Wild Orchids Part 29

"It's a great house," Tessa said, "but Mom won't let me go inside because the floors aren't safe." Leaning forward, she picked up a bear claw, broke it in half, gave half to my father, then leaned back against him. I wasn't jealous anymore. My dad and Tessa seemed to need each other.

n.o.ble raised his eyebrows above the juice carton as he drank out of it.

"Only habit," he said, meaning that only habit was holding the building upright.

"So what's the plan?"

Toodles smiled. "Allie says she can make coffee and n.o.ble can bake so they're gonna open a bakery cafe."

When I looked at n.o.ble, that pink line along his jaw was there again, only this time it was brighter. Well, well, well, I thought. This was serious. Last night I'd seen n.o.ble chatting up Dessie, so I knew he was trying to get her in bed, but I hadn't seen n.o.ble and Allie together at all. But if n.o.ble was thinking of opening a bakery with a woman who could cook only enough to make coffee, then he was thinking of marriage. Would this be his third or fourth marriage? Or fifth? Vanessa said her father bought marriage rings by the gross-and she wasn't making a joke.

After a while n.o.ble stopped trying to impress me with his coolness and started telling me what he and Allie had talked about. Toodles and Tessa got bored so they went to the big porch to make a kite. n.o.ble told me that when they'd gone out to buy doughnuts, they'd stopped somewhere and bought some craft supplies.

"For the life of me," n.o.ble said, "I can't understand bagels. Hard ol'

things. What'd'ya think Yankees like about them?"

"Beats me," I said as I took the last cream puff. As always, I squashed the cream onto my extended tongue, and only when the pastry was empty did I eat the doughnut in two bites. "So tell me more."

I don't know exactly when they'd done all their talking, but from the red rim around n.o.ble's eyes, I could believe he and Allie had talked on the phone after everyone went home. It seemed that Allie and her ex-husband had bought the rotten old house across the street from mine, intending to fix it up and live in it. But he'd received a job offer in another state and had accepted it.

"So why didn't she go with him?" I asked.

"d.a.m.ned if I know," n.o.ble said. "I didn't want to horn in on another man's territory so-"

He broke off at a look from me, as I silently reminded him that I didn't want to hear his B.S. If n.o.ble wanted to know about a woman's ex, it was to see if he was going to, yet again, wake up with a shotgun under his chin.

But n.o.ble shrugged in genuine puzzlement. "I don't know why she didn't go with him. She just said she 'couldn't.' "

"That's odd," I said. "That's just what Nate said. He 'couldn't' leave." I was looking at the doughnuts. There were six of them still in the boxes.

Shame to waste them. "So what's the plan?" I asked again.

n.o.ble told me he'd gone through Allies house that morning and it was a mess, but he could fix it. He grabbed one of the napkins no one had used- wipe glazed sugar off fingertips? a sacrilege!-and looked about for a pencil.

I pulled a little aluminum ballpoint out of my pants pocket. A person never knew when he was going to get an idea.

Quickly, n.o.ble sketched the plan to the ground floor of the house. I'd never before seen him do that and I was impressed. I'd be willing to bet that his drawing was as close to scale as it could be without using a ruler.

As I looked at the drawing, I considered what n.o.ble had told me about the next generation of Newcombes. One of the brats had had enough brains and talent as an architect to win awards. Judging from n.o.ble's drawing, had circ.u.mstances been different, he could have gone to school and... Well...

I tried to concentrate on n.o.ble's drawing and his talk, but there was something in the back of my mind that I couldn't seem to bring to the forefront. n.o.ble showed how he could move this wall and that one, enlarge a door, and if he merged the kitchen with the butler's pantry, he could make a commercial kitchen.

My mind perked up when he started talking about "living quarters"

upstairs. Those weren't Newcombe words, so n.o.ble had picked them up from someone else, and I a.s.sumed it was Allie. As far as I could tell, he was going to renovate the upstairs so Allie and Tessa could move in there, then Allie and n.o.ble would run a bakery on the ground floor.

