together. I was just ready to pour it into mugs when the three guys quietly walked into the house.

Bennie immediately went over to Lucia. “The girls OK?”

“Hopefully they’ll start getting that way now that we can stop running.”

I looked at Tony in alarm. Bennie caught the look and said, “It’s a long story but if we can have some of that it will make the telling easier.”

“Wash up at the sink,” I said automatically. For some reason out of everything that made Thomas chuckle.

I turned to look at him and realized he wasn’t as young as I had thought at first, maybe a year or two out of highschool. Seeing the question in my eyes he said, “Tony said you’d say that.”

I was going to be a smart aleck but then thought better of it and just looked at Tony and said, “Yeah, he knows me pretty well.”

Lucia raised her head at that and said, “So you and Tony are really together now? Calling yourself husband and wife even without benefit of a church?”

I looked at her and said, “Yeah.”

I was worried she’d make something of it but then the serious look left her face and she cracked a smile and said, “About time.”

As the guys washed up I filled the mugs and put them at the table. “Thomas, I really will fix you something if you are hungry.”

He sipped the frothy butterscotch milk but said, “No thank you. I’ll wait for morning. Tony said you fix breakfast and stuff.”

“Yeah, eggs and pancakes OK?”

He got a surprised look on his face and then grinned, “Yes’m, that’s about as OK as life gets these days.” He drained his mug despite its heat and then said, “If you don’t mind I need to go lay down. Didn’t get much sleep the last couple of nights and I need to be up early to take care of the animals. Is there a free sofa or somethin’ like that?”

I gave him a look and said, “Why sleep on a sofa when there’s a perfectly good bed to rest in?”

I started to get up to show him but Bennie waved me back and said, “I’ll show him. I’m beat myself.” He squeezed Lucia’s shoulder as he passed by her but that was it and it only added to all of my questions I was holding back.

Tony stood up and said, “I’ll see they both get settled and then head to bed myself. Don’t be up too late Ragazza.”

That left Lucia and I alone at the table. “Luce? Can you talk now?”

He sighed, “I hate reliving it Joey … I just hate it.” She shrugged. “But that’s stupid, you need to know.”

She ordered her thoughts and then took a sip of milk before finally starting to explain. “It was horrible after we left. Pop was … oh Joey, there aren’t really words good enough or bad enough to describe what Pop was. You remember that time Ol’ Mrs. Stenheim’s sister came to visit and had that weird fit right there in the store? Remember how she was afterward? All paranoid and stuff, seeing things that weren’t there, jumping at shadows? I think Pop …” She stopped and sighed. “Who am I fooling? Joey … Pop lost his mind. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it was something organic in the brain or if he just went bonkers because of the stress. Either way there wasn’t anything we could do for him.”

I was trying to imagine what she was describing but all I could see was the horribly angry man that had attacked me. It was hard to remember I’d considered the man nearly a second father at one point in my life.

“Leo lost patience with him within an hour of him coming around being knocked out. I don’t know where it would have all been heading but Leo stopped the van, got out and drug Pop out and shoved a gun practically down his throat … he was even gagging on it. The girls nearly passed out they were so scared and Ma … her eyes seemed to swallow her whole face.”

I asked her as gently as I could, “Where were you and Bennie?”

A little belligerently she asked, “You think we could have stopped it?”

“No, that’s not what I meant. I mean were you and Bennie OK?”

She relaxed back into her chair and covered her face with her hands. “Sorry Joey … sorry … it … I told you it’s hard to tell it again. Just let me get through it.”

I touched her shoulder and she looked over to see me nod. “Pop wasn’t exactly calm after that but he was quieter. He kept touching Ma and the girls but it was like Bennie and I didn’t exist so much. Every once in a while he’d look at us and then get startled like he’d forgotten we were there.”

“Leo wasn’t doing so good either. He was the kinda guy that is used to being the heavy but not really being the boss of anything; he could follow a plan but didn’t really know how to be … be flexible when things went wrong with the plan. Bennie and I could tell he was starting to get rattled and he was lost but wouldn’t admit it. After a day with the guy I had started to think of ways to … to get rid of him but he was always too close to some of the others, always waving that gun around. We’d stopped for a break and for Leo to look at some map he had for the hundredth time when Bennie found those guns you stashed in his bag. Geez Joey, it was like finding hope after having none. Bennie was armed and he made me take his switch blade but made me promise not to give it to Pop or the others in case Pop talked them out of it.”

“Then on the third day we ran out of gas. He started storming around and cursing but then just walked over to another car that was stuck in the same traffic jam and shot them point blank. I coulda died right there Joey. It is just a complete nightmare to even think about it. I don’t know why no one stopped him but no one did; not us, not no one. It was like everyone was in shock … or scared of losing their place in line,” she added a little cynically. “He made Bennie siphon the gas out of the car and put it in the van. It didn’t get us far. Leo killed for the gas in their tank again and by that time Leo had learned that if he wanted something he was just going to take it.”

“By the fourth day he’d also decided we were just a liability and the van used too much fuel. Angels must have been watching out for people crazy enough to be on the road because Leo got us lost again, and this time we winded up in the middle of nowhere when the gas ran out. He tried to order Bennie to help him beat up people on this farm we ran across but Bennie would have nothing to do with it. Then he tried to talk Bennie into it with promises of a cut of the take but still Bennie wouldn’t help. That’s when Leo threatened to attack me … and … and Bennie went nuts. He and Leo went at it but … but even though Bennie is younger and stronger he’s been out of the game a while; Leo sliced him across the chest with a boot knife that he’d had hidden. Leo could have finished Bennie right there but I got him a good one in the leg with the knife Bennie had given to me earlier – missed the artery that I’d been aiming for but still did some damage. He ran off in the dark and I was too busy screaming at Ma and the girls to give me a hand with Bennie to really give a flip where he was running to. Pop was … Pop was trying to act all tough and strutting around and saying weird things like God had run Leo off, that God had told him what would happen to Leo and that he wouldn’t want to be in Leo’s shoes and all sorts of stuff along those lines.”

“Ma was starting to come out of whatever funk she had been in but she was still shook up bad. The girls were doing better too but none of them were thinking real clear. They kept thinking the cops were going to arrive and take care of things. By then I’d finally admitted to myself that no one was coming to the rescue and that we’d all been as nuts as Pop to have left here, especially with Leo. And don’t look like that Joey, you couldn’t have known.”

Shaking my head and calling myself every kind of food I told her, “But I did know Leo was dangerous. I should have stopped you, warned you …”

“We wouldn’t have listened and you know it.” We both sighed like a couple of old women as Lucia continued her story. “I couldn’t wait for help that might never arrive. Bennie needed water and to get inside some place. Pop started raising a fuss when I told him I was going to the farmhouse. He tried to stop me and I … I slapped him Joey. I slapped my father. I did it because he was getting hysterical and needed to stop but I think it hurt me way more than it hurt him. And it did stop him but I swear I thought he was going to hit me back. I kept remembering what he did to you and I … I think that is when I stopped trusting him anymore.”

“I made Ma watch Bennie and not let Pop do anything to him and then told Pop it was up to him whether he came to help me or not but I was going. Pop finally followed me but in hindsight it might not have been the best thing. You see Leo had been to the farm house ahead of us and … and it was a bloody mess. They were just this old couple and he’d … well, the old man did for him too before he died right there in the doorway of their house but not before Leo had done … things … to the old woman. When he saw the mess and put the pieces of the puzzle together, Pop started getting … stranger. I didn’t mind when he spit on Leo’s body but when he started to stomp on it and kick it … I just couldn’t watch. I couldn’t stop him either. I grabbed what I’d come to ask for and ran back to where Ma had everyone waiting.”

“Ma and I managed to help Bennie to the house but the girls … they … they saw what Pop was doing. Lindsey puked and … and hasn’t been the same since. Ana, would you believe it … it was Ana that helped me to bury the old couple while Ma tried to sort Pop out. I got desperate or smart and ransacked the medicine cabinet and managed to come up with some prescription strength Sonata and dosed Pop’s soda that Ma gave him. It took longer than I’d hoped but eventually Pop was down and then out. Ma wouldn’t let me tie him up and now I wish I’d ignored her and done it anyway but I had to focus on Bennie who was in a lot of pain. Ana had her hands full with Lindsey who seemed to want to come unglued too. What was so weird was it was usually the other way around; Ana the one with all the drama going on and Lindsey just riding the wave.”

We were there two days and Bennie was just starting to be able to move without hurting real bad. I should have been paying better attention but I thought dosing Pop would buy me some time to figure some way to deal with things. I’m not sure how it happened or when but Pop must have figured out what I was doing and only played at drinking his tea. Or maybe Ma didn’t … she hadn’t liked drugging him … maybe she thought he’d be OK or something. I found out later he convinced Lindsey to sneak a gun to him … there were a lot in the house so it would have been easy to do it unnoticed … and then one night I guess he decided that ...”

The pain of it was etched in Lucia’s face. I no more wanted to hear the rest than she wanted to tell it but we both knew it was necessary. Lucia plowed on but her voice was barely above a whisper. “Pop would have killed us all if … if Ma hadn’t stopped him. He was going after the girls and they saw him and started screaming. Ma and I woke up ran to where they’d been sleeping and … and Pop was standing over them looking determined, trying to explain it was the only way because the Tribulation was upon us and some other religious stuff I didn’t understand. Ma kept crying and begging Pop to stop and think what he was doing but he only smiled at her and said that it would be all right, he’d take care of her too and then himself so we’d all be together. I … I could hear Bennie struggling up the stairs to try and get to us. I turned to look at him and in just that moment I heard an explosion. But it wasn’t Pop … Ma had … had … she’d tried to defend her children from a mad man. The girls had stopped screaming. Ma was just crying and dropped the gun and ran to Pop. I should have stopped her. I … I just didn’t think he would really … really do it. Ma had Pop in her arms and he sagged taking them both to the floor. Pop was done for; I knew it as soon as I saw how frothy the blood around the hole in his chest was, how fast he was losing blood. Then I saw him mumble something. I ran across the room but I was too late. There was a muffled sound and Ma’s whole body jumped and then she slumped across Pop.”

Silent tears streamed down her face. “If it hadn’t been for Bennie I don’t know if I would have made it through the next couple of days. The girls … the girls were in shock, still are even though it’s been several weeks. Ana tried to help bury Ma and Pop but … but she just couldn’t do it and I don’t blame her. If there had been anyone else I wouldn’t have done it either but there wasn’t. Bennie tried but every bit of lifting would open the slash back up and I worried about infection. I wound up having to put a couple of stitches in the deepest parts to keep the edged together long enough for the cut to start healing.”

She closed her eyes trying not to see the picture of what she’d been forced to do. When she opened them she said, “We almost stayed there … that farm I mean … but Bennie said that there was no way we could scrape by with what little was in the place and that relatives of the owners might come around any day. His worry became my reality. I knew it looked like we had a lot of supplies between what had been left in the van and what was in the farm house but Bennie was right, it wouldn’t last long enough for things to get better because things were never going to “get better” … at least not like they were before.”

