Chapter Forty-four: Out of the House
Gloria spent the day cleaning the kitchen, her bath, her room, and nagging Ben to do his. Together they dusted and rearranged the bookshelves, putting books they no longer wanted onto a stack for donation to the library. The sun went down, and neither Will nor Philli nor Lolo appeared. Ben informed his sister that he was going to hole up in his room and watch DVDs on his laptop, notably as many of the Lord of the Rings movies as he could fit in before his eyes gave out; Gloria was too worried to sink into the fantasy world. At six at night, she put on a jacket and left the house, headed to Memorial Hospital.
"Maria Bedencourt?" Gloria asked the woman at the front desk.
"Three thirty-one," she was told.
I should have brought flowers, Gloria thought as she walked past the nurses' desk to the room. She peered inside, and in the near bed, there was Maria, looking pale, hooked up to an IV, but awake and watching the Food Network on a television.
Gloria slipped in. "Maria?" she said softly.
"Gloria," the older woman said weakly. "What you doing here? You don't have a date?"
"A date? With you in the hospital? Not likely ... well, it wouldn't be likely even if you weren't in the hospital, but how are you feeling?"
"I don't feel nothing. They got me so drugged up I might think I'm Anna Nicole Smith, back from the dead, only the boobies are wrong."
Gloria pressed her lips together to make sure she didn't laugh out loud. Maria was plainly stoned. "Well, I'm glad you're not hurting."
"Tomorrow I do that, I make a note of it. You know what they feed me this evening? Beef broth. Taste like dirty water. And pudding. Gloria, you know and I know what box pudding tastes like. Tastes like pudding, no? This stuff tastes like it made from paper. No sweet, no salt, no flavor."
"It's tough, I know. Soon you'll be out of here and Elsie will be making you good Italian food." She reached out and took Maria's hand in hers.
"I hate falling asleep here, because as soon as I do, they wake me up again and ask me if there is something I need. I tell them, 'Sleep' and they laugh. They all going to Hell," Maria said earnestly.
"You're not on God's jury yet," Gloria said.
"Where you go to church?" Maria demanded, suddenly.
"We don't go to church. I never have."
Maria looked at her a little crosseyed. "Then how do you know I'm not on God's jury?"
Gloria was confused. "Because you're not dead yet?"
"What, you saying I have to be dead so I can know if people are bad or not?" Maria had to have received a painkiller just before Gloria had arrived.
"Well, if you were dead, you'd know for sure, wouldn't you? And since you're not dead, don't you have to wait for the whole trial? Lawyers and defendants and more lawyers and prosecution?"
"We Portuguese women know all you need is a cast iron frying pan, takes care of everything."
This time Gloria couldn't contain her laughter. Maria smiled. "There, I make you laugh. That's good. Now I think I need to sleep a little."
She turned onto her side, away from the IV in her left hand. Gloria carefully covered her with the blanket -- it was cool in the hospital, not overheated like the stores were in winter. She knew she could stay in the room, but also knew that if Maria sensed she was there, the older woman would struggle to stay awake to maintain a conversation.
And now what? It was a little too early for bed, a little too late to even think of calling Steve and suggesting a dinner out. She stopped in the foyer of the hospital and sat in a chair, a fairly comfortable chair, and read People magazine. It was a periodical that she never could bring herself to buy, even when her father had been alive. But it was packed to the gills with salacious snippets and fantasy-life articles that moaned and whispered to Gloria how much she wanted to know about the secrets of Brad and Angelina, and the Desperate Housewives cast ... she would gladly read them for free, especially if it meant not returning to her room in ... her mother's house.
She was deep in a mini-story about Lady Gaga when Steve's voice called her back to reality. "Gloria! Did you come to see Maria?" Steve and Thomas stood before her, in oddly alien casual clothes. Thomas wore a sweater and khakis, Steve a gray henley and jeans. She looked at them for a second before mashing the magazine into the chair beside her and standing up. "Yes! Yes, I did. She was really sleepy from painkillers, so I didn't stay long."
"We're just going to check in on her, do the Bakers' official news feed," Thomas said, and went off to the elevators, Steve in tow.
Do I leave now, before they get back? Gloria asked herself. Or do I wait for them?
The only place she had to go was home -- whatever that meant any more -- so she opted to stay, and since the men weren't near, she could finish the article she was reading, and the other ridiculous one about how Katie Cruise was adapting to marrying Scientology.
She had finished with the People magazine and was boring through Taste of Home like a vampire, looking for quick and usable recipes when Thomas and Steve came back through the lobby. Thomas stopped to make a call from his cell phone; Steve left him his privacy and sat down beside Gloria. "Is cooking all you think about?" he asked, looking at the magazine.
"No, not all," Gloria said tartly. "Sometimes I think about sleeping or paying bills."
"Maria told us we'd just missed you. When I said you were still in the lobby, she was concerned, and told me to come talk to you. Are you all right? Just worried about Maria?"
