I went up to the room they’d assigned me, the one in Dally’s wing, and got myself organized. I unpacked my clothes, making sure my suit wasn’t too wrinkled, and then got out my laptop. I didn’t have too much homework left to do, so I knocked that out in half an hour. Around 2:15, I heard loud, clomping steps outside. I looked up at the open doorway just as Dally walked up, or at least he was the guy who I assumed was Dally.
“Hey there,” he said, grinning. He was absolutely nothing like I’d been expecting. I kind of thought he’d be this suave guy, kind of like Ryan Grafton, but for some reason I’d pegged him as being short. He was none of those things. He had his father’s beautiful golden hair, but it was cut so short it was almost a buzz cut. He was probably pushing just over 6’2”, so a little taller than me, and even though he was tall and could carry a lot of weight, it wasn’t enough to hide that he was pretty fat. He had to be carrying an extra 50 pounds at least. It made his face rounder and, since he didn’t have any facial hair, it gave him a total baby face, an impression that was only enhanced by his pretty blue eyes. He was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and cowboy boots. His T-shirt was a medium blue color, which accentuated his eyes, but also showed off his big pit stains. Either this dude didn’t believe in using antiperspirant, or he just had some overactive sweat glands.
“Hey!” I said enthusiastically. Even if this guy looked like Baby Huey, we’d become friends over the phone, and that earned him my loyalty and respect. I got up and walked over to him, and decided to go for it, and give him a hug. That freaked him out at first, but he ultimately decided to hug me back. He was soft and cushy, because of all his fat, but it made him feel kind of comfortable.
“Sorry I wasn’t here when you got here,” he apologized. “I was gonna cut classes, but Gramps made me go.”
“No big deal,” I said casually. “Gave me a chance to unpack.”
“Cool. Let’s get out of here. Come on, I’ll show you around,” he said.
“It has been explained to me that we have to be here by 7:30 for dinner,” I said formally, cracking him up.
“We’ll make it back in time,” he said, shaking his head. He all but ran down the stairs with me right behind him, and then took a sort of back way out of the house that made me think he was trying to escape without anyone spotting us.
There was a garage and parking area at the back of the house. He led me up to a newish looking GMC pickup truck with Denali badging on the sides. It was green, with a tan interior, and had an extended cab. “Nice truck,” I said, as we hopped in. I had a freaky moment where the truck reminded me of the Dodge I’d bought for Hank, since they were the same color, but I managed to deal with that without letting it fuck me up.
“I love it,” he said, even as he fired it up. Country music came blaring through the sound system until he quickly turned it off. “You like country music?”
“Never listen to it,” I lied. I never listened to it, which was true, but that was because I couldn’t stand it, but I didn’t want to be a dick. He switched stations to top 40, which was much better, or at least it would have been if the song playing hadn’t been “Baby Boy.” I thought that was pretty ironic, since he looked like this big man-boy.
“What do you listen to?”
“Pop, rock, some hip-hop,” I said casually.
“I play radio roulette,” he said, meaning he changed stations all the time. I didn’t say anything, since I rarely listened to the radio. I usually had a compilation CD in the Ferrari.
“This truck has a great sound system,” I said. “It’s pretty dope.”
“Yeah, it is,” he agreed. “I got this when I turned 16 in March. My dad bought it for me.” He got a little choked up when he said that, and I really felt bad for the guy, remembering how tough it was to lose someone that you loved.
“That makes it even more special,” I said in a chipper way, trying to keep his morale up. “You guys have good taste in trucks.” We toured around the ranch a bit, then around Dalby, the local town. It wasn’t anything special, and looked kind of like the world had passed it by, but I worked hard to find nice things to say about it anyway.
“Let’s stop up here at the DQ,” he said.
