Forty-one: Benefits and Drawbacks of Civilization
By two in the afternoon, two days later, we had met the City of Port Laughton crews who had begun clearing the road. They had tractors and multitudes of chainsaws, so we Estate People trudged back up the road heading for home.
Once there, we mustered a veritable caravan of vehicles. Aunt Sully had her van to transport Mother and Aunt Andersol and Grandmother Claire to the Filion Street apartment with their luggage; Bodie and John followed in John's rental car; Philip drove a truck -- he was going to pick up a big generator; a jeep was to pick up as much gasoline as it could carry, and the house van was to carry us kids and some staff.
Everyone was exhausted, but those of us who were headed into town were of one mind: Hot Water.
Hot water, did I mention that?
Last year I had read J. R. R. Tolkien's book trilogy, Lord of the Rings. I really enjoyed the richness of the language he used to tell the story; today I remembered with surprise and a deeper understanding how the hobbits were singing about "water hot that smokes and steams." Last year it was a cute scene; today the prospect of a hot bath seemed like the height of incredible luxury and bliss. I didn't even care about food as much as I wanted to be warm, and clean.
On the slow trek into town, as our van slowly bumped over the uneven fire road, I clutched my knapsack with my school books and a notebook to serve as my journal until we could return home, trying to visualize the Filion Street apartment, which I had not seen since my father was alive.
I remembered that it had four bedrooms, a little laundry room, a dining room, a kitchen, a TV room, and a parlor. Within walking distance of down town Port Laughton, and the waterfront with its restaurants and bars, it took up the entire second story of the building. The view from the western windows stretched all the way to the ocean, and the mornings there were often thick with the maritime fog that only occasionally reached as far inland as the estate. There had always been a kind of unspoken consensus that the Filion Street apartment was about as rough living as camping, what with no fireplaces or studies and the small kitchen, but now it seemed like a kind of Shangri-La, in which the inhabitants could take hot baths, huddle warmly in clean clothes and central heat, and let their aching muscles rest.
"My god, my butt hurts," offered Kelsa. "We should have just skipped that ride and waited for the road to be opened."
"Neither the Staff nor we would have had hot food yesterday or today, then. And they would still have to try to cook over wood while we're gone. You're a hero, don't carp about having done a great service. And probably it was character-building, too, which offsets your hair."
Her eyes narrowed. "I'd have it all cut off if it wouldn't just frizz straight out from my head. You wouldn't think it was funny if you had to deal with it."
Oesha turned from the front seat. "Oh, why don't you go to a salon and have them do a hot oil treatment on it and put it into braids? You're the one who insists that you can take care of it without help."
Beside her, the half-dozing Michel snickered, "Her idea of taking care of it is a glue gun and an egg-beater."
"Shut up, you cockroach."
When we entered town, we all grew quiet, as though in awe of a place we had thought we'd never see again. From the fire road, we wound through residential streets to down town, passing the little boardwalk and crossing the main street to the residential area above the storm walls. The sight of electric lights glowing in the dusk brought tears to my eyes, and the prospect of a hot bath made my feet ache in longing.
We walked in the front door of the apartment and were nearly bowled backwards by the heat. We kids stood there, stunned, stupefied by the warmth that poured over us.
"Girls get the TV room, boys the parlor," Nita informed us as we made our way slowly into the apartment. Mother and Uncle Bodie had one bedroom, Grandmother another, and Aunt Andersol the third available. Nita and Doris and Philomena shared the fourth one; the three other staff were sent to the Harrison Hotel to check in. Exhausted, Michel and I spread our sleeping bags and pillows in the parlor, and went to sleep until the girls were done with the showers.
Philomena roused us gently when we were to have our turn at soap and hot water. "Owen, Sir, please make sure you clean that cut across your face thoroughly and put some antibiotic cream on it. That must have hurt."
To be honest, I didn't know what she was talking about. For the last two days I had been too tired to even go upstairs to my own bathroom, and looking in the mirror had been futile -- I knew that I was filthy and disheveled and was just too tired to care. I could not even remember how the cut might have happened.
