On Wednesday, Mrs. Shultz called to say that she was going to be out of town for the next couple of weeks. That meant that, except for Chris' drum lessons, there wouldn't be any piano or guitar lessons until she returned.
Chris received some bad news when we went to his drum lesson. Rod Matson, his drum teacher told me, "This is the last time that I'll be here to work with your son. The band I'm the drummer with has landed a gig to tour as the warm-up band for a country music act." He mentioned the name of the act, but I had never heard of them. It's not that I have anything against country music, I just prefer other music. "Although Chris has learned the basic drumming techniques, it's my opinion that he'll never be more than an average drummer. Since there is no one to take my position at the moment, I suggest that Chris simply try to refine the lessons that he has already learned."
"Thanks," I said. "I know Chris enjoys playing the drums and I'm sorry that you won't be around to help him learn more. By the way, what's the name of your band?"
"You've probably never heard of us. We've only played in some of the local country music bars and up at Gruene Hall. We're the Alamo Rednecks," he said.
"You're right, I've never heard of your band, but then my taste in music runs more to the classics than to country music. I hope your 'gig' is successful."
Chris wasn't happy on our way home from his final lesson. I didn't think it was so much that there wouldn't be anymore lessons, but was more the idea that he and I wouldn't be spending some time together without the other boys. He never said it, but he was always so much more animated and outgoing when it was just the two of us. I made a point to myself to try to spend some time alone with him.
Thursday morning I called Bea. Her mother answered the phone. "Good morning, Mrs. Flynn," I said, when she identified herself. "This is Crane Johnson. I called to see if there was anything that the family needed."
"Mr. Johnson, thanks for asking," she said. "Bea and the kids are doing as well as can be expected. My youngest son, Benny, flew in last night and is helping out with Cary. She's in the other room packing some clothes for the trip to Dallas. Do you want to talk to her?"
"Not necessarily," I said. "I just wanted to know what the arrangements were for the funeral. I know Bea said the burial was to be on Saturday, but she didn't mention the name of the funeral home there in Dallas."
"Actually, the burial will be in Garland. That's where they lived before they moved here. Boothe Cantrell Funeral Home is making all the arrangements. Services will be held at the First Trinity Lutheran Church there in Garland at ten o'clock Saturday morning."
"Thanks, Mrs. Flynn. Please tell Bea that we are here if she or the kids ever need anything," I said, before we terminated the call.
As soon as I got off the phone with her, I made a call to the local florist to have an arrangement of flowers wired to the funeral home in Garland. I had the card signed, "The Johnson Family".
"Dad, it's hot. Can we go swimming?" TJ asked, as I exited the library.
"Sure," I said, "go put your swimsuit on and get one for Peter."
"Oh, boy," he said. Then grabbing Peter's hand, "Let's go, we're gonna go swimming."
"Tell your brothers," I hollered at his back, as he and Peter scrambled up the stairway.
It wasn't ten minutes later that all six of the boys were in the pool. I was about a minute behind them. We had played in the pool for maybe a half an hour when I saw Marie and Ricky standing on the back deck with Hildy. The boys didn't appear to notice them until I whistled for their attention and pointed to our guests. Joel was the first one out of the pool. He grabbed a towel from one of the lounge chairs and dried himself as he ran to greet Ricky.
Ricky ran with hardly a limp and leaped into Joel's outstretched arms. He wrapped his arms around Joel's neck and gave him a noisy kiss on the cheek. "Hey, munchkin, we've missed you," Joel said.
"Me too," Ricky said.
"Did you come to play in the pool with us?" Joel asked.
"Uh huh," Ricky replied, nodding his head vigorously.
"No we didn't," Marie corrected.
"Please," Joel pleaded.
"He doesn't have his swimming suit."
By this time the rest of the boys had joined everyone on the deck. Ricky and Joel were surrounded and being hugged by everyone. "Marie, I think there's a swimsuit in TJ's room that Ricky used to wear when you were on your honeymoon. You can stick around for a while, can't you?"
"But it's almost time for lunch. We just stopped by to say hello. Ricky keeps asking for Joel almost every day."
