Eric and I sat drinking our wine and talking quietly for several minutes before TJ squirmed onto my lap. I knew that he was up to something and I had a pretty good idea what it was.
"Can JR and Bran stay here tonight? Please?"
Before I could respond to him, Eric spoke up, "Sorry, TJ, but they have to go home with me tonight."
Eric stifled a laugh and answered, "Well, for one thing, they didn't bring any change of clothes. For another, we are going to Houston tomorrow morning. We have to go to their grandpa's house to check on everything and to get some of his things. Is that all right with you?"
"Okay, I guess," TJ said, slipped off my lap and headed back upstairs to relay the decision to the other boys.
"I suppose that we had better head for home. JR is hard enough to get up in the mornings without getting to bed late. Thanks for inviting us. I needed to get away from dad for a while."
"You and the boys are always welcome. Perhaps after the holidays we can spend some more time together. The next couple of weeks are going to be hectic. I've got to take the boys Christmas shopping and it looks like I'm going to have to make five separate trips to get it all done."
"Yeah, I guess I'm lucky. I'll only have to make two trips to get ours done. I hope."
As we started for the stairs, Eric put his arm around my shoulder and we gave each other a long tight hug.
"Thanks, I needed that," I said. "I get so lonesome for another adult relationship, but those five boys seem to occupy all my time. They are the most important things in my life right now. Any time I take away from them, I feel like I'm cheating them. After a year and a half, I think that they know that I'm not going to abandon them, but I still feel guilty."
"I know. Even though Bran appears to be very well adjusted and self sufficient, he still gets very upset if I get home later than usual. It's a little bit scary. I think he's nervous because he has a placement hearing in January. It will determine whether he gets to remain with us or, God forbid, returned to his father."
"I hope that he has a good lawyer."
"He has a court appointed lawyer, but he has only seen him once in all the time he has been with us."
"How about a guardian ad litem? Does he have one?"
"Yeah, his lawyer is doing double duty. I'm not real satisfied with him in either role."
"Why don't you call Karen Lin? She's one of Benjamin Cross' protégés. It might be worth consulting with her even if you don't retain her for Bran."
"Good idea, I'll call her on Monday."
It took another ten minutes or so before the boys had said their goodbyes and Eric had his two loaded into his car. As soon as the car had driven out of sight, I told the boys to run get their showers taken and to get ready for bed.
It was about a quarter of eight when Marie and Ricky arrived the next morning. I had told her that the boys usually slept in on Saturday morning, so she didn't have to come as early. I met them as they drove up the drive, the car belching a cloud of blue smoke. When Marie extracted Ricky from his car seat, I reached out my arms to see if he would come to me this morning. He almost wiggled out of her arms trying to get to me.
"Good morning you little imp," I said. "Are you ready for breakfast?"
"Uh huh," he giggled.
"You already had your cereal," Marie chided.
"Well, if he is like my bunch, he could still eat some more. What would you like for breakfast, little one?"
"You had pancakes yesterday."
"I like pancakes."
"How about a waffle?"
"What's a waffle?"
"You'll like a waffle. Come on, let's go fix some."
I knew that the boys would be up any minute, so we had better get a bunch of waffles fixed. I carried Ricky inside, sat him down at the kitchen table and then showed Marie where the waffle maker was.
"That's the biggest waffle maker I've ever seen. Where did you get this?" she asked.
"It was my parents'. I think they picked it up at a sale of a restaurant that was going out of business. It's been around as long as I can remember. Here's the recipe for the waffles. It seems to work best in this thing," I said, going through Hildy's recipe file.
"How much should I fix?"
"I think that Hildy usually doubles that recipe. It usually makes enough for the boys with one or two of the squares left over for me. You start on the waffles and I'll get some sausages on the grill."
The sausages were just getting nicely browned when the boys started appearing. After I gave them their morning hugs and they all said hi to Ricky, I sent them to take their dogs outside. It wasn't long before they came back inside and went to get fresh water and food for the dogs.
"Go get washed up, breakfast is almost ready," I told them. "Joel, will you take Ricky to get his hands washed?"
"Sure, dad. Come on, munchkin, let's get you all cleaned up," Joel said, picking up a giggling Ricky.
I saw Marie dab at her eyes with a tissue. "Is something the matter," I asked.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "It's just that the boys treat Ricky just like any other kid, not as a cripple."
"I should hope so. I would be very disappointed in them if they treated him any differently. Sure he has a handicap, but that doesn't define him as a person. Besides, he's a neat little kid. How could anyone not like him?"
