Blackwood Farm, page 29part #9 of The Vampire Chronicles Series
"MY FIRST MANLY TASK WAS to get to the Hermitage, and I wasn't fool enough to think I could collect those rusted chains alone. I took Allen with me. The Shed Men always arrived around six o'clock, so they could go home at three, and when I told him where we were headed he was convivial and all but hopped into the pirogue with me.
"It was and still is Allen's nature to find everything in life pleasurable. He's a big roundly built man with neat white hair combed to one side, and silver-rimmed glasses and a perpetual smile; he plays Santa Claus at Christmas parties with huge success.
"Anyway, when we reached the Hermitage it wasn't seven o'clock yet, and we went to our task with the best tools we had and soon gathered up all the rusted chains, dragging them down the steps after us.
"I had to force myself to set out for home, so strong was my fascination with the Hermitage, but I knew I had much to do this day and so after a little walk around, during which time I imagined my renovations with great approval and success, we were in the pirogue again.
"When we got back to the landing and I told Allen we were going to bury the chain with Rebecca's remains he went into a state of sustained hilarity.
"Nevertheless, I dug deep in the soil. I found the casket. I made the hole very very wide. I wreathed the chains around the casket. And then Allen helped me fill in the dirt and the headstone was replaced, and as I said my prayers Allen prayed with me.
"I felt no shimmer of Rebecca. I felt no dizziness. But as I stood there in the still morning I felt sorrow for all the ghosts I had seen in the cemetery over the years and wondered if I was fated to be a roaming spirit after my death.
"Nothing like that had ever occurred to me before. But I thought of it now. I said another long silent prayer for Rebecca and then I whispered, 'Go into the Light. ¡¯
"And so my first manly task had been completed.
"On to the second: of course Allen knew where Terry Sue lived, and to that spot we drove in the Mercedes. I told Allen I would go in alone, but even before entering the trailer I had a fair idea that Grady Breen, our attorney, had not exaggerated the state of ongoing disaster.
"There were the rusted ruined automobiles that he had described, one an old limousine and the other a pickup truck, neither with any tires, and two toddlers were roaming the yard, both with filthy faces and diapers.
"I knocked, then went in. Tucked at the very end of the trailer there was a voluptuous woman in the bed, a woman with the face of a big china doll, nursing a baby, and a little girl, perhaps ten years old and barefoot, was stirring a pot on the stove of what looked and smelled like grits. The little girl's arms were covered in bruises and she had a shy fearful manner to her. She had a pretty face and long black hair.
"The closeness of the place, the crowded damp feel of it was overwhelming. And so was the smell. I can best describe it as a mixture of urine, vomit and mildew. There might have been some rotten fruit in the recipe. And certainly there was excrement as well.
" 'I'm sorry to break in on you like this,' I said to the woman. I felt like a giant under the low ceiling. 'Congratulations on your new baby. ¡¯
" 'Did you bring any money?' she asked. Her face stayed lovely -- she looked like a Renaissance Madonna -- but her voice was full of meanness, or maybe it was just practicality. 'I'm broke and Charlie's walked out on me again,' she said. 'My stitches are torn and I'm running a fever. ¡¯
" 'Yeah, I have plenty money,' I said. I reached into my pockets and took out the thousand dollars I'd taken out of the kitchen petty cash box. She was appropriately flabbergasted. She took it with her left hand and shoved it in a pocket under the covers. Or just under the covers.
"The baby was miraculous. I had never seen one so tiny, so nearly newborn. Its little wrinkly new hands were marvelous. It already had a head of dark wispy hair. My heart went out to it.
" 'Brittany, hurry up with that grits,' said the woman, 'and go get those kids, I'm going to need you to walk into town and get some groceries. ' She looked up at me. 'You want some breakfast? This child cooks the best breakfast. Brittany, put on the bacon. Go get those kids. ¡¯
" 'I'll take her into town,' I said. 'Where's Tommy?¡¯
" 'Out in the woods,' she said in a sardonic tone. 'Like he always is. Reading a picture book. I told him if he didn't take that book back to the store he was going to go to jail. They're going to come get him. He stole that book. And they knew he did. That woman at the store is as crazy as he is. They're going to come get him. And they ought to take her to jail too. ¡¯
" 'Does he have any other books?' I asked.
" 'Who's got money for books?' she asked. She was becoming incensed. 'Look around this place. See that broken window? Look over there. Look real good. See that little girl? She don't talk. Brittany, give Bethany some grits. What happened to the coffee? Sit down here at the table. Just move that stuff. This child makes the best coffee. I'm telling you, I thank God every day that he sent me Brittany, and he sent her first. Brittany, go get Matthew and Jonas. I done told you twice to do that! This baby's wet. Hurry up about it. I don't have money for books. My washing machine's been broken for two months. Pops never gave me money for books. ¡¯
" 'All right,' I told her. 'I'll be back. ' I went out into the woods. It wasn't dense, just the spinally piney woods in these parts where there aren't many live oaks. I could see this little boy sitting on a log and he was reading.
