Chapter Eleven: Ben Takes the Castle by Storm
"Hello, Mr. Ben. Gloria tells me about how you anchor the house while she and Will run off to make money. Pretty brave, I think. Pleased to meet you."
"And I'm glad to meet you. Gloria doesn't speak well of you, she speaks ecstatically about you. We've learned a lot from you since she met you."
"Hey, the other day I just learned about your lemon fix for chicken salad. Turned it from chicken in school glue to something delicious."
He laughed a little. "That got me into some trouble. Mom made chicken salad last week, and I took half of it and used lemon in it -- and some red jalapeno pepper, chopped into tiny bits."
"Why would that get you into trouble? Didn't you tell anyone about the peppers?"
He's already got Maria wrapped around his little finger. She can't wait to hear more.
Ben put his hands in the air as though he was surrendering. "When Joe tasted my chicken salad, he said he'd never had any chicken salad so good in his life. And when he said that, I turned and looked at Mom like this:" He turned to Maria and looked at her under his eyebrows with a wicked smug little smile.
Maria burst into laughter. "Did Mom beat you? She should have! You didn't let Joe see you give her that look, did you? So she can't react or she looks crazy." She wiped her eyes. "I had sons, too. I watched them do that kind of stuff with their father and grandfather. Pae couldn't give them a beating when Vovo -- Granpa -- was smiling at them."
Sketching a bow with a grin, Ben became serious. "Maria, you have a beautiful home here. Not many people in the Modesto city limits can say they have such a spacious property."
Spacious property? Gloria thought. Don't tell me he's picking up real estate jargon.
"Because it wasn't in city limits when I first came to live here. The dairy was next door. When Bedencourt died, we sold the farm, except for the house here. City was already getting close; my sons wanted to move out farther into the country. I like this house, I like this space. I like that hawks have a nest in the big oak tree. Not so happy about the raccoons that hang out here, but I don't feel like I'm blocked into a little box.
"Your sister tell me that you fix computers."
He bowed again, not as deeply. "Yes, Ma'am, I do. Should you find yourself in need of a computer technician, please call me. Do you have a computer?"
Why, he's downright disgusting. Good thing Maria's here, or I'd pinch him purple.
Maria shook her head. "No, the closest I've ever been to a computer is when Gloria show me her computer the other night. But I think I want one, maybe, see what I've been missing. Don't know what to get, though."
"I can help you with that," Ben said, his voice as respectful and innocent as a humble bunny kitten. "I believe that in the next week or so, I will be getting a new computer, even though there is absolutely nothing wrong with the one I have." To Gloria, he asided, "Mr. Brady was overheard telling his new wife that my computer business deserved a top of the line computer, and that such would be a worthy Christmas gift." To Maria, he said, "My excellent current computer would be a perfect starter animal for you."
"How much?" Maria was no dummy.
"Free of charge ... except that I would love the privilege of being able to come see my sister frequently in return."
Maria's brows lowered, and she turned to Gloria. "Is he saying that if he can come over and hang out, he'll give me his old computer?"
"I think so. Is that what you're saying, you scrawny weasel?"
"Yes, ladies. And if I am allowed to hang out, I will be on hand for help with any computer difficulties."
"Can you help me with talking to cable company? I don't even know what to say to them, how to get the hookups." Maria leaned on her kitchen table like a seasoned bargainer.
"Yes! That is, if we can do this over break. Cable companies basically keep the same hours as schools. When would you want to move forward with this upgrade?" Dropping the silly mannerisms, Ben was standing tall and speaking with an authoritative voice.
"Is now too early?" Maria asked.
"Your phone, phone book, and your full name and address as it appears on your cable bill, please, Ms. Maria. Do you have a current bill? That'll make it easier to nail these bas- -- uh, their customer service representatives down."
"I get it for you." She hurried off to another room.
"You -- you're -- way too slick for a sixteen-year-old."
"My dear dimwit sister, I am a genius, and I know what it takes to sell computer support. And to do a Riverdance around my parent and her sweet but gullible new spouse." He sat down at the kitchen table. "If we were still in our house, I'd be pulling in as much as Will with my computer business."
"I'm not. Didn't you look at how much I deposited in the bank?"
"Of course not, that's your money, and none of my business." She paused. "Unless you were making it selling drugs, in which case I'd come after you with a baseball bat."
"No drugs, but I am going to have to file taxes." He leaned on his hand and watched her for her response.
Maria interrupted them, bringing a paper copy of her cable bill. "Here you go, now what? Hey, you tell them I want cooking channels, what I got is deedle shit."