"She seems to be all right, if drugged to the gills. No, I'm here because ... well, I thought I'd read some of these magazines that I would never otherwise get a chance to read ... "
Steve's eyebrows rose. "In a hospital?"
Gloria put her magazine down, looked at her reflection in the tall dark windows of the front of the building. "I didn't want to go home," she said with candor. "If I go home, I'd be holed up in my room by myself. The library is closed. My mother was home and cooked a turkey yesterday, so I don't need to be in the kitchen cooking for my brothers."
"Have you had dinner?"
"No." Is he going to ask me out? Because if he is, I'm going to accept.
"You want to go get a hamburger and fries somewhere? I can tell Thomas to go on without me, if you're willing to drive."
"Steve. I have not two extra dollars to spend on a Happy Meal."
"You'll be paying for the gas. I'll pay for the food."
"Deal. Where shall we go?" She stood up and slung her purse over her arm.
"Ever been to Little Danny Angel? ... oh, wait ... you're over twenty-one, aren't you?"
"By a year and some," Gloria said wryly.
"Oh, good. They have just about the best burgers in town, and real hand cut fries. Hey, Thomas! Gloria's going to give me a ride! See you Monday!"
Thomas smiled and waved, and left, his phone still to his ear.
Little Danny Angel was just off J street, a bar that Gloria would never have ventured in alone, although she had heard of it, and had never heard bad stories about it. It was just that young women her age were better off (or so their cohort believed) sticking to the bars and clubs in the theater area. Downtown had its darker areas, but with a man as an escort, Little Danny Angel was probably all right.
The bar had a guitarist sitting on a tiny side stage, singing drony girl-songs that were currently popular. Steve led her to a table along the far wall. "She'll switch to country music at eight, and people in here will go nuts," he explained. "I'm surprised the place is this empty."
"Black Friday. The crazy shoppers were out all night hitting the stores' sales -- it's like Mardi Gras, only more sober, and more money changes hands. These big fat middle aged women line up at WalMart and stand in long lines to get in, and pull up their shirts for beads," she told him, wondering if he would know she was kidding.
He threw his head back, laughing. "I was watching the news yesterday and was amazed at some of the interviews. People getting up at three in the morning to be the first in the door at Target or Macy's -- oh, wait, this year the mall was open all night, wasn't it?"
"I saw that in the Modesto Bee online." She shook her head, then picked up the menu on the table. "What do you recommend?"
"Burgers and fries, seriously. Good stuff."
"You know, I haven't had french fries since ... " A waitress came up to them to take their order. Both of them ordered the hamburger and french fries; Steve ordered a light beer, and looked a little pained when Gloria ordered a diet cola. "Look," she told him, "I haven't eaten much all day. If I have a beer, I'll be instantly sloshed."
"Working in a kitchen every day -- when you have a day off, you don't even want to look at food?"
"Hah, usually, on my days off, I cook for my brothers' meals for the next week. No, today I was getting caught up on the cleaning after working for seven days, and worrying about Maria. Oh! Crap! I told my brother I was just going to check on her. He won't know why I'm gone so long -- do you suppose they have a phone at the bar I can use for a local call?"
"Here," Steve said with a grin. "Use mine."
"Thanks a million. You know, you get so used to having a phone all the time that you forget what all you have to think about in advance if you don't." She heard Ben answer the phone, sounding like he was running a business. "Ben, it's me. I'm having din with a friend downtown, I won't be right home. Mom or Will back yet? Okay, don't invite all your computer girlfriends over while I'm gone, I don't want the house trashed. Bye." She returned the phone to Steve, who tucked it back into his pocket. "Thanks. My brother gets concerned when family doesn't show up on time -- we lost our dad last spring; Ben likes to keep track of everyone now."
"How old is Ben?"
"Sixteen in a month. Acts like he's in his late twenties, and wishes he was." She sipped her drink. "My turn for a question. You told me you got into the Baker family employ because of a family connection and an MBA. Can you tell me more about that? Sounds like a lot of firepower to bring to a fight about shopping for Maria's kitchen."
"The Bakers are a tight-knit family, been in the wine business since the early 1900s. They don't hire anyone they don't know, or that a friend doesn't know. My Aunt Gilda became friends with the Bakers when she worked for the Chamber of Commerce." He took another sip of beer. "And I wanted to stay in this area, I love it here. Went to school in New York and could not wait to get back."
"Got that! Mom has relatives in Colorado; we visited them in October once, and it was horrible. We went from flipflops to parkas!"
"Right, but it was also the easy way people have out here, ready to talk about their lives, ready to listen to your own stories. Not sure why it's so different, but it was. By the way," he added, "shopping for Maria is not all I do."
Gloria blushed. "Sorry. I guess that came out wrong."
"I just want you to be impressed with me," he said, turning to see the waiter approaching with a tray.
Whaaaat? Gloria's eyes widened at his words, but he wasn't watching her. Then she was utterly distracted by the mound of fries on her plate. If that aroma was perfume, I'd wear it every day.