"When's JR coming over?" Chris asked at breakfast.
"Eric said they would be here around two," I told him. "As soon as you guys finish breakfast, go take care of your dogs. We need to stay out of the way of the cleaning crew."
"Sure, dad," Larry said.
"It's hot out there, dad," TJ said, when he came back in from taking care of his pet. "Can we go swimming?"
"I think that's a great idea. You go get changed and I'll join you," I said.
As soon as the other boys saw TJ and me heading for the pool, they ran into the house and we were quickly joined by the remaining five boys. We had a great time frolicking in the water. What started out as a rag-tag game of water polo quickly ended up being a game of dodge-ball. Amid the laughter of the boys trying to hit one of their brothers with the soccer-sized ball, it was all too easy to duck under the water to avoid being a victim.
During a break in the action to rest, Joel swam up to me as I was sitting on the edge of the pool. "Dad, are you going to get a car to replace the BMW?"
"I haven't given it too much thought, but I guess we should have another car. You're going to need one every so often and I'd prefer you not drive the van or the Town Car. What do you think we should get?"
"I've been thinking," Joel said. "I liked the Bimmer, but maybe a Ford or Chevy would be a better choice."
"What do you think; new or used?"
"Probably a used one that's a couple of years old and still under warranty would be best," he said.
"Good thinking. Maybe we could go check out what's available tomorrow. There's a Ford dealer in New Braunfels. That'd be a good place to start. I'm not sure where the nearest Chevy dealership is."
"Thanks, dad," Joel said, leaning into my arm before slipping back into the water.
We continued to play in the pool until Hildy came out and announced that lunch would be ready in 20 minutes. That cleared the pool as everybody rushed to their respective bedrooms to take a quick shower and get dressed for lunch.
"Where are the girls today?" I asked Hildy, as we were finishing lunch.
"Gilda cajoled Manny into taking her and the girls shopping," Hildy smiled. "That's one of Manny's least favorite pastimes, but he's hard pressed to deny those little ones anything."
"And, I'm sure that Gilda is very persuasive in her own right," I said.
"You're right about that. I don't know where my sister gets her pushiness."
"I wouldn't have the slightest idea," I said, my tongue firmly lodged in my cheek.
Shortly before two the gate buzzer sounded. I checked the gate monitor and saw that it was Eric and his boys. I opened the gate and called for the boys to come and greet our guests. We were all gathered on the front steps by the time the car arrived. JR was the first one out of the car. He was immediately surrounded by Larry, Lenny and Chris. Their noisy greeting almost drowned out Eric's greeting.
It was a little stilted at first, but softened as I shook his hand and pulled him into a brief hug. "It's good to see you again," I said.
"Me, too," he said, holding on to my hand. "It's been way too long."
Joel and Bran had greeted each other and were updating the other on their lives. TJ had joined the group around JR, leaving Peter to stand there by himself.
"Peter, come say hello to Mr. Levin," I said.
"Hi," Peter said shyly, not looking at Eric's face.
"Hey, guys, reintroduce JR to Peter," I told the group of five noisy boys.
"Come here, Peter. This is our friend JR. He used to live here, but now he lives in California," Chris said. "Do you remember him?"
Peter cocked his head and looked closer at JR. "Yeah, but he looks different."
"He's got a different haircut," Lenny said. "A fancy California haircut."
"Come on," Larry said. "Let's go show JR all our dogs and the tennis court.
"Yeah," Bran said. "I want to see that court, too"
"How have you been?" I asked Eric.
"Things have been going great. The job is exciting, the weather's great, and the boys love it. JR has made a lot of new friends. That was one of my biggest fears, that he would be lonely."
"I've heard some rumblings that there are some investors interested in the company," I said. "Is there any truth to that rumor?"
"I haven't heard anything official, but there have been a lot of people holding meetings with Raj," Eric said. "Did you ever invest?"
"I did put some money into that venture capital group that has been supporting the company. They seemed to be a group that hasn't gotten wrapped up in the tech bubble I fear is going to tank even more than it has."
"There are going to be a whole bunch of very unhappy investors in Silicon Valley companies if the market tanks any further. I know a lot of my co-workers who have already lost money, but believe the market can't go down any more and they can't sell now, they'd lose too much money."
"Let's go on inside. I'm sure that Hildy wants to see you," I said. "Bran sure has grown in the past year."
"He's grown about four inches and put on ten pounds. He's had to buy a complete new wardrobe. Well, I should say jeans, shorts and polo shirts. That's all he wears. Even when he and Elijah go to church they wear jeans."
"It must be a fairly liberal church," I said.
