Chapter Twenty: The Sun and Potluck
Turning in the driveway were two more cars, one of which was the parti-colored Corolla, and another behind: Will, Salvi and his mother Carmen and Salvi's sister Ariana showing up. It could have been a mess as a party, but with Carmen's pozole and tortillas and Ben's chimichurri, it was a real potluck, plenty of food for an afternoon get-together, and the afternoon sun smiling down on all like a blessing from heaven.
They had appetizers of chimichurri on baguette slices, a soup course of pozole with tortillas to tame the heat of the chili peppers, and plenty of chicken and fruit for a main dish, with cookies to serve as dessert. They sat on the porch and in the kitchen, moving from one to the other to sample food and start new conversations.
Unsure of their place with the ranch contingent, Ben and Lolo had huddled together out of the way, but Maria had yanked them into conversation with the ranch group, revealing that she not only spoke English and Portuguese, but a rudimentary Spanish as well, which took Gloria by surprise. "Just talk," she admonished them. "You don't need to be some slick lawyer or politician. Just say words you know, what you don't know say from English. We all figure it all out."
"Yah," Carmen agreed. "I don't speak good English, but some. Ariana helps me."
"Ariana does too much," Ariana asided to Gloria. "Ariana wants to be something more in her life than a crutch."
"What do you think you'd like to do?" Gloria replied, glad to have a direction for conversation.
"I don't have my high school diploma -- had to drop out when I was in my junior year to go help out my older sister in Ceres when she got real sick after having her baby, but after I get that, I'd like to work as a translator for social services. There's too many Mexicans coming up here to work who can't speak English, so they get took advantage of." Ariana explained passionately.
"I agree. Will was telling me that, too." Problem is, you're going to need more than a GED, because you're going to need to know more about immigration and labor laws.
She nodded. "Will gave me the name of some places to go to take classes to pass the GED, but I have no transportation. Salvi can't take me to classes and pick me up, and neither me or Mama know how to drive."
Well, shit. And I thought we had it bad.
Unable to think of any solutions on the fly on Christmas Day, Gloria had re-integrated herself and Ariana back into the conversations of the group, in which Ben was begging for recipes for traditional corn tortillas while Lolo explained that her family lost their traditions with the passing of her immigrant grandparents. Once Ariana was engaged in a tale of her first corn tortilla-making disaster, Gloria slipped into the kitchen to procure a glass of wine.
Will stepped in as well to stand by Gloria. "Ben let drop that Mom was shouting at you about the other day."
"Yes, Mom wants the past summer and fall to disappear and go back to being a happy little family -- just minus Dad and plus Joe as replacement. I told her we weren't kids any more, but it just made her madder."
"That's why I just up and left. You can't explain anything to her, or convince her of anything. She's right, and there's no discussion possible. Was she always like that? I can't say I remember her like that before, but then, we were the kids and always being taken care of, and we had everything we wanted or needed any time we wanted or needed anything." He took a long pull from the iced tea that Maria had brewed up. "Maybe I did know that -- I didn't tell her about the orchard job until I could toss that first day's wage onto the table. She was mad about me taking a job, but after the fact, with the cash reward, she just kind of fumed off and respected it."
"Well, until she was marrying Joe," Gloria said wryly. "Then it was back to full-on mad."
"Yep, but at least he's good to Ben. Saves me from having to send you after him to kill him."
"What? Me? Why me?"
"You don't think I'd be going to do it, do you? Too much effort. Remember the trash wars?"
"I do, you lazy shithead. Mom would make me take the garbage out first thing in the morning because you just walked away from your chore." Gloria shook her head at the past injustice, and then smirked because taking out the trash at night would now be Ben's chore by default.
"May have been laziness, but my plan worked."
"You didn't have a plan, you were just glad your slacker attitude worked out." It was all in the past, and now just another funny shared memory. Will had proven himself responsible to his family and in the workplace. "What's next for you?"
He shrugged. "I'm happy where I'm at. I'm taking online courses in bookkeeping -- I love free shit -- and Mr. Van Duyken is happy I can keep his computers running tip-top; he loves being able to send me out to the other almond farmers to help them with their computers, like he's the wealthy one who has the resources they wish they had. I've actually had a couple offers to leave Van Duyken Farms and take up residence elsewhere, but I like it out there. Other farmers might expect me to live in a house, and at this point, I couldn't stand that."
"I worried about you getting too cold over the winter, but now I'm worried about you living in a barn in the summer. What will you do when the temps climb into the high nineties and you've got no AC?"
"The barn has a big sycamore tree on the southwest corner. No leaves in the winter so the sun can warm it, lots of shade in the summer to keep it -- well, I hope it keeps it cool enough. There's one by the house, too. Salvi calls it 'Mexican air conditioning' but it makes a lot of sense. Out there, the evening breezes cool things down pretty fast. I was glad to be wearing a sweatshirt at the end of the days in the orchard."
