Kate lived in an older house. Built in the ’30’s, it had that well lived in look. Stuccoed walls and and flower beds complemented the old growth trees snuggling up to the walls. The gargoyle on the front porch as well as the wind chimes hanging from various nooks, branches and nails made Eric smile. He’d almost swear that the house was welcoming him. Before Kate got to the door, a blond giant opened it and welcomed them in.
“This is Zach, my oldest son,” Kate said as they swept into the kitchen. It was full of people of all ages, and voices flowing faster than you could follow.
Zach shook Eric’s hand. “I’ve heard about your computer skills. Maybe you can look at my box later. Just got the latest processor and motherboard, and haven’t gotten everything running yet.”
“Sure. I’d love to have a look at it.”
“Zach, you can wait until he’s at least had dinner!” Kate sighed somewhat exasperated.
“Okay mom. Just…” Zach trailed off as a petite young woman grabbed him for a kiss.
Kate smiled. “That’s Anne, his girlfriend of the moment.”
Eric just smiled back and nodded. He was beginning to feel a bit lost and looked around for his children. They were busy in a corner with another little girl and a puppy. There were also cats and an older dog working the crowd, hoping for the odd bit of food to drop.
“Andy, this is Eric. Those are his two children playing with Bess.” Kate introduced Eric to her son. Andy looked like a thinner, shorter version of Zach, but with flaming red hair. “Somewhere in here are Pat and Jon. They are the two youngest boys.” She turned, looking around the room.
“Mom!” A voice boomed from across the room.
Kate looked up almost in time before a long haired young man who matched Zach in size and looks picked her up off her feet in a hug.
“Pat, put me down!”
Pat complied with a devilish grin on his face. “Want a beer mom? Or a glass of wine?”
“I’ll have a glass of wine. Red please.” Kate then turned to Eric. “Which would you like?”
“A beer please. Wine and I don’t get along.”
“Okay. Back in a second,” Pat said.
Eric watched him go and realized that another young man who matched the boys was coming his way. The teen towered over Eric in a gangly sort of way. Like a puppy that hadn’t grown into its paws.
“Hello Jon. Nice to meet you. I’m Eric.”
“Yeah, know that. Mom’s talked about you and the kids. Said I had to say hello. So, hello.” Jon turned on his heels and disappeared out of the kitchen.
Kate just rolled her eyes. “Sorry about that. To say that he is a difficult child just so doesn’t begin to describe Jon.”
Eric smiled. “Who’s gene pool did your sons get their height from? It certainly wasn’t you.”
“Ooooh…. short jokes eh?”
“No, it’s just that I’ve not been made to feel this small in years. And all I could think of was just how tall is their dad or your dad.”
“Was. He was 6’3″,” Kate said a bit quietly.
“Oh. Sorry. Divorce or death?”
“Death. He died nearly four years ago. Fell asleep at the wheel.”
“I’m sorry Kate.” Eric felt rather awkward as he wasn’t sure where to go with the conversation.
Kate realized that Eric was beginning to freeze up and put her hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay. David made a choice to drive when he should have pulled over. He paid for it. I find it hard to deal with some days and others, well…. it just sneaks up on me when I think I’m okay.” She took a deep breath and looked around for Pat.
“Pat! Where is that alcohol?”
“Coming Mother!” he said as he strode towards them. The crowd parted around him and the next thing they knew, Kate had a glass of wine and Eric some sort of European beer. “Hope you don’t mind ale.”
“No, I rather like it. Most American beers are a bit bland.”
Pat nodded in agreement and looked up as the door behind them opened. Suzie walked in with Peaches and Angel. He kissed Kate and headed towards Suzie. “Suzie!”
Kate turned to look who had come in the door. She smiled when she saw Suzie and the kids. “Those are my feral grandchildren,” she said as she turned back to Eric.
The look of puzzlement that played across Eric’s face made Kate break out in a smile. He looked towards Pat and the woman he was hugging, and tried to understand what Kate was talking about.
“Here, take a plate and we can talk as we eat.” Kate handed him a plate, and started filling her own.
“What about Jamie and Mark? They’ll need plates.”
“Eric, if you turn around, you’ll see that they’ve been fed.”
Eric turned to see Zach had just handed them plates as well as Bess. All three children were thanking him and started to dig into the food.
“I guess you’re right.” Eric filled his plate with food and then turned to Kate. “Where shall we sit? Is there anywhere to sit?” He looked around the crowded kitchen and living room.
Kate smiled and made a motion for him to follow. She lead him down the hall to a room full of books, computer parts, fabric, yarn, records, 8-tracks and other odd bits. Kate sat behind the computer desk and pulled the sewing table chair out for Eric.
“It isn’t the easiest space to sit in, but at least it is a little bit quieter.”
“Yes. I could do with a bit of it for a few moments. I haven’t been in such a tight space with so many people in a long time.” Eric balanced his plate on his knee and started to eat.
“Well, it isn’t always like this. The boys wanted to cook and I couldn’t say no. Then of course, all the friends follow.” Kate smiled over the top of her wine glass.
