On Monday, the week after our security guards left, Marie announced that she would be receiving her GED on Friday evening.
"Congratulation, Marie, we're all very proud of you. Is there going to be a ceremony?"
"Yes, and I'd like to invite you all to be there," she said timidly.
"Of course we'll be there. I wouldn't miss it for the world. What time does it start?" I asked.
"It starts at 8 o'clock."
"Is your mom going to be there? I'd like to meet her. I'm sure she is very proud of you."
"No," she said, retrieving a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbing at the corner of her eyes. She started to say something else, but couldn't get it to come out.
I put my arms around her and held her as she started sobbing. About five minutes later she was able to regain control.
"She won't even talk to me. Every time I try to call her, she hangs up on me. I wanted to tell her about Dirk and about him asking me to marry him. She feels I disgraced the family when I got pregnant and didn't marry Ricky's father. She won't even let my brothers and sisters talk to me."
"Marie, that's her loss. She's missing out on a grandson who is a treasure. She's also missing out on a daughter that anyone can be proud of. We're proud of you and consider both you and Ricky to be part of our family."
"Thanks, Mr. Johnson, you've always treated me like family."
After Marie went to start cleaning the house, I went into my bedroom and made a phone call to Dirk. I wanted to know if he had anything special planned. When he said he had been thinking about taking her to a nice restaurant before the ceremony. I asked if I could make the arrangements so that we could join in the celebration. He accepted my offer.
I spent the next hour on the phone making all the arrangements and then went to find Hildy. I explained to her what I had planned and confirmed that she and Manfred would celebrate with us.
"Have you thought of a present for Marie?" Hildy asked.
"I haven't had time to think about that, I've been too busy getting everything arranged. Do you have any suggestions?"
"It's difficult to say what she would want or need," Hildy said. "I think a gift certificate would be best. Then she could pick out something that she really wanted."
"I like that idea, that way I don't have to do any shopping. I had enough of that Christmas shopping with the boys to last me until next Christmas."
"You men," Hildy laughed. "You have no stamina. Manny is just like you when it comes to shopping."
"I'll call Eric and see if he wants to go in on the gift certificate with us."
"I'm sure he will. Manny and I want to be part of it, also."
"Friday will be her day here. I want you to set up an appointment for her with a hair salon. Give her the whole works; manicure, pedicure, facial and, of course, complete hair styling and make-up. Use the household credit card to pay for everything. An afternoon appointment would work out best, then she could go straight home after picking up Ricky and get ready for Dirk to pick her up. I'll take care of Ricky until you all get back."
"That's a wonderful idea. I doubt that she has ever gotten the full treatment. I know she does her own hair and nails. You're a good man, Crane Johnson," Hildy said, giving me a peck on the cheek.
As I walked back into the living room, a thought crossed my mind and I made a detour to my bedroom. I picked up the phone and dialed Gerald Cousins' number.
"Gerald, it's Crane. I have a question for you." I said, when he answered.
"Sure, what do you need?" Gerald asked.
"On Marie's insurance papers, did she list any next of kin?"
"Let me check," he said. A few moments later he returned to the phone. "Yes, she listed a Rosita Salazar as next of kin. The relationship listed is mother."
"Is there an address and or phone number listed for her mother?"
"Yes," he said, and read off the information for me.
"Thanks, Gerald," I said, before I hung up the phone.
I told Hildy I had to run an errand as I left the house. I knew the general area of the address that Gerald had given me, but didn't know exactly where it was. As it turned out, I found it without too much difficulty, although I did make a couple of wrong turns.
I parked the BMW in front of a small white-painted house that was badly in need of another painting. The front yard was small and surrounded by a chain-link fence. There was nothing in the way of landscaping and the grass, what there was of it, appeared to have been worn down by foot traffic.
"She ain't ta home," a heavy-set black woman sitting on the porch next door said, as I opened the gate.
"Do you know when she will be?" I asked.
"Maybe afore school's out."
"Would that be around three?"
"Thank you," I said, and returned to my car. I should have figured that she would be working. With nothing else to do, I decided to go by the foundation office.
I spent several hours at the office clearing up some paperwork that had piled up on my desk. Most of it was just for my information, because Darcie, as president, handled all the important work. I mainly attended board meetings and solicited donations for the foundation.
As three o'clock approached, I took off for the Salazar residence. I wondered what kind of reception that I would receive. This time I made it without taking any wrong turns.
When I knocked on the door, it was opened by a young girl about 12 years-old. She looked like a younger version of Marie. "Is your mother here?"
She nodded her head and turned back into the house. I heard her speaking in Spanish to someone. I couldn't hear enough to discern what was being said. A moment or two later, a woman appeared with several children peeking out from behind her. The woman looked old and tired.
"Are you Mrs. Rosita Salazar?"