"You can stay for lunch," I said, looking at Hildy. She nodded before I went on, "That will give you time to catch up with Hildy and for Ricky to play with the boys."
Marie saw that she was outnumbered and acquiesced.
"Where's the swimsuit?" Joel asked.
"Top left drawer in TJ's dresser," I said.
With Ricky still in his arms, they headed off to get Ricky outfitted. Less than five minutes later they returned, Joel held the properly attired Ricky on one hip with one arm and held his prosthesis in the other. He handed the artificial leg to Marie and then he and Ricky took off for the pool to join the other boys.
Now with seven boys in the pool, I sat on the edge so that I could watch all of them. I knew Joel would take care of Ricky, but I was mostly concerned with Peter. I didn't think he had ever been swimming before he came to stay with us. The twins, Chris and TJ had all received swimming lessons and were fearless in the water. I wondered if David was still available to give lessons to Peter.
After a while, Hildy announced that lunch would be ready in a few minutes. The boys heard the word lunch and they scrambled out of the pool, grabbing towels on their way to the house. "You guys jump in the shower and wash the chlorine off before you sit down for lunch," I told them, as they ran by me. I took a giggling Ricky from Joel and took him into my bedroom. I held him up in my big shower and gave him a quick rinse. Wrapping him in a towel, I took him out to Marie before I went back to take my own shower.
I was the last one to the breakfast area. Hildy was busy loading the boys' plates with heaping portions of a tuna noodle casserole and some mixed vegetables. Marie was helping by pouring glasses of milk and distributing them around the table. I saw that Ricky was now wearing his prosthesis. It amazed me that Marie had gotten him dressed and his leg on in the short time I was in the shower. I wondered if Ricky could put his leg on himself.
The four adults waited until the boys had finished eating and put their dishes in the dishwasher before we sat down to eat our lunch. Luckily there was enough of the casserole for us all to have some.
While we were eating, Manfred came in and sat down with us. He refused an offer of lunch saying that he had eaten in town before he came. "You know," he said, "it's just becoming clear to me that Bran will be leaving soon. I've come to rely on that young man so much. Not only is he smart as a whip when it comes to computers, but he has a great head for business. His going off to California this weekend has made his leaving all too real."
"I can hardly believe it either. He has certainly blossomed since he's been living with Eric and JR," I said. "I shudder to think what could have happened to him."
"Thanks to you," Hildy said, looking at me, "that kid got a chance to show everyone his potential. He was so scared that first day back in Houston. He's an entirely different kid now."
"How did he come to be living with the Levins?" Connie asked.
I explained to her the story of how we had found Bran after his father had kicked him out of the house. I skirted the reason why his father had kicked him out. When I finished, I could see that Connie had a question that I knew was coming.
"Why would his father kick him out?" she asked. "I can't understand anyone who would do such a terrible thing."
"Let's just say his father is an idiot and leave it at that," I said.
"Amen to that," Hildy added.
Marie looked at her watch and announced, "Ricky and I need to go. The movers are supposed to be at the new house around two. They're bringing all of Dirk's furniture from his place and a few things of mine that I had in storage from the apartment."
Hildy looked at her and said, "Why don't you leave Ricky with us? He'll probably just get in the movers' way if he's there."
"Oh, I couldn't do that..." Marie started to say.
"Sure you can," I said. "The boys would love to have him stay. I'm sure he'll have more fun here than trying to stay out of the way at the new house."
"Well... If it's not too much trouble..."
"Of course, it's no trouble at all," I said. "What's one more boy? Seven is a nice round number." That brought a snicker from Manfred. "Are you planning on spending the night at the new house?"
"Yes," Marie said. "All of the new furniture won't be delivered until Monday, but we'll have enough for us to live comfortably with what's being delivered today."
"Why don't you and Dirk come back and have supper with us? It's such a nice day," I said. "I'll fire up the grill. I'm sure your place won't be in shape to do much cooking."
"I'll check with Dirk, but I'm sure he'll agree. He's taking off work tomorrow. He wanted to be off today, but he had an important meeting that he had to go to today," Marie said. "Well, I had better go let Ricky know I'm leaving."
