“We need to get the house ready.”
Lucia groaned in response. She despised housework nearly as much as cooking from scratch. “Come on, get with the program girl,” I told her. “A lot of people are going to have to fit in here and there are only four bedrooms. My parents will have one bedroom and yours another. That still leaves at least four females and six males that need a bed.”
Getting a stubborn look on her face Lucia said, “Bennie and I …”
I was not going there. “Uh uh. No way am I gonna deal with your dad starting WW3 over that one and you know how straight my parents are.” Lucia huffed but let it go and I was relieved. What she and Bennie chose to do in private was none of my business but I didn’t like having my nose rubbed in it either. “The guys can split the other two bedrooms; you and the girls can have the basement. I’ll put together something for me up in the attic.”
Outraged Lucia asked, “Hey, why do you get a room to yourself?”
If she only knew how much I’d like to switch with her, but it was either that or being a guest on a cot at the foot of my parents’ bed and that is something I definitely did not want to do. Crimping Lucia and Bennie was one thing … crimping my parents’ style was a subject I had no intention on thinking about.
“There’s a cot and a pull out sofa in the basement that will do for three people – you and the girls. There’s a set of bunk beds and a single in each of the two downstairs bedrooms – the six guys. Our parents can split the two upstairs bedrooms. So unless I wanna sleep under the kitchen table, or on the porch with the gnats the attic is all that’s left.”
Shaking my head I came back with, “Still nothing. The attic has so much crap in it from my parents and the previous owner that it’s not like I’m going to have room to stretch out. I’ll probably have to move and stack boxes half a day just to make a pallet area to sleep on.”
Refusing to give in she said, “At least you’ll have privacy.”
I snorted humorously. “From everyone but the spiders and occasional mouse or black snake that finds its way in.”
At her look of horror I knew I wouldn’t hear about it again. Lucia was such a city girl. I was too but at least I remember what my life was like before New York and could deal with the changes we faced with some grace. Trying hard not to laugh at the way Lucia was looking surreptitiously around and moving her feet from under the table I told her, “We’ll also need to take care of the chickens, empty that panel truck and get the stuff stored and out of the way, and we can move stuff around in the barn to make room for the cars that are coming.”
Giving me the evil eye she asked sarcastically, “Oh is that all? Rearrange the house, the garage, and unload a semi. Yeah. I’ll be sure and get right on that.”
Between our injuries, exhaustion from the drive and just being fearful and nervous from everything else it was a full day before we really got started on the list of chores I had devised. After resting Bennie bounced back better than I had thought he would but he and I were both sore and a little slow. It was not fun getting everything out of the panel truck. Lucia had been totally exaggerating when she called it a semi but that didn’t mean it was fun or easy to empty, or that it was easy to figure out a place to put everything away in so we could remember where it was and find it again.
Lucia wiped the sweat off of her face and re-did her pony tail where it had fall down. Her roots were beginning to show but I wasn’t going to be the one to tell her that. “Man Joey, this is like we are back working at the market. And you sound like old lady Stenheim.” Her voice switched to a good imitation of the mother of the man we had both worked for all through highschool. “Don’t rip the labels you little tarts, they’ll fall off and we’ll never know what is in the can. You drop it and it breaks you’ll clean up the mess and I’ll be making sure it comes out of your check … once for the mess and the second for just being stupid. Don’t stack them like that! They’ll fall and we’ll have to put them in the dent bin. You think we run a charity around here?” Returning her voice to normal she said, “Bossy old cow.” She followed that with a look that left me wondering whether she was talking about Ol’ Mrs. Stenheim or not.
The house was a real piece of work. My mother was a cook not a decorator. About the only furniture in the rooms were beds in the sleeping areas, sofas in the two common areas, and a few tables to set stuff on. If you had to call it something it would be summer camp décor. Now the kitchen was another matter entirely; it was a to-die-for replica of a kitchen Mom had seen on some TV show with stainless steel appliances (downsized to fit the solar system), granite counter tops, travertine back splash, and along one wall an antique soap stone basin and counter that was nearly big enough to take a bath in. The flooring was a commercial grade PVC system that was easy on the feet and even easier to keep clean. In the corner was the original wood cooking stove that Dad had restored and they used it to heat the kitchen when they came during the winter. The breakfast table was a family heirloom made of an old piece of redwood on mahogany legs that had belonged to Mom’s grandmother. The chairs were an odd collection of mixed pieces because the matching chairs to that table were instead used in the dining room around another family heirloom … a pecan wood dining table that sat ten people with a matching china hutch and buffet table. Everything else in the house kinda looked like it came from a thrift store sale, which knowing Mom it probably did.
I wasn’t there to do Mom’s decorating for her so we stuck to general cleaning – like dusting and cleaning the bathrooms – and washing all the bed linens. Lucia really fumed about that one.
“You wait to tell me the washer isn’t working after I’ve already stripped all the beds?! Wait, let me guess, the machine was working just fine until you touched it.”