"Thanks, he's never had any real friends because he could never run and play with kids his own age."
Breakfast was a big success, at least as far as Ricky was concerned. He loved the waffles with all the butter and maple syrup. The 20, six inch square waffles disappeared almost as quickly as they were on the boys' plates.
The boys had just finished putting their dirty dishes into the dishwasher when the phone rang. It was Hildy.
"I thought I had better let you know that we will be flying back to San Antonio tomorrow afternoon. The plane is scheduled to arrive at 4:43. Frank is coming with us," she said.
"Is Manfred all right?" I asked.
"He's holding up fairly well. The service yesterday was hard on him, but he made it through it. Horst was cremated as he requested. We are to pick up his ashes this afternoon."
"What will become of his ashes?"
"Horst had put in his living will that he wanted his ashes spread on the lake, so we'll be bringing the ashes with us on the plane. Frank is not taking all of this too well. I worry about him, that's why I insisted that he make the trip with us. He needs someone to lean on for a while."
"You know that he's welcome to stay as long as he needs to." Ever since I answered the phone, TJ had been tugging at my sleeve wanting to talk to Hildy. "I've got someone here who wants to talk to you," I said and handed the phone to TJ.
"Hi Hildy, when you gonna come home? I miss you."
They carried on a conversation for several minutes before TJ said, "Bye Hildy, I love you, too."
I said my goodbyes to Hildy telling her that the boys have really missed her.
"Marie, would you mind watching the boys for a while? I need to run an errand."
"Sure, they're not a problem. Could you stop and pick up some milk and bread on your way back? The cupboard is starting to get bare."
"I get so used to Hildy doing the shopping that I don't even think about it anymore. Is there anything else we're short of?"
When she said that was all that we really needed, I took off to run my errands. The first one was to a medical supply store. I wanted to see if they had a pair of crutches that Ricky could use since Marie said that his were broken. Thankfully they had a pair of adjustable aluminum ones that would probably last him a couple of years before he outgrew them.
My second stop was at Sandy's Auto Repair. Gary Sandholm, better known as Sandy, was a gentle giant. He was probably 6' 6" tall and weighed at least 250lbs. We had met several years ago just after I moved back to the area after college. He had done some work on my previous BMW and had been servicing all of my cars since then. He always remembered who you were and always greeted you with a broad smile and a firm handshake.
"Sandy, I've got a question for you..."
"I'll bet it's going to cost me money," he said with a sly grin.
"No, in fact it might make you some money. Can you get a replacement engine for a 1978 or 79 Volkswagen?"
"What's the matter, don't you like that fancy BMW that you drive around in these days?"
"No, it's not for me. It's for a lady that works for me. Her car lays down a smoke screen when she drives it. I'd like to do something for her. Can you fix her up?"
"I could probably find a rebuilt engine. Let me check around and I'll call you. I probably can't find anything today. I should be able to find something Monday or Tuesday. It's not going to be cheap, you know."
"I know, nothing's ever cheap with you rip-off artists."
"Now that is really going to cost you extra," he laughed.
"Thanks, Sandy," I said and handed him a card with my office number on it.
I hated going into a grocery store on a Saturday morning. It seemed like everyone waited until then to do their shopping. I grabbed a shopping cart and excused my way through the maze of women blocking the aisles as they gabbed to each other. I put a couple loaves of bread in the cart and took off for the other side of the store to where the milk was kept. I knew that bread and milk were stocked on opposite sides of the store for marketing reasons. I often wondered if the store managers ever considered how much aggravation and ill will it created by doing so among shoppers who only needed those two staples.
I finally made it to the milk cooler and picked up the three gallons that I thought would get us by until Hildy went shopping. My next set of obstacles was to get to the checkout registers, which, naturally, were all the way across the store near where the bread was.
With 10 checkout registers, only three of them were in operation. Since I only had five items, I got in the express line behind six other customers. As luck would have it, two of them needed price checks, which slowed things down.
By the time I got out of the store, I swore that Hildy needed a raise for putting up with this hassle a couple of times a week.
Driving up toward the house, I saw the boys playing in the front yard. Joel had Ricky on his back giving him a piggy-back ride. Ricky had his arms wrapped around Joel's neck with a smile that I thought would split his face. Everyone followed the car into the garage and surrounded me when I exited it.
"Chris, Larry, Lenny, grab a gallon of milk and take it inside to Marie. TJ, you can carry the bread. Don't squeeze it. Joel bring Ricky over here, I have something for him."
