Chapter Thirteen: After the Grim Realities
Ben was the first one home. After putting his bike in the garage, he came to the kitchen and had a look into the refrigerator to see if there was any snack to be had. "Getting a little empty in there," he said to Gloria as she looked at the classified employment columns.
"Not nearly as empty as in here," she answered, tapping the paper. "Not one new opening from last week."
"How'd it go today?"
"Total suckation. I left resumes and apps at two places, got turned away at another, and am still trying to get up the gumption to put in an app at the fourth. Jeeze, what a nightmare."
"What's wrong with the fourth one?"
"It's a care giver's position at a group home for people who can't function normally in society. Minimum wage, like it was part time. The main office was filthy and disgusting, and apparently there's a high turnover rate there, in spite of the fact that they say they provide benefits." She folded up the newspaper and put it on the recycling stack.
"That doesn't sound good at all. Something will come up, though. Hang in there, Sis." He cracked his knuckles, all at once. "What about the bank stuff?"
"Oh, yeah, let me get the info, Ben, I was so bummed out that I totally forgot." She got her purse from the counter and pulled the dainty little packet of checks from it. "There's the account number, the middle one."
"Okay. When will supper be done?"
"Right around five, when Mom's supposed to be home."
"I'll have the eBay account and the PayPal account set up before then, and get you to give the okay before I push the Big Button. Then I got to do homework; that slimy dick Thornton gave us five pages of grammar crap to do. Five!" He left the kitchen.
Mom or Dad would have reprimanded him about his language or his respect for his teacher, but I remember Will complaining about Thornton for the same reason. And I don't care.
The tri-tip roast was thawed; Gloria put it in a shallow roasting pan and sprinkled the layer of fat on its top with salt, garlic powder, and cumin. She let herself drift on the strangely sweet overtones of the cumin's earthy scent. She was depressed and felt worn out, even after the short nap, which had ended with nightmares of being in the back seat of a car with no driver, careening down a convoluted entry ramp to a highway.
What am I supposed to do tomorrow? she asked herself. There were no interviews, no places to take her resume, no applications to submit. Well, except for that one as a care giver...her stomach still turned at the remembered smell of that office.
She left the roast on the counter so that the fatty top layer would soften, letting the spices soak in, and went into the living room and turned on the TV. She decided that until something else nominated itself for the center of attention, she would watch television like an addict, inundating herself until the very last second that they had cable service. She flipped through the stations until she found reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation back to back for hours. Take me to the future, to stars and horny aliens, she thought, and dropped out of the world again.
Before the kitchen alarm went off, Ben came to find her. "Come on, Glory, this is cool."
He used his computer to show her the new account settings, page by page. "Wow, Ben. Good job."
"We'll have takers," he told her. "I've been looking at some of the categories and bidding on stuff like those comic books is pretty stiff. They'll buy us some groceries."
Still more crestfallen, she returned to the living room. Even her little brother was going to make money for the family, but she could not. Even if she had the self-deprecation to become a prostitute, she had no idea how to begin a career as one.
It was four-thirty. Time to put the tri-tip in the oven. Fifteen minutes until she had to turn on the burner beneath the potatoes. She set the oven for 425 degrees and waited for it to warm.
Back to the television, she stared at it, not remembering what she had been watching ten minutes before. I know nothing, I have no skills, no experience in work. I've been a parasite myself all my life and never understood that until now. I'm a professional parasite. Frowning at her own pessimistic attitude, she wondered if she could indeed be a parasite. But it wasn't that she wanted to live off some other creature, it was that she had no income, and as a non-student, had no choice. I'm over twenty-one. Could I apply for welfare? That would be an income of sorts, but could she do that while living here with her mother and Will and Ben?
She could go to a welfare office and ask someone. "Can I get money and food stamps so that me and my mother and my brothers can stay in our house?" Her face flushed red at the thought. "And can we keep the four cars in our driveway and garage? And all the shit we own?" Where was a welfare office, anyway, and what was it called, 'The Welfare Office'? She didn't know. Nothing in her life had prepared her to be destitute. Had she known how fruitless the job search would be, she would have held off dropping out of school until she actually had a job. How many more days in that freaking Accounting class would it have taken before she could have applied for a job as an accountant?
