Thirty-one: Action Heroes
When we returned to the house, my aunt marched straight upstairs to my mother's wing and slammed the outer door as she went in, not even bothering to go say good morning to Uncle John.
Although I had not been invited to join her, I might have pulled off my boots and followed in my socks, but I had rarely seen my aunt so angry, and I was so hungry that I thought my stomach was gnawing at my spine. Instead, I rapped at Redell's office door.
"Do you think the chef would mind making me something to eat? I didn't breakfast before setting out riding with my aunt."
"I thought something should be taken to you!" sputtered Redell. "But I didn't know you two would be setting out again so early! Yes, what would you like?"
"Oh, um, howabout eggs? Scrambled, two, a piece of toast, that's all. It will be lunch in a couple hours."
By the time I had pulled off my boots and showered, a tray was at my door with scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, and a bowl of fruit, as well as tea. I ate while I dressed, reveling in the solitude, wondering what would come of my aunt's fury.
I scribbled a note on a piece of cardstock, "Thank you, so delicious!" and put it on the tray when I returned my dishes to the folding stand outside the door.
John was about to descend the stairs, so I called, "Pssst" to him.
He waited for me to join him. "How was the ride?"
Trying to think of a way to put a positive spin on my reply, I shrugged. "Educational. Has my aunt ever told you that she knows how to herd cattle?"
"No," he said, laughing. "You're kidding me, right?"
"Not I. You should ask her about these hidden attributes sometime. With these very eyes I observed her, moving cows like magic from horseback. They'd escaped from their pasture through a broken fence, and she rounded them up, I suppose you'd say."
"Wish I'd seen that. Did she whoop and holler and crack a whip?"
"She was as silent as the Grim Reaper, which kind of surprised me. Obviously we don't have Hollywood cows, or perhaps we only have reclusive, shy, and overly sensitive cows. I didn't question her on this procedure, as she was madder than a hornet about the broken fence."
"That means she's on a rampage, then. Thanks for the warning."
"Yes, I think so. I'm not sure why she's so mad about it, but she was definitely annoyed. And the farmer who takes care of the cattle apparently called Maida a 'nigger', and ..."
"Great, she's gonna be hotter'n Vesuvius over that. Hey, want to go to Disneyland for a few days?"
"I do have still another week left of Fall Break ... "
He laughed, nervously. "What's on the agenda for today, anyway?"
"We hide until dinner, and at that time, there will be a semi-formal dinner with the mayor of Port Laughton, the Lieutenant Governor, and a woman from the local conservation society who wants to make sure that the Bradshaw Evans State Forest is protected from budget cuts and foresting."
"Not too bad, depending on what's on the menu."
"Some sort of quiche, I believe, with optional cuts of chicken on the side with a mango salsa topping. And breads, which are always delicious. And locally grown asparagus with some sort of cheese dressing. Dessert is some tall chocolate confection guaranteed to take five years off your life."
"Oh, boy. Maybe I should skip lunch."
"No, no," I told him, "the key is to eat healthily and largely before these things. Salad above all. That's how we do it. Dinners like this are like samples of what could be eaten. We stuff salad and vegetables mid-day, and then when the formal dinners are served, we are content with tiny servings. No one enjoys these meals -- the food and eating are for show, not for real sustenance."
"Great," he said, frowning.
"Let's go see Redell and find out what you could have of substance -- he's already saved my life with food this morning."
Redell, when we went to his office, was on the phone, barking affirmatives. He was tearing off his jacket and tie when we knocked on his door. "Food for John?" I asked.
"Yes," he said, and hit a page button. "Philomena, we need food for guests. Come to my office at once and take care of this.
"Sorry, Sir," he said to me, "I've got to go take care of some estate business. Philomena will make sure you have all you need. Ahh, sorry, John."
"No problem," said John. "Everything okay?"
"So far," Redell answered. "We'll be back soon, I hope."
At that moment, Uncle Bodie clattered down the stairs with Aunt Sully on his heels, she looking like Judgment Day. They flew out the door with Redell, into one of the estate Jeeps, and tore off down the lane.
Philomena appeared like a ghost, with no footsteps to announce her presence. "How can I help you, sir?" she questioned, looking from me to John to me again.
"A small steak, medium rare, two eggs over easy, rye toast, tea, and hash browns with sauteed onions, and orange juice, please," I said to her. "My friend John has not eaten today and requires a brunch."
As she left with a nod and a 'Yes, sir,' John turned to me and said, "You're getting this down pretty good."
Sidelong I glanced at him. "You're fairly predictable. I've had years to memorize your penchants."