I retrieved the crutches that I had bought and showed them to Ricky. "Are those for me?"
"Yes, they are. Your momma said that your other ones were broken. Joel, put him down here and hold him up while I adjust the length of these." It took me several minutes to make sure the crutches were the right size. As soon as they were adjusted, Ricky took off and showed us just how well he could get around on them. I was surprised that one so young was able to move so quickly on crutches.
"Momma, momma, look what I got," he cried as he made a bee line for the back door.
"Oh my, where did you get those?" Marie asked as she opened the back door.
"He gave 'em to me," Ricky said, pointing one crutch toward me.
"That's nice, son, but mommy can't afford to pay for them."
"I didn't ask you to pay for them. They are a gift to a youngster that I have... we all have... grown very fond of over the past few days. Call it an early Christmas present."
"Thank you, that's very kind of you," she said. "Ricky, did you say thank you to Mr. Johnson?"
"Thank you, Mr. Johnson."
"You're welcome, Ricky. It's nice to see you getting around so well on them."
"Come on, Ricky," Joel said. "Let's go upstairs and play with some games. We can ride the elevator. Would you like that?"
"Marie, I'd like to talk to you. Is there any coffee left from breakfast?"
"No, but it won't take but a minute to make another pot," she said.
As she was making the coffee, I began, "You know that I have a full time live-in housekeeper. Hildy will be coming back tomorrow afternoon." Marie's face showed her disappointment at what she thought was going to be a loss of employment. "What I would like to propose to you is that you help Hildy with the housework three days a week. Taking care of five growing boys, keeping a house this size clean and cooking meals for all of us is a big job for one person. I've been very satisfied with the way you've done your job. Would you be interested in working three days a week?"
"That would be wonderful, but I'll need someone to take care of Ricky."
"No, I insist that you bring him with you. I know that Hildy will fall in love with him, just as my boys and I have. He will be no trouble at all."
"I hate to ask this..." she started hesitantly. "But... Could I get my money for working the past three days? I need to pay my rent tonight."
"But, of course," I said. "Let me figure out what I owe you through the end of the day. I'll pay you in cash, if that's all right?"
When it came time for Marie and Ricky to leave for the day, the boys all crowded around Ricky to hug him goodbye.
"I wish you could come back," Joel said, as he gave him a hug and kissed his forehead.
"He'll be back on Monday," I told him.
"Really? That's great," Joel said when he saw me nodding my head. He picked Ricky up, opened the door to the old VW and placed him in the car seat. "Bye, munchkin, I'll see you Monday." That caused Ricky to start giggling.
After supper, I asked the boys if they had made out their Christmas lists. I shouldn't have worried, they all went and got their lists. I explained that I would take each one of them alone to the mall next week to buy presents for their brothers. I planned to take all of them tomorrow to buy presents for everyone else.
"Can I get a present for Ricky?" TJ asked.
"Certainly, but remember, his momma doesn't have enough money for him to buy you a present. I don't want you to be disappointed when you don't receive one from him."
"That's all right, we get lots of presents, anyway," TJ said. "Will you read us a story?"
After I got over the mental whiplash at the abrupt change of subjects, I asked, "What would you like for me to read?"
"I don't know. I just want you to read something."
"Okay, little one, how about I read The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain?"
"Yeah, that's a good one. I read that in school," Joel added.
I went to my study and retrieved my copy of the book, returned to the family room and sat down on the couch. TJ quickly crawled up on my lap as the other boys gathered around me on the couch and the floor. I treasured the time I spent reading to my sons. I felt so close to them when I read to them.
For the next hour and a half we enjoyed the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain. Finally my voice began to wear out. It was getting time for the boys' snack, so they didn't object too much when I suggested that we put the book away for the evening.
Sunday morning, I decided to get up early and swim laps in the pool. I had been negligent in performing my morning exercise. When I returned to the house I found a sobbing TJ on the floor outside my bedroom door, Bandit curled up beside him
"What's the matter, TJ?"
He scrambled up off the floor and threw himself into my arms. "I couldn't find you. I thought you was gone," he said. His little body was wracked by sobs.
"Oh, TJ, you know I could never leave you. I love you way too much." I carried him into my bedroom and sat down on my bed with him still in my arms. Bandit followed us in and sat at my feet staring up at us. I held TJ until his sobbing subsided. I put my hand under his chin and lifted his head so that he was looking into my eyes. "I promise you that I will never leave you, ever." I kissed him on the end of his nose and wiped his tears away with the towel I had around my neck. "Dad was just swimming. I didn't think you would be awake this early. Why don't you hop in bed until dad gets his shower taken and then I'll fix you some breakfast?"
