Chapter Ten

Eric and Jane were nervous Tuesday as they waited for their new tutor to give Deet the results of their tests. Eric thought he’d done pretty good because he’d been an average student at his school in Castelton before his mother died. Then his grades started slipping, and when Marcie turned to alcohol to ease her own pain at Annie’s death Eric failed his last semester of school. His self esteem disappeared completely when he was sent to live with his uncle. Now he thought he could pick up where he’d left off the year before and looked forward to school.

Jane knew she had done miserably. Her education had always been hit or miss. She’d never spent much time in any one school and her mother dragged her from town to town until she completely disappeared from the educational system. She’d had to fight back tears of anger and frustration as she struggled through her test. She was beginning to feel safe and even a little happy in the big, beautiful house and was terrified that Deet would decide she was so stupid that he wouldn’t want her anymore.

“Come on, you two,” Deet told them after they finished eating a fresh batch of cookies Deidre had waiting as a treat, “we need to get to work on the decorations.”

Deidre removed the empty plates and milk glasses from the kitchen table and Deet spread out old family photographs of the house. Deet and Jane recognized some of them from the books Deidre had shown them at the library.

“It was so pretty,” Jane finally said. “I wish’t I could always live here.”

“We’ll just have to see that you do,” Deet told her.

“The house looks the same in most of the pictures,” Eric exclaimed. “There’s only one or two different pictures.”

“My family believed in tradition,” Deet said. “The architecture of the house is Victorian, a style that was very popular at one time. They tried to keep the decorations in line with the style. But we don’t have to do that if you want to make changes. Most of the decorations I have are old ones, used by several generations, but we can go buy some new ones if you’d like. I know a lot of people like to put lights along the eaves that look like icicles. One of the neighbors put some nice wire frames with lights on them in his yard last year. When he turned the lights on it looked like reindeer and a sleigh. It was very pretty.”

The children looked at the pictures again and huddled together in serious conversation. Finally, a decision made, Eric said, “We like this picture,” he said and indicated a faded black and white photograph.

“This is one of the earliest pictures of the house,” Deet said. “Some of those decorations were brought over from Europe. I think some of those pieces are still in the attic. Are you sure this is what you want?”

Eric and Jane nodded their heads in confirmation and Deet asked, “Would you like to help me find the rest of the things we need?”

Anxious to do anything to take their minds off of Pieter Musselman, grading their tests in one of the vacant bedrooms, they instantly agreed. Their visit to the attic the evening before had been a short one, only long enough to carry boxes. There was better light this time, sunlight filtering through several high windows, and the attic became a wonderland.

Old furniture, older than anything in the rest of the house, was scattered across the attic. A faded mirror sat at one end, reflecting some of the light. Several trunks stirred their curiosity and Jane cautiously opened one while Eric and Deidre helped Deet move a stack of boxes.

“I bet the lady who wore this was real pretty,” Jane said as she touched a faded ivory dress of heavy brocade and lace.

“That was my great-grandmother’s wedding dress,” Deet said softly. “I have pictures of her and my great-grandfather. I’ll show them to you sometime. She was a very pretty lady, even when I knew her and then she was almost a hundred years old. She was very German, an old matriarch from a different era. There’s a lot of history in this old attic.”

Jane carefully closed the trunk, an odd feeling coming over her like she had disturbed something. “Is she a haint?”

Deet was puzzled. “A what?” he asked.

“A haint, you know – do she haint the house?”

Deidre said, “Oh, a haunt – a ghost.”

“I don’t think she’s ever haunted the house,” Deet told Jane. “But if she ever does it would only be in a good way, like to catch you if you tripped on the stairs and started to fall. My grandmother told me she was a gentle lady who loved her family. Grandma Graschel said she only saw her get really angry one time, when she found out the director of an orphanage was abusing the children in his care. Greatgrandma, who always carried a fan in her skirt pocket, stormed into the director’s office and started hitting him on the head and shoulders with her fan shouting, ‘Perverser mensch! Kinder vergewaltiger!’”

Eric and Jane both asked, “Huh?”

