Sixty-five: Having Words
"The last I heard, there was a man farmer there," I said to my aunt once we were out of hearing shot of the farm.
"Yes. Well, Redell and Gary and Maida and I went to the farm three times. Once to tell him that he had to get his act together; the second to tell him he had to stop drinking, get into rehab so that he could get his act together, and the last time, when he refused rehab, beat up his wife, and hadn't got his act together, to fire him. At that time, Sheila was staying at St. Stephen's Homeless Shelter down town with her kids, because she said he was threatening to kill them all rather than leave the farm. It's sometimes a shitty world out there, Owen."
"But he did leave."
"Yes, and then set fire to the apartment he went to live in, and was arrested for beating up the landlord, who had told him he was overdue on his rent."
"When was this? Why didn't you tell me?"
"It was ugly, and I didn't think it would matter a lot in the long run. You've got your mother and Andersol and siblings to worry about, and I know you do worry -- I can see it weighing on you all the time. It was back in January."
"And Sheila just came back and took over the farm?"
"Why not? She was the one who had been holding things together as best she could in the first place. She knew the property, the routine that needed to be followed, and she had the respect of the rest of the people on the place. She started divorce papers when she had to leave and go to the shelter, so she's her own woman now, and a very successful one. The farm looks great."
"It does. I kind of wish I could have seen the hog being butchered, though it must be horrible to see." Was that enough of a hint that we should come back on Monday? I could skip school a day, so late in the year.
"No, the butchering is very humane and clean. I thought I'd be squeamish and grossed out the first time I saw it done, but at the end of it, I was amazed at how beautifully constructed the steer was, and how the butcher was able to separate the parts with precision, and with respect. I do think you should see how it's done -- gives you more of a respect for what you eat."
Monday, Monday, Monday ...
She did not heed my mental pressure at all. The last part of the afternoon was the road around the sheep pastures, and crossing the road to home. All was well with the property, though I thought my ass and all my innards had been pulped by the hours in the saddle. When we returned home, I watched her ooze out of her saddle, groaning, and decided to take a little revenge on her interrupting my conversation with the fair Christine by hopping down without comment. Really, my muscles were screaming, and I could not wait to flee to my rooms for a long, hot soak in my magnificent tub, but instead said, "Oh, Aunt, are you aching? Poor thing."
She smiled at me, but the green eyes above the smile held venom. I smiled back genially, knowing she would not mount any kind of attack before I was done with finals.
A late season rain kept us from riding the next day, and I was moved to praise God throughout Mass and the rest of the day. I gulped aspirin to alleviate the soreness of my thighs and calves, annoyed as hell to see my aunt moving freely and sprightly. A book I'd got from the library kept my mind employed before the fire, but I kept finding myself thinking of Christine, with Elise perched on her hip, her pale eyes and freckles and brownish-blonde hair, her womanly figure in a man's shirt, jeans, topped with a kitchen apron.
Was she married? Had a child out of wedlock? A girl with a woman's knowledge of the world? I had visions of meeting her by the fences of the cows, leaning there, discussing stock and art and --
"OWEN, you slacker, are you coming to dinner?" Marca bellowed, nearly in my ear.
"Get away from me, you harlot of hell," I whispered. "You didn't need to scream in my face."
"He just called me a 'harlot of hell' -- see what I mean about his lack of manners?"
Aunt Sully murmured quietly, "Don't call your sister names like that. Leave Hell and harlots out of it."
"I was going for vehemence and alliteration," I said, knowing Marca would know neither word. "Pardon me, I should have said, 'Cow of Condemnation.'"
Marca exploded. "If I'm a cow, then you must be the Penile Prick of Insignificance, you little -- "
"NO!" my aunt roared. "That's it! Go eat in the breakfast room! Or your own rooms! I will not hear this before Sunday dinner!"
It wasn't so much that we would be eating at the little breakfast room table, which was nice enough, it was that we had been banished from the real table. Sent away, as though we were little kids, who didn't need to appear at a real dinner. And by our Aunt, who was usually our advocate and advisor. She was really angry. I couldn't even just blame it on Marca, although she was being an ass, shouting at me like she did.
Frankly, I didn't want to eat in the breakfast room with her today, either. I didn't want to fence verbally with her, as she wasn't much of a challenge, and I surely didn't want to hear any yatter about her bloody soccer playoffs. Did Aunt Sully count our altercation the same way, as meaningless rattled words? Or was it our choice of words?
I asked for my food to be put on a tray, which I intended to carry to my suite, but Philomena refused to give me a tray, saying that someone would bring it to my rooms, and what would I like to drink with dinner? "Ginger ale," I said. "But I can carry it myself."
She shook her head solemnly. "No, you shouldn't. That's not what you're here for. It is what we are here for."
Taking the stairs by way of punishing myself for my state of privilege, I left the downstairs.
