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September 25, 2023

Going Hungry

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter One: Unexpected Words

"Mom?" Gloria peeked into the bedroom, concerned by the muffled sounds she heard from the hallway. "Mom? Are you okay?"

Her mother was seated at a small desk, her back to the room. There was a small desk lamp glowing, but otherwise, the room was dim, almost dark with the unseasonably rainy weather. Gloria saw her pull a tissue from a box, heard her blow her nose.

"Can I come in?" Gloria asked, rapping gently on the door, in case her mother was so lost in grief that she hadn't understood what Gloria had said. Three months and some had passed since her father's funeral; perhaps, she thought, her father's death had just now become real to her mother.

Her mother's ponytail bobbed as she nodded her head, a gaiety of curls incongruous with the weariness of the movement. She motioned Gloria in with a little motion of her hand.

Papers were spread out on the desk blotter in a semi-circular array, with the checkbook in the middle, a dark rectangle amidst the white folds of bills. "I just don't know what to do," her mother whispered. "We can't go on much longer."

"What?" Gloria knelt down on one knee, dropping her purse to the floor. "Mom, what's wrong? What do you mean?"

Her mother's face crumpled. Her voice cracked and yawled, and Gloria understood why she had whispered before, to stifle the unseemly sound. "They're letting half the store go! I have two weeks to find another job, and even if I can, we're not going to have enough money to pay next month's bills!" Tears streamed down her face; she grabbed a handful of tissues and pressed them against her eyes and nose and mouth, sobbing hard.

"Oh, Mom," Gloria said, leaning her forehead against her mother's shoulder. Yes, the grief had finally caught up with her mother, overwhelming her like a giant wave in the surf. She patted her mother's back. "We'll make out all right, it's just hard when ... when Dad isn't here."

Her mother wailed into the tissues, and stood up, pushing the chair back. She left the room with hurried steps. Gloria gave her a few moments to recover her composure, looking at the bills under the circle of the lamp. Nothing said "Overdue" or "Final Notice." She picked up her purse by the strap, and followed her mother from the bedroom.

In the kitchen, her mother was pouring vodka over ice cubes in a highball glass. Gloria frowned as the woman splashed a little 7Up over the liquor to fill the glass, then raised it and swallowed down about half of it. The boys weren't home, for which Gloria was grateful. Seeing their mother swilling booze like this would not be right. When the liquid was gone, her mother tipped the Smirnoff's bottle again, nearly filling the glass. Again she poured a little 7Up to flavor it.

Halfway through the second glass, she looked up at the clock. "Ben and Will said they'd be home around seven," she croaked, her voice rough and loud, resonating in her swollen sinuses. "You're going to have to make dinner for them -- I don't want them to see me like this." She topped off her glass again with vodka, not bothering with the soda.

"Mom, you shouldn't be ..."

"Leave it alone, Gloria. It's not like I'm some drunk. I thought we were going to be all right, but I just found out I was wrong. Really, really wrong. Don't you understand? I'm losing my job. We're going to lose the house. We don't even have enough to pay for a damn apartment, so let me have some kind of anesthetic for one night, okay?"

"What? What are you talking about? I thought we were doing all right -- didn't Dad -- I mean, he said to me last spring that we were -- that -- 'everything's coming up roses' for us now ..."

"Sit down," her mother said. "I hate to have to do this, but I don't think I have a choice." The liquor had relaxed the bunched muscles of her face, and soothed her voice a little. She hadn't begun to slur, though Gloria suspected that was going to occur shortly.

"I thought we had an insurance policy on the mortgage," she said. "Your dad signed up for it when we bought the house, so that if anything happened to him, the house would be paid off. And then there was his own insurance policy -- he cashed the old one in when we bought this place so we had money to remodel it, but he took out another one, so I thought we were okay, at least for a few years."

"But what, now?" Gloria felt her hands begin to sweat.

"He stopped paying the premiums in March. The policies were cancelled. I found out when I got home from work. Good thing they let us leave early because of the bad news about the layoffs, huh?"

"Oh, shit, Mom, why?"

"I have no idea. We always divvied up the bill paying. I took care of the groceries, clothes, and the utilities, and he always took care of the rent and car payments and credit cards. Well, we got nothing now. Even if I kept my job at the drug store, it wouldn't be enough to get by, not by a long shot." She rubbed her eyes with one hand, keeping the other on the sweating glass of ice and vodka.

"No savings?"

"A little, but not much. The funeral ate up most of what was there. We've got enough for another month's mortgage payment, and that's it. I'm so sorry, honey."

