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July 15, 2024

Place Settings 19

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Nineteen: Christmas in Mariaville

The day was brilliant with winter sunshine, the lawn green as emerald, oranges on the tree by the front porch brightly glowing in the light. Gloria stepped out of her car and stretched out her arms, wishing she could hug all of Creation. A week off, a great house to live in -- one that she didn't have to worry about losing -- and the freedom from having to make shitty small talk around her traitorous mother's new table, all of that, and a beautiful day ... now if only the timer for the oven had done its thing correctly ...

Gloria unlocked the front door and opened it to the rich scent of roasting chickens. Shrugging off her coat to a kitchen chair, she opened the oven to see four fine birds, skin just turning golden. Time for a basting of olive oil, my lovelies.

The sound of a car door alerted her to Steve's arrival. "I'll trade you these cookies for a kiss," he greeted her. "Man, that smells good."

"So you get a kiss for a dozen chocolate chip cookies -- what do I get for four roasted chickens?"

"My dear, you get a case of Romelin's best wine. Hold the door for me and I'll get it from the trunk. Where will you want it?"

"The pantry, I think. We don't have a wine rack." As Steve entered with the case, Gloria grinned. "And Lolo is here!"

"Wish I could see you light up like that when you knew I was arriving," Steve said.

Gloria looked at him. "I don't know that's fair for you to say, but for now, I'll tell you that Lolo is in far more need of loving reassurance than either you or I -- and there's a lot of story behind that -- and I miss the shit out of a woman I shared a house and an uncertain future with."

"Whoa, sorry." Steve waved his hands in a surrender gesture. "How about I open one of these and then shut my mouth?"

"Don't shut up, Steve, we are going to need to talk one of these days. Glasses are here, I'll join you after I cut up some veggies. No alcohol pairings go with knives."

Steve greeted Lolo on the porch. "Hey, Lolo, how are you?"

"Wonderful, Steve, good to see you." She shook his hand and then turned to Gloria and hugged her. "Well, you certainly got the better deal when they sold the house. This is a really cool place -- I kept checking the directions, drove past the driveway three times before I could believe it."

"I did, I have to agree. I love it here. Want to join Steve in an early glass of wine?"

"No, thank you. Do you happen to have coffee? I've been cleaning and checking emails since about ten-thirty when I got up, didn't go for breakfast."

Gloria grimaced. "There's coffee, but it's instant. Maria and I are tea women, but her friend Elsie left some of her coffee after she stayed with Maria after her operation."

"Instant is fine. Oh, what a friendly kitchen!"

As Gloria busied herself with a pot of water, Steve and Lolo sat down at the table. "Gloria tells me you're tearing up the track at the car dealership job."

"It's such a relief to get back to real work," Lolo laughed. "I hated that job at the mall. I'd much rather smell new cars than perfume, and I far prefer convincing a man he's fit for a luxury sedan than selling older women makeup that will never make them look younger."

"You're one to talk," Gloria interrupted. "What about that war paint you wear to turn heads when you're on the sales floor?"

"That's not to make me look younger, hermana. That's to make the customers look at the salesman and remember her. They'll say, 'Oh there's that flashy old girl who knows everything about the car we were looking at.' But yes, Steve, I am, as you said, tearing up the track. I'm selling a car a day, almost since the day I started. Christmas season is good for that; see, I don't just sell the car, I sell the car with ideas of where to drive it. Someone's looking at an SUV, I mention some of the little resorts up in the mountains where you can learn to ski -- if the buyer is young -- or where you can rent a room in a lodge with a fireplace and watch the snow fall. They want a luxury car, I talk about the beachfront places in Santa Cruz and San Diego." She turned to receive a cup of coffee and a plate from Gloria. "Oh! Avocado on toast, you are the best of the best."

"Come on, what do you think of sitting on the porch steps in the sun? It's been so gloomy and gray lately I feel like I'm turning into some kind of fog zombie."

"Maybe you should be hitting up some of those resorts for a commission on referrals to their properties," Steve said as they stretched their legs in the sun. "The markets are thin all over. You wouldn't ask for a big cut, just a little one, get a few more people here and there keeping tourism going."

"I'm a car salesperson, not a travel agent."

"No, no, an agent does the booking, you'd just be referring. See, my favorite B and B is at a winery up in Napa. They've got no one booking rooms, which is a shame, because it's a beautiful place -- but because no one is booking rooms, they can't afford to do a whole lot of advertising, in an economy where people are more likely to be worrying about keeping a roof over their heads than vacationing. But if you have someone with the monedas to consider buying a new car -- and the right demographic matchup -- if they go up to Romelin Winery in Napa on your suggestion, a little tip to you might be a great thank you for sending them their way." He swirled the wine in his glass. "Romelin's is where this came from, incidentally. "Have a sniff and a taste."

"That's ... amazing. Just one sip and I think I should lie down and meditate on the flavors for a while."

"I'm buds with the owner. I'll email him and ask him if he'd be interested. If he is, he can send you some of his cards."

"Okay. Thank you." Turning to Gloria, "You and Maria didn't get a Christmas tree," Lolo observed.

