Chapter Thirty-eight: New Year
"I woke up this morning thinking about those lamb chops," Ben said, ready to wade into his ham and egg sandwich. "Wished I'd bought two racks."
"Two chops is a full meal, not a tapas course. With two chops, we wouldn't have had room for the chowder, the guacamole and chips, and the cheese flips," Gloria informed him.
"Speak for yourself," Ben rejoined. "I am sixteen, and can eat my weight in well-made food."
"Termites do that, too," Will told him. "Or so I've been told. Do we have enough bread for all of us to have sandwiches? I can go get some more."
"I don't need bread, but I would like to finish that little bit of chowder for breakfast, if you don't mind. I have to work today, don't want to stuff myself and not fit in my suit." Lolo stopped, her hand on the refrigerator handle. "Oh, I just remembered -- my clothes aren't in storage any more. I have real choices I can make about what to wear!"
Yes, you have a home now, Gloria thought, looking at her, feeling protective and comforted. You're not living off someone's charity, and thank God you're no longer in that horrible dump. And some day, we'll have time to talk about Dad so you can tell me about the side of the man I never met.
Steve came down the stairs, his sleeping bag thrown over his shoulder, travel bag in hand. "'Morning, everybody," he said tersely. "Going to put this stuff in my car."
"He's mad," Maria observed. "What you do to him last night?"
"Nothing that I know of. We fell asleep on the couch in the upstairs parlor, maybe I was hogging too much of it. I'll go ask." As if I didn't know why he's grumpy. Well, better talk it out now, so he doesn't get on the freeway angry and wreck himself.
He was just closing the trunk of his car when Gloria caught up with him. "I'm going to be up front with this, Gloria, I'm not happy leaving you. How am I supposed to do this? Go away and be productive, not see you every day, just waiting for you to catch the eye of someone else --"
For only a moment she was at a loss for words. Just waiting for ... "Oh, maybe I won't. Most people think that women with shaved heads are neurotic, or ill in some way. It's the New Year, and high time for a new look. Later today I'm heading over to SuperCuts for a shearing. My brother Ben is right, red curls are a pain in the ass."
"What are you talking about? Why would you do that?"
Gloria pretended to look surprised. "You don't want me to catch anyone else's eye, and honestly, it would be nice to work without a hair net, and it will sure save time in the shower."
"Don't do that, Gloria, I didn't mean that I wanted you to ..."
"To what? Choose to do whatever I please with my looks? Steve, is it my looks, or my brain and heart that you're attracted to? Why would you tell me not to have my head shaved if I wanted to do that? Come on, why?"
He swallowed hard. "It's just that ..."
Gloria spread her hands. "See, this is why I'm not upset with you going up to Napa. Here, you've got a big, flashy redhead who isn't interested in anyone else, and part of the reason she isn't interested in anyone else is because she doesn't see anyone else. You getting bent out of shape about me being out of your sight and attention bugs me -- maybe only this much --" She measured with thumb and forefinger about a quarter of an inch. "But even that tiny bit of uncertainty makes me want to back off and think about life, the universe, and you a lot more.
"I'm not actively looking for another man. I'm not even just walking around and hoping that anyone will find me attractive. But here's the bottom line -- when Dan Baker told you he wanted you to go to his brother's place, you could have told him no, and then quit the Bakers and found another job. A truck driver, a management position at a Quik-Mart, a bank, right? You could have."
"No, I couldn't, I've been working towards this job since I was in high school --"
"So you see that I'm not the center of your universe. Your job is -- and that's exactly my point of view, too. Both of us are a lot more in love with our jobs than each other. I love being a big cog in the Baker kitchen. I've enjoyed this week off, but I'm so eager to get back to work, I've thought about going over there and just hanging out, looking at the pots and pans, making sure everything is where it belongs. But along with that, I'm crazy about this house, Maria's house, and my position in it. I'm more than a renter here, I feel like I fill a niche that I don't even know how to describe. This has become my home."
He looked away, towards the trees lining the driveway. "This didn't go well."
"Because ... maybe you wanted me to say things I can't say. You could have just come downstairs and had breakfast. You still can."
