Chapter Four: Changing Perceptions
Trading the newspaper back and forth across the table with Will, Gloria began writing down classified job listings, anything she could remotely be considered for. There really wasn't much. Her typing was iffy, her computer skills sparse. If I'd only known what was coming, I'd have taken the office courses instead of all that art history and flower arranging crap that was easy to ace. Between researching the newspaper ads, doing laundry, and making supper, the rest of the evening flowed by quickly, but not without time for continued thought on their financial straits.
Will, Gloria felt, had at least enough of an understanding of what was occurring to know that he had to find a job -- a full time job -- as quickly as possible. He had stretched the limits of his ambition by looking through the classifieds and writing down prospects. There were fewer for him than there were for Gloria; he'd only graduated from high school in June. He'd be eighteen in November -- who was going to hire a seventeen-year-old with no work experience? He wasn't a bad-looking kid, in spite of Gloria calling him ugly -- all three of them called each other that daily. His fair skin and curly copper hair were striking, but looks were not going to get Will a job. He was tending towards pudginess, having decided that high school sports were more likely to serve him lasting physical injury than improve his character or his chances of a college scholarship. He did, however, know his way around a computer, and helped a number of his friends with their personal websites. Nevertheless, she didn't think that he had a full understanding of the scope of how their lives had to change, and she was unsure how to explain it to him, or to Ben -- or for that matter, to her mother. The four of them were in for radical, and probably unpleasant changes.
The potatoes for supper were cut up and in water on the stove, ready to be put to cooking as soon as the meat was browned and nearly done. Gloria got the pork chops out of the meat drawer of the refrigerator, pulled the biggest frying pan from the cabinet, salted the bottom of it, and laid the chops in it in layers. She rinsed the plastic wrapping of the meat with a little soapy water so that it would not stink. The label caught her eye. The pork chops were center cut, four dollars and forty nine cents per pound. They were nicely lean, so she added a little olive oil to the bottom of the pan, thinking, Is that a good price or a bad price? I've never even paid attention. I'll have to start looking at the newspaper supermarket ads.
She emptied a bag of frozen corn into a pan over a large lump of butter and a little water. Will and Ben loved the vegetable, and easily polished off the whole bag, while she and her mother might eat a couple spoonfuls of it -- the carbohydrate content was dangerous, especially if one could not pass up a heaping helping of mashed potatoes ... out of curiosity, Gloria read the nutritional label on the plastic bag. A serving, it said, was two thirds of a cup. She snorted. They never had corn that the boys didn't ask if that was all they made, isn't there any more left in the pot?
Her thoughts about food, and the prices of food continued to niggle at the back of her mind all through dinner. The boys each had three pork chops, a mountain of mashed potatoes, and -- of course -- all the corn except what Gloria herself ate, which was not even the full suggested serving size. She had to remind them to leave a chop for their mother when they began to bicker about who should eat the last one.
The berry pie her mother had picked up at the fruit stand was to be dessert; Ben cleared the dishes, rinsed them, and put them in the dishwasher while Gloria got out dessert plates and cut the pie into six pieces, and cut two of the pieces into halves. Those were for her and her mother. As she slid the pie onto her brothers' plates, she reminded them, "One tonight, and one for breakfast in the morning, and keep your piggy hands off Mom's and my share."
The pie was good, though not as good as the ones Gloria remembered her mother making from her childhood. Gloria sipped tea with her pie; the boys drank huge glasses of milk. Then dinner was done, and Will took care of the dessert plates. Gloria put the plastic cover back on the pie, and froze. The pie had cost nine dollars. Nine dollars. For nine dollars, she could have bought another two pounds of the pork chops.
She knew enough about nutrition to know that a berry pie had next to no nutritional value at all. It was mostly sugar, and though tasty, and pleasant, it didn't contribute to basic survival. Suddenly, she had an ugly flash of how empty their cuisine was of real, usable calories.
Gloria was well aware of the South Beach Diet, the Atkins Diet, the Protein Power Plan, the bazillions of diet breakthroughs that all the women's magazines touted that she read while hanging around in the library waiting for her friends to finish choosing books. Calories were put into the body, and only exercise took them out. A good diet meant less calories, more exercise. Fewer carbohydrates, more protein for hard work. Add fiber, subtract carbohydrates.
