Chapter Ten: Driving Miss Gloria
On Wednesday, Ben pulled into Maria's driveway at two o'clock, grinning like a jack o'lantern. As Gloria greeted him from the front porch, he raised his arms imitating a stage magician completing a trick. "Studio audience," he said theatrically, "let's give a big Hollywood welcome for Mr. Benjamin Melton, Licensed Driver."
Gloria applauded, of course.
"Hey, nice place," Ben commented as he looked around the property. "This is from before suburbs were suburbs. I like the long driveway with the trees along it, looks like something out of an old movie."
"The back yard is even bigger," his sister told him. "We're going to try to make a garden in the spring presuming Maria knows more about gardening than I do. "
"I'm assuming that you cleared this with Maria, and she doesn't mind me coming over ..."
"Positive. Her only regret was that she would probably miss you. She's out shopping with her pal Elsie -- you know, Elsie of the legendary lasagna I told you about. Maria's heard enough about you that she wants to meet you. Come on in, it's chilly -- weather report last night said it's going to be raining by nightfall."
"Last night? Haven't you seen it today?" He walked in the front door and saw the living room. "Oh, wow. Does that thing work?"
"That thing is how I heard the weather report."
"See, I was thinking you were a stuck-up asshole for not being in touch on line, but here you are, living in the darkest part of the world, after Will's place, that is."
"Maria and I were talking about it -- I think she wants a computer of her own, but she also wants a better TV and cable service. I think I can pay for the cable and internet, since I'm not paying for phone and utilities like I was back when we were at home."
"Well, if you need a loan for the initial hookup, let me know, I can help you. Remember how we dumped everything when we thought we'd be moving to an apartment, pretending we were Will moving into his one-bedroom barn? Joe saw how little shit I had to play with, and insisted on giving me an allowance of five hundred dollars a month. He said it was ridiculous that I had no spending money." Ben narrowed his eyes in an evil leer. "And so I told him that I had had spending money, from what I collected in recyclables down by the school. I thought he was going to jump out of the room and wash his hands. 'You don't have to do that ever again,' he told me, and whipped out his wallet and handed me two hundred dollars on the spot."
"Crap. I hope you remembered to say 'thank you.'"
"Of course I did, who did you think I am, our mother? Point is, I'm now rolling in dough. Which leads me to my next subject. Can you help me open a checking account for myself? Like, today?"
"That depends. Can you drive me to the bank?" Gloria pressed her lips together primly.
"Grab your purse, old bag, and let's go. I've got so much cash burning a hole in my pocket that people think I've got a herniated buttock."
Laughing loudly, Gloria ran up the steps and grabbed her purse. God, I've missed his humor so much. And plotting with him.
* * *
Gloria was the mule who packed two orders of legendary french fries out of the bar called Little Johnny Angel. She and Ben sat in the car watching the early-arriving rain and crunched companionably.
"Joe's not a bad guy, you know," Ben said, dipping some fries in catsup. "He honestly and earnestly thinks he's saving me from some horrible fate."
"Aha, that fate worse than death -- being poor, or having to squeeze by to keep a roof over our heads."
"In our Civics class in high school, we hear about how 'those immigrant people' having to come to the United States to work to stay alive are undermining the very foundations of suburban society," he said sarcastically.
"They pipe prime time commercials into Civics class?"
"Maybe. That's the most boring class I have, and even the teacher doesn't listen to what he's saying. He might be a Class Bot, just put there so that he can subvert teenagers into thinking that everything in society and the economy is All Right and Nothing To Worry About."
Gloria snorted. "Well, what do you think he's going to tell you, that you have to work your ass off, be polite, and do as you're told by your employer? I think those things are classified as a 'way of life' -- like a religion -- and religion is forbidden ground in public schools."
"I've thought about raising my hand and challenging him on some of the oatmeal-brain-mush he spouts, but I think I might get beat up by some football player whose nap time would then be disrupted."
"Oh, maybe that would do you good. But about Joe, if he's such a good guy, why couldn't he just move in with us instead of gutting the house and repainting and re- carpeting it for a rental?"