"Yes," she said, in a thickly accented voice.
"May I speak to you for a minute?"
"Si, come in," she said, and stepped aside and motioned for the children behind her to move out of the way.
"Mrs. Salazar, I would like to speak to you about your daughter, Marie." She started to say something, but I held up my hand indicating I wasn't finished. "Marie has been working for me for going on two years now. She is a fine woman and a great mother to her son, Ricky. My family is very fond of both her and Ricky."
"She disgraced this family. She should have married Orlando. He would have been a good father," she said bitterly.
"Orlando Cortez was and is a scum-bag. He refused to marry your daughter and ran off to California. When he wanted her to have an abortion, she found out what a real louse he was. He refused to pay child support until my investigators tracked him down and Marie went to court to force him to pay up."
"She should have told me. Why didn't she tell me?"
"Did you ever give her a chance?"
"No," she said, wiping tears from her eyes on the sleeves of her dress.
After she had stopped crying, I explained what I had in mind and asked if she and her children could join us to help celebrate with Marie. She agreed and then asked if it was going to be at a fancy place. I told her it was going to be at a nice hotel on the River Walk. I saw her face drop. She explained that they didn't have any clothes that would be appropriate to wear to such a fancy place.
"How many children are there?" I asked. I remember that Marie told me she came from a large family, but I didn't remember just how big.
"The two oldest boys are in the army, so there are just the four youngest boys and the four girls still at home."
"Okay, it's important to Marie that her family be there for her special occasion. Tomorrow at five, a van will be here to pick up the nine of you and take you to Foleys at the mall. There you will be met by a personal shopper who will help each of you to pick out something from head to toe that will be appropriate to wear. When you are finished, the van will bring you back home. On Friday, another van will pick you up and take you to the hotel and afterward to the GED awards ceremony. It will also bring you home when everything is over. Here is my card. If you have any questions about anything, just give me a call."
"Why are you doing all of this," Rosita asked.
"Marie is very special to us. It is our way of showing our appreciation for all she had done for us." I said my goodbyes and left for home. I'm sure the boys were wondering why I hadn't been there to meet them when they got off the school van, but Manfred was assuming those duties today.
Having made the arrangement for clothing for Marie's family, I began to wonder if my family had clothes they could wear. We didn't dress up that often and as fast as the boys were growing, we may need to do some clothes shopping as well. As I suspected, we needed to update the boys' wardrobe after I had them try on their good clothes.
I explained to the boys what was going to happen on Friday and asked them to keep it a secret from Marie. All she was supposed to know was that Dirk was taking her to dinner and then we were supposed to meet them at the GED ceremony. I was a little worried about whether TJ could keep the secret that long, but I had to take the chance. It wasn't as if he was there all the time Marie was at the house. Their paths usually crossed a couple of times a day when she was working at our house.
Friday came without TJ or any of the other boys spilling the beans to Marie.
Ricky and I were having fun playing with some of the boys' toys when Hildy returned. "Where's momma?" he asked Hildy, when his mother did not return with her.
"Your momma is getting her hair fixed," Hildy answered.
That seemed to satisfy him and he went back to playing with the toys.
"She was shocked when I took her to the Elegant Lady Spa instead of the super market and informed her what was going to happen and left her there saying I would be back in about three hours. She was near tears when I left her," Hildy said. "The spa said they would give me a call about 30 minutes before she'll be finished. That'll give me just enough time to get there to pick her up."
When Hildy brought Marie back into the house, I could hardly believe my eyes. Marie had always been an attractive girl, but with the make-over, she was a knockout.
"You are going to wow everybody at the ceremony tonight," I said to her.
"Thanks, Mr. Johnson, I appreciate that you did this for me. I feel like a queen."
"Why don't you take Ricky and go home. You need to get ready for your date with Dirk."
"But I haven't done hardly any work today," she said.
"Go home, I'm the boss," I said, picking up Ricky and starting for the door.
When the boys came home from school, it was a rush to get them through with their snack, cleaned up and dressed in time to start for the hotel to get there before Marie and Dirk.
I had arranged for Rosita and her family to arrive early also. I wanted everybody in the private dining room before the guest of honor arrived. Eric and his family arrived shortly after we got there. The dining room was beautifully decorated with fresh flowers and candles. Since I didn't think we would have time for each person to order individually, I had the hotel set up a buffet line. I had a hard time keeping the boys away from it until Marie arrived.
When she and Dirk walked into the room, she stopped so suddenly that Dirk bumped into her and almost dropped Ricky. Joel rushed up and took Ricky from Dirk. Seeing her mother standing off to one side, Marie ran to her and threw her arms around the older woman. Their conversation in rapid Spanish was incomprehensible to me with my limited familiarity with the language.
