To say that I was stunned by her announcement was an understatement. The ramifications of her revelation were exploding in my brain. I found the chair and sat down or more accurately fell into it. I was unable to speak for a moment. I could see our happy family crumbling at the loss of an important member.
When I regained the power of speech I mumbled, "When... When are you going to marry?"
"We haven't set a date," she said. "That's what I want to talk to you about. The last thing I want to do is to leave my boys. They have become a most important part of my life. Ah... That is... When Manny and I do get married... Well, do you think that he could live here with me?"
"Oh my God, yes!" I almost shouted. "I don't think we could manage without you. When Manfred first started coming around here, I know that TJ was upset that you might leave us. I was too. When you said that he had asked you to marry him, I could just see our family collapsing. But as much as I want you to stay, your apartment above the garage is rather small. You only have a bedroom, living room and a kitchen/breakfast room and of course a bath."
"I know, but we can make do. I couldn't leave my boys."
"Let me think about what we can do. Thanks for letting me know. I'm relieved that you don't plan to leave us," I said. "You know that you're an important part of this family and that the boys and I love you."
"Thanks, Crane," she said leaning over and giving me a hug. "See you in the morning."
I finished closing up the house for the night and went to check on the boys one last time before I went to bed. As I started up the stairs where the boys were bedded down I heard some muffled giggling. I couldn't tell which of the boys it was coming from at first until I approached them. The closer I got the more it seemed to be coming from the sleeping bag containing Tony and Benny. The other boys seemed to be asleep.
They didn't see me as I walked up to them. Tony was whispering to Benny who would then giggle softly. I knelt down beside their sleeping bag. They were startled when I said, "You boys need to get to sleep. I know you enjoy seeing each other. Maybe someday you can be together all the time. Now try to go to sleep." I patted each one on the head and started back toward the stairs.
"Thanks for inviting us here, Mr. Johnson," Tony whispered.
"You're welcome. Goodnight."
It had been a long day and it didn't take long after I crawled into bed before I was fast asleep. About two-thirty I was awakened by someone crawling in bed with me. When I turned over I could see in the dim moonlight that it was Chris.
"What's the matter son?"
"I think I ate too much. My stomach hurts," he said as he squirmed against my side.
I rolled over and placed my hand on his forehead. He didn't appear to have any fever. "Let me get you something to make your stomach feel better," I said as I slid my feet over to the edge of the bed. I remember the last time this happened with TJ. At that time we didn't have anything except a home remedy to take care of it. At least this time we had a supply of antacid tablets.
I went into my bathroom and retrieved the bottle from the medicine cabinet. I shook a couple tablets out of the bottle and put it back in the cabinet. I filled a paper cup with water from the cold water tap and took it back to the bed.
"Here, chew a couple of these and then take a drink of water. This will make your stomach feel better in no time," I said sitting on the bed beside him.
"These taste pretty good but they stick to my teeth," he said as he handed the cup of water back to me.
"Now try to get some sleep. If your stomach still hurts, you let dad know. Okay?"
He turned over on his right side and was asleep before I got back in bed. So much for the stomach ache.
When I awoke the next time the sun was streaming in the window and my alarm clock showed that it was just past six-thirty. I couldn't hear anyone else stirring but I decided that I had best get up and prepare for the day. I showered, shaved and dressed. As I left the bedroom I heard Hildy in the kitchen. Since it was Sunday, I didn't know if she would be fixing our breakfast or whether I would have the honors.
"Good morning," I said as I poured myself a cup of coffee. "Is there anything I can do to help you?"
"Oh, you startled me," she said as she continued cracking eggs into a large bowl. "Do you think three dozen eggs will be enough?"
"What else are you going to fix?"
"Well besides the scrambled eggs, I thought I'd fix a couple pounds of bacon and sausage. Then I have the waffle iron heating up and was going to make waffles. Oh, and toast and preserves."
"I think that will be more than enough. I'll fix the meat and the toast. There is not too much chance that I can screw that up." I chuckled.
For the next half hour we cooked away. We even were able to stay out of each others way most of the time.
"Everything should be ready in about ten minutes. Why don't you go wake the boys and get them ready for breakfast?" she told more than asked me.
"I'm surprised that they haven't been down here before now. Usually they can smell food a mile away."
I was about to mount the stairs when Bill and Karen emerged from their bedroom. "Good morning, I was just on my way to wake the boys. Breakfast is about ready. Grab a cup of coffee and I'll be right down."