"You haven't been to his house, Gloria. The place is a damn palace by comparison. Every room is bigger, brighter, more airy, custom tile in the kitchen and bathroom floors -- and they're heated, too. Heated tile floors, so you can go barefoot and not have cold feet! Big ass heated swimming pool, hot tub, maid service twice a week, people come in and take dirty laundry away and bring it back clean, wet bar in the living room and on the back porch ... "
"So you're getting accustomed to luxury again?"
He shook his head, tilted his head back and swallowed down four fries at once. "I think you and me and Will are the only people on the surface of the planet who would rather live somewhere else.
"I find myself looking around at Joe's house and thinking about how many families could move in there and be out of shelters."
"Careful. That kind of idea could cause a revolution."
"Uhh, I believe it has, at a number of points in history. But I'm serious, it won't happen here, because the poor people ... don't have red hair and freckles ... honestly, do you think any of us Meltons could have pulled this off if we weren't white, and upper middle class to begin with?" Ben's brows furrowed.
He had a painful point, that made Gloria wince. It was only because she was a college student that she had had the contacts that made it possible for her to take a job with the Baker family. And Ben -- would his computer business have taken off if he was a young man of color rather than a young man who looked like an Ivy League candidate? And then there was Will, whose friend had got him in the door working on a white farmer's orchard empire ... had Pete even had any needy friends of darker colored skin? Hmm, and had Philli been a plain little uneducated woman who spoke no English, would Joe Brady even have noticed her? The answer to all those questions was 'No.'
I've got to think about this some other time. When I can sit and be quiet and think, not when I've got so little time to spend with Ben.
"Our former Fatass Brother is enduring the first of the winter chills, I presume," Gloria said, as she wrapped the bag around the rest of her fries, her appetite suddenly gone.
"He's happy, thinks he invented survival. His latest obsession is with bees. Apparently in January, rented bees arrive on the ranch from somewhere up in Montana or Wyoming, shipped in to pollinate the orchards, so he's internet bingeing on bee facts. Another two weeks, though, his buddies will be back from southern California, so he'll be back in his orchard classroom learning about managing the bloom." Ben crunched his empty bag into a wad. "When's Steve off?"
"Around five or so." She shrugged, questioning.
"Because I miss him, too, you dimwit. Or did you dump him or something?"
"No, but I didn't make any plans because I wanted to visit with you. I didn't know you'd want to see him, too."
"He's the best Kick Your Neighbor's Dog partner I ever had," Ben said. "If there was some way Lolo could get off of work, I'd want to do a repeat of our taco party together." He pulled a new phone out of the glove box. "Here, have a look at this puppy."
"Holy shit, Ben, that's a ... bodacious phone. Joe's giving you enough allowance to afford this ... "
"No, an early Christmas gift, because I need a good phone when I'm driving myself around. Joe's idea again. Use it and call Steve, ask him if he can come over to your house."
"Okay. But what about Lolo? What kind of hours is she working?"
"She's working every day, all day. I don't know what the labor laws are for car salesmen, but they must have some kind of loophole to kill their employees, because she starts work at 9 am and finishes up at 9 pm when they close. At least she has Christmas Day off."
Frowning, Gloria called Steve's number, left a message asking him to call her back at this number if he would like to come over after work. "That's too long for work hours."
"I told her that, too," he said, starting the car and putting it into gear. "She said that it was a cutthroat business and that if she couldn't stand the heat, she'd get out of the kitchen."
Traffic was insane; the appearance of rain brought every idiot out onto the streets and every stupid driver to the point of frantic mistaken haste. Ben was careful getting them back to Maria's, where they found her car back in the long driveway.
"Cool!" Ben spouted. "Think she'll pinch my cheeks and tell me I'm so adorable?"
"I don't know," Gloria replied. "She has four sons, so she may put you in an elbow headlock and give you scorching noogies."
"Unlikely. That's the main reason I've begun to barber off all those curls."