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April 15, 2024

Dreamer 42

By Sand Pilarski

The year is ending, and the family is still trying to come to grips with the deaths of Sully and Jesse's father and mother, and Jesse's husband. Five young children were left fatherless, and Jesse has admitted that she knows nothing of mothering, having been away on assignments most of her children's lives. Sully is headed to the estate to spend the holidays with the kids, as she has every holiday since they were born.

Gabe whimpered softly, pleading with me to be included while I loaded my suitcases into the van, as though I was going to leave him behind, even though I always took him with me.

"Hi. You heading up to your sister's?" said John LeMay's now-familiar voice. At my nod, he continued, rubbing Gabe as the dog leaned on him in greeting. "I got a favor to ask of you."

"Sure. What's up?"

"It's about Ma. She's gettin' up there in years, you know, and I worry about her livin' on her own out here."

"She's probably in better shape than I am, John. She's doing fine."

He rubbed the side of his face, the one with the scar above his eyebrow. "Could you like, look in on her every other day or so, make sure she's all right?"

"Yes, I can do that. We do that for each other now. You want me to call you if there's any problems, right?" Easy one. For a minute I had thought he was going to ask me to try to convince Mary to move back east, and I was going to tell him to forget it. He might argue with his mother, but she and I got along wonderfully, and I didn't want to give her up.

"Well, I was going to ask you to keep in touch with me about how she's doin' or stuff." He was blushing, and looking down the foggy street, not at me. Ashamed of himself, was he?

"Spy on her and report to you, in other words." I put my hands on my hips in an aggressive gesture to make him more uncomfortable.

He turned back to me and spread his hands to his sides. "Yeah, I guess so. I just worry about her, okay? She won't tell me when anything's wrong, 'cause she doesn't want me to worry. That worries me! And she won't call me if she needs something, otherwise I wouldn't be askin' you."

I looked at him, letting the pause say to him that maybe I was going to be difficult about this. I stared at him with my face still, until he shifted from slouching on his left foot to standing up straight. Only then did I let go my grin. "Sure I will! I wish to God I'd had someone to spy on my mother and tell me about her. Give me your address, and a phone number for just-in-cases." I opened the front door of the van, pulled a couple of business cards and a pencil from the glove compartment, and handed them to him, trying not to chuckle.

He was watching me, eyes narrowed with suspicion at my abrupt change in demeanor. "One last question, Sully. I'm supposed to go on a bar-hopping tour with that Bodie and Andersol tomorrow. Are you sure they're not perverts?"

"You'll be in good hands, John. Have fun." Dang, that might have been fun to watch. Going drinking with Andersol and Bodie would have been a hell of a lot more entertaining than heading into a holiday season with reprimands and potential lawsuits.


The children mobbed me when I arrived at the estate, and I knew that I had done the right thing in bowing out of the office Christmas party. Gabe shared in the attention and was glad to be petted and hugged. I was ambivalent, delighted to see the children again and yet disturbed that they were so demonstrative, given that it had been scarcely a week and a half since I had seen them.

They swirled and chattered about my legs and clung to me, Michel clasping a leg and Owen trying to drape himself around my waist as I hung clothes in my closet. Oesha held my earrings against her ears to see how they looked in the mirror and Marca sat on the floor against the foot of my bed, picking at her left stocking. Kelsa was in my bed against the five big pillows. "Can I sleep with you tonight?" She patted the quilt and Gabe leaped up to lick her hands and her face until she pushed him away with her feet, giggling.

"Let's go over to the study, and catch up with each other," I said, and they all thundered to the red-walled study like an avalanche, dog included.

The estate servants had let me in, and escorted me to my room, carrying my baggage and keeping their distance from Gabe (who gave the impression he did not even know they existed); of my sister Jesse there was not the least hint of her presence. Perhaps she was caught up in dinner preparations. That was a more charitable speculation than that she was downright rude.

Or too deeply involved in her career -- her kids were in trouble and it was Christmastime, after all; seemed to me that she should be with them.