Of course I was to pay for it all; that went without saying. But I didn't mind. Having Tessa across the street, and my dad playing ping-pong back and forth between the two houses, suited me. Of course with the way n.o.ble cooked in quant.i.ty, we'd all eat together.

As I listened to n.o.ble, I kept trying to figure out what was bothering me.

It was an idea about something, but I still couldn't pinpoint what it was.

"Where's Jackie?" I asked after a while.

"Deep in acid," n.o.ble said, nodding toward her studio.

Last night I'd seen her camera flash go off about a hundred times as she photographed everyone and everything. I knew she was trying to cover the fact that what she really wanted was some knockout photos of Toodles and the mayor together. A Munchkin and a gnome.

"So who was the man?" n.o.ble asked, nodding toward the garden gate.

I grimaced. My cousin didn't miss much. About halfway through the party, Jackie had disappeared through the gate and returned a few minutes later with that look on her face. It was the look I'd had to put up with for days after she'd picked up that man in the forest. I hated to think of it as the "Russell Dunne look" but that's what it was.

But at least last night I'd been able to get her back to normal quickly. All it took was a joke or two from me about Miss Essie Lee and she was fine, dancing with everyone.

n.o.ble was looking at me hard and waiting for a reply, but I had none, so I just shrugged.

Looking away, disgust on his face, n.o.ble shook his head. "What'd they do to you up there in New York? Cut it off? What's wrong with you that you're lettin' another man take what's yours?"

I sat up straighter in my seat. "Jackie is my a.s.sistant. She's-"

"h.e.l.l! She's your wife except in bed. I never saw two people meaner to each other than you two are. Either of you gets in a bad mood, you just say somethin' nasty to the other one and you're all cheered up again. If that ain't true love, I don't know what is."

I couldn't believe what came out of my mouth next. "Love is mutual respect. It's caring about-"

n.o.ble didn't even reply. He just got up from the table and went to help Toodles and Tessa with their kite.

d.a.m.n, but I knew what n.o.ble was talking about. I knew very well that I was crazy about Jackie. Yeah, she bossed me around and she sometimes cut me to shreds with that tongue of hers, but I sure did enjoy her company.

I sat at the table by myself, finished off the doughnuts and the OJ, and tried to think of something besides Jackie sneaking through the garden gate to meet some guy she'd known less time than she'd known me-but seemed to like more.

How could I tell n.o.ble that I just didn't feel confident with Jackie? She was quite a bit younger than I was. And she was about half my weight. She should have some guy who got up at five and ran six miles.

Just days ago I'd kissed her and it had knocked me for a loop, but all Jackie did was start moving all those olive rings I'd pulled off my food with her toe. She was more interested in cleaning up than in me.

I sat there for a while, wallowing in self-pity, but also trying to figure out what was eating at the back of my mind. It had something to do with n.o.ble.

I went over all he'd told me about the family and Newcombe Land, but I couldn't pin down what I was thinking about.

For the rest of the day, I sat around in the garden or stretched out in the hammock, and at one point, I began pacing, but I still couldn't grasp what was so clearly in the back of my mind. It was as though there was a tiny nugget of gold buried in my brain, hidden under layers of debris, but, try as I might, I could not find it.

Jackie came out of her studio at about four and showed us her pictures from the party. The best ones were of Dad and Miss Essie Lee looking starry-eyed at each other. When Jackie looked at me, I knew she was thinking about who my stepmother was going to be.

But I was thinking so hard that I didn't so much as smile.

"What's wrong with him?" I heard Jackie ask n.o.ble.

"Always been like that," n.o.ble answered. "He's thinkin' on somethin' big, and when he gets it, he'll rejoin the livin'. And it's no use tryin' to talk to him now, 'cause he don't see you."

I wanted to refute that, wanted to tell n.o.ble that that was absurd, but I was too busy trying to find the idea that was somewhere in my head.