Eric just shook his head, not knowing exactly what to think of Kate and her household of people. “I hope you don’t expect me to remember any of the people you introduced me to. I’m bad with names.”
“Oh, no way. There are too many people in there. However, I owe you an explanation.”
“Ah yes. Ferals…”
“That’s what I call the people who are like stray cats. The ones who don’t have a place to call their own.”
Eric stopped eating. “I guess you’d class me and the kids as ferals then.” His voice had lost some of its cheerfulness.
Kate looked at him and realized that she’d inadvertently hurt his feelings. “Yes, in some ways, you’d be a feral. However, you are not so out of it that you can’t connect to society. You aren’t living rough. You aren’t dysfunctional, and you don’t miss the social clues that so many of my ferals do.” She took a deep breath and was about to continue.
“Okay. I was just a bit worried. I’ve run into some prejudices and so I’m a bit sensitive I guess.”
“I’m sorry Eric. Let me give you an example. Take Suzie, the woman Pat was greeting with such enthusiasm. She’s a feral. Even after living in a house of her own for nearly a year and holding down a job at the local burger joint, she still is just that one step away from dysfunction.”
Erin looked at her trying to understand.
“She was the middle kid of a large family. Her mom isn’t all glued together right, and has had about five or six husbands. Suzie ran away from home when she was 17. Had Peaches when she was 18. Has no idea of who the biological dad is. Angel came along eighteen months later. No parenting skills, no life skills, nothing.” She stopped to let this sink in as she ate a bit of her burger.
“Suzie was in and out of housing, the shelter, her mom’s house and my house. She came here, because Pat was her boyfriend for a while. And no, I’m not sure if Peaches or Angel is one of his or not. I gave up worrying about it. My biggest concern has been trying to help her be a better mom and a responsible adult.” Kate took another bite of burger.
Eric ate the last bit of his food and set the plate on the floor. “Okay, I understand a bit more of what you mean now. Wow. How do you cope?”
“How could I not cope? How could I turn any of them out? I’m just not built that way.”
“Is that why you work at the shelter?”
“Yes. Suzanne recognized I had a talent for working with the odd ones. She’s been here often enough that I’m not sure if the boys know she isn’t a relative. She came to be with me when David died.” She took a large sip of wine. “I started out as a volunteer and then realized that I really wanted to work there. When a spot opened, Suzanne put me in it.”
“Well, only knowing you for a short time, I think you are very good at it.”
“Thanks Eric. Do you want anything else?” She pointed to his empty plate.
“No, I’m fine. I’m…”
“MOM!” A voice hollered from the kitchen.
“What Jon?” Kate asked as she gathered her plate and glass. She headed back to the kitchen where Jon stood there with his arm wrapped around his neck, and forced back at an odd angle with his older brother Zach keeping it there.
“Tell him to let go of me!” Jon said as his face got redder the more he struggled.
“What did you do?” Kate asked.
“Me? I didn’t do nuthin!” Jon gasped.
“Oh? Trying to sneak out with the cake was ‘nuthin’ eh? You illiterate lout!” Zach said rather loudly.
“I was takin it to Mom.”
“Oh sure you were. Try again fish bait!” Zach lifted him a bit higher off the floor.
“Zach, put him down. Where is the cake?” Kate said quietly
“I’ve got it Mom. I’m serving it up to the little ones first,” Andy said from the other side of the room. He was busy cutting cake and putting it on small paper plates. Jamie, Bess and Mark were waiting patiently.
“Alright. Now, as for you two,” she said even more quietly than before. “I want you to stop it and let it go. Now.”
“But Mom!” Jon started to argue.
“Shall I just take him outside?” Zach said as he tightened his grip.
“No, just let go of him. You two need to not start wrestling like paratroopers every time one of you disagrees with the other.” Kate’s voice was still soft.
Zach let go of Jon so fast that he fell to the floor. “Fine by me Mom. I’m just trying to keep some order here.”
“Thank you dear, but sometimes you two just go too far. Don’t wrestle in my kitchen.”
Jon got up from the floor blustering still and took a swipe at Zach. Zach caught his foot and carried it up until it was level with his shoulder. The rest of the people in the room just moved out of their way and were heading for Andy and the cake.
Jon and Zach looked at their mom and realized that she had had enough. Any quieter and she’d be whispering, and that was a bad sign. Mom whispering meant that people were going to wish she’d been yelling. Zach dropped Jon’s leg and moved back.
“Sorry Mom,” Jon said as he moved forward to give her a hug.
“Me too Mom” Zach snagged a piece of cake. He snapped a wrist at Jon as he too got a piece of cake and then disappeared into the living room where music was getting louder.
“Here Mom. Have some of your cake.” Andy handed a piece to her and Eric. “Maybe some day those two will grow up,” he said as he turned back to the cake pan.
“One could only hope.” Kate took a bite of cake.
Eric wasn’t sure what to make of the whole thing. Horseplay gone wrong and Kate had dealt with it with a voice so quiet he could barely hear her. However, her body language read like she was ten foot tall and made of steel. Funny when you really looked at her. Eric took the opportunity to study her while she dealt with her own cake and one of the people she’d introduced him to earlier.