Monday, February 23, 2009

Part Three -Tulu and Mary Ellen

(This is coming a lot faster than I thought it would. It is also turning out to be much longer than I expected. I'm all ready working on Part 5!)

Part Three
Tulu was a drifter. There were a lot of drifters in those days. The troubles put a lot of people on the move. We had people come through from as far north as New York City and as far south as Colombia. Most of those who came through our area were men. Some young, some not. There were some women and a few families. Most of them were harmless but some stole, or worse. Most all of them begged. If we had the food to spare we’d give them a meal. One. After that, if they were willing to work we would trade food for work. Some of them stayed and became members of the community. Most moved on.

Tulu was different. He came back two, sometimes three times a year. He wasn’t looking for a place to settle down. The old marine liked to wander. It was the war, Sharkey said. It did that to some people. Back in the old days they might’ve been able to treat him for PTSD and make him ‘normal’ again, but even then he would have probably been just another homeless person. He had been in Sharkey’s unit at some point and Sharkey still felt responsible for his boys even all these years later.

The old drifter always camped in the same spot, under an overhanging bank down by the creek that ran by Elvis. He only came into town to trade with Jim Bo and hardly spoke to anyone. He didn’t much care for people. He never begged, never stole, and almost didn’t drink. He was also the best source of information we had found for what was going on outside the area.

“Hail the camp!” I shouted loudly as I made my way down the bank. Tulu was generally harmless but if you startled him he was likely to shoot.

“Is that you, Ed?” Tulu called back in his damn refined Yankee accent. He was a Chicago native, though his parents originally came from somewhere in Asia. “I knew you or Sharkey would be around soon.”

By this time I was close enough to see him squatting by his campfire, working on some soup. “It’s me, Tulu. How goes it?”

“Better, if you brought something for the pot.”

I grinned and tossed a package of beef from Jim Bo’s at him. He caught it deftly, smiling. “Knew you wouldn’t let me down. Not Sharkey’s girl.”

That Sharkey was not my birth father had never seemed to register with Tulu. I finished climbing down the bank and joined him at the fire while he began cutting up the raw meat.
“Where you been, Tulu?”

“Here and there. On walk-about.”

“Got any news?”

“Yes.”

He was silent for a while. You didn’t press Tulu. He would tell you what you needed to know in his own good time. Well, maybe not everyone. But he would tell us.

“Where’s Sharkey?”

“Sick. He’ll come round to see you in a day or two if yer still here and he’s better.”

Tulu grunted in reply. Finally he finished with the beef and got it into the soup pot. He went to the creek to wash his hands. When he came back he dug a bottle out of his pack and tossed it in my direction. “For Sharkey. His birthday present. Sorry it’s late.”

I turned the bottle around to read the label and nearly dropped it in shock. Whiskey, ol’ Jack. And not the cheap Jack either; this was the premium stuff. “Hell’s bells, Tulu, where’d you find this?”

“I came down from Lynchburg.”

“I thought it’d all be gone by now.”

“There’s some left, if you know where to look.”

That was a damn valuable gift. In those days liquor was money. Especially good liquor. But Tulu knew that. I put the bottle in my backpack. “Thanks, Tulu. I know he’ll be happy. He’s always liked Jack.”

Tulu’s only reply was another grunt. He picked up a stick and began poking at the dirt with it. Finally he spoke. “I headed west this time. I wanted to see the old river again. The Mississippi, that is. I worked on tugboats over that way a long time ago before I joined up. The river’s still dirty but it’s cleaner than I’ve ever seen it. Maybe all that’s happened has been good for something. There’s still trade going up and down, too. I hitched a ride on an old paddleboat that’s been put back in service. A few things are going up and down. Mostly food, paper, that kind of thing. There’s some man in Louisiana calling himself their Governor, but of what I don’t know. Not with Orleans gone and Baton Rouge next. There’s tolls at every town on the river and on quite a few of the roads as well.

“Memphis is a mess. No one’s in charge there these days. Not even pretending. There’s no power and no running water. They’ve got sewage in the streets. It’s the damn eighteenth century, there. Malaria is back, too. You should know that.”

I sucked in my breath. If it had reached Memphis –coming up the river, no doubt –how long would it be before it reached our neck of the woods? I would have to stop back by the Doc’s.
“Anything else?” I asked finally.

He shrugged. “I made it upriver almost to St. Louie. Word came down that there was a cholera epidemic in that old burg and I cut back east. Cut back by Nashville.”

He was silent again. “How are things otherwise? The camps still there?” Labor camps, refugee camps, or ‘displaced person’ camps, call ‘em what you would, they were no place to be.

