Hildy gave me a strange look. "It's the boys. What's the matter? Is one of them hurt?" she asked frantically.
"No, the boys are fine. They're all in bed. Please, sit down," I motioned for them to take a seat on the couch.
"What is it then?" Hildy asked.
I paused a moment trying to think of the best way to break the news. "I received a call from Frank tonight. I'm afraid what he told me is not good news. Manfred, I'm sorry to have to tell you that Horst has died."
"Oh, my dear God!" Hildy exclaimed. Manfred just sat there with a blank but unbelieving look on his face.
It took a moment for the news to sink in before he asked, "How?"
I explained to him what Frank had told me, repeating as many of the details that I could recall. Manfred sat there almost stone like, not reacting throughout my recitation. As I finished, I could see the hint of a tear forming in each of his eyes.
Manfred stood up and started for his and Hildy's apartment. "I'm going to call Frank," he said and disappeared into the kitchen.
Hildy sat there for a minute or two, sniffling and dabbing at her eyes. I moved to her side and put my arm around her. She leaned into me before straightening up, "He needs me." With that she rushed after her husband.
I went into my study and made a couple of phone calls and then sat down with the book that I had been reading earlier in the evening. It was about twenty minutes later when Hildy appeared at the door.
"Crane, I hate to do this, but can you and the boys manage without me for a few days? Manny and I are going to try to get a flight to Chicago first thing in the morning."
"Of course we can manage for a few days. Don't worry about us. Manfred needs you now more than we do. I have already arranged a flight for both of you. You have first class tickets on United flight 2272 departing at 9:08 AM. The return is open so all you will need to do is call the airline 24 hours before you plan on returning. I have also arranged for you to be met at the terminal by a limousine driver who will take you anywhere you want to go in Chicago. You will only need to let him know your schedule and he'll be there waiting for you. If you need anything else, just let me know. Now, go be with Manfred. I can't imagine how painful it would be to lose a son. I certainly don't want to find out."
"Thank you Crane," Hildy said. She wrapped her arms around me and gave me a squeeze. "Thank you so much."
After she left, I looked at my watch and decided it was not too late to make one more phone call. The phone rang four times and I was beginning to wonder if it was too late after all when someone picked up the phone.
"Mrs. Fuentes, this is Crane Johnson. I was wondering if you were available for the next few days. Hildy has to be out of town."
I was a little disappointed when she told me she was working for another family and wouldn't be available. She said that she knew a young woman who was looking for work and she would give her a call. I asked her to go ahead if she thought that this person could handle the messes that five boys can make. She just laughed and assured me it would not be a problem.
Ten minutes later my phone rang. It was Marie Salazar, the woman that Mrs. Fuentes had mentioned. We spoke for a few minutes. I explained what I wanted and she seemed interested.
"Do you think you will have any problems with five boys?" I asked.
She laughed, "I took care of my six brothers and four sisters while my mom worked after dad died. I took care of them for three years, up until the time I gleft home."
"Can you be here tomorrow early? Say, around seven?"
"Yes, but I have a small problem. It's too late to arrange a sitter for my three year-old son. I would have to bring him with me. He has special needs and I can't just leave him with anybody."
"That's fine, bring him with you. I'm sure there are enough toys around here to keep him occupied. Thanks, and we'll see you in the morning."
I was closing up the house for the night when Manfred approached me. "Crane, thank you for what you've done. Please let me know how much all of this costs and I'll write you a check for it."
"Nonsense, it's the least I could do. You go see to your son's affairs," I told him.
I didn't sleep well, thinking about what all had happened today. I never did get to share the good news about the foundation. The bad news overshadowed the good. I also wondered how I was going to tell the boys about Horst's death. I knew I had to tell them, but I didn't know how they would take the news.
I was startled at the sound of the gate buzzer when Marie Salazar arrived at a quarter to seven. I hadn't expected her quite so early. Hildy and Manfred had left for the airport only a few minutes earlier. I opened the gate and met her at the front door when she drove up. Her car was an old VW beetle that was at least 15 years old and looked as if it burned more oil than it did gas judging from the amount of smoke coming from the tailpipes.
I introduced myself to her as she came around the back of the car. She was younger than I had anticipated, appearing to be in her early twenties. I found out later that she was only 19. After we exchanged pleasantries, she opened the passenger side door to retrieve her son who was in a car seat in the back seat of the car. From what I could see he appeared to be completely normal. I wondered what his special needs were that she had spoken of last night. I soon found out as she lifted him out of the car.
