Chapter Twenty: Head of the Household, By Default
She puzzled about Ben's concerns for a while, standing in the kitchen, listening to and smelling the pot simmering on the stove. Had he seen something in their mother's behavior that she hadn't, because she'd been so angry at Philli's acceptance of her husband's infidelity? But Ben was saying his mother had been behaving strangely before Gloria had ever found out. Probably I was too wrapped up in my own feelings, missing Dad, feeling like I got kicked into some empty dimension. He was my anchor. She remembered suddenly the smell of his wool suit that he wore in the winter, the scent of cedar -- Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve, seasons of joy. Not this coming year; never again. Maybe Philli was feeling that, too; a lot of stores were already putting up holiday displays, and certainly the television commercials were screaming snow and parties and gifts most of the time even while kids were still planning Halloween costumes. How should she talk to Ben about their father, when his absence, as well as his behavior, still hurt her so? I don't want to cry any more. Did that make her selfish? She resolved to try to draw Ben out a little more in the future, even if it meant sharing some of her own sorrowing feelings.
It occurred to her that it would be sensible to sit down instead of standing, as she had done all this long day. She brought her laptop from her bedroom out to the kitchen, and sat down at the table to fuddle about the web and catch up on emails.
What do you say to friends when you've been absent from emails due to personal misfortune? Do you dump and tell them all, or do you just give a cheery hello and How Ya Doon?
Gloria decided to dump and tell. Not tell all, but tell some.
"Heyas," she wrote, "it's Shit City here on the home front. Foreclosure is hanging right off the front porch, but we've got the barricades loaded. Will and Mom and I have got jobs, so we think we can survive. Hope you're having a better time of it, Love, Gloria." She hit a blind copy button so that maybe people wouldn't be too pissed by being sent a form letter.
She jumped as Will appeared at the kitchen door. "You want to clue me in on what the fuck is going on in girls' heads?" He roared.
"If you're trying to say that you just talked to Chelsea, and that she said something strange, then just say so. Don't yell at me. If you think I would understand what was in Chelsea's head, then no, Will, I can't tell you."
"Not even if you're female like she is?" he shouted.
"Good god, Will, what an insult. I was never a female like she is. Don't be an ass." Gloria got up and went to the stove to check on the chili, which should be done by now.
"I'm telling you, Gloria, I never proposed to her, I was never drunk or stoned with her, I know I never proposed to her. She's saying I jilted her. Jilted her!! I tried to tell her we weren't engaged and she started screaming at me, saying that I had led her to believe that we were going to be married soon!"
Gloria had a sudden narrowing of vision, making her dizzy. She grabbed the bar on the oven door to stabilize herself. Her stomach knotted and she asked through clenched teeth, "Is she pregnant?"
Will stood before her, white with shock and exhaustion. "Shit. I don't know."
Gloria looked at the clock on the wall. It wasn't all that late in the evening. "Will, do you want to keep on seeing her if she isn't pregnant?"
"No. I was hoping she'd get tired of me working and find some other guy to hang all over. I don't see how she could be pregnant, Gloria. I always used a condom."
"Maybe you should have kept your damn pants on instead. That's the only foolproof way of keeping your girl friend from getting pregnant. Stupid fool. You're not even eighteen yet, what are you doing fucking around?" she hissed at him, furious. "What are her parents' names?"
"Mary and Sid Badel."
"Do you know their home phone?"
"No, just Chelsea's cell." He frowned. "Why? What are you going to do?"
"What our mother ought to have done six months ago. I'm going to call her parents." She got the phone book from the shelf under their house phone.
"Gloria, that's nuts. You can't do that."
Weeks before, Gloria couldn't have done this. She would have kept out of it, left the turmoil to Philli, probably left the house to go clubbing with her friends. But things were different now. Philli was acting strangely, reneging on her parental responsibilities. And Gloria was tired of worrying about real issues -- she wasn't going to let some punky teen drama add stress to the household. If Chelsea was pregnant, they'd all deal with it. If not, the game was ending exactly now.
"The hell I can't, Will. While Mom is out of the house, I'm the top dog around here, by virtue of my age. If you don't want to hear this phone conversation, you're welcome to leave the room." Gloria told him grimly.
"I'll stay," he said in a low voice, sounding more like fifteen than almost eighteen, but also sounding more like an adult than a child. There were echoes of responsibility in his tone, along with his dread.