Her family wasn't just eating expensively, it was eating more than it had to, much more than it had to, and that could be a way to keep spending to a minimum, too, maybe. Her stomach turned with the realization that the berry pie had been complete physical tastebud pleasure, and of no value at all. Oh, well, maybe a few of those berries had some vitamins in them, but otherwise, the concoction was empty. It was tasty, but it was dollars they really couldn't afford to spend.
Will and Ben went off to their rooms to play with their computers and phones, talking to friends online and on the phone. Friends, Gloria thought. Let friends know we're looking for jobs. She poked her head into her brothers' bedrooms and reminded them to tell people they were looking for work to keep the house. And then, having done that, she went to her own room to call a few friends herself.
Sorting and folding laundry, she talked to Jeryn, and then Marcie, and then Danelle, telling them everything about her situation -- though certainly not about her father's sexual folly -- gleaning information from their gossip about other people in similar situations. Teicheiras' had lost their house, and had gone to live with an uncle's family. They'd bought one of those big homes out by the orchards, maxed out their credit cards furnishing the six-bedroom monolith, then when the interest rate ballooned, they had no way of keeping up with the increased payment. Out they went, selling all their furniture and stuff by auction, and the house was still on the market, now owned by the bank, the lawn and landscaping dead from neglect. All her girlfriends spoke in subdued voices about how many houses in their neighborhoods were vacant and for sale. They seemed to want to assure Gloria that the imminent foreclosure wouldn't make her dirty or leave a mark on her. They all promised to keep an eye out for possible work. None of them had any advice on how to proceed in poverty, though.
She carried Ben's clothing into his room, finding him doing his homework assiduously. "Gloria, I was thinking -- this college prep math is totally pointless, and so is Chem. Makes more sense for me to be taking some typing, or using an adding machine. The sooner I get some work skills, the better the chance of me landing some kind of job. I can already type, I mean, but I could learn how to do it faster. Debbie Moreley from my class got pregnant last year -- dropped out, had her baby, got some training from some agency, and is working part time as a cashier. Jeff Kenner said she's really full of herself, because she has the baby she wanted and is taking the rest of her high school classes online, and laughing at the rest of us because we're still doing the 8 to 4 school day."
Gloria frowned. "I didn't know you could do that."
"Well, I couldn't have a baby, but I'm betting I could manage to get my diploma online. All you have to do is pass."
"Ben, don't throw away your high school years -- at least not if we can help it."
"Come on, Gloria, it's not 'the best years of my life'. I hate that dump. It stinks, the teachers are so stupid I'm ashamed of them, and if you don't do drugs or join some gang or have a pierced dick or bang a cheerleader, they call you a dork or a nerdboy and you might as well be dead. That would be me, in case you didn't know. I don't shave, I got no tattoos, and if I tried to wear pants around my knees, Mom would chop them into tiny pieces and send me to school in a skirt and underpants."
She laughed, because it was true. Their mother might be stupid about money and sex affairs, but she was berserk when it came to fashion. Seeing girls in too-tight clothing could set her off on verbal tirades that were so biting she could have the rest of the family roaring with laughter. Boys in baggy pants infuriated her, and she threatened her sons liberally with vicious retributions should they shame her by adorning their bodies so. Their father had agreed with her, waving his hand in front of his own expensively tailored suit and saying, "She's right, boys. This makes money for you. Dressing like a moron simply makes people think you're a moron."
"It's going to be hard enough for Will and me to find jobs, Ben. Hardly anyone hires kids still in school."
He held up a cautionary finger. "Conventional employers, that's true. But if I have the typing skills, maybe I could pick up some money on the side typing up other students' term papers -- I've aced all my English classes every year. I can talk to the counselor at school about shifting from College Prep ... any other time he'd tell me that college is my best hope for the future, but if I tell him about losing the house, I'm pretty sure he'll help me out. What do you think?"
"I think talking to your counselor is a good place to start, and you know, I was thinking the same thing earlier, about my past education. The "Help Wanted" ads ... none of them required an A in History. Check into it, but don't do anything too rash."
"I'll talk to him, and then let you know."
With a little pang, Gloria realized that Ben was already looking to her for approval, and not their mother. It was disconcerting, but she shelved the thought for a later time.