Chapter Nineteen: What Is Real Life?
While the leg of lamb whirred and thawed in the microwave, Gloria went to her room and changed into pajamas, opened her laptop, and turned it on. She looked at some webcomics she enjoyed, and the news and weather forecast.
She wasn't really tired, per se, but was weary. She wished that she felt more upbeat, and had a few dollars to throw away herself; she'd have called up one of her friends and gone out for a drink. She padded back out to the kitchen in bare feet to check on the lamb.
At least part of it was thawed. Gloria got out the kitchen scales and calibrated it to accept a plastic container, then began trimming the fat from the leg. As a roast, the meat would need the fat, but in chili or in Turkish meatballs, chunks of fat were a liability. The leg weighed in at five and a half pounds or so; two pounds would make a fine big batch of chili, and the Turkish meatballs later would be so plentiful that she might even be able to freeze some of them for a future meal. She doubted that, though, as Ben and Will loved the things.
The fat pared down, she began to slice off chunks of meat. The center was still too frozen to cut, but she was able to hack off large pieces, each of which she cut into bite-sized squares and rectangles. She piled each handful into the container on the scales. At two pounds, she stopped cutting and washed her hands.
A medium yellow onion was perfect. She peeled it and diced it into segments about a quarter inch across and maybe three eighths of an inch long.
One of her father's friends used to invite them to barbecues, and she and her mother and brothers would giggle over how he cut up vegetables. The joke was that he didn't. If he used onion, the pieces were about an inch wide. He seemed to shop for the longest green beans and then never cut them. His salads were exercises in trying to fit huge leaves of spinach and lettuce into one's mouth -- the barbecues were big gatherings, and the only implements were plastic forks. If he made grilled zucchini squash, one had to eat it like a popsicle, impaled on the fork, a nibble at a time. Gloria had a deep-seated conviction stemming from those get-togethers that you shouldn't have to struggle to eat your food unless you were hunting with tooth and claw zebra on the savanna in Kenya.
When the onion was chopped, she washed her hands again and got out the large pot. She dumped the cut-up lamb into it, then the onion, and added about a tablespoon of olive oil so the lamb and onion wouldn't stick to the bottom of the pot. From the refrigerator she retrieved the jar of crushed garlic, and spooned out a hefty teaspoon, flinging it into the mixture. She set the heat on medium.
The rest of the lamb leg could continue to thaw in the refrigerator. She bagged it in a freezer bag, set it in a dish in case the bag leaked, and put it away. The meat and onions and garlic were beginning to sizzle.
Gloria went to the pantry and got four cans of black beans. She got a flat-bottomed baking dish from the cupboard and began mashing the beans, a can at a time.
"God, that smells great already," Ben said, appearing in the kitchen. "You know, if you put that on a bun, you could be a millionaire."
"If I put that on flat bread, and put some cucumber and Greek yogurt on top of it, I'd have invented the gyro. Again."
"Oh, yeah. Why didn't you just use the Cuisinart to chop the beans up? Looks like you're doing a lot of extra work."
"I tried that once. They felt ... mealy, not creamy when I ate them. It's not that much more work to mash them, and then I don't have to clean all the parts of the Cuisinart."
Ben stirred the onion and lamb and garlic with the big wooden spoon Gloria had set on a spoon rest beside the stove. "It's kind of weird, Mom not being up to see me off to school."
"No shit. Tell me about it. I really wished I could talk over my day with her, and she's not here."
"She looked tired when she got up, and tired when she left. Kinda scary."
At those words, Gloria gave him her full attention. "From everything I've ever heard, going from being awake days to having to be awake nights takes a hell of a toll on people. She's going to take weeks to adjust, Ben. Be patient."
"I know. It's just weird."
Realizing that he might need someone to talk to about his day, she asked, "How's school going, anyway?'
"It's all right." He continued to fiddle with the meat and onion in the pot. "It's just that ... no one there takes things seriously. Like we have to. They're all like, Oh my god, Ashley got this MySpace account, and she put this picture up that makes her look like she's a hooker trying to drum up business, and her boyfriend said if she doesn't take it down, he's dumping her, for Derby, the red-headed cheerleader, and Ashley is all, I'm going to beat the shit out of that bitch and Jim Tate is twirling his moustache and planning on copping some Ashley sex when her boyfriend dumps her ... It's all so much crap, Glory. When you might lose your house and everyone in your family has to work at shit jobs just so you can stay alive, it's just all crap."
