Chapter Two: Rude Awakening
There was a smell of chicken noodle soup in the air when Gloria got up the next morning. Entering the kitchen, she found her mother reheating leftovers from the night before. "Good morning," she said quietly, in consideration that her mother might be painfully hung over.
"Good morning, Glory! Did you sleep all right?"
"Yes, amazingly. Are you okay this morning?"
"Oh, I got up around midnight and drank three glasses of water, so I'm fine." She hesitated as she began to ladle soup into a bowl. "Umm ... what all did I tell you yesterday?"
"Oh, that you lost your job, that we have no money left, that Dad was having an affair ... just the basics." Gloria was a bit nettled, not only by her mother's apparent ability to head off a hangover, but also by her mild tone.
"You don't have classes today, and I don't have to go in to work until eleven-thirty, so let me eat breakfast and get Ben off to school, and then we'll talk, if you want." She sat down with her tea and her soup.
"All right. You want me to wake them up?"
"Let Will sleep. He was still outside on the porch talking on his phone when I got up last night. Probably stayed up until dawn. Honey, this is good soup."
"Thanks." As she walked back through the hall way, Gloria was suddenly aware that her mother had sweetly made the conversation veer away from Will's occupation the night before. Ready to complain about her brother staying up all night and sleeping most of the day, Gloria had been distracted by simple praise, which by convention, required a polite response. She frowned in the dark hall. How often does she do that with me?
Ben's door was ajar. He hadn't closed his bedroom door at night since the day the policeman had showed up to find their mother. The officer had said he needed to speak to her, and Ben had been taken along in the squad car to the drug store where their mother worked. By the time they'd reached the store, the police had relayed a call to the manager, and their mother had been waiting out on the sidewalk, almost already weeping, knowing that there was only one possible message they had to bring her. The officer's refusal to answer Ben's questions had unnerved him to the point of sweaty fear, but the announcement of his father's death pushed him right into irrational denial.
He still woke at night sometimes, shouting, "No! No!" as he had when the officer quietly informed their mother of her husband's death. Gloria tapped on the door with the balls of her fingers. "Ben? You awake?"
"Yeah," he grumbled. She heard his feet thump on the carpet. "I'm up."
In her own room again, Gloria looked at her calendar on the side table. No appointments were listed for today, just a list of tasks: homework, call Aunts Nedda and Gwen about Mom's birthday, garbage to curb, run laundry. While she did laundry, she was planning on watching the DVD she'd bought last week, a $5 sales-bin copy of Die Hard with Bruce Willis in almost his last attempt to get by with a toupee. Classes made her want to blow things up sometimes, and getting through the boring literature homework would be easier to take if she had the chance to see the character John McClane emerge bloody but victorious with an automatic pistol in hand.
She waited until Ben's shower had finished rumbling the pipes, then took her own turn. He was already gone by the time she returned to the kitchen and to her mother, who was loading Ben's breakfast bowl into the dishwasher.
"Mom, I'm having a hard time believing Dad was having an affair." The shock and pain of the day before made her blunt; the news had hurt her, made her feel naive and somewhat of an outsider.
"What, that? I thought you'd be more worried about the house. You're old enough to know that men do these things, I just never thought I'd have to tell you. Maybe I thought he'd get over her, or she'd get over him, I don't know, I really didn't want to ever bring it up to you."
"Did you ever find out who she was?" Gloria demanded loudly.
"You met her at your father's funeral, Gloria. The woman with the dark hair, and the hat with a veil -- Lolo."
"Lolo? The one who was hanging all over you and crying -- you said she was a friend of Dad's from the dealership where he bought our cars!"
"She was. He never dealt with anyone else. Now, about the house, I've been trying to think of a way ..."
"No, don't change the subject, Mom! What the hell are you telling me, that Dad's mistress was at his funeral, and all you can say was that she was a car salesperson?"
Her mother folded her arms across her chest. "You want me to say something, I know that look, but I have no idea what it is that you want me to say."
"You hugged her, Mom, and held her while she cried her guts out. How could you do that if you knew ... and then you introduced her to me and Will and Ben, not to mention your mother and Dad's mother and father, and your sisters and Dad's brother and sister, like there was nothing wrong! How does that work, Mom? She was trying to wreck your home, and you just act like she's some good neighbor buddy!"
"Lower your voice, you'll wake Will. You're still not telling me what you want me to say. She's a nice woman, and she was sincerely distraught at your father's death, as I was. I've known her for many years, and she was not trying to wreck our marriage." Her mother's mouth thinned, a sure sign that she was about to end the conversation with a tart dismissal.
Gloria slapped her forehead. "You say she's a nice woman -- an adultress! You say she wasn't trying to wreck your marriage -- but she was having sex with your husband, my father, Mom, come on, what the hell are you thinking?"