Anders was waiting outside my door with the tray by the time I got there, as he had taken the elevator. We entered the dining room and he set out the service on the gleaming oak table, placing the ginger ale and a glass of ice on a carved wooden coaster. After uncovering the food, he gave me a smile, and a little bow of the head. He'd have the lids of the food on the folding tray outside the door for when I was done. Already I knew that it was only courtesy to the staff to let them know when I was finished with my food, but I was still unused to dining alone in my rooms and seeming to order people about.
Courtesy. That's why Aunt Sully had been so angry, I realized. It wasn't that Marca and I were jibing at each other, not really, as we'd done that as soon as I could talk, but rather, we were behaving discourteously by using the kind of language we'd spoken. We were old enough to know not to torment each other in common areas of the house, old enough to restrain ourselves ... and we were also old enough to be using semi-sexual slurs towards each other, like kids at school did, and that was something which our adults and staff never used, at least not in our hearing. With a sudden start of chagrin, I wondered if we would have held our tongues if Grandmother Claire had been present? A stunt like ours would have had her snubbing us for our ill manners for days. Sighing at my stupidity, I also understood that had I held my tongue, I'd have been served at the dinner table downstairs; staff would not have had to carry my food upstairs. Not only had I been annoying, but added work to someone else's day.
The potatoes had been roasted in olive oil and sea salt, a simple preparation, but so good with the sides of sour cream and chives that any king would have been lucky to have them. The rib roast was perfectly done, too, with a delicious crusting of herbs on the outer edge. Tender sticks of broccoli stem clustered with sweet corn and pan-seared zucchini in a creamy garlic sauce. Why had we spoiled the family's mutual enjoyment of such a feast with our vulgarity and spite?
It's an 'us' and 'them' thing again, I think. At school, kids say all kinds of things to each other without even noticing. Is there any boy at school who hasn't been called "Dickhead" at one time or another? And girls called each other "Ho" all the time, insinuating that they were nothing but prostitutes. I can't remember a day of public school in which I didn't hear rough language, and I know we Five weren't immune to the lure of it. If we used it, we fit in, a little better, anyway; if we didn't, or spoke too clearly and politely, we were stuck up. (Stuckup bastards, to be accurate.)
But here, it was supposed to be different. Although Uncle Bodie and Mom and Aunt Andersol teased Aunt Sully a lot for being the arbiter of good taste, they never got dirty about it. Not even when we were eavesdropping did we hear it, except for when Aunt Andersol was upset about that professor.
Grandmother was sitting watching some movie with us on DVD one evening ... a character in the film called someone else an asshole, and Grandmother got up and left. "If I want to hear words like that, I can say them to myself in the privacy of my rooms," she said, and never watched another movie with us again. We thought she was being over-sensitive and stuffy about things, but right now I can see her point exactly. 'We' don't talk like that, because ... we have a responsibility to be better about things. Not just because of our religion, but because ... we're different.
I know we are, somehow, but how?
Around seven I found Marca in her suite watching television, and apologized to her for name-calling in front of Aunt Sully, and potentially staff. "Ah, don't worry about it. If I hadn't said 'Penile Prick,' she would have groused at us to stop it, but that blew her over the edge. It's soccer season. I worry all the time about saying 'fuck' without thinking."
The next stop, and apology, was at Aunt Sully's. She listened, and thanked me for thinking about the subject. "One of the things that always made this place so attractive to me was its peacefulness, the serenity. Your father made it a haven away from the ugly contentions of the world."
"I got to thinking I've never heard bad language from any of you, except when Aunt Andersol was bent about that professor, and even that we only heard accidentally." I waited for a moment, to see if she'd buy the 'accidentally' part of it.
Her eyes shadowed a little. "You know, Owen, that's a perfect example of why we should all watch our language. That professor wasn't a nice man to begin with, but he could have got by in his life by just keeping his nastiness to himself. Instead, he was unconscionably rude, and got himself into trouble." She leaned forward from her chair. "And here's the thing: he was rude like that to a lot of women. But that last time he didn't measure his words was to someone with the power of the estate behind her. Your aunt could have responded to him even more rudely than his words -- she could have scorched him with language that would have made his hair fall out, but she didn't. As a result, she had a dignified position from which to call him on his unprofessional acts."
"Whatever did happen to him?" I asked.
"He lost his job. He took employment somewhere in the Great Lakes region of the country, and probably worries every day that someone will find out about why he moved."
"Wow. Did he get arrested or anything?"
"No, and you're missing the point. He was uncouth. He didn't think twice about being uncouth, until he was uncouth to us, and then only afterwards did he realize that there was more power here than what a professor could throw around. The point is that there is so much power packed up here, that we can't -- can't -- fall into a habit of abusing -- not the land, not the wealth, not the people, not the position. But I'll tell you this: if you don't get into the habit of being abusive, you won't feel living the life of the estate to be restrictive."
"Except for not being able to go about without photographers leaping out of doorways at us," I rejoined wryly.
"Yeah, except for that," she agreed.