"It's a small Lutheran church that's only about half a mile from his condo. They both go fairly regularly," Eric said.
"How's your dad doing?" I asked.
"Great, he still misses mom, but he's getting on with his life. There's a senior center not too far from his place where he goes several times a week. They play cards; pinochle mostly. On Friday night they have bingo."
"Eric!" Hildy said loudly, when we walked into the kitchen. She rushed him and wrapped her arms around him, gave him a bear hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Good to see you. Sit down; I'll pour a cup of coffee. Tell me everything that's going on."
There was nothing to do but what Hildy said. We sat at the table and drank our coffee while Eric gave her a rundown of their lives in California.
"How long are you going to be in town?" Hildy asked.
"We leave Thursday morning. JR's school starts on Tuesday of next week and we have to get him outfitted with new uniforms. He's grown out of the ones he wore last year," Eric said.
"I know the feeling," I said. "Try getting six ready to start school."
"Thank you, but one is more than enough."
We were interrupted by the arrival of Gilda and Manfred accompanied by Jeanie and Ginny. "Eric, you haven't met our girls," Hildy said.
"Your girls?" Eric queried.
"Yes," Hildy said with pride. "Right now we are fostering them, but in about ten days we hope to adopt them. This is Jeanie and this one is Ginny. Girls, say hello to Mr. Levin."
"Hello, Mr. Levin," they chorused.
"It's nice to meet you," Eric said. "It's about time there were some girls around here. Gilda, it's good to see you again. It's been a long time."
"Dad! Dad!" JR exclaimed, "Come on out. Bran is going to play tennis against Chris. You gotta watch."
"I hope Bran takes it easy on Chris," Eric said, getting up from the table and following his son out through the patio door.
"Oh, Chris can take care of himself," I said, trying to suppress my smile.
They were warming up when we got to the court. "We'll call the service lines," Lenny said, indicating to Larry.
Bran won the spin of the racket and elected to serve. He had a fairly good serve, but Chris' returns were better and the first game was won by Chris at love. When the set was over, Bran had managed to win only a single game and had scored a total of nine points.
"I can see why you had the court built," Eric said to me. "That Chris is a great player. He has a lot of potential if he wants to make it a career."
"Well, I don't know if he's interestrd in it as a career. Right now he's having fun playing tennis and it's good exercise. I don't press him or the twins to play. The twins are excellent doubles players. They have that twins' communications thing going and always seem to know what the other is doing. TJ and Peter have fun playing as well, although it hard to describe what they do on the court as tennis."
"It must have been the heat and I didn't have my own racket and these shoes weren't right," Bran smiled and said, with his arm around Chris' shoulders. "Nice going, kid. Don't tell anybody how bad you beat me. It would ruin my reputation."
"It's our secret. I doubt that it would make the sports page of the Mercury News out there in California," Chris laughed. "I'm hot. I'm going to jump in the pool."
"That sounds great," Bran said, "but I don't have my swimsuit."
"Maybe you could borrow one of dad's," Lenny volunteered.
"Sure, follow me, Bran," I said. "Eric, do you want to get in the water?"
"I don't think so. I think I'll just sit on the patio in the shade and watch."
"How about a glass of wine?"
"Now you're talking."
I returned with a glass of wine for Eric and me. Manfred soon joined us.
"They kicked me out," Manfred said. "They said I was in the way."
"Where are the girls?" I asked.
"They're helping," he said, using his fingers to indicate quote marks around the word helping. "From the looks of it, they must have slaughtered a whole flock of chickens. There's enough to feed a good sized army."
"Well, I can see a squad of eight in the pool, not to mention five adults and your two girls. Fifteen people can eat a lot of fried chicken, especially when there are several teenagers involved," I said.
"You're right. Maybe I had better go tell them to fix more," Manfred laughed.
"Tell me about your girls," Eric said. "Hildy said you were going to adopt them."
"Yes," Manfred started, "I never thought we would be raising kids at our age, but we have grown to love those two as much as if they were our own." He went on to relay to Eric the circumstances that led to their fostering and now to their hopes for adoption.
"We know that feeling," Eric said, pointing to himself and to me. "Although Bran is not adopted, I consider him in every way as being my son. And JR thinks the same way. Bran's the brother JR never had, but wanted."
"I was meaning to ask you, now that Bran is going to be a sophomore, is he wanting to get a car?" I asked.
"He's never mentioned anything about wanting a car. Everything is so convenient where his condo is that he hasn't needed one to this point. Elijah has a car and they sometimes go out together. I'm sure the topic will come up eventually."
