Our new arrival -- and our future friend or foe -- was Charlotte's roving ex-husband, Gael Carolina.
Some of us suspected another instance of monkey-fu at work. Conspiracy theorists speculated on the recent whereabouts of that wandering young monk from the Hilltop Hermitage, Qwai Ching Paine. Señor Carolina himself, who claimed no encounters with zen-babbling strangers, explained more simply how he happened to end up in this obscure corner of the world.
"It was I who persuaded Señor Delaval to finance an independent cannabis farm in Hardy County. I learned about this place in emails from my son, Antonio. When opportunity arose for Delaval Enterprises to forge closer bonds with the fine people of your land, who more natural than I to help forge them -- I who already have such loving bonds here?"
And he embraced his worshipful son (who looked just like him in that raw, unfinished teenaged way) and his daughter (who looked a lot more interested in the hairdo and fashions of the Audrey Tautou double accompanying her father).
But those who heard Gael Carolina make that statement, on that June day at the airport, couldn't help but notice that the word "fine" -- as in "fine people of your land" -- didn't sound quite as genuine and genial as it might have on the lips of his predecessor, the envoy Alejandro Verdugo Serrano. It sounded, in fact, distinctly sardonic. Like the tone of a man who found himself among the most red-necked of rubes. A man who thought he just might make his career by molding our weak Hardyville clay into exactly what we didn't want to be: Monte Carlo, U.S.A. -- a place more fitting his ambitions and reputation.
We looked at each other uneasily, began to treat Señor Carolina with kid gloves, and once the dust of his arrival had settled, rushed to Charlotte's store to get the scoop on this Latin stranger.
You can imagine what Charlotte's scoop was full of.
"Wild adventurer. Couldn't stay put to raise his own kids -- his own kids! He barely contacted them for ten years -- too busy exploring for gold in the Amazon or sailing the Mediterranean with a sailboat full of ... women on somebody else's money." We could picture the epithet she'd wanted to utter. The picture contained champagne, cocaine, and much nakedness. "But of course, they adore him," Charlotte ranted on, nodding at a photo of her children. "Wouldn't you know it? I work my behind off getting them through everything from scraped knees to their surprises about birth-control pills. And that just makes me a bad guy. Look at them fawning on him -- on that man who barely could remember to send child support, let alone Christmas or birthday presents! And here sits terrible, rotten mom ..."
Charlotte's rants interested those with a taste for gossip, and broke even more hearts among those smitten with Gael Carolina's continental sleek looks. They could now add "Byronic adventurer" and "dangerous man" to his résumé of attractions. But none of this driftwood of his private life helped us understand the man whose opinions and ambitions would determine our fate.
He and his ... girlfriend? wife? administrative assistant? mistress? hitchhiker? (no one was saying) ... settled into the old Pickle residence, the entire political clan having fled the town. The Pickle Manse was the nearest thing we had to decadent European splendor. The Delavalians moved in, then proceeded to keep their own counsel.
There were meetings, of course. And many tours of this and that. Señor Carolina visited Doc's amazing drug store, the One Unattractive Tourist Attraction, the Den of Iniquity casino, and (strictly for professional purposes, of course), Miss Fitz's Young Ladies Academy, where even those girls' hearts beat a little faster in his presence. He even visited the Federal Five and had some talks with the murderous members of the multi-jurisdictional task force, who still languished in jail as their attorneys tried to figure out the arcana of the Hardyville justice system. (Hint: Our system was too simple for their overly complexicated habits.)
But most of all, our new arrival had long meetings with the owners of Hardyville's banks and was given a cautious overview of how our money system works.
Don't worry; I won't give you that lecture -- the big one on how money works. Suffice to say that our money system works much more steadily than this one, albeit on a pretty small scale until now.
It was money, and banking, that interested Señor Carolina most. That was Hardyville's prime virtue in the eyes of the Delavalistas -- their money flowing in, their money flowing out, money safe within, money kept private from entry until exit. And that we could give them. Numbered accounts safer than the Swiss. Bearer books better than Austria's. More security than the Cayman Islands. For Hardy County was not a signatory to any international banking treaty. And until just a couple of weeks ago, Hardyville had never been under the evil eye of the IRS, the Department of Homeland Security, or the "know your customer" law.
Our bankers mostly did know their customers. But only because they'd gone to school with good old Joe or Mary since ... well, the Hardyville equivalent of going to school, that is. Shooting tin cans together. Stuff like that. But even then, when it came to what Joe or Mary had in an account, our bankers couldn't have had their records pried open with the biggest crowbar in any government arsenal. Nor did they consider it their business what Joe and Mary did with their money -- as long as they weren't taking any obvious Mafia payoffs to perform hits on inconvenient, but otherwise innocent, people.
That Señor Carolina appreciated. It was the rest of Hardyville he didn't appear to like.
* * *
"Quaint." "Outdated." "Eccentric." "Amusing." The epithets uttered by the man on his various tours mounted up. Oh, it's true he let truth-telling words like those slip only very occasionally, amid pleasant nods, polite questions, and keep-his-own-counsel answers. But we were getting the message.
"Quaint," my Aunt Fanny.
Carolina didn't grok that, to work as it does, Hardyville has to be what it is. Start building high-rise hotel-casinos and pretty soon you have to have politicians to run things. Next thing you know they're making you get licenses for every move you make and taxing you for every breath you take (idealistic paper agreements not withstanding). The temptation to sell their power, or give it to buddies from the country club or the political party quickly overwhelms what tiny grain of a conscience such people began with.
