Chapter Twenty-two: Steve, with Gloria
It was probably the night when I was kissing Gloria outside the back kitchen door by the employee parking lot -- I don't know who the shadow was outside the house over by the Bakers' back door, but it might have been Dan Baker, or any one of the staff. I saw the shadow while I was holding Gloria tight, burying my face in her thick curly hair. Never encountered hair like that before I met her, coiling and fragrant and making me wish the whole pile of it was draped across my bare chest.
Dan called me into his office a couple days before Christmas and our long Christmas break.
"Steve, just about everyone has noticed that you and Maria's assistant, Gloria, are an item."
"Uhh, yes, sir, I think we are."
"Her father died just last May, as I understand. An accident, upset all the family, I hear."
"Yes. Terrible loss, he stepped out into the street in front of a bus, is what I've heard."
Dan looked away at the windows of his office and sighed. "Do you need to pursue a romantic relationship with Gloria Melton so soon after her father's death?"
I didn't know what to say. My soul was saying, Who knew she was grieving when I saw her the first time, the strong pale young woman with the incredible hair and incomparable profile? "I didn't know her story right away." It wasn't the right response to Dan's question, I knew that.
"Come on, Steve, we all knew her story the first week after she was hired. We all knew you were trying to get her attention the week after that."
"Actually, sir, I didn't know her history when I wanted to get her attention. All I saw was a stunningly gorgeous red-head new on the staff. Yes, I wanted her to notice me. When I heard about her backstory, I eased off on my ... attention."
"I know that it is, in practicality, none of my business," Dan said, "but what are your intentions toward my employee Gloria Melton? As my employee, which means she is part of my household, I feel that I have a reason to know, so as to protect her interests, and my own interests."
"I would marry her in an instant, but I don't believe that she is interested in marriage so soon after her father's death ... and so soon after her mother's new marriage."
"Have you asked her?"
"No." Wait, that sounded like I'm a jerk. "I mean, I would, but she's ... headstrong ... and I don't want her to tell me to hit the highway -- uh, so to speak -- because she knows I know she doesn't want me to ask her."
Dan's brow furrowed. "You're saying she doesn't want to marry you."
"I don't know. I know she doesn't want me to ask."
"Then it's probably a good idea not to ask her. You don't want to pressure the woman you would marry and have her tell you to back off. You might understand why she'd say that, but things like that can't ever be un-said." He fiddled with some papers on his desk. "And there are my interests, as I mentioned. Maria was already an ailing woman when we hired her, and though she was a good cook, as she became more ill, especially in the last few years, her work reflected that. None of the other assistants we brought in for her could get along with her, and the cooking was starting to slip downhill. Gloria's arrival changed that completely. Maria had enough confidence in her to get the medical help she needed, and Gloria was able to take up enough slack to get our meals back on the right track. My wife says that Maria is talking about taking a vacation this summer. We know Gloria can step up and do the job while Maria's gone; I surely do not want to jeopardize that.
"Moreover, we've never seen Maria as happy as she is now. We'd prefer to see Gloria as a long-term asset, but that will be up to her and ... maybe, you. But if Gloria makes Maria happy, that ups her value to the household."
Great. He was saying, "Don't poach our investment." I could understand that, from a management point of view.
"Yes, sir. I will not propose marriage to Gloria Melton at this time."
"Don't be bitter, Steve. You two have plenty of time. Listen, my brother needs some help with his warehouse systems. He had to let his manager go due to inventory aberrations, whether purposeful or mismanaged, he didn't say. But maybe some time in the Sonoma facility would give you and Gloria the time you need to figure out what you two want the relationship to be."
All I could do was nod, and say, "Thank you, sir."
* * *
"I got this big-ass TV and still everything is kind of blurry," Maria carped.
"It's because the cable people haven't been out here yet to upgrade your connection," Ben soothed. "You'll have to be patient for two more days."
"Bah. Damn progress. Doesn't get here fast enough."
Joe Brady was sort of fidgeting from foot to foot. "Running a bit short on time, Ben," he said. "Philli doesn't even know we left."
"Oh, okay!" Ben gathered up his toolkit. "Let's go. I'll see you ladies on Friday. Steve, keep my sister happy and safe. See ya."
They scuffled out of the house, but not before I heard Joe saying, "Listen, let's go back to Best Buy and get a TV like that for us. That way, we have an excuse for being out and we get a better TV than I have anywhere in the house. It's absolutely ... " he stopped on the porch steps. "I'm in lust for it," he finished. I heard Ben laugh before the van doors closed.
Maria clicked through her channels on the TV. "I have to wait two whole days to get those cooking shows."
"It'll take you that long to figure out the remote," I offered, just to see her bristle.
"I stay here all afternoon and learn it by heart. Then I can just watch TV with my eyes closed. Why don't you two go to Steve's apartment and quit watching me watching television?"
