Chapter Fifty-two: Sorting Things Out
In disgust at herself, Gloria retreated to her bedroom, made her bed, scrubbed her bathroom. When the phone rang at 9:30, she hurried to answer it, noting that the kitchen was untouched since she had left it earlier. Lolo obviously had not left her room since, and Philli was still not out and about, making her tea and bitching about the lack of a newspaper subscription as she usually was.
It was Steve.
"Listen, I have to ask you right off: am I bugging you too much? Because if I am, I'll just thank you for your time and get out of your space."
"No. Actually, no. I like hearing from you. It's like some sanity is left in the world."
"Okay, good. I've been dispatched by the Bakers to go visit Maria. Want to come along? I can pick you up in about fifteen minutes."
"Yes! Is she okay? I'll be ready!"
"See you in a bit."
Gloria dragged her hair back away from her face, pulled on jeans and a sweater. She rapped on Lolo's door. "I'm outta here. Go finish your coffee in peace. Again, I'm sorry, I didn't understand what you were going through -- until today." There was no reply, but Gloria didn't expect one. She wrapped her shawl around her and went to stand outside the front door, cold in the drizzly weather, but too ashamed to stay inside and see Lolo's eyes, and the hurt and grief in them.
Chubby and jovial, Maria's friend Elsie greeted them at the door of the farmhouse with its wraparound porch. "Come in, come in, Maria will be glad to see you. It's only a couple days and she is as grumpy as a woman without a home of her own. In her mind, I think she lives in the kitchen at the Bakers, and now she is like Napoleon on Elba."
Elba? What the heck is she talking about? Gloria's classes in history had been wasted, as she had never cared about what happened to anyone who no longer existed, except perhaps for the famous and evil at the height of their careers, and that not very much. "She's okay, isn't she?"
"Oh, yes, just restless, because she feels so good, has so little pain."
As they entered the parlor of the house, Gloria saw Maria sitting in an upholstered chair with her feet on an ottoman, looking at a magazine, frowning. She rushed to her, arms outstretched. Maria looked up from the pages and broke into a sunny smile, reaching out for a hug. "Gloria, what a sight for old bitchy eyes!"
"How are you, Maria, my beloved boss?"
"I'm fine, little pain, don't need the doctor's drugs -- he must prescribe Vicodin for himself when he gets a hangnail."
"Bet he never had a period and cramps," Gloria muttered into Maria's ear.
"He go straight to overdose city if he felt that," Maria mumbled back to her. "How you doing, Glory girl?"
"I've had better weeks," Gloria told her honestly, sinking down on the ottoman. "It's been okay at work, but less okay at home, I guess."
"What you doing here, Steve? You come to make sure I'm not dead and in the grave?"
"Bakers want to make sure you're not dead and in the grave, so they have sent me, their best investigative reporter. No coffins in view, so you're neither dead, nor have you become a vampire."
"You tell them I am fine." Maria, said, dismissing him. She turned back to Gloria. "What's wrong at home?"
There was no way that Gloria was going to go into the whole Dad's-Mistress-Was-Living-In-Their-Mother's-House thing, so she settled for "My brother Will moved out -- we didn't know he was even thinking about it."
"How he afford an apartment working for that stingy Van Duyken?"
"He didn't, he and one of his co-workers set him up a room in a barn on Van Duyken's property so he can watch over the sister and the mother while the men are picking oranges or something down south." Gloria watched the older woman's face for any indication that she should be more worried than usual about her brother.
Maria chuckled. "Brother has an adventure -- wait until he wakes up with mice. He'll either come back to your house or become a real man."
"My mother doesn't want him to become a real man, she wants him to come home and go to college when we can afford it again."
Shaking a finger at Gloria, Maria chided, "He can go to college when he wants to sit in a class for hour after hour. Right now, he's a boy who wants to be Huckleberries Finn. Two of my boys were like that; other two wanted to go to college. The college boys stayed at home until they graduated, my two wild boys went to work at other dairies as soon as they could drive. They lived in shacks and were happy to be out from under their father's hand, couldn't blame them." Her forehead furrowed a little. "You know, maybe your brother is smart like the coyotes. If he's living on Van Duyken's farm, Van Duyken will see him as a resource, not some kid from town. More likely to keep him working."
"I never for one moment even thought of that, but that could be it, at least part of it. He has been angling to make himself valuable to Mr. Van Duyken." She recounted Will's story about fixing Van Duyken's computers.
"Yeah, he's a smart one, all right. These farmers know everything about their land and their crops, but they're not the generation that knows a lot about computers. I bet he'll see Will as giving him one up on his fellow almond farmers."
"My brother, the secret weapon."
"Elsie is my secret weapon," Maria said with a little wink. "We're going to harvest my pomegranates this year, make them into jelly. She'll do all the heavy work, she says, for a share of the jellies. Most of them I hold hostage so Bakers don't fire us."
"Oh, pomegranate jelly on roasted chicken -- wouldn't that be delicious?"
"See? This is what I tell you about. This girl knows her way around good food."
They chatted companionably about the week's upcoming menus, where Steve should shop for produce and meats, tips and tweaks of the recipes to be used. As lunchtime approached, Steve and Gloria made their way to the car, stopping to praise a little raised garden of herbs and lettuce, allowing themselves to be talked into armfuls of freshly-picked pomegranates.
"I'm beginning to understand why you don't butt heads with Maria. You two are thick as thieves, so to speak," Steve observed. "Elsie and I just disappeared while you two connected."
"She's amazing. Maybe we get along so well because she's secure in her position, and I'm not in it to challenge her. Just what she said about Will made me feel so much better -- I mean, I supported what he was doing, but I wasn't sure that he wasn't still the idiot brother from early September."