“Fine,” I said, even though I had no idea what he meant. That was soon clear when we pulled into Dairy Queen. It was an older store, evidently, the kind with walk up windows. We got out and Dally introduced me to a bunch of people he knew, and I gathered that this was one of the places his friends hung out. They all called him Double D, which somehow seemed to fit his oversized body. He told everyone I was from California, so that’s primarily what we talked about. The guys were mostly dressed in shorts or jeans and T-shirts, while the girls all seemed to have pretty big hair. His friends reminded me of Gathan’s friends back in Claremont. I felt a little overdressed, but I guess that made me seem different and a little exotic. I ended up having an ok time bullshitting with them. Dally took a break from socializing and went up to the window to order us both Blizzards. He got a large Oreo, and I got a medium Heath. It was pretty good, but if I ate this shit all the time, I’d be packing extra pounds on too. We hopped back in the truck and drove around some more, stopping at a 7-11. They all looked at me funny when I asked them for a Fiji water, so I just went with the flow and we got Super Big Gulps of Coke, met some more people, then drove around some more.
“We drive around a lot here,” he joked.
“Kind of fun, being out, seeing what’s going on,” I said to be polite. I remembered how I’d done this with Tony when I’d visited St. Louis, although that had been mostly in the suburbs, while here we were definitely out in the country. It didn’t seem to be as popular in California, or at least in the Bay Area. I knew that people cruised the El Camino, but I never did, and my friends didn’t either.
“If you want, there’s a couple of parties this weekend we could go to,” he said.
“I’m good with that,” I said. It was weird that he didn’t seem more bothered by the memorial service for his father, but I let that slide. Grief was a pretty fucked up thing to deal with, and it wasn’t for me to tell him how to handle it.
Our next stop was at a gas station, where we bullshitted with some more of his friends. Everywhere it was the same. They were all impressed that I was from California, and wanted to hear all about it, but they were quick to tell me that Texas was way better, even though most of them hadn’t been to the Golden State, or if they had, it was just to go to Disneyland. I didn’t let that bug me, because I was used to it. It was the same kind of shit I heard when I went to Claremont. It was weird, though, how different I was than them. I talked differently, of course, but I dressed differently too. They were all casual, wearing Levis or Wrangler jeans and T-shirts, most of them with stuff written on them. I was wearing my distressed Diesel Jeans and an A&F polo shirt. They had on cowboy boots, while I was wearing Vans. Most of them had hair that was clipped pretty short, while mine was a little longer, in what my stylist called a textured cut. The whole effect was to make me stand out in this crowd, which was a little whack, but unless I wanted to be a dick, the only thing I could do was go with it.
About 6:30, Dally decided it was time for us to head back. “What should I wear for dinner?” I asked him.
He looked at me strangely. “What you got on is fine.”
“Cool,” I said. I guess they didn’t dress for dinner, but then again, we only did on Sundays. Still, our normal attire was probably damn near formal for these people.
“I was thinking tomorrow I could show you more of the ranch,” he said.
“I’d like to see it.”
“We got some ATVs that are fun as hell to ride around on,” he said. He talked about some other shit, but he didn’t mention horseback riding, so I didn’t push the issue. Maybe they didn’t have any horses that could handle his bulk. The ATVs sounded like enough fun.
We got back to the Ranch at 7 and he gave me some time alone before dinner. I appreciated that, even as I grappled with how different he was than I’d expected. He was pretty much a total dork, both in the way he looked and the way he acted, and his friends were, if anything, dorkier than he was. He was actually pretty cute, and his fat was spread out around his body so it didn’t make him look pregnant or anything, even though he definitely had man boobs. I wondered why he was fat, noting logically that it was probably because he either ate too much shit or didn’t exercise enough. Since it looked like he had pretty big muscles, and since I’d seen what he ate after school, I was going with the too much shit to eat option. His smile and his mannerisms made him seem goofy, and the overall effect was of a big man-baby. I chided myself for focusing on his appearance, and thought about his personality. He was really nice and easy going, and he had a lot of friends, although that probably wasn’t too tough when the fucking town was named after his family. It was really more than that, though. Everyone we’d run into seemed to like him. It was tough to fake that kind of thing.
“Hey, you ready for dinner,” he said as he poked his head into my room.
“Yep,” I said with a smile.
“I should have warned you about my cousins, or at least one of them. My cousin Preston is kind of a dickhead.”