Knowing she had some reason to be upset I said, “Relax. Since they only need rinsing out we can just put the linens in a tub filled with water and a little fabric softener set on the porch and then hang them on the clothes line to dry while the bedroom air out.”
The sound of grinding teeth was my only answer until she blasted me with, “Relax she says. Well you ain’t the one lifting and pulling and tugging on these things and you aint the one that is gonna have to put ‘em back on either.”
I didn’t blame her for being cranky. Bennie and I tried to help but after she got flattened twice as we tried to flip some of the mattresses she all but screamed, “If they want their friggin’ mattress turned then they can do it themselves!”
Leaving Lucia alone to work out her frustrations by stomping the sheets down in to the tub of water like one of those Greek women stomping grapes, Bennie and I emptied the panel truck. It took a whole day for us to get everything emptied and a piece of another to get the stuff down into the basement storage room and out of the way.
I thought we were making great progress and was kind of excited to hear what Mom and Dad would say about it but Bennie and Lucia both mutinied after taking one look at the barn and I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything else. When Gran died Dad had inherited everything and rather than deal with it then – “those auction houses are a rip off” - he’d simply brought it all back to New York and put it in metal drums which he then stuck in a big storage locker. When they bought the cabin Dad refused to pay any more storage facility rent so he trucked it out to – you guessed it – the barn; and there it has stayed there ever since. Mom tries every once in a while to go through everything but Dad always claims it can wait. She just shrugs and tells me, “At least mice can’t get through the metal.”
Bennie spent his suddenly free time cleaning the guns of the guys that attacked us while Lucia speculated on what the men were doing there.
“Probably illegals,” Bennie said trying to add to her musings.
“No kidding,” Lucia said while rolling her eyes at what she considered obvious. “But why would they be camping right there?”
“Could be a pot patch in the woods. Might be worth looking for,” he said.
I glared and he said defensively, “Just for informational purposes only. We don’t need anyone else sneaking up on us.”
Feeling a little snarky myself because of their refusal to help I said, “Yeah right. Besides Tony owns that land and you know how he is. One whiff – no pun intended – and whoosh! Going up in smoke wouldn’t begin to cover it. He’d come in with bulldozers and bazookas.” My reminder was enough for them to take another tact. Tony might have different kinds of friends but he hated drugs. He considered druggies, pot heads, and alcoholics to be weak and useless, a worthless drain on society. He had the same opinion about people that sold drugs … from the street dealer right on up to the big pharma companies. The only time Tony came close to getting in trouble with the law as far as I know was when some kid that had been selling drugs down at the park got whacked. No one was ever officially fingered for it but the way Lucia and I heard it at the school (no one would talk about it at home) Tony’s name came up a couple a times because he’d stomped the guy pretty hard for offering some of us a trial size of the newest “candy” on the rave scene.
“Does it really matter how they wound up where they did?” I said cutting through their debate that was turning into another petty fight. “They’re not here anymore.”
“It might,” Bennie argued. “Depends who else knows about this place.”
That made me pause and think. “Not too many people. Even the surveyors got lost coming out here. Only the man from the propane company has ever been out here more than once as far as I know. Dad and the boys always brought the construction material in themselves or had stuff delivered at the bottom of the hill and brought it up with the tractor; and that was before Tony changed the roadway.
In the middle of cussing the former owner of one of the rusty rifles Bennie said, “Been meaning to ask where the propane tank is. Knew there had to be one because of the stove and hot water tank but don’t see one anywhere.”
Smiling I told him, “That’s the point. Actually it’s buried. The old guy that used to own this place was some kind of crazy according to the few people in town that claimed to have known him. They all said he was completely antisocial and hated people so much he didn’t want to see another human being anymore than absolutely necessary during his lifetime. It was six months before anyone realized the old guy had died.”
“In the house?!” Lucia squawked.
I laughed at the look on her face and said, “No; in the old outhouse. Dad burned it down after they bought this place because it was full of hornets and not worth saving. As far as the propane goes we don’t even know for sure how much the system holds as it is really three tanks run together in kind of a tandem set up. My folks have never even come close to emptying it; Dad just has the gas company top it off at the beginning of every summer and doesn’t worry about it. Propane doesn’t go bad.”
Polishing a stubborn rust spot he nodded and then said, “The access must be at that concrete pad.”
I shook my head. “Nope. That’s the access for one of the cisterns that feeds the irrigation system out in the garden and orchard area.”
Doubtfully Lucia looked at me and said, “I ain’t never seen no garden around here when we visited and Mom has never mentioned one either and you know she’d be all over it if there was.”
Laughing in complete understanding of how our mothers worked I said, “You’re right on both counts. But there is space for one, a pretty big one. There are some terraced areas that sit lower than the house and the orchard is …”
I squinched my eyes shut painfully at my own stupidity. When I jumped up they both asked me in alarm, “What?!”