He was a beautiful little boy with one exception, his left leg ended just below the knee. It barely showed below the leg of his shorts. She shifted him onto her left hip and reached back into the car for something.
"Here, let me hold him while you do that. What's his name?" I asked.
"His name is Ricardo, but we call him Ricky. I doubt that he will allow you to hold him. He tends to be afraid of strange men."
"Well, let's see," I said, holding out my hands to him.
At first he ducked his head and turned away grinning. He looked back at me a couple of times, grinning each time, before he reached out his arms to me.
"Hi, Ricky, welcome to our home. I know five boys that are going to love you. Do you like dogs?"
He shook his head "Yes."
"We have five dogs, too. Can you talk?"
"Don't get him started, he'll jabber all day," Marie laughed. "I'm surprised that he went to you so readily. He's usually a pretty shy guy."
I led Marie into the house and showed her where the kitchen was, telling her that I would show her around the rest of the house later. I went to start waking up the boys after I had put Ricky down on the floor near the entrance to the kitchen.
It wasn't long before the boys started drifting into the kitchen. None of them in their sleepy state noticed Ricky until TJ and Bandit arrived. Bandit immediately ran to him and started sniffing him. TJ quickly followed his puppy to greet the stranger.
"Puppy," Ricky said, as he got his face washed by Bandit's tongue.
"Hi, what's your name?" TJ asked.
"I'm TJ and this is my dog Bandit."
"Hi Bandit," Ricky said, burying his face in Bandit's neck.
"Are you gonna stay here?" TJ asked.
"Yes, son, he's going to stay here while his mom takes care of us while Hildy is gone."
"Where's Hildy?" all five boys asked at once.
"She and Manfred had to go to Chicago. I'll explain everything to you tonight. Now, it's time to eat breakfast so you won't be late for school."
Marie dished up the scrambled eggs and sausage that Hildy had insisted on making and put in the warming oven before she left. Toast, orange juice and large glasses of milk followed.
She was surprised when the boys finished their breakfasts that they rinsed their dishes and put them in the dishwasher. After I hurried them off to brush their teeth and get ready for school, I explained to Marie that it was part of the boys' chores to clean up after themselves when they finished a meal.
I saw the boys off to school and then gave Marie a tour of the house explaining to her what I expected her to do. I pointed out the boys' toys and told her that Ricky was welcome to play with any that she thought were appropriate for his age. I showed her where the dogs were to stay during the day. I told her if she wanted Ricky to play with one of them, Bandit should be the one.
"Bandit is very friendly. He wouldn't hurt a flea. He loves playing with kids," I said.
"Ricky has wanted a puppy, but we can't have pets in the apartment we live in and besides, the place is barely big enough for the two of us," she said sadly.
I left her my phone number at the foundation before I left.
When I got to the office, I talked to Darcie about how we could expand the scope of the foundation now that we would soon triple our capital. One thing that we both agreed on was that we didn't want to lower our standards. The last thing we wanted to do was to assist someone through the adoption process and find out that they were abusive or uncaring parents. We kicked around a few ideas and decided to present them to the upcoming board meeting. I asked her to contact the board members to see what their availability was for a meeting and to schedule one for the earliest possible time.
An hour later she came into my office and flopped down on a chair. "I can't believe how busy these people are. The only time when all of them are available is tomorrow evening or we have to wait until a week from next Monday afternoon."
"Let's do it tomorrow evening then, say around six or six-thirty. We'll have it at my place and then everyone can bring their families. We can have the meeting in my study while everyone else is swimming or whatever," I said and then more to myself, "I'll need to call David to see if he can be there to handle the pool. I wonder if Marie can handle a crowd this big."
"I'll get a head count so you will know how many to expect when I confirm the meeting with everyone."
"Thanks, why don't you have Carol help you call. See if she is available to be there as well. We need someone to be the board's secretary now that we are expanding. You have confirmed all of this with the Woods?"
"Yes, they were the easiest to schedule," Darcie said and left for her own office.
About an hour later Carol knocked on my office door.
"Come in, Carol. What's up?"
"Darcie got tied up on the phone so I called all of the board members. Here is the way it breaks down," she said, and handed me a list with everyone listed along with the number of people each one would be bringing.
As I glanced down the list, I noticed that Gerald Cousins had listed his fiancée as coming with him. "I'll be damned. Don't tell me Gerald is finally getting serious about marriage?"