"Now, the phone. Okay, land line. Nice." He dialed, pressed a button or two in response to what he was hearing. "Jennifer. How nice you sound. This is in regard to account number four oh six three three seven nine nine nine. Yes, in the name of Maria Bedencourt. No, I am not Maria. I am Benjamin Melton. One moment, I shall put Ms. Bedencourt on the line." He handed the phone to Maria. "She wants to make sure that I am an authorized representative."
Maria took the phone. "Yes? Yes, Mr. Benjamin Melton is working with me, because I am an old lady and don't want you to take advantage of me, okay? You deal fairly and we have no problem. Talk to Ben, he takes care of me."
"Jennifer, are you back? Very good. You have the details of the account at your very fingertips? Yes, basic cable. We're looking at adding internet and expanded channel access to this account, what would that cost?" Ben pantomime-motioned for paper and pencil. The paper and pen shoved hurriedly at him, he began to write a number, a dollar amount per month. He looked at Gloria, raised his eyebrows in question.
She nodded, it was a sum she could pay for.
"Perfect. When can we expect this to happen?" He waited, listened. "The twenty-eighth? We can do this. What time? Between eight and noon. I have that written down, and Maria and I will be here to sign for service. Thank you so much, Jennifer." He hung up. "And there you go."
"She gonna call back and ask you if you are married already," Maria said. "Damn glad you don't sell vacuum cleaners."
Ben jumped up and clapped his hands to his chest. "Do you need one?"
Maria cackled loudly, then stopped and looked to Gloria. "He's kidding, right?"
A phone rang, not Maria's. Ben pulled his out of his pocket, looked at it. "Yes, my good man?"
"Ben?" Steve's voice said. "Is Gloria there? I thought she called me."
"I'm an authorized representative of everyone tonight. Can you come over to Maria's and give Gloria hot smootchies?"
"Ben, you turd, give that to me!" Gloria lunged for him.
Ben danced out of reach, ducking to avoid her hands. "Steve, I miss you. I'm at Maria's. Will you come over?"
He made the phone say "boop" and put it back in his pocket. "He'll come over for me, if not for you. Shall we have snacks?"
Maria hooked a thumb at Ben. "This guy's dangerous. What do we feed him to tame him and keep him on our side? I can run to the grocery store while you wait here for Steve."
"But wait, there's more," Ben interrupted. "In the trunk of my car is an Igloo cooler that contains not only a bag of ice and a six pack of colas, but also an assortment of luncheon meats and cheeses, a head of lettuce, and a trio of tomatoes. Riding shotgun in the trunk are also a bag of potato chips, and a bag of rolls from Save Mart's bakery." As Maria and Gloria stared at him in astonishment, he continued. "I like to be prepared."
"There's being prepared, and there's being almost kind of creepy."
Ben sat back down at the table. "Blame the economic crisis that nearly put us out on the street. We thought everything was going to be the same day after day -- school, home, food, TV, sleep, shower, repeat. For a while, every time the phone rang, I felt like someone was giving me a kick in the ... butt. Too many surprises, too many transitions. We worked it out, but we had to keep jumping. Then after Will moved out, and Lolo moved in, we got into a nice rhythm again. Then bam! Mom bombshells us with her plan to get married and rent our house out from under us.
"I got to looking at things from a What do I need if I want my plan to work kind of mentality. Like school. Technically, I could finish high school online --" he turned to Maria and explained, "I could get classes and homework on my computer, and send my completed tests to a teacher in my email -- but I need the excuse to come up to Modesto so that I can keep Lolo in my life, so I keep going to school here, which means that the other thing I have to do is keep Mom and Joe feeling that I've come to accept the move."
Maria looked at Gloria. "Who is Lolo?"
"A friend of our mother. She lost her job this past fall, too, and had no place to live. Mom invited her to come live with us." I wish I could forget how Mom knew Lolo, I wouldn't feel like such a liar.
"Apparently was a friend, though I don't know what went on there. I asked Mom if she was going to invite Lolo over for Christmas dinner and she went red as a beet and looked like she was going to burst into flames. She actually walked away from me and left the room. Later she apologized and said, 'No, let's just keep it family this year.' I was going to argue with her that Lolo had become like family, but I was too weirded out by how she acted."
Ben, you can shut up any time now. "So you're saying that everything you do, you plan out for what might happen, just in case?" Change the subject back!
"More or less. I wanted to come visit, but didn't want you going to a lot of trouble. If you had food prepared for the day, and wanted me to stay, that would be cool, but I know you ladies cook all week, so I could either drag you out for unhealthy, poorly done restaurant food, or I could bring a picnic we could put together -- uh, together."
Maria tapped the table. "What about the mayonnaise?"
Ben looked at her archly. "In the bag with the chips and the rolls. I didn't mention it because mayonnaise is such a mere condiment."
She shook her head in mock disgust. "Call your mother, tell her you're staying for supper."