Chapter Twenty-one: Ben, with Joe
Most conveniently, Joe was in the kitchen seeking coffee when Gloria texted me. "Joe! My friend Maria -- Gloria's boss -- is about to buy a forty-two inch flat screen television over at Best Buy, but it won't fit in her car! Could we drive over there and take it to her house?"
There were some unmistakable benefits to my mother marrying Joe Brady. I know I was really pissed when I first found out they were getting married, but honestly, he's such a great guy that I couldn't stay mad. And he's so eager to be friends with me, he'll do just about anything. Like using his van to pick up Maria's new TV. I could have just asked to borrow it, but the van-thing is the size of a small bedroom and all I've driven are mid-size sedans.
On the way to Best Buy, I told Joe about Maria's antique television, and how we were going to install a good cable and internet service for her in a couple days, how she'd have no idea how to hook up the new tv, and how Gloria and I were going to teach her how to use my old computer as her own. I told him about batting my eyes at Maria to ingratiate myself into her household so that I could go see Gloria whenever I wanted to; elaborately described Maria's house in ways that only a real estate magnate could appreciate.
I wasn't doing it for profit, so to speak. Maybe I had been, at first, thinking to myself that if my mother put a rube in front of me, that I would fleece him for all that he was worth, but even though he's in real estate, he leaves it all at the office and has been friendly, trying to understand my computer business, being patient with my surly teenaged man blues and frustrations. To my relief, he wasn't trying to be Daddy to me; it was more like he wanted an ally in his life, someone who didn't need him to be ... who didn't need him to be something.
That, even though it's hard to describe, I can understand. Mom needs -- or wants -- me to be a good son. Her kid. And that's not difficult, it's just not what I've become. I think Will and Gloria and I stopped being kids when Gloria did the math this past fall and we damn near ended up homeless. But Mom has a hard time wrapping her curly red head around that. Do all mothers have a hard time seeing their offspring as anything else? Maybe I'll get around to asking Maria that one of these days, after consultation with my sister, who is the closest thing to an expert on Maria that I know.
So Mom needs me to be this kid-son, my teachers at school want me to be a glowing example of the perfect student, doing my homework and presenting a shining attentive face in my classes. What I'd prefer is to be working, or at least studying something I don't already know that would help me to be self-sufficient. Living in Joe's mini- mansion forever doesn't appeal to me as a long- term goal. That's Mom's thing, not mine, although I'm not going to pass up the comfort of that wonderful hot tub spa or the free run of the kitchen that I have.
There's also the expectations that my so-called peers have of me. Every last one of them believes that I am some kind of freak genius who walks around with mathematical equations and computer languages oozing out of his ears. Because I'm not a player on any of the school teams, I don't qualify as being truly manly in the eyes of my male cohort; they all see me as a geek with a capital G. Well, except for the other geeks, who think I'm some kind of sell out because I won't join the Chess Club or the Computer Club, which I won't, because those guys are into geek stuff as a kind of defense against jock domination.
I guess that makes me a snob of some sort, another question I'll have to get around to asking myself one of these days.
What the girls think of me, I haven't got much of a clue. Most of the girls go for the jocks, which is so cliche it makes me sick. And then there are the ones who go for the gang members, or the wannabe gang members, who walk around with their pants pulled down, pretending that they speak some inner city jargon, which is ridiculous -- Modesto doesn't have an inner city, it has down town, it has industrial areas, it has suburbs, and it has the sticks. A couple of the senior girls have been trying to give me the eye; the ones whose parents make use of my computer business, but that may be because they know what their parents are paying me.
The fact is, I keep an open ear, so I know more about what the girls do than I want to. Many of them are far less virtuous than I'd prefer. There I am, being a snob again. Who am I to be judging the morals of my fellow students? It's just that having observed Will and his slut-mobile Chelsea last year, I don't want to stagger down that alley just yet. Maybe part of it is that both my mother and my sister are beautiful, poised women who know their minds and don't give a shit what other people think about them. I look at and listen to the girls in my classes and jeeze, they're superficial.
So anyway, I don't expect Joe to be my new best friend, or a father-figure, or Mr. Moneybags Sucess Story. He owns the house I live in, he loves my mother, and he likes doing stuff for people. He lets me play in his kitchen, encouraged me to make my bedroom (it's enormous, by the way, about five times as big as Will's barn room) into my own personal man-cave. Nice guy, and just as eager as I am to see what kind of television Maria picked out for herself. A forty-two incher? Wild!