"I know," Carol said. "I nearly fell out of my chair when he asked if he could bring his fiancée."
"I've got to meet this girl if she can convince the consummate bachelor to settle down. Thanks, Carol, excellent job as usual."
I quickly called Marie to see if she could stay late tomorrow night and help out. When I told her how many people there were going to be, she hesitated. I told her not to worry, that I would have the food catered. I explained that I wanted her to manage the kitchen and to assist the caterers with whatever they needed. She reluctantly agreed. My next call was to a catering company that I hoped could do something for me on short notice. Thankfully the manager told me that they would be pleased to cater the dinner. We worked out the menu and other details before I hung up.
David and his fiancée agreed to come and supervise the pool. I hoped that some of the spouses of the board members would also be willing to help watch the kids who didn't want to swim.
When I left the office to rush home in time to meet the boys' school van, I thought that I had covered all bases and was ready for the board meeting tomorrow evening.
TJ looked all around when he entered the house, "Is Ricky still here?"
"Yes, son, he's in the kitchen with his mom. Go get your clothes changed and then you can see him."
"Okay! Come on Bandit."
When the boys entered the kitchen to get their after school snack, each of them greeted Marie and then went to say hi to Ricky. TJ sat down in the chair next to Ricky's at the kitchen table and began talking to him as if he had known the three year-old forever.
"Hildy left a note saying that the boys liked fruit salad topped with whipped cream. I hope that is all right," Marie said, as she passed out dishes to the boys.
When she didn't put one in front of Ricky, TJ asked, "Where's Ricky's?"
"He doesn't need any, son," Marie answered.
I looked at her strangely. "Doesn't he like fruit salad?"
"Please, Marie, it would be rude for my sons to eat in front of him."
She looked at me for a moment and then dished up a small serving and placed it in front of Ricky. He wasted no time in digging into the snack.
While the boys were enjoying their snack, I took Marie aside and explained what was going to happen tomorrow evening.
"It's going to be a long day for you and you will be paid overtime for your extra hours. Please feel free to bring young Ricky with you tomorrow, also. The boys seem to enjoy his company. Do you mind me asking what happened to his leg?"
"It's all right. He was born with a badly deformed foot. It was causing him a lot of pain. Anyway, the doctors recommended, when he was a year old, that it be amputated, since it was never going to be of any use to him. He's actually able to get around real well on a pair of crutches, but one of them broke the other day, so now he crawls or hangs onto furniture and hops around."
"How about a prosthesis? Can they make one for someone that young?" I asked.
"Yeah, they can, but they are so expensive and the way he is growing he would need a new one at least every year. When he's older maybe we can get one for him," she said dabbing at tears in her eyes.
"You're right. I never thought about having to replace it so often."
"Mr. Johnson, your supper is in the oven and there's a salad in the refrigerator. I also baked an apple cobbler. I hope you and the boys like what I fixed. If you tell me what you want, I'll try to fix it for you."
"You're doing fine. The boys and I eat almost anything."
There was an astonished look on Marie's face as she looked toward the kitchen. When I turned around, Joel was holding Ricky while the other boys surrounded them.
"Dad, can Ricky come again?" Joel asked. "He's so cute. Please?"
"Of course he can come again. In fact, he will be back again tomorrow. He and his mom will be here until Hildy returns."
"Oh yeah, you said you would tell us why Hildy went to Chicago. Did she go to see Horst and Frank?"
"Let's say goodbye to Ricky and his mom and then I'll explain everything to you. Why don't you carry Ricky to the car?"
As the boys filed back into the house, I led them into the family room. I settled onto the couch. TJ climbed up onto my lap while the others took seats on either side of me. I explained to the boys that Horst had been hurt in an accident. I left out the gruesome details and simply told them that his injuries were so bad that he had died. There was a sharp intake of breath from Joel, but no one said anything right away.
TJ broke the silence. "Did he go to heaven like my momma did?"
"Yes, son, I'm sure that he did."
"I liked him," Joel said quietly. "It makes me sad that he's dead. Is Frank all right?"
"Frank is very sad. He loved Horst very much," I answered. It was so typical for Joel to be concerned about others.
When the rest of the boys went off to play, Joel asked, "Did the truck driver run over Horst on purpose because he was gay?"
"No, it seems that the truck driver had a heart attack or a stroke. He died also."
"I'm sorry," Joel said, and walked away with Samson beside him.
