By sheer chance we arrived at the trattoria at the same time as Angel. The four of us went to a table on the patio and ordered wine to start off with. Angel was curious about the spiky blue-haired teenage object we were with.
"Angel," I said, "this is Jane. Jane is here from Florida, where we first met. Her parents threw her out, so she came to California and looked us up. She is staying with us and attending high school, as soon as we can get her enrolled. Jane, Angel. Angel, Jane." The two shook hands, Jane looking surprisingly shy.... Not a surprise, as Angel's 6'4" frame towered over her. That, and his deep booming voice, tinged slightly with Noo Yawk Italian.... Angel could be an intimidating guy if you weren't used to him.
Jane wasn't familiar with the vast lexicon of Italian food, or how it was broken up by region, but wanted something besides spaghetti. I ordered tortellini for her, and sausage ravioli for myself. Bekka ordered a large antipasto salad for herself, Angel going with eggplant. There was, as always, much trading of plates back and forth.
The girls had each poured themselves fresh glasses of wine when Angel said, "I'm going out front for a cigarette. Lenny, why don't you join me?" He had a tone that indicated there was only one right answer to the question.
We went out front and stuck Marlboros in our mouths. Angel gave me a deep stare as I lit up. He said, "Lenny, Lenny, Lenny, what sort of a mess are you digging yourself into now?"
"How so?" I asked.
Angel sighed. "So you've got a teenage runaway living with you now. Do I need to explain all the legal problems you could run into? Especially with her living in the mansion?"
"Don't worry, Angel, Bekka and I have considered the problems. First of all, she's not a runaway, she's a throwaway. Her parents kicked her out. At our encouragement, they are having her legally emancipated, so she can make decisions as an adult. Like I said earlier, she's going to be attending high school, so she won't be sitting around bored or causing trouble. And I know there are going to have to be some temporary policy changes at Inana, primarily revolving around wearing clothes outside the sound stages. Like, it's required now. And don't forget, our new house is finished in five weeks, so we'll be moving back into Encinitas and the mansion will be vacant. Jane is already looking forward to living on the beach."
"You think you have a handle on this situation?" Angel asked.
"I'm fairly confident," I said.
"Good. You'll be in a mess of legal troubles if things go wrong. When does she turn eighteen?"
"In about nineteen months."
"Be on your guard until then, Lenny. Emancipated minor or not, you could get in a world of hurt just because you were trying to be helpful."
"We didn't feel like we had much choice," I said. "She's sixteen and good looking. She had a choice of heading for us, or heading for LA, where she'd have ended up strolling on Hollywood Boulevard within two weeks. We weren't about to let that happen. Don't worry, we're keeping all this low key."
"She's really going to go back to school?" Angel asked.
"She's looking forward to it at this point."
"Okay. I trust your judgement. Who knows, maybe she'll get a kick out of the Saturday lunches with Bekka and Angela and Chrissie."
I smiled. "That scene would require her to think like an adult, which is something I've tried to impress upon her. Once she's emancipated, she needs to make her own decisions and behave like an adult. Anything that encourages such behavior is a positive influence."
"Okay. I just wanted to make sure you hadn't rushed into this situation too blindly. Let's go order some dessert." We ground out our cigarettes and went back inside the trattoria.
When we got home I got on the phone and called Boss. If anyone would know of solid autos for sale, he would.
"Lookin' for new wheels, huh? Tired of that little thing you've been drivin'?" he asked.
"As a matter of fact, the Acura is getting replaced with a customized Cadillac Fleetwood in a couple weeks. No, we need another car because there's a third member of our household." I explained the situation to him.
"Wow, takin' on a teenager as a roommate," marveled Boss. "So what kind of car are you thinking about getting?"
"Something reliable, something solid, something I won't worry about her getting hit in. Any ideas?"
There was a pause on his end. "Well.... I gotta friend who has something, but.... I dunno, you said this is for a sixteen year old girl?"
"As it happens, my friend Mitch has a 1971 Cutlass 442 he's looking to get rid of. It looks cherry and runs like a raped date. It's solid, it's reliable, and anything built these days is just gonna bounce off. Shit, you may as well continue your tradition of having everyone in your house drivin' hot rods. It's not a cute car, though."
"I don't think Jane does cute," I said. "I'd like to take a look at it. Will tomorrow work?"
"Come on out here around five and we'll head over to his place. I'll call during the day if that won't work, but he'll be off his job by then, so it should be a good time to meet up."
"All right. I'll see you tomorrow." (*click*)
The next afternoon I went out to Santee to see Boss. He was in a jovial mood. His weekly order of Ecstasy had gone to 15,000 hits and he had installed four more Airstream trailers on his land in the desert, just to handle production. His business was growing and we was raking it in hand over fist.