Tulu started. “Oh yeah. There still there. I skirted the ones around Nashville. They’re holding together up there but the city’s been split in two or three. Some places have held together and some have fallen apart, like Memphis. Some are ruled by gangs and some aren’t ruled at all. I ran into a guy who said he’d walked east from L.A., trying to reach family in Georgia. He said the black and latino gangs are still fighting out there. Over a piece of desert with no water!” He laughed, but there was no humor in it. “Whoever wins that fight is going to get the worst booby prize in history. This guy said he left after the third time a mayor got killed for trying to stop the gangs fighting. I’ve heard some places still have power but I haven’t seen it. Of course, I skirt around most of the cities. It’s bad in the smaller places but not that bad.” Suddenly he grinned. “I stopped in this one river town in Missouri. The one in charge there is this little old black woman. She’s got the strongest personality of anyone I’ve ever met, bar none. She keeps those people in line, believe me!”

“Oh, I believe it. I know southern-”

“-women” We finished together, and laughed, for real this time. Especially the grannies, I thought to myself. Don’t fuck with them, and they won’t beat you to death with the nearest stick. Tulu pulled another bottle of whiskey, this one much cheaper, out of his pack and took a swig. He offered it to me.

“No thanks.” I didn’t think he had anything but there was no since taking chances.

He shrugged and put it back in his pack. “I keep meeting people who say there’s man in D.C. –or what’s left of it –calling himself President, but I certainly didn’t vote for him and I doubt he rules over much more than Virginia and Maryland. Maybe part of Carolina. I think I’ll head that way next and see what’s up. Maybe there is something left of this country. God knows enough of us gave enough of ourselves defending it.” His voice was bitter. His eyes stared into his fire, far away.

“You be careful.”

“I will. Wait, I almost forgot.” He pulled an old baggie out of his shirt pocket and handed it to me. “For the doc.”

It was filled with seeds. “What are these?”

“Poppy seeds.”

“Why would the Doc want to grow flowers?”

“They’re opium poppies, you nitwit. After all the time I spent in ‘Stan I’d recognize them anywhere. I expect he’ll have some use for them. You know where I got them?”

“Where?”

“Jeremiah Rhoades’ land. He’s growing them. I don’t know why, but it can’t be good.”

I cursed. “He gave them to you?”

“Hell no. I stole them. That man is terrified of you, by the way. He has been ever since that fight at the Saddleback.”

I was surprised that Tulu knew about that, but I shouldn’t have been. It was a local legend. “He shouldn’t have killed my dog.”

“Worst mistake he ever made.” Tulu agreed.

I pocketed the seeds and thanked him, then took my leave. I had a few other stops to make, mostly minor trades, and it was nearly suppertime when I made it home. Well before I made it to the house two of the dogs came running out to meet me, barking joyously rather than in warning. Nothing larger than a squirrel came on our property without the dogs knowing about us, and letting us know. They were better security any human could be.

There was an unholy banging noise coming from the open windows of the house. The smaller kids were in the yard playing and Maria and the older ones were in the summer kitchen making dinner. I didn’t see Tim anywhere. Maria pushed open one of the screens and leaned out. “Careful, Eddie, Beth lost her mind.” She tapped the side of her head. “The baby sickness.”

I stopped, and blinked. “Okay.” I wondered what that was (not morning sickness, surely) and decided against trying to find out. Maria’s English wasn’t good enough and my Spanish wasn’t either. We’d both end up confused. The kids might know. They were fluent in both languages.

Little Andrea was sleeping peacefully on the back porch when I got there, oblivious to all the hubbub. The first thing I noticed was that all of the ceiling fans were off and the fridge in the kitchen was unplugged. Secondly I noticed a hose running across the kitchen floor, out the door, and down towards the pond. The banging sound became much louder when I stepped inside. It was coming from the laundry room off the kitchen. I found Beth inside, crying and beating the side of the old washer with a wrench. Her little boy stood in the doorway, watching with wide eyes.

“Beth?” I called uncertainly. “What’s wrong?”

Beth stopped in mid-swing and looked up at me. Her eyes were red from crying. “I don’t miss the radio,” she told me. “I don’t miss the tv or the lights. I don’t even miss the air conditioning or the microwave much. But. I. Just. Want. A. Working. Washer.” With each word she hit the washer again. It was collecting an impressive array of dents.

“Beth? We don’t have running water-”

“I carried water in from the well.”

That stopped me for a moment. Carrying water would still be less work than washing the clothes by hand. We’d had it so easy, once. Push a button and an hour later you had clean clothing. “What were you going to do with the dirty water?”

“We have a pond, Eddie. That’s what the hose is for. But it won’t work. It won’t work!” Her voice scaled up higher and approached outright hysteria.