"Don't cuss at me, Miss, do you hear me? I'm still your mother! Yeah, Lolo is a nice woman. Are you trying to tell me that your father wasn't a nice man? What did he ever do to you that wasn't nice? Come on, don't sit there like a stone, what did he do to you that was hateful or unkind? Nothing, right? Can you think of even one thing that he did that hurt you or the boys, that made you think he was a bad man? And sorry, sorry, sorry, he was an adulterer. He had two women he loved, and tried to be nice to both of them.
"When I found out he was seeing Lolo, I was so jealous and angry and hateful I wanted to kill him, or run away with you children and never see him again, or kill her and let him find her dead. But he was my husband, and if I had run away with you kids, I'd have ended up in a women's shelter and you with lice and charity clothes and crappy food. Then one night I had a dream that I found her and sawed off her head with a kitchen knife, and woke up thinking I was covered with blood and that your father would look at me with horror that I could do such a thing. I got up and sat in our little kitchen in Northwoods for about three hours, thinking. I was angry and jealous and hate-filled, but it wasn't about him, it was about something I'd found out about him. If I hadn't found out about Lolo, I'd have still been as happy as a clam outside of a chowder.
"I never felt like I was abused before I found out, and I couldn't point to anything in your Dad's behavior afterwards that made me feel like I missed something. So I thought that the only thing making me miserable was what I was imagining was between us. So I let it go. I stopped worrying about her, and just did what I could to be a good wife and mother, and when he brought me gifts, or flowers, or we went on vacation, I looked at those things and at the kindness and love in his eyes, and let all the rest go.
"I was the one he was married to, Glory, not Lolo. She came later, but he didn't put me aside for her."
Gloria stared at her mother as though she had transformed into a giant squid before her eyes. No, not a squid. Squids were supposed to be fairly intelligent, according to all scientific accounts. Her mother had become something -- no, not just now, but apparently some time ago -- something incredibly stupid and very easily misled and very easily satisfied. A turtle, pulling its head into its shell when faced with something more complicated than a dandelion leaf. A squirrel, willing to huddle in on itself when faced with the hardship of winter.
"Honest to God, Gloria, why are you so worried about this? He's dead, and she's getting on with her life, just like we're trying to. You were the one who asked why we didn't have all kinds of extra money, and the vodka made me flap my gums about it. I should have just told you he was a stupid ass, and you would have been happier and completely satisfied."
The words stung deeply. Had her mother said that her father was stupid, or a spender, she would have been angry for a time, but accepted it and gone on. But the knowledge of a secret world, a secret soap opera behind what she had seen was like a knife in her heart. "I can't believe she showed up at his funeral. That is so ... filthy tacky and disgusting! If I had known that she was ... God, I'd have grabbed her by the hair and thrown her out the door! How dare she?"
"Well, that sounds like a good reason for me never to have mentioned her, doesn't it? What would have been worse, her crying because she was going to miss him, or you assaulting a grieving woman?"
"Why are you defending her?" shouted Gloria, not thinking about Will and his need for sleep.
"Because she's not here to defend herself and you won't leave it alone! It's not what's important, Gloria, for God's sake, just forget it! Lower your voice! You sound like a harpy!"
And you sound like an idiot, Gloria thought, but refrained from saying the words. "Fine. I'm off it." She got a glass and poured the last of the orange juice from the container in the refrigerator. "Last night I was thinking about the house. We could refinance it and get a lower interest rate -- that would make it easier to pay, wouldn't it?"
Her mother laughed bitterly. "Good luck with that idea! We owe more than it's worth by about two hundred thousand dollars, kiddo. We bought at just about the top of the market, and in case you haven't been reading the papers or watching the TV or living in the real world, real estate has tanked. Everybody thought prices would keep rising, but they didn't. This place wasn't all that expensive, but it doesn't matter if it cost a million or five hundred thousand, it's worth almost half of that now. If we sold the damned place, we couldn't pay off what we owe, and nobody's buying shit right now. The government is ready to bail out the banks, but we're 'way below their radar, they don't give a damn about us. I called the bank first thing after I found out about the insurance thing, and they very politely let me know we were completely screwed. They won't even give us a loan against the house because we're so far under the market now."
"Then what are we going to do?"
"Pack what we can into suitcases and walk out the door when the bank forecloses, Honey. There are a bunch of shelters in Modesto, and God help us, I hope they'll take us in. Most of them are over-crowded, so I don't know where yet, but I'm trying to figure it out." She sniffed loudly. "I can't talk about this any more, or I'll go into work looking like crap. Maybe if a couple of people quit in the next few weeks, I'll be on the list for keepers. If I go in looking like misery, they'll pass me over. I'm going to take my shower."