It didn't take long to wake the boys. At the first mention of food they were up and headed to the bathrooms to get washed up. JR knew the drill about washing up before Hildy would let them sit down at the table but the other guests had to be told by the other boys. I went back down stairs and woke Chris who was still sleeping in my bed.
By the time I returned to the kitchen the boys were beginning to arrive still dressed in their pajamas. Hildy received hugs from the nine younger boys. Jack Jr. and Bran evidently decided that they were too old for a hug. Hildy was having none of that. She walked up to Jack Jr. and wrapped her arms around him.
"Jack Jr., you are becoming such a handsome young man. I'll bet the girls' hearts are all aflutter over you," she said to a blushing teen.
Turning to Bran she said, "Come here young man. I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you. I haven't even heard you come close to swearing." She gave him a hug and then turned to the rest of the boys, "Go sit at the table in the dining room. It's big enough for the eleven of you. We'll bring the food in there."
It took Hildy, Karen and me to carry all the food into the dining room. We all helped the boys fill their plates the first time. I just hoped that there would be something left for the adults to eat when they were finished. Although the boys tried their best there was still food for us when they finished and took their plates to the kitchen. Joel rinsed the dishes and Chris loaded them into the dishwasher before everyone took off to shower and dress for the day.
The Boise, Hildy and I settled in to eat our breakfast amazed at the amount of food that the tribe had eaten. Karen marveled at how easily Hildy had managed to prepare enough food in such a short period of time saying it took her longer to fix breakfast for Bill and Tony.
"How's Tony doing?" I asked. "Have you ever approached him about the possibility of you adopting him?"
"He is really doing well," Karen said. "Dr. Kerner says that all his test results are excellent. He thinks a complete recovery is almost certain, thank God. It is a godsend that Dr. Kerner got that grant to pay for Tony's treatments."
Bill continued, "Yes, and we have talked to Tony about us adopting him. He seems to be enthusiastic about it but at the same time there seems to be something not quite on the surface that is bothering him. We think it has something to do with Benny, but he won't say. I think he is afraid that his brother will get adopted and he'll lose track of him. He loves his little brother unconditionally. He is never happier than when Alan and Ethel bring him to visit us."
"I asked you once before if you ever considered adopting both of them," I said. "At that time you indicated that you would but your main concern then was that you didn't qualify because of income. I know that you talked to Darcie yesterday when she was here. Did you bring up the subject to her?"
"No, I didn't," Karen said. "We talked about adopting Tony with the aid of the foundation is all. She asked a lot of questions about us, our house and about Bill's job and things like that. She said that you were involved in the foundation also. I didn't know that. You never said."
"I'm on the board and help manage its operations," I said. "If you are serious about adopting Tony and want the foundation's help and support you will need to undergo a background investigation by the foundation. Jack Hogan will be conducting it for ASEC. He will do a criminal background check. He will check your references and also look into your finances. It will be to your advantage to cooperate with his investigation. If everything checks out, we will assist you in retaining legal representation for the adoption process. Over the next few weeks Darcie will be explaining to you the specific details of what the foundation will provide."
"That sounds great," Bill said. "How long is all of this going to take?"
"There is no precise answer to that. The initial petition for adoption could go before the court in as little as two months. If the court agrees, you could be given permanent custody. Then for the adoption to become final it could take anywhere from ninety days to a year. There are a lot of variables but the legal counsel that we have has been known to be able to expedite things."
We chatted for a while over our coffee. Hildy cleared away our breakfast dishes and got ready to go to church. The boys began drifting in from taking their showers. TJ climbed onto my lap.
"What's going on, little one?" I asked kissing the back of his head.
"Nothing, just wanted to sit on your lap," he murmured.
"Your hair smells so clean. Did Joel wash it for you?"
"Uh huh," he said. Then turning he whispered in my ear, "Can we go down to the lake? Tony and Benny wanna see it."
"Sure, as soon as everyone finishes their showers we'll all go down to the lake," I said for the benefit of the Boise.
I don't know what it is with boys, rocks and water but when we got down to the lake level they all picked up rocks and started skipping them across the surface of the lake. With all eleven of them skipping rocks I thought it wouldn't be all that long before they would have the shoreline picked clean. The lake level was about five feet below its normal level so we had a little more shore for the boys to play on.