"You know what's on my mind," I said to the Five. "Tell me what happened on Tuesday."

Four of them told me, loudly and repetitively, in outrage and explosion, showing me their bruises. Marca was quiet until the rest stopped for breath and I looked at her. "I hit him," she said. She didn't look like a nine-year-old girl at that moment. She looked like a woman trapped in a child's body and pushed to the very limits of her control. Sullenly she said, voice low and tight, "I didn't know it would hurt him that bad."

"Where's your mama, and have you told her all of this?" I asked them, deflecting attention away from Marca. The child was obviously at the end of her rope, and pushing her in front of her brothers and sisters would do no good at all.

"She had a meeting, I think," said Owen. "I heard her talking to Redell about having to talk to the President," he said awe. "She used the G-D word!"

"That would be the President of the University, not the President of the United States," I observed. "And we will not ask how she used the G-D word, okay?"

"We sort of watched a movie with Mama last night," Michel said.

"Sort of?"

Owen slumped down on the sofa as though he was made of jelly and shut his eyes and let his mouth hang open. "Yes, sort of. She fell asleep right after the movie started and snored!"

Great, just great, I thought. "The next time she falls asleep during your movies, paint her toenails for her. I'll tell her I gave you permission."

"Can we paint our toenails?" Oesha asked.

"Not tonight, but maybe for New Year's Eve. We should get dressed up for New Year's, too." I felt that I should get them looking ahead with hope and cheer. Nevertheless, we weren't completely done with the subject of the fight, and wouldn't be for some time to come. "We all need a fresh start at New Year's, don't we? Come on, let's go ask Redell about dinner plans. Do you think your Grandma and Grandpa will be joining us?"

Each of the children had his or her own bedroom, but after dinner I tucked Kelsa into my bed first. Michel and Owen went to their rooms, Michel to sleep, Owen to read, he said. Oesha was following her grandmother Claire to her rooms to try on her jewelry; Marca looked at me angrily as if she could read my mind. "Mademoiselle," I said, indicating the doorway to my study. She stomped past me and bunched up in one of the chairs.

A fire had been made in my fireplace, and the lights were low. The red walls seemed to glow with pleasant heat with the reflection of the flames. I sat on one end of the couch and let the crackle of the fire do all the talking for a minute or two.

"Marca, how did you hit this kid? Like this?" I gestured with a fist coming up from the waist, following through high. "Or like this?" I demonstrated a wild roundhouse punch. I couldn't understand how a nine-year-old girl could do so much damage.

"No," she said shaking her head. "When I saw him laughing at hurting Oesha, I just walked up and hit him like this." She pantomimed a punch with her right hand fisted, wrist straight, head ducked a little as she threw the punch from the shoulder, the weight from her little body adding power as she bounced on her toes. Her left arm, hand automatically fisted, had come up into a defensive blocking position. "I told him before not to bother my brothers and sisters!"

My lips felt numb. My niece, successor to Muhammed Ali. "Who taught you to how to hit like that?" I asked, trying not to let the horror into my voice.

"Gordon did." Tears had started to roll down her face.

"Gordon? The kid you hit? He taught you boxing moves?" There was no way to hide my astonishment. As she nodded, biting her lower lip in an effort not to cry, I continued. "He was your friend?"

That did it, she began to sob.

"Come here, Girl," I said, patting the sofa. She threw herself onto the cushions and hid her face in my belly as she wept. I bent and held her. "So you feel bad not only because you hurt him, but worse because you were his friend, and you used what he taught you to just about knock him out."

"I - I - I had to make him stop! I'm the oldest! I have to take care of them!" she bawled.

That was a notion I could identify from my own frustrated childhood; wanting to take care of Jesse and always having our mother stand in the way, insisting that she was the only one who could take care of Jesse, listen to Jesse, advise Jesse, entertain Jesse. "I understand, Marca. But obviously punching was not the right solution. Did you know that your buddy was extorting money from the little kids?" As her sobs renewed, I had a sinking feeling that not only had she known, that she had been an accomplice.