I thought that Peter had been in the sun long enough, so I suggested to the boys that they play upstairs. They didn't complain and headed upstairs. They were a noisy bunch for nearly an hour. Then I noticed that the noise had ceased. I went upstairs to see what was going on and saw that they were no longer to be seen. I had a suspicion I knew where they were. I went to the music practice area and saw that the door was closed. When I opened it, there they were. TJ and Lenny were showing Peter which keys on the keyboard to play. I had to chuckle to myself at the look of concentration on Peter's face.
Ricky was holding Chris' drumsticks and "playing" the drums. Chris was holding Ricky's forearms in an effort to show him how to play. I think Ricky was more interested in making noise. His characteristic giggle echoed throughout the room every time he hit the cymbals.
I looked around the room at the happy bunch of boys and decided that if they were going to continue to play their chosen instruments, I would need to buy another keyboard and another guitar. That way everyone could have their own instrument. Peter may be a little young for his own instrument. That is if he ended up staying with us. That was not all that certain at this point, despite what the other boys thought.
The seven remained in the music room until their stomachs told them it was time for their afternoon snack. Hildy was ready for them. She had bowls of fruit salad with real whipped cream just waiting to be dipped up when they arrived with starved looks on their faces. After their snack, they decided to play outside. Joel grabbed a soccer ball and they all trooped out to kick the ball around in a game that bore little relationship to the game the ball was designed for.
I stood on the terrace and watched them run, kick the ball, fall down, laugh, get up and run again. Ricky couldn't run as fast as the others, but when he got the ball he would plant his prosthetic leg and kick the ball with his good leg. Then he would take off running after the ball, shrieking with laughter. The other boys made sure that Peter got involved in the game and when he would fall down they were there to pick him up. It was an idyllic sight. I wondered how I ever got so lucky to have such well behaved and caring boys.
"They are wonderful. Aren't they?" Hildy said from beside me. I hadn't noticed her approach.
"Yes, they are," I said, wiping a tear from my eyes. "I'm truly blessed that they came into my life."
"It works both ways," she said, before turning and reentering the house.
It wasn't long after I had started the fire in the grill before Marie and Dirk arrived. I hadn't expected them quite so soon. I figured it would take the movers longer to get everything unloaded and positioned in the house like Marie wanted.
"How did you get everything done so fast?" I asked Dirk, as they came in the front door.
"It wasn't me," Dirk said. "Marie had every room diagramed as to where she wanted the furniture positioned. We still have a lot of stuff to unpack, but at least we'll have places to sleep and enough dishes to eat breakfast off of in the morning. The rest can be unpacked tomorrow."
"When we get everything settled," Marie said, "we want to invite you over, maybe next weekend."
"Are you sure you want all of us descending on your house?" I asked.
"Sure," Dirk answered, "we had a big stone grill built in the back yard and I'm itching to try it out."
"Where's Ricky?" Marie asked.
"He and the other boys are out back playing soccer, or more accurately kick ball. It's probably about time for them to come in and get cleaned up," I said, leading them through the house and out onto the terrace. "The grill should be ready in about ten minutes. Hildy was able to get some great looking tuna steaks. They won't take that long to grill. I hope you like tuna."
"I love it," Dirk said.
"It'll be a first for me," Marie said. "All I've had is tuna out of a can."
"You're in for a treat then," I said, walking over to the edge of the terrace and giving a loud whistle to attract the boys' attention. I motioned for them to come to me.
When Ricky saw Marie and Dirk, he made a beeline for them. He jumped into Marie's arms and gave her a noisy kiss and then leaned out toward Dirk and gave him a noisy kiss as well.
"You look like you've been rolling in the dirt," Marie said to Ricky. "You need a bath, you little stinker."
"I'm not a stinker," Ricky retorted.
"Come here stinker," Dirk said, reaching for Ricky. "Crane, may we use your guest bath to get this one cleaned up?"
"Of course," I said. "Let me have one of the boys get a pair of Peter's shorts and a tee shirt. I don't think they'll be too big for him. Peter may be a year older, but he's not that much bigger."