It didn't take long before both Tony and Joel started getting fatigued and came and sat down with Karen, Bill and me. "Are you doing okay?" I asked Joel.
"Yeah," he said leaning into me. "I just get tired so easy."
"I know," I said wrapping my arm around him. Bill was doing the same with Tony.
After a while the boys got tired of skipping stones and decided they wanted to go back up to the house.
"Don't forget dad, I got a game this afternoon," TJ turned and said before he started up the stone steps.
"I won't. Your game's not until three o'clock," I said giving him a playful swat on the seat of his pants. He ran off giggling and grabbed Benny's hand as they started climbing the steps.
It wasn't long before Jack came to pick up his two boys. They didn't want to leave and break up their ragged game of kickball that everyone except Joel and Tony were involved in. They were in the process of loading their stuff into the car when Eric came to pick up JR, Bran and Benny.
Tony hugged his little brother before Benny started toward the car with tears in his eyes. Tony turned to Karen and buried his face on her shoulder trying to hide the tears in his eyes.
"Eric, could you possibly let Benny stay a little longer?" I asked. "I know your parents aren't leaving for home until tomorrow. We could drop Benny by your house on our way to TJ's T-Ball game this afternoon."
"I think that would be all right," Eric said. Then turning to Benny, "Would you like to stay a little bit longer?"
"Yes sir!" Benny almost shouted. With the remains of tears in his eyes he ran to Tony and jumped into his outstretched arms.
"Come on Bran, I'll let you drive back to the house now that you have your learners permit. That is if you want to," Eric said as he held out his keys which were quickly snatched from his hand. "Well, I guess that answers that question."
"I'm glad that I have a few years before I have to face a teenage driver," I laughed and clapped Eric on the back.
"Well, it's only for a couple of days. There is hardly any traffic on the road between here and our house so I feel relatively safe. He really is a safe driver. But just between you and me I still almost push my foot through the floorboard while he drives. I guess this is good practice for when JR gets old enough to drive," Eric said before turning to Benny. "We'll see you later, son. Be good."
It wasn't long after Eric left that Chris came up to me and asked, "Dad, can we go swimming? It's getting hot."
"Sure," I said. "Go get your suits on."
We sat under the beach umbrellas while the boys frolicked in the water for the next couple of hours. Tony and Joel spent a lot of the time sitting on the edge of the pool just talking. Every so often they would join the fun in the water until they got tired and had to sit out for a while. It was good to see that their relationship which started as the result of their shared affliction was now based on solid friendship. They never seem to be at a loss for something to talk about as they sat on the side of the pool.
Around noon I decided I had better figure out what we were going to eat for lunch. I excused myself to go inside. Karen insisted that she help while she admonished Bill to keep an eye on the boys.
I was surprised when I opened the refrigerator. Hildy had prepared a platter of cold cuts consisting of sliced beef, ham, turkey and salami along with Swiss, cheddar and American cheeses. All the makings for sandwiches including lettuce, tomatoes and pickles were ready to be placed on the table. It looked like there was enough food to feed an army. I was mistaken. By the time the boys and the adults had finished eating there was very little of anything left to put away.
After lunch I told the boys to go take a quick shower to rinse the chlorine off and get ready to go to TJ's game. Although the game didn't start until three o'clock we had to leave around two so that we could get Benny back to Eric's house and get TJ to the ballpark in time to warm-up for the game.
Bill and Karen took Tony and Benny in their car and followed us to Eric's house. They were going to leave Benny and then begin their three hour drive back to their home southwest of Houston. It was not a happy scene when the brothers were separated. After a tearful goodbye, Benny buried his head in Ethel's ample bosom and cried. He was still sobbing when we left for TJ's game.
We were among the first to arrive at the ballpark. There were a few stragglers left from the previous game that was played earlier, but the field was empty. I didn't pay any attention to them since they were sitting in the bleachers on the other side of the ball diamond. The twins and Chris immediately took TJ and had him start practicing hitting the ball off the tee while they fielded the balls that he hit. We carried all the equipment in our van for just such contingencies. It wasn't long before the rest of the team members and coach arrived to start the warm-up and we packed away our equipment.
I was a little surprised when Eric arrived with JR and Bran to watch the game. Benny was still being comforted by Ethel according to Eric. Larry, Lenny and JR sat with Eric and me while Joel, Chris and Bran played catch behind our bleachers. I would check on Joel every so often. Most of the time I could hear their giggles as they tossed the ball back and forth to each other.
