Chapter Eight: All There Is
Her mother glared at her in anger, but was too concerned about her son to round on Gloria for being bossy. "What on earth made you think you could work in the orchards?" she asked Will while she heaped a plate with macaroni and cheese and two of the pieces of fish.
He accepted the hot mug of bouillon from Gloria and sipped it gingerly. Swallowing, he closed his eyes in pleasure. After another swallow, he cleared his throat and then turned to his mother. "Mom. I'm only seventeen. No one hires anyone under eighteen -- "
"-- Nobody except one of those damned bloodsucking farmers killing people for a profit, that is! Forget this! It's not worth it!" The microwave sounded, and she took the plate out of it and set it on the table. Gloria had put a fork and a paper napkin out already.
Will didn't answer her, but took a bite of the macaroni. "We have any tartar sauce?"
Remaining silent, Gloria got it for him. He piled about two tablespoons of it on the fish. Ordinarily Gloria would have been annoyed at him for covering up the taste of the fish, which was delectable, but considered that she could forgive him this time.
He ate half the plate of food before replying. "Pete Van Duyken's dad needed a couple more people to work for him. He gave me the job because Pete's a friend of mine, and because Pete told him what was happening to us. I'm not going to turn down a chance to keep us going just because it's dirty work and long hours, Mom, get a grip!"
She gasped. "Both of you are getting a little ahead of yourselves with your mouths! I don't want you talking to me like that!"
Fine, then I won't talk to you. To Will Gloria said, "Thanks for the effort, Will. Do you have a bigger sweatshirt?"
He nodded. "I got that stupid Kansas City Chiefs sweatshirt Tom Merritt gave me as a joke gift last year. It's huge. They won't lose track of me in the dust, that's for sure. Oh, another thing: Salvi said to wear a baseball cap with a big bill on it under my sweatshirt hood. But I don't know what he was talking about with the microfiber thing."
"I've seen microfiber cleaning cloths in the store. Wait, Dad had some good dust masks in the garage, would that help? You can ask Salvi where to get a microfiber thing."
Will laughed, and then coughed into his napkin. "Right. You know, this is the first time I was actually glad I took high school Spanish. It's almost nothing like what I heard today, but we have some words in common. 'Agua.' 'Camiso.' 'Dinero es bueno.'
"Just say, 'Donde puedo comprar microfiber,' dummy. You know that much."
"Yeah, I know I do. I just feel like such a dork trying to say it. Mom, I can tell you're mad. You get those little lines in between your eyebrows and your face puffs up. Don't be mad, Mom. Pete's working right alongside of me, for the same pay, putting his money away for college or something. He was talking about investments after the market steadies while we were taking a lunch break. And Mr. Van Duyken was out in the orchards all day, too, riding up and down through the dust on a quad. It's hard work, but it won't kill me to do it." He held out the cup. "Could I get some more of the bouillon? And more of the mac and cheese?"
"Well, I am mad," Philli said. "All three of you have been keeping me in the dark about this." Nevertheless, she heaped more of the casserole on his plate, and another piece of fish. "Eat that fish. You need protein if you're going to work hard all day."
"We haven't been trying to keep you in the dark. But we didn't know if Will could do the job or not, so we didn't mention it. And I just found out about my interview a couple hours ago. Sorry."
"What do you mean, you didn't know if I could do it?" Will said, surprised and a little annoyed.
"Cushion-cat," Gloria said, narrowing her eyes and smiling.
"She means you're a pussy," Ben said from the hallway, ready to run again.
"Ben!" snapped their mother.
"Don't worry, Mom, it's the only other language he has mastery over. Baby-talk, and Trashmouth." He finished the second plate of food, drank down the last of the warm bouillon, and took his dish to the sink to rinse it. "Am I on my own for breakfast in the morning?"
"You're working the weekend?" Philli asked her son.
"I'm working every day I can. You know what harvest season is like! At least I've got day work, and not nights wandering around the orchards with rabid raccoons and drug dealers." He yawned. "Jeeze, I'm beat."
"Eggs for breakfast, Will," Gloria said. "You want bacon?"
"No bacon. Eggs is fine, and some toast. And jelly. Maybe more macaroni. Sorry, Mom, I gotta set my alarm and crash." He staggered back the hallway, and shut the door of his room. The door opened again, and he shouted, "Hey! Don't touch the clothes in the garage. They're grubby but they'll do another couple days!" The door shut again with a thunk.
Philli sat down at the table again, still looking angry. "I don't like this. I feel like we're out of control or something."
"Well, Mom, if your job doesn't work out, or I don't find something soon, we'll be on the street or in some rat-infested rundown dump soon, and none of it will matter."
"There's no reason my job shouldn't work out. All I'll be doing is light cleaning -- I won't even have to do windows, except on the inside, if they're shorter than eight feet. But I hate to see Will do such menial, filthy work."
"I think he'd rather do dirty work than go to a shelter," Gloria said.