The oven alarm went off, telling her the heat was right. She got up and put the roast in the oven, set the stove timer for thirty-five minutes, turned the heat up under the potatoes to Low-Medium. In a small glass measuring cup, she whisked several tablespoons of flour into a half cup of water and set it aside. That would be for gravy, if the world didn't suddenly and most welcomingly get sucked into a black hole before they had to pack suitcases and move out of the house.
She had a look into the refrigerator, much like Ben had done earlier. The milk container was almost empty; there was enough milk for the mashed potatoes, but not for that and cereal the next morning. They still had half a dozen eggs, and a package of bacon. A jar of olives stood proudly at the side, along with some pickles, both dill and sweet. Why the hell do we buy pickles, except as a luxury?
There was one stick of butter left. And two of margarine.
No cheese. No sliced white American, no provolone, no cheddar, no feta, which she and her mother occasionally craved beyond reason. The loaf of bread, which they kept in the fridge to keep as long as possible, was down to six slices. Enough for Will's sandwiches, but there was no doubt about what Gloria's job was the next day. She hoped that the checks the bank had given her today would work at the store tomorrow, because she suspected that the cash Will would dump on the counter tonight would be all gone at the supermarket tomorrow, and more would be required.
She got a pen and paper and began making a list of necessary groceries. After noting the cheese and the bread and the butter and the margarine, she began a careful inventory of the pantry, and then of the freezer. Damn it, we all want lasagna every Saturday, but we can't afford it.
She could get the cheap bread, and then put an apple slice in its bag to make it as soft as the expensive brand name stuff, but it wouldn't taste as sweet. Would her brothers actually notice that? Didn't they cram food into their faces, barely aware of taste or texture?
The front door opened, and her mother entered the house, the low-hanging sun of autumn back-lighting her red hair, making her look like she was haloed in flame. There was something of her authority in her stance, along with the unreal glow of her hair that sent Gloria back to toddlerhood, when her mother was a superhero, the pinnacle of humanity.
Her mother wasn't an idiot, or a doormat. She'd kept the family together and on an even keel for more years than Gloria could remember. Passing on her curly red hair to her children, she'd also passed on a desire to survive, a willingness to persevere, in spite of hardship. She wanted what was good for her family, but when the good was lacking, they also knew they had the genes for picking up the slack and staying alive. Why in the name of god her mother had put up with her father's infidelity was beyond Gloria's ken, but she realized abruptly, looking upon her mother's fiery silhouette, that Philli was far larger, far broader, far greater than Gloria had imagined a human being could be.
She had borne children, taught them how to be good people, nurtured them on their way. Then she had sensed betrayal, and known betrayal, and gone beyond it to keep her children safe and her household unbroken. And though the house had been betrayed, Philli had managed to preserve an atmosphere of love and acceptance and warmth.
Her mother had been there to help her with shaping letters, with adding and subtracting numbers, with grammar and with history. Her mother seemed to know it all, back when Gloria needed her.
Gloria was twenty-one. What need had she of a mother figure now? She knew how to balance a checkbook, how to figure out what the household really needed and what it didn't, how to feed everyone and keep their clothes clean.
What she didn't know was how to ward off despair, or smile into the storm of the economy's slap-your-face-and-show-you-the-door adversity. She didn't know how her mother had managed to come up with a full time job in less than a few days. Earlier in the day, the idea of becoming a cleaning woman had seemed to Gloria to be a desperation move, something that would diminish a person's self-respect. But it wasn't. It was more like a soldier wading into a swamp, armed and ready to take on the enemy that waited in the darkness. An enemy that threatened her kids, an enemy Philli would do anything to defeat.
In spite of her anger at her mother's complacency, Gloria was suddenly struck with awe at the woman's ability to survive. Her mother walked into the kitchen and looked into Gloria's eyes.
"Are you all right?" Philli asked, already walking forward with arms outstretched.
Gloria burst into tears.