The game was about half over when I heard a ruckus behind the bleachers where the boys were playing. Suddenly Joel was yelling, "Dad! Dad, come quick!"
I turned around and saw some young man in his mid twenties and a teenager attacking Bran and screaming racial slurs. Eric and I acted as one and vaulted over the back of the bleachers and ran to aid Bran.
"That's the same asshole that was at the pizza place," Eric said between clenched teeth.
Eric grabbed the man from behind in a bear hug while I corralled the teenager by taking him firmly by both arms. "What's going on here?" I said in my most authoritative voice.
"We don't want no niggers around here," the obviously intoxicated man in Eric's grasp spat out.
I could see that Eric was livid. He had maneuvered the man's arms so that they were twisted up behind his back. Hearing the racial epithet, Eric twisted the man's arms even farther up behind his back causing him to squeal, "Ow! You son-of-a-bitch, let go my arms."
"I think you had better leave here now before I get really angry. I don't ever want to see your ugly face again. Take that punk kid with you also," Eric growled.
"Hey Crane, what's up?" I heard a voice behind me ask.
Turning I saw the voice was that of Deputy Sheriff Jesse Cantu. "Hi, Jesse," I said still holding onto the teenager. "These two were harassing this young man," I pointed to Bran.
"Dammit, LeRoy! When are you ever going to learn? Are you drunk again?" Jesse said as he approached the man being restrained by Eric. "You sure as hell smell like it. I'm going to take you in for being drunk and disorderly and let you sleep it off. I'll call your poor wife and tell her she can pick you up tomorrow morning as usual. Damn I'm getting sick and tired of taking you in all the time. I hope one of these days the judge will sentence you to a rehab center." Then turning to the boy I was holding, "You need to find someone else to hang around with, otherwise you are going to end up just like LeRoy, a drunk."
"Thanks Jesse, this is the second time they have harassed Bran. This time they actually struck him. I intend to file a complaint for assault and battery on LeRoy, whatever his name is. I didn't see this one throw any punches." I told Jesse.
"LeRoy Mason is his name. LeRoy, it looks like you might not get out of jail in the morning after all. You'll have to see the JP (Justice of the Peace) for him to set your bail," Jesse told him as he removed his handcuffs from his belt and started putting them on LeRoy's wrists. "Crane, let me get him in the back of my patrol car and I'll get a form for you to fill out with all the particulars. That will allow us to hold him until the JP sees him."
TJ's game was over before we had filled out all the forms and witness statements. I gathered up all the forms and handed them to Jesse, "Jesse, why were you here?"
"My son was playing for the other team."
"Oh, I guess I didn't realize you had a boy old enough to play."
"Yes, Ronnie will be six in October. I'm afraid he is not much of an athlete yet, but he has fun playing with the rest of the boys and that's what's important to me."
"Thanks Jesse, let me know if and when I have to testify against that jerk," I said shaking his hand.
Bran was being comforted by Eric and the other boys as I turned away from Jesse. We all talked briefly before I suggested that we should all go back home. Eric asked Bran if he felt up to driving the car back to the house. That seemed to take some of the sting out of the situation, but you could tell that Bran was still upset.
As we were unloading the van when we got home, TJ came up and stood beside me with a confused look on his face.
"What's the matter, TJ?" I asked.
"Well... Joel said a man called Bran a nigger. What's a nigger?" he asked innocently.
"Let's go into the house. There is something I want to tell all of you," I said making sure that everyone heard me.
As we went through the kitchen, I grabbed soft drinks for everyone before we settled on the couch in the family room.
"Okay, everyone but TJ saw what happened at the ballpark to Bran. That man called Bran a nigger. That is a very hurtful word and I never want to hear any of you use it. It's used by stupid people to insult black people. People who do that are bigots. Bigots believe that just because someone's skin is dark that makes them inferior or not as good. Sometimes this unreasonable hatred or prejudice leads to violence as it did against Bran this afternoon."
"Did that man hit Bran?" TJ asked his eyes open wide.
"Yes, son, he did. Bran never did or said anything to the man. That's what a prejudice can do. It can make you do unreasonable things for no apparent reason."
"But... But Bran is nice," TJ sputtered. "He's my friend. I like him."
"I know, son. We all like Bran."