“There was an old Lincoln in the barn. Bennie couldn’t lift but he could tinker and it didn’t take much to get the car up and running; the old couple took really good care of it. And the trunk on that thing was huge. Lucky for us the farm had one of those private gas pumps … I guess they had to have one since they lived out in the middle of nowhere … and we filled that car up and all the gas cans we had. The girls and I went through everything that had been in the van and divided it up into piles of keep and leave. It wasn’t easy; the girls had a fit any time they realized there wasn’t enough room for something. We also went over the farmhouse, taking stuff that might be useful like a blanket and pillow for everyone, all the guns and ammunition, the food, medicine and such. I don’t know how we fit what we did. I suppose we could have taken more if we had been willing to strap it to the roof but Bennie worried about being a target and I agreed with him over the girls’ half-hearted protests.”

“Leaving that farm was hard. We left a note telling what had happened in case anyone showed up after we put back out on the road; where the bodies were buried I’d guess you’d say, but I almost hope no one finds it. We left some of the cash Leo had taken from Tony but I don’t know that it is good for anything but toilet paper now. There were fewer cars on the road … fewer that were moving that is. It took us a couple of hours to figure out where we were at on the map and it was then that we realized Leo had been so turned around that he’d been headed southeast instead of northeast like he meant to. Later some of that cash bought us a couple of safe nights in a campground and another tank of gas and it was just enough to get us near Dot but then things got hinky again.”

Chapter 23

Chapter Twenty-Three

It’s been scary awful around here and it will take some time to explain it all. Unfortunately at the same time it has the feeling of being the new normal so I suppose I should get used to it. We’ve had both good and bad; closer to home we’ve seen some good and bad but the overall picture continues to deteriorate. I’m not a person to stick my head in the sand but there’s been a few times I wanted to pull the covers over my head and tell the world to leave me alone for a little while.

I guess when my parents bought this place they could only take so many things into consideration. I’m sure they weren’t thinking of war or anything approaching it; my father the actuary would probably not have thought it that high of a risk. Wrong.

As the crow flies Dot is less than forty-five minutes from a major military installation - Ft. Campbell Army Base – and that’s if the crow flies real slow. I’m not sure if we are in a flight path, or whatever you call it, or if something has changed. I’ve got reason to go with the “changed” option but there is nothing I can do about it. Do know for a fact that there was a plane crash several days back and that there was a whole lotta military traffic up and down the mining roads for about a week afterwards.

Tony and I walked down to the end of his land (not using the main road from the cabin), both of us making sure we had proof that we had the right to be there on our person just in case someone got snotty. We watched the troops scurry like mice up and down the road for two days before anyone took serious notice of us and only then because one of their vehicles lost a track.

Feeling like I was in an episode of the Twilight Zone I said, “What the heck! They’re using freakin’ tanks.”

Most guys seem to be genetically preprogrammed to a love affair with anything mechanized and Tony was no exception. With an air of superior knowledge he told me, “That’s not a tank Joey.”

Refusing to put up with the fact he was practically drooling I said, “That is a tank; it has those things … tracks … instead of wheels.”

“It’s not a tank; do you see any guns? It’s a cargo carrier called an M548.” I nearly handed him a napkin to wipe his chin with. I would have asked him how he knew this but I wasn’t in the mood to listen to a long explanation interspersed with facts I’d forget as soon as he said them.

“Fine, it’s not a tank … even though it sorta looks like one,” I added quickly under my breath causing him to roll his eyes. “Either way they’re tearing up the road bad with it and it wasn’t in great shape to begin with. And those other ones that are coming and going are even worse. If they’re gonna do that don’t we at least get a chance to know why?”

Tony and I were pulling our “disarm them with normalcy” routine while we were being watched by the guys with the guns. Tony and I were prepared for trouble as well but weren’t carrying the amount of obvious hardware the other guys and gals were. The dudes in the military fatigues weren’t buying our act and we hadn’t really expected them to, on the other hand they knew we were there and so long as we didn’t do anything stupid or get too close they didn’t mind us standing around watching.

We didn’t go near them, didn’t talk to them; didn’t try to get them to talk to us. We were just desperate for information – real information – of what was going on beyond what was parsed out by the mainstream media after it had been sanitized and spun, and if we had to act like a couple half-brained rubber-neckers to do it we’d make the sacrifice. We were learning that pride had its place but it didn’t fill and empty stomach and it didn’t make the answers fall from Heaven. We hadn’t talked to another living soul in almost six weeks and just hearing people talk was something satisfying; even if it was basically just cursing their bad luck.

It was obvious that the cargo carriers were bringing down the debris from the crash … not just bits of broken plane but what was in the plane which appeared to be hauling supplies of some type. We hadn’t seen any bodies but they could have been taken off by any of the helicopters we saw hovering around up that way. Given the way the debris looked – some of it blackened and sooty – I didn’t see how anyone had survived such a crash.

Tony suspected they had to use the tracked vehicles because the plane crashed in a small area that was stripped mined several years ago and it was hard going in and out for regular vehicles much less the heavy equipment they needed to use. He’d figured out where the plane had gone down because he went to the highest elevation on his land and then climbed one of the tallest trees on that section. He could not see the crash itself but the smoke that had risen at the time pretty much gave away the location.

That first day we just watched the comings and goings of the military vehicles from well back in the woods so they couldn’t see us. The second day we let them see us but stayed out of their way. We watched but well back from the sidelines so they wouldn’t mistake us for a threat or get nosey. The next day is when we started the shtick. Everything was fine, cool and copacetic. We saw them, they saw us and judged us harmless, and everyone was … well not happy by any stretch but no one was pointing something that goes bang-bang or ka-pow.

We never made the mistake of becoming involved; there is always risk once you’ve made contact. But things happen and you have to be flexible. You know how something will occur and you just make a split second choice because to do anything else is literally unthinkable? Because there is no way to just turn your back and walk away? That M-thingy, whatever it was that lost its track, was loaded down and running heavy. The repair guys – Tony keeps reminding me to call them Motor Transport Operators – showed up in a duplicate M-whatever you call it, only it was full of what looked like parts and fuel and stuff. The new guys hop out and there is a lot of ribbing and a little sniping at the MTOs that were driving the one that lost its track. The one that had lost its track had been overloaded by its crew.

There was a good bit cursing when they found out they would have to at least partially unload the M-thingy and that there wasn’t another transport available to move it to while the repair was made. The unloading process is where things got hinky. We got “the look” from the new group of MTOs but were eventually brushed off and semi-forgotten about as nothing more than lookie-lou’s. Tony and I are just standing there watching – admittedly grateful we weren’t drafted to help – when we hear from the back of the one being unloaded, “Wait … hey I said wait … wait, wait, stop, it’s tipping!”

They had been unloading from the side of the cargo transport that faced away from us but there had been a few guys in the back moving smaller stuff out and stacking it nearby. All of a sudden a big piece of equipment slides out of the back through the canvas flaps and hits one of those guys in the shoulder knocking him away but landing on the other guy who starts screaming, obviously in pain.

That’s when we didn’t stop to think, both Tony and I just went into motion. We ran over, he goes to help the other guys who are trying to lift the piece of … I still don’t know what it was but it was like a bunch of electronic hardware attached to panels and the guts all exposed. I ran to the guy and tried to grab him to hold him still. Eventually I was crouched behind his head holding his head in a lock with bent knees to keep him from thrashing it around and I’d caught his hands and held on. I talked to him while looking down from above; he would have seen me upside down to him.

“Hey, c’mon, you need to be as still as you can. They’re trying to get a jack to get this thing off of you asap. OK? What’s your name?”

The young guy, as in even younger than me, couldn’t seem to form an answer. One of the female soldiers that wasn’t helping to get the jack in place slid over beside me to take one of the soldier’s hands so we could split the pain of the crushing he was giving us. “His name is Lombardi … Chris Lombardi. Mostly people call him Bard.”

“Hey Chris, you a singer or a story teller? Gotta be one or the other with a nickname like Bard.”

“S … sss … sing,” he finally ground out.

“Choir boy?” I guessed after spotting a St. Michael’s medallion sliding from beneath his t-shirt.

“Y … yyy … yeah.”

Tears were pouring from his eyes but he wasn’t crying. I used my free hand to brush them and the beads of sweat off of his face. “My brothers were too so you watch that twinkle, I know exactly what happens to choir boys when their voices start changing.”

Amazingly he tried to smile but it turned into a grimace of pain and another yelp as they started shifting the debris with the jack. I heard the large and extremely gruff man that had taken charge direct the others to different places to stabilize the piece of equipment as the jack raised everything up. Even with the jack you could see it was taking all of the strength of the men and women involved to keep it from shifting again and totally crushing the guy I was trying to comfort.

That’s when the guy in charge rushed around to us and asked, “Can you two pull him out? We aren’t going to be able to get this much higher.”

I bent down to Chis and said, “Hey Bard listen up. Your friend and I are going to pull you out in just a sec but I need you to let us do all the work and stay as still as possible. It’s gonna hurt so brace yourself. Can you tell me where it hurts the worst right now?”

“L … llll … leg.”

“That all?”

“Uh … uh huh.”

I wasn’t sure whether that was a no or a yes but time had run out. I knew I was strong enough to pull him out on my own but not if he started fighting me. I also worried that we could hurt him worse than he already was if we pulled too hard. I had the other woman stabilize his head and neck as well as she could and told her to pull gently then I got over the top of him a grabbed his belt. On three we started sliding him out at a steady pace but only as far as we needed so that he wasn’t pinned anymore.

The leg was a mess. His pants were torn and bloody but thank the Good Lord that it wasn’t a compound fracture as I’m not sure I have the skill to deal with something like that. Lucia could have. My brothers could have. I need to be able to but that is going to require pulling out the old survival guides that were my brothers and I just haven’t been able to force myself to do it yet.

I did know how to splint and immobilize a leg. When everyone just stood there looking I said, “I need two straight pieces of something stiff and … and duct tape if you have it or wire off this junk or something that is strong and won’t slip when tied.”

They brought me two pieces of pipe and a few of the guys gave up their belts which turned out to be better than wire or tape.

One of the men called, “Can’t land a chopper … too many trees … but a medic team is already on the way. Be here in five from the site.”

I did what I could to keep Bard from going into shock and remain conscious while everyone else got on with what they had been doing but with only one eye as they all watched him. Apparently he is a popular team member, everyone’s kid brother. Turned out he was a year old than my own brothers’ age and it knocked the scab off of something inside me that had been trying to heal.

Looking around I saw the guy in charge was talking to Tony. Looked a little like an interrogation but not a nasty one. I figured the guy was just doing his job. After what seemed like years the medic team finally pulled up and thankfully I was no longer needed though Bard wouldn’t turn loose of my hand until he was on the back board and being moved to the makeshift ambulance. I looked over at Tony and his nod told me to come on over.

“Joey, I’d like to introduce the man in charge, Master Sergeant McManus.” Tony seemed comfortable with the man so I relaxed as much as my nerves would let me.

“How do you do sir?” I asked at my most polite.

Giving me a hard, but not intentionally intimidating look he said in a deep southern drawl, “Y’all live up here?”

“In my parent’s … my … cabin.”