When we pulled up, Maria and Steve and Gloria were standing in the foyer of the store with a huge cardboard box proudly labeled Panasonic.
"Oh, look at that. That's not the kind of toy you expect a Portuguese cook to bring home," Joe said, his brow furrowing a little.
"You don't know Maria," I told him, laughing at the thought of Maria being conventional. "Maria isn't your everyday ordinary old girl."
"Hmm. I just hope that your sister's boyfriend didn't talk her into something she can't really afford."
"It's Best Buy. She has a whole month to change her mind. Besides, I bet she got a great deal on it, what with the after-Christmas sale going on." I opened my door and waved at them. "Hello, my people! May we carry your television for you? Maria, this is Mr. Joe Brady, my mother's husband. Joe, this is Maria Bedencourt, who has enriched my life by teaching my sister how to cook a standing rib roast. And this is Steve, the chauffeur and love interest."
"You are very nice to help me with my new TV," Maria said, shaking his hand. "They couldn't do delivery until next week some time, but I'm like a kid all of a sudden, can't wait to open this present and play with it."
While Steve and I gently loaded the television into the back of the van, I listened as Joe asked Gloria, "How was your Christmas Day? We'd hoped you and Steve would stop by when Ben came home -- Philli cooks the best turkey I've ever had."
"Maria and I got off work at noon, and the Bakers sent us home with a lovely basket of fruits and breads. The best part of Christmas Day was being able to sit outside in the sun. They're calling for rain again tonight, so it was like a gift to be able to sun ourselves like that," Gloria said, deflecting perfectly. "And yes, I agree about Mom's turkeys. Did she get one from Raley's? They're so good."
Time to step in and save my sister. "Are you ready to go? Or do you have other shopping?"
Maria answered for her. "Steve is taking care of us today, already brought food for us to cook, so I am done for the rest of the day, just maybe going to watch the Weather Channel and laugh at people in Montana shoveling snow."
"Lead on, then, and we shall follow with the royal television. And while we hook it up, I'll want to hear what the cooks cook when they have no cooking duties."
As they pulled onto the highway, Joe commented, "They were standing close together. That's interesting."
My eyebrows went up. "I wouldn't have noticed that, but you're right. Not surprising as far as Gloria and Steve go, but then, they do all work together at the Bakers." He's sharper than he lets on.
"And you moved right into that group like one of them," Joe went on.
Much sharper. "You know, there's something about Maria ... she makes you want to protect her, take care of her, but she's not vulnerable, I don't want it to sound like that. In fact, she's strong, and makes you feel safe in return."
"Like a spare mother?" Joe asked, smiling.
"Not at all," I told him, searching for words. "She's ... I never had to describe her, I'm not sure I'm doing a good job of it. You know, Will and Gloria and I used to get into some really clever name calling and insult contests -- Maria is challenging to spar with verbally; I think she could out-do us all."
"I'm looking forward to meeting Will one of these days. I'm not sure what's going on with Philli and him, but I hope they'll patch it up."
"I do, too," I answered uncomfortably. "Neither one of them has been very open with me about what's going on. Okay, this is the turn coming up."
We followed Steve's car on surface streets south and east. As the car turned into Maria's long driveway, Joe let out a whistle of disbelief. "I wonder if she knows how much property value she's sitting on ..."
"That development over there, that used to be part of the Bedencourts' dairy, I think she said. She sold it off after her husband died, but I don't know how long ago it was. You can park right there, in front of the side porch. I think that's where they'll want to take the TV in."
You have no idea how glad I was to get involved with Steve carrying in and hooking up the TV, and get away from questions about family. It's not like there were any big secrets, but I sure didn't want to try to explain to Joe that Will was dead set against our mother marrying him, or that Will didn't want our mother meddling in his new farm life. I mean, how could I, without going into a long-winded explanation about how different we all had been the summer after Dad died -- which makes me wonder, what on earth was Joe thinking, marrying a woman whose husband had died less than a year ago? She had told him that Dad died last spring, hadn't she? Late last spring, at that. Did he offer marriage to bail the poor, grieving widow and us out before we had to sell the house? And she reluctantly accepted the help of a generous stranger? Somehow that didn't fit my image of my mother at all. Which brings me back to Will, and not wanting to admit that all three of us Melton kids thought our dear old mom had orchestrated the whole romance and wedding thing with an eye to getting out of a job she hated. Didn't want to bring up how betrayed we all felt, or how mad we were that she wasn't still grieving over Dad like we were. Or was I the only one who still missed him so much?