Joel overheard the conversation and went to get the requested clothes. I went to the kitchen to get the tuna steaks. The grill should almost be ready by the time I get them ready to put on it. It was. I oiled the grill lightly and placed the twelve tuna steaks on the grill. Hildy had said that we probably didn't need all twelve tuna steaks, but if there were any left over she would use them in a salad. The grill was completely covered by the time I had all the tuna on it.
I left the tuna that I had designated for the boys on the grill longer than the ones for the adults. I preferred my tuna to be fairly rare in the middle, but I figured the boys would freak out if I didn't cook theirs all the way through.
The meal and the company was a big success. All the boys ate the tuna steaks. I had been a bit worried that they might not like them, but they disappeared off their plates as quickly as the side dishes that Hildy had prepared. The adults begged off when Hildy began serving dessert. The boys didn't, especially when they saw the bowls of cherry cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream. I just shook my head wondering where they put all that food.
After supper while the boys were playing upstairs, the adults sat in the living room drinking coffee. Dirk announced that he was going to adopt Ricky next week.
"How did you get his birth father to agree to that?" I asked.
"He was quite willing to agree once it was explained to him that he would no longer have to pay the child support payments that he was supposed to be paying. He hadn't been making them regularly anyway, but at least this would allow him legally to stop making them," Dirk said. "We did have a little trouble tracking him down on our own. His family was not very cooperative. Once I hired Jack Hogan's group to track him down, it only took a couple of days."
"When is the adoption going to take place?" I asked.
"Tuesday morning at nine o'clock in Judge Bono's courtroom at the Comal County Courthouse in New Braunfels. If you don't have other plans, you all are invited."
"We wouldn't miss it," I said. "And congratulations on becoming a father."
We sat and talked for a while longer before Marie said they needed to get home. She wanted to unpack a few more things and it was getting time for Ricky to go to bed.
I had put the boys to bed and had gone into the library to select a book to read, when the phone rang. It was Eric.
"Crane, would it be possible to bring JR around earlier than what we agreed upon?" Eric asked.
"Of course," I said.
"I need to stop by Gerald Cousins' office to pick up some paper work in case we end up purchasing a condo for Bran while we are in California."
"What time do you want to bring him by?"
"I'm supposed to meet with Gerald at 11:30, so I thought maybe around 10:30. Is that okay?"
"Anytime is fine. You know JR is always welcome. The boys will be thrilled that he's going to stay overnight for a couple of days." You would be too, I almost said.
After we hung up, I decided to go to bed instead of starting another book.
At breakfast the next morning, Joel wanted to know if it was okay if he went to John's house to study for the AP test. He asked if I could take him there around nine o'clock. I agreed and asked when he wanted to get a ride home. We decided that I would pick him up at three.
I stopped and talked to Pauline for a while when I dropped Joel off. She said that the divorce hearing was coming up next week.
"Do you think that Bruce will cause any problems?" I asked.
"I don't think so," she said. "So far he has been cooperating. I haven't talked to him directly for months. Everything has been handled by our lawyers. The only sticking point is his visitation rights. I don't have any problem with his seeing the girls; it's with John that I have some problems. My lawyer is trying to negotiate that his contact with John must be supervised. Frankly, I'm surprised that he wants visitation rights with John the way he acted before he moved out."
"That's probably not a bad idea. I hope you can get things worked out. Well, I had better get back to the house. Eric Levin is bringing his son over this morning to stay with us for a few days while he goes to California with his foster son to check out housing at the university. I'll be back to pick up Joel around three."
It was shortly after ten when I returned to the house. There were five boys sitting on the front steps waiting for JR to arrive.
"When's he gonna get here, dad?" Chris asked.
I looked at my watch before answering. "In about 15 minutes, I should think. Eric said they would be here around 10:30 and it's 10:11 right now." I sat down beside them. "What do you guys have planned once JR gets here?"
"We're gonna practice soccer for his game tomorrow," Chris answered.
"And then what?" I asked.
"Well, maybe we can go swimming after," Lenny answered.
"And we can go ride the horses," Larry added.
"That sounds like a plan," I said. "We can go ride horses right after lunch and we can pick up Joel on the way back home."