“The washer up at Sharkey’s still works-”

Right away I knew I’d stepped in it. She brandished the wrench at me. “I don’t want to have to walk a quarter-mile to wash my clothes! I just want clean clothes.” She burst into tears again.

I sighed. Clearly this fell under the heading of ‘Things Eddie Must Fix Because She Is The “Man” Of The House'. I would have to find someway to get it working. Keeping Beth happy was too important. My heart ached again for Joey, who’d been as much a brother to me as a friend. He could have gotten it working as easily as me and he would know just how to calm Beth down. There were ways to run the washer without taking juice form the panels. Pedal power, maybe. That would give the kids a way to burn off some energy. Especially Tim.

Where was that boy?

I hugged Beth and gently took the wrench out of her hand. “I’ll fix it. I promise. Tomorrow, when the light’s better. Okay?”

Beth nodded and wiped her eyes.

The screen door banged and Callie, one of the kids who lived at Sharkey’s came running in. “Eddie! Mary Ellen wants you. She said come quick. Tim’s done something’ again.”

Dear Jesus, what foolish thing had the boy up and done now?

It was still light when I got down the road to Sharkey’s. It was June, after all. Sharkey’s damn horse was grazing contentedly in a pasture near the road. She was still the only horse we had. The Amish and the Cory’s were breeding them as fast as they could but things like that take time. Their stock had been hit by the fever too, which is another reason I think it was the flu.

Having only one horse was fine with me. I didn’t trust anything that big with a mind of its own.

Jane was in the field by the road, sitting on a blanket under a parasol and reading. She was dressed in what I think was a fair approximation of a Victorian lady’s outfit, gloves and all. I had long since eased being surprised at anything she wore. As long as she did her fair share of the work no one cared.

She was different, was Jane. She had been born Mary Ellen’s little brother Bobby Joe. But Bobby Joe hated being a boy the way most folks would hate being turned into a monkey. He spent half his childhood in tears and the other half angry. Finally one day when he was about ten (I was thirteen or fourteen, then, I think), he went crying to his father because he wanted to wear a dress and Mama Jo wouldn’t let him. Sharkey, at his most pragmatic, shrugged and gave the boy a dress. It didn’t matter to him what the kid wore or what he wanted to call himself. There were too many more important things. Thus Bobby Joe became Jane and to my knowledge never wore pants again. Joey and me only had to fight two kids in school before they stopped bothering her about it. Mama Jo, good Christian woman that she was, threw a fit at first but it soon became obvious even to her that her precious grandson was a lot happier being a girl.

Today Jane had a poultice wrapped around her cheek. I winced. “Bad tooth?”

She looked up from the book and nodded. “Doc says I need to go see the dentist in Blackberry.” She sounded scared and I didn’t blame her. Not only was seeing the dentist no cake walk, but Jeremiah tried to make trouble the last time she went over there.

“I’ll go with you.”

“Sure?”

“Sure.”

Jane’s relief was obvious. “Thank you. Be careful. Mary Ellen’s in one of her moods again.”
She picked up the book again as I moved on. Little Women. I shook my head. How had any of us managed to survive this long?

Sharkey was pretending to sleep in a hammock by the garden. He was pale and had lost more weight. I tried not to worry about that. If he was very sick surely the Doc would’ve been up. He opened one eye and winked at me. I felt myself relax. Whatever it was it couldn’t be too bad if Sharkey wasn’t upset about it.

Mary Ellen and Todd lived with their kids and Bobby Joe in one of the trailers. She must have been watching for me from the kitchen for as soon as my feet hit the porch she came flying out the back door, braids bouncing. Mary Ellen was a small woman with a big personality. Her features were too strong to be called pretty but she was the most beautiful woman I ever knew. She had deep black hair that she loved to braid with ribbons. Tonight they were braided with ribbons the same emerald green as her eyes. She still had quite the figure, despite having had three children (including a set of twins), and the red dress she was wearing showed enough of it to thoroughly distract me from the reason I had came.

“About time you got here!” She snapped. “What took you so long? I tell you we have an emergency and what do you do? Stroll up here like you’re taking a walk?”

“Now Mary Ellen-”

“Don’t you patronize me, Eddie! I’m no little girl you can pat on the head and send on her way. Well? What do you have to say for yourself? ”

Oh hell. She really was in one of her moods. When she got like that anything I said was going to get me in trouble. It took forever for me to figure out how Todd stayed out of trouble when she was like that. He did it by simply keeping his mouth shut.

That’s a skill I’ve never managed to master.

“Callie never said it was an emergency!” I protested desperately. “She said Tim had done something stupid and I figered if it was bad, she’d ‘ve said. ‘Sides, Beth was hormonal-”

“Beth was hormonal? Like you’ve never had that particular problem. You pretending to be a man now? As far as that fool brother of yours is concerned, yes it’s bad. Worse’n it’s ever been before. Come in.” She opened the screen door. I moved to go in and she stopped me and then held her hand out.

