Authors: Debbie Fuller Thomas
Rain was aware of the tension that infused the room when Bobby walked in. He came in just as the food was set out and shotgunned a general hello to everyone, except that he skipped right over Bebe, who managed to step out of the room for something. Karen hugged him and asked how he was doing. His mother tugged his shoulder down so she could kiss his cheek, and then scolded him for being late. After Bebe's dad said a blessing over the food, Rain watched Bobby fill his plate and head out to the backyard. She was a nonentity to him, due to some fortunate twist of fate. He was moody and pampered by his mother, even though he was older than Bebe, to whom he rarely spoke. There had been some major blowup between them in their younger years that no one ever spoke of. A little family dirty laundry, Rain guessed.
“Hey, Rain,” Scott greeted her as he lined up next to her with his Chinette plate.
“Scotty, how are you doing? Are you getting nervous?” she asked, spooning macaroni salad onto her plate.
“Naw. I've been working out since February.” He sounded hyper like he'd pounded an energy drink. Too much testosterone in the backyard.
He loaded two hamburgers onto his plate. “I'm up to eleven pullups and three miles a day.” He spooned Jello salad next to his burgers. “I think I'm good.”
One of the cousins behind Scott called down the table to where Bebe was setting out baked beans. “Aunt Bebe, you want to hear something funny? When I was little I thought you were a soldier like Uncle Bobby, you know, because Mom said you were a vet. Stupid, huh?” He laughed and Rain glanced up when the conversation around them skipped a beat.
“That's funny, Mike,” Bebe said, forcing a smile before she turned back to the house.
Rain raised her voice. “Will they let you receive packages, Scotty?” she asked, deftly turning the attention back to him. “I'll send you some power bars, if you want.”
“Don't know. I'll find out and write to mom.”
“You need to do that a lot, you know? She's going to miss you.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I know. She cried when I told her I signed up.” He scooped up four chocolate chip cookies with his thumb and forefinger. “I gotta load up on these. It will be thirteen weeks before I get them again.” Then he called, “Hey Grandma, you made kuchen, didn't you?”
“Peach and apricot. They're for later.”
“And don't get into them until they're set.”
Karen held up her Chinette plate. “Good for you, Mom,” she said. “Make it easy.”
“They're not fancy,” she answered, “but it's too hot for you girls to wash so many dishes.”
Rain saw Bebe and Karen exchange a look.
Everyone sat around a long table on the patio in the shade, their iced tea glasses sweating rings on the checkered tablecloth as the hot breeze swirled around them. Rain listened to the conversation and watched Neil with the boys, looking for clues that he'd left his indelible mark on their lives. Scott and Dylan were polite toward others, but together they engaged in playful and competitive banter that she'd never experienced with a sibling. Beneath their rough-and-tumble relationship she also saw compassionate young men, like the summer day when she'd stopped by the clinic to see Bebe. Scott and Dylan were working part-time there, cleaning out the cages of the boarded animals, playing with the kittens and puppies and mopping up their messes. She actually heard baby talk from Scott as he rubbed the potbelly of a beagle mix and let him chew his finger. The boys had been reliable and pleasant at the office, but argued with each other all the way out the door to Scott's car. Occasionally, when she stopped by the house to see Bebe and happened to find the boys watching the Giants with Neil, she would see an easy interaction between the three of them, as though they spoke some abbreviated language she didn't understand.
Rain watched the other men and their sons, including Bebe's dad.
Was it so important to have a father? She'd never had one. Neil had been the closest thing to a dad that she'd known. You couldn't really call William a father, joining them like he did when Rain was twelve. Jude had made it very clear that he had no business interfering with her raising of Rain and he never challenged her. Sometimes he seemed more like an older brother than a parent figure.
Here, she saw the guys naturally drawn to each other, in where they chose to sit, in their body language, and their topics of conversation. Even Neil joined them as though some division had occurred when they'd parked out front.
Neil and Bebe's dad got up from the table when they were finished eating. Rain noticed that Neil threw his trash away and Bebe's dad left his plate where he sat. They headed toward the barn, and she saw Bebe watching them go, looking almost sullen, but her expression quickly changed when she turned back to the conversation at the table.
When it was time to clear the table, Bebe said something to Scott and Dylan, and they dragged a trash can over to the table and began tossing trash into it. Their grandmother protested, but the boys insisted that they didn't mind helping. When the table was cleared, Bebe's brother Bobby started taking down the tables and Bebe slipped inside, repelling each other like the north poles of a magnet. Rain made several trips to the kitchen with dirty tableware and serving dishes, where she noticed that Bebe and Karen had taken their places again at the sink. Karen's arms were deep in suds and Bebe had a dish towel slung over her shoulder rinsing dishes.
Rain felt oddly out of place. She could have offered to help, but even though she'd spent many holidays with the family, today there seemed to be a strange undercurrent. She made some excuses, said her thanks and good-byes, and left. She had research to do.
Bebe could see Scott and Dylan out the window talking with Bobby and a few other cousins headed toward the vineyard. Neil
wasn't there like he'd promised he would be to monitor and diffuse any military talk. What was Bobby telling them, she wondered? Tales from Nam, probably. With Scott joining the military, this was his perfect opportunity for payback. She prayed that Scotty would know her well enough to realize this and not believe everything that Bobby told him.