Ben cautiously approached the table and sat down. "I'd go work if you two would let me. He's proud of himself. I'd like to feel that way, too."
"You get good grades, Ben," his mother said. "That's enough."
He shook his head slowly. "No, it isn't. I mean, I'm glad I can get good grades, but this whole thing with keeping our house is a lot bigger than being on the honor roll, you know? I don't feel like I'm contributing to the effort."
"Good," Gloria said. "If I get this job, you can take over the laundry and yard work."
"Okay, I will. I'll be the houseboy. And you better not leave your brassieres hanging all over the light fixtures and doorknobs, or I'll throw them out."
In spite of herself, Philli snorted laughter. "I suppose I should be happy about all this, but I feel like I've failed, somehow. I never wanted you kids to have to work hard at jobs you didn't really want."
Gloria laughed wryly. "In the current situation, I don't think these are jobs we don't really want. In fact, I never imagined how much I'd want this job as a cook's assistant. Guess it's all relative. My god, if we can stay here in this beautiful house rather than be evicted, then whatever jobs we get or have are precious and desirable and wanted."
"In your spare time, maybe you can pick up some bucks as a speech writer," Ben offered. "Or an Army recruiter. You make me want to join up for your army right now!"
"Shut up, don't even think about the military, you little craven asshole," Gloria said with heat, not wanting Will to hear him and begin to contemplate that idea.
"Whoops, sorry, Mom."
"You ought to apologize to me," Ben said. "Where the hell did you learn the word 'craven?'"
"Go to your room! Go watch TV or play video games, but stop trying to give me a stroke with your vulgar language!"
"Good night, Mother," he said with false humility, and left the kitchen.
"Honest to God," Philli said, "don't tell me you three go on like this all the time when I'm not around ..."
"Not all the time. Sometimes it's a lot worse, sometimes we forget to." Gloria was tired from the day's mental activity, and wished she could just go have a long, hot bath.
"I feel like there's been a carpet yanked out from under my feet, and I'm sitting on the floor with little birds chirping around my head."
Gloria used Will's napkin to sweep some crumbs from the table. "I don't know. Last week we were just floating along, trying to find some kind of way of coping with Dad's death with our emotions. Now it's different. Maybe you're feeling the change, too -- last week we were all just your kids, and now you're sharing a house and a responsibility with a batch of young adults, who have to be adults in order for us to survive. I think that's what's bugging Ben, too, from the opposite perspective. He's almost old enough now to drive, and smart enough to be productive, but what is there that he can do? Nothing, except go to school, which he thinks is so superficial he can hardly stand it."
"He never said anything like that to me or his father," Philli said, frowning again.
"Because he wants you to think well of him, not that he's a spoiled brat. Today, Will was tired, I'm anxious, and Ben is ... well, he's feeling some head room? Feeling like he might smell some freedom from just being a kid? I don't know. He is sassier than usual, though, I've noticed that, too. What do they call it -- whistling in the dark?" She yawned widely, feeling as though she had been the one working hard all day instead of Will. Will! He'd need lunch food for the next day. She stood and went to refrigerator, opened the door and looked at the shelves.
"Don't tell me you're hungry again already," her mother commented.
"No, I'm not. But Will needs some kind of lunch made for tomorrow. We've got some of the chicken left ... but not enough for two sandwiches. Yesterday I cut up a pork chop for one of them."
"Peanut butter and jelly," her mother suggested. "I think that's one of his favorite foods. When he was little, I worried about him because that was what he wanted for every meal."
Gloria barked laughter. "You're right, he'd love it. I'm worrying about healthful, nutritious meals for him, when he'd thrive on peanut butter and apricot-pineapple jelly. Protein and sugar for energy, it's perfect."
"I still know something," Philli said, a bit bitterly.
Gloria put the bread down and went to her mother, tentatively putting her arms around Philli's shoulders, wanting to reassure her, hoping her mother would not find the comforting gesture unwelcome. "Mom, if we survive all this, it's because you know a lot, and you taught us how to keep on going. My god, Mom, I'm headed for an interview as a cook's assistant just because I know how to cook -- and you taught me that."
Philli leaned against her daughter's embrace. "I thought I was teaching you how to take care of yourself, and maybe a husband some day, not how to slave away in someone else's kitchen."
"There's no guarantee I'll get the job, so I'm not even going to consider whether or not I'm about to be dragged into slavery. All we're aiming for right now is keeping the roof over our heads. That's it. That's all there is."
Tears welled up and spilled from Philli's eyes. "I know. I know that's all there is now. I just never, ever thought I'd see the day when it was."
Gloria released her hug and got a couple tissues from the box on the counter, already thinking that premium tissues were a thing to be enjoyed now, because they were going to be replaced by cheap crappy ones altogether too soon. Cry now, while you can blow your nose in comfort, she thought. I should have my cries out now, too. But her eyes were dry. She handed the tissues to her mother.