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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"

Place Settings 23

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Twenty-three: Ben Finds a Dump

At ten o' clock Friday morning, Gloria's phone buzzed. "Ben! Good morning, brother, what's up?"

"I have something to show you, do you have some time on your hands? Good, I'll be there in a few minutes."

Puzzled, Gloria put down the phone. He sounds upset. Now what has Mom done? "That was Ben," she said to Maria. "He's coming by to pick me up for something. Need anything while I'm out? We'll be back before the cable people get here, I'm sure. Ben's as eager for us to get the upgrade and internet as we are."

"Stop by a supermarket and see if they have any fresh turkeys on sale. Sometimes they over-buy for a holiday and then have to get rid of them quick after. And a loaf of Jewish rye bread." Maria looked up from her computer. "I never played solitaire since I was a little girl. Now I play it on a magical mini-TV with no cards."

"Blame Ben. He's the one who thinks that's the best way to learn how to use a mouse." She pulled on her coat and went out to wait on the porch.

The day was dreary and drippy and gray, all the trees looking tired out and sad, their brown leaves nearly all gone. This afternoon I should get the rake and pull the leaves away from the trunks of the trees so the lawn service can mow over them. Gloria wondered what Maria thought of the property. Did she see it as a burden, or a haven? She'd talked about making a garden in the spring, but hadn't said where she'd put it. Hard to believe that spring is only about six weeks away. Maria and I need to get crackin' on it.

Ben's car pulled in, and she saw him reach across the front seat to open the door for her. My runty brother is now my driver, she chuckled. "You sounded pissed when you called," she said, buckling the seat belt.

"Pissed -- yeah, what I saw this morning pissed me off about us getting booted out of the old house all over again, but I'm more concerned than pissed. I want to show you where Lolo is living."

"Oh? She got one of the rooms that I was thinking about taking -- didn't she say that was the only one available by the time she called about it?"

"Something like that. But you never got around to going by the property so see it, did you?"

"No, why? Is it bad?"

They entered downtown Modesto and continued through to the north side, bearing east, into one of the older residential areas.

Ben locked the doors of the car from his side. "I was up here for a computer job this morning, and decided to track her down -- she's been really hedgy about giving me her address."

Through a maze of streets of subdivisions older than she was, and observing the security doors on house entries and bars on so many windows, Gloria said, "This isn't looking good."

Ben pulled the car over to a sidewalk curb. "There, that one across the street. 1406 Timber. She's living in that dump. In a room in that dump."

The stucco of the house was yellowed near the roof and stained near the base. Grass grew sparsely and unevenly, with weeds poking through the dirt. The shrubs in front of the building were overgrown to hide the front windows, and cut crudely to allow access to the dirty porch; a broken recliner with slit fabric crowded some broken terra cotta pots, a pile of crumbling plastic sheeting, a bucket, and what might have once been a large space heater. The property fence was sagging by the driveway, and missing boards in the back yard, where a small truck was rusting, propped up on cement blocks. Cigarette butts littered the walk and mud between house and street sidewalk. Cans and wrappers in the gutter.

"Oh, my God, Ben."

"Would you have taken a room there?" He pulled out his phone and took a rapid series of pictures, tapping the screen to zoom in.

Gloria's hands were shaking and she felt ill. "No, I don't think so, not after I saw it ... I might have moved in with Mom and Joe until I could find something else ..."

Ben angrily put the car in gear and drove away. "See why I'm mad? Lolo is our friend, she was our housemate, she ate at our table, laughed with us, chipped in to pay our bills -- but now Mom has her big ritzy house and a new man with a lot of money, so she can just kick Lolo to the curb like this? Does she even know how Lolo has to live now? Does she even care how her friend gets by?"

"How'd you find it? Did she give you the little list of rooms I gave her?"

"No. I used the computer and looked up her license plate number. Figured it was worth the $4.95 to get the address. I knew it would be on record, because working at a car dealership, she has to have her DMV shit up to date so she can do demo rides with people. In this neighborhood, I don't know how she's managed to get by without having her car stolen. That's going to be just a matter of time, though, you watch."

"She never let on. You're right, she's been close-lipped about her room, just said it was safe."

Ben snorted. "Right. A safe room in a safe house in a safe neighborhood. She didn't say that. There you have it, sister. I wanted someone else to be as horrified as I was. Home now?"

"Maria asked if we could stop by the supermarket and see if there were any fresh turkeys on sale."

"No problem. You and Maria going to cook it today if we find one?"

"Well, we'll cook something, I'm sure. What are you going to do with the photos?"

"I haven't decided yet. My first thought was to print them out and shove them in our dear mother's face, but I suspect that's not a good idea."

That's how Philli would hear it, no matter how he said it. "What if you asked Joe if he knows of any affordable rental properties? I know Modesto is pretty tight on housing, but maybe one of the littler towns around -- Riverbank isn't too far away, or Escalon."

"Or Oakdale," Ben agreed. "Send Lolo out into goat-roper country, where it actually is safe."

