Chapter Thirty-six: Unanticipated Events
The time change from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time arrived, giving everyone a chance to sleep in an extra hour, which all of them did, with the grateful greed of people who work hard for their living. The down side was that there was an hour less of daylight in the evening. Instead of coming home a little after dusk, Gloria now drove home in the dark, dreading the day when her car was repossessed and she'd have to walk to the bus stop at the end of the Bakers' lane and stand there alone in the dark, waiting for the bus to show up. The time change meant a change in Will's hours, too -- he left later, but came home earlier, when the sun went down. His friend Peter was gone from the Van Duyken farms, off to San Luis Obispo for college, so Mr. Van Duyken had shifted Peter's chores onto Will. All the harvesting equipment was being cleaned and oiled and polished, piece by piece, and where before Will had come home covered with dust, now he came back greasy and smelling of solvents.
Ben, in his naturally systematic way, was driving his father's car while they still had it, going from grocery store to grocery store with a notebook, researching the lowest prices for produce and staples. His method for avoiding being pulled over by police was to wear a dress shirt and tie; so far it had worked, and each Wednesday, he had a shopping list compiled for Gloria for each of the stores. Lettuce is cheapest here, onions, potatoes, spices there. The best bread turned out to be the cheapest, from a discount grocery store.
And he had found a way to contribute to the family funds. He went door to door on neighborhood streets, handing out fliers he made on the computer printer, advertising low rates for computer help and fixes. Neatly dressed and clean-complectioned, he was like a walking model of what American youth ought to be. And the curly red hair and freckles didn't hurt, either. The money he made wasn't much, but he was good at what he did, and thought that word of mouth was probably going to increase his business.
Word of mouth at school also helped him. All it took was for him to rebuff the advances of one of the girls in the popular clique -- suddenly the phone was ringing every evening, girls asking for Benjamin Melton. "I laid it on a little thick," he told Gloria after one long phone conversation. "Carlie Smith was teasing me -- she wasn't really serious about wanting to date me, but I told her I could not afford romance in my life at this time. I gave her some major eye contact, and said, 'I only wish I could.' Drove her nuts! Now I've got all these girls trying to help me, going all competitive on each other, and telling their parents they need help with their computers and that they should hire me."
"See, that's why it's a good idea for you to stay in school."
"I guess. I still don't see why I can't just home school myself and then get the G. E. D. later." He shrugged and went to answer the phone again.
If anyone could home school themselves, it would be Ben, Gloria mused. I hadn't thought about his leaving school that way. I always just thought of it as dropping out.
"It's for you," Ben called. "Steve."
What the hell? Gloria went to the phone perplexed. Steve from work? Maria's 'Man-boy'? "Hello?" she said tentatively.
"Hi, Gloria? This is Steve Averre from the Baker household. I was wondering if you'd be interested in dinner or a movie next Wednesday when you're off. I get done with work around five ... "
"Steve! Oh, Steve, no, I don't think so. I have too much I have to do on my days off taking care of our house." What had she done to encourage him like this? How had he found their number, unless he called all the Meltons in the phone book? How many Meltons were there in the phone book?
"Okay, I kind of understand. Maybe some day, if you ever just want to go out, let me know."
"Well, thank you for asking," she said, trying to be polite, but still absolutely flummoxed that he was asking her out. He had to be what, thirty?
Ben was watching her with raised eyebrows when she hung up the phone.
"I have no idea why he called me -- he works for the Bakers, too ... does the shopping for our kitchen, I don't know what all else. Maria thinks he's an idiot."
"Riiight," he said. "Word must have gotten out that you're a good cook. You'll have all kinds of marriage proposals now."
"Steve wasn't proposing, you turd. He just wanted to go out to dinner or to a movie." Gloria felt her face turn red.
"If it was just a friendly thing, why'd you turn him down? You haven't been out at a 'friendly' thing since we had this financial meltdown."
She snorted. "All my so-called friends have disappeared. The idea that we might ask for help or a place to stay is as conducive to buddy-hood as confessing to head lice. I don't know, Ben. I don't miss Damon one bit, and I'm not ready to have another boyfriend, so why encourage him at all?"
