Chapter Three: Taking Stock
She pretended to work on her Accounting homework, knowing her mother would let her alone out of a misguided awe of higher education. Gloria had never bothered to tell her mother that it was all just addition and subtraction and plugging numbers into the right column. She could have taken this course in ninth grade if it had been taught in the high school and saved the tuition she'd paid only a scant month and a half ago. If what Mom says is true, that was just money down the proverbial rat hole.
First of all, she wasn't sure that her mother had a firm grasp of the household bills. She couldn't have, or she would have known that dirty whore Lolo was draining their resources and putting them at risk. Her anger swelled again, and she imagined the dark-haired, red-lipped woman (with perfect eye-makeup in spite of her flowing tears -- that meant expensive makeup -- Gloria had been around the mall a few times in her life and knew what it cost) swilling martinis and laughing as her father plied her with jewelry and furs. Well, maybe not furs, not here in the Central Valley. A turn of thought and the scene changed to Lolo in silky, satiny fabrics dripping off bare shoulders. My God, what a filthy bitch! I hope she rots in Hell forever! "What?" she snapped at the knock on her doorway.
Her mother stood there with her purse slung over her shoulder, dressed for work in black slacks and a green-striped shirt that would 'go' with the green apron the drug store employees were expected to wear. "I just wanted to let you know I was heading out," she said, a little taken back by Gloria's anger.
"Sorry, Mom, homework is -- frustrating sometimes. Have a good day at work."
"I understand. See you tonight, honey, I love you."
"Love you, too, Mom. See ya."
The front door closed with a solid thunk. Gloria got up from her bed, slunk out to the kitchen for a glass of water; she carried it to the front windows of the living room, guiltily looking to see that her mother's car was indeed gone. She had the house to herself, and turned on her heel and marched back to her mother's bedroom.
Methodically, she emptied the drawers of her mother's desk, looking for bills and receipts of past bills, surprised at her luck when she found the checkbook right there in the top drawer.
Economic woes were a hot topic in her Modern History class; the instructor was in her mid-sixties and was viciously critical of what she considered to be an incredibly wasteful society. She was unexpectedly seconded by a young woman named Pamela, a single mother of a four-year-old who worked two jobs in order to go to school "to improve her chances of a decent life." Dark circles adorned her eyes, but they still sparkled with determination as she agreed that most people had no idea of what constituted basic necessities. Pamela managed to survive and improve with her two minimum-wage jobs, but admitted bitterly that without child support and welfare, she and her child would be on the streets.
Gloria had tried not to sneer at the discussions, thinking to herself that people seemed to bring their problems and hardships onto themselves. And now here she was, ready to receive the business end of her father's mistakes, while thankfully recalling Pamela's and the old teacher's discussions.
The bills were spread out on the bed; Gloria checked them against the checkbook register to make sure she understood what all there was. Car payments for the four cars. Mortgage. Cell phone bills. Sewer, water, and garbage. Gas and electric. Macy's. A Wells Fargo credit card. Automobile insurance. House insurance. Medical insurance? No medical insurance, her father's work had paid for that. Damnit, that's going to be another bill. Cable for the TV and computers. Land line phone bill. Cleaning service. Lawn and garden service. Newspaper delivery.
Everything was paid to date.
Gloria's next step was to separate the bills; on one side of the bed were the things they could not do without, and on the other, the things they were going to have to cast away like weights in a leaky boat. Squinting at the bills, scribbling on a notepad, sputtering with fury at the infidelity and impracticality of her father's secret life, she thought that maybe -- just maybe, they could save their asses and keep a roof over their heads. In the desk, she found a box of large brass paperclips. The current non-essential bills she clipped together, along with a piece of paper summing up their cost. The utterly essential ones had their own summation.
At this point, Gloria didn't care if her mother might feel invaded or spied upon or second-guessed or sneaked or not trusted. The revelation of her acceptance of some blood-sucking harlot in her husband's life put her right along side the student Pamela's four-year-old in the category of Incompetent, Has To Be Taken Care Of.
The bills processed in her mind, Gloria moved on to the morning newspaper, still sitting on the kitchen table. She ignored the increasingly bad news on the front page, and opened the Classifieds. First she looked at housing prices; maybe her mother was wrong about values. Crap. We almost couldn't give this place away. Houses that were much newer, much larger, marketed as 'Loaded With Upgrades!!' were selling for much less than their mortgage payoff. Then she turned to apartment prices, and found that there were not all that many listed. Amazingly, apartment rents had not dropped at all. Most of them demanded first month's and last month's rent up front, with a security deposit and/or a cleaning deposit. There's not that much in our savings account. The apartments that didn't require the cash up front were in really unsavory parts of the city, where the gangs and the drugs were a way of life, and a family of clueless redheads was not likely to thrive, if they managed to survive for a week.
From there, Gloria began looking at the ads for Employment.