We took my Acura over to see his friend Mitch. Boss regretted that decision: his knees banged into the dashboard, even with the seat all the way back. "So you said you're replacin' this thing with a Cadillac?" he asked.
"Sure am," I said.
"Good," he grumbled.
We arrived at Mitch's and were given a brief tour of the Cutlass. The technical end of it was lost on me (like the gearing), but I knew it had a 442 motor with a four barrel Holley carburetor on it. The body was straight --- Mitch swore it had never been in an accident --- the tire tread was good, the interior was clean, and it
"So, Boss said it's for someone else?" Mitch asked.
"Yeah, a sixteen year old punk rock girl from upper Florida. She calls herself a Swamp Rat, or Gator Bait. She needs transportation to get to school in."
Mitch smiled. "Well, she'll have the sweetest thing on the lot if you get her this. What kinda car is she expecting?"
I shrugged. "A Toyota, something boring."
"Yeah, get her this. Kid ought to have a cool first car, y'know?"
I wrote Mitch a check for a lot less money than I was expecting, and by agreement Boss and I began heading for the mansion, him behind the wheel of the Cutlass, me in my Acura. I had a feeling that Boss would literally tear the Acura apart in frustration, if he was the one to drive it.
We arrived back at the mansion around 7:30, close to time to go to dinner. I called Bekka and Jane downstairs. Boss got his hug from Bekka and introduced himself to Jane, who looked freaked out: she was meeting too many tall people recently.
"So, you two wanna see what Jane will be driving to school?" I asked.
"Absolutely," said Bekka. "Lead on."
We went out to the driveway, and there was two different reactions to the sight of the Cutlass: Bekka was aghast, and Jane was overjoyed.
"Lenny, you're kidding me!" said Bekka. "That thing looks even faster than the Plymouth."
"Oh, it is. But the price was right, it's mechanically bulletproof, and anyone running into it will just bounce off. It's better than buying a Toyota."
Jane was bouncing up and down like she had to pee. "Oh my god, this thing is too cool. And it's gonna be mine?"
I said, "Practically speaking, yeah. Technically, Bekka and I will own it, but it's yours to drive. Do you like it?"
"Hell yeah! This thing will definitely attract boys."
"It'll also get you to school in record time. Be careful, you don't want to get tickets, and this thing will draw them."
"So can I drive it?" Jane asked.
"Tell you what," I said. "I need to give Boss here a ride back home. Why don't you take the wheel, and I'll give you directions. You can get used to the feel of this beast on both surface streets and on the freeway. I warn you now, though, it's a serious slingshot no matter where it is. You'll need to exercise restraint."
"It's about dinnertime," said Bekka. "What should we do for dinner?"
I thought about it. "Hey Boss," I said, "you wanna have dinner at the Seafarer?"
Boss grinned and said, "I think I could handle that."
"Okay, everybody in the Cutlass. Jane, we're going for seafood tonight. You'll be the one driving it, you get behind the wheel."
After massively adjusting the seat forward (to accommodate between Jane's 5'5" and Boss's 6'7") She fired up, adjusted the mirrors, and got us into the street. By the time two miles had passed I had relaxed considerably. Jane was a confident driver who took directions well. She handled the Cutlass with ease. What I wasn't thinking about was that while in the eyes of the state she may have been a new driver, but thanks to her lush parents, she'd been driving since she was twelve.
We arrived at the Seafarer. On the way there, I was concerned about showing up without reservations, but my worry was unfounded. Eight o'clock on a Tuesday was a slow time for the restaurant. We walked in and were seated by a nervous-looking hostess. One monstrous biker, one goth-y trendy chick, and two punk rockers, all eating at the same table, demanding to know how fresh the Pacific salmon was.
Bekka elbowed me. "Honey, you forgot to leave your gun in the car," she said.
"Well, I'll keep my jacket buttoned, and hopefully the manager won't get wind of our presence. At worst I'll go put it in the car later."
Boss drained off his first Budweiser and turned to Jane. "So, I hear yer from Florida, but I don't know where about."
"I'm from Gainesville," she said, trying to not be cowed by the monstrous man speaking to her.
"Hot damn! I got family in the Gainesville area! Ya know a family by the name of Stetson, by chance?"
"I went to school with a couple Stetsons," said Jane.
"What were they like?" asked Boss.
Jane's eyes darted around. "Umm.... They were trouble. One got in trouble for having a sawed-off shotgun in his locker at school, the other dropped out of ninth grade to get married to his cousin, after he got her pregnant. The Stetson family lived out in the swamps, and were used to doing whatever they felt like."
Boss cackled. "Yeah, that arm of the Stetson family has always been a bunch of no-account swamp rats. I'm a Texas Stetson, and they considered us to be upper class, mostly because we wore shoes, haw!"
Jane said, "So there's no love lost between you and them."
"Hell no, girl. You wanna call them swamp-dwelling white trash, go ahead."