"We're not here so much of the day -- like you and your rooms -- so there isn't a lot of point. The Bakers have Christmas trees all over the place, so it's not like we missed it. Maybe next year, I don't know." Gloria shrugged. "Honestly, it's been kind of a relief not to be picking at Christmas like a starving pigeon. I didn't realize how annoying it had become until I didn't have to plan around it."

"Christmas shouldn't be annoying," Steve said, wrinkling his brows quizzically.

"Well, it's not Christmas, per se, but how it's portrayed in the stores and on TV, on all the ads you see in your browser windows. Before my mother was even stocking Halloween candy, the drug store she worked at already had a corner with Christmas wrapping paper and ribbons and an endcap of red and green wrapped candies. Christmas candy in September? And then it expands, until everything you see is this giant fungus scream of Buy! Buy! Buy! for Christmas, or you're un-American, you're Scrooge, you're the Grinch!" She waved her arms in the bright afternoon light. "Buy for your siblings! Buy for your parents! Buy for your teacher, for your librarian, for all your friends -- and by God, they better all buy for you!"

Laughing, Lolo put down her cup and applauded. Then jumped to her feet. "The Malibu," she whispered. "It's Ben!"

Of course. The Malibu would have been the last car she saw Dad in. Setting to the back of her mind how Lolo might view the car she'd sold to her late lover now being driven by her late lover's son, Gloria watched Ben park the car along the driveway, and haul two computer bags out of the trunk.

"I come in peace, inhabitants of Mariaville!" he called. "Do not throw me in the stewpot!"

"You're too slimy and unsavory for the soup," Gloria told him as she gave him a hug.

"Call me Badly Cooked Okra, Mophead," he said, putting the bags on the porch. "But don't call me late for Christmas snacks." He hugged Lolo in turn. "Good to see you, my friend."

"I'm so glad you could come after all," Lolo said. "Your email didn't sound like you could."

"Let's get my cooler out of the car," Ben replied. "I got some bread and some chimichurri I just made today. Used your recipe, Glory.

"Mom wasn't about to let me come, so I played the wild card in the deck. Went to Joe and told him about how we'd all pitched in to stay in the house and off the streets. Told him how we went from being arguing siblings to being team together. Told him how important it was that I spend time with my sister, how much I miss her, how I understand that it's time for her to figure out if Steve is her future or not. -- Sorry, Steve, someone needs to say that. And then I asked him if it was fair to forbid me to see my sister for a couple of hours on Christmas day when Mom's Christmas dinner wouldn't be ready until five anyway, and couldn't I just go and show her the great computer he'd bought me as a gift.

"He shooed me out the door and told me he'd smooth Mom's feathers." Ben paused. "If that was a euphemism, I'm glad I'm out of the house."

"It probably means that you'll return to Turlock to find him scorched bald by one of her temper tirades," Gloria snarked.

"If he is, I'll buy the man a toupee. He's trying hard to be a good guy to me, as well as to Mom."

The crunchy gravel of the driveway announced another arrival. They all went out to the porch again, to see Maria's car pull up. "What the heck?" Gloria asked. "I wonder if she had a falling-out with her daughter-in-law."

"Is this going to be a bad scene?" Lolo asked. "I can leave if you want."

"I'll handle it, there are no bad scenes for Ben and Maria," Ben assured her. "Hey, Maria, merry Christmas! I have a Toshiba Dual Core that's just waiting to meet you!"

"God smiles on the nosy old woman who wished she was here to see friends instead of sitting and listening to family yap," Maria said ungraciously. "Youngest son arrives with his family and informs us all that my namesake, little Maria, is running a fever, but didn't want to miss Christmas dinner. I say, 'Thank you for telling us, I've been too sick too long, Mariazinhas, get better soon, goodbye my family, I'm going home.' I don't know what to think of my kids. What they thinking, bringing sick baby to family gathering? I go wash my hands, gargle with Listerine." She went into the house.

In the quiet that followed, Ben said, "I am not carrying anything contagious."

"I don't think that's true," Gloria chuckled. "Your sass is infecting Maria."

"Oh, that's where it's coming from? I thought it was Gloria who was the bad influence -- Maria has been on me like hot tar on the back of a car bumper lately. She's so different than she used to be." Steve nosed the wine glass speculatively.

"Dang, Steve, she was really sick and not letting on to even the Bakers. We're talking all the way back to before her husband died. She's a tough old horse for hanging in there, but now she feels better than she has for almost twenty years -- we're seeing a new creation in her."

The door opened and Maria appeared, dragging a chair. "I'm not sitting on the porch floor, too old, too fat. Hey, hi, I'm Maria, I know the rest of these wicked people, you must be --"

"Dolores Vega. Also known as Lolo," she offered, extending a hand. "Gloria has always spoken highly of you. I also thank you for giving her such a wonderful place to live."

"We all want to take care of Gloria. She's like a museum piece."

Gloria turned and stared at her boss.

A corner of Maria's mouth turned up. "Like a Picasso, kind of weird and repulsive, but priceless."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-04-05
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
02:00:48 PM
Nothing like a traditional family Christmas--not! Now that everyone is all together and happy I'm waiting for Mama to show up to ruin the day??? Or are there other surprises in store?
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