“Mr. MacGregor said your folks were killed on the road to meet you here.”

I nodded slowly, “Look … I’d … rather not get into details but yeah, they died during an attack on evacuees. So did my little brothers, which reminds me … Bard is kinda young to be around all this stuff isn’t he? He wasn’t much older than … than my brothers.”

A cynical twist of the man’s lips stated plainly that I was being too much of a girl. Ignoring my question he said, “Be surprised what young men his age can get up to.”

Giving him look for look I told him, “Oh no I wouldn’t and if you had known my brothers you’d know why.” I stepped even closer to Tony. Sometimes memories hurt as bad as an actual wound. I still wanted to remember them but I didn’t necessarily want to do it in front of a stranger. Needing strength I grabbed Tony’s hand and held it. For his part he switched sides so that instead of holding my hand his arm pulled me close. Even still, I noted it was his firing arm that remained free in case he needed it. I also noted that he’d put himself a little in front of me to further insulate me I suppose.

Tony looked at the sergeant and asked, “If you’re finished we’ll get out of your way.”

Tony wasn’t belligerent but I could hear him getting protective. “Sure … but look, you two seem all right … especially coming to help Bard and not asking anything for it.” With a snort he added, “You’re just nosey and I don’t suppose under the circumstances there is anything wrong with that. But if you know what’s good for you you’ll play least in sight for a while. There’s gonna be a crew of feds coming through here starting tonight to make an inspection and unless you want ‘em crawling up your … er … just get lost and stay lost for the next 24 to 48.”

We were turning to leave but before we did I turned and asked, “About Bard … you think he’s going to be OK?”

“Medic just reported. He’s gonna be on desk duty but getting him out as quick as we did and then splinting him looks like we kept him from any permanent damage.”

My relief was ridiculous. I didn’t know that kid from no one and I doubt I’ll ever see him again in my life but for some reason it was important to me that he pull through. Tony gave me a knowing look as we hiked back to the house the long way around. “The kid did look a little like them.”

In a voice that said I didn’t want to talk about it I said, “Yeah. Look, when we get back to the house I need to get more grapes picked and in the steam juicer.”

“Joey …” He stopped when he realized there wasn’t anything that could be said. He ran his hand through my hair and then a knuckled down my cheek. “OK Ragazza,” said quietly. Then trying to think of a way to talk of something else he asked, “But this time will I get any of the fruit to try and make wine with?”

He was poking at me in a little bit of fun because I told him that wine was not an edible and came at the bottom of the priority list. His smart aleck comment was, “Your Italian ancestors are rolling in their graves Ragazza.”

It was the fruit so much as it was the amount of sugar he wanted to use for the experiment. We had most of a fifty-five gallon drum of the stuff – plus other sweeteners – but he wanted eight quarts of fruit, eight pounds of sugar, and a package of my bread yeast. The yeast was the item in shortest supply but I could work around the yeast issue, I couldn’t around sugar when I needed it for preserving.

Feeling bad because I’d thrown a wrench in the only real project he had planned from beginning to end I told him, “Tony, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to seem like a miser doling out the resources.”

He looked at my face and then once again stopped us on the trail. “Joey … Joey … I was only playin’. You know that right?”

I shrugged. “Sure I know it but it doesn’t mean that isn’t how I’ve been actin’. I’m just … I’m just worried Tony. I don’t feel like I’m making much headway in the plans to get things fixed up.”

We started walking again but more slowly so that we could talk. “Hey you, we’ll get there. You told me yourself that we still have the long storage apples to harvest starting next month and the persimmons. And I found that book on local wild foods and already found some of those greens.”

While true it only put my mind at ease a little bit. As soon as we got back to the house I spent the remainder of the day preserving fruit. I was getting almost twenty quarts of juice per bushel of grapes which wasn’t bad at all. Plus I was making raisins, spiced grapes, grape butter, and on and on. Then there were the apples which believe it or not I was close to being sick of seeing. The pawpaws had arrived and it had been hilarious to try and convince Tony to eat one but after he had he guarded them jealously and had become quite the connoisseur of which ones would taste the best. The quinces, well I’d never tasted any so sweet or that smelled half so good; they perfumed the whole house when I brought them in and put them on the counter.

The peelings and leftover bits from the fruit were split between the chicken yard and Mom’s small compost pile that Tony had located after looking for a place to create a trash dump for all of the empty cans we were accumulating. If the fruit didn’t all get eaten during the day it attracted flies (resulting in maggots) and the chickens loved the extra protein in their diets. In fact the chickens seemed like they were doing better than we were in that respect. We still hadn’t gotten around to going hunting but we both knew it would have to be done sooner rather than later. It just seemed hard to find the time when there were so many other things that needed doing first.

Our good fortune did raise my spirits some but a feeling of gloom continued hung over everything. Increasingly I felt cut off from things and I knew for Tony the feeling was even worse. I was also beginning to feel like some outlaw in hiding.

Stories of hunger and riots, of neighbors turning on neighbors, neighborhoods turning on other neighborhoods, of militarized cities as ethnic, religious, and political animosities boiled over made me feel trapped by the ideal Tony and I were living. The guilt of having so much when others had so little was getting to me.

Upset with my musings Tony said, “Enough. Our good fortune has not come at the expense of anyone else. The food in our mouths is not coming from someone else’s garden or storehouse. We are not taking from others, we are creating our own.”

“Yeah, but …”

Not angry at me but after obviously thinking about it himself he said, “No. No ‘yeah, but’ Joey. I refuse to feel guilty about this. There are things in my life I am guilty of but this is not one of them.”

“But Tony …”

“No Ragazza,” he said firmly.

Shaking my head I told him, “I just don’t see how you can be so unaffected.”

“Easily. But if you need an example then recall those two news reports we heard last night. The first was all about increasing food costs, how people were angry, how getting food stamps didn’t help between the cost and the lack of availability. Fewer store owners accept EBTs now because they would rather have the cash right there then have to wait for the reimbursement from the government. The very next story was on crops rotting in the fields because farmers couldn’t find enough harvesters. Ragazza, people claim to be hungry and starving yet they are still too lazy to even do a job guaranteed to put food in their mouths if they consider it beneath their station. Wait until they are truly hungry this winter and then they’ll find out you can’t eat dignity. Better dirty and sweaty doing honest work than digging through the dumpster behind a restaurant praying for a half eaten hamburger or a few pickles to fill the holes in their children’s bellies.”

Tony’s hard childhood and brief life on the street had given him a cynical opinion of most people. He had no patience for those he considered whiners or lazy. Tony may have worn a suit and tie all of his adult life but he wasn’t all that removed from the animal skins worn by ancient man and with attitudes to match. I had no doubt he would rather do anything than go back to picking over other people’s garbage again. Working with me in the orchard and around the cabin was to him preferable to standing in line waiting for someone to simply give him something.

I wanted to shed my guilt over having so much but it was hard to let it go. I dreamed of Lucia and the rest of the family incessantly and had been waking up even more tired than when I went to bed. I don’t consider my dreams prophetic you’d simply have to be totally blind to what is going on in the world and in our country to not see the endless possibilities leading towards catastrophe.

And a pregnancy scare hadn’t helped my nerves either. I was two weeks late and then it hit hard and mean as it sometimes did. When I had come out of the worst of the PMS I had to soothe Tony and explain to him how it was for me a couple times of the year.

Once he understood he was relieved to know it wasn’t something going wrong between us. It was also obvious he thought he was being comforting when he told me, “When you get pregnant you won’t have to deal with this.”

I honestly hadn’t given getting pregnant a whole lot of thought but apparently Tony had. It turns out he’s thought about it for a couple of years now which was one of the reasons he was able to keep his hands to himself despite what he called “the temptation” of being around me. But he’s also loony as a Canadian dollar. He’s got some idealized vision of me as a Madonna and some lame brained notion that because I’m female I must have the entire list of how to’s all nailed down. And what pray tell does he think comes after the manger and swaddling clothes? I don’t know if he’d even imagined anything beyond The Birth as he spoke of it. I’d had no idea that Tony was so ready and eager to start a family. It was just more for me to think about, especially the “soon” part of the equation that he seemed so enamored with. Of course there aren’t going to be any babies if Tony doesn’t stop taking what I consider to be lunatic chances.

I was all for following Sgt. McManus’ suggestion. In fact the last thing I wanted to do was go anywhere near a federal agent, investigator, or whatever they call themselves. I worried that they would find our place and mark it for “redistribution of resources.” My guilt didn’t extend as far as actually volunteering for them to come in and clean out shelves of everything. I thought Tony was of the same mind. You know what they say about assuming anything.

I hadn’t thought much of it when he said he was going to walk his land and look for more forageable food. He had the plant identification books from the library in a pack he slung on his shoulder and I fixed him some food and water to take with him. I knew he got itchy to do something besides hold my apron strings and also knew it was good for him to go work off that energy before it turned into something nasty. He was also surveying the land for water sources and other useful features. But when he didn’t come home for dinner and then didn’t come in before darkness fell I became frantic. I didn’t know whether to go looking for him in the dark or to wait until first light.

It was approaching midnight and I still hadn’t made up my mind about what to do when I heard a grunt and something bang around on the porch. I thought it was a bear at first but even graduated from public school I learned that bears didn’t curse in Italian. I wrenched open the door and threw myself at Tony nearly knocking us both over the railing to the ground below.

I kissed him and hugged him, checked him for injuries and then finding none I grabbed what was nearest at hand – the outdoor broom that had been leaning against the wall – and raised it like a war club prepared to damage him but good. “Are you crazy?!! Where have you been?! I’ve been worried sick!! It’s not only dark but it’s tomorrow and not a word from you!! You could have been lying in a ditch some place and …!!”

Tony just laughed, and after finally getting the broom away from me asked, “Worried about me were you?”

I was incoherent with unspent anger. I didn’t know whether I was grateful he wasn’t hurt or furious because he wasn’t and was just standing there not begging my forgiveness for causing me to worry. “You … you … you … !! ARGH!!!”

That’s when I heard the snickering. My breath caught in my throat and I turned slowly in the direction I had heard it come from. I knew that sound like I knew my own voice. We’d gotten into enough trouble in school not being able to control when we’d get the giggles.

The only light was moonlight and I nearly broke my neck getting down the stairs but finally we were hugging. Lucia wasn’t snickering anymore; her laughter had turned into tears and then she dissolved into a howling cry. I knew that grief, had experienced it myself first hand. I looked around, afraid of what I would see – or what I wouldn’t – but it was too dark to make anything, or anyone, out.

Tony wrapped us both in a hug and kissed Lucia’s head where it rested on my shoulder. I was the only thing holding her up. Quietly he said, “Let’s get them inside.”

Then Bennie was there and so close he made me jump. “Can you manage Lucia and the girls? I need to help Thomas with the goats and other animals.”

I wanted to ask questions but Lucia was shivering. The nights had become chillier and that night there was also a cruel dampness to the air. I called out softly, “Girls?”

Ana and Lindsey stumbled out of the darkness wearing identical looks of shock and exhaustion. Surprisingly Lucia pulled herself together and pushed the girls ahead of her, up the stairs and into the dim light of the kitchen. Turning to look at me she said as we entered, “I know you’ve got a million questions but let me get the girls to bed first and then I’ll start explaining.”