Start putting up high-rises and advertising Hardyville (even discreetly within the billionaire network) as place to live and enjoy the cosmopolitan pleasures ... and Hardyville is useless to you. Hardyville is dead.
I mean, what do you think happened to the whole U.S.? Yeah, the country started out with less-than-Hardyvillian principles -- neither chattel slavery nor a powerful federal state are tools for creating liberty. But what happened after that was that the country became more urban than rural. People who've never had to dig their own ditches or rely on their neighbors for sustinance after a crop-killing storm rarely "get" freedom to the bones -- even those few who still get it, intellectually.
They do not get that the best of life -- and the deepest of freedom -- lies on the other side of risk and peril: in Hardyville. Gael Carolina certainly didn't get it.
* * *
While Señor Carolina, often with one of his children or Mlle. Audrey (or whoever she really was) on his arm, made his rounds -- and his plans -- chaos erupted in the other Carolina household, that of Charlotte and the kids Tonio, 18, and Jen, 15 going on 25.
"I don't have to put up with you!"
Jen turned her back on Charlotte with a flounce. She stomped a couple of paces to frown at herself in a mirror -- a constant occupation, these days.
"You do have to put up with me," Charlotte barked. "And you will have to put up with me. Because I support you. I put the chocolate syrup on your ice cream. I buy that ghastly shade of purple for your lips. And as long as I do, you will have to put up with me. And obey me."
"Not for long, I don't! 'Cause in this place -- even if it is a stupid place in every other way full of people who could compete in an uglification geekathon -- I can leave home any time I want. They say I don't have to wait 'til I'm 18."
Charlotte sighed. She'd known Jen would discover that fact, sooner rather than later; there is no arbitrary "age of majority" in Hardy County. Now that the day had arrived, and the information had sprouted in Jen's muddy little brain, Charlotte didn't know whether to be horrified or relieved. My baby -- threatening to leave home! This poisonous little pest I'd like to strangle with my bare hands -- promising to leave me in peace!
"No, you can't leave home any time you want," she explained wearily, treading a dangerous line. "You can leave when you're capable of supporting yourself or when you can, on your own, find some other family willing to support you. That's the rule around here, girl. And you're still a long way from either. Leave without making some provision for yourself and, no, they won't throw you in jail. But nobody's likely even to help you. And remember, if you leave home I'm not under any obligation to take you back or assume responsibility for your screwups."
"Oh, yeah? Well, you watch me. I'll get myself a job. I'll make lots of money and get myself an apartment. I'll move in with somebody else, if I can think of anybody I can stand in this stupid town. Or ... or I'll move in with Dad and Mirabelle. Yeah! That's what I'll do.
"Mirabelle? So that's what that woman's called?" Somehow, hearing the name of her most recent replacement, spoken aloud, made the entire situation that much more outrageous. "Mirabelle. Boy, isn't that just a perfect name for a tramp? 'Mirabelle, baby, come over here and massage my toes.' 'Mirabelle, you look so good in that lacy pegnoir, darling.' Is that the kind of life you want to lead, Jennifer? Is it? Is it really?"
She realized seconds too late that she'd just painted a picture of Jen's idea of heaven.
Jen squinted into the mirror. Is that a new zit? Ohcrap. Her eyes then darted to her mother's. "Yeah. That's how I want to live. And in this place you can't stop me. And don't forget, I'm calling myself Rosamund now. Dad says it was his mother's name." Jen smiled maliciously. "She was from Spain," she added, as if being from the mere U.S.A. could be an unforgivable character flaw. "I'm Rosamund Madeleine Carolina, daughter of Gael Roberto Carolina -- from Madrid. That's in Spain, too. And I won't have to put up with you much longer."
Charlotte resigned herself to the reality. Jennifer was going to do something stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Breathtakingly stupid. There was no halting the girl. Charlotte had an inkling, from what she already knew of the community, that Hardyville reality was going to slap Señorita Rosamund right across her fresh, if slightly pimpled, teenage face. After that, she'd be home safe and sound within a week. But nobody could be sure. On the other hand, her baby Jennifer could end up pregnant, drug-addicted, AIDS-wracked, and in the gutter.
But then, plenty of girls in the real world ended up pregnant, drug-addicted, AIDS-wracked, and in the gutter -- and that was with all those laws and controls supposedly designed to prevent it. What can a mother do?
Sigh. All Charlotte could do is let go of control.
Let go of control when the day came, that is. In the meantime: "Dishes, young lady. And after that, you'll tell me what you've learned this week about Hardy County geography and geology. You can start your globe-hopping life as Rosamund ... or Rosalinda ... or Rosecrucia or whoever ... tomorrow. But for today you're still my dependent daughter. Now, get in there and wash those pots and pans."
Jen slouched toward the kitchen, dragging leaden chains of adolescent disdain and ennui. Charlotte plopped onto the couch. I thought things would be better here. Isn't that the way it's supposed to work? You change your attitudes and lifestyle, and life improves? Isn't that the way it works in every self-help book? So why is life still so miserable? The shop is good. The kids seemed better for a while. But Jennifer's still Jennifer. God forbid. And now that damned man turns up here, messing with their heads. Even Tonio ..."
"Hey, Mom!" her son called, plunging through the front door, all angles and energy. "Guess what? Dad offered me a summer job with him and Delaval Enterprises! And he says if I want, he'll send me to college in Paris. Isn't that cool? I sure wish you liked him better, Mom. I think he's the greatest!"
Yeah, he's the greatest, all right. The greatest damn trouble-stirrer I've ever met in my whole sorry life. Charlotte bit her lip and said nothing.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time. And to webmaster Oliver Del Signore, faithful font of ideas for stuck writers.
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