Steve shook his head. "I guess I do need some time to think, too. I'm going to miss you, Gloria."
"I'm going to miss you, too." As he headed to the driver's door, she called, "Maybe you could give me a call when you get there so we know you're safe."
"Sure I will." He shut the door and drove away.
As Gloria came back in the kitchen door, Ben, Maria, and Lolo all stared at her in silence. She walked to the stove, put the still-warm frying pan on the front burner, and turned it on.
"Why you guys not shout at each other so we know what's going on?" Maria asked.
"You were right. He was mad."
"Mad enough to stomp off like a bad little boy, not saying goodbye to anyone."
"Don't tell me, let me guess," said Ben. "He wasn't on board with something you did or didn't want to do, so you handed him his hat and told him to take a hike."
She turned around and glared at him, feeling her face redden.
Maria laughed and slapped Ben's shoulder with the back of her hand. "You must be right. Watch out, she will turn you upside down and throw you out the door."
"Maria will protect me," Ben said, staring at his sister.
"Ah, Gloria, you're the one who introduced him to me, you have only yourself to blame. I protect him, he protects my TV and my computer. No more questions about Stevo, she will tell us when she wants to."
"Where's Will?" Gloria deflected.
"Got a phone call from Van Duyken," Maria told her. "Stepped out on the other porch to take the call. You know, is kind of nice you can take a private call like that, instead of being in front of everyone in the kitchen, or having to chase everyone out so you don't have to explain what is going on. We can give Gloria that kind of space, too."
Will shut the door to the other porch, putting his phone in his back pocket. "Mr. Van Duyken called me to ask me to come to his house for a brunch at one o'clock. Said he has things he wants to talk about. Maybe I'm out of a job as extra hand. Shit."
"You won't be on the street, Will," Ben said. "Mom would be glad to give you one of the bedrooms in a minute. Well, at least after you apologize for snotting off to her about her wedding."
"Ben, I can't go back to being a kid. Can't."
"You got your accountant certification, dumbass, you aren't ever a kid again. We could get Joe to put up a screened gazebo in the back yard, so you could suffer in the outdoors as much as you want."
"No more coffee for you," Lolo said. "You're taking the caffeine path to getting pounded."
"Is that what it is? I just thought I was witty. Sorry, siblings. I'll take that as a cue to go out for a run. Nice that it isn't raining." He excused himself from the table, wiped his dish down, and set it at the side of the sink.
"When did he start drinking coffee?" Will asked. "I never knew he liked it."
"Our mother's new husband has some kind of high-tech coffee or expresso maker, and part of their bonding has been playing with coffee flavorings," Gloria said. "Sharing coffee does not contribute to the delinquency of a minor."
"Endangering the greater public might be the charge in his case. Hey, I'll take care of breakfast dishes. Why don't you ladies go upstairs where it's warmer and watch TV and plot out how to save the world?"
"We can do that," Maria said, "but depends on what these ladies want to do." She gave Gloria a gentle elbow. "Don't want to make you hand me my hat."
"Let's go watch some food shows. We'll decide to make stuff and make Lolo scream when she realizes she can't resist eating it."
"You know what, I've been eating fast food salads and greasy breakfast sandwiches since the beginning of last summer. Maybe I can learn to eat real food, as long as I don't eat ... as much as I want."
"You get the couch, Lolo. You're the one who has to be on her feet until nine."
"No argument. It's nice to lie on this couch and know that it's not my bed, my table, my sit-all-alone place. Wait, did you and Steve have sex on my couch?"
"No!" Gloria exploded. "We did not! Fell asleep here, but no sex. None. Couple three four glasses of wine, but not sex."
"Okay. If you did, I'd want to wait to sit on it for a few days for the steamy love to dissipate. So I'm good, but if I find scratch marks on the back of it, you owe me new upholstery."
"If there are scratch marks on your couch, it's from you and ... whoever might have made you scratch."
Gloria and Maria sat at the captain's table. "Scratch or no scratch, I would like to buy some cushions for these chairs. A little comfort for an old woman's behind when I sit up here. Will is right, is warmer up here."
"It's already so comfy, so inviting up here, I keep forgetting that you didn't come up to the upper story before Elsie and I started using it."