It was very unlike the girls not to take immediate exception to being treated like children but they were docile … too docile. It made my teeth hurt to see their total lack of spirit. “There’s some hot water left if they …”

Lucia shook her head, “Sleep first. They can primp tomorrow.”

Chapter 22

Chapter Twenty-Two

“Complicated things” wasn’t nearly so complicated as I worried about. It has changed things but at the same time they are pretty much the same as they were before … besides the obvious of course. It would have been nice if we could have had a honeymoon period to play and get used to the extreme new intimacy we were experiencing but life doesn’t always give you what you want; I was grateful that at least so far we had what we needed.

Tony wasn’t kidding when he told me he wanted me to wear his ring. He took that literally. It was an old Italian wedding band that he had inherited from his mother’s aunt. I’d never seen anything like it. It was a thick band carved in what Tony told me was Florentine fretwork and with an antique ruby set in the top. “I know it is not a traditional ring Josephine,” he said when he put in on my finger. “But my mother’s aunt was a wise woman and … and good to me in a way that my mother and Nonna were not. She said that I would find someone someday that would make me want to be the best man I possibly could. And she was right. She told me when I found that woman to put this ring on her finger, not because the value of the ring but to remind myself of the value of what I seek to build.”

Brains, brawn, and romance … Tony is quite a package. Of course he is also mule headed and a little dictatorial but I’m not going to complain about it … not much anyway. If he can accept me as I am I should be able to respect him enough to do the same. Actually being “married” is more fun than I ever expected it to be. A wall that I hadn’t known was there isn’t there anymore. I’ve got a self assurance when it comes to dealing with Tony I hadn’t realized was missing. Of course turnabout is only fair; he should be able to expect from me the same things I do from him.

I will admit that Tony is going a little overboard. I’m not sure whether it is being “married,” him getting better, or the news that we hear but he is too intense, occasionally a little overprotective. OK, it feels like a lot overprotective. OK, he’s driving me up the freakin’ wall. Not everything is perfect and there are things about it that make me want to throw things on occasion. There, I said it. Doesn’t make me feel any better but I’ve finally admitted it. I’m not use to this much physical closeness with someone, I’m not sure if I’m handling it too well.

We can never go about our day separately. When I’m out in the orchard he is right there too. When he isn’t helping he is standing around with the rifle on his shoulder glaring at the world as if daring them to come anywhere near me. It was cute the first time I noticed him doing it. The cute factor had died by the end of that same day.

“Tony! I lived on my own for three years and don’t need you babysitting me every second. I know there are things you want to do … so go do them. All I’m doing is picking fruit and hauling it back to the kitchen for processing.”

His nostrils flare every time I tell him that and I get the same one word response every time. “No.” Not “no” with an explanation. Not “no” with a rationalization or justification. Just “no” and a stony face. Grrr. How is it possible to love someone so much and want to slug them really, really hard at the same time?

At least he has given up trying to do all of the heavy lifting. “Tony!”

“Joey!” he said mocking me.

I gave him the same look my mother used to give my brothers when they were treading on thin ice. “Watch it Buster. Look, I know you want to help. I also know that you don’t like the fact that I’m quote ‘working like a dock hand.’ But the truth is Tony that I’ve worked like this ever since I started working; first at Mr. Stenheim’s market, then at the Deli. I know what I’m doing. I don’t carry too much and I don’t do anything to strain my back or any other part of my anatomy. Sure I get tired and maybe sore at night but that’s just life.”

“I saw that bruise on your … er … hip,” he growled.

Great. The one stupid stunt I pull he gets to see the rainbow surprise I fully deserve for doing it. “I went up one too many steps on the ladder. I should have secured the ladder to the tree but I didn’t. That was a one off Tony, not a regular occurrence. My bumper landed on the stub of a pruned off branch. No big deal. I know it’s ugly but it’ll go away.” He snorted but finally laid off when he saw I was serious about being cautious.

Another bit of zazzle we had was after an early dinner we sat down to listen to the radio but turned it off fifteen minutes later, both of us too irritated to listen to any more of the political posturing that was going on. Tony looked tired and just because I felt like it I got up and started to massage his shoulders. Looking over to the paper he was doodling on I asked, “Whatcha drawin’?”

“Remember the old clothes lines that were there before they were taken out to make way for the community garden?”

“How could I forget? Some of the older people in the neighborhood on that side were really bent out of shape about it. I don’t know why though, most of those old pulleys didn’t even work.”

A little frustrated because I wasn’t seeing the picture fully formed as he already was he said, “Yeah, but that’s not … look, you know how the pulleys worked?”

“Of course. There were pulleys on both sides. A big circle of clothes line ran over each pulley. You pulled on one line to push or pull the line away to pin the clothes on or to take them off. That way clotheslines were strung between buildings and used the empty space above allies and stuff rather than taking up the green space at ground level.”

He nodded his head and kept doodling. “Exactly. It was what Aunt Belinda called a labor saving device. It reminds me of the ski lifts of North Carolina.”

I was still waiting for him to fill in the blanks and just kept massaging his shoulders. “Never been,” I admitted.

Disgusted he said, “I know. It was one of the things I wanted to … Oh never mind. Look, what do you think about making one of those clothes lines … or ski lifts … for hauling stuff from the orchard to the house?”

I kissed his ear and said, “You really are looking for a project aren’t you?”

Still aggravated at his doodling he was erasing it hard enough to put a hole in the paper so I told him, “Tony I carry the fruit up because it takes less time but there is a road to take the tractor on if you wanna help me pick a loader full or wagon full. I’m just not sure if I could process that much fast enough so the fruit wouldn’t spoil.”

He threw the pencil across the room and got up so fast that I near fell off the back of it where I had perched. “Hey!”

He ran his hands through his hair and started to say something three times before storming out the kitchen door and slamming it behind him. I didn’t know whether I was supposed to run after him or not. I decided not. If he was going to blow up he could be the one to let me know why.

An hour later I was still down in the basement pretending to myself that I was getting some work done. I had gone from worried to upset and was now simmering in my own bit of anger. Tony came down the stairs and sat near the bottom. He sighed, “My temper got away from me.”

I shrugged nonchalantly and said, “I noticed.”

“Do you want to know why?” I shrugged again. “Joey?”


“Would you feel better if you threw something?”

Tony was trying to be charming so at least I knew his snit was over with whatever it was but now I was fast approaching one. “I’m not going to throw anything ‘cause I’ll just have to clean it up.”

He was silent for a while then got up and came over. “You’re not going to fight are you?”

“Why should I?”

He sighed. “You aren’t making this easy.”

Looking at him dead on I said, “Again, why should I?”

Subdued but not as over his snit as he was trying to act he said, “It was stupid, I admit it. OK? Can we just let it go? Just please don’t say ‘why should I’ as an answer.”

“Fine.” I almost said “whatever” but instead I really did decide to just let it go. Tired and still confused I said, “I’m done in. I’m going to go wash up and go to bed.”

A little unwisely he asked, “You gonna make me sleep on the sofa?”

Truly angry I finally turned on him and said, “Geez Tony! I don’t make a stink about you storming off. I don’t make a stink about you coming back. I don’t pick a fight. You say let it go and I say fine. Now you’ve got the nerve to ask me if I’m gonna send you to the dog house? Exactly what is it you want from me?!”

I stormed upstairs and straight to the shower, inconveniently forgetting that I’d done a couple of loads of laundry while we dinner and that there was no hot water. I stepped in and shrieked at the very cold spray hit me and as I’m trying to jump out I catch my foot in the shower curtain and fall out of the tub taking the curtain and rod down with me. The rod hit me in the head and I saw stars.

I must have passed out for a second because I came to as I was being wrapped up in a blanket. The water was off so I knew there’d been a little time elapse. There was a little streak of red on the bathroom tile floor and when I brushed some hair out of my face I found it was in my hair as well. That’s when Tony’s worried voice penetrated. “Joey? Come on Ragazza, talk to me.”

Groggily I said, “I’m … I’m fine. Stop waving your hand in my face like you want me to count your fingers.”

“Grazie Dio. Joey stop wiggling; you’re wet and slippery.”

I shook my head and it started to pound. “You are not carrying me anywhere. I’ll get blood all over the place and there will just be a bigger mess to clean up.”

He grumbled and growled but I refused to leave the bathroom until the mess had been cleaned up, including the dent I had gotten in my scalp. “Stupid thing.”

In exasperation Tony asked, “The shower rod or you?”

I guess I was more of a mess than I thought because I felt my bottom lip quiver. I tried to hide my face but Tony must have seen. He did some fast talking that buzzed right over the top of me and then said, “I’m sorry Ragazza. My mouth … you can kick me later … after I take care of you.”

“I’m not kicking you or throwing anything at you. Just move so I can go get my clothes and get dressed.”

“You don’t need to get dressed. You need to let me put you to bed so my heart will stop pounding like a friggin’ jack hammer. You could have a concussion, a broken bone …”

“I don’t have any broken bones or a concussion but my backside is bruised from landing on the plunger handle.”

“Here, let me see.”

Of course I squawked. My dignity was affronted enough as it is. And as crazy as it sounds we both wound up laughing and heading for the bedroom to make up. After a while I asked him, “Exactly why were you so angry?”

With an arm under his head and holding me with the other one he said, “I don’t know. I feel so … so freakin’ useless. I’m like a fish outta water.”

Trying to get comfortable without pinching the sore spot on the top of my head I said, “You think I know what I’m doing? I’m just repeating what my parents did, doing what my mother taught me, remembering what it was like when I was little before we moved to New York. All I’m doing is replicating stuff Tony, none of it is something I came up with on my own.”

Still frazzled and tired around the edges Tony said, “I don’t have that Joey. You know I was on the street for a couple of months before Uncle Nicky and Aunt Belinda took me in but this isn’t the same thing. I feel like I’m … I’m wasting something … time, resources, energy. I don’t know, it is just frustrating.”

Thinking I said, “You haven’t complained about the food you are eating even though it is different from what you were used to.”

“No. Why should I complain when it is all good?”

“And I haven’t seen you looking wistfully at your suits and ties that are hanging in the armoire even though you lived in them before, even when you came to see me.”

He snorted, “No. What is your point Joey?”

“That you should give yourself time. You are adapting and you will find your niche. Just don’t beat yourself up over it while it is coming to you.”

Sighing he said, “I don’t like feeling like I have no control. This mess going on in the world …”

“I know. It’s just for me I can’t seem to figure out a way to do nuthin’ about that other stuff. I’m not hiding my head in the sand I just don’t have anything but frustration, fear, and anger to give it. I’ve found that to be a waste of energy. I have to prioritize and right now that means tryin’ to set us up for winter and early spring. You were right when you said we couldn’t survive on fruit all winter long but I don’t know what else I can do about it right now. I … I’m worried Tony. I never grew up rough like you did. I’ve never gone hungry … not really … not like the cupboards are completely bare hungry, not eating out of garbage cans hungry. I’ve had to eat Ramen noodles at every meal for more than a week but I still had it to eat. I’ve got to …”

The more I let the worry come to the surface the more agitated I became and Tony saw it, maybe understanding what motivated me for the first time. “Shhhh Joey. Don’t get upset. I tell you what, tomorrow I’ll look at your dad’s library downstairs. There are a bunch of books on this area … history and stuff like that. Maybe there is something in there to get ideas from.”