On Monday morning I awoke at six A.M. and the single word "kids" was in my head. It was in huge letters inside my brain, and everything I'd been trying to find was in that word.

I pulled on whatever clothes I'd dropped on the floor the night before and went upstairs to my office. I didn't bother with a computer. This needed the intimacy of handwriting. I picked up a clipboard and one of the twenty-five unlined writing pads I'd bought, as well as one of my beloved rolling ball pens, and started writing.

It was n.o.ble's presence and his story about saving me when we were kids that had planted that little nugget of gold in my head. And the story I'd told at dinner. And Jackie's remark about the Harry Potter books. Actually, I guess my idea had come from every word I'd heard since n.o.ble and my father had arrived.

n.o.ble had made me remember that there are two sides to every story.

He and I'd been through, more or less, the same childhood. But he remembered our childhood as wonderful, while I remembered it as h.e.l.l.

At the same time, when he'd told me what had been done to Newcombe Land, to the pond, to the trailers, and about the removal of the old cars and the truck tires, the hairs on my neck rose. What gave those snooty kids the right to try to h.o.m.ogenize America? Who said that all of America needed to have perfect little houses with "foundation plantings"? Who said that every inch of America needed to be "landscaped"? In the Newcombe mind, plants and people were at war. If plants didn't produce food, they were treated to a Newcombe chain saw.

The tiny piece of gold inside my brain was to tell the same stories I'd already told, but from a different point of view. Stories, not about Pat's family because that was mine alone, but about the Newcombes. But instead of writing about them with angst-as Jackie persisted in calling my feelings about my past-I'd write about my family as though they were what's left of real Americans. Not h.o.m.ogenized non-people, but individuals.

My first thought was of Harley. In my fourth novel, I'd mentioned this young woman who'd been born while her mother was propped against a motorcycle and thus her name. I'd written that she'd died as she'd lived, at twenty-four, hit by a ninety-five-year-old man driving a thirty-year-old car, Harley's motorcycle flying across a ravine before crashing and breaking her neck.

I'd done a good job with that story because many readers had written me that I'd made them cry. I'd portrayed Harley as a wild girl who lived by her own rules, a girl who was doomed to failure because she couldn't conform to society's rules.

That story was mostly lies. Her real name was Janet and she looked exactly like her twin brother Ambrose. At least they were identical in all the parts we could see, and none of us wanted to look under the clothes of either one of them to see what was down there.

Their mother was my father's only sister, and she'd run off to Louisiana when she was fifteen and married a Cajun who spoke little English. They would come up to visit us every other year and we thought they were the strangest people in the world. One of the uncles told us that Cajuns ate crawdads, so n.o.ble and I went around stuffing cherry bombs down all the crawdad holes so our Louisiana cousins couldn't eat ours.

Looking alike meant that Janet was an ugly girl and Ambrose was a pretty boy. Besides their faces being switched, so was their masculinity.

Ambrose was afraid of everything and Janet-who n.o.ble dubbed "Jake"- was afraid of nothing.

Jake climbed higher than any Newcombe boy dared climb. And she did anything on a dare.

She walked across a twelve foot long 2x4 stretched over a ravine, nothing but rocks a hundred feet below. She walked across the two inch side, not the four.

She climbed into Mr. Barner's bedroom window-while he was sleeping -and stole his false teeth, then hung them from a string inside his outhouse.

One evening, she sneaked into the elementary school kitchen and dumped the two jars of ants we'd collected into the baked beans that were about to be served to the PTA. School was closed for three days while they fumigated.

Jake stole the preacher's sermon from out of his Bible and inserted a copy of the Gettysburg Address. It was a sweltering hot day, no air-conditioning, and since everyone was sleepy, including the preacher, he was halfway through reading the speech before he noticed. He looked right at Jake, n.o.ble, and me, and said, "As our late, great president, Abraham Lincoln said..." then read the rest of Lincoln's speech.

After church the preacher took my right hand and Jake's left in his and told us he truly hoped we prayed every night that we weren't setting out to a path of evil that would see us end up in the flames of h.e.l.l.