Gloria was young enough that the words had almost no meaning for her. Her father had had a pretty good job; the family wanted for nothing. Their toys, their appliances, their computers were all top of the line. It was only about four years ago that they'd bought this house, but Gloria had always assumed that they rented houses in the various neighborhoods they'd lived in so that they could save up enough for a down payment. She could not remember any time in her life that the family scrimped on anything; her mother often told people that she took a job in the drug store for something to do while the kids were in school.

Cars were on the list of things that were top of the line, too. Well, not top-top like a Cadillac or a Jaguar, but always new. Her dad was of the opinion that if you held onto a car more than three years, the maintenance offset the trade-in value of the car. Every year for as long as Gloria could remember, the salesman at the dealership sent her father a birthday card and a Christmas card. When she and Will had finished high school, new cars had been waiting for them at the curb when they got back from the graduation ceremony.

"But Dad made good money, didn't he? There has to be some kind of savings account -- maybe with his company?"

Her mother shook her head, gulped another big swallow of the drink. "No, honey, there wasn't." She sighed. "Your dad used to say, 'Smoke 'em if you got 'em,' and he meant to live life as fine as he could for as long as he could. He just didn't think he could die."

"But ..." Gloria was still snatching at some loophole that would keep the growing uneasiness at bay. "I never heard either of you say that we were spending more than he made ... how could we be so ... we didn't throw money around, why are we ... in trouble?"

Her mother drained the glass, got up to add ice and more vodka. "Gloria, I don't want you to tell this to your brothers, all right? You can tell them we're going down the drain with the money, they'll find that out sooner or later, anyway. But the fact is, this wasn't the only household your father was paying for. God, I wish you never had to find this out."

"What are you talking about? He had another house?"

"No, honey, an apartment. In the Ames Building downtown. The one with the rooftop pool and the tennis courts? That one ..."

"Why would he do that?" Gloria watched in some fear as her mother drank deeply again.

Her mother's eyes narrowed, almost with annoyance at Gloria, as though she was angry that her daughter didn't understand the meaning behind her cryptic words. Her voice hissed out in a tight whisper, "He had a mistress he was supporting there."

Gloria shoved her chair away from the table in disgust, her face stretching into a horrified grimace. She jumped up and ran from the kitchen, to her bedroom. Shutting the door, she leaned on it, feeling sick to her stomach. Her father, her generous, laughing, indulgent father, was a cheater?

Clasping images of her father playing ball with the boys, reading books about magical horses with her, desperately drawing back from grasping the dirty truth, Gloria's mind darted to her father's frequent overtime at work, the business trips, the weekends when he had to go in to the office. He seemed like he was the perfect dad. My friends envied me because he was so cool and funny and ready to drive us any where when we were little. He made sure that I had a room with my own bathroom when we got this house, and treated me like I was a little princess. I trusted him! Shaking, she went to her bathroom, ran water over her hands in the sink. She wet a washcloth and put it against her eyes, not worrying what it would do to her mascara and eye liner. I trusted him, but he was a liar? Suddenly her mind tripped, and she stumbled in her thoughts, completely willing to believe that she must have misunderstood what her mother was saying. She returned to the kitchen.

Her mother was standing by the back door, looking out at the yard with its cement patio and covered barbecue grill.

"Mom? I'm sorry." Please, Mom, turn around and tell me it's going to be all right, that you were just saying that because you're mad at him for dying, that it's not true.

"You don't have anything to be sorry about," she said, beginning to speak a little sloppily. "You didn't have anything to do with it."

Then it was true.

"When ... when did you find out?" Probably after her dad died, her mother had found receipts, or credit card bills, or maybe something in his wallet...

"Ben was a little more than two," she said, "about fourteen years ago. I was upset at first, but then ..." She shrugged. "That's where a lot of the money went. We had enough, well, we would have if he hadn't stopped paying his premiums. Damn it." She put her glass in the sink. "Honey, I'm pretty well snoggered. Sorry. I won't do this again, I don't think. I don't want to think any more today." Her steps were a little unsteady as she passed the doorway.

"Here, I'll help you, Mom, and make sure you don't fall."

They slowly walked back the hall to the master bedroom. Her mother lay down on the bed, grasped a pillow as though it was a teddy bear, and shut her eyes.

"Let me get the band off your hair. There you go. Are you going to be okay?"

"Mmm-hmm. Take care of the boys tonight, make sure they brush their teeth ..."

"Have a good sleep, Mom," Gloria said. There was no response, her mother had already fallen asleep. Or passed out. How can this be happening? She must be exaggerating about the house. Her mother's curly reddish hair looked rusty in the dim light, too big for her short body. Curled up around the pillow, she looked like a chubby child. Gloria felt a wash of protectiveness. "We'll be all right, Mom," she whispered. Then she walked over to the desk with the bills and turned off the light.

To be continued...

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-05-04
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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