Quietly I said, “Things are so broken Tony. I’m scared. I know I … I act like I’m not sometimes, play at bein’ a clown, but if I didn’t have you here I’m not sure what I would do. I’d survive but it would be so cold and lonely and depressing. You help me keep myself sane. You give me something to focus on.” After a moment I made a face in the dark. “Geez I sound like a needy whiner. Toughen up Balducci.”

“That’s MacGregor,” he said sliding down beside me.

“You sure about that?” I said smiling challengingly despite knowing he couldn’t see me.

“Yeah. Balducci-MacGregor maybe but if … you know … we have kids I’d like ‘em to be just MacGregor … them hyphenated names give me a headache.”

“Geez Tony … you are such a guy.” And from my point of view that was a good thing.

Chapter 21

Chapter Twenty-One

Unable to stop myself and not particularly wanting to I said, “I told you climbing up and down those freakin’ steps was a bad idea.”

Tony gave me a look that would have burned toast. He was setting at the table and his face was the color of day old bread. “I needed to see what you’ve been talking about. I can’t believe …”

He started breathing heavy and I put a glass of water in front of him, setting it down a little harder than strictly necessary. “What? You didn’t believe my inventory?”

“That’s not it Joey. Don’t get so …” I gave him a look and he held the word back that was almost ready to fall out from between his teeth. “Look, I just needed to see it. Perspective is important.”

More than a little aggravated I told him, “Sure. Well look at you now. You’ve gone up and down stairs, stuck your head into every nook and cranny in the place. Followed me out to the chickens and counted them and would have followed me to the orchard if I hadn’t refused to go. You’ve nearly ‘perspected’ yourself into a relapse.”

Getting a very innocent look on his face he said, “Does that mean I don’t get any dessert tonight Nonna?”

Being called grandmother made the idea of throwing something at him very appealing. I growled at him, “Tony, you’re taking your life in your hands right now.”

My foul mood wasn’t his fault. It was all worry and upset but he wasn’t helping things by making himself a handy target. I had to shoot a dog yesterday because it got into the chicken yard and killed three of the hens before I could stop it, one of them my best egg producer. Where it came from neither Tony nor I could guess. It was feral and scrawny – and dangerously intent on what it wanted – so maybe it was a dump job but Tony thinks it might be that it came from the city or escaped from owners that were on the road, with the chickens proving to be just too much for a hungry dog to pass up. I haven’t had any trouble with predators up to this point and hadn’t even thought of them – at least not the animal type – but stray dogs and cats could be a real problem. Winter will cut their population back but that is still weeks away; who knows if I’ll have any birds left by then.

But it wasn’t killing the dog, or even the loss of the chickens, that had really upset me. When we turned on the TV last night there was a different set of anchors and you could tell they were broadcasting from a different location. It took a minute to figure out but apparently the other broadcast had been from their New York affiliate’s studio and that they’d been forced to move to a Chicago studio because New York city had been attacked.

After they had shown pictures of the mass destruction and resulting fires all I could do was sit and rock and say, “I shouldn’t have made them leave. I shouldn’t have made them leave.”

Tony tried to comfort me and said, “You didn’t make them leave Ragazza, it was their choice.”

Upset to the point of yelling I said, “You could have made them stay. You would have known what to say to make them …”

“Shhhh.” He held me and I held on for dear life. I felt so guilty all I wanted to do was curl up into a ball and just float away. It was like losing my parents and brothers all over again. However Tony wouldn’t let me assume the worst. “Joey, we don’t know whether they made it back to the city. Personally I don’t think they did, they didn’t have the fuel reserves to go that far. Even if they got close I doubt they would have been allowed to cross over and go back home if the bridges and tunnels were still closed.”

That’s about the only thought that has been comforting. Everything else running through my head is just one recrimination after another. Logically I know I did the only thing Mr. Moretti would have let me do without having to pull a gun on him or something just as drastic which wouldn’t have worked for any of us. On the other hand logic just doesn’t seem to be playing much of a role in the world lately; I want my cake and to eat it too. I know this makes no sense but where family – or nearly family – is concerned logic often gets tossed out the window.

I hate that today was Tony’s first day in nearly three weeks to be up and around in something besides his pajamas. Not that I hated him getting well, it was not being able to enjoy it the way I wanted to. Of course he would over do it on top of everything else. I wanted to celebrate the day and all we are winding up with is a longer list of things that have to be done, that can’t be done, plans that would be nice but currently unrealistic … and we are both suffering wondering who is alive or if any of them are.

Hesitantly Tony started, “Joey …”

I sighed. “I know Tony, I know. I need an attitude adjustment.”

With more patience than I would have had if our positions were reversed he said, “That’s not what I was going to say Ragazza.”

Mentally shaking myself for being stupid I told him, “Maybe not but we both know it is the truth. I might have reason to feel as I do but that doesn’t mean I’m justified in taking it out on you.”

In a gruff voice he pulled me to him and then into his lap. “Hush, you are just tired. I’m amazed at what you’ve accomplished by yourself. I saw it on paper but …” He shook his head. “I wish you would explain it to me so I could understand what is involved and appreciate it all the more.”

I finally found a smile. “Do not tell me you’ve suddenly taken an interest in cooking.”

He found a smile for me as well. “Hah, I like to eat and I want to help … so yes, if that is what both take then I’ve become interested in cooking. Is that so surprising?”

Moving out of his lap and into a chair I said, “Not surprising so much as … well, yeah I guess it is surprising. I know you usually get into new investments from the ground up but I think this will be a stretch even for you.”

He leaned back in the chair and said, “It’s a good thing to stretch your mind or you start getting complacent and miss opportunities. Seriously Joey, I had no idea how much you were doing.”

I was pleased and let him see it. “Yeah, but it’s … satisfying. I wish Mom were here; she’d have a dozen different ways to speed things up and double the output but she’s not and …” Shaking my head refusing to allow my grief to take control I finished, “… I’m doing the best I can. And realistically I’m going to get busier before I can really rest.”

In a one word command he told me, “Explain.” Tony didn’t mean to sound dictatorial he’s just been a person of authority too long to remember to rephrase things all the time.

With a smile that he didn’t understand I told him, “The apples will continue to come in into October if I remember Mom correctly; maybe even early November. I’ve already picked the last of the figs and black mulberries. Tomorrow I’m going to get a quince or two hopefully. The pawpaws are nearly ripe enough to pick. And …”

He laughed and asked, “What is a pawpaw?”

“A Kentucky banana,” I told him with a smile.

“Never mind, I shouldn’t have asked. I’ve already fallen for too many of your tricks.”

Still smiling I told him, “Seriously, another name for a pawpaw is a Kentucky banana. It’s not really a banana of course but you can use them in replace of bananas in a lot of recipes. They are actually a distant cousin to a cherimoya.”

Giving me a funny look he said, “I’m not sure I want to know what that is either.”

I shook my head. “You know, no one would believe me if I told them what a goof you are underneath that tough Godfather-like exterior.”

“Ha … ha.” Tony played up the look for effect but didn’t necessarily want it openly mentioned. In a bit of a pretend snit that nevertheless told me to knock it off he said, “Just continue please.”

“Fine,” I told him with a twinkle while planning to serve him a pawpaw at the first opportunity to see how he would react. “The muscadine and table grapes should be ready to start harvesting in a couple of days as well, with the wine grapes coming in before the end of the month if not sooner.”

I thought he’d be happy but he looked perplexed instead. “Tony?”

His face cleared and he smiled. “Sorry, just thinking. I’ve dealt with the import business before and I knew that there were harvest cycles of course, both here and abroad, but as an individual I never took into account what it would mean if we could only obtain items locally.”

Reassured that he hadn’t thought I was doing anything wrong I said, “Oh.” I added as a bit of trivia, “There was a locavore club at school.”

“A … a what?”

Savoring the remainder of the cappuccino I had allotted myself I replied, “Locavore. It means eating only locally produced items. You know omnivore, herbivore, carnivore … well locavore is just another ‘vore’. It isn’t easy to eat a balanced meal unless you do some serious planning when you only eat what is locally produced.”


Explaining I told him, “For the same reason that being a vegan, or eating a strictly raw diet, can get expensive. Going to the market every few days to get something fresh is a good way to spend a chunk of money … and on some of those diets – except the locavore that has its own set of problems – you tend to eat a lot of imports because to eat a balanced and varied diet you generally eat a lot of stuff out of season. I wish we had a garden.”

“Mmm, we should plan one over the winter and then in the spring plant one. Fruit is nice but I like my veggies too. Your mother and my aunt packed seeds as if they were planning on feeding all of five boroughs.” He gave me a hopeful look and then asked, “You do know how to do that right?”

I snorted refusing to be drawn into a long discussion on gardening I told him, “Before the garden we seriously need to think about going hunting. I have some canned meat but that’s not going to last forever.”

“Er ….”

Rolling my eyes I told him, “Yes Tony, I can shoot and eat Bambi. And thumper and any other animal I need to. Assuming we can find any that is. Dad complained about the area being hunted over year before last and if a lot of people have to go back to hunting to put meat on their table … I’m sure I don’t need to paint a picture for you.”

“No, which makes me even more nervous about you being out in the orchard alone. When people are desperate or stupid or both they can make very poor choices. They might think you are Bambi.”

Shrugging I told him, “They’d have to be pretty desperate to come all this way from town on foot. It has been weeks since I’ve heard a vehicle from the roads down below. They might have horses but again, this is pretty far for them to ride when there are public lands closer at hand. Perhaps they’ll come up here for wood but why transport it that far when there is bound to be stuff nearer town?”

Thinking Tony asked, “What about coal?”

I opened my mouth to automatically reject the idea but then stopped and gave it some serious thought. “Maybe. But not too many people still have coal stoves in their homes or coal inserts in their fireplaces. They’ve replaced them with greener … or what was cheaper … types of heating. Some of the old timers still have coal heaters if what Dad heard was true at the hardware and feed store but most who do supposedly also have an old coal vein on their property. You have a couple of veins of coal on your land you know.”

“Yes, your father showed me last winter. He asked if I minded the boys digging some out to use. By the way, how do we heat this house in the winter?”

“There’s a coal heater in the basement and a small one in my par … in what was my parents’ bedroom. The one in our bedroom … What?” I stopped because he had gotten a strange look on his face.

He cleared his throat and said, “Nothing.”

Shaking my head I told him, “That nothing was something, now give.”

Being cautious he said, “You said our bedroom.”

Not sure how to respond I asked, “Yes I did. Does that bother you?”

“No. Does it bother you?”

Still not sure where he was going I reminded hime, “I am kinda the one to do the inviting as I recall.”

“True,” he said with a slight smile. “But you haven’t said anything else.”