The three of us sat there on the patio talking and watching the boys in the pool until the sun started to go down. The tension between Eric and me that had been present when he first arrived had now completely disappeared. It was like talking to a good friend. I liked that, because he was a good friend.
"Manny," Hildy said, coming through the patio door, "please take the girls home and get them cleaned up for supper. Their 'helping' got a little messy. We'll be ready to eat in about half an hour."
Manfred got up and went to get his girls and I walked to the edge of the pool to tell the boys that supper was going to be ready by the time they got through the showers, again. "Bran, your sweaty clothes should be washed and dried. Ask Hildy where they are."
"Thanks, I wasn't looking forward to putting back on stinky clothes and I'm sure nobody else was looking forward to it as well," Bran said, heading into the house.
"Eric, would you like another glass of wine with supper?"
"Sure, Bran can drive home."
Hildy had put the extra leaves in the table so that all 15 of us could be seated. We did have to bring in additional chairs from the breakfast room table as the dining room set only had 12 chairs.
The eight freshly scrubbed boys arrived at almost the same time as Manfred and the girls came in the back door. The boys looked as if they were starving. Their mouths started to water as Hildy and Gilda carried three large platters of fried chicken and placed them on the table. They returned later with bowls of cole slaw, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, broccoli, and plates of corn bread. I began to wonder if the table would hold up with all the food that it was carrying.
Answering my question of them in the affirmative, I poured a glass of wine for all the adults. As soon as we were all settled, the food started being passed. There was a mass of food on all the boys' plates when everything had made its rounds. There was not much talking as the food was being eaten, but there were a lot of greasy smiles. The only way to eat fried chicken is to pick it up in your fingers. Thank goodness Hildy had thought to put plenty of napkins beside each plate.
Everybody pitched in to help clear the table and take what little food that was left into the kitchen. "We'll have dessert later, after our stomachs settle from all this food," Gilda said. I took it as a polite way to say that our presence in the kitchen was not needed.
The boys went upstairs and I heard the TV come on. Manfred, Eric and I went into the living room. Jeanie and Ginny followed us and took seats next to Manfred, one on each side. Manfred wrapped an arm around each of them and pulled them close. "Did you girls get enough to eat," he asked.
"Uh huh," Jeanie said. "My stomach is full."
"Mine, too," Ginny agreed.
"Well, maybe you won't want any dessert later," Manfred teased.
"I will," Jeanie said.
"Me, too," Ginny also agreed.
In fact we all had dessert later. It was Hildy's version of a Black Forest Cake. It was a definite hit with everybody around the table. My only complaint was that Hildy cut me too big of a piece.
When all the plates were cleared away and the kitchen cleaned up, Hildy announced that it was time for their family to head for home. She gave Eric a hug and said, "Don't stay away so long next time."
"I'll try not to," he said, "but you know the planes fly both ways. You're always welcome to come visit us. We would enjoy having you."
"We just might do that," Hildy replied.
After they left, Eric and I went back into the living room. "Are you seeing anyone?" he asked, after we were settled.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I am," I said.
"Do I know him?"
"Probably not, I only met him when he made a sizeable donation to the foundation."
"Darcie told me about someone who gave, not a sizeable donation, but a huge donation. A man named Donald Baker. Is that the one?"
"Yes, we all have become very close to him and his family. How about you? Have you found someone?"
"Not really. I've made a few friends, but no one special," Eric said.
Our conversation turned to other topics that were less tinged with emotion. When he looked at his watch later it was almost ten o'clock. "We need to be getting back to Darcie's place. I'll have one grouchy kid if I don't get JR to bed soon. It's been great seeing you again. I hope we can remain friends."
"Of course we can remain friends. You will always mean a lot to me and you are always welcome in this house," I said, giving him a hug which he returned.
We all gathered on the front steps for a final goodbye. Bran climbed into the driver's seat, as he was the designated driver. The boys waved at the car until it passed through the gate onto the road.
"That was fun," Chris said. "It was good to see JR again. I wish he still lived here." When JR had first moved here, Chris had assumed the role of "big brother/protector" for him, much the same as Joel did for TJ.
"It would be nice if they still lived here, but Eric's job is in California. Maybe someday they'll move back," I said. "Okay, everybody up stairs and get ready for bed. Brush your teeth; you can take a shower in the morning since you had one just before supper."
I gathered up the wine glasses that Eric and I had used and took them to the kitchen and placed them in the dishwasher. After I checked to see that everything was in order, I went upstairs to tuck the boys into bed. It had been a long day and Peter was almost asleep when I kissed his forehead. Even the twins and Chris were in bed when I got to their room.
"What time are we going to go car hunting?" Joel asked when I got to his room.