"Yes. Elsie cracks the egg, and all of a sudden, I have a beautiful, welcoming house hatching. A house that can be good. A house that is mine. A house I am not ashamed to share." Maria clicked the remote and called up a show on the Food Network. "Heyah, what is that woman doing? Is that kale, and carrots? Is she an idiot? Who wants to eat that? She making that for her cows?"
Lolo laughed, a wild, free, high-hearted sound. "I like salads, but I wouldn't eat that! Did you see how much sugar she put in the dressing?"
That sound, that laughter, that's something that Dad loved, I'd bet any money. I like it, too. "Okay," Gloria said. "I won't make that for when you come home from work."
"You don't have to make anything, Gloria. I'll pick up a pack of chicken breasts on the way home from work, microwave one, and just have it over lettuce and spinach."
"Bah," said Maria. "You got two cooks who haven't hardly been cooking for a week. Gloria and I feed our fires and make stuff to get us through the next few days. You want lean and mean, we can do that. You like our chicken and salad dish, you can tip the cooks."
"And if you don't like it, you can go to Taco Bell."
"Usually, I went to the supermarket over on Dale and Pelandale. They had some pretty good fast food in their deli. In fact, I could do that again."
"Oh, please, don't deprive us of the pleasure of showing off our cooking skills," Gloria muttered. "We need the applause."
"That is a good point, my friend. After Bedencourt died, and Dan Baker asked if I wanted a job as cook, it was the applause that kept me going. They liked my cooking; they told me they liked this dish and that dish. It felt so good to have someone think I could do a good job, that I wasn't always making mistakes.
"Maybe that's what set this Gloria person apart from all the other assistants the Bakers tried. Gloria knew what I was trying to do, and she was enthusiastic about it, told me so. Lifted my heart. She wasn't saying, 'Oh, you making me do all this hard work,' she was saying, 'Got it! Where do we go from here?' Now we can go any place, any dish."
"Italian poisoning, here we come!" sang Gloria.
"I can eat two ounces of pasta a day, no more than that," Lolo said. "I'm serious. Don't push me over the edge."
"We'll save the pasta for the days when the boys visit," Maria said. "Otherwise, all us women are doomed."
New Year's Day rolled on. Will showered and combed his unruly hair into a respectable appearance; Lolo painted her face and dressed for success. They went out the door.
Ben left last.
"Mom and Joe are due to arrive in Sacramento at four, so I want to have some kind of snacks made for them when they get home. I'm going to make some of those cheese flips -- easy enough, with the canned croissant dough and shredded cheddar. You put a little cayenne on them, too, didn't you? Thought so. That and a salad should make them pretty happy.
"I don't want to leave. I don't think any of us did. It was a happy house party, and I wish we could do it again soon."
Watching him drive away, Maria said, "I love your brothers. Wish my sons could have been so happy and silly and full of hope."
Gloria's phone rang. "It's Will. Maybe Van Duyken sacked him and he'll be back to camp out tonight."
"Gloria, I just left Mr. Van Duyken's. No more barn for me, and you can't believe how that hurts. I loved living in the barn -- just the idea of living in a barn."
"Did he fire you?" Gloria nearly shouted.
"He had better not have fired that boy," Maria grated.
"No, Salvi went to him this morning and told him that Ariana was drunk on New Year's Eve, and was yattering about how she was going to marry me and be rich -- you were right, Sister. Salvi told Mr. Van Duyken he wanted me out of that barn until he could get his sister married off. He's sending her south to the relatives they have in the San Diego area, ostensibly to help out their aunt. But he wants me out of the barn now, while they make arrangements.
"I thought Mr. Van Duyken would tell me to go find another place to live, or go home to Mom's house, but he said he'd rather have me live in their house, and gave me their guest room -- has its own bath, and a screened porch. He said I can sleep outside if I want!"
"It's like ... you're adopted," Gloria said.
"Or in some kind of servitude, but I'm glad either way. I don't have to go live at Mom's, and I don't have to worry about Ariana breaking down the barn door."
"And after Ariana gets shipped off to Auntie's house?"