Thinking he was still goofing around I said, “I was kinda waitin’ until you were feelin’ better before I jumped your bones.”

Shocked Tony yelps, “Josephine!”

I wound up laughing so hard at the look on his face I nearly fell out of my chair. “Geez Tony …” I hiccupped I laughed so much. Getting another look at his face I told him, “I was just kidding! I’m actually waiting for you to explain the ‘complicated stuff.’” At another irritated look from him I asked, “What? Am I supposed to give you an engraved invitation first?”

He finally came down off his high horse and shook his head. “You deserve engraved invitations, and flowers, and a church.”

That stopped my laughter. “Oh Tony.” Rather than getting maudlin about it however I stiffened my spine and told him, “And under any other circumstances I would make you give me those things before any of the complicated stuff happened. But … but … I’m not sure how long it will be until we can have those things and …” Neither wanting to bring him down or make it seem like I am some floozy I still had to say, “My family are all gone Tony. Your family … your family I’m not sure about. And frankly I’d rather it be just the two of us rather than trying to hunt up a bunch of strangers that either wouldn’t understand or who could very well cause us problems. Are you saying that I misread things or that you want to wait until things are closer to normal?”

He snorted, “Being this close to you I’ll explode or do something stupid if we don’t get some things settled. I was relieved while you were in school and I didn’t have to face temptation day in and day out. But now that I’m feeling better …” He let it trail off so I could use my imagination. “I’ll wait Ragazza if need be but there are things I would like to lock down.”

I squeaked, “Lock down? You make it sound like a business deal.”

He shrugged, “In the old days that’s exactly what it would have been. But it’s just words. What I want is to know that … that I’ve waited for good purpose. That it is me you want and not just … oh … some idea your father put in your head.”

I slowly smiled because I knew I could tell him the truth. “Of course it is you. Even the few times I considered going out with someone else I usually ended up blowing it off because they couldn’t measure up. And then after we talked that night on the beach … I wasn’t ready but even had you gone on with your life I would have still measured every other man against you and my father.”

He sighed. “I wanted this to be different. Imagined it to be different.”

Confused I said, “Isn’t the girl supposed to say that?”

Sighing in frustration he told me, “Listen to yourself Josephine. You should want more than what I can offer. I have no job. I’m not sure I even have an apartment any longer should we desire to go back. My investments are out of reach if they even exist. I don’t know what kind of future I can offer you, certainly not the one I envisioned being able to provide. You should have me on my knees begging.”

Shaking my head I said, “And you are being much too emotional and Latin about this whole thing.”

“You should …”

“I should what?” I interrupted him. “Go into a decline because I can’t have what I used to imagine having? Can’t have some fairy tale wedding with the church, the cake, the rest of it? Because in the end, all I really want I’m going to have … you.” Then I stopped, feeling embarrassed. “I mean if that is the way you feel.”

Suddenly Tony grew a very wolfish grin. “What do you think?”

Throwing my napkin at him I complained, “Oh you. I never know whether I’m coming or going when we start talking about this stuff.”

Tony grew quiet again and then said, “I want you to wear my ring Ragazza. I want you for a wife not a … temporary partner. It bothered me to know I didn’t have any right to stake a claim on you. We do this, but however long we are together or however long it takes, when there comes a time we can say the words in a church we do that as well. Do you understand what I’m asking? Do you accept?”

Chapter 20

Chapter Twenty

The last few days have been busy … at least for me. Tony finally just stopped fighting - me and his own body - and agreed to sleep whatever he has off. He wakes up for food and the bathroom and maybe to listen to a little radio to TV. Sometimes I’ll take a break and listen with him; the reception is better upstairs anyway; the rabbit ears actually bring in a local station on the boob tube and we don’t need anything extra to pick up radio signals. Unfortunately, to some extent, all it does is aggravate both of us.

The news ain’t so happy-happy-happy as it was. The television broadcasts we manage to pick up if the weather is just right are the same way. And they’ve changed the broadcast anchors too. There’s this woman on there that drives me freakin’ nuts. I mean if it was any more obvious that she’s just a gorgeous bimbo being used to front someone’s agenda they’d have to hold a sign up behind her. But what really torques me is that when she tries to tell something sad or really concerning it looks like she’s going to crack her botox. The guy that sits beside her most of the time is just as bad though I have to admit it is kinda funny to see that his “Just For Men” dye job is growing out.

Yeah, I know I’m being totally snarky about it but I hate wasting the batteries listening to them say a lot of words that don’t mean really anything constructive no matter how they dress it up. For instance, they’re always talking about all of the good things going on in the cities now that the rioting is over with, how things are getting so much better. Problem is that if you pick the lid up off of that and look under it you begin to see that a lot of rights are getting trampled all over. Military and quasi-military roaming to “put down” anyone that causes unrest. People being rounded up in civilian drafts just because they know how to do certain jobs; the medical establishment has been particularly hard hit by this. And in some places it is nothing but a race baiting/race riot world.

Worse yet, they are on this serious “hoarding” kick where they try and say anyone that has more food than they need for immediate purposes is behaving irresponsibly, is a racist, is some kind of traitor or seditionist. If I hear it too many more times I’m gonna hurl. They blow a lot of smoke but the bottom line is they’re telling people it is their patriotic duty to turn their family and friends in if they have more in their house than the neighbors do. That’s like busting three of the Ten Commandments right there starting with thou shalt not covet.


“Mm?” Poor guy was half asleep but I really needed to talk to him.

“I need to ask you somethin’ and I need you to be honest without blowin’ your stack.”

Cracking one eye open he said reluctantly, “I won’t promise not to be angry about something when I don’t know what it is.”

I sighed, “I suppose, but just hear me out first, OK?” At his slow nod I continued on. “You know this hoarding thing bothers me.” He nodded. “Well, look around Tony. You know … wait, maybe you don’t.”

“You’re not makin’ any sense Ragazza,” he said as if determined to stay calm so I wouldn’t be the one to blow my stack.

Getting a little frustrated I said, “I know and I’m sorry. Look, I’ve told you in general what we’ve got to work with here.”

“Sure. You brought me a basic inventory and kept me up to date on what you’re addin’ every day. And don’t think I don’t appreciate it. I wish …”

Shaking my head I said, “Don’t go there Tony. You’ll be up and around soon enough and you can help me with the grapes and stuff that’re more trouble than the apples and the like. I just mean you know that what we’ve got is way more than what the average person would have in their kitchen cabinets.”

He was beginning to understand my agitation. “Yeah Joey. I get it. Someone could think we’re hoarding things, come in and try and take it or take over.”

Relieved he’d seen it I told him, “That’s part of it. I figure no matter what we’ve got some risk to deal with but not anywhere what we’d have if we lived down in town or back in the city. But … but what if someone rats on us? What then?”

Looking at me close he asks, “You got some reason to think someone will? Is that what you’re worried about? ‘Cause if it is I’ve already thought about it. Why do you think it drives me crazy when you’re out in that orchard all alone?”

“Tony, I’m not worried about the locals. Nobody but the propane guy really knows where this place is and he was an old guy that had his own place. I think those guys that tried to take us out were just a one off … accident or somethin’. I’m more worried about …” I really hated to say it but it’s been eating at me. “Tony, do you think Leo … or … or your uncle … could or would turn us in?”

I kept waiting for Tony to blow but he didn’t he just looked sad. “I’ve thought about it. And don’t look so surprised. After what Uncle Nicky did to you … after what he tried to do to me … I can’t just pretend he isn’t a threat. But could he find his way back up here? I don’t know about that. I’m pretty sure Leo couldn’t as he had to follow me in and didn’t hang around long enough to get familiar with the landmarks to find his way back … you know how easy it is to get lost on that mining road. I remember going in circles a couple of times myself before we got here.”

Quietly I admitted, “I hated to bring it up but it’s been eatin’ at me. I don’t like the idea of going against your family, not even your uncle despite what he did. I sure don’t want to be on the other side of something from Lucia … or even Bennie who ain’t such a loser as you think he is … or your aunt … or … well, none of ‘em. It just bothers me that I can’t find it in me to trust ‘em and not worry about it. I just don’t know what I can do about it.”

Just as quietly Tony said, “I know Ragazza. It bothers me that it is my family that we have to be concerned about. I brought them here …”

Putting my hand on his shoulder I stopped him. “Don’t Tony. My parents agreed to it and probably even suggested it. You know how they could be. If it had been their side of the family you couldn’t have gotten the location of this place out of them with a rubber mallet and burning tongs but for the Moretti family … their best friends … to them that was better than family.”

He nodded. “Even if that is true it doesn’t change the fact we could have a problem on our hands does it? First off I been thinkin’ that we need to hide the entrance road. I kinda remember it being overgrown and missing it twice before I found it.”

“Yeah, it’s overgrown but it still stands out if you know what you’re lookin’ for. I know you didn’t like me walkin’ down day before yesterday but I wanted to check the fence line for more blackberries and to see what the nut trees looked like. I think stringing something across the road would only draw notice to it. I even thought about taking the chainsaw and knocking a tree or two down but then that would get in the way of the tractor if we needed it for some reason. A downed tree might also draw attention but …”

When I stopped and peeped at him from my eyelashes he cautiously asked, “But what? I know that look Joey.”

Cautiously I explained, “There’s that old bridge across the gully not too far from where the mining road breaks off from the old rural route highway.”

I’d caught his attention. “You want to destroy a public bridge.”

Knowing how it sounded I said, “Just hear me out. I know for a fact you can’t see the bridge from the highway. I know for a fact not many people use the old mining roads anymore because there ain’t nothing at the end of the road except some forestry land that was hunted over to the point the locals don’t even bother with it. It could be the best place for a road block; no one would tie it directly to this place.”

Tony was thinking about it. I could tell by the set of his face; he’s simply a cautious man. But then he raised something I hadn’t taken into account. “So’s if we actually figure out some way to knock the bridge down; can you live with someone getting hurt because they weren’t payin’ attention and drive off it into the gully?”

I winced. “OK, so I didn’t think of everything.”

“Let me think on it some. To be honest I’m less worried about someone coming in by road than I am being spotted from the air. Mr. Comb Over from that news show mentioned they were doing that in a lot of rural agricultural areas in order to pinpoint public resources.”

I snorted and added a very unladylike word making Tony give me the hairy eyeball. I said, “What? You want I should just squeal and faint and refuse to believe anything can be done about it?”

Shaking his head he said, “No, but you don’t need to sound a teamster. What would your mother say?”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine, whatever. Geez Tony.” I didn’t say anything more because he was obviously tired again. I also let it go because while I could have a mouth on me it was usually a clean one. I shouldn’t let those people get to me and change who I am. It’s just hard not to sink to the level of the people threatening you.

Leaving Tony in a half doze I went back downstairs and looked at my handiwork before putting it away. The day of rain let me pick up most of the mess in the main part of the house and move it to one of the downstairs bedroom. I make myself put away at least one box of stuff in the morning and one box of stuff at night. As a result I’m nearly half way through it all and feeling pretty good.