I expected him to return to his own bedroom, but instead he hopped off my lap and crawled into my bed. I tucked him in and then went to take my shower.
When I returned, he was sleeping soundly. Bandit was curled up on the floor beside the bed. I decided not to disturb either of them and went to get the paper and start breakfast.
Because it was getting close to Christmas, the malls were opening early. It was almost ten o'clock when we climbed into the van and headed off for San Antonio. Today we were looking to buy presents for JR, Bran, Ricky as well as Hildy and Manfred. I had a suspicion that Joel also wanted to buy a present for John.
I had forgotten how difficult it was to keep track of five active boys all looking at different things the moment we entered a store. At least this year I remembered TJ's penchant for darting off and away from the rest of us. I finally had to scold them to stay together. They looked suitably chastised for about five minutes before they started straying again. Despite all of their wanderings, we were able to buy presents for JR, Bran and John fairly easily in the first place we went. It took us two more stores before we found presents for Bran and Ricky.
I had an idea of presents for Hildy and Manfred, but it was time for lunch so we headed for the nearest Tex-Mex place for lunch. I was always amazed at the volume of chips and salsa that the boys were able to eat and still have room for the main course. Our waiter finally decided that one bowl of chips was not enough to keep him from making continuous trips to the table and brought three heaping bowls along with three each of the red and green salsa.
One thing that I particularly liked about this Tex-Mex restaurant was that when the meal was over, they served each customer a New Orleans style praline. After all the food and chips that we had eaten, I don't know how we were able to eat it, but we did.
After buying our last two presents and a quick stop at a store selling gift wrap, we headed home, none too soon for me. I was not looking forward to five more trips to the malls so that each of the boys could buy gifts for their brothers. Maybe I could con Hildy or Manfred into going with me and I could cut down the number of trips. That was the best idea I had all day.
"When's Hildy going to get home?" Joel asked as we drove up to the house.
"Their plane is supposed to arrive a little before five. By the time they retrieve their luggage, get to the car and drive home, it'll probably be after six o'clock," I told them. "You have about two and a half hours, maybe longer, to wait."
"I'm hungry," TJ complained as he undid his seatbelt.
"You're always hungry," I chuckled. "Run in and get your hands washed. I'll see what I can rustle up for a snack. Put the presents in the dining room. We'll wrap them after your snack."
I checked the pantry and the refrigerator for something for the promised snack. There was not much choice. I decided on a two pound package of chocolate sandwich cookies. Grabbing a gallon of milk from the refrigerator, I was almost able to get glasses of milk poured before five seemingly starving boys arrived at the kitchen table.
Wrapping presents with the boys was a unique experience. Each one wanted to wrap the presents that they had bought. I was reluctant at first, but then decided that it would be a good learning experience. I took one of the presents that we had purchased for Hildy and began demonstrating how to wrap a present neatly.
Joel studied what I was doing before saying, "Dad, would it be easier if you did it this way?" He then proceeded to demonstrate what he thought was a better way. It was.
"Where did you learn that?" I asked with amazement.
"I don't know. It just seemed like it would be easier and neater."
I admit that gift wrapping would not be a skill that I would put on my résumé, but I didn't think I was totally inept. "That's fantastic, son. Why don't you help your brothers with their packages and I'll do the same?" I gave his shoulder a squeeze and then went to the other end of the table and began helping TJ wrap a present.
Despite my best efforts, TJ's presents were, to say the least, less than perfect. All that mattered was that he had done them and that he was proud of himself.
As each present was wrapped, it was placed under the tree. There were getting to be a lot of presents under the branches and the boys had not even bought each other's gifts. When all the presents were under the tree, I sent the boys off to play while I went back into the kitchen to see what I could pull together for supper.
Pickings were slim, but I finally decided that I would fire up the barbeque grill and fix hamburgers and hotdogs. I didn't know whether Hildy, Manfred and Frank would be eating with us, but if they did it would be easy to throw on a few more burgers.
It was starting to get dark when I went out to start the fire in the barbeque pit at around six o'clock so I turned on the outside flood lights. It was also getting quite chilly, which was not all that unusual for a mid December evening.
I had just returned to the house when I saw a car coming up the drive. It was Manfred's car. I went to the bottom of the stairs and hollered to the boys that Hildy was home. I was nearly trampled in the rush of the boys to go greet their surrogate grandmother.
Hildy entered the back door carrying TJ wrapped securely in her arms and kissing her cheek.