“How is he a dickhead?” I asked.
“Thinks he’s cooler than everyone else, and likes to cut people down,” he said. I could see how much that bothered him, and I could see how it irritated him even more when I figured out that Preston must cut him down too.
“He’s not cooler than me,” I said with fake arrogance, getting a belly laugh from Dally.
“You think so, and I think so, but he probably don’t think so,” he joked. “Let’s go down. They’ll all be in the parlor.”
The parlor reminded me of the living room in Grand’s house in Claremont. It was full of people, but I dragged Dally over to introduce him to Grand, Stef, and my father, then stuck to them, as if they were my life preservers. Laddie Mae took over at that point, and took us around to introduce us to everyone. “This is my daughter Verlinda,” she said. She was about normal height, but was packing on some extra pounds, although not as many as Dally. She was incredibly unfashionable, with that same golden blond hair that Dally and Buzz had, only hers was all teased up and fluffed out. She wore big, ball earrings that bounced around with her emphatic head movements. Stef and I made eye contact, and we were both just dying to talk about how ridiculous she looked, but said nothing, even though we were laughing with our eyes.
“Well it is just so nice to meet y’all,” she said to us. “Please call me Linda.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you as well,” Grand said, speaking for all of us. It was really strange that Stef seemed to cringe a bit when he did that. My mind was whirling with that, but I was distracted as she started talking again.
“Daddy said he gave you a tour of the house and that you said such nice things about the décor,” she said. “I did pretty much everything except the dining room and this parlor.” It was no surprise that those were the nicest and most traditionally decorated rooms in the house.
“Your effort clearly shows in the results,” Stef said. I thought it was funny that he avoided lying by talking about effort, and not taste.
“Why thank you,” she said, beaming. “If you ever need my help with anything, you just have to ask.” That prompted my inner teenager to emerge.
“My father and Stef are redoing a condo in San Francisco,” I said, just to stir up some shit. It was hilarious to see Dad and Stef try not to glare at me.
“Well I just love San Fran,” she said, making all of us flinch. We never called San Francisco ‘San Fran’. “I’d love to come out and help.”
“We’re just at the stage where we’re tearing down walls and combining two units, so it’s all very preliminary,” Dad explained, even as he shot me a dirty look. I just smirked at him.
“That’s the best time to plan,” she said. “Maybe I can come out in a couple of weeks and we can look at your plans?” I was laughing my ass off internally, and almost let it out when Stef gave me a nasty look as well.
“Let me check my calendar,” Dad said, and changed the topic by introducing himself to the man who stood next to Linda. He was tall and handsome, with dark hair and leathery skin. He looked like the kind of guy you’d picture when you thought of a rancher.
“Chuck Carter,” he said, and shook our hands as we introduced ourselves. “This is my daughter, Maggie.”
“Why it is so nice to meet y’all,” she said. She looked like a miniature version of her mother, only she was thin with big boobs. I thought that Brent Hayes would like her; she was the kind of girl he usually went for.
She blatantly flirted with me when we were introduced. “Hey,” I said casually, trying to do my best to be polite while not encouraging her.
“And this here’s my son, Preston,” Chuck said, with significant pride in his voice. I focused on this guy who was fucking gorgeous. He was like his father, tall with dark hair, but had hulking muscles and a cocky, shit-eating grin. “He plays football for the Longhorns.” It was made pretty clear to us from all the paraphernalia located around the house that he was referring to the Texas Longhorns. These people were like Longhorn groupies. Figures he’d be a football player.
It was funny, because when I shook his hand, he was being casual, while I was flirting; just the opposite of how I’d handled Maggie. “What position do you play?”
“Offensive back,” he said crisply. “You play?” he asked, with a contemptuous look, as if I were some wimp.
“Not football,” I said. “My cousin’s a running back at UCLA, so I watched him play a lot.”
“Who is he?” he asked, almost a demand.
“Zach Hayes,” I said. I could see that name register.
“He’s s’posed to be good,” he said, which was probably a pretty big compliment from this guy.