"I think we should leave around 9:30 or so. That will give us a couple of hours to look around before lunch. How does that sound?"
"Good night, son."
"Good night, dad."
The other boys were a little disappointed that they didn't get to go with Joel and me, but I didn't want to have to be watching them and at the same time concentrating on buying a car. When we got to the Ford dealership around ten, a young salesman approached us and introduced himself as Al. I told him what we were looking for and he led us to an area where the used cars were lined up.
"We have a number of cars that fit your criteria," Al told us. "As you can see we have several makes and models that are less than three model years old. All of them have been certified by our mechanics. Please, look around and if you see one you would like to test drive, I'll be happy to get the keys."
Two cars seemed to catch Joel's attention out of the 30 or so models on display; both were a little over a year old. One was a white Ford Taurus and the other one was a bright red Chevrolet Cavalier. He sat in both of them and inspected the interiors. Either one of them would be just fine for Joel's needs.
"Dad, can I drive these two? I like both of them," Joel said.
I indicated to our salesman we wanted to take them for a test drive and he went to the office to get the keys. When he returned, Joel got into the driver's seat of the Taurus and Al got in the front passenger seat. I sat in the right hand rear seat. Joel carefully drove the car off the lot and onto the I-35 access road. He took the first entrance ramp to the freeway and accelerated to the speed limit. After driving a couple of miles north, he exited the freeway, made a left turn under it and then entered the freeway once again. The car seemed to me from my seat to be handling very well and had a reasonable rate of acceleration. The braking appeared to be smooth and brought the car to a halt on the car lot.
The test drive of the Cavalier went very much the same as the Taurus. Joel followed that same route with both cars.
When he parked the Cavalier and we had exited, I told Al that I wanted to talk to my son in private. He nodded and walked back to the office to return the keys. "Son, are you ready to make a decision or do you want to go someplace else to see if you can find something better?"
"I like both of these cars. I don't think we need to go someplace else. Which one do you think is the best one?"
"That's difficult for me to say. You are the one who drove them. Did one of them seem to drive better than the other?"
"They were both almost the same. The Cavalier did have a bit more pickup than the Taurus. It got up to highway speed a little quicker. The ride of the Taurus was smoother, but not much," he said, and then paused. "I think I like the Cavalier the best. Is that okay?"
"If that's the one you want, then that's the one we'll get. The sticker price is about the same as the Taurus," I said. "Let's go talk to Al and see what kind of price we can get for it."
I had a price in mind when we sat down in Al's office. For the next fifteen minutes we haggled over the price until a satisfactory one was negotiated. He started a spiel about the financing options that were available before I stopped him. "I'll write you a check," I said. "Or, if you would rather, I can go to my bank and bring you a certified check."
"The certified check would be the best, otherwise we would have to hold the car until the check cleared the bank," Al said.
"Fine, we'll go to the bank and then to lunch. Please have the title and other paperwork ready and the car washed and ready for us when we return."
"Thanks, dad," Joel said, giving me a hug when we got back to the Town Car.
I drove to a branch office of my bank and got the certified check. We decided to go to Wendy's for lunch. While we were there, I called our insurance agent and gave him all the information he needed to add the car to our insurance.
"Are you ready to go pick up your car?"
It took about 15 minutes to sign all the paperwork, get the keys and wait for the car to be brought around to the front of the building. Joel was beaming when his new car stopped in front of where we were standing.
"Drive safely, son," I said. I knew he would, but it was a dad thing.
"I promise, dad. Can I drive over and show Jimmy? It's only about a mile out of the way."
"Sure, I'll meet you at home."
When he arrived home with the car, the other boys had to climb into it and give it their stamp of approval. I think what impressed them the most was the bright red color.
"Crane," Hildy said, as I walked back inside after the boys completed their car inspection, "Donald called. He wants you to call him back."
"Thanks," I said, and went into the library to return his call. He was on another line when I made the call. His secretary said that she would have him call back as soon as he hung up.
Fifteen minutes later, he called. "How did your meeting with your friend from California go yesterday?" he asked, after the pleasantries were exchanged.
"It was nice seeing Eric again and the boys had a great time with their friends. Are you and your kids going to be coming to stay this evening?"
"That's the reason I called. I wanted to make sure you hadn't changed your mind," he said.
"Why would I do that? I thought we had it all worked out."
"I guess it's my insecurity showing. I thought after your friend visited you might have second thoughts."
"Eric and I were involved once, but that is over. We'll always be friends, but that's all. When can we expect you?"
"It will probably be around six before I can get away from the office and pick up William and Lenore. We should be there a little before seven, I would think."