Chapter Twenty-nine: The Safe Harbor
The tow truck arrived before the police were done inspecting the scene; Lolo had them take the car to Alliance Tires and unload it there. "I don't even know what they used to kill those tires. Maybe a chisel, but you'd think I'd have heard that. I'll call Alliance when they open at 8 and get the replacement scheduled. My dealership has connections with them, shouldn't be a problem." She looked out the window of the car, and then back at Gloria. "How did you know my address? I know I never told you. You just seemed to know."
"Ben tracked you down and took me to see the place. We were trying to figure out how to get you out of there -- just on Friday. He's been worried about you."
Lolo put a hand over her mouth to stifle a sob, then over her eyes to hide the tears. "I miss him, I miss you, I miss the laughter and the honesty we had. My god, what am I going to do? I can't go back to LA, it was like being in hell, the anger and vengefulness my brothers lived day in and day out ..."
Gloria kept her eyes on the road, smiling. "Don't worry. All we have to do is get you to work on time, war paint intact. You can use my bathroom."
Maria was pacing on the porch when they arrived. "Sorry to make you hurry after such a bad morning wake-up, but I need you to look at something," she said to Lolo. "Come on."
She led Lolo up the stairs to the room at the end of the hall. "This room has a bathroom attached, nothing fancy, but a good big room. You think you could live in here, for a while, get you away from that shitty place?"
Lolo burst into tears again.
"If you keep crying," Gloria said, behind her, "you're going to make your eyes red and they'll think you're a pothead."
"Is she crying because it is a fate worse than death, or is she happy?" Maria muttered.
Lolo walked to the window and looked out at the winter clouds moving in, just visible in the dawn. "It's beautiful," she whispered. She stood taller, let her face go still. She turned to Maria and Gloria. "Let's go downstairs and talk business about this."
"Uh-oh," Maria said. "Lolo the CEO is back. Let's go. I make tea for us, and Gloria make you breakfast."
They convened around the table in the kitchen. "I am making a decent wage at the dealership," Lolo began. "I paid $900 for November and December for that room, and I have to pay for storage of my furniture."
"How much furniture you got?" Maria countered.
"A bed, a captain's table and three chairs, a dresser, the couch, television, a bookcase and some books. Not a lot, I had a one-bedroom apartment before my old dealership closed."
"What if we rent your couch and TV for the room at the other end of the hall, and you rent the room with the bath for $400? Maybe kick in for some utilities when rates rise?"
"What? But that's not fair market value!"
"Just whose market are we talking about? Maria makes her own market, doesn't need to depend on City of Modesto or County of San Joaquin. We need TV and couch for upstairs parlor, you need a safe place to sleep and live. And a kitchen, you going to kill yourself eating fast food and stuff out of a little electric pot." Maria, sitting as tall as Lolo, continued, "And if I go on extended vacation to Portugal, I need someone sensible to keep Gloria company."
Gloria turned to Lolo. "Yes," she said wryly. "You're just about as sensible as I've come to know." Having sliced some meat from the pork roast in the refrigerator, dusted it with salt and cumin and sizzled it in a frying pan, she cut one of the slices of rye bread in half and plunked the pieces in the toaster. The pork came out onto a plate, an egg went into the skillet to fry. As soon as the toast popped up, she spread mayonnaise on the bottom, a thin smear of mustard on the top slice, loaded the pork onto the mayo, slid the fried egg on as a cap, and sprinkled it with a bit of salt, pepper, and cayenne. Covering the egg with the mustard slice, she cut the sandwich in half so that the yolk poured out the side, served the plate on the table in front of Lolo, with two paper napkins.
"You two drive a hard bargain," Lolo said, after a bite of the sandwich. "I'm in. I am a sensible woman these days, have been for what seems like a long time. I will continue to be a sensible woman for the foreseeable future. I accept the terms of the agreement. Rent payment will be paid before we party on New Year's Eve. Oh, do you need first month, last month, and cleaning deposit?"
Maria turned to Gloria. "Do we?"
"Nah, we know where she lives."
Maria got up from the table and went outside to her son, waiting in the truck. "Silvio! Unload the sofa and take it upstairs to what was Celio's room! She's staying here. Other stuff, just bring it in and we'll figure it out."
"Okay, Mae, then we have to get back to work." Silvio and his helper hoisted the couch out of the truck, manfully carried it up the stairs, and put it in the proper room. "We saved the lady, didn't we?" he asked his mother.
"You did," Maria told him. "You probably saved her whole life. Thank you, my son, my dear son."
"Mae, I haven't seen you enough for a couple years. The house looks better than it has since Pae died. You're feeling better now?"
"Yeah. Lots of things better. If we get a day off together, you come and I cook you and your family fish and rice and greens, make you forget what a hell hole this was."
He paused at the door, came back to hug his mother. "I would like that a lot. Glad you're okay, Mae."