“He is,” I said, thinking of all the ways Zach was good. Laddie Mae dragged me away from this hunk to meet her other daughter.
“This is my youngest, Vinola,” she said. Vinola didn’t have the blond hair that Verlinda and Buzz had; hers was a pretty light brown color. She was shorter, and the sleek clothes she wore emphasized her thinness.
“Nola,” she said smoothly, as she shook my hand. Linda had seemed brash and tacky, while Nola was chic and svelte.
“That is a lovely outfit,” Stef said. “St. Laurent?”
“How did you know?” she asked Stef, smiling. “I got this on my last shopping trip to Dallas.”
“The color is distinctive of St. Laurent,” Stef said. They began to talk about fashion, while we introduced ourselves to her husband, Carlos. He was a really handsome Latino man, but seemed pretty uncomfortable in this environment.
“This is my son, Spence,” he said. He was about as short as JJ, and handsome in an exotic way that reminded me of Darius. He was dressed pretty conservatively, but his posture and attitude were that of a Mexican gangbanger.
“Yo,” he said to me, and I wanted to snicker at him for being such a poser.
“Let’s eat,” Buck said simply, and everyone obediently filed into the dining room. It was pretty obvious that they did what he said. I thought about how Grand was in charge of our family, but he got that role because of respect. With Buck, it wasn’t respect as much as authority. It was clear that he ruled his family, while Grand reigned over his.
“I put out name cards for dinner, since we have distinguished guests,” Laddie Mae said. They sat in clusters, with each family grouped together. Buck sat at one end of the table, while Laddie Mae sat at the other. Chuck, Linda, Margie, and Preston were on one side, joined by Stef and Grand; while Nola, Carlos, and Spencer were on the other, joined by Dally, Dad, and me. Two female Hispanic servants came out and brought salads, with choices of dressing in the center of the table.
“Maria, you know I don’t like tomatoes on my salad,” Linda snapped at one of the young women.
“I am sorry Miss Linda,” she said, and took the plate away.
“I’ve been living here all my life,” Linda grumbled. “You’d think they’d be smart enough to at least figure that out.”
“Maybe they think you need to eat more vegetables,” Nola said, in an innocently sarcastic way.
“Or maybe they’re just stupid,” Linda said, giving Nola the evil eye. She changed her tone to one that was sugary sweet before focusing on Spencer. “Speaking of eating, was that your truck parked outside that horrible Mexican restaurant yesterday, Spence?”
“And what time would that have been?” Buck asked, zeroing in on Spence. Dally was sitting next to me, and I could feel him tense up when Buck asked that question. Maria brought out Linda’s replacement salad, but Linda didn’t bother to thank her.
“Probably around noon,” Spence said to Buck.
“You weren’t in school?” Buck challenged.
“I went out for lunch,” Spence said casually.
“You’re not supposed to leave school,” Buck growled. It was fascinating because Linda seemed quite pleased by the controversy she sparked, while everyone else ate and seemed oblivious.
“I got permission,” Spence said simply. “The assistant principal let me go because of the volunteer work I did for homecoming.”
“Well it’s good that you did that,” Laddie Mae said, smiling at Spence.
“I saw Tyler Bowden in Austin yesterday,” Nola said.
“Maggie dated him for a year,” Dally whispered. “They broke up last month.”
“How nice,” Maggie said in a nasty way.
“He seemed to be doing pretty well,” Nola continued. “He was with Marla Ayers.”
“That girl’s a whore,” Preston said.
“Watch your mouth,” Buck snapped. Evidently ‘whore’ was not an allowed term at dinner conversation.
“I hope they’re very happy together,” Maggie said.
“They’ll be happy together for the fifteen minutes it takes,” Spence said, which was pretty funny. Maggie was so pissed off at that she actually turned a little red.
“That applies to you too,” Buck snarled at Spence, and that seemed to shut them up. We finished our salads, and then the servants brought out the main course: More steak and potatoes. What was really interesting about these people was that even though they were being total bitches at dinner, their actual table manners were impeccable. I had to watch myself to make sure I didn’t use the wrong fork and look like a Neanderthal.
