“Is it raining again?”
“So much for hanging out the laundry. Sun-bleaching those diapers would really help.”
“Agreed,” Aisha says, putting packages in the fridge.
“You went out in that storm last night just so you could buy more groceries?”
“De nada,” Aisha says, and shrugs one shoulder, in wry imitation of their group’s best sniper.
Jolene smiles, rocking the baby into the towel flung over her shoulder. He doesn’t need to be burped any more, but he drools. He’s been cutting teeth. Another great reason to drive out in a storm with black ice and sleet over sixty miles to the nearest big discount grocery where she can be anonymous in her black scarf and spend five hundred bucks on staples and find a cheap motel where it’s quiet. Quiet. Well, except for all the trucks pulling out at 4 and 5 am. Still worth it.
Jolene got all that, since Aisha had set her phone to the usual auto text message advising folks to meditate on their gun range scores before calling her again, no jokes.
“They marked me off-shift from work tonight due to storm warnings,” Jolene says, glancing toward the door.
Then they both flinch at an especially noisy bluster of downpour and wind outside, throwing things around in the yard. Goodness knows there’s plenty of crap floating around out there to throw. Jolene blames most of that on Jake, who has bought the most amazing collection of mechanized toys, swings, sun catchers, and just plain brightly colored plastic nonsense that a baby has ever had to contend with. To his credit, Junior rarely gets confused by it. He just smiles happily and learns how to grip onto the latest ridiculous puzzle he’s presented with. Forget trying to get it back from him, or out of his mouth, he’s got a grip like a terrier dog.
“Thank Gawd you got Pooch to clear garage room for the car before they left,” Jolene says.
“Guilted him, you mean.” Aisha says.
“Oh, is that how you did it? I should take notes.”
Aisha grins. “You got your own serious mojo there. I’ve never seen Clay jump to like that time last month, when Junior had a fever and started throwing up?”
Jolene waves it off. “Clay just didn’t know how many gallons of stuff allergic kids will erp up from all ends. Or how expensive it gets feeding your kid goat’s milk from the only store who sells it in fifty miles and gouges like mad on the price. Oh, he got loud about that. He didn’t have to shoot up the guy’s ice cream case. Whatever happened on that, do you know?”
“Open carry state, oops, here’s something for damages, bye, gotta go.” Aisha shrugs. “So, hey gang, it’s moving boxes all round, pack up.”
“Oh, so that’s why. Well, let’s just say I was really happy to move outta there. Might be a pain shopping for anything else round here, but at least here we can buy unlimited goat’s milk from the neighbors.”
Aisha grins. “And cheese, and yoghurt, and…”
“Thank God for Jake and his crazy Internet orders,” Jolene says. “Even if half of the stuff that comes in his boxes, I just don’t want to know.”
There had been far too much glitter and sparkly stuff involved in every delivery so far.
“Nobody wants to know.”
“You got that right,” Jolene said.
Aisha grins wider. There had been one memorably unwieldy delivery of several enormous boxes that caused quite the uproar when opened by unintended parties. She’d never seen Cougar’s ears turn that particular shade of red before. He still didn’t say anything. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as Jake was running a mile a minute over everybody else, desperately trying to divert attention from some questionably intimate items that really shouldn’t have seen the light of day in Jolene’s living room.
“You got all the fridge stuff squared away-- okay, I’ll get the dishes in a minute,” Jolene says.
Aisha starts putting away bags of rice, beans, big cans of chili and soup, and finally jars of baby food in the cabinet. Jolene makes a lot of their stews into baby food to save money, since Pooch has rebuilt a decent blender for her, but Jolene devotes kitchen swear-can funds to get some emergency backup jars. That is to accommodate other folks doing Jolene a favor for a date evening, emergencies at work, and so on. She sparses out the coins, counting out nickels, dammitall. These parents have no extra to squeeze anywhere in the budget. They’re still recovering from losing the Pooch’s Army salary during life undercover in Bolivia.
Once Aisha dragged them back into the States she paid all of them a decent living, but Jolene hadn’t been able to catch up. The constant moving, paying deposits to landlords, ate up everything they made. The Pooch lived like a homeless tramp during the entire time he was risking his life for the Army, just so it could all go back to his wife, and it still wasn’t enough.
God, it was pathetic how hard he worked now, trying to make up for it.