At supper, I told the boys that we were going to have a lot of people coming to the house tomorrow evening. When I told them who all was coming, they were excited.
"Can Joey come?" TJ asked.
"Yeah, can we invite a friend to come?" Larry asked.
"I don't care," I said. "It's a little late to ask them, but if each of you wants to invite a friend, go ahead. Why don't you decide who you want to invite and then you can call them after you finish eating."
It took almost 45 minutes for all of the phone calls to be made to issue the invitations. I looked at my list again and counted 14 kids ranging in age from 3 (Ricky Salazar) to 16 (Jack Hogan Jr.). I thought, "Oh, what the heck," and called Eric and invited him to bring his boys also. Sixteen is a nice round number. Besides, I haven't been able to get together with Eric in weeks. I hope I remember to call the caterer to let him know of the extra people he needs to prepare for.
I barely had my first cup of coffee poured the next morning when Marie buzzed to be let in. I looked at the clock and it was just past 6:30.
"I thought I would get an early start. I'll need to fix the boys' breakfast this morning. Is there anything that they really like for breakfast?" she asked.
"Well, they really like pancakes with sausage, ham or bacon. I think there is everything you need. Hildy usually makes about 15 or 20 pancakes and then keeps them warm in the oven until the boys get up. Make sure that you have enough for Ricky."
"He's already had his cereal and juice, haven't you, honey?"
"Uh huh," he said nodding his head. "Can I have a pancake, too?"
"Of course, you can," I said laughing. "You're a growing boy, just like my sons are. If you're like them, you're always hungry."
"I like pancakes," he giggled.
I left for work shortly after I got the boys off to school. I told Marie that I would be home early to help get ready for the evening. Darcie laughed when I told her that I had added eight more people to the list of guests for this evening.
"Oh, great, now I'll get to see that brother of mine. It seems like our paths never cross anymore. It's too bad, also, since he is taking care of dad. Mel and I are so busy on the weekends that we have been negligent in going to see them. It's hard to see dad the way he is now."
"So, he's not getting any better."
"No," she said, shaking her head and heading back to her office.
I left for home shortly after lunch. The caterer had called and asked if they could start setting up around four. I agreed and gave them directions to the house.
I was a little surprised when John got off the van with Joel. "Can he spend the night?" Joel pleaded.
"I guess he can, if his mom gave her permission."
"She did. John called her from the school. She brought him some clothes," he said as they ran off toward the house with Samson running ahead of them.
The gate buzzer sounded a few minutes after five. When I checked the gate camera, I saw that it was David's old car. I wondered why he was coming so early. I released the gate and went to meet him at the front door.
"I thought we would come a little early and get some swimming in before all the kids arrive. I hope you don't mind. Celia and I haven't had time to get in much swimming since it started getting cold. I hope it's not too cold for the kids tonight."
"Don't worry, I've had a pool dome installed. It's heated inside, so it should be comfortable. Go get your suits on and check it out. You know where you can change."
Some of our guest started arriving a little before six. Most of them were the boys' friends. Jack and his family were next, soon followed by Eric and his two. By 6:30 all 34 people were present.
I hadn't noticed until after I had greeted all of our guests and went into the kitchen to see how everything was coming along, that Ricky was sitting at the kitchen table by himself looking sad.
"How come you're not playing with the other boys?" I asked him.
"'Cause momma won't let me," he said, sticking out his lower lip in a pout.
"Marie, he is welcome to play with the other boys. I know they want him to."
"But he's not a guest," she protested.
"Look, Marie, maybe I didn't tell you this when you came, but anybody that works for me is also part of our extended family. I expect you to treat this as your home when you are here. Ricky is just one of the gang. Does he like to swim? All the other boys are swimming."
"I don't know. He's never been in a swimming pool before. Besides, he doesn't have a swim suit."
"That's not a problem. He can go in the pool in his underwear. There's only one little girl and she doesn't like the water much, so she won't be in the pool. I'll have Celia take good care of Ricky. Come on, Ricky, you want to go swimming?" I asked, picking him up. "I'll put his outer clothes on my bed."
When I unzipped the entrance to the dome, I was nearly bowled over by the laughter and shrieks of delight coming from the boys. I caught Celia's eye and motioned for her to come over to the side of the pool. I explained to her that Ricky had never been swimming before and wanted her to stay close by him at all times. She was surprised when I lifted Ricky off my right hip and she saw his stump. She immediately took him from my arms and began talking to him. She soon had him laughing and then not long after that she had him in the water holding on to the edge of the pool and giggling. I watched for a few minutes until I satisfied myself that he was not going to freak out and then went to mingle with my other guests.