“We raise the best beef in the world,” Linda said to Buck, smiling even as she took the second bite of her steak.
“This is very good,” Grand agreed to be nice.
“I’m not real happy about the way Buzz changed his will and trust,” Buck said abruptly.
“What did he do?” Linda asked.
“Made Mr. Schluter his trustee and executor,” Buck said, gesturing at Stef.
“Better than who he had on there before,” Dally grumbled.
“Who was on before?” I asked him.
“Maria,” Dally answered. “His latest wife.”
“He didn’t pick you?” Nola asked Buck.
“Obviously,” Buck said, and was seriously annoyed.
“He told me that he wanted to make sure things were handled the way he wanted them to be handled,” Dally said. The implication was that Buck would have done whatever he wanted to do.
“Well, Buzz has entrusted me with that job, and I will make sure to honor his wishes,” Stef said firmly.
“I wonder why he picked you?” Linda asked, but her tone implied that maybe Buzz had been involved with Stef.
Stef looked at her coldly, causing her to recoil a bit. “I suspect that he picked me because he knew that I was wealthy enough to not be intimidated by anyone, and because most of his assets are in newer companies, an area where I have a certain amount of expertise.”
“Stef is one of Forbes top 25 richest men in the world, and one of the leading venture capitalists,” I added, just so these people would know who they were dealing with. Stef beamed at me when I gave him that compliment, another gesture I deposited in my brain for later analysis.
“Well that’s very impressive,” Laddie Mae said, as if to move the conversation on.
“May I be excused?” Dally asked, even as he stood up. Without waiting for an answer, he walked out of the dining room, and went upstairs, which I figured out when I heard his feet clomping up the stairs.
“This has been tough on him,” Laddie Mae said sympathetically.
“They weren’t even that close,” Preston said dismissively, referring to Dally and Buzz.
“That just makes it worse,” I said to him in a pretty nasty way. I got up and left too, leaving the rest of them to snipe at each other over dessert. I got upstairs and saw that his bedroom door was closed. I didn’t want to interrupt him, but I wanted him to know that I’d bailed from dinner and that I was around if he needed to talk to someone. I knocked and waited for a response.
“Who is it?” he asked. His voice sounded broken up, like he’d been crying.
“Will,” I said.
“You can come in,” he said. I walked into his room and found him holding a PlayStation controller, getting ready to play a game.
“What are you playing?” I asked.
“Alter Ego,” he said. “Just came out this month. You play video games?”
“Yeah,” I said, making it sound like ‘of course’. “My best game is DOA.”
“I got that one,” he said, and went over to a cabinet and opened it up to expose all kinds of games.
“You have tons of games!” I said. Not only that, they were pretty well organized.
“I’m a gamer,” he said, with a rueful smile. “Something I can do by myself, so I don’t have to deal with my fucked up relatives.”
“I can see why you’d avoid them,” I said. He pulled out DOA and popped it in, and then we started playing.
“Gramps doesn’t know anything about video games, so he can’t tell me how to play them. If I do anything else, like ride a horse or the ATVs, he’s there to make sure I do things just how he’d do them.”
“I don’t think I could handle that,” I said honestly. “I get pretty unhappy when people try to control my life.” My father would laugh his ass off at that understatement.
“Then you’d fucking hate it here,” he grumbled.
“Then why are you here?”
“What choice do I have?” he asked me, exasperated. “Gramps likes his family to be here on the ranch, and he pretty much blackmails us into doing what he wants.”
“How’s he do that?”
He shrugged. “For my aunts and their husbands, he threatens to cut off their supply of cash. For his grandkids, it’s easier, because we don’t have a whole lot to say about things.”
“Couldn’t you have lived with your father?”
“Well I can’t hardly do that now, now can I?” he asked in a pretty nasty way. “Before, his cunt of a wife was around, and we couldn’t stand each other.”