Marie looked even more ravishing than she had this afternoon. She was wearing the cocktail dress that she got in Orlando on our trip to Disney World. On the shoulder of the dress was a beautiful orchid corsage. Hildy handed Marie a tissue and told her not to ruin her make-up.
Dirk came up to me, "Crane, this is a wonderful thing that you've done for Marie. Having all her family here tonight has truly made one of her dreams come true."
"It's my pleasure," I said. "You are getting a fine woman. I hope you realize that."
"Oh, I do," he said, looking lovingly at Marie surrounded by her family.
I looked at my watch and decided it was time to get everybody started through the buffet line or we wouldn't make the 'graduation' ceremony on time. Eric's and my boys had naturally migrated to Marie's brothers. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, but I noticed that all of them kept looking toward the buffet table. I approached Marie and asked her to be the first through the line. Dirk and her mother followed immediately behind her. The 12 boys quickly lined up. Joel was still holding Ricky, so I took him from Joel's arms. I gave my boys a stern look and they grudgingly made a place ahead of them for Marie's sisters. I smiled in approval.
I signaled one of the serving staff and asked for a booster chair for Ricky. With Ricky settled in his booster seat beside his mother, I went back and joined the line waiting to get food. Marie, thankfully, had thought to fill a small plate of food for Ricky.
Everybody was soon seated with full plates of food in front of them, some plates were fuller than others. Only one serious food accident happened. Miguel, the youngest of the Salazar boys, dripped some horseradish sauce down the front of his pants while eating a bite of the prime rib. He started crying because he had messed up his new clothes. Manfred, who was sitting near Miguel, came to the rescue and took the boy to the restroom and cleaned the stain. When they came back, the stain was barely noticeable and would be even less so when the area dried.
Many of the boys went back for second helpings and would have done the same for the dessert if it hadn't been served to them by the waiters instead of from the buffet line.
By the time everybody had finished eating, there was just enough time to get to the school auditorium where the ceremony was to be held. I signed the bill for the meal and then ushered the boys to the van.
The ceremony was not like a typical graduation, although there was one thing it had in common with most graduations - an extremely dull speaker. I was surprised at the number of people receiving their GEDs. I counted 33 as they crossed the platform to receive their certificates.
I'm glad that Manfred had brought his camera. I had forgotten mine with everything else on my mind. Dirk had his, too. We were sitting in the front two rows in the family and friends' section. When Marie started walking towards the stage where the certificates were being handed out, Ricky hollered, "Momma," and ran to the stage and grabbed hold of her hand. This brought a laugh from the crowd. I heard a couple of, "That poor boy," and "How sad," comments from a few in the crowd.
When I heard those comments, I thought to myself how wrong they were. Ricky may only have one good leg, but it sure doesn't stop him from doing anything he wants to do. As far as he is concerned, he doesn't have a handicap, just an inconvenience.
After the ceremony was over, we gathered around Marie and congratulated her. When the congratulations had quieted down, I said, "Marie, you are more than just an employee to us. You are a friend and a part of our extended family. You mean a lot to us. We have a small present for you. It's from Hildy and Manfred, Eric and his family, and from me and my boys. We are sorely going to miss you when this man," I said, pointing at Dirk, "takes you away from us."
I handed her the envelope. She opened it and gasped before the tears started flowing. Not even Hildy's tissues could stop the damage to Marie's make-up this time. "Thank you, thank you so much," she said through her happy tears.
It was after ten when we got home, so I sent the boys straight to bed. They could shower in the morning. I soon followed. It had been a long day.
"Dad, can I ask you something?" Joel asked, a week later. He sat down on the couch beside me. I noticed that he had seemed a little preoccupied since he came home from school.
"Sure, son, what's on your mind?"
"Well, you know Valentine's Day is coming up next week and... I was... I was wondering if John and I could go to a movie. It's on Saturday, but we wouldn't stay out too late."
"I think that would be okay, as long as you don't stay out too late."
"What does John's mother say?"
"He's supposed to call me later to let me know."
"How do you propose to get to the movies and back?" I asked.
"That's something else I wanted to ask you. Bran's got his driver's license and he said he would take us."
"Is he sure that Eric will let him have the car?"
"Yeah, he already asked him and Bran's a good driver. Eric said so."
"Is Bran going with someone?"
"He met this guy in the college class he's taking at night."
"Does this guy have a name?"
"I think it's Shane. I don't know his last name."
"How old is he?"
"Bran said he was a year older than him."
"I need to talk to Eric to see what he says. I'll let you know my final decision after I've talked to him."
"Thanks, dad, at least you didn't say no right off the bat."
"Joel, you're growing up. You're very mature for your age and I trust you to know what is right. I'm sure you have given this a lot of thought. After you talk to John tonight, I'll call Eric if John has his mother's permission."
