Copyright© 2013 by Refusenik
The Holiday Inn at Fort Stockton was new. The only available room was a suite. Scott took it without complaint and found it cleaner than the last hotel room he'd stayed in. He felt a little lost. Joseph and Honour had taken the kids, and Jobe, to visit one of their parents for the holiday. Judge Upcott, his wife Bea, Sheriff King, and his lady friend were in Montana.
Scott was contemplating a nap when the cell phone rang. He answered it without checking the name because he had a good idea who it would be.
"Where are you?" Janie asked.
"Hotel," he answered.
"Come over," she said. "Everybody's here."
Scott looked at his watch. "I should stop by the rental property and check on Adele, but I'll be by."
"Then do me a favor, find out if the garage apartment is available."
"You want to move out?"
"Scott, if I stay here much longer, my mother and I are going to go at it."
"That doesn't sound like your mother."
"She's afraid I'm going to end up like Lilly."
"That's not going to happen."
"Tell it to my mother."
"I'll be over in awhile," he said. "Try not to get into any fights."
Janie said, "I'm not making any promises," and hung up.
He made a quick trip through town. Fort Stockton was ready for Christmas. Even 'Paisano Pete' the eleven-foot Road Runner statue and town mascot was decorated for the season.
He was in a better mood when he parked in front of the rental property. Mrs. Monroe had Christmas lights displayed in the front windows of the house. He cast a critical eye around, but nothing looked out of place. He'd gotten a message that Adele wanted to see him, but she hadn't mentioned the subject.
The kitchen door opened and Adele stepped through.
"Well, you're a sight for sore eyes," she said.
"And it's good to see you too," he took her extended hand and gave it a squeeze. "Merry Christmas, Adele."
"I'll kick that fella out of the garage apartment, if you want to move back in."
"Giving you trouble?"
"No, but I miss having you around. Come into the kitchen where it's warm."
Scott followed her. The kitchen was part of Adele's private domain and it reflected her personality. He'd shared some great meals at her table.
"I told a friend I'd ask about the availability of the apartment. What's the story?"
"Sit, and have some coffee with me."
He took a seat while Adele puttered around the kitchen.
"The garage tenant is an engineer fellow," she said, "nice enough man who works for one of the gas companies. They're leasing the apartment on a yearly basis. Albert from your management company says it's a real good deal for us."
Scott checked the temperature of the coffee. "You need me to work on anything while I'm here?"
"What I wanted to tell you is that I've decided to retire."
Scott sat back, surprised.
She held up a gnarled hand. "I'm not going far. The house next door is for sale and I'm going to buy it."
"That's great, Adele, do you need any help?"
"Old Alex Piotrowski left me a fair retirement. It's a forty-year old house, and the mortgage is only twenty-seven thousand."
"It's a done deal?"
"You want me to have the inspectors from the management company take a look?"
"I'll take you up on that, but what I'd really like is for my niece to take over for me. She's fifty, from Kansas City. She'll come down next month if it meets with your approval? I'll be right next door to answer any of her questions or smack a tenant around."
Scott scratched the top of his head. "Adele, if you vouch for her, that's good enough for me."
"Okay then," Adele said. "Now, let's get serious. When are you going to bring me some babies to babysit?"
He choked on his coffee. "You might be jumping the gun."
"Do you have a girl at least?" she asked. "Ha! I can tell from the look on your face that there is. What's her name?"
"Seems like I might know that name," Adele said. She tapped the end of her nose with a finger.
"You might," he admitted. "But, I haven't closed the deal."
Adele cackled and slapped her knee. "Hell boy, bring her by and I'll talk you up good. Give her a reference like."
"I might need you to teach her the gumbo recipe."
Adele grew quiet, "Gumbo, then it's serious?"
"Could be the one."
Cars lined the driveway of the Mendoza home. Scott parked on the street and looked at the blinking lights. He could see silhouetted figures moving inside the house. He pulled his collar up against the wind and crunched through the frozen grass and dirt to the front door.
He pushed the door open and was met by a wave of heat and light. The noises of a happy family washed over him.
"Look who's here," Ed cried.
The living room was packed with various Mendoza cousins, many Scott didn't know.
Ed gave him a hug and pounded him on the back.
