Thirty Seven: Back to the Basics
There was no thunder the next day, and the rain came straight down, a little gentler than the previous days. Carrying umbrellas, we walked down the lane, skirting the downed trees, to Reich Road to see where the flooding began. The creek had overflowed all the way across the asphalt and was eroding the dirt hill on the other side. Branches floated along on the muddy water, only to snag on the windfalls. The low stretch of road that had picturesquely run along the creek was probably a mile; we couldn't see the end of the flood.
What a way to spend Fall Break! I had anticipated riding often with Aunt Sully, maybe even coaxing her to ride with me down to Mariposa Road to surprise Rachel (if we could figure out which house she lived in); Marca and Oesha had planned on going to see as many movies as they could stand; we had hoped for a day in San Francisco, museum-hopping. Instead of those pleasant activities, we shivered in hallways, froze in our showers, heaped extra blankets on our beds; I practiced my fencing in the unheated ballroom until I sweated; Marca ran laps until she was stir-crazy; and after every single thing we did, we returned to the big fireplace to shudder until we could warm up.
Mother was stoical about missing work. "They know where I live, so they know I'm stranded. Such is life."
John was a little less complacent; with no power, we were unable to reach the outside world, so when the flooding prevented him from getting to the airport, he was not able to call his office and tell them why he wouldn't show up for work. "Should have brought my cell phone with me," he said ruefully. "Left it at home so no one would bug me."
Mealtimes were treasures, mostly, a break in the monotony of the rain. We had stew with the perishable vegetables, with bread. The assistant cook proved wondrous in being able to bake bread; we could have survived on cream cheese and her breads indefinitely, had we needed to do so. She fried bacon and used up the tomatoes and lettuce for BLT's that were scrumptious.
By Thursday, we had pretty much used up our conversational gambits in out interactions. We said, "It's cold," and we said, "Good to be by the fire today." There was no news, no change (except that the weather had grown much colder) and the rain kept coming down, a little less each day, but still coming down, swelling the creek and flooding the road.
After days of rain and no heat, the house began to feel damp and musty. Oesha began to complain that their bath smelled horrible; some of the towels, which would not dry, had mildewed. So had the bath mat in Michel's and my bath, but it wasn't too bad yet. I went to visit Redell in his office, having had a sudden idea I thought was sheer genius, but had to wait while Denise confronted him with the news that the household was almost out of clean towels, and what did he expect them to do, scrub them in a bathtub by hand and hang them in the staff lounge to dry on makeshift clotheslines?
"I'll see what I can do," he told her. "Be patient."
He hadn't shaved for a few days and was looking a bit mangy, his beard uneven with bits of gray. "Is your aunt around nearby? I'm afraid we're going to have to divert the generator from the kitchen to the laundry for a few hours; I want to let her know before we do. This is just a mess. We are going to run out of gasoline if they can't get that road open."
"Can't we take a jeep up to the fire road? It runs all the way into town. We could get some gas and groceries."
"There are trees down across that road, too," he replied, "but it was a good thought. Maida and Gary are trying to come up with a way to get the horses to pack gas cans and bring them back. The problem is, do we have enough gas cans? Not to mention that we don't have any packhorse gear, and would the horses tolerate hauling full cans smelling of gasoline?"
We had always thought of the estate as being self-sufficient, immune to the vagaries of the rest of the world. But we weren't. The windstorm had taken out our phones and our electricity. Had we known we'd be without power and cut off by flooded roads, we'd have gone to stay in town for the duration, making use of family fortune to stay comfortable. I noted this in the evening to my Aunt Sully.
She snorted, as I had known she would. "You're soft. You think that this is roughing it, but you have no idea what roughing it really is."
"What was the longest you ever went without electricity when you were a kid?"
Frowning she seemed lost in thought. Then she laughed. "Come to think about it, only over night."
"So you were cold and dark while you slept."
"No, we heated the house with a wood and coal stove."
"Okay, you were in the dark and hungry until lunchtime the next day."
"No, we had a gas stove we lit with a match."
By that time John was grinning at her. "Man, Sully you had it rough! Bet you had to walk to school three miles backwards through ten feet of snow."
"Sul, do you remember that winter when we had to stay inside for a week because of the drifting snow and the cold?" my mother asked.
"Sure do. It looked so beautiful out there, with no cars or slush -- all white, and the snow blowing through the air ... twenty degrees below zero! We ran out of milk, and had to use that horrible powdered stuff if we wanted to have cereal."
"Yuck, that's right -- I'd forgotten that. And we only had a half a box of it, so Mom thinned it down as much as she could. I thought she'd drive us all insane by the time the weather got better. She made me clean all the baseboards in the house, and wash all the dishes, while you got to do the ironing and bake cookies."