"I noticed this," Gloria said, opening two little cans of tomato sauce. "Not one of my girlfriends has called me since I told them about our dilemma, and it really hurts. It's like, if you have real life problems, you're out of the loop, because the social loop is about drama." She measured out two teaspoons of chili powder and dumped them and the sauce into the pot.
"One of my teachers asked me if I was okay, said that I seemed withdrawn lately. I didn't want to go into the whole finance thing, so I just said I was fine."
Gloria looked at the back of his curly head. He was almost as tall as Will already. "This is bad news, but no one understands, until it happens to them, Ben. It sounds freaky to say this, but we're lucky. Mom and Will and I managed to find jobs -- that's a big thing. It's an amazing thing. I don't know how we managed to do it, but we did, and we're the lucky ones. Have you been reading the newspaper?"
"No," he said sullenly. "This meat is ready to put the beans in, isn't it?"
"Yep," she said, and brought the bowl of mashed beans to the stove. She poured them in while he stirred. "They're saying one in ten jobs will be lost in America in the next six months. We're really, really lucky to have jobs."
"Minimum wage jobs, Gloria, shit jobs!" He was angry, or scared, or both. "Will took Geometry and Trig and Pre-Calculus so he could go work in an orchard, eating almond dust and coming home half dead? You took a job as a kitchen maid when you ought to be aiming for setting up your own business? Mom takes a job as a night janitor to keep us alive?"
"Easy, easy, Ben. It's the shits, all the way around. But we're set to survive, that's all that counts."
"Since when is that all that counts?" he shouted. "What happened to having a life, to hanging out with friends and going to the movies, or riding motorbikes, or ... or anything but staying alive?"
"What happened? It's like they say, 'Shit happens.' And when it happens to you personally, Ben, it changes the way you have to look at things." She scratched at her pony tail, wishing she could free her hair for the evening. No, not until the cooking is done.
He turned away from the stove. "I'm just feeling like a fifth wheel. Like the baby. Like the freak in the high school classroom. They're all worrying about who to hump and what to buy, and I'm watching the minutes tick by and wondering if we got a bid on the eBay shit and wishing I had more time to catalog Mom's jewelry. Which is in perfect condition, I might add, which will get us some extra dollars, I think."
"You're doing fine, Ben. We're doing fine. For this kind of situation, we're doing a hell of a lot better than some. Don't taste that now, you turd, let it simmer for half an hour at least. And then stay out of it until tomorrow's supper!"
"You're supposed to draw me out and get me to talk about my feelings, according to Cosmopolitan magazine," he said.
"You have until that chili is done simmering," Gloria said. "Draw you out is for a girlfriend, a wife, or your mother. I'm your sister, dipshit. I want to know what's on your mind, I just say so."
"Does that mean you're just saying so?"
"Talk, or shut up. You choose."
"Why's Mom acting weird?"
"I told you, changing when you sleep and when you are awake mess people up big time."
"No, I'm talking even before she got this job. She was acting funny."
Gloria thought back to the time before the revelation of their financial distress, and could not pin any aberration on her mother's behavior. "When did she start acting funny?"
"About a week after Dad died."
"Well, it's called grief. It comes in stages. Sadness, Anger, Disbelief, Acceptance, and something else, I can't remember. People rocket around in those phases when someone dies." She turned the heat down to low on the chili.
"I don't think that's it, Glory. I don't know why, I just have some real suspicion that something isn't right."
"That might have been when she started getting worried about Dad's handling of the finances, Ben. She only let me know about them, what, two weeks ago? God, it seems like a hundred years."
Ben plied the wooden spoon and stirred the chili mixture again, withdrawing from her. She hadn't believed him; in typical teen perception, he could not believe that she was an audience to present to.
"Oh, Ben, come on. What's bugging you?"
"Eh, it's nothing. I'm just doing that Grief Thing you mentioned. I guess. I'm gonna check on the eBay shit and upload some more of Mom's jewelry for sale. See ya in the morning, or tomorrow night."
"Stay out of this chili tonight," Gloria commanded.
"Yeah, yeah," his voice floated down the hall.
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