Deidre, who knew exactly what the old lady had said, replied, “Not words you ever need to repeat.” Then she burst into laughter. “I wish I could have seen her,” she said.

“Well, I know ‘kinder’ means kids,” Eric said, “so it must be something about the kids that really piss… I mean upset her.”

“It was,” Deet said. “In fact, she’s the one who brought the things we’re looking for with her when she came here as a young bride.” He was anxious to divert Eric and Jane from this vein of conversation since his ancestress had exposed a dark secret of child prostitution.

“What was her name?” Jane asked.

“Katarina,” Deet said. “Her name was Katarina but everyone called her Katia.” His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Greatgrandpa called her Kitty, but that’s a family secret.”

Jane buried the information away for another day.

. . .

“Well I’ll be damned, Deet,” Manuel exclaimed that evening when he pulled into the driveway. “I haven’t seen the old place look this good in years!”

Evergreen garlands were symmetrically draped across the porch railings, complimented by large red bows. The bows were old, the garlands fresh – smelling of pine needles. Wooden reindeer pulling a sleigh containing Kris Kringle and a large bag of toys, repainted that morning, greeted passersby. Carolers, antique dolls dressed in Victorian garb, lined the porch on either side of the front door. Deidre and Jane had spent the morning gently removing years of dust with soft paint brushes. Old electric candles filled each window. While the paint on the reindeer dried, Deet had shown Eric how to replace the worn wiring on the candles – making them safe for use.

“What did Pete have to say?” Consuela asked as she shooed her brood into the house and accepted a cup of hot cocoa from Deidre.

“He can bring Eric up to where he’s supposed to be by mid-term,” Deet said. “He’s recommending keeping Jane in home-schooling for now. She can’t read at all, Consuela, and that breaks my heart. Pete agreed to work with her until school starts next August, full-time. She should be in the sixth grade and won’t make it that far, but Pete thinks he can get her to at least third or fourth grade level.”

“Hey!” Manuel shouted, “the trolley’s almost here! Am I the only one going to the river?”

Seven excited children returned, “NO!”

“This is rad!” Eric said as they all settled into seats on the trolley-bus that would carry them downtown. “I’ve seen these pass by the house and wondered what they were.”

“They were designed like the old trolleys in San Francisco and New Orleans,” Deet said.

“Yeah,” Jorge added. “Mom and Dad always leave their car at Uncle Deet’s and take the trolley when we go downtown. We’ll do this again during Fiesta so we can watch the parades. Dad always has a reservation at one of the hotels for New Year’s Eve so we can be downtown for the fireworks.”

“You’re so lucky,” Jane said. “You got a mom and dad who really love you.”

“You are now,” Jorge told her as he gave her a quick hug. “You’ve got Uncle Deet. I can see he loves you a lot, you and Eric.”

“Yeah, but Eric’s his own kid,” Jane responded.

“You haven’t known Uncle Deet very long. I’ve known him forever. Believe me, he loves you.” His voice dropped to a whisper and he added, “I heard Uncle Rick tell my Uncle Ramon the other day that if you aren’t happy with Deet he’d like to have you live with them. I know he’s going to ask Uncle Deet if he can give you private dance lessons.”

“I don’t dance that good,” Jane said.

“You didn’t see yourself the other day,” Jorge replied. “Uncle Rick says you’re a natural. He said as soon as he can teach you the basics he wants to work out stuff just for you.”

The trolley stopped at Rivercenter Mall before Jorge could say more. A gentle glow appeared in the distance and Deet put his forefinger to his lips in a sign that the Fuentes children shouldn’t give away the wonder that Eric and Jane would soon see.

They made their way from Crockett Street toward Commerce and down the limestone steps to the river. Eric and Jane were speechless at what they saw. The many cypress trees that lined the riverwalk were covered with Christmas lights. Their eyes grew round with wonder at the absolute beauty. Manuel and Deet led them to the entrance to the barge rides and Manuel, acting like a perfect gentleman, handed his wife, daughters, and Jane to their reserved barge.