As Doris handed us clean, dry, pleasant-smelling towels, I heard my mother saying, "We can get submarine sandwiches from Giammarino's Deli, They also have green salads and potato salad ... "
"We could get that from Ralph's, too," put in Marca. "Snacks after soccer come from there, and it's pretty good."
"Chinese," said Grandmother Claire, emerging into the living room.
All of us shut up and stared at her.
"What?" she demanded of our astonishment.
"I never knew you liked Chinese food," my mother said.
"I do not like Chinese food. It is an abasement, and an addiction."
"Then I won't suggest it."
"Broccoli beef, and potstickers," Grandmother said, not meeting anyone's eyes. "And pork fried rice."
Aunt Andersol's expression perked up. "Wonton soup, too."
Grandmother's head swiveled to her like a machine, nailing her with her glance.
"Of course, I'd despise it heartily," my aunt said, "but I'd eat it if it was the last resort."
"Now you understand," Grandmother said.
Nita grinned and found a notepad, and began taking suggestions for despicable food.
"The Chinese have long been experts at hardship and evacuation," Grandmother pronounced. "They have developed dishes that feed both the body and the spirit which longs for its home."
"Which restaurant is the least objectionable?" Uncle Bodie asked humbly.
"Hong Kong Palace," Grandmother said immediately.
"And you know about this place how?" Mother wondered.
"Your sister smuggles potstickers to me from time to time, so that I can test their quality. I do not enjoy them, I assure you."
"Oh, Grandmother, what sacrifices you have made for the survival of our family in duress!" I extolled, dropping to kneel at her feet.
She began to giggle, put her hand to her mouth and gave me a gentle kick. "Do not be insolent, you filthy descendant. Go bathe."
Nita and Doris left to pick up the food; they were to stop at the grocery on their way and buy some milk and cereal for breakfast, and some fruit and bread and lunchmeat. I hoped they'd remember to pick up some potato chips since we were allowed to 'rough it.'
I bathed. Never in my life had I been so glad to be able to submerge in hot water and the smell of soap instead of shivering and smelling my own armpits. People work that hard every day. I've been a pampered little baby. I was truly embarrassed by my weakness, even while I was truly grateful for the escape from the icy water and chilly household of the estate.
Instead of adding more hot water to the tub and spending another twenty minutes parboiling myself, I got out and dried myself, remembering with chagrin that the estate staff were all still shivering with cold water. Maybe without us there, they'll divert the new generator to the water heater. Would they think to do that? Surely Redell would know that had to be a priority ... I should have stayed there and kept an eye on things.
I put on the A-shirt and pajamas that had been set out for me, feeling warm and guilty, but my stomach growled as I heard the front door open; every other sensation was superceded by the arrival of Dolores and Nita with four bags of Chinese food, ready, according to Grandmother, to abase and addict us.
With a loaded plate of sweet-and-sour pork, rice, and crab rangoon, I felt a completely hedonistic blackguard. Grandmother Claire served herself five potstickers, some rice, and some broccoli beef. Michel and Kelsa focused on pork chow mein. Undoubtedly we were abased and addicted, but I blamed it on the Evil Chef Benedicci, who, along with his personal kitchen equipment and luggage, had been evacuated to town with Philip, in the truck. Had he been a little more sympathetic to our tastes and hunger, perhaps the Hand of God would have spared the estate the ignominy of powerlessness. Was the storm and the destruction a way of answering our prayers to be rid of him? Or was it a way of making me see how hard people work so as not to let me become a spoiled tyrant?
"Are we going to school tomorrow?" Kelsa asked.
"Yes, unless you're too tired," Mother said in a soothing voice.
Aunt Andersol twitched suddenly and said, "Oh, blast it."
"What?" my mother frowned.
"I didn't pick up my damned textbooks," Aunt said. "What am I going to do? I can't afford another failing grade."
"Failing grade? What failing grade? You've been doing great."
"Well, I was until I took 420 Dr. Darling Fatzer's class. I missed an assignment and he gave me a zero -- shot my average to shit."
"Wait, wait, wait. What assignment, why did you miss it?"