We sat there in silence for the next few minutes until they heard the gate swing open and Eric's car approaching. They jumped up off the steps and hurried to the driveway, where they stood in their best honor guard formation waiting for the car to arrive. Chris opened the door to the back seat as soon as the car had stopped. JR had already removed his seatbelt and scrambled out to be group hugged. Bran and Eric exited the car in a more leisurely manner, but were greeted almost as warmly.
"Bran, it's good to see you. Are you anxious to go off to college?" I asked.
"Yes and no," he answered. "It's going to be exciting starting to college, but I'm sure going to miss JR and Eric."
"Not half as much as they're going to miss you, I'll bet."
"You're right about that," Eric said. "Bran, will you get JR's things. He seems to have forgotten them."
Bran nodded and retrieved a bag from the back seat of the car, before we headed into the house.
"Do you have time for a cup of coffee before you take off?" I asked Eric.
"It'll have to be a quick one if we are to get to Gerald's office on time," he said.
"Has Gerald gotten everything arranged?"
"As far as I know," Eric said. "He said he has a check made out for a deposit, if needed, and there is something about a power of attorney."
"Yeah, you would need that in case you buy a place in the name of the trust fund," I said. "You can depend on Gerald to think of everything. Have you had any more thoughts about whether buying something is the way to go?"
"Bran and I have had several conversations about it. He just wants a quiet place to live so that he can study. I've had several conversations with the real estate agent to get his opinion. I'm sure he would really like us to buy. His commission would be larger. He thinks that real property in that area of California is going to skyrocket in the next few years and that buying something would make a good investment. We'll have to see when we get there. My main concern is that we find a comfortable place that is safe for Bran to live."
We had taken our cups of coffee to the terrace where we could watch the boys playing a rag-tag game of soccer. Bran appeared to be coaching JR. Eric looked at his watch and then announced that they had better be on the way to Gerald's office. He caught Bran's attention and motioned for him to come to the house. That brought the soccer to a halt as all the boys followed Bran.
At the car, JR hugged Bran and held on to him, not letting him get into the car. Bran was finally able to untangle himself. "Hey, squirt, I'll be back on Sunday. It'll be here before you know it." He gave JR a quick kiss on the forehead and slid into the front passenger seat.
As they drove off, JR turned to me and wrapped his arms around my waist. I could tell he was crying. "I don't want him to go," he sobbed into my stomach.
"I know, son. We all love Bran. It'll be a while before he goes off to college and you can always talk to him on the phone after he goes. I'm sure that Bran hates the thought of leaving you, too. Now why don't you go wash your face and then go play with everybody?"
It had been a busy day what with the soccer practice, swimming and horseback riding. By the time bedtime rolled around, a tired JR was mostly back to his usual self. Naturally, he had to sleep in the twins' and Chris' room. He ended up bunking with Chris. I figured I would need to quiet them down several times before they went to sleep. As it happened, I only had to quiet them down once.
At ten o'clock Saturday morning, Eric called to talk to JR. I only heard part of their conversation, but it was apparent from JR's happy smile that he got to talk to Bran. After they had talked a while, JR handed me the phone and told me his dad wanted to talk to me.
"Crane, I thought I'd give you an update on the search. We saw a couple of places yesterday after we checked into our hotel. One condo was nice, but I wasn't impressed with the facilities or the area. The other one was an apartment that I wouldn't even consider letting Bran live in," Eric said.
"I suppose you will be looking at more today," I said. "Maybe you'll have better luck. After you saw those places, did you give your realtor feedback on what you liked and didn't like? If you did, he should fine tune his showings for you today."
"Yes, we did. After looking at the two places, I told him to only show us condos or townhouses, preferably ones that are for sale. He called a few minutes ago and said he had three to show us this morning and three, possibly four, more after lunch. When we're through looking, Bran wants to take another tour of the campus. I'm hoping we can get something finalized before we have to leave tomorrow. You can't believe the prices of places out here. That first condo we saw was listed for $325,000 and it was only about 950 sq. ft."
"Well, have fun condo shopping. I'm sure that Gerald gave you an idea of how much you could spend for Bran's housing," I said. "I see the boys are lining up ready to go. I promised them I'd take them to lunch after JR's soccer game and then we could go ride the horses again. We'll see you tomorrow evening. I miss you."