People get weird when they deal with grief, and her father had died only about four months ago. Was her interest in physical violence and -- possibly, I was not about to pin her with the accusation -- schoolground robbery -- a compensation mechanism for having been left fatherless?


I was still thinking about grief an hour later, when Jesse finally showed up in the door of my study with two bottles of wine, and glasses. Part of me wanted to scream at her, Where the hell have you been? but I recognized that as one of our mother's lines.

"I don't know how much longer I can take this kiss-ass life, Sully," Jesse said, "goddamn administrators with their asses stuck into their desk chairs so deep they've forgotten how to walk upright!"

"That's pretty profound," I said sarcastically. "But why do you have to put up with it? Didn't both you and Charles tell me that your money pretty much takes care of itself?" I accepted a glass, and thanked her as she poured white wine.

"Well, yes, if I wanted to stay mired in this sarcophagus for the rest of my life! I'm an archeologist! If I expect to get back to field work someday, I have to keep current with finds and keep my credentials up to date. That means working with the university! And that means sucking up and playing university politics. God, I hate this!"

"I talked to the kids," I said, changing the subject, fairly lacking in sympathy for her at this point. "They all seem to be feeling a bit insecure, probably still a reaction to their papa's death. They're trying to protect each other, and that's good, but right now, they've just found out that when they act together, they're a force to be reckoned with, and that could be bad. They're going to need some firm guidance so that they don't become known as the Reich-Ambris Gang."

Jesse looked at me as though I had suddenly taken up juggling chainsaws. "How do you figure this stuff out? That fits! That makes sense! Why the hell are you still living in that dusty little town and not here? God knows there's plenty of room, and everyone loves you here -- with your head for business, you could run the estate accounts and pay yourself whatever salary you want. You'd have the kids close by to help them -- and God knows you'll do a better job than I do! It's perfect, Sully!"

In other words, I thought, you'll abdicate all your responsibilities to me. Funny, all the time we were growing up I wanted to take care of her, and now I was about to back away from stewardship again. "Thank you, Jesse, but no. I think it's good that when the kids come to my house for visits, they see a different way of life, dog hair on the furniture and dust on the end tables, cooking smells of cabbage and pot roasts, the whole homey kind of thing. I couldn't live that way here. God knows that, too."

"God knows I didn't intend to end up this way, while we're adding to what God knows. This was just supposed to be a stopover, not a destination. He loved this place. Why did he have to die and stick me with it?"

"You could set up a trust fund and take off anytime -- go live with the kids in a hut in Guatemala while you check out ruins."

"The estate gives me clout. When the time comes, I'll be able to name my own projects." Her eyes were cold and luminous. "I just don't want to be a shriveled up old hag before the time comes. It's just that living here with no hope of escape makes me feel so tangled up, so ugly." She slouched in her chair, disgust marring her features.

The second glass of wine she'd poured took over my judgment. "You're not ugly. And I'm not the only one who says that."

"Who else?" she asked, bitterness edging her voice.

"Bodine Talles, my next door neighbor. He thinks you're beautiful. And wanted to know when he could decently ask you out."

"Bodie?" She said loudly. "What did you tell him?"

"A year."

"A year! That's your Victorian brain talking! A year? That's nuts!"

"Shh! No it isn't. Even if you don't like the timeframe, you owe it to Charles' parents -- and to the kids." The kids, Jesse, remember the kids. The kids who are still embroiled in their crisis. Still grieving their father's death, even if you aren't especially.

"Tell me every single thing he said," Jesse ordered me, pouring still another glass. "And everything you know about him."

It was three in the morning before we called it quits, and when Gabe and I entered my bedroom, the dog stopped to sniff and I found Owen asleep on the rug beside my bed. Gabe threw himself down where he could sniff at Owen's feet, and I carefully climbed into my bed beside Kelsa, so as not to wake her.

"No nightmares tonight," I firmly told my subconscious. "Jesse and I can take care of the kids just fine." Whether it was my resolve or the glasses of wine, I can't say, but I slept peacefully, and remembered no dreams at all.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-04-17
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