"You look good, Will. Better than I've ever seen you."
"I'd same the same about you, if you weren't so damn short."
"You get any taller and you're going to be employed as a ceiling cleaner with suds in your hair."
He chuckled. "Pretty lame, Gloria." As the group laughed loudly at some sparring between Maria and Ben, he asked, "How come Lolo doesn't get a room at Mom's house, after she lived with us all -- in Mom's room, until I moved out?"
"Hmm. Near as I could tell, she didn't want to share her honeymoon palace with any other woman. Not counting me, of course, because I was still a 'girl child' -- but I can't be certain, because neither one of them has told me if there was some kind of confrontation or disagreement." God, I should have gone into law, because nothing I just said was either true or a lie.
When the wonderful potluck had been eaten, and the dishes washed (Maria did not own a dishwasher) and the sun had begun to sink in the southwest, the company packed up and left, leaving Steve, Lolo, Maria, and Gloria, seated around the kitchen table, full and cheerful, sharing glasses of the red wine that Steve had brought.
What a day, Gloria sighed to herself. Best Christmas ever.
There had been no uncomfortable scramble for Christmas presents; Carmen and Ariana left a quart of their incredible pozole as a gift; Maria sent everyone off with pomegranates and oranges. Ben left his 'old' computer for Maria, Steve had brought the case of wine.
"So that is Will," Maria remarked. "He's tall. How did he get to be in charge?"
"He's not in charge --"
"Yes, he is. I see this with my own eyes. He's the leader of that group."
Gloria looked from Maria to Steve, who wagged his head from side to side. "She's right, he's the boss dawg."
"It's because he stands taller -- not talking about height -- and has confidence in himself. He doesn't look to anyone else for answers when he talks." Lolo sat up straighter in her chair, shifted her shoulders back, pushed her long hair away from her neck. She tapped the table with one fingernail, her facial expression still. "This is how you get respect. You make everyone around you believe that you know what you're doing with the signals you send with every movement."
Maria laughed out loud. "You good, girl. You turn from sad girl into CEO just like that. I want to try that, myself. Maybe need a good girdle first."
"Oh, come on, Maria, you've got everyone on the staff at the Bakers' believing that you're at the top of the food chain, what more do you want?" Steve said, grinning.
"Hey, Stevo, it's Christmas. I can wish for anything. Maybe I wish for a month off this coming summer to go to Portugal, find out who I am supposed to be."
"You think that going to Portugal will help?"
"I don't know. Never been there, but I've been American Portuguese all my life. Portuguese dairy daughter to Portuguese dairy wife, Portuguese cook who cooks like Portuguese dairy woman. What is Portuguese, anyway? A language? A culture who can stand the smell of cow shit? Come on, Steve, there's got to be more to it than that, even an idiot like you knows that."
"Oh, so I'm an idiot now."
"No, you been an idiot since I met you, probably before, too. Don't worry, it's in your nature. You take some classes and get a little better."
"Once I take some classes, I will be a professional idiot, thank you very much, and Mr. Baker will promote me to being your boss, and then I will show you just how much of an idiot I can be. Be forewarned," he said, shaking a finger at her.
"I go to Portugal this summer and learn about poisons," Maria said loftily. "Those European women, they know all about that, it's what they do. You eat the wrong mushroom, you end your career being a professional idiot boss."
Lolo laughed and up-ended her wine glass for the last few drops. "I'm out, my friends, don't bring loaded weapons or chef's knives into the room. Thank you for inviting me, it's been a wonderful day." They gave her hugs and saw her to her car, the fog beginning to rise, the temperature dropping rapidly.
Steve turned to Gloria. "I'm out for the day, too. I was at work at five this morning, helping prepare the rooms for Christmas. Every visiting relative had their own tree, and we had to make sure that all the presents went to the right rooms, and every one of them had fresh-squeezed orange juice and/or mimosas and bread and fruit on trays outside their doors. We're taking Maria television shopping tomorrow, right? What if I showed up with New York strip steaks in the morning, could you make us eggs to go with them?"
"Can you pick up a bag of hash browns -- the shredded ones --" she yawned suddenly. "Sorry, it was a long day. We were stressed out over the Bakers' New York strips, making sure that everyone had theirs to order. That's what made you think of them, right? And those tiny baked potatoes they wanted -- butter, no butter, salt, no salt, cheddar, gouda ... this afternoon was fun, almost like recess in grade school. This morning was more like a college final." They kissed and held one another. "Be careful in the fog, Steve. See you tomorrow."
"Around nine all right? See you then."
He got into his car and left the driveway.
I'm tired, and didn't want him to stay. But he didn't seem to want to, anyway. A bit odd, isn't it?