"I had to miss class when I went to the hospital for blood tests and a sonagram, because I was getting so sick. That class, he assigned each student to present a particular chapter in writing. I didn't get an assignment. He was so damned rude ... "
Mother hitched forward to the edge of the couch. She waved an index finger in the air. "No, no, no, give me information. You missed class due to the blood tests. When you went to class the next time, what happened? Step by step, Andersol, all of it."
"He told me to get the assignment from another student. Well, wait. I told him I'd had to go to the hospital because of possible problems with my pregnancy. He looked at my belly and told me he didn't have time, so I should get the assignment from another student. But when I started to ask Jim Barstowe about it, he started class -- ahead of the bell -- and I didn't get it. After class everyone scattered -- they're all afraid of him, Jesse. And when I did finally get someone to talk about the assignment, like four days later, they said he was the one who decided which chapter which student received. None of the students could have known what I was assigned.
"I went to his office to talk to him about it, during his office hours, but he shouted at me, 'I do not have time to waste with you!' and slammed the door in my face. I was pissed, but he obviously had people in his office, so I just let it go. Then I found out he'd counted the assignment as a mid-term weight grade, and I'd got a zero. THEN I heard from Jan Thornton, who was in his office when I knocked, that he returned to his little meeting and launched into a diatribe about how women should choose either higher education or making babies, but not try to combine the two. And that any woman too stupid to use birth control was too stupid to earn a degree!"
"Oh," said Michel to Marca quietly, "that explains the 'son of a bitch' remark."
Mother's face blushed darkly, and her gray-green eyes seemed to glow. "Will Jan Thornton testify to that in a court?" She was shadowed by the ferocity in her eyes. I had never seen her like that; Uncle Bodie put a hand on her arm in concern.
"Yeah, he said he would," Aunt Andersol answered. "But I don't know what lawyer to get in touch with. I figured I was just screwed over."
"Fatzer?" Grandmother repeated. "Are we talking about the same Fatzer? The one I instructed my late son never to allow to set foot in our house again, after I overheard him suggesting to another guest that your sister was my son's 'tootsie' in your absence?"
My mother gasped. "Mark Fatzer? Are you referring to Mark Fatzer, head of the Anthropology Department at the University?"
"I would not remember his first name or his position. Short, brusque, laughs too loudly at his own jokes, brags about some book he wrote about African bones."
"That's him," Mother said. "He said Sully was Charles' tootsie? Are you serious?"
"He did not know that I was standing behind him, or that I could see his obscene and unseemly hand gestures and hear his suggestive conversation. I also noted that his wife was seated by herself on the far side of the room. That man is a pig, and I would not allow him in our house one more time, no matter what title he used to cover his lack of manners."
"I didn't know this. Charles never mentioned it."
"Obviously, from this latest insult, we can see that the man has a deep hatred for women," Grandmother said. "Something must be done about him."
"Exactly," Mother agreed. "And I know just the lawyer to take this case."
The rest of us were silent at this additional agreement between Mother and Grandmother, who had always before seemed to be at odds. Grandmother tapped the arm of her chair with a fingernail. "You will cut all funding for the university unless this man is fired."
Mother's high color faded to a pale olive. "Claire, we can't do that."
"Of course you can."
"The tax write-off is huge ... "
"There are always tax write-offs. Hospitals. Other universities. Political campaigns, though we should not stoop so low."
"But won't we be suspect, then, that if a particular organization we support doesn't do what we think they should do, that we'll arbitrarily withdraw our support?"
"Arbitrarily, no! What we think they should do, yes, they must take that into account! We want to see the values endorsed by our faith, a commitment to life, to community, to love of neighbor, to true honoring of women. Trust me, you will never lack for tax shelters."
Mother leaned back on the couch again, sheltering in Uncle Bodie's arm. "But I love this university," she said in a smaller voice.
"Then use the power that you have and make it a better place for people," Grandmother told her. "Get that man out of there. I have not heard you defending him, saying that Andersol is the only one who has ever had a problem with him."
"No, he's a dick of the first water," Mother half-whispered, seeming to have forgotten we all were present.
"Then the first water goes into the sewer before all the others."
Aunt Andersol burst into tears. Kelsa leaped onto the loveseat and hugged her tightly. Uncle Bodie went to her and kissed her temple.