Jane relaxed a bit. She said, "I'd call them dangerous swamp-dwelling white trash. They supplemented their welfare checks by poaching alligators and supposedly running a still. They'd shoot at fishermen who drifted to close to their place. And the girls all had their first kid by eighth grade."
"That is, like, really scary," said Bekka. "People really live like that?"
Boss said, "You an' Lenny are California natives, right? Never really left the state?"
I said, "Well, we went to Fort Lauderdale on our honeymoon. That's how we met Jane here."
Boss and Jane looked at each other and giggled. Jane said, "Hoo, lord! I could take you places and show you people and things that would blow your minds! The South is both better and worse than it's made out to be. You can go into the backwaters and meet folks that look and live like the inbreds from 'Deliverance.' You'll have a total stranger in Alabama notice your California license plate and ask you how California got to be so nigger-heavy. He's not being mean, he's not trying to pick a fight, he thinks it's a valid question.
"If you guys visited Gainesville, you'd probably think it was a hick little town. But compared to the outlying areas, it's a metropolis. If you got out into the swamps, with your California accents, you'd meet people that would just as soon kill you. You don't talk like them, so you must be from the government coming to wreck their still."
Boss added in, "Least in Texas we don't inbreed. Still, you gotta watch yourself in Texas. You two carryin' your guns the way you do freaks people out here in California. They wouldn't give you a second look in Texas."
I said, "Jane, I've noticed that you have no real Southern twang to your voice. Why is that?"
Jane laughed and said, "The more I drink the stronger it gets. Give me eight beers and I turn into a real Southern belle. I don't know why it is, but sober I sound like I'm from the North, and with a buzz I start getting all Southern all over everything. Hell, on the way home tonight stop and buy me a half pint of whiskey. You'll be amazed at the transformation."
Boss said, "With me, it depends on who I'm around and how relaxed I am. Like with you guys I know I talk Texas. When I have my meetings with Angel and Vinny I sound like a California native. Hell, I been out here since I was twenty-four, I don't know why I still sound like Texas when I talk. It ain't regional pride. If that were the case I never woulda moved out here. I can't explain it."
We dug into our salmon when it arrived, Jane having a new experience. She'd only had Atlantic salmon before, which tastes, well, fishy. She appreciated the difference, the clean healthy taste of salmon from the Pacific Northwest.
She had a beer with dinner. When our waitress took our drinks order, Jane requested a Miller, and received it without a question or second look. I would be curious as to how many restaurants we would visit where this took place. Triplet's had served her mimosas without a thought, the trattoria gave her wine, and now this place provided her with beer.
After dinner, Jane got behind the wheel and piloted us out to Boss's house in Santee. He gave her instructions from the shotgun seat, which she followed well. I continued to be impressed with her driving. She was aggressive enough to make good time, but was never impatient or short-tempered. She handled that big bomb of a Cutlass smoothly, sliding easily through traffic. I decided that I had picked up the right vehicle for her to drive.
"You sure you remember the way back to the freeway?" I asked as we pulled away from Boss's house.
"Pretty sure. The worst that happens, we need to double back. So is that guy a good friend of yours?" Jane asked.
"Boss is a close friend to both of us. Why?"
"He's scary! He could break me in half!"
Bekka laughed at this. "Boss is one of the sweetest people I've ever met," she said. "He's kind, he's generous, he's even-tempered. That Plymouth we've spent all our time in? That was a gift from him. He bought us a hot rod because he knew we wanted one. Don't worry, you'll get to know him. He's a good man to have on your side."
As we got on Interstate 8, Jane asked, "So what shall we do tonight?"
Bekka said, "A relatively early night. Lenny and I have work tomorrow. I'm doing a loop in the morning and dialogue scenes for our new movie in the afternoon. Lenny has a business to run."
"Can I have a beer when we get home?"
I responded, "You can have three or four. I want to hear you get all Southern on us."
We passed the miles in silence. Jane suddenly said, "I'm doing the right thing, aren't I?"
"What do you mean?" Bekka asked.
In a voice that was suddenly choked, Jane said, "Well.... I left the only town I've ever lived in and came here to California. Now my parents are basically divorcing me, I'm gonna start at a whole new school and one of the administrators already doesn't like me, and the only reason I have a roof over my head is because of your kindness. Can I stop feeling scared yet?"
I put my hand on her shoulder. "Girl, if you weren't scared there would be something wrong with you. But as long as Bekka and me are around, you don't have much to fear. We'll help you, and we'll try to take care of you. All this is new to us, too."
Bekka said from the back seat, "I'll bet you anything that within two months we'll be wondering what we were so worried about. We'll have fallen into a routine. You'll be going to school and hanging out with new friends, and making dinner for us all four nights a week. Things will have smoothed out."
In a voice full of tears, Jane said, "Okay. I love you guys, and I mean that."
"We love you too, pet," I replied.