The Fuentes children had done this every year so it was nothing new to them. But Eric and Jane were so captured by the beauty and polite deference of their waiter that they were speechless. Their barge driver, Arnulfo, explained as the barges carrying the Pasado del Rio passed, telling that it was the city’s story of the birth of the Christ child.

The food was excellent, the ride relaxing and inspiring. “Who wants ice cream?” Deet asked when their meal was finished and they disembarked.

It was a moot question since all of the children had a small corner of their growing stomachs that could use a bit of a snack.

“My treat,” Deet added and led them to the ice cream store just inside the river entrance to Rivercenter Mall.

“Can you keep Eric and Jane busy for a little while?” Deet asked Manuel and Consuela. “I haven’t done any shopping yet for their presents.”

“I think ice cream and the river lights might keep them occupied,” Consuela said. “Don’t buy them clothes,” she added as Deet headed for the escalator that would take him above the river level that contained restaurants.

Deet wandered around the specialty booths looking at small pieces of jewelry and clothing. Nothing reached out and told him it had to belong to either of the children. He was wandering around the Disney store when he backed into someone and turned around to apologize, only to find himself looking at his shrink.

“Shopping?” Dr. Tran asked.

“Yeah, you?”

“For my sister’s kids,” Dr. Tran said. “They’re hard to buy for since my sister spoils them. I was thinking about some of these fuzzy Goofy or Brother Bear slippers for the boys and maybe a Cinderella doll for my niece.”

“Same here,” Deet replied. “Eric’s too old for fuzzy slippers but I thought I’d find something here for Jane.”

The psychiatrist laughed. “Never underestimate the ability of a child to be a child,” he said. “Eric would probably love a pair of ridiculous slippers. He’ll blush, protest, and wear them in secret. He’ll never admit that he loves them, but he will. It’s like his last act of childhood before the imminent passage into puberty. He needs to be a child right now.”

“If you think so,” Deet said and reached for a pair of Goofy slippers he thought might be Eric’s size only to be stopped by Dr. Tran’s hand on his.

A pregnant silence followed before Dr. Tran said, “This other pair is more Eric’s size.”

It was only a brief few seconds but it spoke volumes.

“I’m opening my house to the Conservation Christmas Tour this year,” Deet stammered out. “I’d like you to stop by, if you can, and see what Eric and Jane are doing with the house. That is, if you’d like. I’ll understand if you’re not interested. I only thought …”

“I think I’d like that,” Dr. Tran replied. “I am their therapist and it would probably be a good idea if I see first hand their environment. May I invite Judge Solari and her family?”

“Of course,” Deet replied, again aware of the fact that this man was his and the children’s therapist and not someone he could become involved with although he hadn’t felt this drawn to any man since Ramon left him for Rick.

“The Conservation Society sells tickets for the tour but I can have you and the judge as private guests outside the tour. I’m not sure how to do this since I don’t want the judge to think I’m trying to brown-nose.”

“I’ll pay for the tour tickets,” Dr. Tran said. “Angie knows I’m always attempting to bribe her but we’ve known each other for years. Any chance she could see Jane do a little Spurs Dancer shake and shimmy?”

“I, uh, don’t know,” Deet replied. “She only lets loose when Rick’s around to guide her.”

“Saturday night, an impromptu visit and see if you can get Ramon and Rick over here. I want Angie to see Jane getting down with the groove.”

. . .

Several hours later the children were snuggled in their beds, Jorge and his sisters happy that their new friends had enjoyed the introduction to the holiday season. Eric crept from his room on the second floor of the Graschel house into Jane’s room and asked if he could sleep with her.

“What you got in mind?” Jane asked.

“We didn’t get anything for Dad,” he said, unaware that he had gone beyond the childhood reference of daddy.

“Do we got any money to get him something?” Jane asked.

“I don’t think so,” Eric replied. “Manuel’s mom had all the money we had. I bet if we asked her she could pick out something and help us pay for it.”

Seldom do visions of sugar plum faeries actually appear to anyone, but safe in the house that had raised several generations of children Eric and Jane drifted off to sleep intent on finding a suitable gift for the man who had chosen to take them into his heart and life.


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