* * *
Will managed to bestir himself by two in the afternoon. Gloria had some spaghetti sauce simmering on the back burner of the stove, and watched him with great irritation as he yawned and scratched and hung on the refrigerator door trying to figure out what he ought to eat. "I'm gonna make a pizza," he announced, finally.
He turned on the oven and took the pizza from the lower freezer drawer. "What are you looking so pissed off at?"
"There isn't any point in talking to you until you have your Pepsi and pizza rush, so just shut up and take your fat ugly face out of the kitchen until you have some kind of sense to make."
"Shut up, witch head. Go find your boyfriend."
"Don't go taking off anywhere, I have to talk to both you and Ben when he gets home from school."
Will paused, about to shove the pizza into the oven. "What? About what? About why you're so stupid? You gonna have a brain transplant?"
"Asshole," she named him. "About our damned future, or lack of it. Put that thing in the oven and get out of here. I'll let you know when it's done."
He gave her the finger as he left the room.
Sitting in the kitchen, pondering the conversations of the Modern History classroom, seeing the smudgy newsprint of the Classifieds, aware of the stack of bills in her mother's bedroom, remembering her mother's words of the day and the night before, Gloria gathered all the facts and probabilities and prospects together like a crowd of plastic soldiers set up for a war. There was no other possibility available to her mind. She was going to have to become a dictator. She only hoped that she had enough ammunition and weaponry to succeed.
She got up to collect the laundry from her brothers' and her mother's room. Sorting through the darks, the mediums, the whites, the hand-washables, she looked at each piece of clothing the way she had the bills. Some of the clothing was stuff they needed. A lot of it was just vanity. She held up one top she liked well, but knew that she needed only if she was planning on going to Fat Cat's to hang out with the girlfriends, which was not going to be in the budget again for some time. She put it in the handwash pile for the 'delicate' cycle of the laundry. The boys had a pile of clothes up past her knees. She always did laundry on Thursday and Monday, but there were more shirts than if they were wearing a shirt a day. Pamela from classes said she tried to make sure her child was wearing one outfit a day, though that was difficult because of the nature of being a baby. The child got dirty, and Pamela said that part of her adjustment to single life was to realize that kids don't have to be clean enough for church every hour of the day.
I do that, too, Gloria thought. I wear clothes for school, change into clothes for going to the mall, change into clothes for wearing at home watching TV with the family, change into clothes for bed. If I happen to go out, there are different clothes for then, too. The bill for electric and gas flashed into her mind, suddenly shown not in numbers of dollars, but in numbers of garments washed and dried, dishes washed and dried, lights in the house left on.
She started the washer and heard the front door slam. Ben was home. She'd let him wolf down some of the pizza, and then it was time to bring her brothers up to speed.
Both of them were waiting for her in the kitchen, glasses of cola sweating onto the table. Ben's books were still stacked at one end when she took the chair across from Will; she wasn't about to nag at him to put them in his room, not when she was going to give them possibly the second worst news of their lives.
"Now what is it?" grumped Will.
"It's everything," she said in a low voice. "We have to change our world."
"What's that, some class you're taking in school?" Will droned.
"No, it's what Mom saw in the bills last night, and what I saw in the bills today. We're out of money. Out. We have enough for next month's mortgage and about half the rest of the bills and we're out of money. Mom lost her job yesterday, and that was just part-time pennies."
"Shit," Will said. "How long can we last?"
"I just said, dumb ass, not even another full month. This is hard. I've been about puking over it all night. We don't have enough money to get by. The bank won't give us any credit, so we're going to lose the house and everything in it. Every Thing In It, you got that? All your CD's and bicycles and pictures, the TV's, the furniture, the curtains, the dishes ... " her voice was getting shriller but she couldn't stop. "... All the books, the patio stuff -- we're going to lose every damned thing we have except what we can carry! Dad made a couple financial mistakes, and he's gone now, so we have to live with it!" Tears slipped down her cheeks, but she didn't sob. She couldn't afford to seem weak.
Ben's eyes were huge. "Isn't there anything we can do?"
"Yeah, there is. Mom's going to have to find another job, and so are Will and I. Gotta be full time, and we're going to have to cut back on everything here in the house so we can stay here. We don't have enough cash in the bank even to go get an apartment."
Ben's voice was the most galvanizing symbol Will could have heard. "Gloria, I can quit school and get a job, too. I can always get a GED later."
"No, you won't, dimwit," Will said with some heat. "Witchface and I will handle it -- you finish school, and then when you get a job, I'll take a couple years off."
"I'm going to take over the bills from Mom," Gloria said, knowing that a major agreement had been reached in record time, and not wanting to let the conversation devolve into an argument. "She's full of grief, and needs some help."
Maybe her mother didn't think so, but Gloria was sure of it.
"Gimme that newspaper, Ugly," Will said.