Chapter Fifteen: A Breakfast Club
At seven am Friday morning, Gloria prepared to huddle herself from the car to the Cooper Family Restaurant. Locals called it 'The Coop' because of their chicken and waffles specialty, but it was owned by the Coopers and had operated for three generations in downtown Modesto. In spite of the cold and soul-gnawing Tule fog, she was grinning, for Will's patchwork Corolla was parked beside Ben's car, which used to be their father's Chevy Malibu. In the dim morning light, she locked the car and turned to see Lolo pulling into the lot. Tucking her hands under each armpit, she waited until Lolo, clad in an impeccable dark suit, got out of her car.
Each of them screeched with delight of seeing each other, hugging soundly in long lost, tremendously missed association. Well not so very long, but it had been weeks, and neither had had time to hang out on the phone and commiserate about work or the forced breakup of their ragtag family.
"How is your room with your boss? Oh, God, I refuse to cry and mess my face up. It took me half an hour to get my paint right, I was so excited to be seeing you all again!"
"It's ... great, actually," Gloria said. "I was afraid that working with and living with Maria would be too much, but it isn't. I've liked her since almost the beginning, but she's becoming more and more like a friend, the kind of friend you know has your back no matter what is going on. Look out, here comes Ben."
She stepped back as Ben wrapped himself around Lolo and lifted her off the ground.
"Stop it, you fresh fish!" Lolo sputtered. "Look at you, driving around like you own the world." She kissed Ben's cheek, and Gloria noted that her lipstick didn't leave a smudge. Expensive makeup, that.
The three entered the restaurant and joined Will, who stood and then stooped to hug Gloria and then Lolo. As they sat down around the table, they kept looking at each other as if they thought one of them might disappear at any moment, as in a strange sense, that had been exactly what had happened. First Will, slinking off into the wilds of Van Duyken's orchard farm, leaving behind only the traces of his abandoned boyhood. Then Gloria, overnight bag in hand, vacating the house after her mother said she should quit her job and move to Turlock into her mother's new home. Then Lolo, who moved from the about-to-be-renovated and rented-out house to a room down off Carver Road near the construction materials warehouses. Ben, the minor, was whisked away to Turlock, to sure luxury and unwelcome dependence upon his parent. All four of them, sitting alive and real in The Coop, were like ghosts brought back from the dead.
"Are you ready to order yet, or do you need a few more minutes?" asked a waitress.
"Just a couple minutes, please," Gloria said. "We haven't all seen each other in a while."
"No problem. You want to start with coffee?"
"Yes, please, coffee would be great," Lolo said.
"Tea for me," Gloria said. "No decaf."
"Orange juice," said Ben and Will in unison.
"Got it," the waitress nodded, making notes on a paper pad.
"So, are we up to no good yet?" Ben asked.
They laughed. "No, we are now reformed, responsible citizens," Lolo replied.
"Speak for yourself," Will said. "I'm still annoyed and disgruntled."
"You lie," Gloria retorted. "You love living with your mice."
"Mice?" Lolo asked, looking from face to face.
"He has mice in the barn where he has his room. They are his only friends," Gloria offered.
Will raised his eyebrows. "Mice in the barn but not in my room. And my best friend is my cat, who sleeps on my chest and makes sure that no mice try to insinuate themselves into my friendship. And that's not altogether honest, I've made a few friends at the ranch -- and neighboring ranches -- but none of them will sleep with me and keep the mice away, just my cat." He waved his menu. "Do you guys know what you want? Mr. Van Duyken has me scheduled to do some backhoe work at eight-thirty."
"Yeah, I think I'll splurge with some hash browns this morning," Gloria said. "Maria and I taste stuff all day, but potatoes with eggs is a celebration meal."
The waitress arrived with their breakfast beverages. "Ready?"
Lolo ordered an omelet, Gloria her potatoes and eggs, and Ben and Will opted to power up on bacon and sausage, eggs, hash browns, a side of pancakes and toast.
"I know Will is working hard, but where the hell are you putting all that, Ben?" Gloria groused at him.
"Jogging. When Mom is about to drive me nuts, I put on my sweats and run down the road for a half hour, or more. I jog around different streets and drop business cards into people's mailboxes. Don't look at me like that, Gloria, I know it's illegal, but the Feds haven't come after me yet. When they do, I'll pretend to be an innocent little boy and they'll slap my wrist and tell me not to do that again. And then I won't." He drank half his orange juice. "But by then, I'll have reached every neighborhood within jogging range. Your turn, Lolo. You've been hedgy about your new digs."
She took a sip of coffee, grimaced. "It was one of the places on Gloria's list of rooms -- in fact it was the last one that was available. I have a bed and a bathroom; I made it clean and put a new lock on the door. It's all I need, because all I do is work and sleep. They have security bars on the windows, so I'm safe. After I make some good money, I'll look for somewhere a little nicer."
"Are your hours ever going to get better?" Gloria asked her. "Ben was saying you were working every day, all day."