"He had black curly hair like mine and he was lean yet well proportioned. He had sharp blue eyes when he looked at me. The book was about art. It was open to Van Gogh's Starry Night.
"The boy had on a dirty polo shirt and jeans, and there was a huge black-and-blue mark on his face and one on his arm. On the back of his left hand was a visible burn.
" 'Did Charlie hit you?' I asked.
"He didn't answer me.
" 'Did he push your hand against the heater?' I asked.
"He didn't answer. He turned the page. A painting by Gauguin.
"I said, 'Everything's going to change. I'm your kin. I'm Pops' grandson and you're Pops' son, you know that, don't you?¡¯
"He didn't say anything. Obdurately he looked back at his book and again he turned the page. A painting by Seurat.
"I told him my name. I told him everything would be better. I was about to leave him when I said, 'One day you'll get to go to Amsterdam to see Van Gogh's work in person. ¡¯
" 'I'd settle for New York,' he fired back, 'so I could see all the Impressionists and the Expressionists at the Met. ¡¯
"I was stunned. His words were so clear, so crisp.
" 'You're some kind of genius,' I said.
" 'No, I'm not,' he said. 'I just read a lot. I read all I wanted to read in the branch library and now I'm working on the Books-a-Million store in Mapleville, where I go to school. My favorite books are about art. Couple of times, Pops brought me books on art. ¡¯
"That was an astounding revelation. Pops and books on art. Where would Pops get books on art? What did Pops know of books on art? Yet he had done it for this bastard son whom he allowed to live in squalor in this place.
"Thank God I still had some more money, about fifty dollars. 'Here,' I said. 'This will work wonders at the bargain table. Don't steal anymore. ¡¯
" 'I never stole,' he said. 'That's my mother talking. You listen to my mother and you'd think Charlie pushed my hand up against the heater. ¡¯
" 'Gotcha. The point is, you can buy some to own with that. ¡¯
" 'Who's your favorite painter in the whole world?' he asked.
" 'Hard to say,' I answered.
" 'Like if you could only save one painting from the Third World War,' he pushed, 'what would it be?¡¯
" 'Have to be Renaissance. Have to be a Madonna,' I replied, 'but I'm not sure which one. Probably one by Botticelli, but then maybe Fra Filippo Lippi. But there are others. Just not sure. ' I thought of the beautiful woman inside nursing the bab
"He nodded. 'I'd save D¨¹rer,' he said. 'Salvador Mundi -- you know, the face of Christ with the hair parted in the middle. ¡¯
" 'That's a good choice,' I said. 'Maybe much better than mine. ' I hesitated. We'd come a lot further in this conversation than I'd thought possible when I drove out here. 'Listen to me,' I said. 'Would you like to go off to a good school, a boarding school, you know, get a fine education, get out of here?¡¯
" 'I can't leave Brittany,' he said. 'Wouldn't be fair. ¡¯
" 'What about the others?¡¯
" 'I don't know,' he answered. He sighed like a big man with a big burden. 'My mother, she doesn't really want us,' he said. 'She wasn't so bad when Brittany and I were little. But now that there's all the others, she hits us a lot. I have to get between her and Brittany and sometimes I can't do it. I don't let her hit the little ones at all. I just take the belt right out of her hand. ¡¯
"I was revolted, but I had no solution. I had all my life heard that there are real problems with the welfare system and with the foster care system, and I didn't know what to do.
" 'I understand,' I responded. 'You can't leave them behind. ¡¯
" 'That's right,' he said. 'I'm going to a better school now than Brittany but she's getting a good education. I can tell you that much. She does her homework and she's smart. I don't know the answer. ¡¯
" 'Well, listen to me,' I said. 'I'm not going to forget about you. I'll come back with more money. Maybe I can make everything better for your mother and all of you, and she won't want to hit the children. ¡¯
" 'How would you do that?¡¯
" 'Let me think on it, but believe me. I will be back. Good-bye, Uncle Tommy. ¡¯
"That brought the first smile out of him, and as I waved he waved back.
"Then he jumped off the log and he ran after me. I stopped, of course, to let him catch up.
" 'Hey, do you believe in the lost kingdom of Atlantis?' he asked.
" 'Well, I do believe it's lost, but I don't know if I believe it's real,' I said.
"He laughed a real belly laugh.