Gloria stared at him, realizing not only that he was growing up, and had taken on adult tasks, but also that he suddenly understood just how much of a kid he was. For a moment she despised him for putting the income of their household at risk; then she blinked, and he was her very, very precious brother, who, for all that he was a doofus and had fallen into his cohort's lack of moral compass, was still trying to do the right thing. She turned away so that he couldn't see the moisture in her eyes.
"Sidney Badel, of Longbridge Drive, that the one?" She read from the phone book.
She punched the number into the face of the phone. Three rings and a woman answered. "Hello," said Gloria in a businesslike voice. "Is this Mary Badel? Hi, this is Gloria Melton, Will Melton's older sister. How are you this evening? That's good. Say, Chelsea just called my brother on his cell phone and was screaming at him that they were supposed to get married. Do you know what that was all about?"
Will clapped his hand over his eyes. "God, I can't believe you're doing this."
Gloria continued the conversation. "I certainly do agree that they're much too young to be considering such a thing, in fact, my brother knew nothing about it until tonight. Now my next question for you is, why is Chelsea pushing for marriage? Is she pregnant?"
Although Gloria herself had never yet had sex, she was completely aware of the teen culture of central California, of the parties for drinking and sex that so many parents winked at and looked the other way. Every parent was supposed to believe that their kids knew how to conduct themselves safely and rationally, even at an illegal party. It was part of the code of conduct for California parents. Also part of the code was that you never, ever mentioned the behavior of someone else's kids. Telling a parent what their child had been up to was tantamount to being a stool pigeon, a traitor, a rat fink.
However, Gloria was beyond that code of conduct, not being a parent herself, and not having to worry about ever having to socialize with Mary Badel for any reason whatsoever. "You don't know? Well, then, Mrs. Badel, I strongly suggest that you find out. Your daughter has been having sex with my brother, and now is telling him they were supposed to marry -- soon. Sounds suspicious to me, doesn't it to you? Get her a pregnancy test and find out, and then call me back and let me know, will you please? Thank you, Mrs. Badel, I appreciate your taking the time to talk with me." She hung up the phone.
Will would not meet her eyes. His face was red beneath his freckles.
"Will, when did you last have sex with her?" Gloria kept her voice neutral.
"About two months ago, I guess."
"That long? She'd have known if she was pregnant by now, so I kind of doubt she is. At least by you." Gloria felt the weight of the day smothering her. She rummaged in the cupboard for some plastic containers for the chili. It should soon be cool enough to put away.
"I'm sorry," Will said.
"I think you are. But usually, when guys find a girl who'll screw, they find a way to do it all the time. Why'd you stop?"
He massaged his eyes. "Because she'd start talking about Dad dying, and ... get me bummed, and then tell me she knew one sure way of making me forget the pain. The last time, I understood she didn't give a damn about how I felt, she just wanted to ... use my feelings to get me to ... that's not how I wanted to remember about Dad, that's all."
I understand that better than you will ever know, Gloria thought bitterly. I wish I could remember him without thinking about that whore Lolo. "Go to bed, knucklehead," she said, the phrase part of their household bumptiousness since Will had been four.
"Okay, Gloria. Thanks." He stood, then turned back. "Could I have two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches tomorrow? That canned ham spread really sucks."
"Sure thing, Will. Good night. Don't worry." The opened can of ham spread would definitely not go to waste. She'd make herself a foldover sandwich of it and put it in her purse to secretly eat at lunchtime. It was hardly high cuisine, but it was solid gold medal fare compared to that hideous travesty of soup she'd forced down her throat earlier in the day.
While she waited for the chili to cool, she puttered about on the computer, reading blogs she followed and news sites, and formulated a strategy for dealing with her sustenance and her job. She would eat a good breakfast as often as she could, and sneak her lunch in somehow. She was no fashion model as to shape -- it would probably do her good to eat lightly at lunch. Supper she could have here at home. Maybe she was jumping the gun, making plans where she didn't have to, but that soup ... what a culinary nightmare. Maybe tomorrow Maria would have some stunner of a dish for the staff that would make Gloria admire her from the toes up.
As she put the chili into the storage containers, her thoughts turned to her mother again. Her mother left for work before Will and she got home in the evenings. Both she and Will were gone before their mother would be ready to rise. She'd get to see Ben, at least. But wait, didn't she and her mother share days off? Maybe they'd make Wednesdays and Thursdays the new 'weekend.' She put the chili in the refrigerator, automatically tallying the contents. There weren't enough leftovers in there. Everything was being eaten almost as quickly as it was made.
At least tomorrow's food was taken care of. All Gloria needed to do was get through tomorrow at work, and then she could make some plans -- and some food, for the future.