I’ve also changed the way I’m harvesting. I go early in the morning and harvest from the trees, brambles, and vines – mostly because it is cooler then and not so many gnats – and then bring it back to the house. I do this until about lunch time when I stop. For the rest of the day I work at processing the fruit. It isn’t a perfect system. Sometimes the mist is so heavy I have a hard time seeing down the trail to get to the orchard and it is as bad as working in the rain. And sometimes if I was up late the night before it is very hard to get up; but, I try and treat it like a school project … it is something that must be done, must be done well, if I am to survive the course and pass. Since I’m an overachiever by nature it all works out to the good. The afternoons are as much work as the mornings but with the right tools it usually goes smoothly unless I flub something up.

One such tool is Mom’s steam juicer; I love that thing. I steam about half the fruit I pick and process the juice in jars for drinking or for making jellies some other time. In about five hours I can get six quarts of juice from a half bushel of apples while at the same I’m canning fruit in other ways. I also keep the dehydrators full. I bring in a lot of buckets of fruit and set them in the basement. The goal is always before I stop for the night I have to have at least as many buckets processed as I brought in. I still can’t get ahead but I am keeping up.

I’m not just preserving food for future use. Since we gotta eat someone’s gotta cook and that someone is me. I get creative with our current meals when I’ve got the time. As I cook things I’ve noticed gaps in my ingredient list. Some are easy to substitute for, some are not. For example I had a recipe that called for apple pie spice. Well I didn’t have any apple pie spice but I did have cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cardamom … it was an easy fix. On the other hand I have some recipes that call for fresh citrus fruit or citrus juice and sorry, that’s just not happening so it is either substitute with dry or canned ingredients or forget about it.

The biggie for me – in addition to coffee – has been cheese. Mom brought a few blocks of cheese with her but Dad couldn’t have much of the stuff so it was not a priority item. Tony said he didn’t even think of cheese or he would have grabbed some wheels form the deli on his way out of town. Lucky for us I’ve had some very interesting roommates. What does one have to do with the other? Kind of a lot all things considered.

One of my roommates was a girl from the Philippines; her father was an American serviceman and her mother Philippine. Over there they don’t really have access to fresh milk, everything is powdered but her father loved cheese. Imported cheese was too expensive so her mother learned to make cheese from powdered milk. Michaela – my roommate – learned from her mother and she taught me and that same summer I taught Mom and Mrs. Moretti, both of whom were at first extremely doubtful that such a thing could really be done.

Well, as you can guess it once I proved my point they took off with it and made it better. My mother’s Jewish friends had a blast with it too because so long as they had kosher rennet, or a vegetable based rennet, they could make kosher cheese and avoid the expense in the stores. For a while one of the Halal store owners was very upset until my father asked him why he didn’t just take advantage of a new market and stock kosher cheese making supplies. He actually expanded his customer base into the non-Jewish community and my mother had the ingredients she needed just a few blocks away; win-win for all concerned.

I will admit there can be a couple of extra steps for making cheese from powdered milk if you are making one of the traditional hard cheeses like cheddar but if you are making a soft cheese there is hardly anything to it. What I wanted yesterday – what Tony was craving too – was cannoli, and for that I needed ricotta cheese.

Now you can make ricotta a couple of different ways. Traditionally it is made with whey leftover from making other cheese which would be a great way to use it (no pun intended) except I hadn’t made any other cheese yet. You can also make ricotta using whole milk and this is the method I used only I started with powdered milk. We have plenty of powdered milk for the same reason we have lots of canned milk, whole grains, and other things stored here. Mom didn’t want to have to drive down the mountain just to get a quart of milk from the market when she wanted it.

I made up two quarts worth of powdered milk and used a whisk to beat the powder into the water and then let it set to make double sure that all the solids had dissolved. Once I had the two quarts of liquid milk I added one teaspoon of citric acid (you can also use lemon juice) to the milk and whisked it in for about half a minute. Then I added three tablespoons of red wine vinegar and did the same thing. As soon as that was completed I heated the milk solution to eighty-eight degrees F, and stirred it a few times while it was heating to keep it from scorching on the bottom and being cold on top. Next I added half of a rennet tablet that had been pre-dissolved in a quarter cup of cool water.

As soon as I had poured in the rennet and stirred it in I removed the milk solution from the heat source and let it sit for one hour. The whole point of adding all of that stuff to the milk was to make it curdle. I know that sounds gross but it is the curds that you need for cheese. Basically cheese is curdled milk if you think about it.

After an hour I lined a colander with cheesecloth and poured the curds and whey into it. They whey dripped through to a bowl I put beneath the colander and then I picked up the corners of the cheesecloth with the curds inside and hung it so it could “drip dry” for a while longer. Some people prefer their ricotta “wet” and some prefer a very “dry” ricotta; I prefer something in the middle, neither runny nor dry.

For the cannoli filling you take two pounds of ricotta and add one and a half cups of powdered sugar, four teaspoons of good vanilla, and if you really want to go on overload you can add a package of chocolate chips. I didn’t want to use the chocolate chips I had but I did have several bars of milk chocolate and baker’s chocolate. I took the Hershey Symphony bar I found in one of my mother’s boxes and grated about half of it into the cannoli filling. It looked like my cannoli had fleas but I didn’t care.

The cannoli shells are harder to make because they are pastry but it really isn’t any worse than making doughnuts which is nothing but another type of fried dough. Mix one and half cups of flour, one tablespoon of cocoa (if you have it), one tablespoon of sugar, one half teaspoon of baking powder, and one quarter teaspoon of salt. Then you work two tablespoons of good shortening or lard into your dry ingredients all the while adding a half cup of wine a little bit at a time as you mix. It doesn’t look like you wind up with much dough but trust me, it’s more than enough.

You take a piece of your dough about the size of a nickel and roll it out real thin and then wrap it around a cannoli tube; finally figured out that’s what the metal tubes were than were inside the box marked “Italian cookware.” Then you are going to drop the dough and tube into some grease to deep fry them … same as doughnuts. There’s a way to bake cannoli tubes as well but I was jonesing for something fried. When the cannoli pastry is as brown as you want them take them out and put them on brown paper or sheets of parchment to drain and then push the metal tubes out of them carefully. After that it is easy; just fill the tubes with the cannoli filling and chow down.

I think last night was the first complete meal – main dish, bread, side dish, and dessert – that Tony had eaten since he got here. Heck even I was as full as a Barbary tick afterwards. That sort of thing is too much work for every day but I think I can manage it a couple of times a month.

The fact that I’m thinking in months rather than days or weeks has finally escaped my subconscious and become a whole thought process. The reason why I’m worried about being considered a hoarder is if they take everything we are working towards how will we survive long term? Not just tomorrow, or next week … but next month and next year. I don’t want to be dependent on anyone … well, besides the obvious with Tony.

Tony’s said that isn’t realistic. We can’t produce our own sugar cane for sugar, wheat for flour, corn for meal, etc. I’m thinking that maybe we can or at the very least we can substitute for other things. When I told him so he said it is more than food. “Joey, even if you can sew where are you going to get the material for clothes? Even if I know how to reload bullet casings where is the black powder and primers going to come from? Even if we have this solar system to provide us with some energy what happens if one or more of the batteries go bad? No man is an island.”

I don’t know. It seems like all I can do is make it through the here and now going day by day; thinking of all of the possible future problems we are facing is just more than I can do. I’ll be glad when Tony is well enough to help with that part of it.

Chapter 19

Chapter Nineteen

As was my habit, I was up early and nearly had breakfast finished when I heard the toilet flush in the upstairs bathroom. I went to the bottom of the stairs and called up, “Get back in bed. I’m bringing your breakfast up on a tray.”

I turned to go back to the kitchen when Tony stuck his head out. He still looked tired despite all of the sleep he had but there was a determination in his eyes that hadn’t been there the day before. “Joey, do you see my shaving kit down there? I need it.”

“You don’t need it,” I told him. “You need to get back in bed. It’s raining so you are stuck with me inside – at least for the morning – and I’m boiling over with energy and want to spend it spoilin’ you instead of the other way around for a change.”

I heard him snort in disbelief and aggravation. “Joey, none o’ your mischief. I want my shaving kit.”

Having grabbed said shaving kit I’d already started up the stairs knowing that Tony was as Irish as he was Italian which meant he could be, as Gran had called hime, as stubborn as a whole team of mules. He’d just stuck his head out of the bathroom again and prepared to bellow when he caught sight of me standing there grinning wickedly. None too happy to be caught with his mouth hanging open he said, “You did that on purpose.”

Grinning in my own wicked way I said, “Of course I did. Did you really expect anything less?”

Trying not to crack a smile he growled, “One of these days …”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard that threat too many times for too long to believe it. Seriously though,” I said handing him his bag. “You should be in bed. And you don’t need to shave you know.”

I stood outside the door with my back to it having glimpsed the fact that he only had a towel wrapped around his waist. Completely ignoring what I’d just said he told me, “I’m not a man that can wear a beard. I look ridiculous. It is too thick and grows every which way.”

I tried not to laugh when I said, “Vanity thy name is …” I didn’t get to finish what I was saying because there was a huge bang behind me. I turned to see that Tony had fallen.

I pushed the bathroom door open and saw him struggling to sit up but his eyes didn’t look focused. I fell to my knees beside him. “Tony?! Talk to me. Did you slip? Did you hit your head?”

He was getting angry and it wasn’t helping in the least. He continued to struggle while saying, “I don’t know. Move.”

“I am not moving and neither are you. Let me check your head.”

He spat, “I didn’t hit my head. And I’m not a child. I …”

“Tony!” That got his attention. The fact that he could tell I was done playing was a good sign. “Now listen. I need you to lay back. I’m going to poke on you a little bit and it ain’t for fun. I need you to tell me if something is uncomfortable or it hurts … don’t get macho on me, this is serious.”

“Ouch,” he said jumping as I gently felt around where I thought his spleen would be. I shouldn’t have been able to feel anything but I did. James’ spleen hadn’t gotten enlarged during his bought with mono but Ike’s had and he’d had some of the same symptoms … dizziness, irritability, anemic looking color.

Persisting despite his obvious anger I said, “Tony, listen. How did you feel yesterday after you ate?”

“Full,” he said with a smart aleck tone.

Now it way my turn to get angry, and that on top of my worry. “Do I look like I’m foolin’?” What he saw in my face must have convinced him to cooperate. “Is full all you felt? Any discomfort, pain, anything?”

He shook his head, “Just full. And tired. I couldn’t believe how tired I felt. When I work up I was fine … ok don’t give me that look, I felt better. Wanted a shower and felt even better after that then all of a sudden the floor started tiling … and now I feel as weak as a thrice used tea bag.”

Trying not to smile at one of Aunt Belinda’s odd sayings when it came out of Tony’s mouth I asked, “You promise?”

He sighed, “Yeah, I promise. Now what ‘s got you into a pet?”

“I don’t know that anything is wrong per se. This just … look, let me help you up. Don’t put any pressure on your abdomen, let me do the work.”

“I’m only in a towel Joey. And that ain’t real secure. You … uh …”

Trying not to giggle like an embarrassed idiot I admitted, “Kinda noticed that already. I promise not to look if you promise not to do somethin’ that draws my attention that direction.”