“You got all the good stuff,” Jolene says, looking at the cabinet.
“Of course,” Aisha responds. “Nothing but the finest, right?”
Jolene looks back at her, and squares up her shoulders and nods and pulls dishes to feed him.
The interesting part is that Jolene’s voice doesn’t have the sharp edge of poverty, of fear, that Aisha hears from lots of their neighbors. The economy out here is still in free fall. People are selling, moving out, giving up to live in somebody’s basement or a relative’s living room.
Jolene just gets on with it, and shrugs about the risks of losing her job as the most junior of the staff at the hospital. Hell, she’s worked in ERs all over the country, off and on, for years. She knows all about having bigger things to worry about.
She says it’s like being a cop’s wife: Never, ever fail to hug your loved ones before they go out the front door. Apparently cops marry nurses a lot. Jolene has learned lots of stuff from the cop’s wives, too, because she can foot-sweep a redneck crack addict and get him strapped into a gurney faster than most people can see it happening. She didn’t need Aisha’s help then.
But she was the one to ask Aisha to show her how to counter knife attacks and to practice sparring in the cold basement while they were cooped up during the winter. She’s not as fast or heavy or decisive with her strikes as Aisha, but she just doesn’t give up. She’s got the kind of light-footed endurance that has earned Aisha’s respect.
Jolene sets up the high chair with the kid strapped in--he’s easily over-balanced with the weight of his head, but he’s already been working on how to get out of the straps, which everyone takes as a good sign he’s a born escape artist just like the rest of the Losers, including his daddy--and she locks the chair’s feeding tray in front of the kid. Jolene puts some crackers on the tray and he looks at them briefly and goes back to the buckles and straps. Then to his clothes. He kicks off both of his socks and gets one arm out of his onesie, which should not be possible.
Both of them ignore it when Junior pounds on the tray and wails in frustration.
After loading the last few dishes into the dishwasher and setting it to run, Jolene faces him and slowly makes hand gestures, signing a question at him.
NO, he gestures back. NO no no no.
“Make your signs, baby,” Jolene tells him calmly. “You know, your hand signs, like your Uncle Jake and Tio Cougar were teaching you?” She taps his wrist.
Junior is at least as stubborn as his father, far harder to distract with The Shiny, and a great deal less motivated to cooperate. It is weirdly clear that this little person is not just a blob of protoplasm that just yells and poops and sleeps. No, he clearly has opinions. He wants to be up and doing and going, and riding his daddy’s shoulders for doing chores is the best.
This did not simplify Jolene’s life one bit. Jolene hadn’t tried to explain about the difficulties of her life as a wife and mother and part-time LVN in a hospital that’s thirty miles away from home on some bad rural roads, and unreliable local girls flaking out as babysitters. Since they were flaking because they had family problems such as drunken parents, this is not something Jolene complains about. She shrugs off annoyed comments from the Losers about it and keeps going.
Jolene just keeps doing what she needs to do to keep bodies clean and dry and fed.
Since Aisha was paying attention, she’s heard all kind of practical thinking on how Jolene navigates serious logistical challenges all the time. Waitress-carrying multiple plates while timing dinner for Pooch’s starving buddies and keeping them OUT OF THE KITCHEN so they couldn’t wreck it getting in arguments over oven temperatures, that was the least of it. Making the old converted station wagon eke out ten more miles by siphoning the lighter fractions from the Pooch’s cooking oil still? That’s just everyday life. Watching Jolene coerce the boys into supply runs that brought her real food supplies instead of Jensen’s absurdly expensive boxes of sweets-- now, that is the master class in diplomatic blackmail.
Junior is looking right at Aisha, with that challenging look in his eye, ready to open his giant gob and start screaming if he can’t get them to unstrap him.
Aisha straightens up with a big spoon and an empty plastic box in her hand and holds them out toward Junior, who blinks solemnly, grips the objects firmly in each hand, and starts solemnly banging them together on the tray. “Drummers,” Aisha says, shaking her head. “You’ve created a monster.”
“Oh, don’t I know it,” Jolene says, shaking her head.
An extra loud crack of metal from the side of the house makes both of them jerk in surprise. Jolene tilts her head toward the side door to the garage. “They’re home early?”
“I didn’t hear them drive up.” Aisha eases toward the cabinet next to the door. It doesn’t have groceries in it, not after the Pooch got done customizing it.