“The fruit trees,” I answered. “Dad said he caught some hunters out there last fall … some Hispanics that claimed they worked for the forestry department and hadn’t realized the land was no longer public use. He didn’t like the idea of people so close to the cabin and that’s when he and the boys installed the rolldowns and metal shutters. Mom hates they way they look – claims it makes her feel like she’s in prison – but when she realized it would take Dad’s stress level down a couple of notches she stopped objecting to them.”
“Where you goin’?” Bennie asked as I headed for the door.
“To see if there’s any fruit on the trees.”
He got up too and said, “I’ll come with you. Ain’t a good idea to go off on your own; could still be others around.”
I knew it wouldn’t do any good to argue so I gave them both a look that said if you’re coming then come on. Lucia planted herself even more firmly in the kitchen chair she’d been sitting in but Bennie followed me out. “Don’t touch nothin’,” he told her referring to the guns on the table. Lucia just sneered and went back to reading the old gossip magazine she’d found in one of the bathrooms.
Once out of earshot Bennie asks, “You think Tony and Lucia’s ol’ man are going to let me stay?”
Giving him a look I asked, “You crazy or what? This is my parents’ place; no way will Dad turn you out with things like they are. Besides Tony knows you’re here and said you could be useful.”
“Bein’ useful ain’t the same thing as being welcome. I don’t wanna cause no problems but I don’t know if I can stay around and not be with Luce. But I won’t just leave her neither. She may be a pain but she’s my pain.”
“I thought you two were ready to break it off last week.”
He sighed. “I hate it when other guys look at her. It ain’t her fault or nuthin’. I mean she’s beautiful so guys are gonna look. But it still drives me crazy.”
I felt like smacking Lucia for being such a flirt. “You can’t count on things changing. You’ll either have to accept it as it is or make a clean break of it. This back and forth ain’t healthy … for either one of you.”
“Is that your problem with Tony?”
I hated the personal questions but decided that since I’d gotten into his business I didn’t have room to complain. “Not … not exactly. Tony is who he is. I can live with that. It’s everything that comes along with being Tony’s girl that I’m not so sure I’m ready for including the part where my parents come into it.”
Nodding like he understood he asked, “You think I can ever bring Luce’s parents around?”
Refusing to lie I told him, “I don’t know. Mr. Moretti can be hard ‘cause that’s the way he was raised. And this thing with her flunking out is going to be enough to make him come unglued for a while and you know he’s going to blame you at least for some of it.”
“Yeah, tell me about it.” Revealing how frustrated he was over the issue he said, “No matter how I warned her she didn’t wanna listen and once I started working full time I couldn’t stay on her the way she needed. I told her if she didn’t want to be a nurse then she needed to change her major and stop wasting time and money but she said her ol’ man had his heart set on it. She coulda done the work, it was just her way of getting out of something she didn’t really want to do in the first place.”
Bennie really did know Lucia pretty well but I still had to laugh. “I’m sorry Bennie, and please don’t take this the wrong way, but your brain and your brawn don’t always seem to go together. Sometimes I have a hard time picturing you as a teacher … even after you won that new teacher award last spring.”
Seriously he told me, “I know. Hard for me to believe sometimes too. You’ll think it even weirder when I tell you my dream job is to work in a juvenile detention center. Luce thinks I’ve lost my mind.”
Really surprised given his history I asked, “Why would you want to do that? You hated being in juvie from what little you’ve said.”
“Yeah I hated it but that’s where I belonged; do the crime, do the time … and it ain’t supposed to be Club Med. Truth is Joey, you don’t want to know the kind of things that go on in places like that; but there are good people there too. One of the guards used to shove my face in my school books when I started slacking. Man he was tough but … but tough – the right kind of tough – was what I needed, not all that touchy feely crap they try on the kids most of the time saying they just ain’t been loved on enough or their parents weren’t good enough or whatever. I needed some order and rules and boundaries. That’s why gangs are so easy to get into and so hard to get out of … they’re like a family for the kids that don’t have that stuff.”
Having heard this from others, but never from anyone that had actually experienced it, I didn’t interrupt and hoped he would keep explaining. “See, until I had the boundaries to teach me self control I couldn’t understand anything else because my priorities were all messed up. One day – I don’t know why – I did my homework without this guy having to stand over the top of me and even helped a new kid that had just got in. This tough guy, he bumps my shoulder with his fist. No big deal but for the first time something clicked for me. That day my life changed. I wanna be that guy for some other kid … you know teach ‘em about self control and what self respect really means and how you don’t have to be where you come from, you got a choice.”
Suddenly understanding Bennie a whole lot more than I ever had I said, “What I know is maybe there’s more to you than people think and that maybe Lucia don’t have such a bum deal with you after all.”
Bashfully the big guy says, “Aw don’t start Joey. I ain’t no saint.”
“No kidding,” I laughed. “But the way I hear it most of the people that wind up being called saints sure didn’t start out that way. Peter, Paul, Thomas … couple of the women weren’t exactly nuns when they changed their lives neither.”
Bennie had had enough sharing and since we had gotten to the orchard I let it go. Besides, looking around, I had enough to think about as I saw the mess I had on my hands.