While he was telling us this, he squeezed our hands so tightly that I let out a whimper. I wanted to go to my knees and beg for mercy, but I looked at Jake and, even though there were tears of pain at the corners of her eyes, I could see that her hand could have been crushed and she would never ask for mercy. So of course I couldn't either.

As I began to sketch out stories of my relatives in rough form, and it seemed that a thousand ideas came to me, I began to develop a plot, a conflict between good and evil. In my previous books my relatives had been, if not bad, certainly looked down on. But in my new outline, I showed their heroic side. I excluded the stories about the way they dedicated their lives to suffering and were jealous of anyone who had the gumption to actually do something. I began to think of them as lazy, but lovable. And as every writer knows, what the writer feels, the reader feels.

Keeping to what I knew how to do, I based my story on truth. I made some of the second generation go to college and return educated and pompous, know-it-alls who were determined to make the family into some sanitized ideal. And I showed my fictional family fighting for a way of life that was fast disappearing.

As I was outlining ideas, I came up with making Jake grow up to be Vanessa. How did a devious, underhanded, fearless girl grow up to be a devious, underhanded, fearless woman? I'd have to show that.

I came up with a husband for Jake/Vanessa who I named Borden-so of course the Newcombe kids called him Ice Cream. He was from a rich Yankee family and Jake was trying to live up to his ideals of respectability.

I gave Jake the child some deep poverty so it would be understandable why she'd hunger for a stiff-necked husband like Borden, and why she'd try so hard to clean up her own family.

I rearranged my family tree so Jake and my hero-me-were cousins-by-marriage and not blood related. He was a widower, deep in depression-something I knew I could describe well-and he'd returned home the same summer Jake went back. Her intent was to remove the trailers and use an endowment from her husband's family to build cute little houses with no dog do-do showing. She didn't know that her husband's family was footing the bill so they could go to their Connecticut country club and show slides of the poor, downtrodden rednecks they'd enlightened- and show that their son's marriage to one of those "unfortunates" was actually a philanthropic act.

Of course Jake and my hero clashed, but in the end they fell in love and rode off into the sunset together.

The plot wasn't the big part of the novel. The characters and what they were and what they became was the story.

As I wrote down story after story from my childhood, I tried to figure out how to fit them into the overall plot.

I tried really hard to incorporate my father into the main story, but when I couldn't, I sketched out something about him on its own. "A short story!" I said aloud, then wrote down some things about a few of my other relatives.

When I finished I had eight pieces, enough for a book of short stories, something I'd always wanted to write.

When a knock came on the door, I was quite annoyed. How could I get any work done with interruptions every hour and a half?

Angrily, I yelled, "Come in!" and set my face to make whoever it was regret the intrusion.

My father and n.o.ble came into the room, both of them wearing deeply serious expressions.

I wanted to say, hand me my checkbook and I'll sign it if you'll leave me alone.

n.o.ble seemed to read my mind. "This ain't about money," he said as he and Toodles sat down, side by side, on the couch.

When I saw that they were sitting very close together, as though for safety-or rea.s.surance-I thought, this is big. And time consuming.

"Look," I said, "couldn't this wait until dinner?"

"You ain't been to dinner in two days," n.o.ble said, narrowing his eyes at me.

"Ah," I said. "Uh, what day is this?"

"Wednesday," n.o.ble answered.

I'd entered my office on Monday at about six A.M. and it was now Wednesday at-I looked outside. Afternoon. Had I slept during those days?

Eaten? There was a tray full of dirty dishes by the door so I guess I had.

If it was Wednesday I guess I could afford to take a break. A short one.

"So what's up?"

When Toodles and n.o.ble looked at each other, it seemed that n.o.ble was designated to tell me. "You didn't tell us Jackie was crazy."

I suppressed a yawn. "She's more unusual than crazy. She's-"

"Crazy!" my father said. "I seen crazy people before."

What now? I thought. Couldn't these children settle their own disputes?

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