The big truck roared off into the morning. "Dang!" Gloria said, clutching at the sides of her hair. "You missed church!"
"Oh, I go to crowded ten o'clock Mass, give the elbow to the young daddies there, make them give me room. Watch the babies in the front pews pull their mamas' hair, listen to them scream."
"That's ... holy?"
"That's God-given life, and how you get through long, boring sermons. Makes you smile when you think of all your sons grown and not pulling on your hair and screeching over the priest's voice."
Mopping the last of the yolk from her plate with the bread crust, Lolo said, "That was the best sandwich I've had in my whole life."
"It could have been better if there had been some fresh salsa on top," Gloria added. "I want to make some salsa today anyway, for later. Steve's coming over, after he drops off his stuff up north."
"He's moving?" Lolo cried. "When did that happen?"
"I'll catch you up later," Gloria told her. "You better wash your hands and make sure you don't have egg on your eyebrows for work."
"You don't have any idea how grateful I am for saving me this morning. I thought I was going to die, or at least get really beat up, robbed, and ..."
"This is what women need to do for each other," Maria interjected. "Wish someone could have kept me from being robbed of my life and beat up. But hey, it made me strong now, right? I get you some soap for your new bathroom, moisturizing stuff, good for your skin." She skuttled away to her bedroom.
"She had a rough past?" Lolo asked Gloria as she began to lug her suitcase upstairs. "She seems so peaceful most of the time, so full of humor and life."
"Mmm-hmm, now that he's dead."
"There's a story I want to hear, I think. Along with why Steve is moving, and where, and what's happening with you two."
Gloria took a boxed cake of soap from Maria and handed it to Lolo. "Later. I need to try to comb my hair and get presentable to take you to work. I'll get some tomatoes and stuff and have salsa and chips to welcome you home tonight. Tomatoes, garlic, onions, jalapenos, okay with you?"
"My God, Gloria, everything is okay with me now that I'm out of that filthy trap." She trotted down the upstairs hall to the growing light of the day.
"She called it 'that filthy trap,'" Maria said to the younger woman as Gloria came back to the kitchen, hair neatly picked through and street-clothed. "Did you go over there?"
"No, I was still arguing with that jackass policeman about speeding in a 25-mile-per-hour zone. He said I had no right to assume I could be a hero, and I told him he had no right to expect me to endanger a friend's life. Was it bad in there?"
"I don't know how she could stay there. It was like an old mildewed towel dragged through a -- I was going to say 'barnyard' but a barnyard at least smells natural -- a -- maybe one of those trucks with the orchard sprays all over it, the ones they use to prevent the fungus on the almonds and apples. He give you a ticket?"
Gloria looked at her under her eyebrows. "No. He let me off with a warning, but gave me his phone number."
Maria laughed loudly and slapped her hand on the kitchen table. "You a valuable resource, Gloria. I keep you by my side when I go on my crime spree."
"Promises, promises." She went outside to pick a half-dozen oranges from the tree near the porch. While she was loading oranges into the fold of her hoodie, her phone buzzed. It was Ben.
'What are you doing for New Years?' The text message read.
'Having more fun than you' she thumbed back.
'Lolo will be here, and Steve, too. In fact, Lolo is here for the foreseeable future. She's renting a room upstairs now.'
'I'm coming over.'
'I have to take Lolo to work. I'll be back by ten.'
'See you then. Is there any of that turkey left?'
"Ben's coming over around ten," Gloria announced, burdened by a shirtload of oranges. "He's jonesing for the leftover turkey."
"Jonesing means you're addicted to something, or that you want something really bad. He is lusting for the leftover turkey."
"Not much left. He can have it all. You know what I have the jonesing for? Paella. My grandmother used to make it for family gatherings. I remember it tasted so good ... but after she died, my mother didn't make it, she was the only girl, her brothers and their wives took over, but it wasn't as good. Mae said Avo -- grandma -- used saffron in hers, but saffron is expensive, so Uncles didn't let their wives buy it." She shook her head. "I had four sons, but their father didn't like seafood ... That's how things get lost. Paella should be a big dish, for a lot of people, can't make it for just a couple guests."
Gloria frowned. Why can't you just make it for yourself? But never having had it in her life, she had no idea what it was all about, or how to make it, serve it, or what it tasted like.
Lolo came down the stairs, looking svelte and professional in a gray suit. Her eye makeup was perfect, and she smiled. "I appreciate the ride, and Alliance will have my car ready by my break at two; they're about two blocks from the dealership, so I can walk over and pick it up. If you can drop me off there, I can give them my keys."
"I can wait while you give them the keys, and then drop you off at work. Accuweather says it's going to rain any minute. Let's go. You look great. Living here is agreeing with you already."
"See you tonight, Lolo. You go in there and sell them big, expensive trucks."
"Four-wheel drive trucks -- that's the rainy day sales pitch," Lolo said with a big smile. "I'm there."