" 'What do you think, Tommy? Do you believe in it?¡¯
"He nodded. 'I hope to find the ruins actually,' he said. 'I want to lead a party to find it. You know, an underwater expedition. ¡¯
" 'Sounds wonderful,' I said. 'We'll talk about it as soon as I have time. I've got to go to work now. ¡¯
" 'Really? I thought you were so rich you didn't have to work or even go to school. That's what everybody says. ¡¯
" 'I mean work on my problems, Tommy, you know, special things that I feel ought to be done. I'll see you soon again. I promise. Can I give you a hug?' I leaned down and did it before he could commit himself. He was a solid, loving little creature. I really adored him.
"When I got to the car Allen was shaking his head.
" 'I hope you don't want us to clean up this place,' he said. 'That septic tank in back is overflowing something awful. ¡¯
" 'So that's what that smell is,' I said. 'I didn't know. ¡¯
"As soon as I reached Aunt Queen on the car phone I described the situation to her and asked if I might instruct Grady Breen to purchase a decent house for Terry Sue and her children. The title should be in our name with full insurance of every sort, and the woman would need furniture, appliances, new kitchenware, the works.
" 'You can't imagine this level of poverty,' I explained. 'And this woman hits her children and I haven't begun to figure what to do about that except it might stop if the house and the conditions were improved. At least I hope so. As for Tommy, he's brilliant. ' I filled in all the relevant details.
"Of course she wanted to call Grady herself. But I said it was something I had to do. It was a job of maturity and it was important.
"Within half a minute I had Grady on the phone. We agreed that the woman's house had to be in a moderately priced new development outside of Ruby River City, Autumn Leaves being the ideal tract according to Grady, with all new construction, new appliances, new pots and pans, new everything, and that she had to have a full-time cleaning woman and a full-time nanny for the children.
"Grady would become her personal financial advisor and financial guardian. We'd pay the taxes, insurance, utilities, television cable and hired help direct. And of course Terry Sue had to have an income, and we decided upon one that was about equal to what she would have earned as a secretary in Grady's office. We thought that would give her a real spiritual lift.
" 'It's foolproof,' I said. 'The nanny and the cleaning woman will be working for you, and Terry Sue will have no call whatsoever to hit her kids. In front of those people she probably will be ashamed to hit her kids. ¡¯
"Meantime Brittany would switch over to the Catholic school that Tommy was attending, the only Catholic school in Mapleville and one with the cachet of a private prep school, and we'd get some medical help for the little girl Bethany, who didn't talk.
"As for the mysterious Charlie who had walked out of Terry Sue's life, according to Grady, he wasn't 'all that bad by any stretch,' but the baby in Terry Sue's arms wasn't his and he was a bit disgusted that the real father hadn't stepped up, and who that might be was open to question.
"I advised Grady to have a DNA test done to determine if this baby had been fathered by Pops. I felt it was only right to do so. I had a deep suspicion that Pops was the father, that the baby had been conceived in the aftermath of Sweetheart's death, and that Charlie didn't know what to do about it.
" 'Look, Grady,' I said, 'this is a situation that's never going to be perfect, but I think we can do these things to make it better. If men come and go in this new house there's nothing we can do about it. At least we have made Terry Sue independent. She doesn't have to put up with anybody whom she doesn't want. Just keep her income steady and what she does with it is her business. If she starves her children, then we give the housekeeper money for groceries. And the nanny cooks and serves. We'll fix it till it's not broken anymore. ¡¯
"What I didn't confide to Grady was that I had dreams that Tommy would come someday to live at Blackwood Manor. I had dreams that Tommy would someday travel the world with me and Mona and Aunt Queen and Nash. I had dreams that Tommy would someday become a brilliant scholar and, who knows, maybe even a brilliant painter. Maybe Tommy would find the lost kingdom of Atlantis. In essence I had dreams that someday Tommy would become an official Blackwood.
"I also didn't confide to Grady how much I judged Pops, though I tried not to do it, for leaving his son, Tommy, in this mess, and how loveless he had been to this woman Terry Sue. But then, maybe there was more to it than I in my youth could understand.
"Only after this was finished and I had almost reached home in the Mercedes did I remember my promise to take little Brittany to the grocery store. I told Allen he'd have to go back and take little Brittany to the grocery store and stock up the trailer.
"Of course he had a wisecrack or two, but in general he was agreeable and said he would go back in the pickup and take little Brittany wherever she wanted to go and buy them everything from soup to nuts.
"And so the second task of Manhood was done. Now for the third.
"I went home, showered and changed into my best Armani suit, pale violet shirt and lucky Versace tie, and with a passionate heart and a delirious head I went out to see my beloved Mona Mayfair, stopping only at a florist on St. Charles Avenue to buy her a big bouquet of daisies and other spring flowers. It seemed very fresh and soft and beautiful to me, this bouquet, and I wanted to put it tenderly into her arms. I dreamed of her soft kisses as the woman put the paper around the flowers, and driving towards the Mayfair house on First and Chestnut I counted the moments until two o'clock arrived. "