"Because Steve's apartment is the size of a broom closet and Steve hasn't cleaned in a week," I rejoined.
"Dirty socks from one end to the other, and no dishes to eat off, I bet," Maria said without looking away from the TV.
"With cobwebs so thick it's like I have a canopy bed."
"Your place is such a mess you have to take two days off every week just to find yourself."
I shook my head, knowing again that she was a step ahead of me. "There's a way she has of dancing around you with words and then -- wham! -- you're on the floor with little birds over your head making cuckoo sounds."
"Come on, let's go to the store and get some cleaning supplies, and I'll help you with your apartment," Gloria said, going to the kitchen for her purse.
"My apartment is clean, but that was a nice thing to offer. Hey, grab your coat or a sweater, we can sit out on the porch steps again before it starts to rain."
She nodded slowly. "Yeah, let's do that."
The sun was just coming around to the porch, cloud shadows flying before the wind, promising a change in the weather. We sat, shoulders pressed together, and I had no idea how to broach the subject that was burning behind my eyes.
"I can't just sit here and say nothing," Gloria mumbled to me. "We might be too close to a huge misunderstanding if we don't start talking, saying what we really mean. I have an inkling about this, but I also might be wrong."
Not looking at her -- I couldn't stand to see her expressions, I said, "Dan Baker asked me what my intentions were toward you."
"What?" Gloria nearly shouted. "He what?"
"He just wanted to make sure I was being a gentleman, not ... taking advantage of you."
"Oh, really," she said drily. "He could have just asked me."
"I think he's too old-fashioned to talk to a woman about her romantic life."
"I suppose I might have been flustered if he had. How did you answer him?"
"I told him that I'm crazy about you, but that I didn't think you were open to the idea of marriage, and that I could respect that."
She looked squarely into my eyes. Not like an impressionable woman, not like a lover. More like a colonel assessing and addressing troops that needed ordering. "And exactly what did he have to say to that?"
"He said I should take a job up in the Baker Sonoma facility for a while." I wanted her to gasp and protest and beg me to reconsider, offer to beg Dan Baker to have mercy and keep us together. She didn't.
After a long silence, I was about to say -- not without a little bitterness -- Well, Gloria, I guess I know where I stand with you. I'm glad now that I didn't.
She took my hand. "I am going to be honest with you: I have never felt like this before, ever, and I don't know what the hell it all means or how to even talk about it."
"You should talk to me about it, then, because I know everything about emotions and the future and quantum mechanics." I pulled her hand to rest against my face.
"I will, but you'll have to help me; it may take me a while to understand, not only because it seems to me to be a lot of area to cover, but also because ... I'm unsure about the whole -- concept of marriage."
"You mean commitment, or legalities, or ... "
"My mother just remarried barely six months after my father died. Will and Ben are still grieving; Will was so furious that he wouldn't go to the wedding. I didn't want to go, but Ben didn't have a choice, so I went to keep ... solidarity with him, I didn't want him to have to do that on his own. He was ... bullied into being the good son who would take part in the ceremony and walk Mom down the aisle. I'm not seeing marriage in a good light right now."
"You Meltons play your cards close to your chest. I didn't know this, Gloria."
"Ahh, I didn't want to scare you off by seeming neurotic."
"All I hear is that you didn't want to scare me off. But Ben seemed okay with Joe this morning. And Joe seems to be an okay kind of guy."
Gloria exhaled gustily. "Can I toss some more of the cards on the table? I don't want to dump all our secret snarls on you at once."
"Dump away. I'll leap up and run to my car in shock if it becomes too much for me."
"We don't think that Joe's the problem. We think Joe's the victim, that our mother met him and saw him as a solution, beguiled him deliberately, and got him to marry her to solve the family's financial pinch. Ben thinks he's a nice guy, and has come around to him enough to stop talking about running away to join a circus. It's Philli, she's what's keeping us on edge. She's mad that we're mad, so she doesn't want Ben hanging around with me too much -- Joe's the one who smoothed her feathers enough to let Ben come over on Christmas Day -- and I didn't dare let on to Joe this morning that Will had come to visit, too, because I didn't want Mom to find out and go postal." She massaged her face with her free hand. "God, that sounded crazy even to me. Sorry. Sorry. Gee, Steve, here's my Christmas sentiment -- my family are all ready to go to war with each other, and I don't know what I feel or how to move forward. Not with family, not with romance."
"I think Dan Baker has a point. I do need some time to sort out the grief, the anger, the hostility. I admit, that's hard to do when every time I see you, I just want to jump your bones. And see, I don't know, don't know that's a real path forward, because I'm still trying to process the trauma of this past summer and fall.
"You don't need a crazy woman, Steve. Let me get un-crazy, and let's see what that looks like."
I don't know. I think I could live with this kind of crazy, but maybe she and Dan Baker are right.
They better be. I really don't want this to be over.