Aunt Sully raised her eyebrows. "Hey, you were the one who refused to have anything to do with cooking."
"You miss Back East?" John watched her closely.
She waited a long few seconds, looking at the fire before she answered him with a little shake of her head and an expression that looked like she regretted having to say no. My heart wrenched as I realized he was really talking about marriage and following him to New York.
He gave a little shrug and said, "I'll be back in a few."
Mother waited only until he was out of the room before she said to Aunt Sully, "You know, you can't keep stringing him along forever."
"Are you suggesting that I leave California, and get to see my next four nieces or nephews twice a year for the rest of my life? To show up for the kids' graduations wondering where the years went and how much they all changed in six months?" Her eyes glittered in the firelight; she was holding back tears. "Jesse, I don't want to do that."
Relieved as I was to hear her say so, I still felt bad for her. She was basically saying that love wasn't as important to her as we were. Looking to see my mother's expression, I was surprised to see her look very annoyed. Then I understood that Aunt Sully had unintentionally slammed her, because that was exactly what my mother had done when we were little, before my father died.
My aunt rubbed her eyes. "Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean for it to sound like that, honestly. I -- I'm just a homebody, I guess."
"You're pigheaded and unrealistic is what you are."
"Where does 'unrealistic' come into it?"
"You have never been able to see the nose in front of your face, always with your head in the clouds, never willing to admit that you -- "
"Is this going to become another of your rants about my marriage to Adam? If it is, don't bother, because I think that I've heard every variation on my foolishness and blindness and infatuation that you could possibly come up with."
"So you do know exactly what I'm talking about!"
"You hens fighting again?" John laughed as he returned to the room. "Somebody would think you two are sisters, the way you go on. Bodie, we got to get some power back on so these two can stop sharing a room. Guess what, people? It stopped raining!"
Aunt Sully and I jumped to our feet and found our way to the back porch by flashlight. The sound of no rain was amazingly quiet; only a few drops plopped here and there. We played our flashlights over the garden, startling a small herd of deer that were grazing on the lawn.
The sound of no rain, I ruminated. That's a good line. Maybe to go with 'the sight of darkness'...
We felt celebratory at the cessation of the storm, wishing we had plenty of food so that we could snack and drink and laugh defiance at the elements. However, we were still cut off from grocery shopping, so non-essential eating was out of the question. Potato chips ... we were bank- rich, but munchies - poor. Thinking about food took me back to Aunt Sully's tale of power outages. Why didn't we have gas stoves?
Mother was ready to go upstairs to snuggle into bed for the night, so I followed her and asked her that question.
"Oh, that's an easy one. Your grandfather Reich had a phobia about gas tanks or oil tanks blowing up the house. He stated that this house had not been built with gas in mind, and so would have none of it. Of course, that was ridiculous, because the house at one time had gas lighting, but he refused to budge, and appeased the household by buying state of the art electric stoves and electric baseboard heating." She chuckled. "Benedicci never did stop bitching -- oops, complaining -- about having to work with such 'inferior' equipment. I suppose I could have brought in gas stoves, but by then I was not about to be bossed around by a staff member who implied that I had no taste."
"If he liked gas stoves so much, why did he snot off to Uncle Bodie when he gave him the camp stoves?"
"Did he? The nerve of that man! I didn't know that, or I'd probably have gone ballistic and fired him right then and there. I'm glad we're done with his cooking, but I won't be happy until he's out the door with his severance check in hand. Good night, Owen. I love you."
"I love you, too, Mom." I kissed her cheek and headed back for the dimly-lit stairs, intending to get my notebook from behind the chair and scribble some poetic phrases. But when I got to the top of the stairs, I saw Aunt Sully and John sitting on the hearth, heads together, him holding her hands in his. That really didn't appear to be the time for me to bound down the steps and flop in the rug in front of the hearth. My guess was that they were discussing the future, their future, and I had no interest in ending the dark day hearing that Aunt Sully had agreed to marry him, and would soon be out of my life.
Instead, I made my way to Grandmother Claire's rooms, where the rest of my siblings were playing a card game, Grandmother watching them with a contented expression on her face. She patted the sofa beside her when she saw me at the door. "Owen, dear boy. What have you been doing all day?"
"Not a lot. Mostly wandering around, trying to keep warm by moving. Or sitting by the fire. I've missed you downstairs.
"Climbing the stairs has made my knee ache in this cold house. I don't want it to give out on me and have a fall -- there is no way that I could be taken to the hospital if I break a hip or a leg. I don't like that the staff has to bring me all my meals, but I am safer here."
"It's also warmer here than downstairs," interjected Kelsa. "Michel and I are going to spend the night."
Food, warmth, safety. Before this storm, I hadn't realized how basic our needs really were.