A few Anglo-Italian expletives later and a quick grab of the towel by him to keep it from falling off completely and he was walking back to the room mostly under his own steam though he was obviously feeling insulted. “I do not need to hold your arm like I’m some old guy.”

“You’re not old, and I don’t think of you like a little kid either so forget that one too. You’re ill and recoverin’ and I don’t want you to take no more headers. Now behave, I’m not foolin’ Tony. I’m gonna be the one with gray hair if you don’t knock it off. Kapish?”

He made me go down and bring his clothes bag up and then leave the room again so he could dress. “Are you done yet?!” I yelled through the door getting more than a little frustrated … and not for a good reason.

“Yeah,” he said opening it then turning to walk gingerly towards the bed.

He was dressed in athletic shorts and a t-shirt which wasn’t at all the pajamas that I knew for a fact were in the bag because I’d seen them there when I’d peeked just to be nosey. I knew he was setting limits on his “invalid state” but even if it caused an argument I needed to draw the line if I wasn’t going to go freakin’ nuts. I practically begged, “Don’t fight me on this Tony. I know you might be feelin’ a little better but you ain’t there yet. Just stay in bed; if you need somethin’ I’ll even bring you a bell to call me with if you promise not to have me runnin’ up and down the stairs like a crazy woman.”

After he sat down and let me fluff the pillows for him he asked me seriously, “You playin’ me or are you really worried about somethin’?”

“I think it’s …” I stopped frustrated. “Look, I told you it keeps sounding like mono … like the twins had that time; you remember. The swollen lymph nodes, the tender … er … parts, the fatigue; but it don’t make sense that it is mono if you didn’t get it until you got that stuff on you so what I’m thinkin’ what are all those symptoms if they ain’t mono? Well, the lymph system helps to fight infection; I remember that much from my anatomy class. You had some kind of infection and it has overloaded your body. You were dehydrated too and no tellin’ when the last time was you ate a good meal.”

“So?” he asked when I stopped.

“Geez, I’m no doctor Tony. I don’t know … I wish Lucia was here, she’d at least be able to tell me if I was being’ stupid.”

He grabbed my hand and tugged me to sit down and stop pacing. “Stop walkin’ a hole in the floor and just tell me.”

“The spleen; it’s part of the lymph system. Ike got real sick … worse than James … and his spleen got swollen like yours. The doctor said that isn’t necessarily a bad thing but that we had to be careful not to do anything that would rupture it … he was out of sports longer than James, couldn’t do no liftin’ for a while. You remember?”

Thinking Tony said, “Kinda I guess. I remember Aunt Belinda was goin’ nuts thinking the girls were gonna come down with it.”

“Anyway, I think you just need rest and stuff. You might be anemic – we can deal with that – but you gotta be careful and get as much rest as your body wants.”

His nose flared which was a sign that he was hearing me but not liking what I was saying. “I ain’t lyin’ around all day while you do all the work. We got things to do.”

“Don’t be crazy Tony. There will still be plenty to do when you get over whatever this is. The spleen helps filter the blood before the liver gets a hold of it. If it’s swollen that means it’s had to work really hard and gotten irritated or somethin’. Same thing with the lymph nodes. You don’t look so bad as you did and your head seems to be on straight so that means – I think it means – that you’re getting’ better. Just humor me on this. Take it easy, OK? I can’t … the thought …” I had to stop because I was shaking. “Don’t do this to me Tony. I don’t think I could live if I lost you too.”

“Aw Ragazza, don’t. I ain’t goin’ nowhere. You know what your tears do to me?”

I wanted to thump him. “Then don’t scare me and make me feel like cryin’. It won’t be for long, just until the swellin’ goes down and you feel more like your old self. Please.”

He leaned back on the pillows, out of juice to fight. “Looks like I don’t have no choice.”

“Sure you do, but it’s nice to know you’re a man of good sense. I always liked that about you,” I told him, sniffing and getting myself under control. “Now you sit and play king for a day and let me bring you some breakfast.”

After breakfast he fought for five minutes not to close his eyes but I just kept talking at him and saying nothing and finally he dozed off. Under any other circumstances I might be offended that listening to me talk put him to sleep but since that had been my plan I was pretty satisfied.

It was still raining, a slow and steady drizzle that would make picking fruit unproductive … no pun intended. I’d already been out in it once to check on the birds and they seemed more than happy to be left alone after I tossed in some fruit peelings and apple and pear cores. I also found a half dozen eggs and did the happy dance. I was pretty sure that wasn’t many eggs to be getting from over two dozen birds but considering the shape they were in to begin with I wasn’t going to complain.

The birds still looked kinda weird with feathers missing here and there and with a half-crazed look to their beady little eyes … but at least they didn’t look like they were going to fall over and die after two of three steps no more. Some were getting downright feisty and didn’t appreciate it when I took their eggs. What the heck though, it’s not like they were going to get anything for setting on them things. With no rooster all the eggs were just eggs and wouldn’t make chicks.

Instead of working outside in the rain I had decided that I could do more than stand around waiting for the dehydrator to finish. First thing in the morning I had gotten a batch of apple and pear sauce cooking only talking to Tony it had gone past the sauce state and into the butter state; nearly scorched it. No biggie; I had more than enough fruit to start another batch. I put the “butter” in jars and into the boiling water bath canner to seal just like Mom had taught me then I made another pot of chopped fruit and watched it more closely this time.

I wasn’t worried about power usage since the stove was gas but all day long as I made different batches of things I always tried to fill the canner up as full as I could so nothing would be wasted.

For lunch I heated up some Italian chicken soup but the tomatoes in it upset Tony’s stomach letting me know that I’d need to be careful for a while. I don’t think there is much else worse for a man that to puke his guts up when he isn’t drunk enough to dull the memory. Tony was stone cold sober and one sick puppy … and afterwards embarrassed enough that I barely got two words out of him. The soup wasn’t bad because I had some before he did, it was simply too much for his system to handle.

A couple of hours later he didn’t grumble too bad when I brought him some of the fresh made apple-pear sauce with a couple of piadinas. “You made this?”

I smiled and said, “Don’t lose your dentures. I do know how to cook you know.”

“Your Mom said so but … uh …”

Still smiling I said, “But you thought she was exaggerating just because Lucia acted like it was a death sentence to have to cook.” At his shrug I told him, “You never let me know when you were going to be in town or I would have made something rather than stopping at the deli or eating out. It woulda been cheaper too.”

He took my hand. “The money isn’t … wasn’t … a problem. I just liked surprisin’ you.”

Knowing Tony I said, “And checkin’ up on me.” Caught like a fish on a hook Tony didn’t say a word but it made me laugh out right. “I wasn’t doin’ nothin’ with no one. Why you had such a hard time believin’ that at first I don’t know.”

“’Cause I saw them guys lookin’ at you. You had chances to do somethin’.”

I shrug nonchalantly. “Sure. You should have seen some of the things some of the kids in the dorm would get up to. Honestly Tony, it was a university not a seminary school. And some of them kids weren’t all that particular if you know what I mean.”

A little ticked off he asked, “So if you had so many chances why didn’t you?”

“Geez you’re either blind or … or blind.” I shook my head. “If I’m spendin’ all my time dreamin’ of you how are boys like those gonna measure up and get my attention?”

Thoughtfully he said, “I didn’t know you were dreamin’ about me.”

I shrugged. “I tried to tell you a couple a times but … I don’t know … things were hard enough and confusin’ enough without makin’ it worse chasin’ somethin’ I wasn’t sure I could catch. And even if I did catch you I wasn’t too sure I’d know what to do with you. I just wasn’t ready for it all.”

Still rubbing my hand with his thumb he asks, “And you think you’re ready now?”

Uh oh, we’d slipped over into complicated things; ‘course I kinda sent in that direction on purpose. I shrugged. “Things are so … so wrong. The world seems to be comin’ apart at the seams and nobody is telling the truth about it. My parents … brothers … they’re all gone and I didn’t even have a chance to tell ‘em good bye. Lucia just left and that hurts too even though I knew it was what she would feel like she had to do, maybe the only thing she could do if she wanted to have any peace for herself. And then here you are. You risked your life to save my family … and not just on the road either. If you had gotten out of the city in the very beginning rather than trying to take care of them you wouldn’t have been stuck on that road and a sitting duck. You spend all that money … and don’t stop me from saying it ‘cause I know it wasn’t cheap to get that driver for us from the airport or give up your back up ride.” I leaned over and brushed his hair out of his eyes for what seemed the hundredth time. “Look Tony, I may not know what to do with my feelings for you, but I’m done hidin’ them. Doesn’t seem like there is any good reason’ to anymore.”

Tony sighed, “And I’m done hidin’ my feelings for you. But it don’t seem right for your father not to be here for me to ask his permission first; that had always been my plan. It ain’t right that your Momma isn’t around to give you advice and tell you you could do better and hate on me for a while.”

I gave a watery chuckle. “Don’t be stupid. Mom always thought you were something special. She’d thump the twins every once in a while and tell them to act more like you instead of like a couple of crazy park squirrels. And my brothers would have gone nuts thinkin’ about all the stuff you could help them get into. And I think … maybe … like I said … Dad wouldn’t have had a problem with you either. For sure he wouldn’t have had you here to the cabin so often if he didn’t trust you pretty good.”

That last thought really seemed to hit Tony hard. “I wish Uncle Nicky woulda been more like your Dad. They were good friends, I always hoped more would come of it.”

I nodded. “Dad had a way of acceptin’ people for who they were. Your uncle would get rattled and he’d come see Dad and most of the time it helped. Maybe … maybe Dad dyin’ is part of what broke your uncle so bad.”

Tony sighed. “Maybe but I don’t know as I could trust him no more.” He brushed my hair away from the side of my face where the spreading bruised was getting to the real ugly stage. “Hey, when you go out to pick that fruit, you take protection with you? Right?”

“Yeah. I found an LCP in your truck.” Smiling I said, “It has a pink slide on it so I figured you meant it for a lady friend.”

A little color rose on his cheeks. “Oh, that ugly thing. It … er … belonged to one of the partner’s … uh … anyway, she got wasted and was shootin’ at his lawn art and he took it away and told me to get rid of it someplace. Figured you’d get a kick out of it.”

Outraged I said, “What a clanker! You take me for stupid or somethin’? It was factory fresh when I took it out of the box.”

He was caught and he knew it. Biting my lip, unsure if I was funning or not, I told him, “Don’t tell me stories Tony. I think it’s sweet – even if it is pink – and I’d rather you be honest with me.” When he got quiet I knew just what he was thinking as if I had thought it myself. “I ain’t askin’ for details about your past. I know you got around some and I know the business you are … were … in needed ... er … discretion. If you can’t tell me then you can’t. Just don’t make up stories to fill in the gaps; I don’t need ‘em. OK?”

Pursing his lips thoughtfully then nodding he said, “OK. But Joey … I ain’t been gettin’ around for a while. I found I was happier waitin’ for my Ragazza than … er … anything else.”

I would have liked to have explored that a little more but he was obviously tired and I heard the timer go off downstairs. “Hah! Saved by the bell … but you won’t get away with that sweet talk forever Signor MacGregor.”