Later in the evening, Joel got a call from John. I could tell from the tone of Joel's voice that John's mother said he could go. Joel was beaming as he came to give me his good news.
I sent Joel off to get his brothers started getting ready for bed and then I picked up the phone and dialed Eric. Bran answered the phone.
"Bran, this is Crane Johnson. Is Eric available?"
"Sure, Mr. Johnson, he's checking JR's homework. Just a minute and I'll get him," Bran said.
"Crane, to what do I owe the pleasure of this call?" Eric asked a short time later.
I explained what Joel had said about plans for Valentine's Day and then asked, "Are you comfortable letting Bran have the car for the evening?"
"When is a parent ever comfortable about letting a teenager have the car? But, having said that, Bran is a very good driver. To tell the truth, I think he's more cautious than I am. He's been taking the car two nights a week to drive to the college class he's taking at Smithson Valley."
"I understand he's met someone," I said.
"Yes, Shane's a very nice young man. He's been to the house a couple of times since they met in the class."
"Joel said that Shane was a year older than Bran. Is that right?"
"Yes, he just turned 18. He graduated from high school last year and has been working full time and going to night school. His family is not rich, so he's having to support himself and pay for his college classes."
"I didn't know that Bran was taking night classes. When did he start doing that?" I asked.
"The class began the second week in January. He's taking a compiler design course. UTSA is teaching the course on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7 to 10. I was a little worried that his other school work might be adversely affected, but so far he has kept up with his regular studies."
"Is he thinking of going to UT when he graduates? Or has he made a decision yet?"
"No, I don't think so. He's applied to Stanford, UCLA and to Princeton. His SAT scores are high enough for any of those, but I think he really wants to go to Stanford. I haven't told him of your generosity. I have told him he's not to worry about the tuition, that we'd work something out."
"Have you set a curfew for Bran on Valentine's Day?"
"He has to be home by 11 on Saturday."
"That means Joel should be home by 10:30. That's later than he usually stays up, but just this once I guess it should be all right. I don't know if I'm ready for him to start dating."
"Wait until he takes the car for a date," Eric laughed.
"I'll wait, thank you. We should do something the next weekend. It would be nice if we, too, could go out on Valentine's Day, but I think I want to be home when Joel comes in."
"That's a great idea. Bran can watch JR, so I shouldn't have anything preventing me from going. I'm sure that Hildy will watch your boys."
"Saturday after Valentine's Day, it's a date. We'll figure out what to do as the day approaches."
When I went to tuck the boys into bed, I told Joel that I had decided that he could go to the movies with Bran driving. "Before you go, however, there are a few rules we need to discuss. Let's try to sit down tomorrow."
"Okay, dad, thanks."
We did sit down and have our discussion and agreed to the time he was to be home and a few other issues regarding his conduct. I was not foolish enough to think that some sexual exploration would not take place. I just told him to not let his hormones override his good sense. This caused him to blush.
The closer it got to Saturday, the less sure I was of my decision to let him go. It wasn't that I didn't trust him, it was the thought that he was growing up. After all he would turn 15 this summer. In my mind I could envision all sorts of horrible things happening to him. I knew I was being foolish, but that didn't help.
Saturday, Joel spent the better part of the day trying to decide what he should wear. The boys had decided to leave early and stop at a restaurant for something to eat before going to the movie. I had to bite my tongue when I learned they were going to the theater on the north side of San Antonio. The drive was actually easier than going to New Braunfels from our house, but I knew the traffic would be heavier.
We decided that Joel and I would pick John up and then I'd drive them to Eric's place. Shane was going to meet the others at Eric's. I saw Shane's car when we arrived and I was glad that Bran was driving Eric's car.
I gave Joel some money and with final admonitions to the boys from Eric and I to behave themselves, the boys waved goodbye and drove off.
"I'll be a nervous wreck by the time Joel gets home tonight," I told Eric.
"Do you think I won't be? It's my car," Eric said, and then paused. "That didn't come out right. I am concerned about the car, but my main concern is for Bran and the boys. Would you like a glass of wine before you go back home?"
"I think a small one would help, thanks. I can't stay long. I need to get back for supper."
We enjoyed a small glass of Merlot. I think I could have drunk another, but common sense said otherwise.
Although Joel was on my mind all evening, with the other boys around my mind was somewhat distracted. After they went to bed was another matter. It was even worse when Hildy and Manfred went to bed leaving me to sit and wait for Joel to come home.
By 9:30, I started looking out the windows for them to arrive. The book I had in my hands might just as well have been written in Chinese for all the reading I did. Every few minutes, I would get up and look out the window. I even went to the gate security camera and checked it for their arrival. I paced the floor and with each ticking minute my anxiety increased. I could imagine every horrible thing that could have happened to Joel.
By the time the clock showed 10:00 and Joel wasn't home, I was a complete basket case.