When Neil returned from the barn with her father, she went outside, pulled him aside, and told him about Bobby. They stood looking down the rows of vines heavy with grapes, but saw no sign of Bobby or the boys.
She nodded over her shoulder toward the barn. “What did Dad want?”
Neil shifted his feet and shrugged. “Mazie's got some hoof problems. He just wanted me to have a look. I checked it out and told him to let the farrier handle it.”
“Naturally, he didn't ask me.”
Neil draped his arm around her shoulders. “He knows I do big animals at the clinic. It was nothing.” He turned her around to face the barn. “But there's a litter of feral kittens out there, if you want to doctor something.” He playfully pulled her toward the barn.
“More kittens? No, stop. It's too hot.”
Neil stopped and together they walked back toward the vineyard. She wove her fingers into his. “Dad would never ask me to take a look at Mazie, even if you weren't here.” She kicked a rock. “We went to the same school. My GPA was even higher than yours.”
“Ouch. No need to get nasty,” he said. “I'm only trying to help.”
“You know what I'm getting at. It's simple. He doesn't respect me as a doctor. He never asks me for any advice. He has never asked me to check out an animal.”
“I think your dad's the type to compartmentalize things. He sees me as a farm animal doctor and you as a pet doctor.”
“And he has no use for pets.”
Bebe fell silent, tendrils of hurt wrapping her in sadness. Neil pulled her to him.
“I don't know what's wrong with me,” she said into his shirt. They
stood in the vast rows of green vines with the powdery dirt dusting their shoes and the bugs humming and chirping around them. “After all these years, why do I still care what he thinks?”
“Compared to his dad's generation, he's probably downright liberated.”
not from the old country. His father was.”
“Well, personally, I think you're the best doctor at the clinic.” He kissed her on the forehead. “But maybe this isn't only about your dad.”
She shrugged. “Probably not.”
“Scotty will be all right, Bebe. He's been ready for a long time.”
“I know, but I just don't know what Bobby's telling him. And Dylan's leaving next month, too.” Her eyes filled, standing there with his strong arms holding her tightly.
“I'll talk to Scotty,” he said. “He knows about some of Bobby's problems and he loves his mom, so I don't think you have anything to worry about.” He pulled back to look Bebe in the face, giving her that crooked smile that had made her fall in love with him. “Maybe we should get away somewhere after Dylan leaves for school.” He leaned in and spoke into her ear. “Just the two of us. We'll go to Napa. Doctor's orders.”
She smiled, wiping her eyes. “You're just what the doctor ordered.”
“Really?” They turned and headed back toward the house and Neil slipped his arm around her waist. “Well, I have a plan of treatment that I think you're going to like.”
It was late afternoon, and the room air conditioner was blowing hard in the front parlor where the adults had gathered to enjoy their kuchen. The conversation touched on Bebe and Neil's soon-to-be empty nest, and skirted anything controversial, including Bobby's last stint in rehab. Her dad looked tired and older than his seventy-eight years. Her brother Paul talked about the consolidation of two large wine producers in the area, and how it would affect their business. Her
mom pursed her lips and picked at a thread on the arm of the sofa while he talked. She got up and began collecting empty plates and forks and took them to the kitchen. Bebe gathered the dishes near her, and followed.
“You have more kittens at the barn, I see. Do you want me to take them to the rescue clinic?”
“No, they make good mousers. They'll be gone soon enough.”
“The coyotes will get them, Mom.”
“I know. That's a shame.”
Bebe lowered her voice and asked, “How's Dad feeling? He looks tired.”
“Oh, he's fine. Doctor says he needs to slow down, but you know your father.”
“I thought Paul was running the farm now.”
“Retirement has been hard on Poppa. He worries, you know. He can't seem to let it go.”
Bebe stacked the dishes in the sink and glanced sidelong at her mother. “Scott's graduation ceremony is in October. It would be nice if you could go with us. Paul could handle everything at the vineyard. We could do some sightseeing in San Diego.”
“We'll have to see.” Even though it was over 100 degrees outside, her mother was putting on a pot of coffee. “It depends on the harvest.”
Bebe didn't press it. She had avoided bringing up the subject of Scott's military enlistment, but now that the door was open, she plunged through.
“Bobby looks good.”
Her mother nodded while she concentrated on pouring the water from the carafe into the coffeemaker. When she was done and switched it on, she said, “He's got a good job managing a car wash in Modesto. It's one of those big fancy ones.”
“That's good.” Bebe thought about saying she would drive down sometime to get her car washed, but they both knew it wasn't true. “Have you heard from Cynthia?”
“I saw her in Walmart last year at Christmastime. The girls were
with her. Vanessa was visiting from Florida, and Breanna was starting graduate school in the fall.”
Bebe watched her mother as she set out creamer and sugar on a tray with her back to her. She could just imagine how pleased her mom would be if Bobby were still married to Cynthia and those girls were his instead of a product of Cynthia's second marriage. Bebe and her brothers had only produced boys.