"You could get out of the house for a few hours and let me invite all my sympathetic computer girls over ... "
"Well, dummy, you can do that if you want to. I can stay in my room and read. As long as you're not getting them drunk and pregnant all over the place ... "
He laughed. "Touché, sis. I don't want a bunch of dopey bimbos hanging around while I'm trying to study or do my computer crap. It's a pain in the ass when their parents do hire me for stuff -- breathing down the back of my neck the whole time. It would have been cool a year ago, but now it just interferes with the job, which is all about the cash flow, not the hot teen mamas."
"Yep, you got it. I'm not about to go out with anyone that Maria thinks is an idiot. The Bakers pay my wage, but Maria is my boss."
Later that evening, as Gloria was changing into pajamas, shivering in the chilly temperature of the house, she looked over her shoulder to see in the mirror what it was that might have prompted Steve to track her down. I guess I'm not too awful to look at, she concluded. I've lost a little weight since I started working ... all of us have, I think. I wonder how old Steve really is? Seriously, I am not going to piss Maria off by going out with him. He's about two steps from her getting him fired as it is.
"You're late," she informed Will when he emerged from his shower, much better smelling and lacking the grease smears on his cheek. "Your car okay?"
He went to the refrigerator and opened it, pretending to ignore her. "Let's see, what kind of poison do you have in store for me tonight? Oh, no, I won't be lured into your deathly trap! I have already been fed!"
"Salvi bring you some more rice and beans?"
"Ham steak, mashed potatoes with gravy, corn, and apple pie," he said smugly. "Mrs. Van Duyken was kind enough to make me eat seconds, too. She's not as good a cook as you are, but good enough. And we never eat ham any more, which is a damned shame."
"What, she had leftovers she needed to get rid of now that Pete's off to college, right?"
"Better still. She had the misfortune of doing some of her Christmas shopping early online, and picked up a virus that shut down not only her computer, but Mr. Van Duyken's dad's too, since they're linked." He cackled evilly. "I could hear them shouting all the way over in the barn, he was so mad at her. I kept hearing the words 'computer' and 'not verking" ' and knew I was in the right place at the right time. When he came out to the barn to stomp around and cool himself off, I meekly asked if everything was okay. 'No!' he shouted. 'Damn woman messed up my computers, nothing verks, everytime I try to get to my accounts, I get pictures of naked people all over the place! Vat the hell am I going to do vith no computer? Ve was better off ven ve just used paper and pens!'
"That's a computer virus, I told him. Your computer just needs a clean up. 'That's right,' he bellowed, 'and they say they can't come out to pick them up until next week, then it takes a couple weeks till they can get to them and fix them! Bastards!' Honestly, I've never seen him so mad. Mr. Van Duyken, I says to him, I can probably fix the computer for you.
"It was an old virus, probably from about seven years ago or so, and poor Mr. Van Duyken was relying on one of those fucking antivirus programs that come with the computer when you buy it, and didn't understand that it had run out of its trial period, can you believe that? I just drove back here, grabbed my laptop, and went back, disconnected his system, plugged in and looked up the virus code. I found a geek site that had a cleanup tool they made, fired up his computer again and cleaned the mother up in a matter of minutes."
Gloria laughed with him. "Did you tell him to get a better antivirus system?"
"Hell, no. When he asks me, I'll tell him, but until then, if his computer wigs on him, I'll be in his mind to help him out. In fact, you should know this ... " He left the kitchen, came back a moment later. "... those shitheads at Computer Heaven were gonna charge him two hundred dollars to clean him up, plus keep his computers for over two weeks. He was so thrilled at me that he paid me that, on top of my wages. And Mrs. Van Duyken fed me. What do you think of that?" He tossed a stack of twenties onto the counter.
Tears welled up and rolled down Gloria's cheeks. "I think that you are one hell of a man, Will. You could have just pocketed that for yourself, and you would have earned it, too."
"Fuck that, Gloria. I wouldn't do that. First thing I thought of was Ben and you going from store to store looking for food bargains -- at a dollar a pound, that's two hundred pounds of chickens or pork butt, and isn't that like half a year of meat for us?"
From the trickling of tears, she was overwhelmed by her gratitude and love, and sat down at the table with her hands over her face and sobbed. We have what it takes to survive, she heard in her mind. Not just the physical stamina and the clever ideas, but the good stuff in our hearts that makes us a team, and pulls us all through.