In the other direction, that is to say, west, the prices of housing were even worse. Every mile closer to the megacities of the Bay Area, prices per square footage of property were higher and higher. To the north of Modesto, the arteries of the Bay Area spilled out commuters to pricier housing, and then the cost of living began to race toward the state capital, Sacramento. To the south, prices dropped a little, but not much, and then a commuter had to rely on the bollix of traffic that was Highway 99, that corridor of commerce that linked the north and south of the state.

In churches, in schools, in local offices and even in the Baker Winery complex, people whispered and grumbled about the cost of apartments, the loss of jobs, the lack of decent affordable living space.

"Wait a minute. Did you use Mom's credit card to buy Lolo's information?" She tried to think if she'd ever let Ben close enough to her Visa card to see the numbers.

"I used my own card. I got one when we opened my bank account, remember?"

"They gave you a credit card."

"Yep. Because I deposited so much to open the account, you see, that makes me a low-risk for a student level card, which can't be used for purchases over five hundred dollars. That's why I chose that bank." He rubbed his hand over his mouth to muffle his next words. "And let drop that Brady of Brady Real Estate was my step-father."

"You are a conniving hog," she told him.

"I am a successful young entrepreneur."

Gloria shook her head. "Let's see, since we met Joe Brady, he cleaned out and fixed up our old house and has it rented for additional income for him and Mom, gave you a nice roof over your head, throws money at you, signs for your accelerated educational needs, hauls furniture for us, makes sure Mom stays far enough out of our hair to see each other when we want to, serves as a reference for your banking exploits, and next thing we're going to try to get him to find a better place to live for Lolo. He's turning into one handy-dandy Brady, if you ask me."

"Yeah, but who asked you?"

Gloria had no reply.

"Steve coming over today? You seem pretty quiet about him. No texts, no Steve itineraries today."

"I don't know. Wednesday he told me he's being transferred up to the Sonoma warehouse facility. He was going to drive up there yesterday to check out his new digs."

"What? You guys get a hook-up and all of a sudden, he's transferred?"

"It's not a bad thing, Ben. This thing with Steve was getting too serious for me. I don't want to get married, don't want to leave Maria's house ..."

They pulled into the supermarket, and parked. "Listen, Ben, I ... I don't know how I feel about things right now."

He turned and focused on her.

"This might hurt." She took a deep breath. "Mom never cried that I saw, when Dad was killed. Not at his funeral, not in the days that followed ... I only found her crying at her desk the night she understood he'd stopped making the insurance payments on the house and his life insurance policy. I cried when she told me he was dead, but after that, I took my cue from her, and just tried to shut it out of my thoughts.

"All last summer, I just played the young single woman game, the malls, the clubs, the pool parties, pretending it didn't matter. But now, I ... I look back and wish I'd talked to him more, found out about the things he loved, what he wanted out of life, the secrets he held inside his head ... he was a -- compelling personality, what made him that way?" Tears blurred her vision. "I don't need a heavy-duty boyfriend right now, or a fiancé. I need to think about Dad and let my heart break for him. Steve's a wonderful man, but ... I need time with Dad more than I need a guy getting between my memories and my grief, the grief I've never addressed."

Tears spilled out of Ben's eyes, and Gloria pulled a clean tissue out of her purse and handed it to him. "Yeah, in the middle of the night I'd wake up and cry because Dad wasn't going to be there in the morning, and wondered why ... she didn't. Couldn't understand it, still can't. And ... like you, I've just kind of kept it to myself, because the rest of the family seemed to ... I've done the same thing, just keep on going, not show how bad it hurts, be normal, be upbeat, wondering if I was a big baby because I missed him so much.

"I think one of the reasons I was -- well, in a lot of ways, still am -- mad at Mom for re-marrying is that I had this idea in my head that eventually I'd be able to talk with her about Dad, get to know him more, get to see him again through her memories. Bam! She's got a new husband, she's not going to want to reminisce about the dead one with the kid who didn't want a new step-dad.

"So I get it. I like Steve a lot. But I'm not ready to move on from Dad, either, so I understand how you feel, I think. You guys will either work it out or not, but you know, it's a relief to know you miss Dad, too." He swabbed his eyes, swallowed, wiped his nose. "Thanks, Sister."

Gloria felt her throat clench again. "I stole the box of old photos from the garage when I moved my stuff out, before Mom sorted out what was going to go to the junk wagon. Wanted to look through them and remember ..." She choked back a sob, ahem-ed, shook her head. "But look, we have to keep this turkey-raid in mind and get back for the cable person."

Ben wiped his eyes again. "Turkey-scout -- we don't know that they have any, not yet. Did Maria say what she wanted them for?"

"No. But she wanted Jewish rye bread, so I'm thinking turkey salad, maybe. If we're lucky."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-05-10
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
01:28:01 PM
A tender moment between brother and sister. I'm still wondering why Steve would take a transfer and move away from Gloria. Is he afraid of something too? And why is Philli so mercenary with her new marriage and forgets her family and friends for the sake of being safe? And will Philli ever accept Lolo asa close friend again? Or has she dumped her for the comfortable life? Is Joe Brady the good guy he appears, or are there surprises to come?
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