As they approached the street of the Melton household, Gloria asked, feeling brave from her visit with Maria, feeling unsettled from the changes in her family, "So, tell me, what's happening here?" She waved her fingers between Steve and herself.
He half-smiled, half-grimaced. "I don't actually know. Is that enough of an answer?"
"No," she mumbled, "it isn't." Then more strongly, "And I'm not going to be coy and coquettish and make the question into a tease. I guess I want to know if I should think about you when I'm not with you, or if I should just treat you like a refrigerator and only interact with you if I need to preserve food."
He burst into laughter. "A refrigerator! Okay, that's the first time I ever was compared to a major appliance. At least I'm not a miserable toaster."
"I didn't say you were one. I'm asking if you would prefer to be one."
"Well, no, to tell the truth. I'd be flattered if you thought about me, but I'm not ..."
"Stop. The hesitation there tells me what I needed to know."
He startled, and stared at her, a dismay in his expression. "Gloria ..."
"Steve! I agree with you! I'll be flattered also if you think of me. But -- I'm not taking applications for a full-time boyfriend, can't afford to do that right now." As he pulled the car to the curb, she continued, "I really do enjoy being with you, talking to you, listening to you. But those people who live under that roof," she pointed to her house, "I've got to look after them first."
Nodding, he said, "That's what I like about you. You're not ... playing for some kind of deal. Makes it fun to hang around with you. Like a friend. Someone you can trust." He tapped the armrest between them. "I lost track of all my high school buddies when I went away to school. Came back, found they're all married, moved away, or if they're still in town, they're working their asses off and their time off is spent cruising for sex and booze. Nothing against sex and booze, mind you, but that's not ... I really want to get deeper into the winery business, and that requires some focus on my part." He snapped his fingers. "Like your brother Will. I'm working on making myself indispensable to the Bakers."
"Good. Then get back to work." She got out of the car, turned to smile at him. "I certainly will be thinking of you."
Through the sliding glass door from the kitchen, Gloria could see Lolo raking leaves out of the shrubbery. It was Ben's job, usually, but with the short days and his computer business, he didn't get to it until the weekend. Last weekend, it had rained, knocking down almost all of the fall leaves. Gloria prowled back through the house, looking for clues to where Philli was, as her car wasn't in the driveway.
Of course Philli's purse wasn't in her bedroom; that would be where she kept her keys and wallet and driver's license. Glad now that Lolo was staying in Will's room, she checked her mother's closet. Having done the laundry since she was fifteen (until Ben took it over under her supervision), she knew her mother's wardrobe as well as she did her own. Missing: the teal cashmere sweater that made her eyes glow with color and her skin look like a confection, and the form-fitting stretch jeans she'd recently been able to fit into again. Jeans? Not a job interview, then. The cute suede heeled boots were also not in the closet.
A quick walk-through of the attached bath yielded more clues. Lingering scent of Philli's favorite perfume, and two compacts of eye shadow sitting on the counter. One would have picked up an accent of teal, the other a touch of amber -- Philli's favorite eye makeup combo. Eye shadow by noon. She's looking good to get some attention. Is she working that real estate guy in order to sell our house?
Nothing else was out of the range of normalcy, so Gloria returned to her own room, hung up her sweater, and changed into an old cotton turtleneck that wouldn't object to food stains. Before entering the kitchen, she collected from the garage some potatoes, a big yellow onion, a bag of shrimp and a bag of tilapia from the freezer -- and found a small bag of scallops beneath them. Oh, you sweet little angels, you're going to make this chowder fit for a king. They looked a touch freezer-burned, but in a chowder, none of the diners would notice.
The biggest stainless steel bowl was perfect for thawing the shrimp, and the tilapia filets were individually packaged, so they could just join the water bath. The scallops were too royal, so they got their own plate on a corner of the counter.
The sliding door opened and Lolo came in, eyes wary, tired. "I went to the store and got some French bread and cream cheese -- I didn't want to rummage in the fridge and accidentally eat something meant for your lunch or dinner. But I haven't eaten yet ... do you mind?"
"No, not at all. I'm making seafood chowder, want it to be ready when Ben comes home from school. He's always starving at that time of day, and we don't have to wait for Will to come home late now."
Lolo got a knife from the knife-block and sawed off a hunk of bread, spread some cream cheese on it. "You want some?"
Gloria hadn't eaten since before Ben went to school. What the hell. Let's bury this damn hatchet now. "I'd love some. I went to visit my boss, and her friend was making some kind of tomato sauce that made me feel like I was starving to death."
"Yes! They told me she was going to make lasagna, everything from scratch, the way her mother did it in Naples."
They finished their soft slices of bread and cheese. Gloria washed her hands and got out the big stew pot.
"I can help, if you like," Lolo said in a tentative voice. "I have nothing to do today."
Remembering that Thanksgiving dinner had been something of a mystery to the woman, Gloria rapidly assessed what Lolo might be capable of doing in the kitchen. "You know, if you could cut up the celery, that would be a big help. And then, in a little while, peeling shrimp? It's a time-consuming job." At Lolo's nod, she broke three big stalks of celery and washed them. "We want these split down the middle, then cut into tiny slivers, about this big. If they're bigger than that, Ben won't eat them, I have no idea why."
While Lolo began painstakingly slicing the celery, Gloria got a second cutting board and rapidly diced her onion. "You ever make seafood chowder?" she asked, and when Lolo shook her head no, continued, "We throw the onions in the pot, give them some oil and get them to sweat out their flavor. When they're pretty much cooked, we'll add your celery, do the same." Maria did this with me. She wasn't sure if she liked me, and didn't think I'd like her any more than her previous helpers. She just told me what she wanted in the kitchen and let everything else disappear. Maria, I can do that, too.