"Maybe I can move back into the barn. I don't know. I got the impression over brunch that Mr. Van Duyken wants to see if I can take over his books, and with that and the backhoe work, and the orchard work ... be a full-time employee. Best New Year's I've ever had."
"That's fantastic, Will. Don't be a stranger, okay?"
* * *
They sat at the kitchen table with early glasses of wine, Maria's red, Gloria's white. "This is a good wine," Maria said after a sip. She crossed her hands on the table. "So. You handed him his hat."
"You know, I think that right up until this morning, he thought I was going to beg him to stay, or beg him to take me along. He didn't give me any ultimatum or anything like that, but last night, it was like he was fishing for assurances that I wouldn't ever marry, or date, or drum up a friendship with any man but him. I couldn't say that. Can't. I don't know how being apart is going to change either of us, or if neither of us is going to change at all."
"Hey, you are changed from when I first met you. You were nervous, like you were just waiting for something else bad to happen to you. I didn't understand at first, but then I come to understand your father had died, and you and your family had no money left, you a beautiful college girl who drops out to take a job as the assistant to a grumpy, sick old cook.
"Now look at you. You show me how a strong woman is supposed to be, not caving in to family pressure, not being afraid to try new stuff, making a rattly old dusty house into a place where your brothers can be family again, where you can protect your friend." She chuckled. "You were pretty funny, getting up in that cop's face when we went to save Lolo."
"Yeah, funny -- I'm surprised he didn't arrest me. All I could think of was getting Lolo to somewhere safe. You're right, though, I have changed. I thought my brothers were parasites and pests, and that Mommy would take care of everything, and that everything I wanted would be paid for and easy to get." Gloria shook her head. "That was just back in August. Four lousy months ago, and I do not even recognize me in that August-Gloria at all."
"January-Gloria -- she is the thunder-stealer who protects everybody."
"Yet it's you who have given us a safe place to take care of each other."
"How they say it? We got each other's back." She held out her glass. "To the new year, and this house, and us. All of us changed."
They drank. Gloria put her glass down. "Once again, you hit the nail right on the head. We have each other's back. You and me, us and Will and Ben and Lolo -- she'd do anything to make sure Ben is okay. But Steve ... no. I didn't have his back; I don't think he wanted me to have his back. He was ready to be part of ... us, but only if I was the down payment. Without me, he didn't really care much. As witness, him being a shithead and leaving without saying goodbye or see-you-soon to anyone else. Pardon me, I shouldn't call him that."
"I don't tell anyone, I promise."
"I thought I'd feel something sad when he had to go to a different job. But every day this past week, feeling sad about it got farther and farther away. This morning, when I watched him drive away, I was ... relieved. No more trying to convince him that being good and even affectionate friends was enough. Like I wanted to keep on moving in the direction life was taking me, and he was holding onto me to ... oh, I don't know."
"He wants meat and potatoes and you want to cook a big whole fish with tail and eyeballs and a salad with artichokes and anchovy vinaigrette."
Gloria laughed. "That's the Food Channel talking. It's taking over our minds." She tapped a fingernail on the tabletop. "This is where I want to be, and this might sound funny, but I feel like sailors must have felt heading out to sea, with big canvas sails puffing out overhead, and the smell of salty wind, not really knowing what would happen on the voyage, but full of ... adventure? Freedom? Something good about to come into view over the waves?"
Maria nodded. "You talk that way, makes me feel it, too. At least, I think I do. Never been to the ocean."
"What?" Gloria sputtered. "San Francisco is just down the road."
"Could be another planet for an old dairy woman."
"Let's go tomorrow, what do you think? We don't have to be back to work until Friday -- let's go and see the ocean. There's this cool place that Dad used to take us, called Cliff House, pretty good food, overlooks the ocean."
"Tomorrow. Yah, let's do it. Today the kitchen, where the steering wheel of the ship is, tomorrow, the ocean."
"We set sail at nine, Matey. Hope for a fair wind, and no rocks on the shoals."
"Nine? What are we going to do until nine? I get up at five." Maria finished her glass of wine.
"I don't know. Scrub barnacles, mend the nets, make a light breakfast..."
"Go to the store and buy a rack of lamb for Thursday," Maria said. "I didn't get enough of them last night, either."