I stared at her blankly. “What?”

“Your gun. You know I don’t let guns in my house. Give it.”
“Mary Ellen-”

“Give it, Edna Jean.”
Hell, she really was pissed if she called me Edna, much less Edna Jean. Reluctantly I handed over the handgun I kept tucked in my waistband. She sat it on a table just inside the door. Todd’s shotgun and rifle were there as well. Then she held out her hand again. “I want the other one too.”

I managed not to roll my eyes as I gave her the gun I carried in my boot.

“That’s it?”

“That’s all my guns.” I decided mentioning my knives would not be a good idea.

“How’d you get so paranoid, Eddie?” She sounded exasperated.

“Ask your father. He made me that way.”

Mary Ellen leaned out the door and yelled loud enough for Sharkey to hear. “Daddy! Me and you are going to have a talking-to later.”

Sharkey raised a hand in a friendly acknowledgment. He looked like he was trying not to laugh.

I expected to see Tim and possibly Bobby sitting at the kitchen table, looking sheepish. It was a surprise when they weren’t there. Todd was there though, looking slightly grim but also as if he too was trying not to laugh. On the table in front of him was a mapbook –the large kind that would fill your lap –and a note. He shoved them at me. “We found this on Bobby’s bed. The note was sticking out of the top."

The mapbook was open to Alabama. Someone had taken a pink highlighter and traced a route from our region in Tennessee all the way to the coast near Panama City. The note was in Tim’s handwriting and addressed to me.
Sis, Bobby and me decided to take a walk. We want to see the ocean while we still can. We’ll be back in time for school to start. I promise. See you soon. Love, Tim.
P.S. Please don’t be too mad.

“Well?” Mary Ellen demanded when I’d had time to read the note. “I told you it was bad. What are you going to do?”

I stood staring at the note for a moment. It took some time for it to sink just how stupid my little brother had been this time. Anger started welling up and then abruptly it changed to humor. I laughed.

Mary Ellen was taken aback. “Why are you laughing? This is serious!”

I looked at Todd. A smile was playing around his lips and he was clearly trying not to laugh too. “How much food they take, Todd?”

“About four days worth.”

“Guns?”

“Nope.”

“What else?”

“A couple of knives, some camping gear, water bottles, some rope. A tent. That’s about it. And my polaroid and most of the film.” He sounded disgusted and well he should be. Todd had a passion for archaic machines and had kept that camera going far longer than it should have.

Of course they had taken a camera. To take pictures of the beach, no doubt.

Stupid gits. No guns, no trading supplies, and only a few days worth of food. Yep, they were going to get real far like that. And the idiots were planning to take the road the entire way. The road, in those days!

“Well?” Mary Ellen repeated. “Aren’t you going after them?”

I shook my head. “Nope.”

This was clearly not the answer she expected. “Well why in Jesus’ name not? You know those boys can’t take care of themselves out there.”

“I know, but there’s no need to go after ‘em. They’ll be back.” Todd nodded his agreement.

Mary Ellen opened her mouth and before she could get going I rushed on. “Think, Mary Ellen. Those two ain’t never spent a night away from home before. Remember when they tried camping? They didn’t even last the full night, and that was in the field!” Less than half the night, if the full truth were told. I’d sat up with Sharkey that night, drinking and waiting on them.

“They were younger then-”

“Mary Ellen, it was LAST YEAR. Look, they’ll probably come draggin’ in ‘bout supper time tomorrow, or even later tonight, tails between their legs. And no harm done.”

Mary Ellen glared at me. “You- You are just as bad as Daddy! That’s what he said. And here I thought you, at least, would have the sense to go after them!”

That stung some but I pushed it aside. “I will if they’re not back in a day or two.”

“You had better.” She looked at me with those flashing green eyes. “I don’t want to lose my cousin or Tim.”

“Neither do I. I promise I’ll go after ‘em if need be and fetch them back.” I would’ve promised a lot more to her than to track down a couple of idiot boys I’d go after anyway. Looking back, I should have saddled the horse and went after them then and there. I could have brought them home in the middle of the night and been done with it. Except the stupid pups probably would‘ve tried again. And I really did think they would be back.

They didn’t come back the next day. One day stretched into two, and then three, and on the fourth day it became obvious I was going to have to go after them.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous murph said...

LOL Ok Ras, you've hooked me. Write on.

2/25/2009 4:02 PM  
Blogger SoapBoxTech said...

It's no surprise, but this is really good. I hope you're going to look for publishing.

3/01/2009 5:22 PM  
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