I answered a few more questions about the incident before I heard a stomach growl which changed the subject altogether. Since I didn't have a clue as to what to fix for supper I suggested that we go get Mexican food. That seemed to please everyone so as soon as we all washed up we hopped into the van and headed off to New Braunfels to a good Tex-Mex restaurant.
Full to over flowing, we returned to the house not wanting to do anything but turn on the TV, relax and watch some mind numbing program. So that's what we did until it was bed time. I hadn't told the boys about Hildy's revelation that she was going to get married. I didn't want to upset them until we had everything worked out.
Tucking the boys into bed was still one of my favorite activities. It let me share the love I felt for them in a very tangible way. Even though Joel was now a teenager he still didn't object when I tucked him in and gave him a kiss on the forehead.
When I went into the twins' room I saw that Chris and them were whispering quite seriously to each other. As I approached the bed the whispering stopped.
"Dad," Chris began. "We've been talking. Can we start sleeping upstairs in those beds?"
"Why sure you may. If you want too, you can start tomorrow night," I said. "Is that all right?"
"That'll be neat," Larry said.
"But remember, there'll be no horsing around when you're up there. When you go to bed you are to go to sleep."
"Sure, dad," Lenny said sounding hurt that I would question them.
"Good night," I said after giving each a hug and a kiss. "I love you."
My alarm went off at six-thirty. Darcie and I were going to go to the foundation's new office and try to get it organized this morning. I also wanted to talk to her about whether or not we needed to hire a secretary. Although the foundation was not officially in business for another four days on August 1, we wanted to make sure everything was in place so that we could start helping deserving people and kids.
I was a little surprised to find Manfred sitting at the kitchen table when I arrived to pour myself a cup of coffee. "Good morning. I'm glad that you are here. I need to find out what your intentions are for this young lady here," I said smiling.
"Crane, behave yourself," Hildy chided.
"No seriously, congratulations Manfred. I'm just glad that Hildy says that you're not going to steal her away from us."
"I think if I made her choose between me and your sons, that I would come out on the short end of the stick," he said. "I can see why, too. I'm quite fond of them myself. I may have to adopt them as my grandsons since my own son does not seem inclined to give me any."
"Are you sure you want to be an immediate grandfather to five boys?" I asked. "Oh, by the way, I haven't told the boys that you are planning to marry. I thought I would wait until you had set the date and then maybe we could all sit down and tell them together. I know that their main fear is going to be that Hildy would leave them."
"That's probably a good idea," Manfred said.
Becky Sue arrived as the boys were sitting down to their breakfast. "Crane, I need to talk to you," she said, "alone if we could."
"Sure, come into my office."
"The fall term starts August 19th. There are only three weeks between today and then. I need a little time to get ready for school so I thought if I could work this week and next then I would have a week off to get ready. I know that leaves you with two weeks without help before the boys start their own school," she said almost apologetically.
"Of course, that will work out fine. I'm sure that your summer job has provided you with more excitement than you ever expected. The boys will miss you. Next summer, if you are interested the job is yours again. And if you ever need a letter of recommendation I will be more than happy to provide one for you."
"Thank you, I do appreciate it."
Manfred had left when I once again entered the kitchen. The boys were all busy eating their breakfast when I gave them a quick hug before leaving for the new office.
Darcie had beaten me to the office and it hit me that I had forgotten to give her a key to get into the office when I saw her standing outside the door. Thankfully she had only just arrived. I quickly remedied the situation by giving her a key and apologizing for my oversight.
The first thing that I did once we entered the office was to check the status of the phones. I was glad to see that they were working. The internet connections were also working I discovered when I booted the computers.
Our office space consisted of a small reception area, two offices (one for Darcie and one for me), a larger conference room, a small area for a coffee pot and refrigerator and a toilet area.
Darcie and I discussed whether we needed to hire a secretary right away and ended up deciding that for the next month or so there would not be enough work to make it worth while to hire someone. The next thing we did was to try to establish the criteria that we would use to evaluate potential parents and foster children that we would help. This proved to be a difficult task. We decided that the amount of financial aid that each adopting family would receive would be determined by a number of criteria including family income, where they lived, housing required for the adopted child and the personal needs of the child. The latter was to include any counseling that the child might require to adjust especially if they had come from an abusive or traumatic background.
I did take time out to call Harold Nicholas to see if he could drop by this evening to talk about some more renovations I had in mind. I looked forward to meeting with him and also invited him to bring Joey. I knew that TJ would like to see him again.