“In this uproar, who could? Whoops, there go the trash cans.”
The racket of metal cans rolling and bashing about would be comic if it didn’t involve vehicle paint jobs, metal shed sidings, and the very loud roar of an unhappy mechanic.
Then there’s Jensen’s voice bawling out verses from his fave Journey song Don’t Stop Believing, which he claims as his theme song when he enters the stage for an evening comedy show or is laid out in a funeral home, whichever comes sooner. There had been comments about which was more unlikely.
“You’re rolling your eyes again,” Aisha says.
“I know, I know, my face will get stuck like that,” Jolene says.
“Did Clay tell him to do that? Let us know he’s around?”
“No, I did. Well, at least nobody’s going to shoot his britches off again, are they?” Jolene says.
“You said it was an accident.”
“Yeah, because I missed, dammit,” Jolene says. “I wasn’t aiming for his belt.”
“Most people miss,” Aisha says.
“You don’t,” Jolene says. “Clay doesn’t. Cougar sure as hell doesn’t miss.”
“Well, he’s a special case.”
“Stop gossipping, ladies, Cougar’s ego will get too big for his hat,” Jensen says briskly, and slams the door open against the wall, bracing his whole body to hold it in place against the wind.
“Wait, hey, you went out and got groceries too?” Aisha asks.
“Undoubtedly different ones,” Jolene says dryly. It makes Aisha laugh.
The Pooch marches in past Jensen, carrying six fabric shopping bags by the straps, arm muscles bulging and the top surfaces of his shirt completely sopping wet.
Beyond the open door, the sky is nearly black with storm clouds. They are twirling. The evening will probably involve sitting in the basement by battery light, cranking the hand-powered radio sometimes, and trying to warm their feet on each other under Jolene’s crocheted afghans.
The Pooch is followed by Cougar, who has three long wooden crates stacked up in his arms, and whose hat is sleeting water off the brim with every step.
Gracefully and very deliberately he treads on Jensen’s boot toe as he passes, and hard enough to cause a loud yelp from his victim. This is his way of commenting that holding the door is just goldbricking and Jake had better scamper out to Pooch’s truck and carry in his share before the rain ruins the rest of the supplies.
Jake mutters something about passive-aggressive snipers and ducks outside again, banging the door shut behind him.
“Are we having a little moment?” Jolene asks, taking the bags from her glowering spouse.
“We are,” the Pooch declares, glaring back at the door.
Jolene smiles. Her arms don’t bulge like his when she takes the load from him. She just lifts them onto the table, nods for Cougar to set down the crates by the nearest wall, and asks if they need help to carry everything in. “It’s supposed to go up to hail and maybe tornado warnings later,” she says, putting her hand on the Pooch’s shoulder.
“Nah, we’ll get it,” Pooch says, and gives her a peck of a kiss on the cheek. “You look so fine, sweetie, you’re a sight I could really get used to.”
“Good, because I’m gonna need your help getting all this put away.”
The Pooch waves at the crates. “That’s Cougar’s, his ammo and stuff, so you won’t have to worry about that anyway.”
“I know you guys will get it out of the kitchen as soon as you can,” Jolene says mildly.
Anybody with sense knows that is a command.
Cougar nods once, solemnly.
“Were there way too many gummi worms and sugar pops?” Jolene says, looking into the bags.
”Oh hell yeah,” the Pooch growls.
“But not enough chocolate?” Jolene says, which is just wicked of her.
Cougar nods emphatically, taps a rather wet salute to the brim of his hat at Jolene, nods to Aisha, and walks outside again. Aisha doesn’t hear him clomping down the kitchen steps the way Jake did, either.
The Pooch sighs. “Man, those two,” he says, and starts taking out cereal boxes to go up on the higher shelves as Jolene hands them to him. “I’m gonna have Jake help me wire that old pickup when the wind lets up a little bit, keep him busy out of everybody’s hair for a fair piece. He was just pester-pester-pestering us all over town. You know, like a little kid who wants attention. That boy is just too bored. Running finance searches is just not keeping his crazy prank brain busy.”
“We’ll have to think of something for him to do,” Aisha says. “Even in the basement during tornados.”
“Don’t worry,” Jolene assures them both,“we’ll come up with something decent. Something worthwhile that folks need doing.”
“Be afraid,” the Pooch says, looking over at Aisha, who grins back at him.