His forehead furrowed in a frown, indicating that he didn't like that any more than he liked Aunt Sully storming off without speaking to him.
"It's what you always have when you're here. Was I wrong?"
"No, no. Just bugs me to know I'm predictable. Maybe I'm gettin' old."
"Getting? My dear John, too late for that. I'll have Philomena fetch your cane and your shopping scooter when she returns, shall I?"
"You're hittin' too close to home," he muttered, looking toward the front door where Aunt Sully had left moments before.
"Sorry. Really, sorry. I was trying for humor."
"See, all they'll let me do now is drive a desk -- "
"I didn't know that. Sorry again."
There was no way for me to anticipate how my elders felt with what they were going through. John was obviously feeling sensitive about his forced sedentary assignment since he'd been shot and hospitalized the year before. My mother and Aunt Andersol were fretting about having babies. Aunt Sully was still upset over losing her dog. I could imagine feelings that they were having, but I didn't really understand them. I couldn't feel them.
I itched to sneak off to my father's office to write in my journal and read a few words from his, but thought I should stay with John so that he wasn't alone -- but on the other hand, did he want a kid pestering him while he ate breakfast?
Philomena appeared in the study silently again, solemnly announcing the completion of John's food. "Would you rather breakfast alone? I can find other occupations."
"Does that mean you'd rather take off?" he asked in turn. "We gotta figure out what we're saying to each other. You got something else to do? Be honest."
We walked to the little dining room with its etched glass partitions. "Honest ... well, to be honest, I'm thinking about people's feelings, and how I don't understand them, being a punk kid by natural means. I would grill you on this subject, but don't wish to irritate you by my naiveté or by my youthful envy of your steak."
He sat down, picked up his fork and knife. "I'm armed, I'm just warning you."
"I said 'envy,' not covetousness."
"Sit, order your own steak. I can answer some questions, but probably not very good. I haven't exactly been a family man in my life."
"I just ate, actually. Is being out on the street so much better than being at a desk? Is it like the excitement of a chase compared to sitting in history class watching other students under-achieve?" I waited for him to finish chewing his first bite of steak, noting that he had not said grace before cutting up his food.
"Well, when you're out there, you're keeping people safe. You're looking for the things that might hurt them, the people who might hurt them, and you can do something about it."
"But paperwork has to be done, too, to make sure the criminals are processed correctly. Isn't it better to have someone competent do it than some dope who doesn't give a crap?" Having had some teachers who cared about their jobs behind a teacher's desk, and others who only showed up because there was a paycheck involved, I thought this a valid question.
He carefully stacked small bits of steak, eggs, and potatoes onto a piece of toast, and bit into it. I turned away so that he wouldn't see me smiling at his enjoyment. Also it's really not cool to stare at people while they eat.
"Yeah, that's what they keep telling me. But it's not the same. It's like they're saying you're washed up, you know?"
I shook my head. "No, I don't know, that's why I'm asking. I can do homework and tests and the paperwork of school better than the boneheads who comprise the school's football team's defense players, does that mean I'm already washed up, too?"
His eyes bugged as he clapped the napkin to his mouth in a choke. When he was done coughing, he gasped, "Hell, no, it ain't the same thing at all."
"See, that's why I'm asking this stuff. I don't understand! You're upset because you aren't allowed to do all the physical stuff of police, you have to use your mind and procedures, and you're pissed about it -- sorry, you're unhappy about it. I can't do the sportsy physical stuff of high school, I have to rely on my mind and the procedures of tests, but I'm supposed to be proud of that, and not annoyed that almost every female around me, and every person in authority values the sporty types more.
"Marca gets by with classmates just fine because she plays soccer like a whirlwind, and would probably beat the shit out of anyone who crossed her. Well, not probably, because everybody knows she has -- but me, the student who gets good grades -- I'm a freak. What I don't understand is why the physical job -- the being out there, on the street, on the sports field, is so much more desirable!"
He'd finished his food, haven eaten quickly. "You asked your Aunt Sully about this yet?"
"No, not really. Aunt Sully would just tell me to ignore what other people think and get the best grades I can. Mom would, too, and so would Aunt Andersol and Uncle Bodie. So would Grandmother. But obviously, you don't think that about your own life, so how am I to know what's real?"
"You were supposed to be asking questions about feelings that I could answer. I can't answer that one. Fact is, you're making me wonder about my own feelings, thanks a lot." John stood and as Dolores came in to take his plates away, we went out into the big study, where a fire was already burning.
We sat in chairs before the fires in silence, and before I noticed that there was a lull in conversation, I fell soundly asleep.
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