"Is the cost of this coming out of the foundation's funds?" Nathan Woods asked as I approached him.
"No, this is my party. The boys love having their friends over, but because we live out here in the country, they don't get a chance that often. This was just an excuse for them to invite their friends."
The caterer had set up a bar with a variety of wines available. I had specifically requested that no hard liquor be served and he had honored my request. The finger food looked great. It's a wonder that there was any left unless the boys hadn't seen the trays.
A few minutes before seven, I went back to the pool and announced that everyone had 10 minutes to run through the showers and get dressed and ready to eat. I was surprised that the pool didn't empty due to the suction created by 14 boys exiting the pool within seconds of my announcement. Celia handed Ricky to me and I wrapped a towel around him. She and David followed me back into the house.
"That pool dome is something else," David said. "I wish that we had one. We could swim every day."
"Yes, and it's so private. You don't have any close neighbors, but it's still nice to swim at night and not have neighbors watching you," Celia said.
"Yes, I suppose you could even go skinny-dipping," I said, looking at Celia.
She blushed bright red, stammered and hid behind David.
"Great idea!" David said and wrapped his arm around his blushing fiancée.
Just then Joel came up and held out his arms for Ricky. "Let me have him, dad. He can shower with me and TJ. I'll get him some of TJ's underwear. They'll be a little big, but maybe some of his old ones won't be too big."
"The rest of his clothes are in my bedroom," I told him. "Please get them and then let David and Celia use my room." I almost said shower, but thought better of it. I didn't want to embarrass Celia any more.
The caterer had done an excellent job. The food was great and everyone left the table stuffed. Even the boys look like they were full.
"Thank you so much for the kindness that you showed to Ricky. He was in heaven. And thanks for inviting us to stay. I think that you could have managed without me," Marie said as she prepared to leave.
"No way, if you hadn't been here I would have had to spend a lot of time with the caterers. This way I was able to spend time with my guests. By the way, would you like to take home some of the leftovers?"
"Oh, I couldn't do that."
"Why not? If you don't take some, the caterer will probably just throw them out."
"Well... okay. That roast beef was very good. It would make good sandwiches."
"Help yourself. We will see you tomorrow morning. The boys don't get up until later. Why don't you come around eight? Now I've got to go to the board meeting. Good night and thanks."
Everyone was assembled in my study when I arrived. Darcie, Dr. Greene, Gerald Cousins, Carlos Martinez, Jack Hogan and I were the board members present. Paul Coulter was a consultant to the board and then there were Doris and Nathan Woods. I introduced Carol Banyon to those who didn't know her and informed them that she would be the secretary to the board and would keep the official minutes of all board meetings.
After a few housekeeping details were taken care of, we began the items on the agendum. The first item was to expand the number of members of the board by two and to elect Doris and Nathan Woods to those new positions. They were elected by a unanimous vote of the board.
After the new members received congratulations all around, we went on to discuss ideas that Darcie and I had come up with to broaden the scope of the foundation.
"One idea that I feel has merit is assisting children in CPS custody that have physical handicaps to get placed in good foster homes. This didn't really occur to me until Marie Salazar came to work for me and brought her amputee son with her to work. He would not be a candidate for our assistance because he is living with his mother and not in CPS custody. What I envision is an effort to recruit and train foster parents who would be willing to foster a physically handicapped child. A yearly stipend would be offered to those who agreed. The stipend would be in addition to any monies that the state would pay them for fostering a child. The stipend would vary depending upon the needs of the child and the financial status of the foster parent. What do you think?"
After several minutes of animated discussion, it was decided to have Darcie and me investigate how many children might be eligible for the program and report back to the board after the first of the year.
I was glad when everyone started leaving. I hadn't had a chance to talk to Eric all evening other than saying hello to him when he arrived. As the last guest left, Eric and I grabbed a glass of wine and retired to the family room. The boys were all upstairs playing with their toys or video games.
"I missed you," I said, as he sat down next to me.
"Me, too. Dad seems to take all of my spare time. I really need to find a place for him. I checked out several of those places in New Braunfels. One is quite nice."
"I hope we have time to get together over the holidays," I said.
"Here's to more time together," he said and clinked his wine glass against mine.
"I'll drink to that!"