“She’s a manipulative bitch, and she ruled him.” That was weird, because I really didn’t see Buzz as that kind of guy, the kind of guy who’d let someone totally run his life. Then again, my father had been all but comatose when he’d been with Marc.
“So you moved back here?” He gave me a nasty look. “I’m just trying to figure out the deal.”
“I stayed with my dad and his wife for a summer when they first got together, but it was so awful I came back to the ranch for school. It just seemed better for me to be here. Besides, Gramps was pretty pissed off that my dad wasn’t living on the ranch, and when I was here, it seemed to make him happier.”
“So now you’re kind of trapped here,” I concluded.
“It’s not that bad,” he said, even though it seemed pretty awful to me. “It’s a lot harder now that my dad’s gone.”
“Why is that?” I didn’t see how Buzz would tame that crowd.
“He had a way of smoothing things over,” Dally said. “He’d call Linda on her bullshit, and he’d keep Preston in line. Nola worshipped him, so she didn’t cause him no problems. And he had his own money so he didn’t need to listen to Gramps. Ended up he pretty much ignored him.”
“I can see that,” I said, visualizing Buzz’s easygoing demeanor. “It still surprises me that he put Stef in charge of his estate.”
“He did it for me,” Dally said. We’d been playing DOA for a while, and after he said that, he dropped his controller and put his hands in his hands. I put my arm around him in a comforting way, but I wasn’t sure if it had much of an impact. “Sorry,” he said, pulling himself together.
“Dude, I get it,” I said earnestly.
He nodded. “He knew that if Gramps was in charge, that I’d be ground under his thumb just like everyone else around here. Now I won’t have to put up with that shit.”
“You’re assuming Stef is easy,” I joked.
He didn’t laugh. “He don’t have time to dick around with someone like me. He’s not going to jerk me around for spending money, or about where I go to school. That’s why he’s in charge. Gramps would have done that, and I’d be stuck going hat in hand to him for anything, and I’d have ended up at UT Austin.”
“Your father set it up so he wants my father to be your guardian,” I stated.
“That’s so I can get out of here,” Dally said. “He figured that your dad would give me choices. My dad was big on that, on me having the ability to do different things if I wanted to. Gramps, not so much. For him, it boils down to this: you live on the ranch, and you do things the way he tells you to do them.”
“Do you want to be here?” I asked.
“What difference does it make?” he demanded. “I’m stuck here until I go to college.”
“If my dad is your guardian, you could probably go pretty much anywhere that was good for you,” I said.
“They won’t go for that,” Dally said, shaking his head. “I heard them talking. There’s not much they can do about Stef being in charge of the money, but they’ll fight like hell if your dad tries to take over as my guardian.”
“That could get ugly,” I said, thinking about it.
“Yeah, and I don’t want to deal with that shit, so I’m staying put,” he said.
“If you wanted my dad to do it, he’d fight for you,” I said.
“Because your dad asked him to,” I said. “It’s an honor thing.”
“You know what’s so fucked up about this?” he asked me. It was a rhetorical question, and it could have been all kinds of things, so I didn’t answer him. “I didn’t realize until he was gone how much I loved my dad.” He really started crying when he said that, and just managed to choke back the tears enough to blurt out another sentence. “And he never knew that. He didn’t know that I loved him.”
“Yes he did,” I said. He looked at me strangely. “He talked about you a lot. He was worried that when he moved to Palo Alto, you wouldn’t come with him, and that was a real problem for him. And it was pretty clear that you were really important to him, and that he loved you a lot.”
“He probably thought I was a douche, since I never let him know that I loved him,” he said.
“The night before he flew out to New York, he was walking on clouds he was so happy because of that care package you sent him,” I said, smiling.
He looked at me, totally confused. “What care package?”
“The one you sent him,” I said. “He got it the day before he left. It had all kinds of Texas shit in it, like beans and barbecue sauce. He said you sent it to him, and he was all ecstatic.”
“I didn’t send him a care package,” he said.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Dude, this is important.”
“I know it’s fucking important, but I didn’t send him a care package,” he said, getting pissed off.
“Well then, if you didn’t send it to him, who did?” I asked.