"Yes, and glad for it! If I was one of those jokers who stand around talking about their golf games and their bunions, I'd be bored, but I don't. Someone comes on to the lot, and I'm there greeting them like I was their long lost friend. I let them know I can help them with questions or showing them the insides of a car, give them my card, and smile with all these happy exotic lady teeth. Then I get out of their faces, but don't disappear. Sometimes I just go and look at engines under the hoods -- a lot of men want to see car guts, and when they do, I can talk car guts with the best of them."
Bet that's how she got Dad's attention, Gloria thought. He'd have loved that.
Lolo continued, "So I won't see a lot of slack time until right after the new year -- there's a little rush just before Valentine's Day, but then you get the slow times, unless they run a special sale with the new model year, until people are thinking about summer vacation, and graduation presents, or a new car to drive away from a wedding."
"But you're off Christmas Day," Gloria pressed her. "Are you going to hang out with family ... "
"No. It's a day to relax and sleep."
Christmas is not a day to just relax and sleep, I don't care who you are. What you're saying is that you have nowhere to go. "I get off at noon. Why don't you come have Christmas brunch with me?" She turned to her brothers. "You two, too? Mom always has an evening Christmas dinner to give herself plenty of time to prepare without hurrying."
"You're not coming to Mom's for Christmas dinner?" Ben gasped.
"No, I'm not. This will be my first Christmas with Steve," Gloria told him firmly. "That takes precedence over anything else."
"Are you going to marry him?" Will asked.
"Maybe. Maybe not. It doesn't matter -- he's the man of the hour and I want to finally have a day -- a few days -- off with him and find out if marrying him is something I should do. So, evil compatriots, what do you say?"
"Won't Maria object to us coming over?" Lolo said quietly.
"No, I already asked her. She herself is reluctantly joining her oldest son and his family for the day."
"Then I'm in," Lolo said. "I can sleep in that morning, and be sitting on your doorstep when you get home from work. What should I bring?"
"Fresh fruit. That will go good with the chicken I'll be roasting."
Ben scowled. "How do you cook chicken while you're at work?"
"Time bake setting on the oven, neophyte. I put the chicken in the oven before I leave for work, and the oven robot turns it on when I program it to."
"I might stop in," Will said, thoughtfully. "But Sal's coming back from down south to be home for Christmas, and his mom and sister ... "
"Bring them, too. I'm not asking for everyone to camp out and sit around and stare at each other, but it could be cool just to celebrate a holiday and not worry about who's going to be on the streets the next day."
"Okay, I'll ask them if they'd like to come. If we do, we'll bring pozole."
"Pozole? Is it any good?" Ben was curious. "I've never had it, although I've heard about people eating it around Christmas time."
"It's funny, it's a perfect December food, especially when it's foggy and clammy and all you do is look outside and shiver," Will said enthusiastically. "It's homey and warms you up, has a little spiciness, and hominy and pork -- you almost think it shouldn't be good for you, but it's great."
"Just bring what you drink, and not to get dronk," Gloria warned. "I don't want to get kicked out of my domicile."
"Domicile, listen to you. How the hell am I going to get Mom to put her hackles down and let me -- wait, I know! I'll be firing up my new computer for the first time, and I'll wax enthusiastic and want to bring it to you to show you how lucky we are that Mom married Joe! I just won't tell her that you aren't alone, sitting on Steve's lap." He paused. "And if that doesn't work, I won't be there, but you know I'll be wishing I was."
"Here's to the Musketeers," Will said, raising the remains of his orange juice. The other three tapped their cups and glasses. "You get to be the dumb-ass D'Artagnan," he said to Ben.
"Only because I'm the youngest," Ben replied, without rancor. "And I know that as far as this quartet goes, I'm the smartest."
"But you're still the one in prison," Will sniped ungraciously. "So how does that make you the smartest?"
"Masterminds can bide their time, bunghole. I'm the one driving a Malibu while you ride a Corolla with bike pedals for forward progress."
Gloria covered her mouth with her hand and pressed her lips to keep from laughing.
"I can eat fifty mice," Will said.
All four of them erupted into loud laughter, drawing concerned looks from the morning manager. "You did not just call up your inner Paul Newman!" Lolo cried, pointing at him across the table.
Ben wiped his mouth with his napkin. "Sure he did, it was his favorite line in Cool Hand Luke. We'd watch it with our father anytime it came on cable -- it was one of Dad's favorite movies of all time."
Well, hell, yeah, I don't doubt that Lolo knew that, too, Gloria thought, wondering how to shift the conversation with light speed.
The waitress showed up again, to Gloria's relief, insincerely asking if anyone needed refills. Lolo took some more coffee, but the rest of them, a bit red-faced from braying, did not.
As they left the restaurant for their respective cars, Gloria called, "See you reprobates on Christmas Day, if you can come."
Lolo hugged her again. "I'll be there, and thanks for asking me to come."
Gloria looked her in the eyes. "Girl, as far as I'm concerned, the invitation is always open."
"I love you, too, Gloria," Lolo said, her eyes welling up. She hurried off.
Does she mean she loves me because I love her? Or does she mean she loves me as well as she still loves my father?
Does it matter why people love?