Scott got a strong whiff of alcohol coming from his friend. "How much eggnog have you had?" he asked in a low voice.
"I brought a little bottle of Christmas cheer."
"You might want to ease up."
"Man," Ed slapped him on the arm. "It's good to see you."
"You bet," Ed said. "Tommy's here from Oregon with his wife and kids. You have got to see my nephews. They're a scream."
"I want to say hi to your folks."
"Kitchen!" Ed said.
The kitchen was full too. Mrs. Mendoza was standing like a general on a battlefield, surveying her troops. The operation was Christmas cookies, and it apparently required many hands for the effort.
"Scotty," Mrs. Mendoza said, and held her arms open. He got a kiss on the cheek and a squeeze from the woman who had been like a second mother to him after Mrs. Delgado. "I'm happy you'll be here for Christmas Eve dinner with us."
"I wouldn't miss your cooking for anything Mrs. M.," he said.
Janie was in the corner, helping a younger cousin frost a cookie. She ran a stray curl of hair over her ear and smiled.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey," she replied.
A crowded kitchen wasn't a good place for delicate conversation. At least not for the conversation he wanted to have.
"There he is," a voice cried.
"Mr. Mendoza, it's good to see you," Scott responded.
"I think you can call us Connie and Hector," Mrs. Mendoza said.
"Absolutely," her husband agreed. "And don't think I've forgotten the favor you did for Janie, driving her home when she got homesick."
Scott looked at Janie. "I was happy to help."
Mrs. Mendoza whispered, "Thank you" in his ear.
"Want a beer?" Hector asked.
"Sounds like a good idea," Ed said, clapping his hands together.
"After you," Scott said.
Janie gave him a sympathetic look.
Most of the male members of the Mendoza clan were gathered in the den.
Tom Mendoza, the second oldest Mendoza brother stood up, "They didn't tell me you'd turned into a giant."
The two shook hands.
Scott said, "It's been a long time, Tom."
"It sure has. These are my boys." Tom wrangled two miniature versions of himself. "My wife Eve's around here somewhere."
"How's Oregon treating you?"
"Good," Tom said. "It's green and wet. The people can be strange, but we love it."
Hector handed Scott a beer. Tom's boys had received an early present, keeping them and the people in the den entertained as the group tried to assemble the intricate train set.
For Scott, spending time surrounded by laughter was exactly what he needed. The Mendozas had always treated him like one of their own. He found a spot where he could observe without intruding. Hector clearly doted on his grandchildren, and 'Uncle Eddie' was a big hit with his nephews.
Janie slipped into the room.
"Hey, baby girl," Mr. Mendoza said. He put an arm around his youngest's waist. "How are the cookies coming?"
"Almost done, Daddy," Janie replied. "Mom suggested that some of us could go downtown to see friends from school."
Ed handed a train car back to his nephew. "Count me in!"
"That's a good idea, sweetie," her father said. "Who's going to drive?"
Janie looked at Scott, "It doesn't matter to me."
"I'll drive," Scott said, before Ed could volunteer.
"Let me grab my coat," Ed said. He had trouble regaining his feet until Scott pulled him up.
Janie was gone by the time Scott turned around and Ed stumbled off in the other direction.
Mr. Mendoza held up a finger.
"Make sure that son of mine eats something while you're out."
"Do you need any money?"
"I've got it covered."
Tom declined to go, claiming the need to stay with his kids. The rest of the Mendoza cousins were either too young, or too old to venture out.
Ed followed Scott and Janie out the door.
"Shotgun," Janie said.
"Make me ride in the back why don't you?" Ed said, but he was smiling.
Scott started the engine. "Ed, seatbelt."
Ed leaned over Scott's headrest. "What'd you pay for this thing?"
Scott flipped the center console open, found a pack of gum, and handed a stick to Ed.
"Thanks, man," Ed said.
"Seatbelt, Eddie," Janie said. She started to fiddle with the radio looking for some music she liked.
"Yeah, yeah, everybody's my mother today."
"Are we ready?" Scott asked.
"Onward to pizza my good man," Ed said, "and don't spare the horses."
Scott pulled away from the curb and Janie settled in the seat. Their eyes met.
"That was nice of your mother to suggest that we get out of the house," he said.
"Yes, it was," Janie replied, looking pleased with herself.